Brian Goulet of The Goulet Pen Co. is one of the winners of 20 On the Rise, a celebration of entrepreneurs making waves in their industries hosted by HoneyBook, Peerspace, Rising Tide Society, and us, Gusto! We asked him to share some of the secret sauce behind his successful fountain pen business. Read about all the winners here.
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From the tiny balcony of his Richmond, Va. apartment, Brian Goulet first began “penturning” (aka making pens) as a hobby in 2007. He and his wife Rachel officially launched The Goulet Pen Co. in 2008, and they’ve since grown to a 40-person business—and the largest online fountain pen retailer in the US.
How, you ask? A key contributor to their success might surprise you: YouTube.
The Goulet Pens YouTube channel has over 110,000 subscribers, 1,500 videos, and 25 million (yes, million) views.
How can YouTube work for a small business?
According to Goulet, YouTube is by far the most powerful driver of brand awareness for his company.
“Our videos have helped out so much with brand-building that people who are into fountain pens just know our brand,” he explains. “They come straight to our site whenever pens come to mind.”
How to launch your small business brand on YouTube
We talked to Goulet and his wife Rachel to learn how small business owners can copy their approach and use YouTube to beef up their online presence. Here’s the step-by-step video strategy that got them to where they are today.
Step 1: Find your niche.
Back in 2008, most other fountain pen retailers were established brick-and-mortar stores that weren’t selling their pens online or using social media. Goulet saw an opportunity.
“Because we had no previous brick-and-mortar experience, we were able to take a fresh perspective on online retail and meet customers’ needs better,” he says.
Here’s what Goulet recommends:
First, find your community and see what they need—but don’t have.
Goulet started out by engaging with the pen community online to understand what they were looking for.
Google your niche area and go down the rabbit hole. Read all the blogs and forums—a quick search can surface the prominent ones in your industry. For example:
If you run a creative business, you could check out the forums on Creative Communities of the World.
Manufacturers should take a peek at Practical Machinist, the largest manufacturing technology forum online.
Engage commenters to find out what people want to know. The Goulets talk to fountain pen fans on forums like Reddit to hone in on what people are saying and the questions users pose.
Look at relevant hashtags on all the major platforms and see what content is posted there. Then add those hashtags to your own content to reach more of your audience.
Follow the influencers who are most meaningful in your space, and comment (with real value) on their posts.
Become an expert.
Gather all that knowledge and use it to think of content ideas that could help the community. For example, someone asked Goulet how to catalog a pen collection—so he made a video explaining how he organizes his pens.
Go the extra mile to find answers the community is looking for. “This built a huge amount of trust, helped my brand stand out, and also helped me to really make sure I knew what I was talking about,” Goulet says.
He and his team use Google Sheets as well as Slack and Basecamp to organize and share the information they find. “It’s very organic. We just try to communicate what we see happening online,” he says.
Pick your platform.
Look into where conversations are happening, and meet your audience where they already are. Here’s Goulet’s breakdown of the best platforms for various businesses:
This channel is great for educational how-tos and entertainment, and every business has the opportunity to do both. Most often it’s content creators or influencers who are looking for product placement or sponsorships that do well, or companies like Goulet Pens that want to use the power of video for branding and education.
A very visual platform, Instagram is great for any type of lifestyle product like health, fitness, cosmetics, or artisanal manufacturers.
Any company can be on Facebook. It’s useful for anyone with an engaged community—or for running ads. Facebook is especially great for brick and mortars that want to advertise to a specific local area. There are so many people on Facebook, which allows you to pinpoint exactly who you want to see your content. They’re making a real push towards live video, so anything you produce here, Facebook pushes pretty far.
This platform is good for anyone who has real-time events as a part of their business. Anything around sporting events, news, etc.
Like Instagram, Pinterest is another visual platform that’s great for artisanal creators, lifestyle, food, wedding, and parenting-related businesses.
Great for fashion, music, and pop culture—and connecting with your customers and fans.
Find your video style.
“Educational content has been my bread and butter,” says Goulet. “I teach people about pens and how to use them.”
He does open Q&As on various social platforms to solicit questions from the community, then he creates simple videos where he talks through them. Combine visual with educational, he says, and you’ve got a fan following.
Less visual businesses can also take a cue from Goulet’s experience. Even without fancy products to show, people watching Goulet see more of his personality, enthusiasm, and authenticity in video.
Start a conversation.
Interact with your following in the comments of the videos. This shows them you’re engaged with them and listening to their feedback.
And when people use the comments to vent? “My best advice is to listen and be human,” Goulet says. “Engage like a person, not like you’re reading from a script, or like you ran your response through a legal team. If someone’s upset, apologize. If they have a suggestion, thank them and ask clarifying questions. Picture the person right in front of you and what you’d say to them, and just type that out.”
Step 2: Make killer videos.
Once you have a strategy in place, you can focus on actually storyboarding, shooting, and editing your videos. Here are Goulet’s top tips for making videos potential customers will actually want to watch:
Stop talking about it and “just freaking go,” says Goulet. He started out with iMovie, which came preloaded on his MacBook. “Now you can shoot and edit pretty much everything on a smartphone,” he says.
Goulet believes in keeping things simple by following a few basic principles of lighting and audio:
- Don’t backlight yourself, meaning don’t have a light behind you. This blows out your background and makes your camera adjust your face to be darker.
- Try to shoot near a window with soft, natural light that comes towards you and minimize shadows.
- Do your best to avoid echoing and background noise when you shoot.
Done is better than perfect.
It’s easy to keep tweaking a video in post-production until it’s just right, but no one will notice except you. Get it 80 percent good, and then hit publish.
One of Goulet’s most popular videos is called “Brian’s Top 5 Favorite Fountain Pens for Newbies,” which he spent a total of 45 minutes on. “I shot it with no script! I just talked to the camera and overlaid simple images of the products I talked about. For other videos, I’ve traveled to foreign countries, shot hours and hours of footage, and spent days editing, and they don’t have one-tenth of the views as that ‘5 Fountain Pens for Newbies’ video,” he says.
When you make YouTube videos, you won’t know what will work or where your time is best spent right away. Until you’ve experimented enough to figure that out, it’s best to start simple and just get into a rhythm of producing content—even if it isn’t perfect.
Learn the technical side of YouTube.
Get your tags, titles, and thumbnails down, and do the work to learn how YouTube works. It won’t turn a boring video into gold, but getting this stuff down will make your good content go further.
Rachel, co-president of the company and more introverted than her husband, has a tip that will resonate with small business owners who tend to be camera-shy: “Being yourself and not trying to mimic what others are doing is important,” she says.
“I’m very direct in my communication,” Rachel explains. “I contribute more in videos where there are lots of facts and figures to discuss and don’t try to be as much of a ‘personality.’”
Step 3: Find time to make it happen.
As a busy CEO, this is one of Goulet’s biggest struggles. “Running a company is complex, stressful, and takes time to work on so many varied activities. Continuing to be a product knowledge expert and making time for the videos is a challenge,” he admits. So here’s how does it.
Hire a full-time videographer.
Goulet started out with no budget and very little equipment. He shot on a camcorder, which had a poorer quality lens than most modern smartphones, and edited on his $1,000 MacBook that he was already using for other business needs.
But it took a lot of time. Instead, he suggests finding a high school or college intern who can help you get started, or hiring someone part-time to prove the concept. Today, Goulet has a full-time videographer who helps him with prep work, shooting, and editing.
“I shot probably 700 videos myself before I hired a videographer, so it was pretty tested and proven for my business. I had to learn how to do it all myself, which took a tremendous amount of time and won’t make sense for everyone,” he says.
Take a step back where you aren’t needed.
As a small business owner, you don’t have to be central to every video. “I involve myself only in the areas where I will uniquely add value. So I will be involved in certain meetings around ideas for new videos, or maybe approve particular ones and be the brand entity in others—but I don’t have tight control over anything where I am not required,” says Goulet.
Assemble your team, and then let them do their thing.
Goulet says it took a lot of work and experimentation to grow his fan base—but it was ultimately worth it. “It’s been a long, slow build over eight and a half years for me to gain the following I have,” he says. “It’s so motivating to feel like I finally figured out something that worked.”