The first episode of our new season features Jarie Bolander, engineer-turned-marketer, entrepreneur, and author. Jarie discusses what he’s dubbed “story-driven marketing,” explaining the role and impact of stories in business. Jarie shares his journey from engineering to entrepreneurship, emphasizing the importance of narrative in marketing and communication. He also discusses how storytelling can help pitch business ideas and connect with potential investors.
Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS:
Jariee Bolander: The way I process the world is through writing. And if I ever have a problem, or if I need to sort something out, I go to the page and I start writing stuff.
Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on marketing and advertising produced weekly by Bigeye, a strategy-led full-service creative agency growing brands for clients globally. Hello. I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. As we’ve discussed in previous episodes of IN CLEAR FOCUS, storytelling effectively engages audiences by triggering emotional responses. Miri Rodríguez, the author of “Brand Storytelling,” a previous Bigeye Book Club selection, emphasizes how phrases like “once upon a time” are more than just words. releasing oxytocin in our brains, leading to a deeper emotional connection with the story being told. Now, in business contexts, unlike purely numerical data and charts, stories generate anticipation and curiosity, drawing listeners in and making them curious about the relevance and impact of the story. Our guest today has a unique perspective on how leaders can apply the principles of storytelling to solve marketing and communications challenges for brands. Jarie Bolander is an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature with over two decades of experience bringing innovative products to market. He holds a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA in technology management. He’s also named as the inventor or co-inventor on 10 patents. Jarie is a prolific author and has published seven books, mostly on entrepreneurship, and has a unique story-driven approach to marketing and communications. To discuss his multifaceted career and interests, Jarie is joining us today from San Francisco, California. Jarie, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!
Jarie Bolander: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Adrian Tennant: Well, Jarie, you originally graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. How did you get involved in startups and entrepreneurship?
Jarie Bolander: I went to San Jose State University down in Silicon Valley. And, in the early to mid-90s, literally everyone I went to school with was going to a startup. You literally couldn’t throw a rock and not hit a startup back then. So pretty much everyone I knew I was like, “What startup are you going to? What startup are you going to?” and so it was sort of ingrained, I think, in me. Because my dad worked at a corporate job – he worked at United Airlines for 35 years. He wanted me to go into the family business. And I’m all, “Nah, I’m in Silicon Valley. How can I not go to a startup,” you know? And so it just sort of evolved from there. You know, it went from start-up to start-up to start-up, and I just really love the creativity. I love trying to change the world and that was back during the semiconductor boom, so everyone was making chips, and I was a semiconductor engineer, so I always had a job. A lot of the start-ups didn’t make it as they so often do, but yeah, it was just a good time. And just always love the entrepreneurial spirit, I think is the way I’d put it.
Adrian Tennant: Hmm. Tell us a little bit about your first startup and maybe the biggest challenge you faced with it.
Jarie Bolander: Yeah, so the first startup I went to was a company called Adaptive Solutions, which, funnily enough, did what NVIDIA‘s doing with parallel processing and all the AI chips. We did that almost 30 years ago and it was way ahead of its time. The challenge with it was it was a hardware company that wanted to be a software company that didn’t know how to be a software company. And this was back when software was sort of really new, no one really understood the true power of software. Software hadn’t eaten the world yet, right? And so we were predominantly a semiconductor company, building chips, building really complex, very big, very expensive servers, these whole things. The challenge was no one really understood how to use what we were doing. Digital cameras were just coming out. And in order to process digital images, if you were at a Mac, you’d have to download it on a Mac and do a bunch of things, and we had an accelerator board that would accelerate that because it took a long time, like not now, like just quick, right? And so the biggest challenge was just finding an application for this great technology. That has literally been with me my entire career. I tend to like to work on cool stuff and, I’ve learned the hard way that, sometimes cool stuff doesn’t sell. And so I’m a little bit more on, “Can we sell this thing?” So that was a tough lesson to learn. That company eventually went out of business. No one knew how to use our great technology that was 25, 30 years ahead of its time.
Adrian Tennant: Well, with over 20 years of management experience, what are some of the key lessons you’ve learned about leading smart people like engineers and scientists?
Jarie Bolander: What’s super interesting about leadership, especially in engineering and the sciences, is it doesn’t exist. They don’t train you in this. They just say, “Go do stuff,” right? And so, what I learned over time, and I actually wrote a book on it called “Frustration-Free Technical Management,” the real trick, I think, is you need to give engineers and scientists the guardrails in which to perform – within the guardrails of reality. Like, at one end you’ve got physics. You can’t break the laws of physics. And on the other end you have the market. And once you couch it like that, engineers and scientists are pretty savvy to get that, “Hey, what I’m working on eventually has to get sold. Therefore, if it’s super cool, that’s great, but someone’s got to buy it, or I don’t get paid.” and I think that was one of the things that really, as I was working through all of my career and going to these various companies that a lot of engineers and engineering managers didn’t understand. As an engineer, we never understood the business side as much. That’s the reason why I got my MBA because it was a huge gap, right? We could build anything. It’s like, “What are people going to buy?” And there was a huge disconnect, so I have taken that to heart in every organization I’ve been at. I’ve been like, “Okay, this is the constraints we’re under and yeah, it ain’t perfect.” And yes, we gotta be, you know, as Intel used to say, “First with the worst,” because that’s how we get paid. So it was a different mindset from an engineering perspective.
Adrian Tennant: Jarie, in addition to your professional work, you’ve written no fewer than seven books, mainly focusing on entrepreneurship. What inspired you to write your first book?
Jarie Bolander: So that was the “Frustration-Free Technical Management” that I mentioned. And it was actually someone who worked for me. One day in one of our one-on-ones, he said, “Sounds like you really know how to do this management thing. Do you think you could teach me?” And I said, “Yeah, sure, of course.” And he’s like, “Yeah, why don’t we write an outline of all the things that you could teach me and we could talk about it?” And so I ended up writing about a seven, eight-page outline. And it’s just all the things that I learned over time. And that became the basis of the book, and it was, I wouldn’t say my best book. Your first one’s always not great. But that just sparked in me this idea that the way I process the world is through writing. And ever since, if I ever have a problem or if I need to sort something out, I go to the page and I start writing stuff, and I’ve written a bunch of books since then. They get progressively better, because the more you write, the better you are in the creative fields as well. So yeah, just felt so rewarding to be able to share your knowledge. And to me, that’s just the ultimate, you know, you learn something, you do it, and then I think you have to teach it in order to really solidify it.
Adrian Tennant: Well, staying with that, your two story-driven foundation books focus on PR, marketing, and strategic communications, with the goal of helping readers grow brand awareness, generate quality leads, and, of course, increase revenues. Now, the first of the pair discusses what you dub story-driven outreach or SDO for short. Jarie, can you give us an overview of the approach you describe in the book?
Jarie Bolander: Yeah. So, what I realized, when I went to the dark side sales and marketing stuff from engineering, was that as I started working through all this stuff, I realized that it wasn’t really about the product because you could pretty much build anything, I would say product is democratized. I mean, today, I’m not kidding, you could build pretty much anything you can think of. What wasn’t democratized was selling said product, and since the world is full of so much noise, really, the successful ones that I’ve seen and continue to be involved with, the best story won. Just full stop. It didn’t even have to be a great product. It was like, the best story won. And so, when it came to outreach, which basically means cold emails, getting people to respond, the same premise applies. What’s the problem with cold emailing? It’s usually pretty awful. If you have a better story and you can through the noise, then people respond more. So, story-driven outreach is all about building that consistent, clear, and concise story so that when you do outreach, you have something that actually will get above the noise. And the reason why storytelling is so powerful is because it’s in our DNA. I mean, like, you and I are talking today because our ancestors told the best stories. I mean, just full stop. Like, your ancestor to my ancestor somehow figured out how to convince a mate to mate so that we’re here. It’s pretty obvious, right? But a lot of folks especially in the B2B world tend to not focus on the storytelling. They focus on features and functions and buzzword bingo. And they don’t connect with the human on the other side of the email, on the other side of the website, on the other side of the podcast, right? And that is one of the main reasons why, especially in the B2B space, success is harder for folks, because they don’t treat people like real people. Why wouldn’t you? It seems obvious, but it’s actually a lot harder to do
Adrian Tennant: The second of your story-driven foundation books describes how to pitch an idea to someone, such as an investor. Now, I imagine as a serial entrepreneur, you’ve been on both sides of the table for this. So Jarie, what’s needed to craft the perfect pitch deck?
Jarie Bolander: Yeah, I have been on both sides of this, on more than one occasion. And one of the things that’s important about a pitch deck is the story you’re trying to tell. But not the features, functions, “This is what it does,” but the problem that you’re trying to solve, and why you are uniquely suited to solve said problem with your solution. And I have seen, oh my gosh, hundreds if not thousands of decks, and I would say 90 percent of them don’t do a good job of telling the story of “Why do I care about this? What problem does this solve?” They usually focus on product, right? And so every pitch deck is an opportunity to convince someone of your point of view. And that is mostly wasted on many of these pitch decks because they don’t inspire the next conversation. They don’t inspire, “Oh, tell me more.” They just don’t inspire this, “Oh, this is a really cool quote-unquote thing.” So, what I’ve found looking through all these decks and looking through all these things is, that you still have to have it rooted in a story and in a through line that makes sense. And more importantly, if you’re talking to an investor, it needs to resonate with the investor. What does that mean? Resonate with, “This is a good investment. You know what you’re doing. I can trust you as a founder to make your vision happen.”
Adrian Tennant: Yeah, that makes sense. Inspiring your podcast of the same name, you also wrote “The Entrepreneur Ethos.” Jarie, what is the book about?
Jarie Bolander: Yeah, so “The Entrepreneur Ethos” is how to build a more ethical, inclusive, and resilient world through educating and inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs – be that 18 to 80 – the next generation of entrepreneur. That was a book I was actually motivated to write by my late wife, Jane. She was an entrepreneur and she was really frustrated that there were not a lot of women minority entrepreneurs in the world. And so when I was figuring out the next book to write, she’s like, “Hey, you should really explore the ethos of being an entrepreneur. What does it mean? Why do the gig? And how can you become more inclusive, more expansive? How can the most amount of people be involved in entrepreneurship?” And so, yeah, wrote the book. And then started the podcast, which has been a great experience – as you know, you’re a podcaster. So you know how fun it is to just talk to interesting people, talk to all sorts of different folks and what they’re doing. So partly just saw a need because I felt that anyone can do the entrepreneur gig, and there weren’t a lot of people talking about how you would go about making the highest level of entrepreneurship, right? Like it’s a promised land that we’re all in it together. Everyone has the opportunity to participate, and it’s more of a meritocracy than the color of your skin or where you’re from.
Adrian Tennant: With the combination of your book and also your ongoing podcast, as you know, startups often evolve into scale-ups and founders often have tough decisions to make about whether to accept funding from external partners. How do you think entrepreneurs should hold themselves to their original ethos or a higher standard in the face of the kinds of challenges that are faced by growing businesses?
Jarie Bolander: Yeah. That’s a pretty hard question to answer because it depends on the business where you’re at, your original idea, and your disposition, right? Accepting investment has its upsides and its downsides, right? If you’re accepting venture investment, they want you to venture scale. And venture scale means hit a unicorn at some point and exit and they make a ton of money. If you are not on that path, then raising money from venture capital doesn’t make any sense because they’re going to push you toward that. And it’s a classic model, you know, it’s been around for, what, decades. So, it really depends on how fast you want to scale, and if you want to have a venture scale up, or what some people call a lifestyle business, which is, “I’m independent, I run it myself, do what I do my own thing,” right? I would say, it does depend on how fast you want to scale and how much you want to scale. I don’t think there’s a right answer. I think the predominant Silicon Valley, push is venture scale, but I don’t think you need to do that. I think you just have to figure out what’s right for you.
Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after this message.
Jenny Li Fowler: Hi, I’m Jenny Lee Fowler, the author of January’s Bigeye Book Club Selection, “Organic Social Media: How To Build Flourishing Online Communities.”
My book is a guide to enhancing your brand’s growth through effective digital engagement. I provide you with strategies for selecting the right platforms, streamlining approval processes, and building an organic online presence that’s aligned with your broader objectives. The book also covers content planning, goal setting, and resource management, providing you with insights into executing plans and tracking your success.
Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Jarie Bolander, tech entrepreneur, author, and host of The Entrepreneur Ethos podcast. You’ve faced personal challenges, including the loss of your late wife, which you wrote about in your memoir, “Ride or Die.” Jarie, how did you approach writing such a personal story?
Jarie Bolander: Yeah. Wow. Yeah, that was a tough one. Well, like I said before, I use writing to make sense of the world. And I couldn’t think of a better way to make sense of Jane dying than writing a book about what it felt like, and it, was a labor of love. It was really challenging and tough. It was one of those things where I routinely get called courageous and inspirational for doing it. I don’t feel that most of the time. I feel that it was like one of those books that had to be written. Everyone who ever met Jane, everyone who ever read the book knows the reason why she was such a wonderful person. And also I wanted to leave a legacy for her that would live on forever. And I also wanted folks to not feel so alone if they went through something like I went through. Especially if you’re a man, it’s hard to be a caregiver and deal with all the sorrow and grief, depending on how you grew up and etc. So, it was cathartic. It was tough. Glad I did it. It’s well received. It’s been well-reviewed. I constantly get surprised at who reads it. I constantly get surprised at the lessons people get from it. But it really was a healing process. You know, I wanted something to bear witness to the experience and the struggle. It’s like so many things in entrepreneurship and life that I feel if you go through something crazy and tragic and hard, you should share with the world so that maybe it’s a little less hard for others.
Adrian Tennant: Today, you’re Head of Market Strategy at Decision Counsel in Berkeley. Could you tell us about your role and the types of projects you work on?
Jarie Bolander: Yeah, Decision Council is a B2B growth and go-to-market strategy firm. We deal with lots of different types of clients, mostly long sales cycle and complex sales-type things. We’re pretty good at when companies are bought and put together, we figure out, how do we go to market with these sort of things? So, my job is to figure out how to grow, accelerate, get the word out about the clients we work for. And it has been a rewarding type of thing. When it hits the right way, when you get in the groove, and when your strategy becomes reality, it’s extremely satisfying to see all the hard work pay off. So, you know, we’re a creative bunch of – feels like pirates sometimes, trying to change the world. But it’s extremely rewarding, and I’m really proud of the work we do here. And we’ve got a lot of great clients, the firm’s been around for 20 years. I’ve been here a couple of years, and it’s just a crazy, ragtag bunch of pirates trying to do the right thing.
Adrian Tennant: I love that. Now, as someone in the Bay Area with a background in engineering, are there any emerging technologies you’re seeing that you believe are especially promising or exciting?
Jarie Bolander: Well, I mean, there’s a lot of talk about AI. We see a lot of that. I think AI in its current state is really not what its true potential is. We’ve actually been working a lot with it here to try to figure out what’s the best way to use it. And it seems everything that I’ve done so far Is that it’s a great idea generator, and synthesizer of information, but you need to know what good is in order to really use it effectively. So I think that’s obviously one that’s on the top of everyone’s mind. I do think we are going to start to see, more and more, augmented reality. More and more visual computing. Apple just came out with some of that. I think that’s the next paradigm shift in productivity. I think of the combination of AI and digital health. A lot of times, when Jane was going through her leukemia, a lot of the research, a lot of the stuff was just hard to come by, hard to synthesize. I think now, with some of the what are called federated business model or federated data models where you can train algorithms and chatbots etc. on vast quantities of data that are private and you don’t have to exchange data. They’re sort of at the edge and you just build the model and then the model comes back as opposed to the data. I think that’s going to accelerate the learning on especially digital health because I’d say how we use technology in healthcare space is pretty infantile at this point, but there’s just a lot of opportunity there. I think you also see from the logistics of just moving goods and supplies, that there’s going to be more and more decentralized logistics. You’re going to see a lot more nations on shoring. And that from a technology point of view, is actually a lot harder to do for some, but you’re going to see more and more, like, I don’t think people want to have what happened during COVID, all the logistics and craziness. And there’s a couple of things that I’m seeing.
Adrian Tennant: Well, as we discussed, you’re also the host and producer of a podcast that shares the name of your book, The Entrepreneur Ethos. Jarie, I’m curious: what inspired you to start a podcast, and how have you avoided the dreaded podfade to keep publishing consistently?
Jarie Bolander: Yeah, I started the podcast because I was sick of blogging. It was basically the first part of it. And then, really, I have a hard time talking to people. I have a hard time networking. I have a hard time, just a highly functional introvert, and I’m like, “I gotta practice this talking to people.” Sounds silly, given what I do now, but it’s true. And so I started the podcast during the pandemic, actually, and one of the things that I was told to do, which I got this advice from Kevin Jones, the CEO of Blue Wire podcast, which my podcast is on his network. He had great advice. He’s like, “Look, you have to do at least one a week for a year. You have to record at least five before you publish anything. And just make sure that you commit for a year. And don’t look at the numbers, and just do the craft. It’ll suck in the beginning, you’re gonna be horrible at it, but if you can commit to at least one episode a week for a year, then you’ll do fine.” And so that’s what I did. I ended up doing more than one episode a week, because I got really into it, and I just really love talking to people now. I love talking to smart people, like, “What are you doing? What’s going on?” And now, people reach out to me and say, “Hey, let’s be on the show.” You know, so it’s really kind of fun that way. And also, I think it’s a higher mission, you know, to help people get involved with entrepreneurship more. And that just feels good. Like, there’s a higher calling. I don’t use it for lead gen, I don’t use it for any of that sort of stuff. I literally just use it to meet interesting people, get the word out, and educate and inspire that next generation. Cause if there’s any gig that literally anyone on the planet can do, it’s be an entrepreneur.
Adrian Tennant: Great advice. Jarie, how many episodes are you up to now?
Jarie Bolander: Oh man. 248 maybe? 250? I lost track. Lost track. It’s a lot.
Adrian Tennant: Alright, who has been your favorite guest so far and why?
Jarie Bolander: Oh, wow. That’s a tough one. There are so many good guests. I think I will give a couple of them in no particular order. Because what’s really interesting about my show is since it’s an entrepreneur show, like, they’re all different types of entrepreneurs. So I really enjoy this guy, Chris Clews, who is a speaker and wrote a book about “What 80s Movies Taught Me About Life.” He’s a Gen Xer, so he’s a year older than me. And I just love talking to him. Like, his stuff is just so good, so funny. Just really spectacular, right? And that was just so much fun. Jason Cohen from WP Engine. He was the Founder and COO of WP Engine. I had known about him for 15 years. Like, we blogged on certain things together. And it was just like coming full circle to be like, “Bro, remember back in the Answers on Startup Days?” Like, that’s how it was like a long time ago. Like, we started blogging at the same time, right? that was really fun from a nostalgic point of view. That was really cool. I think the first one I did with Grant Faulkner was one I did live. That was my very first podcast. We did it at the San Francisco Writers Festival, or Writers Conference, in a room. I had a portable recorder. And, you know, I just love Grant because he’s a great writer. And, just amazing, And then I think, Sean Gold. who was my 100th episode. And he fought hard to be the 100th episode. and he was great because he was a Jeopardy contestant and he was a Miami nightlife guy and an entrepreneur and we had met through Founders Network and it was just all these things were coming together at the same time and he’s just got such a great attitude, such a fun, guy to talk to, and so I would say those, and, again, all the guests are good in their own way, but those are the ones that sort of stick in my mind right now.
Adrian Tennant: Yeah, that’s great. probably people that you wouldn’t necessarily get in a room together at one event
Jarie Bolander: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely different types of people.
Adrian Tennant: What’s next for you professionally and personally?
Jarie Bolander: I’ve been working on the next story-driven book. It’s going to be called “Story-Driven B2B Marketing.” I’m working on that. I actually have a class already for it called “Mastering Story-Driven B2B Marketing.” It’s basically my methodology on how to use stories for B2B marketing. I’m really fascinated by these ideas of scorecard marketing and really making better interactive content experiences for people to really get them where they need to be and educate them in kind of the proper way, or get them what they need. So professionally, I think that’s my interest, but on a personal note, I’ve got a great fiancé, found love again after Jane died, so we’re just beat-bopping along and just enjoying that and enjoying life in the Bay Area and trying to keep the world in perspective, you know, I’ve been through a lot. And sometimes it’s hard to remain positive and also remain, you know, optimistic, but I think I’m, as the days go on, becoming more and more optimistic and more and more positive, so I’m just really trying to do that and, however hard it is sometimes, every day is a good day, every day is a new day, and just try to get better every day, so.
Adrian Tennant: It’s all about resilience.
Jarie Bolander: I think you’re right. Yeah, it’s all about resilience.
Adrian Tennant: If IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners are interested in learning more about you, your work at Decision Counsel, your books, or your podcast, The Entrepreneur Ethos, what’s the best way to do so?
Jarie Bolander: Well, I’m on LinkedIn. It’s pretty easy to find me. It’s just Jarie Bolander on LinkedIn. you can also go to JarieBolander.com. I’ve got a lot of my stuff there, and then also TheEntrepreneurEthos.com is where the podcast is. So yeah, feel free to link in on LinkedIn and reach out. I am working on this story-driven stuff you can find that at GetStoryDriven.com. So I’m trying to put all the story-driven stuff in one spot so people can look at that. You can also, take the scorecard that I’m working on as well. So, lots of different ways. it’d be great to reach out. Tell me your story. See how you’re using storytelling to help you do your job.
Adrian Tennant: Jarie, thank you very much for being our guest on IN CLEAR FOCUS.
Jarie Bolander: Yeah, thank you so much for having me, Adrian. It was such a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Adrian Tennant: Thanks again to my guest this week, Jarie Bolander. As always, you’ll find a full transcript of our conversation, along with links to the resources we discussed, on the Bigeye website at bigeyeagency.com. Thanks for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.