My guest today, Amanda Slavin, is the CEO and founder of CatalystCreativ – an award-winning creative engagement and marketing firm.
CatalystCreativ launched when Amanda met Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos). Tony mentored Amanda as she built her dream company merging education with hospitality. CatalystCreativ has worked with fortune 100 companies and a plethora of start-ups and nonprofits such as Coke, NPR, Dell, The Raiders, Google, TNC, WeWork, on brand development and design experiential marketing and strategic consulting.
Amanda is also the author of The Seventh Level and she was named one of Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30″.
On today’s show, we talk about working with millennials, building your dream team, The Seventh Level and much more.
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“You’re giving an opportunity for these younger generations to be a part of your brand, a part of your identity, be a part of your story, versus trying to shove a product down their throats.” – Amanda Slavin
- What is CatalystCreativ
- How to work with millennials
- What is self organization
- How to build a team
- What is holacracy
- How to market your business
- What is the seventh level
“Know what you believe and then leverage the tools around you to be able to communicate that belief to the people that you feel (and that you’ve done research on) is your customer.” – Amanda Slavin
- Connect with Amanda Slavin:
“Try out little things here and there to help them build a sustainable business model.” – Amanda Slavin
Kara: Hi, everybody. It’s Kara from Unstoppable, and I’m so excited to to have Amanda Slavin here. Do you pronounce your last name Slah-vin or Slay-vin?
Amanda Slavin: Uh, it’s kind of like to-mayto, to-mahto. I let everyone say what they want.
Amanda Slavin: But yeah, I say Slay-vin, but everyone else says Slah-vin.
Kara: Slay-vin. Okay.
Amanda Slavin: Yes.
Kara: Okay. Amanda Slay-vin. You know how you run into these issues when you just call people by their first name all the time, so I’ve known Amanda for a while, and so it’s … Anyway, very, very excited to have you here today, Amanda.
Amanda Slavin: Me, too!
Kara: And Amanda is … We’re going to talk today about CatalystCreativ, which is her company, but just first of all, welcome.
Amanda Slavin: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be doing this, and I love everything you’re up to, and just super pumped.
Kara: Very, very excited. So we’re going to start in sort of a place that even comes before CatalystCreativ, but tell us a little bit about you, where you grew up, and sort of, like what made you kind of the person you are today?
Amanda Slavin: Sure. I actually, for Mother’s Day, I was just with my mom, and she was telling me that, as literally when I was 3 years old, so as soon as I could really kind of talk and be a person, I was just always driven to create experiences and connect with people. When I was 3, it was more stuffed animals. I actually like threw a party for my stuffed animals every single day for like a year of my life where I would bring them all together and I would sing a song to them called “Party for Friends.”
Kara: That’s awesome.
Amanda Slavin: Then, when I was in first grade, I facilitated snack exchange with all of my other students in the class. So I put them all at the same table and kind of had them connect with each other and exchange Dunkaroos for Doritos and make sure everyone was included, and it’s just always been … You know, this is all from my mom’s account of me because I don’t necessarily remember it at that age, but I remember in high school, we didn’t have Facebook, or we didn’t have social media. I grew up in a very small town in New Jersey. My whole family is three generations New York, super, super, New York, Jewish, Woody Allen family. If you’ve ever seen Annie Hall, that’s my family.
Kara: That is so fun. I love it.
Amanda Slavin: Yeah. And I grew up in New Jersey in a 6000-person town, and I just, like before Facebook, before all these platforms, and my mom said I was like a walking yearbook. Like I knew everyone in the town. And so I just, I always had this drive to connect with people, to create community, to build experiences that were meaningful. It was just like something in me. I always just was curious about people, and learning about what inspires people, and that’s actually what led me to later becoming a teacher, and then in hospitality and events and marketing and so on and so on, which we, I’m sure we could talk about later, but that’s kind of the gist of it. It’s just always been who I am.
Kara: That’s awesome. Now let’s talk about CatalystCreativ. So what inspired you to start this company?
Amanda Slavin: I got my master’s in curriculum and instruction, so I was a teacher, and during my master’s year, I wrote my thesis on an engagement framework that I developed called The Seventh Level. And for me, it was around changing the way that we learned, and the way that we actually measure success within the classroom, rather than just kind of the traditional way of thinking about, you know, test results, I wanted to know what engagement actually looked like and what it felt like when a student was really passionate about what they were learning. And then I ended up going into hospitality and nightlife, events and marketing shortly after graduating, during the recession, and I ended up in this industry that was very different in a lot of ways from teaching, obviously, but the similarity was that, again, it was building community, being around people, and creating those parties, since I was three years old.
Amanda Slavin: But the problem with that, I felt like there was something missing. So I went from teaching and inspiring and educating to events and marketing and branding. I work for a restaurant group now. There’s about 13 properties all over the country, and so I ended up meeting my business partner, who’s Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, at a conference, and that I was helping to produce on the side while I had my full-time job, and my intention was to really design a company that could combine my understanding of education, of engagement, of inspiring individuals with my understanding of marketing, branding, and experiential. And Tony, you know, is a thought leader in corporate culture and customer service, and kind of customer experience, and so we started the company with this intention to think about, I say think about marketing like cheesy-covered broccoli. Like, you know, you don’t necessarily know it’s actually healthy. It tastes really good, but there’s this messaging that inspires and educates the way people think about themselves.
Amanda Slavin: And so that was the intention with Catalyst, and it started in downtown Vegas during his, he decided to build a city with $350 million. Probably another story, but that was where the company started was in downtown Las Vegas, and now it’s been 7 years.
Kara: That’s amazing. That’s so great. So you’ve spoken about engagement and how it impacts millennials and Gen Z. Can you talk just a little bit more about that? Like where do you think that goes in the future?
Amanda Slavin: Sure, yeah, so when I was a teacher, I taught millennials, and I taught Gen Z, and I started to find that, my one story that I always talked about with my middle schoolers was that they were telling me they were going to go check out like a local band at the mall. Like this new kid that everyone loved. And I was like, “Oh, who is it?” And they were like, “Oh, his name’s Justin Bieber.” And this was like before anyone had heard about him.
Kara: That’s so crazy. [crosstalk 00:05:51]
Amanda Slavin: Bieber is crazy! And you know, I was trying to get to know that, and so I would read the same books as them, and I was in my 20s, and you know, they were in their teens, and I would read these books. All my friends would make fun of me, like, “Why are you reading middle school books?” And I’m obsessed. And it was before it became a big thing, but it was Twilight.
Amanda Slavin: And so I really recognized that this next generation of kind of these younger millennials and this Generation Z demographic really had their hand on the pulse of what was trendy, what was relevant, that they were creating what was trendy and what was relevant. So it wasn’t necessarily about constantly speaking to them. It was about listening, and you know, these generations, they’re different in a lot of ways, but they’ve had tools to share their opinions, their perspectives, since they were born, especially Gen Z. So for engagement, it’s just, with The Seventh Level, The Seventh Level is called literate thinking. It’s when your personal values and beliefs align with the message.
Amanda Slavin: These kids don’t want to have marketing targeting them all over. They want it to feel authentic. They want it to feel aligned to what they believe in. And so when I started CatalystCreativ, my intention was, I want to work with brands that, you know, have these messages that really resonate with … And this is why I’ve always respected what you’ve done, but that really resonate in a different way versus just “buy my product.” Like you’re connecting with personal values and beliefs, and also you’re giving an opportunity for these younger generations to be a part of your brand, to be a part of your identity, a part of your story, versus trying to shove a product down their throats.
Kara: Absolutely. I totally agree. So I read that your company relies on responsibilities instead of like titles. Do you think that that is a big difference in millennials and Gen Z? I mean, how they respond to things, or do you think that they actually need to have more definitive kind of instruction around what it is exactly they’re responsible for doing?
Amanda Slavin: Yeah. I think that more and more of these younger generations are prioritizing … And you know, again, millennials are like 80 million people, so these are psychographics more than any demographics.
Kara: Yeah, totally.
Amanda Slavin: You know, I think that these younger generations, because they’ve had freedom of information and being able to learn and grow and kind of identify what they want to be and who they are at their young ages is because they have access to so much. They also kind of know what they want in a different way, and a lot of them are prioritizing like remote workplaces, and they’re prioritizing workplaces that have a sense of purpose, that allow for them to kind of, again, grow as an individual in an organization and a lot of the times, people say millennials are very entitled and they need so much and they’re constantly the people in the organization that are speaking up, but, you know, I think that an organization that’s more focused on self-organization, that’s what it’s called, based on roles and accountabilities versus a hierarchy, actually is very conducive to millennials being successful in the workplace because it allows for them to feel heard and to feel like an active participant in the organization. But I would say that you definitely still need to have structure, as well.
Amanda Slavin: So it’s not just like chaos. It’s called holacracy, the way our infrastructure is, the self-organization. And there’s a lot of structure in place in order for these individuals within the company to feel like there’s freedom and flexibility. So it actually is more work than a hierarchy because everyone needs to know the roles that they’re filling, and the accountability that they’re fulfilling, but it gives each person a sense of responsibility so that they feel like they’re a part of the organization.
Kara: And how would you define that philosophy as a leader, overall? Like how do you actually structure that in a way that you can actually tell people, “This is what it is”? This is the type of leadership.
Amanda Slavin: Yeah, so I talk a little bit about like the way that bees organize or ants organize. You know, that they self-organize around … They essentially all have a role that they fill. And they work together, side-by-side to be able to accomplish a much bigger goal, but they’re all doing their own work. And so it’s actually more similar to nature than it is, in terms of a hierarchy, the way that the infrastructure works, and it’s called self-organization. And I have plenty of books if you’re interested. I can send links out to your audience, but it’s called self-organization, and one aspect of self-organization is this infrastructure called holacracy.
Amanda Slavin: And what it is again is the way that I always say it’s in start-ups, or really in any company, but a lot of the time in start-ups, you wear so many hats. So you know, you get hired for one job, but you’re wearing all these other hats. And then you’re not getting credit for the job you were hired for, but you’re not getting credit for all of the other jobs that you’re also filling. You know, you’re doing all this extra work, and no one really knows what you’re doing. And so this infrastructure allows for you, there’s a platform that’s all-around transparency, so you’re seeing all of the roles. You know, I’m a CEO of the company, but I fill probably nine roles.
Amanda Slavin: And I actually, when there’s a platform, it’s called GlassFrog. It’s a free platform, and you actually see all of the roles I fill. So not only does it allow for each person to acknowledge the other individuals on the work they’re doing, it also gives the CEO the opportunity to create boundaries and say, “Mmm, that’s not my role. Like you shouldn’t be coming to me for that.” And that’s why it was set up, so that it didn’t constantly fall on executives to make all of the decisions, because you know, so often, there’s people in the organization that have things to offer, but they don’t have a chance to be able to actually offer those opinions.
Amanda Slavin: So this container, if you will, gives people the opportunities to acknowledge each other for their responsibilities, understand their accountabilities and responsibilities, and still feel like they have a say in where the company is going.
Kara: That’d be great to get those links to some of these platforms because I think that that is definitely something, especially when you’re building a start-up, you know, I always feel like we ask our team, for example, to take on responsibilities sort of outside maybe what they were hired to do to actually figure out if it’s a job, right?
Amanda Slavin: Yeah.
Kara: And I think it always is, when I talk to other not just entrepreneurs, but other people who are just starting out in their career, they sort of talk to me about, “Well, I was doing this job, but I’m also doing five other things.” And I just want to make sure that people recognize that, and how do I do that?
Amanda Slavin: Yep.
Kara: So that’s super interesting. So going back to when you decided to start this, I mean, what do you think were the greatest challenges in starting Catalyst?
Amanda Slavin: I think I had such a weird story because I met Tony at a conference, and then I ended up going to Vegas. He invited a bunch of people, and he forgot he invited me. It was really awkward. [inaudible 00:12:45] invited so many people. He was like, “Who are you?” And then I read his book in like 24 hours because I didn’t really know much about him, and I realized that we ended up having lunch, and he was like, “What do you want to do with your life?” And I was like, “Well, I want to create a company, that again, combines my understanding of education, engagement, branding, marketing, and like change the way that people are thinking about themselves and the world through experiential campaigns or branding, et cetera.”
Amanda Slavin: So he kind of gave me this platform and asked me again, like, “What do you want to do?” And I was living in New York, and he said, “Well, why don’t you start doing this in Las Vegas?” And so, you know, in terms of a challenge, again because just some back story, when Amazon acquired Zappos, Tony decided to put $350 million from that acquisition into buying 18 city blocks of downtown Vegas and building it up. And downtown Vegas is one of the 50th worst education systems in the country, and so all of these people that were really living there and were moving there for this initiative, he really wanted them to be inspired and educated, and he wanted them to have the same type of collisions and opportunities that you would in San Francisco, LA, or New York.
Amanda Slavin: And so Catalyst really came about to design these experiences, starting once a month and twice a month, we would bring thought leaders from all over the world, and they would come to downtown Vegas, and they would give talks and workshops free to the public. And so a lot of challenges came about. First of all, with the fact that, again, my whole family is from New York. I’m from the East Coast, and for the first time in my life, I was like moving across the country to work in a city that I didn’t really know much about. And Vegas is very hot. Very dry. And so that was a little bit of a jarring situation for me in terms of adapting to that environment.
Amanda Slavin: But I also think, besides that, like I really didn’t know what I was doing. Like I got a small investment, and then I’m really good at marketing and branding and events, and I always say it’s like someone that’s really good at making pies might not be really good at having a pie shop. Because then you have to do all of the logistics and infrastructure in place to then be able to do what you’re good at. And at the beginning, as an entrepreneur, you just, speaking of holacracy and self-organization and roles, you just do it all. So in the beginning, it was really challenging for me to be able to kind of put these hats on that I was not comfortable with, like trying to focus on the financial aspects of the company and the operational aspects of the company, and once employees were hired, giving them the proper insurance and all of these things that you’re really not taught in school, in terms of what it’s going to look like.
Amanda Slavin: And also I had to deal with situations in the first year of I didn’t hire the right people because I didn’t really necessarily know how to hire. I was 26 years old when I started my company, so I was a kid. So I hired people based on what I thought would be a good fit, and then culturally, they were not, and I had to fire several people. So it was a lot of, I think, learning as I was doing, and that was a challenge. And then not to mention that because my partner was in Vegas, going into a new city and having a whole new identity, as well, around this organization, having to kind of step into this whole new part of myself was definitely a challenge.
Kara: Yeah, totally. I mean, nobody can sort of prepare you for all of the challenges of really just being an entrepreneur. I think in any industry. I mean, all kinds of things come up along the way, so, but it’s amazing, that you were able to do this and sort of get to this point, too, and also just like, I mean, I look at your company as really having a purpose, too, for other companies to be able to grow in the right way which is something that, I don’t know … I feel like those are really the entrepreneurial ventures that ultimately stick. When you look at ones that actually help solve problems that people are trying to really define, so kudos to you on that.
Amanda Slavin: Well, thank you.
Kara: What advice would you give an aspiring entrepreneur wanting to start their own company and what do you think is like the biggest thing that you learned along the way in starting, just like … Would you say just go start it? Go write a business plan? I mean, what are some of like the biggest things? Yeah, no I love it.
Amanda Slavin: I actually gave a TEDx talk, and I talk about the 3 Ps, because I think what happens is, like, everyone now, speaking of these younger generations, like entrepreneurship is now like the new celebrity, where it’s like I want to be an entrepreneur. And I always like to say, like, it’s not easy. Like there are certain things that come along with being an entrepreneur that are great, and you have freedom and flexibility because essentially you’re making your own schedule, but there’s also a lot of stress on you to first of all have something like, after a year, when we were succeeding, we were like, “Okay. We’ve beat some odds.” And it was like two years, we were like, “We beat more odds.” And five years, like, “We beat more odds.”
Amanda Slavin: But like, it’s a really high and low type of life. There’s really, really high highs and really, really low lows. And you have to be able to be comfortable and confident with that. And also, again, have a product that the market’s going to continue to purchase. So I think that with the 3 Ps that I talked about, it was like identifying a passion, and you know, that’s something that is important, but then it’s also associating that passion with solving a world problem, so what are you actually doing to make the world better as opposed to, again, just having it be something that you really love, how is it going to sell? And then that third P is having a profit. I think so often, when it comes to entrepreneurship, people think that they can like have a Squarespace site and start to be able to sell something and they’re going to have a valuation of $20 billion because of all the media.
Amanda Slavin: But I think it’s really important to have little bets and to test out things, even while you’re at a full-time job. So while I was at my hospitality job, I was doing things on the side. I organized a TEDx, and I helped produce Summit Series, where I met Tony, and I was on a non-profit, multiple non-profit boards, and I was really trying to see what I was good at outside of my job and to see what people would actually purchase from me. So I took these little risks while I had a little bit of a safety net, so I would say for entrepreneurs to really assess, what do they love, what can they sell that can also solve a problem, and to not necessarily jump away from their full-time job, but to try out little things here and there that will help them build a sustainable business model.
Amanda Slavin: And then, they can do the business plan. But I think that there’s so many opportunities for entrepreneurs these days in terms of you can start a business overnight, that investors really want to see sustainability and they want to see a long-term growth plan, so I think that that would be my advice to anyone that wants to be an entrepreneur.
Kara: I feel like you have been your best advocate, as well, for sort of getting the word out about this program, too. I mean, you’re very active on social and just what would you say to that, just in terms of how people should be thinking about getting the word out about their company, as well?
Amanda Slavin: Yeah, I think when it comes to marketing, again, I go back to that, The Seventh Level. And The Seventh Level is what we’re all striving towards. It’s the personal value and belief that’s guiding our companies, and we look at these major organizations, and we look at what they stand for, and it’s a part of who we are when we love a product. It’s a part of, it becomes a part of us. Especially now because we all have social platforms to share who we are all the time. When we love products, it really does become a part of our social identity.
Amanda Slavin: And so I would say when it comes to brands, first of all, I always think that a brand needs to first identify, what is their Seventh Level? What is their personal value and belief that is driving their organization? And what do they stand for? And then, not necessarily changing that to connect with different audiences. I think a lot of big brands are scared because they’re starting to see a lot of disruption from new, up-and-coming brands that are connecting with younger audiences, and I would say that it’s not about changing who you are to fit your audience. It’s about standing in what you believe, and then communicating that to different audiences in different ways.
Amanda Slavin: Social media is one amplifier of your message, but if you are constantly letting the tools use you instead of you using the tools to communicate what you believe in and your differentiator, it’s not really necessarily a metric of success, so I would just say you’ve got to kind of know what you believe in, and then leverage the tools around you to be able to communicate that belief to the people that you feel and that you’ve done research on is your customer.
Kara: Yeah, I think that’s huge. And would you say that it’s really been word of mouth for you in terms of people finding out about your program? I mean, do you think that, are people reading about it? Do they hear you speaking on it? I mean, where are sort of the biggest kind of … Where are people learning about this?
Amanda Slavin: Yeah, I mean, for those first two and a half years when we were doing these events every month. First there were Catalyst Weeks, and then they were Creativ Weeks. And then because there were so many people that wanted to attend, we were doing our own experiences. You know, we were producing them and doing all of the curation of the speakers and programming and design and social media and everything.
Amanda Slavin: So from that, more and more brands were attending and participating, and they were saying, “Like, how do you do this for me? Like this feels special. This feels different.” Like, how can you apply this to, we work with Coca-Cola and W Hotels on a sustainability initiative and launched a sustainability initiative with an experience, or how can you do an experience for NPR, like help launch a millennial arm of NPR to connect with younger audiences but in an authentic, intentional way? And so it first started with that. And then it really, yeah, it’s been really word of mouth.
Amanda Slavin: I write a lot, so when I was actually going from my hospitality job to starting Catalyst, I really wanted people to know my own story, and I wanted me to be able to tell it versus other people telling it for me because I didn’t think it would make sense to people if they were like, “So you were a teacher, and then you were in nightlife, and now you’re starting this like impact company? I don’t get it.”
Amanda Slavin: So I wrote for Huffington Post every single week for about two years, and I have about a hundred articles that I’ve written, and I really wanted to be able to communicate that story. But from there, it’s been … It’s been incredible. Just, yeah, people, word of mouth, I’m obsessed with LinkedIn. I really am. It’s my only social platform I love. So LinkedIn-
Kara: Me, too. I love it.
Amanda Slavin: I love it. It’s just like very value-driven content, and yeah, connecting with people that are thinking about, I call it ROI. Instead of just return on investment, it’s ripple of impact. So the way that brands are starting to think that, you know, if they want a unique firm, a creative marketing firm, that’s thinking about engagement differently, that’s thinking about branding differently, that’s thinking about longevity differently, then that’s kind of who comes to us. So it becomes a niche for us because we have this understanding and this methodology of engagement in addition to creative agency services.
Kara: I think that’s awesome. So what’s next for you, for CatalystCreativ, whatever … What’s next?
Amanda Slavin: Well, I just got married last year-
Kara: [crosstalk 00:24:03] Yay! Congrats.
Amanda Slavin: Thank you, and I moved back to New York, which is also great, and we have been doing a lot of international work, as well as a lot of work in New York, so I just was traveling so much here that it felt really good to come back here and ground myself in New York. But I think what’s next, for The Seventh Level, we have a full course that we did with HubSpot that’s a three-hour course for free, and we have all these materials that we’ve put out.
Amanda Slavin: But we actually are coming out with a book in September about The Seventh Level, and we are also doing a series of talks and workshops and there’s just quite a lot of resources out there for The Seventh Level, which for us, we were always applying it in our own way, doing our own events, marketing, and branding using The Seventh Level as our secret sauce, and now we’re letting everyone know about it, and we’re educating everyone about it, so that they can have engaging workplaces, so that they can have engaging opportunities with their customers, so that’s really where we’re going is we’re trying to get The Seventh Level far and wide, as far and wide as humanly possible. So that’s our next step.
Kara: That’s awesome. Would you ever have imagined that this would … I mean, I feel like these companies sort of organically grow into sort of the direction that they’re supposed to be going in, too, right? Like when you first started this, you would have never probably thought you’d be doing what you’re doing today? Right?
Amanda Slavin: Yes.
Kara: I love how it’s just sort of flowed along in a very organic, natural way. So that’s awesome.
Amanda Slavin: Yep, thank you so much.
Kara: Super, super great.
Amanda Slavin: Yeah, I never thought I’d live in Vegas, either, that’s for sure.
Kara: Yeah, so that’s so funny. That’s hilarious. So what makes you unstoppable? I always ask this question. I have a few ideas, but I’d be curious to hear from you. Like when you hear that word, what makes you unstoppable?
Amanda Slavin: Well, my quote-unquote Seventh Level statement is my belief that everyone has the ability to be inspired and deserves the right to be inspired, and I think that driving force of, you know, believing that everyone has this kind of this secret power in them that they just need to tap into and activate. The name of my company is Catalyst because I want to activate individuals into kind of identifying what makes them them and help them get to their best self. It’s like this driving force and this belief in people, I guess in the good of people, I would say. That makes me unstoppable because it makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself, and it makes me feel like I can just keep going, even when I’m really tired because it’s really, it fuels me. It fills me up.
Kara: I love it. I love it. So how can we support you, and where can our listeners find you online and CatalystCreativ and if people want to bring it into their organization. What’s the best way to get in touch with you?
Amanda Slavin: You could go to my website, AmandaSlavin S-L-A-V-I-N dot com, and you can find me on LinkedIn, and there’s all of the information about Seventh Level and Catalyst on that website. And yeah, and Instagram, Twitter, you can find me anywhere, but mainly LinkedIn is, as I said, my favorite platform of choice. So please connect with me there.
Kara: I love it. Well, thank you so much, Amanda, and it was great to catch up with you and hear more about what you’re doing, and we’re really excited for the future.
Amanda Slavin: Thank you so much! I’m really excited as well.
Kara: Absolutely. Thanks.