"Slapping a logo on a notebook [is the] antithesis of what we do."
In 2015, Kim Kaupe -- co-founder and CEO of The Superfan Company, an agency that specializes in supercharging fan engagement for artists, music festivals, record labels and more -- appeared on an episode of the long-running ABC reality series Shark Tank with her business partner Brittany Hodak. With an already-profitable business and impressive client list, the two made a strong impression and became the subject of a bidding war, ultimately walking away with an offer of $725,000 for 17.5% of their business (then called ZinePak) from “sharks” Laurie Greiner and Robert Herjavec. And then the cameras stopped rolling.
“So many people when they see the show, just automatically assume that it’s a done deal…but that’s not the case,” Kaupe says. “After the show airs, you actually go do months and months…of due diligence and talks and lawyers and everybody trying to get on the same page.”
Though the deal ultimately fell through, Kaupe and Hodak (who is no longer involved with the company) still walked away with a win. Not only did Greiner and Herjavec end up hiring them to work on their personal brands and projects, but their Shark Tank episode continues airing in reruns on MSNBC every few months. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” says Kaupe of the show. “Even though that episode aired five years ago, I still get people either emailing me or direct messaging me [about the business].”
Today, The Superfan Company is a thriving business with a large and impressive client list across the music industry and beyond, with their work spanning popular festivals (Stagecoach, Lost Lands, Boston Calling), A-list artists (Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Selena Gomez, Mary J. Blige) and major record labels (Capitol, Interscope, Warner Brothers, Big Machine), among others. For the record, Kaupe is as surprised as anyone about the company's success.
“I call myself an accidental entrepreneur,” she says. “So many people are born entrepreneurs. They were selling candy in the back of the bus and had a lawn-mowing conglomerate…I had a corporate job- and I freaking loved it.”
Kaupe’s early career path couldn’t have been much more traditional. Moving to New York City after graduating from the University of Florida in 2008 with her sights set on the publishing industry, she ultimately nabbed a job with Conde Nast’s Brides magazine just before the financial crash hit. Though she held onto her job, frugality became the name of the game virtually overnight, fostering a mindset that would serve her well later on.
“It was like, ‘By the way, we have to do all the same events and all the same activations, but now you have a fraction of the budget... Make it work,’” she says. “It was sort of this like MacGyver attitude.”
The Superfan Company formed in January 2011 during a turning point for Kaupe. After making a move from publishing to advertising following two-and-a-half years at Conde Nast, she fell into momentary despair upon realizing her new industry didn’t suit her.
“About a week and a half into the job, I realized I was not Don Draper,” she says jokingly. But as gloomy as it looked then, Kaupe's short-lived career switch proved fortuitous in one very important way.
“The girl who sat next to me at the ad agency ... ended up becoming my co-founder,” she says of Hodak, who pitched Kaupe on the startup idea after Kaupe confided she was preparing to “grovel” for her old job back at Conde Nast.
“She said, ‘Well, before you do that, let’s get drinks and let me tell you about this idea I had,’” Kaupe recalls. A short time later, the two pooled their savings and launched ZinePak (the name was changed to The Superfan Company in June 2018), leveraging Hodak’s contacts in the music business -- she had previously worked for over three years at Sony’s RED Distribution -- and Kaupe’s in publishing to wrangle their first clients.
The Superfan Company, which runs a lean operation with just four employees including Kaupe, has worked in large part thanks to its creative approach to traditional merchandising and ticket packages. (“Slapping a logo on a notebook,” says Kaupe, is the “antithesis of what we do.”) But the inventive products churned out by the company -- which handles distribution and shipping for clients who need it -- also require a bigger lift than your traditional T-shirt, baseball cap or rubber bracelet. For The Wombats’ 2018 U.S. tour, Kaupe and her team undertook the creation of a 16-page activity book containing “tongue-in-cheek” puzzles and games inspired by the band’s last album. For Phil Collins’ 2017-19 Not Dead Yet tour, they created a travel kit with themed eye mask, neck pillow and custom blanket. And for VIP guests of idiosyncratic (and marijuana-loving) hip-hop group Flatbush Zombies’ summer tour, the company created Happy Snacks, a “dystopian” Happy Meal-esque box containing branded animal crackers, mints, water bottle and PopSocket.
As Kaupe will tell you, an item like Happy Snacks represents not only a creative challenge -- to get it right, the team actually went to McDonald’s and bought a Happy Meal that was then reconstructed by their vendor -- but a logistical one. For starters, they had to figure out how to ship the Happy Snacks flat while also making them security-friendly. They accomplished this challenge in part by sourcing a collapsible water bottle for the band’s so-called “zombie juice," a workaround that not only made the boxes cheaper and easier to ship but got a thumbs-up from security.
“A lot of security in a lot of venues will not let you put A) liquid or B) anything that's heavy in a water bottle shape because it becomes a projectile, and they don't want anybody throwing things at other fans, at the artist, et cetera,” says Kaupe. “So again, not only thinking about the cool, awesome, photography-ready aspect of it, but also thinking of functionality. How do we make sure that no security sees this package and says, ‘Absolutely not.'?"
As Kaupe suggests, the eye-catching Happy Snacks also achieved another primary objective: Creating a social media-friendly showpiece. That focus on creating "Instagrammable" items marks a pivot in how the company -- which launched in the days before social media really took hold of the marketing landscape -- conceptualizes its products.
“When we first started the company, it was more along the lines of, ‘How do we make this collectible? How do we make this rare? How do we make this something that’s more of a one-on-one experience between the product and the fan?’” says Kaupe. Now, she says, the name of the game is shareability.
“It obviously has to be cool for the fan,” she continues, “but instead of having it be a one-on-one experience, how do I not only make it a one on one experience, but make it something that’s so shareable, so Instagrammable, people are going to get this and not only say, ‘I'm obsessed, this is so great,’ but, ‘I'm obsessed, and in the next 45 seconds, I'm going to pull out my phone and put this on Snapchat or TikTok or Instagram.’”
This grassroots marketing approach has resulted in a number of highly successful campaigns for the company. For the 2019 Stagecoach country music festival, Kaupe and her team designed pop-up Tinker Tin Trailers that were sent out in a ticket package along with attendee wristbands. The idea worked exactly as designed: After just 12 days, the highly-shareable items garnered over 350,000 impressions on Facebook and Instagram.
The Superfan Company's work on Mumford & Son’s 2013 Gentlemen of the Road Stopover Festival represents one of the best examples of the company's multi-faceted approach to fan engagement. After designing so-called “passports” for ticket buyers, Kaupe and her team actually helped boost ticket sales when the booklets garnered 10,000 social media impressions in just 48 hours. That led to a surge of interest in the tour, which makes stops in small towns and rural areas that don’t typically see big-name acts come through.
“They had an influx of people going back to the website, and emailing in and asking, ‘Are tickets really sold out?’ ... ‘Are you gonna release more?’” recalls Kaupe. That outpouring of demand led Gentlemen of the Road organizers to reconvene with towns and fire departments to discuss adding more tickets, which ultimately led to an extra $1 million in incremental revenue for the tour.
The Superfan Company’s work with Mumford & Sons is indicative of how the company has also incorporated data-gathering considerations into its products. The passports in question -- versions of which have also been used for recent tours by Shawn Mendes and Gun N' Roses, among others -- were not only collectible but interactive. At Gentlemen of the Road, fans who collected every one of the various stamps scattered around the grounds then had a secret barcode on their passports scanned. The information contained there not only allowed fans to later receive a surprise in the mail -- exclusive posters signed by every artist on the tour -- but gave Mumford & Sons a wealth of data on their most ardent supporters.
“They left that activation with the names of I think it was like six or eight thousand…super fans,” says Kaupe. “They knew their names and their addresses and their emails. And when they went out on other tours or other things, that was information that they had available.” In that way, she notes that what would normally be a sunk cost -- sending out tour wristbands -- instead became an “activating cost” to garner valuable information on Mumford’s most devoted fans.
With a wealth of high-profile clients now populating the company’s resume, Kaupe and her team continue to expand into other areas including sports, awards shows, conventions and more. As for the future, while Kaupe hopes to expand further into the live and experiential realm, but she tends not to think too far ahead. She says she'd rather remain nimble in a rapidly changing music industry and technological arena that continues spawning new and innovative content-sharing platforms.
“You know, in 2011, if I had made a five-year plan, we didn't have Instagram and we didn't have Snapchat and we didn't have any of this stuff,” she says. “So the plan would have been thrown out the window anyways.”
When you're coming up choose your boss, not your job. Who is going to mentor you? Who will give you the most room to spread your wings? Who is going to help you expand your network? I know people who have a "dream job" at "the best company" with "an amazing salary" but they absolutely hate their boss and are miserable. Work under someone that inspires you regardless of the company name or job title. I would take the title, Dobby the House Elf if it meant I could work under some of my dream mentors.
I've learned that your reputation is everything. Going for that extra dollar or cutting corners works in the short term but this is a long term business based on relationships. Doing the right thing, every time, even if you lose money or have to work harder or go out of your scope of work, people remember those extra efforts and it pays off in the long run.
It was always obvious to me that you are a product of who you surround yourself with. I have the best team at The Superfan Company and if you're not surrounded by people who inspire you and push you, you are destined to be mediocre.
It's good to have a supportive base of family and friends. Being an entrepreneur is scary, lonely and you're often left with a sea of self doubt at the end of the day. Having a strong fan base to cheer you on is why I've been able to stay somewhat sane the last 9 years.
A good idea is one that can be executed from beginning to end. I hear a lot of what I call "conference room ideas." Ideas that seem great but when you actually start getting into the nitty gritty logistics are expensive and a nightmare. It's the ideas that check every box along the route -- from manager to event staff to shipping to fans -- that are the big win.
What's tough is not having female mentors. I have amazing male mentors but finding female mentors is extremely hard in this industry. I've tried a few times but they are always too busy balancing work and their personal lives, be it kids or partners, which is the irony as I'd love to be mentored to be better prepared to find that balance between personal and professional. If anyone has leads -- let me know!
The motto I live by: If you're not the lead dog, the view never changes.