Jacobi Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe has big ambitions for Iris, his two-year-old audio-technology startup. Iris has developed software that makes sound more immersive—ideal for streaming services and smartphones. But Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe also wants to be in the burgeoning wellness space, plugging his tech into meditation apps and other health products.
A decade ago, a well-financed young company such as Iris—investors include Queen drummer Roger Taylor and independent music label Concord—might have tried to serve a narrow set of customers before expanding into new markets and services. But the rapid ascent of startups such as WhatsApp, Instagram (both now owned by Facebook), and payments platform Stripe has emboldened a new generation of founders to position themselves as multichannel, global, and purpose-driven businesses from the outset. To help articulate his sweeping goals to potential funders, customers, and partners, Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe called on FNDR, a consultancy that specializes in what CEO James Vincent calls “giving voice to vision.” FNDR “took this huge idea I had in my head . . . and turned it into a story that made sense,” Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe says.
Launched nearly three years ago by Vincent, who helped lead Apple’s creative agency TBWA\Media Arts Lab for more than a decade, Venice, California–based FNDR (pronounced “founder”) has quietly become a go-to adviser for an elite cadre of entrepreneurs. Clients include Snap’s Evan Spiegel, Glossier’s Emily Weiss, Farfetch’s José Neves, Airtable’s Howie Liu, and Daily Harvest’s Rachel Drori.
While on-demand computing services and new business models such as direct-to-consumer selling have made it easier than ever to launch a new company, startups that hope to survive need more than a beloved product or a plan to outmaneuver incumbents. “You have to be much more focused on having your story buttoned up, not just from a marketing standpoint, but from a strategic perspective,” says Kirsten Green, founding partner of Forerunner Ventures, which is an investor in Glossier.
Vincent and his three partners, Stephen Butler, Rebekah Jefferis, and Nick Barham—veterans of creative agencies such as Chiat/Day, 72andSunny, and Wieden+Kennedy—help startups hone their stories by putting founders through a series of meetings designed to tease out their values and beliefs, challenging leaders to think about the human impact of technology and the social contract between companies and the communities in which they operate. The result is an “intentional narrative” that can guide decisions. “We give [founders] license to take big swings and make transformational changes in their business,” says Jefferis.
FNDR’s real magic seems to be its ability to distill a company’s narrative into just a few words, which provides a concise reference point for everything from branding to acquisitions. “Within three minutes of meeting Stephen [Butler], before he even knew the extent of my dream, he spat out two words that are still the core of everything,” says Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, the audio entrepreneur. “They were: ‘Listen well’ ”—a phrase that sums up both the quality of the technology and its potential health benefits. The Iris home page now greets visitors with the headline “We enable the world to listen well.” A few years ago, Vincent described social media to Snap CEO Spiegel as “lying to strangers, truth to friends.” This past July, Snap unveiled its first global ad campaign, highlighting pairs of “real friends.”
Though the FNDR partners come from the ad world, they and their clients insist that the company is not a creative agency. “I’m not going to FNDR to get a good-looking website or to create a brand identity,” Forerunner’s Green says. “I’m going to push the team’s thinking.”
It’s an approach that Vincent mastered while embedded at Apple, where he met with Steve Jobs weekly for 11 years. “What Steve wanted was a highly provocative two hours,” recalls Vincent, who is credited with conceiving the iconic ad campaign featuring dancing, iPod-wearing silhouettes. “And if it wasn’t, he’d be like, ‘Boring! Try to do better next meeting.’ ” FNDR may not mint the next Steve Jobs, but if its system works, its clients’ stories will always be engaging.
A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of Fast Company magazine.