Five Minute Journal—Co-Founder, Alex Ikonn
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Every episode we talk to founders and leaders at some of the most exciting DTC brands in the world. We discuss their vision, how they launched, and how they are growing their brand.
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In this episode, we talk to Alex Ikonn, Co-Founder at Intelligent Change, where he's building products like the five-minute journal to boost happiness and increase productivity.
Alex talks a lot about gratitude, and the positive impact it can have. What better way to start than asking him what he's grateful for, and walking through how he's incorporated that philosophy into the Five Minute Journal.
Next, we launch into another topic Alex is passionate about—mindset. He talks about the difference between having a fixed vs. growth, and how he's incorporated that into the productivity planner.
Did you know that his favorite movie is Wallstreet. That's right. He didn't turn into Gordon Gekko, but he did have a side hustle that got him fired from a Canadian Bank. It turned out ok, though. Him and his wife, Mimi (another co-founder), went from unemployment to launching Luxy Hair, a company that successfully exited in 2018 with 250K customers in 165 countries.
He goes on to talk about that experience—everything from creating value for customers in the early days to hiring and exiting.
He also talks about another brand he's launch called Love Hair. He talks about the differences between that and Luxy, and shares that he's looking for someone to join as a senior leader, possibly even to take over the management of the whole thing.
If you're interested, connect with him at [email protected]
Alex mentioned a couple books on this episode. The Alliance by Reid Hoffman, Traction by Gina Whitman, and Mindset by Carol Dweck
If you haven't already, check out the five-minute journal and the productivity planner at intelligentchange.com
To learn more about the DTC Growth Show and #paid, visit hashtagpaid.com/dtc
Thank you for listening. This is the DTC Growth show.
Today, I'm talking with Alex Ikonn, who is the co-founder at Luxy Hair; a DTC brand that started back in 2010 and now has over 250 thousand customers in 165 countries. He's also co-founded Intelligent Change, where he's building products to boost happiness and increase productivity. Thanks for joining us, Alex.
It's good to be here. Thank you for having me.
You speak a lot about gratitude.
And so, I think it'd be appropriate to kick off the interview by maybe asking you two things that you're grateful for.
Oh, I'm really grateful for my life just in general; to be alive, to be healthy, I think, especially with all the craziness are always going on around the world. I think it's good to remind ourselves that we're healthy. And then I'm just grateful for my family; for my wife, my daughter. It's always the basics, you know?
You've incorporated this a lot of this focus on gratitude into your 5-minute journal, a product that you've launched with intelligent change. Can you tell me how specifically?
Yeah, I think for myself with 5-minute Journal and we've kind of created one of the first guided journals. And what a guided journal really is; for a lot of people, it's overwhelming to fill out a blank journal from scratch and say, “Okay, what do I write? What do I do?
And we were just kind of thinking for ourselves when we created the product is that I have realized that in my life, the thing that has helped me the most on my entrepreneurial journey is really my mindset. I think what really surprise most people is not just knowledge or wisdom, you can be very smart, but your mindset around how you approach problems or how you approach life can make all the difference.
And one of the most powerful mindsets that I have been able to gain over the years is the mindset of being grateful. And I think that the thing that most people don't understand is that you don't just become grateful overnight or you're just not just a grateful person; kind of like sort of thing that you're just born with. I'll say I myself, like many, grew up, not really appreciating my parents or appreciating my opportunity that I have or really where I am or being young and have the energy.
However, overtime, once I changed my mindset, I was able really to get more in life. That's the really funny thing with life, is that the more appreciative you are, the more things you actually see and get without kind of that expectation, of course.
So, the 5-minute journal really became born out of the idea; how do I practice that idea of gratitude? Because what I really believe in is it's important to create a habit; you don't just change. You don't just go to the gym and work out a few times and say, “Hey, I'm good. You know, I've kind of worked out for 30 days. I should be good now.”
If you want to stay healthy, you have to keep eating healthy and you have to make it more by lifestyle. How do you incorporate, for example, exercise in your daily life? Well, you have to think about it; whether you bike on your way to work or you go to the gym every day, that's how you kind of stay safe. It's the same for your diet.
But many of us don't think about it on our mental level. So, for myself, I just want to create a tool that I myself personally would use. And what I like to call on the 5-minute journal is a toothbrush for your mind. You know, you brush your teeth every morning and night, why then should brush your mind every morning and night. And just remind yourself of, I guess, when you wake up in the morning and say, “I'm grateful for at least three things that you're grateful for.”
Next question in the 5-minute journal is, “What will make today great?” or “What are the three things that could be great today? And what you're doing there is you're reconditioning your mind to start focusing on the good, start looking at opportunities or what good things are going to happen today.
And the last one in the morning is your daily affirmation. So, it's a powerful statement of “I am”; who you are. A lot of us have created a lot of negative language and patterns in our mindset. And I think is really the reason why a lot of people don't achieve anything in life.
Now, just talk about material success, I'm also talking about life; friendships, partnerships, love, you know, the whole shebang. And you have to have a statement that empowers you on a daily basis and remind yourself who you are.
So, for example, mine is really basic is, “I'm healthy, strong and energetic.” So, that's kind of my focus. I want to maintain my health and energy and how do I do that?
And then in the eating portion, as we brush our teeth before we go to bed, we brush our mind before we go to bed. So, it just sort of recaps. So, it's the same thing; what are three amazing things that happened today? And you recall those things.
Because most people when go to the end of the day, they complain to their partners or anybody else or even to themselves. And like I said, create a lot of negative thought patterns in our mind. And once you have those negative thought patterns, they bring you down even more.
And what I realized for myself is that once you have this new empowering self-talk, you're able to operate on a whole different level.
And the last question is, “How could I make today better?” And what we say in an instruction side journal is you actually state it in the positive. So, you don't just go negative on yourself like, “Sure it's my last question” to be negative or critical with myself, even in that question that may seem negative like, “How could I make today better?” You once again have that mental exercise of recalling your day and seeing how could you have improved it? What could you have done better and stating that in the positive tense.
So, there you go. That's the 5-minute journal. You can do to by yourself; you don’t need to buy anything. You do it in your blank note. But what I found is once you have a framework and you have something beautiful by your bedside, you'll want to do more.
Now, we have two over 500 thousand customers of that product alone, more than 50 thousand customers of the product, activity planner. And I've also created a lot of other competitors in the space who have done really well as well. So, we kind of in a way, created an industry which has been great.
You're also big on having a growth mindset. You talk a lot about fixed versus growth mindset. Can you tell us a little bit about them?
So, Mindset by Carol Dweck has definitely been a pivotal kind of idea and work for us. And this is the same thing as I really was speaking about is that idea fixed or growth mindset. Once you have a fixed mindset, you're like, “Well, this is my level. This is where I'm at. I grew up in this area. My father was like this and I'm doing it still this way. And my parents call me stupid, so I'm stupid.
But the same thing can be even opposite; if you call your kids smart and they actually don't want to fail and perform. So, they just start being kind of average.
So, this idea of mindset is really how do we help people, and most importantly yourself, develop this mindset of always learning, of understanding that you can always improve and understanding that you can evolve as a person and that you're not fixed as an individual?
This is something that I, of course, I really believe in, because in my own life, this has worked for me so well. Because actually, I guess, while growing up, I wouldn't say let's say my father would me -- and it would really kind of motivate me in a positive way, he would actually like, to try to fix myself, sort of like compare me to my sister, call me that I'm not good at math and things like that and kind of really fix my mindset.
But the reality is, once you have awareness of this research and of these different ideas, you are able to go beyond that. And I was not the greatest student in high school or university and at the same time, I was able to really outperform, I’ll say, a lot of my classmates in life, not just financially, but also in regards to say with partnership or just so overall life being. How come? What makes me different?
And I think it's not that, like I said, I'm any smarter than anybody else, but it's just around that mindset of to always keep learning. So, when I graduated from university, I didn't say, “Hey, I have my degree and that's it. It's time for me to like -- I got all my knowledge.” But it was actually just the beginning.
And to this day, I'm learning more. I love whether it'd be listening to audiobooks or podcasts like yours or read other books; always trying to see how I can improve and better myself as a human being.
And that's what this whole idea of now the company intelligent change is, how do we help people improve their lives for the better as well? And it's something I'm just really excited about.
How does the productivity planner help people set up their weeks so that they are focused on growth?
Yeah. So, same thing, I think, as many entrepreneurs, but what I realize is that we're all over the place. I think especially being entrepreneurial, you may have many ideas or visions of how you want to create, but if you're just having visions and you're not executing, well, you're just hallucinating, as a famous kind of quote goes.
So, what I felt myself, as I was going on this journey of entrepreneurship, is that I'd have so many tasks in a day that I have to do and I'd have my list where it'd be like, “Today is Tuesday and here are all the parts that I have to do.”
And what I would find myself over and over with having 20 plus tasks in a day is that most of the time, I'm just cherry picking the tasks that I want to do versus the tasks that I actually have to do that will help me kind of improve and grow maybe as myself or the business.
And then I got introduced to the Pomodoro Technique. And the book, The Pomodoro Technique is really about just doing one thing at a time and setting in for 25 minutes and doing just one task. And for me, that was really game changing.
And then I learned about the Ivy Lee method. So, Ivy Lee method comes from this consultant, Ivy Lee, back then he used to be an awesome PR.
And Charles Schwab, the steel magnet, who's kind of like multibillionaire of his time, said to Ivy Lee, “Hey, come in and help us figure out how you can make my staff be more productive.”
And Ivy Lee said, “Sure, what we'll do is I’ll kind of give you a simple framework and you give us a go for a few months and report back to me. And whatever you think it's worth, just pay me.”
And all the Ivy Lee method really is, is just saying, “Hey, get your staff or yourself to do three to five tasks, max, but mostly just try to have, three most important parts of the day. Have your number one tasks that you do in a day be your most important task of the day.”
And it will we kind of underline in your most important ask of the day is if this was the only thing you did today, you'd be satisfied. Because going back to my earlier example is, if you have 20 tasks, you may have done 10, but if there are just kind of little small tasks here and there and they aren’t really helping you go or move forward towards building a business or creating that growth plan or do whatever, then what's the point? You're not really moving towards your own growth in whatever way you're measuring it.
And so, that's what we really did is we just combined Ivy Lee method of doing three to five tasks a day, do the your important task of the first and only then moving onto your second task. And utilizing the Pomodoro Technique by working in 25 or 30 minute chunks, taking a 5-minute break and then moving on.
And kind of that system has worked. Like since I just had an idea that helped me, put it together, and here we are with a quarter plus million customers who love and use the product. And now working on kind of new, improved editions, which I'm really excited about to be launching later on this year as well.
You were really inspired by Wall Street, the movie. You wanted to be Gordon Gekko. So, what happened?
Well, what happened was I got fired. So, I was working at a bank because I thought, you know, that's what I do. I get, you know, where you are right now in Toronto, Canada, is especially, I think, now is changing with more entrepreneur culture.
But I'll say more than a decade ago and even now, it's still more of a financial kind of capital of Canada. And we have lots of banks, the majority of banks. And I just growing up poor, I thought, “Well, the place to go make money is the bank because I need to make money so I should go there.”
And I start out at a retail level and there came the Bureau Bank of Commerce and I was doing well, but I got fired and I got fired because I had a side hustle.
So, that's a lesson to anybody listening is don't do side hustle when you're working for a bank and use your corporate e-mail address for them. It was nothing illegal, but it was just more about I breached the contract because I was working on the bank’s time, which I totally get. If I had an employee working for me and not doing his work, I'll probably have a talk with them as well.
You've got to tell us what the side hustle was.
The side was one of my friends, who was really also an entrepreneur and to this day, very successful in Toronto and still the same business actually, but just locally. He was from Australia; he knew people would want to buy cars from the US because there was arbitrage of when you import cars into the US to buy from US, like buy them at auctions, their savings, so you can kind of charge kind of a commission for that.
So, it's all we did. Customers were saying, “Hey, I want a Mercedes SUV” and we're like, “Hey, cool.” We'll find them, we’ll ship them. We'll kind of do all the paperwork, put them in the container and send it there and they'll receive it in whatever city they're from.
So, it was kind of the side hustle. But then kind of markets change, custom rules change and I didn’t go, I guess, as further possible.
How did you go from being a wantrepreneur nerd to an entrepreneur?
That’s a good question. I think many of us who may be listening and now who already maybe entrepreneurs or even becoming entrepreneurs, is that I think we have to first clearly define what is an entrepreneur. I think right now it's very sexy to be an entrepreneur, but without us really knowing what it really is. And that was even myself.
At first, my entrepreneurial journey really started, like I said, when I got fired from the bank, I tried different side hustles. So, I was trying to do social media consulting in 2008 when everything was just kind of coming on and I saw a huge opportunity in how commerce will change. But even then, prior, social media consulting services is more being self-employed; it’s not being entrepreneur.
Being an entrepreneur is really when you create an organization or a system that can function without you. So, whether that is even if you're making sales or it's online or whatever, but it's really a business that can grow and function without just a single individual, especially you as the founder.
So, for me, that first experience was when we set up the system and we made our first sale when we were sleeping. I remember when we've launched Luxy Hair, our first business, and we were traveling and we woke up and there was 2 sales. And I was like, “Wow, that is incredible. I slept and I made money.”
Because, as most of us, being an hourly worker or a salaried worker, to be able to create a system that can then create income for you while you're not there, it seems like magic, but in reality is how most businesses are set up. And it's what entrepreneurship really is, is setting up those organizations or systems to be able to create value.
Now, before Luxy, see both you and Mimi were unemployed. How did you get from unemployment to launching the brand?
Yes, we're very lucky. I think being in Canada and having a good system that helps people, so even when you get laid off or fired, you still get like you're paid into employment insurance when you're working. And that means when you're unemployed, you're still getting some sort of money.
So, I recently actually did another interview of like basic income. And in a way, it was like universal basic income, I was kind of getting, “Well, the government pays you to kind of keep looking for a job while I was trying to figure out, ‘Hey, let me do this entrepreneurial thing a try and do these different side hustles and building websites for people or trying to provide social media consulting services and not really succeeding.’”
And then also, there was another program, once your employment insurance runs out in Canada; I'm not sure it exists, but it's called The Self-Employment Benefit. And it's a grant given to people who were on unemployment insurance, meaning who were fired or laid off before. And you get a grant of like 25 thousand, and you don't have to pay back, to start a business. You create a business plan. My business plan was to create that social media and digital marketing agency called Ikonn Media; I had big plans.
And that's really how it started. I would say it was just having that opportunity and chance of almost two years of being supported by the government, to be able to experiment and do other things. And when money was running out, that's when we really did the Hail Mary and kind of invested all of our, not savings, but all our credit; credit cards and online credits into launching Luxy hair, which then became a very successful business and which we also then sold a year ago.
So, thank you for the government of Canada. I've also repaid my loan in good return for the government through tax dollars, through our employees and, of course, our own business.
Maybe. Tell us about those early days at Luxy. I know you were heavily focused on creating value for your customers. Can you tell us how you did that?
Yeah, for sure. I think what we understood right away, as I've said before, about social media just popping up. I was really influenced by Gary Vaynerchuk and I'll say Steph Godin, before he was big. So, we're talking, I'll Crush It, his first book in 2008. And I was really closely following what he was doing with Why Library, by providing people great content online.
So, that was our go-to market strategy. We're an hair extension company and we're going to have create content through YouTube showing people how to look after their hair, create different territorials and things like that.
So, my wife and her sister at the time would create this YouTube channel with all those content and then it would be create lead gens for the website. And we then, as soon as you grow out of this library of content, we'll just self-generate a lot of sales as things happen, because that channel would then, I think till this day has probably over a half a billion views, more than 3 million subscribers, which I think is pretty amazing and you can do the basic math of if you convert even a small number of it, we can do it fairly well.
And what were your first couple hires there that allowed you to do this really well?
Yeah, I think the first hires were really just basics. So, your customer service, somebody to help with social media marketing and then we kind of scaled to do just more operational things.
What has really, I guess,, made a big impact was when I read the book Traction by Gino Whippin. That's a book that I recommend to any -- really especially beginning entrepreneurs read, because I think most of us who are entrepreneurs are not as organized or process driven;, maybe you are, but I wasn't.
And Traction really laid it out to me that the framework for what is needed to grow that business; how to build your organization, how to build your team. And also for one of the things he talks about, which even till this day, I'm looking for right now is every business needs a visionary.
So, a visionary is somebody who understands a product market fit, the branding, has a vision for what this product is and how it will deliver value and the overall strategy. But you also need an integrator in the business. So, more of the operations person that will actually really be able to execute and pull a lot of these things together.
Sometimes, they are seen as partners. So, one partner can be visionary, the other party could be an integrator. But a lot of times, for ourselves, both my wife and I we’re more visionary; we needed an integrator. So, we then hired an integrator, who was Luke, who is now the current CEO of Luxy Hair, even after we sold the business. She came in on as like a junior operations assistant and quickly grew to general manager. And then I guess she's currently the CEO of the business.
And what we saw actually, she was an integral part of the success because she's created a lot of those systems. Because as you grow your business, especially if you want to be acquired by somebody else, you need to have systems and processes in place.
So, Luxy Hair was voted a best place to work. Why do you think that is? Why do employees love working at Luxy?
I think it really comes down to first the values about that we said as founders in regards to what is important to us and what kind of people we want to hire for the organization, but also know what kind of a workplace we want to create.
So, that's something going back to even the visionary/integrator aspect. Those earlier days where I was still with Lulu, he would say, “Hey, this is how the office needs to look like. It needs to have this natural light, you need to leave a space where you can hang out and play cool music and have plans and have organic food, snacks and things like that. So, that's our vision -- and have these benefits for employees. And then Lulu would then go on and execute these things seed to actually make it happen.
So, what I'm trying to say is that the leadership has to really want to take care of their staff and understand they're an integral part of the business and treat them well. So, that’s what we do. So, we did that.
Another thing that we've really influenced, which I think was really important, was doing alliance. So, there's a great book called Alliance by Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn. And what it does is in a lot of small organizations like ours, it can be harder to keep people motivated when you don't have as much growth potential as, let's say, in a big corporate company.
Because in a smaller organization, you're fairly flat. So, when you come in as a customer service person, like, “Well, am I just going to be a customer service for life? Like is this the only position available or how can I develop myself?”
And alliance meetings kind of help, really, the leadership of management come together and have those conversations with the staff to help them progress their career. And it really means having transparent conversations. It's not just, “Hey, you only work for us”, but more like, “Hey, it's a two-way street where just I need you to develop yourself and you can say, “Hey, you only work here for two years and go off and do other things.” That’s totally cool.
But it's more towards really understanding how millennials or Gen Z’s relly like to operate these days and get these same benefits. You know, we also have, for example, our remote work Fridays and benefits like Spotify stuff for the staff and things like that.
But I think, at the end of the day, it's also about how do we position to empower each individual to have a timing over their role. So, even if you're a customer service, you’ll still have that ability and power to gift a customer flowers, if you see they're having a bad day or refund them for shipping or discount, whatever.
Because our ultimate policy, well, at least when we when the business was, do what it feels right to be human, like if you were in this position of this customer, how would you want to be treated?
And it's because to me, as a person, as a founder, the thing that's my biggest – the thing that pisses me off the most is when people are like strictly following policy and forget to actually be human. I understand policies are there for a reason, but I think at the same time we have to empower our staff to have that critical thinking of like, “Am I just being an asshole here and not being human?” because not all situations are the same.
You know, I think Seth Godin says, “You go to McDonald's, drink half your milkshake, eat half of your Big Mac or put your Big Mac into the milkshake and go to the counter and say, “There's a Big Mac in my milkshake” and they're probably going to refund you, because it's just policy; like they don't know what to do.
So, it's just really like a little story of us where we always try to do is how do we help empower people to really take that responsibility and have that power to make decisions? I think once you trust your staff, then it really helps them feel, just not like cogs, not just people just having to say, but have more purpose in their roles as well.
You've also launched a brand called Love Hair. How are you thinking about growing those products, that brand?
Yeah. Well, I think that was like, you know, with all this, there are so many -- have so many different background stories for each brand and how to deal.
With Love Hair, in all transparency, it’s a trickier of a brand because we tried actually not -- because in on our first brand, we tried not to do direct to consumer and tried to create enough margin to be able to go to wholesale. So, this is the reason why the goods are more premium, they also have more margin baked into them and the cost of the product is very high. So, we're talking like 25 to $28 for a shampoo or conditioner.
But the actual costs that are actually very high as well for the actual product. The actual costs for packaging and everything will cost more than the your regular shampoo in a shop like Drug Mart or Boots or whatever you are.
But with that, well, kind of the learning was because we're developing that brand in-house with Luxy Hair as a separate brand, and what happened was when we started launching out Love Hair, it was the same time we were working on selling the business.
So, the team that was working on it was very excited, but then the attention went from like, “Hey, we need to make sure we're growing Luxy Hair because we need to sell this business at this valuation and make sure the business is growing.”
So, all the attention kind of when we put it into development. But when it came to launch, it was haphazard, because all the attention went to the sale of Luxy Hair. And then when we finally were supposed to roll out kind of our last products queue launch for Love Hair, we sold Luxy hair.
And this was the kind of the biggest -- it was a great event for us and for many people at Luxy Hair. However, at the same time, it was overnight, I have no staff. And I was able to still maintain control of that brand. So, we said, you know, the company who was acquiring Luxy Hair, I just said, “Hey, Love Hair is not part of the deal because like I have this baby that’s not been developed yet and we'll take it over and cannot grow it.”
So, we took it over and had this business with no staff. And then what happened was even though we just sold this business, I had to then probably ramp up the staff for Love Hair.
However, we had another business, as you said, Intelligent Change with 5-minute Journal and Productivity Planner, which also was fairly lean on staff. And had a little dispute with my business partner 50/50 and we went through the process of -- and we've been going through a process even before we even started selling Luxy Hair of me buying him out of the business. And that kind of dragged on for another almost a year from the sale of Luxy Hair.
So, with that, Love Hair was kind of this middle child that didn't get as much love. So, even right now, what I'm planning to do, so anybody even listening is that because I wasn't giving too much attention to it, I'm looking for either a potential -- this is really like really new. So, whoever listens to it, that might be an incredible opportunity.
If you are somebody who has a dream to kind of grow an e-commerce business and you have some sort of experience in, it might have been corporate or anybody else, but you feel you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur, I'm kind of putting out of most likely a position of you can become like a general manager or even potentially a CEO of this business; become a partner in this business.
But maybe you don't have that opportunity, like as we did to invest half a million dollars into product development and branding the business to curate and create your own SKUs, but you potentially might be a really great integrator. As I said before, somebody whose operation is strong and can execute on this business.
So, that’s what I'm kind of looking for; somebody like anywhere in the world. You can be anywhere; we can build a team around you and invest you in the business to grow it, potentially give you some cushion, have that ability to grow your equity into the business as well.
So, that’s in full transparency of what kind of Love Hair is about. So, we haven't really focused too much on growing that business. The only really growth we've experienced with that business is just purely organic; just whenever Mimi would talk about it with my wife and we have sales spikes. But other than that, no other growth initiatives because we have just been fully focused on acquiring Intelligent Change and growing Intelligent Change, just because it's a bigger business with bigger opportunity at the moment, although I think Love Hair has a great potential as well.
So, you can hit me up at [email protected]. That's my personal e-mail. So, whoever is listening can just hit to say, “Hey, I'm your guy or girl to really take this to the next level.” or maybe you might be a partner who has that experience who can take on a brand and grow it and we can split the pie and everyone would be happy.
Beautiful. And we will share your email in the show notes. Alex, you've also mentioned a couple of books here today; The Alliance by Reid Hoffman, Traction by Gina Whitman and Mindset by Carol Dwecks. We’ll also have the links in the show notes to those books because they are great recommendations.
Alex, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. I really appreciate it.
It's my pleasure. Thanks to you for the questions and the great interview.
Thanks for joining. Thanks for listening. This is the DTC Growth Show by #paid.