Bob Vila isn't just a brand, he's an entrepreneur reinventing himself in a new economic landscape. See what he's learned.
TV personality Bob Vila speaks onstage at "This New House: Featuring Bob Vila," during the 2012 SXSW Interactive festival.
As a homeowner, I know the value of being able to use tools and do stuff yourself. But I'm a rank amateur compared to one speaker I met at the annual South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas. He is America's Handyman, Bob Vila. For the last few years, Vila has been reorganizing his business. The market for syndication of shows changed during the downturn, and Vila set his sites on "continuing to be in the marketplace with an evergreen brand and subject." That's just one lesson entrepreneurs can learn from someone who is used to renovation and reinvention.
About a year ago, Bob's daughter complained about his BobVila.com being out of date, and since then the site has gotten more than a home (page) improvement. There are now more than 1,400 pieces of digital video on the site, as well as hundreds of blog posts and tips.
While Vila has written 11 books and been on TV shows for more than 30 years, what's new for him is a different connection with fans. He used to get lots of fan mail, but with social media and his blog there's more two-way communication. "I don't get as much fan mail anymore—it is instant. We used to get big bags of fan-mail, and some of it was requests for autographs and the like, but much was photos of projects, experiences, and people looking for commentary and advice. Now we get that in social media."
Vila's learned some lessons in trying to reach new markets, and we can all benefit from his experiences.
Make your content available everywhere.
When you're trying to "be the brand" you have to be everywhere your fans and customers want to be. In Vila's case, you can find videos on YouTube as 30-second how-tos, and some older Home Again shows are available on Hulu. The world is going mobile, and Bob wanted to be available to "look over someone's shoulder while they're shopping. For example, someone wants to build a window box, and they're finally going to buy wood. If he doesn't know what to buy, we want to give advice." General manager of BobVila.com, Gretchen Grant, added, "We're looking at applications specifically for tablets, and also taking existing assets and making e-magazines to take the info on the road. 'Bob in your pocket' is another type of app. We'll have to do this in two-to-three ways to cover all the possible scenarios, but we love the data that says this is really exciting."
Capitalize on new trends (such as green building).
Vila described a call in 2009 from Bobby Kennedy, who was living in Bedford, New York. His house had a flood and they had black mold up to the attic. "The team had an idea for making a sick house into a "green" house. So they shot that episode, and continued to look at other innovations, and that's how they started to do 'green' shows," he said. One episode show describes a green Habitat for Humanity project in the Bronx, New York. All the video material didn't come to fruition in traditional TV due to economy and changing trends, so they've they used it online.
Be gentle with partners and employees.
Vila's been doing his shows and working with brands for 30 years. His entrepreneurial advice for the company builder (not just the home-builder)? "Avoid partnerships with people who you think of as friends. While creative collaborations can be terrific, they tend to break down when it comes to dollars and cents," he said. "Respect your employees, and give them the freedom they deserve, but don't expect them to be your buddies."
Many people in the audience at the panel described watching Vila with a parent and gaining knowledge from the TV show. Vila's hoping a new generation will recognize him from videos and apps.
HOWARD GREENSTEIN is a social media strategist and evangelist, and president of the Harbrooke Group, which specializes in helping companies communicate with their customers using the latest Web technologies. @HowardGr