21 Years Old, Five Business Ventures and One Savvy Gen Z Philosophy
With five business ventures under his belt by age 21, Drake Rehfeld is now helping others develop and launch their products and personal brands through the platform, Demeanor. From founding a ticketing business for high schools to working for Snapchat as an engineer to co-founding Demeanor, Drake is taking a non-traditional route to “climbing the ladder.” He just headed straight to the top. Drake took a full inventory of all the things that weren’t working and decided to create a remarkable solution with Demeanor. You can read all about it below, but here is a quick, and important, takeaway…
Tell us a little bit about your story.
I was born in Glendora, CA. My mom was a sales executive and business professor turned entrepreneur, and my dad a product executive turned entrepreneur.
During high school, I founded an event ticketing company for high school sporting events and dances that automated sales and reporting. This was my first experience in business, and I learned a lot about a B2B sales-cycle selling SAAS to schools in the area (selling to public schools, talk about bureaucracy!)
I went to the University of Southern California to study Computer Science and Business. While there, I was part of the product accelerator, LavaLab, and ended up leading it, which helped me rub shoulders with lots of tech and media execs in LA. I soon landed a job at Snapchat in Venice, CA on the Research Engineering team at 19 years old, working on Computer Vision and Machine Learning systems.
I left Snapchat to join Team 10, one of the largest social media influencer talent agencies, as Head of Engineering. During my time there, my team and I worked on software launches for the signed talent: websites, apps, games, data analytics. It was a great experience that blurred the boundaries of tech and media, where we had large audiences to test our products with, but we still had such a small team that it felt like a startup with quick iterations and all-hands-on-deck mentality.
In May 2018, I left Team 10 to start my own company with my three co-founders. Demeanor.co, which was part of Y Combinator’s S18 batch, is a product development platform and marketplace for influencers. They come to us with an idea, and our platform helps them get it designed, manufactured, and fulfilled.
What are you working on right now that you think is interesting or innovative?
We’re building a platform for influencers to sell anything. Our platform and marketplace of professionals helps creators build digital and physical products for their audiences.
Influencer monetization is drying up: brand deals feel inauthentic and too common, and traditional merchandise is becoming saturated. Creators are looking to monetize their audiences in genuine ways that truly capture their creative spirit. We’re building methods for influencers to share their creative process and make money doing it. This, in turn, makes brand deals more successful, because influencers don’t have to do them out of desperation, but only when there’s genuine audience-product fit for the placement. The biggest consumer brands are best built by creators who deeply understand how to meet the needs of their audiences: we help create lasting value in important, often underserved, categories.
How would you describe your overall approach to business?
My entire life, I’ve spent my time with a large vision and goals in mind, and tucked it away while I work on shorter-term sprints, chipping away at the lowest hanging fruit to get there. My philosophy for work is similar to that described by James Clear in Atomic Habits: I focus on the most pressing, shiny object right in front of me, on the path toward my vision, and get it wholly done. It’s an iterative process that changes every day and helps me complete tasks that matter and ignore those that are just noise.
What unique challenges do you face as a young entrepreneur?
As someone a bit younger for the life events I’m going through, there are few people around me with shared experiences to lean on for personal and emotional support. Founding a company is hard, especially when not many people near my age are doing it, but I’ve luckily found a great support system around me both through my co-founders and great friends.
If you were to seek a position with another company, what qualities would appeal to you?
It would definitely take a lot to pull me away from founding my own company! I’d imagine I’ll be entrepreneurial for quite a while. But since I’m inherently entrepreneurial, I’ve always been driven by positions that afford me flexibility around product and product marketing. It’s fun to work on new ideas, test their viability, and put them in people’s hands. I love the iterative cycle of creating & testing. I also find business development incredibly exciting.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hollywood 2.0 is defined by short-form high-production-value content. We’re building this future, starting with monetizing existing influencers. Demeanor will continue to strengthen this position in new media, and later expand to additional verticals of influencer monetization.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your generation and what makes it unique?
Plenty of misconceptions surround Gen Z related to our values, finances, goals, and attention spans. The most frequent misconception I hear about is the difference in our career paths vs the traditional career paths of the older generations. Boomers and The Silent Generation frequently exhibit confusion around the career paths of my peers: I’m not referring to the gig economy or even changes in the higher education system. But rather, it’s often hard for people of other generations to understand that it’s adequate for Gen Zers not to go work for a big Fortune 500 company for the next 20 years and climb up a corporate ladder: we’re able to make good incomes and develop ourselves through lots of career jumps in nontraditional sectors. In fact, we prefer more dynamic environments and take advantage of arbitraging career opportunity costs.
Gen Z demands playful products in all industries. We’ve seen how products have become simpler and more intuitive, and this trend is only continuing further: make what you build as fun and playful as possible, or else Gen Z won’t touch it.
What's the biggest mistake that brands are making in their marketing right now? What can they do differently to better connect with youth?
Please stop using memes unless you have a retained 15-20-year-old working on creative. We see right through it. A more traditional video advertisement likely will work better with this audience than a half-baked meme ad idea. Deep understanding of brand positioning within this demographic is incredibly important -- spend extra time in a deep-dive to differentiate your brand over your competitors. Gen Z will evaluate your brand’s message, but there’s a high bar for it to matter. You need to build authenticity both deep and wide. Lastly, don’t sleep on Snapchat, it’s still an important force in the industry, even for marketers.
What are the most exciting things happening in marketing right now? Are there any brands or campaigns that you admire?
I think the rise of CGI influencers (which are purely digital characters) is really interesting. Lil Miquela, Shudu and similar are incredibly interesting as brands can build these types of personas in-house. Hims has done a great job at DTC. You have to speak with a doctor/PA as part of the buying process, but it sure doesn’t feel like you are speaking with a healthcare professional and getting a prescription. Headspace has done a fantastic job at creating a cohesive brand across all mediums. It’s rooted in their consistent characters/mascots, and unique voiceover actor.
There are lots of influencers and agencies who run 10 or even 20 different accounts that all have multi-million followers of varying demographics. These are super helpful as you can engage one firm and reach 20m+ people with the same campaign. It’s much more efficient than reaching out to each of the accounts individually. Examples include Jerry Media and Team 10.
The Fun Questions
Favorite place to vacation? Capetown, South Africa or Seville, Spain
If you were a superhero, what would your special skill be? Teleportation - just so that I could live in LA more conveniently
Name something that most people don't know about you. I’m red-green colorblind
What's the best thing you've read/listened to/watched recently? I really enjoy the 99% Invisible podcast