Behind the Magic: Q&A with FreshBooks’ Saul Colt

Your official title at FreshBooks is “Head of Magic.” Apparently this position is “shrouded in mystery.” Can you lift the veil a little bit for us? What exactly do you do?

My role has a lot of moving parts but I wouldn’t want it any other way. The easiest way to describe what I do is that I make amazing experiences for FreshBooks customers.

This happens in a slew of ways: by combining real life activities (dinners, movies, bowling, conferences) with online experiences, all with the goal of saying thank you and showing appreciation to the people who support us.

FreshBooks is an online invoicing software. On the surface, that’s not very sexy. So how do you turn something like invoicing into compelling content?

I agree that online invoicing may not be the sexiest thing in the world, but taking a pain out of someone’s life sure is.

We focus on the result of our service when we tell our story because that is the part people connect to. FreshBooks gets you paid faster and creates more billable hours for service-based professionals. That is a cooler thing to talk about than getting all technical with someone.

In a recent blog post you wrote, “I think the idea of Marketing as an art form is getting lost in this new world of big data. My opinion… is that art is the meal and science is the dessert.” Can you unpack this for us?

When you start at the beginning of an idea you start with a blank page and not a blank spreadsheet. Stats and analytics are an important part of the puzzle these days, but without the creativity (or the art) of a great marketing idea there is nothing to analyze.

You can do “art” without science by using your gut and intuition, but I’m not too sure you can do “marketing science” without the art. Therefore, in my opinion, the formula is: art then science.

You are a word of mouth advertising specialist. How has WOM changed in the social media age, and can a campaign still be considered word of mouth if it has an arsenal of digital media and metrics behind it?

The principles haven’t changed but the tools have, and that is exciting. Now you can know how your ideas and initiatives are producing results in close-to-real-time. This allows you to make adjustments if needed or double down on successes. Art, then science.

FreshBooks has received lots of attention for its creative and often zany marketing campaigns, like delivering birthday cakes to customers. Are you ever concerned that these stunts might overshadow the actual product you’re selling? Is there such thing as the “wrong” kind of attention?

There is such a thing as wrong attention (see Joe Paterno) but what we do doesn’t fall in that category.

FreshBooks (the product) is an amazing solution to anyone who needs it and our approach to getting this message out involves doing interesting and memorable things. Why, you ask?

By treating people to cool experiences they will talk about your company and their experiences, even if they don’t have a current need for your product. Having evangelists who are not customers is a pretty amazing position to be in.

One of the funnier campaigns you mention on your blog was for the launch of Urbandig, a brand you advise for. You created a fake Twitter account (PetaforRabbits) and had them lambast dig for using a rabbit as a logo. You even paid protesters to march in front of the launch event. Do you think these sorts of stunts can work for any client, or does it depends on the brand?

Not every idea fits for every company. Ideas not only need to be original and memorable but they need to match the brand personality of the company. I love taking risks but my risks are calculated and can predict all possible outcomes before they happen.

If you work in the boundaries of the brand personality and take a risk that doesn’t offend, you can pull off some cool stuff – but that doesn’t mean another fake protest.

You’ve spoken at conferences around North America and serve as a mentor at the Portland Incubator Experiment. Have you noticed any significant differences between the U.S. and Canadian startup scenes?

Geography plays a part in the type of businesses people build, but the location doesn’t change the type of people that enter the startup “game.”

Passion, smarts and drive are universal and in most of the startup communities I’ve seen or been a part of, are all very inclusionary and supportive towards each other.


  • Word-of-mouth marketing is cheap and effective: be creative to stand out
  • Prioritize artfulness when developing marketing strategies – leave the
    analytics to the end
  • Find novel ways to show appreciation to your clients

About Dan Levy

Dan Levy is the Editor of Sparksheet, the award-winning multiplatform magazine published by Spafax. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Boston University and worked as a research assistant at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, where he studied and scribbled about online media.

» View all posts by Dan Levy

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