A Short Story: How We Landed Here

The path to Full Stream Group started with a ski photographer in Lake Tahoe, California, way down stream in the brand building process. Armed with a desire to steer brands towards a more authentic expression and greater social impact he began a two-decade long journey swimming upstream, till he found the source of the stream – people; the decisions they make and the culture that results.

What does an action sports photographer living in Lake Tahoe, California know about organizational development?

Nothing. Which means he has no way of effecting the brief that was just sent to him. No way of steering this brand away from the inauthentic expression a new agency just dreamt up. No way of sharing the unique value of that brand and personality of the athlete they’ve chosen to represent them.

This was the trigger that led Full Stream Group founder Matt Levinthal from action sports photographer through a nearly two-decade long journey of magazine publishing, creative agencies, startups, and marketing and multi-channel management; compiling an amalgamation of experiences in search of the secret to building powerful brands that impact culture.

The world of commerce was and continues to change rapidly, seeing this change from various perspectives within an organization and across multiple brands and industries is what led Full Stream Group to the headwaters of where brands are born and raised – people; the decisions they make and the culture that results.

To fix, build and amplify brands requires fixing, building and amplifying organizations that can embody the brand and bring that brand to life. Over time, tools were created, techniques were refined, a collective of support was gathered and Full Stream Group took form as an organizational development group, working as part of a collective to guide companies towards their full potential.

After over two decades of experience in the trenches grinding with teams across a wide range of industries, we’re grateful to have the opportunity to share with you what we’ve learned… unless of course we’re taking a brief moment to relive those ski bum days.

Learn more about why Matt gave up what some consider a dream job.

Sales and marketing today only require one thing: be a human who can authentically connect to another human. There is no more authentic person in the world than an excited kid.

Something happens to us when we try to sell something to someone. Something switches in us and we stop being a human talking to another human. Instead we become a salesperson or a marketer talking to a customer.

We start to talk funny, use different words, try to be more than we are or different than we are. You know who doesn’t do this? Kids.

This inauthentic selling or marketing we do, this is purely an adult thing. Kids have an authenticity we adults can’t come close to. It’s all on the outside for them. They haven’t yet learned to bottle it up, to manipulate it, to try to please everyone.

A six-year-old starts every sentence with, “You know what?!” because they are just so excited to share that they can’t hold themselves back. This question (or “conversation starter”) primes the speaker and the listener for honest and open sharing of whatever is on one’s mind no matter the situation.

We need to be selling and marketing with the energy of a kid:  by telling a story about what we did, we saw, and felt -and doing so with deep-down excitement- we remain authentic.

People are craving connection, engagement, transparency, authenticity-the antithesis of sales and marketing as we have known it. Instagram Stories is so popular because it’s unpolished, an inside look into a person or brand’s life. Many adults can’t understand this phenomenon: “You mean I just share my life?” Yeah, just be a kid.

We’re human; and as humans, we crave real connection with other humans. In fact, we’re starved for it. That is why spending millions of dollars creating, polishing and refining ad campaigns is not nearly as effective as a steady drip of iPhone videos.

Sales and marketing as we’ve known it isn’t really a thing anymore. There is only creating stories and sharing stories. That’s it. Just like being a kid.

How an organization makes decisions shapes the culture, the brand and its ability to scale. The greatest potential for growth and impact comes from disaggregated decision making that remains aligned to the principles and values that define the brand.

Our next moment, our day, our week, our year, our careers, our lives: they are shaped by the decisions we make—one decision after another, after another, after another, all stacked on top of each other. This is how we find ourselves here, and this is how we’ll find ourselves wherever we might be in the future.

Inside our organization, there are countless decisions being made. The larger the organization, the more decisions.

Decision after decision after decision, the brand is built, the business is shaped, the market is impacted… or not. But how do decisions get made?

Are teams trained to make decisions?
Is there a decision-making process?
Are there guidelines to follow?
Are decisions based on data or personal opinion?
Who gets to decide?

In small companies, decision-making is easy because it’s a dictatorship—hopefully a benevolent dictatorship but a dictatorship none the less.

If employees stick around, they become indoctrinated in the principles and values of that founder (the benevolent dictator). As the company scales, those employees can anticipate the founder’s decisions and make small to medium-sized decisions on her behalf. This is the tribal state, where there is still strong leadership, but decision-making becomes disaggregated.

Then something happens. A threshold is crossed. It can be caused by high turnover or fast growth or changes in leadership; but at some point, if a company continues to grow or sticks around long enough, the tribal structure breaks down. The principles and values which once guided decision-making become diluted.

With no clear guiding principles and values, the organization splinters –often into opinion-based decision making and smaller tribes whose individuals share a common point of view. These tribes attempt to consolidate responsibilities in order to control decision making and shape their slice of the organization based on their view.


This dystopian, post-benevolent dictatorship, post-tribal, “opinionocracy” is avoided by codifying the principles and values of the founder into decision making tools. The organization can then be trained to use these tools in every decision it makes.

As decision after decision after decision is made using these tools, the people, processes and systems begin to align with the principles and values of the brand. With consistency and time, the benevolent dictatorship, tribe or opinionocracy transforms into an organism: A scalable singular entity, with a collective intelligence, cable of decentralized decision-making and growth.

This is how brands scale without selling out. Not from logos, fancy videos and social media likes alone; but rather decision after decision after decision in every corner of the organization, all fully aligned with the original principles and values that started it all.

I think hell is something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go.
– Neil Gaiman

There are three layers of reality in every situation:
1. The base layer is the factual layer, what is mechanically occurring.
2. The second layer is the informational layer, what is occurring from our perspective based on the inputs available to us.
3. The third layer is the ego layer, what we perceive to be occurring based on our world view, sculpted by our life experience and expressed in the fears, desires and beliefs we hold.

What I think Neil Gaiman is speaking to here is this third layer, the ego layer of reality and how much we let this layer rule our experience of life.

If we are experiencing life primarily in this third layer of reality, our decision making becomes extremely flawed because we allow emotion to cloud what is factually occurring and enter a distorted world of one – void of the 360-degree perspective surrounding the situation.

This point is not dismissive of intuition or gut feelings. Intuition and gut feelings can be nudges from our subconscious towards what lies beneath this emotional layer. However, it’s tricky to decipher fear from intuition and desire from gut feeling.

Those who are extremely skilled in making good decisions do so by operating at the factual base layer reality; they have a clear and accurate understanding of what is mechanically occuring, void of emotion and with as close to a 360-degree view as possible.

This does not mean we must ignore our feelings and compassion. It means quite the opposite; we must be hyper aware of emotions. We just choose not to make decisions and act based on those feelings alone. We first seek to understand what is occurring at the factual layer.

Operating from level 1 and 2 realities can be challenging at times because doing so requires honesty, both with ourselves and with others. But this is how we cleanse ourselves of what Gaiman described in the above quote as the hell we carry with us. Whether that hell exists as a small stone in our shoe or a heavy backbreaking load.

With this work comes clarity. With this clarity comes freedom. With this freedom comes the remarkable.

The purpose of an experiment is to learn. Experiments start small and in controlled environments, then expand: Virgin Galactic could have sent 50 people on its first commercial flight to space, but it’s probably better it started with one.

We think we know, and we do. That is, we know things to a degree and, even then, not for sure. So why not test?

Why not give ourselves room to explore an answer? A safe place, where we can’t do too much damage. A space big enough to be valuable and real enough to be viable.

What is the risk of rushing forward versus the reward of exploration (What is the potential cost, impact to customers, the team, outside relationships, capital reserves, etc.? Can we find a good balance?

Tests are started in a controlled environment. Once we have a safe setting, we can use this test to think differently, to build off of the work of others while pushing further to unlock new avenues of growth. There is no reason to set up a test just to do more of the same; for that, we simply copy and paste.

Tests meander their way towards answers and expand once answers are found. But once we have completed a test, what’s the next step? How do we continue to move forward? How do we build on what we’ve learned and not get stuck in the safety of a test or get complacent with the results of the test? Can we prevent the perfect from becoming the enemy of good? Can we commercialize and scale this?

The tests itself, however, doesn’t need to be scalable; they only need to provide answers to questions or offer hunches. Once we have a baseline, what variances do we need to account for in a live environment? What from the test can’t be executed at scale and how do we solve for that? What impact might this new environment and scale have on the net result?

If the experiment is a complete failure, then we start over. No harm done and a valuable lesson learned.
If there was a spark, we explore that spark further, seeing if we can get it to ignite.
If there is fire, we pour a little fuel on the fire to see how bright it can burn and how far it can spread.
At every step, we are learning– always learning. At the same time, we are always mitigating unnecessary risk in an attempt to make the education more valuable than the potential cost.

Are We Pivoting or Leaping?

To physically pivot, we require a fixed anchor point. To leap requires complete freedom of movement. Both initiate change and may unlock growth, but each has drastically different requirements. So, are we pivoting or actually leaping?

There is a big difference between leaping and pivoting. When we pivot, everything around us remains the same except for our point of view. If we untether ourselves from a point and move, everything around us changes.

The same is true when strategically approaching our business. If we feel we are in the right place but need to adjust our approach –or we have a desire to explore the world that surrounds us– we pivot.

If we feel we are not altogether in the right place, we leap. We can try our approach elsewhere or try an entirely new approach from an entirely new position.

When I started to work in publishing while I was a photographer, that was a pivot: I was still in the ski industry; I was still working with the same companies and people; I was still telling stories; I just became more involved with the distribution of those stories.

When I jumped from publishing and photojournalism in the ski industry to a creative agency in San Francisco, I leaped­ –both literally and figuratively: I moved from Lake Tahoe to the Bay Area; I transitioned into a completely new field; and I was now working in entirely new industries.

Both transitions were powerful ones for me.
Both opened my eyes to the larger world around me.
Both opened up new opportunities.
Both were challenging.
Both required the development of new skills.
Both increased my income.
Both came with an enormous amount of change to my way of life.
Both endeavors ultimately failed, although I would do them both over again… only differently.
But one was a pivot and one was a leap; two drastically different experiences.

Pivots are easier movements than leaps, they carry less risk because there is less change and fewer unknowns. Leaps have the potential of creating a greater impact and doing so faster, because the movement is larger and often sudden.

Two fundamentally different paths with very different requirements. The word pivot gets thrown around a lot. There’s nothing wrong with pivoting, as long as we don’t think we’re pivoting when we are actually leaping.

The Simplicity Solution

The majority believes that everything hard to comprehend must be very profound. This is incorrect. What is hard to understand is what is immature, unclear and often false. The highest wisdom is simple and passes through the brain directly into the heart.

– Viktor Schauberger

Humans are complicated. Truth is not complicated.

As we come to understand and communicate truth, our delivery becomes simple.

The more a brand understands its truth (purpose, path, delivery), the less complicated its message is and the greater its impact becomes.

How Much vs. How Little

By changing the fundamental question surrounding marketing from “How much?”, to “How little?”, we can change our entire approach and become more efficient and effective.        

Marketing has always been about a simple relationship: spend verses return. For decades, even centuries, marketers have been asking, “How much does it cost to reach how many people?” That’s the problem.

The question shouldn’t be;
“How much does it cost, to reach how many people?”

The question should be;
“How little do we have to spend to reach the right people?”

By asking, “How little” we:

  • Force comparison between other possible marketing vehicles instead of evaluating the merits of an isolated effort.
  • Spark creativity by creating a challenge with a constraint instead of asking an open-ended question.
  • Start with the low-hanging fruit instead of reaching for shiny objects.

The result is a more efficient portfolio of marketing vehicles.

By focusing on “the right” audience we:

  • Invest in building long-term loyalty instead of chasing one-time buyers.
  • Deliver a powerful, emotive message that breaks through instead of speaking to the lowest common denominator.
  • Segment based on psychographics (one’s values and principles) to find “our people” instead of by demographics (statistical data) to find statistically similar people.

The result is a more effective portfolio of marketing vehicles.

Because we have been asking the wrong question, we haven’t been taking advantage of readily available data and technology that makes marketing more efficient and effective. We really can do more with less and do so fairly easily, but execution requires good math.

We see a lot of bad math, lazy math, or no math at all. The math in question is pretty simple, for each dollar you spend, how much in revenue do you get in return. However, we often see that:

  • Nobody is looking at this equation, with marketing vehicles that are never measured, analyzed or optimized.
  • Drastically different efforts are clumped under a single vehicle like branded and non-branded search terms combined under Search Marketing (Separating these out, we find very different efficiency and effectiveness).
  • Not all costs are included, like management fees, creative production, materials, etc.
  • A lack of detail: Which campaign is performing, which key word, which city or door; the more detailed the data, the clearer the story.
  • Customer performance to understand if a vehicle or campaign attracts the right people that become loyal customers with repeat purchases or only one-time buyers.

Nothing here is complicated or complex. It’s all very simple, even easy. The hard part is deciding to try taking the unglamorous path and being disciplined enough to see it through.

Where Brand & Leadership Collide

Who leads who in the creation of product?
Does the product line manager dictate what should be made next?
Or is it the channels, those closest to the needs of the customer?
Or the creative team with a vision for how the brand can better express itself through product and create a storyline that will break through and drive long-term brand loyalty?
Or, seeing the preferences and desires of the customer in the data, is it the marketer?
Or maybe it’s the merchants and finance team that have pinpointed the best-selling and highest margin offering.

Who goes first?
Who leads?
Who follows?

Answer: It’s the brand team. Who is the brand team? The brand team is the leadership team.

If the leadership team is not well-schooled in the principles, values and vision of the brand –if its members are unable to manifest those principles, values and vision into their area of expertise– then they do not have the aptitude, inclination and skill set to be leaders.

If the product leader doesn’t understand how those principles and values manifest in a product (with the added vision for what that product looks like 3-5 years from now), then they should not be the product leader.

If the channel leader (head of sales) doesn’t understand how the product line should be sold in and presented at retail to create a consumer experience that puts those principles, values and vision on display, then they should not be the channel leader.

If the creative leader can’t connect the dots between the product made, the consumer pain point and the principles, values and vision of the brand to create compelling content, then they should not be the creative leader.

If the message distribution leader (marketing leader) can’t balance the desire to reach more people with the need to connect with the right customers by aligning core principles and values, creating an ever-deepening relationship over time, then they should not be the creative leader.

If the merchants and finance leaders can’t balance the company’s need to make a profit with its function of solving problems for its core customers, never abandoning them for the masses, never breaking its brand promise, it’s reason for being, then they should not be the lead merchants or finance leader.

“Brand” isn’t a department or a title among VPs or in the C-suite. Brand is the unwavering principles, values and vision that creates the standards a company holds itself to in every moment of every day.

The culmination of which exists in the product (or service), the physical manifestation of that brand.

The job of leaders is to define the brand, embody it, instill it, manifest it and grow it.

The Farm Stand Model

What if we throw out the word “marketing” and instead thought in terms of “going to market”, like farmers have been doing for thousands of years? Could we then better understand the process and principles of selling a good or service? 

Once upon a time, people grew or made things for a living. Every day, or at the end of a week or season, they would travel to the local market to sell them. Thousands of years later, not much has changed.

Instead of small stalls in the town square, today’s markets have become the internet, strip malls, Main Streets and, even still, the small stalls of our local farmer’s market. Farmer’s markets are a beautiful and effective example of going to market.

If we throw out the word marketing for a moment (or, as I would prefer, forever) and examine the centuries-old lifecycle of farmers taking their products to market, we can get down to the principles of going to market that are still powerful today.

1. Product-Market Fit
Simply put, farmers need to start with the end in mind: What can they grow and how can they get it to customers? This is the simplest form of a go-to-market strategy, drawing a direct line between the product they plan to create and the end consumer. From the beginning of the process straight through to the end, this strategy informs what to make, when to make it and how to deliver it.

2. Product Creation
With a go-to-market strategy in place, the farmer knows what to plant and when to plant it. They turn their focus to growing the right amount of the right product at the right time.

3. Message Creation
What do you say when someone walks up to the stall? “The peaches are perfectly ripe.” and “Can I help you find the perfect potato for your recipe?”  Or “Everything is grown on our certified organic and bio dynamic, 5th generation family farm less than hour from here.”

Messages are the literal words we say or print; but messages are also the configuration of the stall, how the produce is displayed, how people dress and who is working the booth. Is it a rustic or sophisticated experience, neatly organized or an adventure of the senses? These are all messages about what the farmer values and how they see the world, which is what we are trying to share when we create go-to-market messaging.

4. Message Distribution
Free samples to show the sweetness of the peaches is some of the best message distribution I’ve seen at a farmer’s market. I’ve also been moved by the farmer’s incredibly informed kid helping me to pick out the best ones. Sign placement matters; how the names of apples are displayed matters; and if the seller is standing out in front or behind the table matters. If too forward, some people shy away. Too reserved and some people lose interest.

Message distribution is anthropology; it’s behavior science; it’s testing and analyzing to figure out what works or doesn’t and why –not just for today but for building long-term loyalty over time. 

5. Audit
How much was sold? How much is left? What did people ask for that we didn’t have? What was priced too low or too high? When the day is done, there is an accounting of what occurred in order to better plan for the next day, week or season. For farmers, margins can be thin, so quantitative and qualitative data is compiled and analyzed to minimize waste and maximize profit for reinvestment into the next yield. 

This is the foundation for going to market. The product will vary; the situation will vary; but the fundamental principles and processes are the same. 

It’s All About Me?

If we are going to be selfish (which we are), then we have to be 100% selfish and make this moment all about us, using it to do what every organism must do to survive… grow.

I’m the one this is all for. All of it. It’s all for me (stick with me on this for a minute).

Yes, that is a really bold statement and I’m being 100% honest when I admit that I believe this all exists as it does for me. I believe this is the appropriate way to view and embrace that innate selfishness that exists in each of us. And we are crazy selfish. I mean craaaaaaaazy selfish.

Even the kindest and gentlest among us are extremely selfish. We are self-absorbed creatures. Most of what we do is for ourselves. If we have a child today, even just one, we are being selfish because the last thing this planet needs is more humans. If we drive a car, selfish. If we eat meat, selfish. If we water our lawn (for most of us that live west of the Mississippi), selfish. If we don’t donate every dollar we make beyond what we need to survive, selfish. So, before we get to justifying five-dollar coffees and building giant homes and career paths and business at large, we are already some of the most selfish organisms on earth.

If this beautiful world is going to be all about us, let’s truly make it all about us: the good, the bad, the pretty, the ugly –– all of it. 

This means that every challenge I face, every moment of stress, strain or discomfort, is not only about me; it is for me. And more so, I’m the challenge. It’s not my client, the market, the demands of parenting or being a good partner. It’s not the traffic, the weather, the guy snoring next to me on this flight as I try to focus on writing.

We can’t take the good and leave the bad. If we are going to be selfish, we need to be 100% selfish.

So all of this, is all for me. From the sun rising on the snowcapped peaks below me to that guy sawing logs in the seat to my right, it’s all for me. This makes our work-life a powerful catalyst for personal transformation and cultural evolution.

What we choose to do with that pain-in-the-ass boss, challenging young employee or disgruntled customer is an opportunity to grow and evolve. Because we no longer live in close-knit communities, work has become that community. It is the place we spend more time than any other interacting with a network of individuals. Work repeatedly places us in uncomfortable situations with people, and this challenges our way of thinking, acting and being.

If we take ownership of all of that, viewing it all as a personal lesson the world has conspired to provide us, a custom-made opportunity just for us, then we have an opportunity to do something about it. It’s then on us to make change, grow and create something special in this world.  

What’s A Win?

In sports, it’s pretty simple: the highest number on the scoreboard, the fastest time on the clock, the highest score at the judges’ table wins. But in business, it’s never as simple as a single number, and the game is never over. So then, what’s a win?

There it was in the weekly report, an eighth digit. Eight digits had never been seen before on the weekly report. The number broke records, it exceeded plan and was the culmination of months of hard work and dozens of people. But was it a win?

Well, we didn’t hit that number in the way we had planned to, so there were a number of critical data points flashing red. Some on the team called that milestone a win and were pushing for it to be more celebrated while others on the team felt we had missed the mark, despite breaking the record. People were looking to leadership for a sign.

The signal they received was mixed. There was recognition for breaking the record, for the hard work put in to get to this point and for the successes we saw. There was also a stern reminder that topline isn’t the whole story, that we are still missing the mark in critical areas of the business.

In my mind, there is no winning, at least not in some final-game-over sense of winning. Sometimes we’re ahead and sometimes we’re behind, but the game goes on (unless we lose). It’s kind of a sadistic game in that way: there is really only playing, losing and retiring. But to me, the fun of it is that we get to keep playing (as long as we choose to). 

If we remove this story about winning, maybe we can:
– Learn to enjoy the game a bit more.
– Appreciate the lows as much as the highs, trying to learn as much as we can from them.
– Learn to pace ourselves or recover after intense periods, knowing there’s always another quarter.
– Start to take a long view, sacrifice in the short term to build a brand that evolves the culture over time.
– Commit to never stop learning, allowing the game to present new lessons about ourselves, human nature, our culture.
– Work to stay humble, to be as thankful for those failures and beat-downs as we are for the successes and good luck that crosses our path.

Maybe if we stop making this about winning –recognizing that the end point is arbitrary– we can see that our work is all about people: our customers, our colleagues, our communities and our families. Maybe we’ll realize that if we work to serve them, we’ll find ourselves ahead more often than behind.