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Melissa Core-Caballo of Dead Horse Branding: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading

An Interview With Jerome Knyszewski

I wish someone explained to me what networking was earlier in life. I used to think it meant just going out five nights a week, meeting people, exchanging cards, and exchanging numbers but it actually doesn’t mean that. Networking should have a subtext under it that says “crafting relationships for life”. Networking doesn’t stop at a Friday night fashion event, meeting the editor of a magazine and emailing them the next day. Networking is taking your time to connect with people, find common ground, work with one another, lean on one another, and use one another to both of your advantages. That is the true meaning of networking.

As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Core-Caballo.

Melissa Core started out modeling for internationally acclaimed brands such as Harley Davidson, Ujena Swimwear, Toyota and Speedy Wheels. Her responsibilities as a brand ambassador helped her understand the importance of a well-structured brand message.

Core’s passion for entrepreneurship mixed with her branding expertise led her to launch Dead Horse Branding in 2013. She took a startup company from $0 and in under 5 years to managing over 100 million dollars of brand revenue a year. Through Dead Horse Branding, Melissa is responsible for managing all of the brand’s requirements from social media management, marketing, publicity, licensing opportunities, through to overall management.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Istarted out building a fashion brand called Corello Rock Fashion. The co-founder of the fashion label, Rick Caballo, is an incredible designer, artist and overall creative innovator, and the brand was really based around his skill set, his design and his vibe. I influenced a little bit of the bohemian aspect, which is where the boho and rock intersections met. The brand took off quite quickly, launching into over 100 wholesale and e-commerce stores in under 18 months Fans would comment on the brand itself, from photography, PR, product development, social media, and graphic design. People would ask us who was doing all these different facets and our response was always the same: we are. However, we had also hired a PR firm at the time to give us a little lift: PLA Media with Pam Lewis and Mark Logsdon. Mark thought it would be great to pair Jep and Jessica Robertson from Duck Dynasty with Corello for No-Shave November and have them turn a little rock ’n’ roll for that month. We sparked at the idea and caused a nice racket on the scene.

From that, Jep and Jessica were interested in having us create them a label, as it was always a big dream for them. They are really awesome people so we were excited to take their brand to another level! With a combination of all of that people started coming to us, wanting their brands designed, built, promoted and strategized. Thus, Dead Horse Branding was born. One thing we realized during the fashion building process was there were many missing components to agencies that aimed at helping startup brands actually start up properly. As I started looking into it further and expanding this research through the music business, I noticed the same thing. We developed the concept that Dead Horse would be a design, consulting, strategic planning, image building, marketing and publicity firm all in-house. You have one brand manager to one brand and a flawless and smooth strategy-building concept. Allocate services are still optional but we are in the business of advising you what steps and stages need to be attacked first rather than just implementing a stage because the customer feels they need it. We have been named one of the top marketing and publicity firms in Nashville and we are super excited to be able to claim that. We are even more excited to know that our system and methods work.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I remember working for Duck Dynasty, specifically Jep and Jessica Robertson, and they are the best example of a licensing powerhouse. I was watching how the brand management was going down and how so many parties needed to be involved just to make one little decision. I thought there must be a quicker, more effective way to help build a brand, promote it, manage it, and sell it. It came down to me doing a lot of research on what brand management companies stood for and what services they offered. I saw a gap in the brand management market that was there, and I decided to join together all the different forces of services that created brand building and brand promotion. I remember taking it to some very good friends of ours in the music business, Marc and Krista Oswald (Oswald Entertainment Group, The Song TV Series). I highly respect them as people and as movers and shakers in the country music world and I remember Marc’s encouraging words, saying “It looks like you’ve done your research. It looks like a great idea. Go for it,” so I took that as my green light and that was about eight years ago.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

One of the hardest times for me was trying to find the right team members that understood our method, the Australian mentality in the way we work (which is just a little more laid-back, relaxed, straight to the point, very direct), and people that understand all aspects of branding. A great press piece is only a great press piece if the brand is flawless and it does its job. If the brand has cracks and it’s on an unsteady foundation all the promotion in the world won’t make it successful. I went through a point where I just took on everything myself because I wasn’t being very successful at finding the right candidate. We had about 10 clients and I just bunkered down 15 hours a day and worked all of them for a good 6 months straight. I proved to myself and to the clients that the concept worked and we were making strides, but I was just exhausted. It was just Rick and myself perfecting all of the design and visual branding components, but that didn’t really cross over onto my management, brand management, PR, and marketing social media side. I was completely exhausted, but the fact that I knew my contacts were working kept pushing me to find the right people and gave me the energy and strength to keep moving forward. I eventually found my people and the word branding became more and more used in everyday language. I was seeing it come on the TV and in movies, and people were using it a lot more and referring to it a lot more. This helped open up the branding space. I am also a little hardheaded and I don’t like to give up unless I want to give up. I don’t like outside forces making me make a decision that I don’t really want to. Some days it literally was do-or-die.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Rick always makes a bit of a joke about this, but it definitely helped us grow and ease into things a lot better even when it was just myself and him working out of our house. I treated the business like a big business. I had certain software, a certain filing system, and certain communication methods that didn’t make that much sense for two people. However, I was looking forward and building something in my mind and I needed to do it right from the beginning. To look back now and see that all those methods have helped to get us where we are today is an awesome feeling. I am so proud of myself (which doesn’t happen often) and Rick that we’ve been able to go through a global pandemic and we haven’t had to lay anyone off. We’ve kept the business going and profitable as well as persevered by helping our clients take new directions. We got ourselves educated quickly so we could change gears rapidly, and I’m so proud of the team that we have right now. I’m having some of the most fun as a boss and an entrepreneur with this team that we have now and I love watching their enthusiasm and their creative ideas grow. My publicity coordinator, Samantha Funderlich, came at the perfect moment for our company. She’s that breath of fresh air, that invigorating young energy that gives me all of it and gives it to me now. She’s an “I want to learn and make a difference” type of person that is so rare to find and I’m so excited to see her come up through the ranks at Dead Horse Branding. She’s definitely next in line to run Dead Horse Branding.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think what makes Dead Horse Branding stand out is that we are an all in-house branding agency. What that means, in a nutshell, is we do all formulas of branding under one roof within one team. It is very unique to be able to have a versatile set of staff that can multitask and wear several different hats, spreading across various industries on a day-to-day basis. Not only do we design and build the product or person, but we also promote, sell and market it fearlessly.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

I think the whole way we started out was quite hilarious. Neither myself nor my business partner, now husband, ever dreamed of owning a fashion line. We had no idea what we were doing, no idea how to make the product, no idea how to manufacture it, no idea how to run a manufacturing team, and no idea how to get it in stores. I was from the side of fashion involving modeling and was part of the creative marketing component but nothing even close to manufacturing and dealing with wholesale e-commerce. Then, to top it off, we had no idea that we would turn into such a powerful brand agency and that both halves of mine and Rick’s skill sets would align so perfectly to be able to create such a unique company.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Absolutely. Jumping back to when I launched the fashion line, we had a partner in the business and he was a very successful man in his own right. He wasn’t necessarily in the fashion world, but he was big in the retail world. He gave us advice about how we should start the fashion brand off by making an abundance of inventory and units and basically said if we were not gonna do that then we might as well go home (literally to Australia because we are Australian). Although in my heart I knew it was not the best organic way to build a brand, we went ahead with it anyway. We should’ve let the customer dictate which products they favored and then, of course, used the analytics to build up the units and inventory choices. I’ll end by saying if you still want some of the product that was launched eight years ago I’m sure I can get some for you out of my garage. No matter how successful someone is, your gut and your personal instincts are powerful things and you should always listen to them.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I feel like as a leader you’re constantly making tweaks and adjustments to lead your team better, quicker, faster, and most importantly, to adapt to your staff’s skill set and their personality traits. I feel like because of the different employees that we’ve had, I’ve had to change my management and leadership style and become a chameleon to make sure I’m getting the best out of my team all the time. I think my three biggest successful traits would be:

  1. Being able to be a chameleon. Not all personalities you hire are going to match up with that of your leadership personality and style. For example, I have had staff that is quite introverted and that is not my personality whatsoever, so learning how to go into their shell and being able to bring them out of their shell is an important ability when you are managing many different personalities on a daily basis.

  2. Being a good listener by listening to my staff’s needs and wants. That doesn’t mean it’s always going to go their way. However, listening and trying your hardest to implement their needs, if it’s legitimate and makes sense for the company, is very important in my opinion. For example, I had a team that had some awesome ideas about implementing some new software, and myself and higher management researched it and although it ended up being more expensive, it helped them get their task done quicker, they were less stressed, and it reduced anxiety so we implemented it and went ahead with it.

  3. The last example would be my communication. I was always told I stood out. I would get the gig or my client would get the gig because of my follow-up ability. Staying at the top of everybody’s list and the forefront of everybody’s mind requires great organizational skills and as a leader, I make sure to implement that with my staff and make sure they follow suit so the company’s message and protocols all align.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

This is a great question because in my industry you can burn out very very quickly. It’s important to have smart management software and it’s essential to have time off. That means if you’re not working on a weekend, don’t check your emails, don’t think about finishing a press release; that can wait till Monday. Put your phone in the drawer, hang out with friends and family and completely switch off. You need to rejuvenate and you need to relax. It’s completely normal. What is not normal is going 24/7.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I’d like to concentrate on the ‘founders’ part of this question. It’s something I see time and time again. I’ve found people get super excited about an idea or concept, they wrangle the team, they do all the legal paperwork and they pretty much launch into sales. They don’t concentrate on brand building or steps in between product development and promotion, they just hit the green button and go straight to the promotion. I always say if you don’t spend enough time building your brand and your brand message, then you shouldn’t even promote it. You can avoid this by going through the steps of branding in the right sequence and give your brand the time it needs to develop before launching into sales.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Oh, I feel like 1,000 different areas are underestimated but since we’ve all gone through COVID-19, I’ll touch on finances as it’s hit everyone. So many people think that they are a great publicist and can get their clients great media placements, so they think that they can start their own business and be successful at it. Sadly, they can be very mistaken. Running a business means one main thing: bringing in the money every month. Making sure your employees, staff, and yourself are being paid is a full-time job in itself. Managing clients and making sure the money is rolling in is a super stressful part of running any business, so you need to make sure that you have the people skills, the customer service skills, and the level of aggression needed to bring in the money for the business.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Numbers don’t lie. My mentor and business manager Llew Hayden told me this as soon as he entered my life. I wish he entered my life earlier but, nonetheless, it’s a blessing to have him in my life at any stage. And he’s right, the numbers don’t lie. You need to work out what it’s gonna cost and what it’s gonna take. Llew locked us up for 12 days and made us do a strategic plan: work the numbers, work the business plan, work everything to the bone to make sure we had our targets set and our goals realistic and achievable — and when we thought we had, he would knock it down, explain why and make us re-do it.

  2. Just because people are successful doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing. Like I mentioned above in a previous question, success doesn’t always equal intelligent brainpower.

  3. I thought because I had done some very successful modeling campaigns and had quite a successful professional dance background that I’d be taken seriously in the industry because I was at the top of my previous industries. However, that’s not the case. Just because you’re at the top in one industry doesn’t mean it’s going to give you credibility over in the next. Is that right, is that wrong? It’s anyone’s guess, but just because you make it in one area doesn’t mean it will transition you over to another effortlessly.

  4. Managing people is tough. It’s a full-time job managing personalities, making sure the personalities fit the team that’s assembled for the campaign or the company, and managing staff. Dealing with clients is more of a psychological job description than one would think.

  5. I wish someone explained to me what networking was earlier in life. I used to think it meant just going out five nights a week, meeting people, exchanging cards, and exchanging numbers but it actually doesn’t mean that. Networking should have a subtext under it that says “crafting relationships for life”. Networking doesn’t stop at a Friday night fashion event, meeting the editor of a magazine and emailing them the next day. Networking is taking your time to connect with people, find common ground, work with one another, lean on one another, and use one another to both of your advantages. That is the true meaning of networking.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Honestly, lend a helping hand. I can’t tell you that every helping hand is gonna benefit you but it’s not about that. It’s about benefiting the other person. Sure, I’ve lent many helping hands that have made me take a couple of steps backward sometimes, but then I take 10 steps forward when I hear how much I helped another person. If we all just lend a helping hand and don’t require anything back we would find ourselves much more united and stronger together. Subconsciously, we are creating safety nets for ourselves that we all want and need.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Follow me on Instagram @deadhorsebranding and check out our website

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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