Rare Breed w/ Sunny Bonnell

Every company is looking to discover rare breeds, whether they be in the company already, or roaming the pastures of commerce externally. But the HOW tends to be elusive. That's why Chad & Cheese brings Rare Breed author Sunny Bonnell on the podcast to dive into what companies can do post-pandemic to retain and attract the kind of talent that can take an organization to new heights.


Disability Solutions helps companies find talent in the largest minority community in the world – people with disabilities.

INTRO (1s):

Hide your kids! Lock the doors! You're listening to HR’s most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash and Joel Cheeseman are here to punch the recruiting industry, right where it hurts! Complete with breaking news, brash opinion and loads of snark, buckle up boys and girls, it's time for the Chad and Cheese podcast.

Joel (21s):

Oh yeah. You know what time it is?

Chad (24s):


Joel (24s):

What's up everybody? This is your favorite podcast on your cohost Joel Cheeseman joined as always by my favorite person, at least for the next hour, Chad Sowash. This is the Chad and Cheese podcast. Today We are happy to welcome Sunny Bonnell to the show. She is the chief vision officer. Yeah, that sounds impressive. She's also a best-selling author of the book, Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different. She's a keynote speaker and all kinds of other shit. Sunny, welcome to the show.

Sunny (51s):

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me and what a wonderful introduction!

Joel (55s):

You betcha so for listeners, what did I miss in the intro that we should know about you?

Sunny (1m 2s):

I'm a musician. I grew up on gospel and bluegrass and started playing when I was just about eight years old and was a professional musician by the time I was 12 years old and started playing out in clubs and venues as a teenager and well into my early adulthood. Enrolled in college and ended up dropping out of college to launch a branding agency, threw all my hopes and dreams away of being a profound musician and double down on becoming a brand strategist, brand and culture and leadership expert.

Joel (1m 36s):

Can you play the banjo, Sunny? Can you play Deliverance?

Chad (1m 43s):

Oh, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait, you, you dropped out of college.

Sunny (1m 47s):


Chad (1m 47s):

You dropped out of college. You were already an artist for goodness sakes and you thought branding was going to be easier in this mad men world? Is that what I'm hearing?

Sunny (1m 58s):

A little bit. I think that.

Chad (1m 60s):


Sunny (1m 60s):

You know, I, so, so back up a minute and I'm a 20 something year old female in a small South Carolina town where the majority of ad agencies are ran by the old guard.

Chad (2m 12s):

Oh yeah.

Sunny (2m 13s):

There's only a few of them at the time. And I was moonlighting just to kind of put context around this, I was moonlighting as a graphic designer for other musicians. So while I was enrolled in pre-vet, I was a theater major or philosophy major, I had my hands in a lot of different things, trying to sort of figure out where I wanted to go. And meanwhile, moonlighting as a graphic designer on the side for other musicians, including myself and was doing all of this self-taught. And of course, when you're in an industry like that are beginning to, you know, scrape the surface of an industry like that, you're paying attention to what's going on around you. And what both myself and my co-founder Ashley and I started to take note of was that there was a lot of homogenization going on and there was a lot of sort of boring work.

Sunny (3m 1s):

And we said, why don't we just do something different? And I think we set out with a bit of an audacious vision that we thought we could dismantle the conversation going on and perhaps make a dent in our small town. But what we ended up doing was launched a moonshot. You know, that obviously took us out of South Carolina into Dallas and then ultimately New York. So we were two women who were sort of up against some pretty tough odds, you know, a lot of people told us we would fail, probably almost laughed us out of town.

Joel (3m 32s):

What's the timeline on this? Just so I know.

Sunny (3m 35s):

This is 2005.

Joel (3m 36s):


Sunny (3m 36s):

And you know, when yellow page ads were still all the rage.

Chad (3m 42s):

Yes. Yes! So, you were once thrown out of a meeting because you asked if people really care if they get a free blender with a checking account? So, I mean, it was, you were starting your agency, I would assume at that time, is that correct? How did that fuel you to say those fuckers aren't going to win?

Sunny (4m 3s):

I think the amount of doubt, you know, we have a saying that that's how the rose grew from the concrete. You know, the rose grew from the concrete, be thankful for small minds. It's how ceilings are shattered and battles are won. And I think that we were so doubted, and so, you know, sort of underestimated that it made for an easy target for us to have something to focus on and say, well, surely there's another way. And so our initial business was built around, honestly, just curiosity. You know, we were going to companies and they were saying, oh, you know, we're interested in a logo. And we would say, but why, you know, why does this business matter to you? What is the purpose of this company? We were asking these sort of fundamental questions that we realized at the time was about purpose-driven branding.

Sunny (4m 49s):

And didn't realize that we were actually doing that until, you know, seeing it catch on later in the industry. I think we were actually one of the spearheads of that phrasiology, you know, of purpose-driven branding being a real thing, because we started doing that back in 2005 before purpose was really a cool conversation. So, you know, the fact that we sort of built the business around that and started to claw our way towards some sort of redemption, you know, I think it gave us a way to fight against something and fight for something at the same time. And that's what we did.

Joel (5m 19s):

So you mentioned yellow pages and classifieds at the time, but in 2005 was a really a pretty interesting, exciting time to sort of be in this. You had some voices like Seth Godin, for example, people preaching, you know, zig when everyone else is zagging social media, sort of the birth of that was around the same time, web 2.0, if you will. If you could sort of quickly talk about what life in your business look like 2005 and maybe how it's up to 2019, a quick summary of like the business and how it's changed in that 15 years.

Sunny (5m 53s):

Well, I think that the first few years were very difficult, you know, in terms of, we were very broke, we didn't have money, we didn't have investors, we didn't have financial support. And we were trying to make a name for ourselves in a very small town that didn't really understand us. So, you know, the first few years of running the company were very hard. So you mentioned yellow page ads, and there were some, some innovation going on around that time. So actually what started to take place was direct mailers.

Chad (6m 23s):

Oh God,

Sunny (6m 24s):


Joel (6m 24s):

Not direct email? You said direct mailers?

Sunny (6m 25s):

Direct mailers. And what was really interesting was, you know, we were probably a year or two into business, probably a few weeks within closing our doors, we were not able to make ends meet. And we had just a little bit of cash left in the bank. And we created, we had this idea where we created this garbage can and when you pulled the lid out, it was literally dye cut and fluted. We spent every dime that we had on it. Bought a list of people that were local businesses and regional businesses and we were in this tiny little warehouse in what you would call an incredibly shady part of town. And we spent every dime we had on it, bought this list, printed this mailer.

Sunny (7m 5s):

And when you pulled out the lid, all it said was trash the ordinary. And then it just had our website and our phone number on it. And back then, you know, things were where people would actually show up to your office. You know, they wouldn't call, they would just actually come knocking on the door. And what was so fascinating about that was we mailed it out to a few thousand businesses. And within 24 hours, not only was our phone ringing, but we had people showing up at the door with the mailer in their hands. And they were like, who are you?

Chad (7m 31s):

Here's the thing I want to dive into many companies that we've talked to over the years, look in the mirror and say that we're not Coke. We're not the LA Lakers, not Apple or Google. Your first client from that trashcan was a dentist?

Sunny (7m 48s):


Chad (7m 48s):

A fuckin dentist. Right?

Sunny (7m 50s):

A fluent one at that, yeah.

Chad (7m 52s):

So how did the dentist find a reason? Instead of an excuse and all you companies out there listen very deeply please.

Joel (7m 59s):

And was he on MySpace at the time?

Sunny (8m 4s):

No, but we were. No, I think what was interesting about that was he actually showed up, he was our very first paying client. He showed up and he had the mailer, him and his wife, they were family owned business. And he said, I'm so tired of the way that dentists and dental offices brand themselves. At the time a lot of, and I think that still happens today, where a lot of people in those industries, which have not really been disrupted, I mean, I think they've become a little bit more disrupted, but you know, back then, like you would go to a template place and you would, you would get a boiler plate website with you know, an appointment setter and some generic language and some big photos.

Sunny (8m 44s):

And that was your brand. And he came to us and he said, I hate every bit of that. And he said, I really want to do something extraordinary. And he said, I just want to defy the odds. I want to think, you know, defy the odds. I want to think outside the box, I want to do something that no one else is doing. And so he hired us on the spot. It was so inexpensive, I think it was like a few hundred dollars. But we went in and we not only branded his space, but we even thought through the way that he could entertain his patients. So in other words, like thinking about TVs and sort of Luxe atmosphere and thinking about how brand was reflected, we did all of the signage and it really was the thing that sort of put us on the map because then word got around.

Sunny (9m 28s):

And again, this is just a local market, right? We're just starting to sort of, people are catching wind of us. And then we started having more people saying, Hey, can you disrupt this industry? So we started disrupting industries that were typically very generic or very unordinary like law, audiology, dentists, you know, things that were construction, real estate, things that were not at the time, very innovative. And we were disrupting those categories left and right, and became known for that very early on. And that's ultimately what kept the lights on a little bit longer and kept pushing us. And then we also entered in another big pivotal moment for us was in 2007 when we entered into a women's business conference, a business women's competition, where we had to go before a panel of esteemed women entrepreneurs who were some of the best in the industry and pitch our business on stage in front of thousands of people in front of media and press and everything else.

Sunny (10m 23s):

The funny thing was we were the two youngest women there, in the practice round, and we ended up freezing, couldn't remember the name of the company, what we did, how much revenue, we didn't have any revenue and completely bombed. And the one of the judges at the time, like just filleted us. Like she was like, you don't belong here. You don't know your business. You don't know what you, you're not in the right setting. Come back when you've got this together. And we were just almost going to leave and ended up rewriting the pitch on a napkin in the bar that same night and came back the next morning and got a standing ovation. And won the whole thing!

Joel (10m 57s):

Is a national competition or local?

Sunny (11m 0s):

It was national. There were people from all over the country that had come in and had been, you know, people that had been in business and were, you know, 90 million in revenue. You know, I mean, I think we had just a few thousand dollars in our bank account at that point. But what you won was a line of credit from American Express. You got an IT package, like you got all this media and press. And that also set us off in the direction of these two young women kind of rogue coming in and sort of putting these people on their ear. And I think that was a sort of these little pivotal moments that we were sort of taking charge and leading the conversation in new ways, I think was the thing that started to move us forward.

Chad (11m 38s):

That was really a genius strategy though, because you came in and you really on purpose gave them a bad show and then you came back and blew it out of the water. Come on. That was the strategy, right?

Sunny (11m 50s):

I'd like to say it was, but it wasn't, we just completely froze.

Joel (11m 55s):

These are underdog stories. When did you become a sort of the heavyweight champion? What was the turning point of that?

Sunny (12m 1s):

There were a lot of little moves that were taking place, you know, a lot of times when we could have taken the punch or thrown the knockout punch, and I think we were taking the punches, but also coming back and counterpunching, and not giving up and not quitting. And I think that tenacity and that sort of audacity of wanting to do things differently and not be afraid of that and really leaning into who we are was I think a very pivotal change in ourselves and in our business. And, you know, obviously it became the name of our book, which went on to become a best seller. And then obviously has now become the thesis of the workshops that we're doing and the shows that we're leading. And those are a little micro moments that happen along the way that I think make or break you and define you.

Sunny (12m 42s):

And those certainly we had certainly many of those opportunities where we could have folded like lawn chairs or we could get back up and grab that mic and say like, no, you're wrong about us. And that's kind of, I think where strength comes from is in those moments where people doubt you and you prove them wrong.

Joel (13m 1s):

So when did employment or hiring or workplace branding come into play.

Sunny (13m 8s):

So that's probably happened in the last couple of years. So we wrote some, just kind of dialing it back again to connect the concept of Rare Breed. So Rare Breed was given to us by my dad. So we were a few years into business, hit a low point, thinking about quitting around that 2007 time period. And, you know, we were just like, we just do not fit. You know, we're like a square peg in a round hole or misfit. We're an outlier. Nobody wants us to succeed. We just had this sort of self doubt going on. And it wasn't just our own sort of negative talk. It was the talk going on around us. You know, we had been sabotaged by other businesses and, you know, people were trying to run us out of town and that's the truth. And, you know, we just hit a really low point.

Sunny (13m 49s):

We kept getting fired for the same reasons we were hired and we couldn't understand why that kept happening. So we had this sort of pivotal conversation with my dad where we said, you know, you just feel like quitting. And he said, well, you two are a Rare Breed. He said, of course not everybody's going to understand you. Of course not everybody's going to get you. In fact, some people may hate you or try to sabotage you. He said, but you have to succeed because of who you are, not despite who you are. Your counterintuitive gifts, these things that make you rough around the edges, the fact that you and Ashley are sort of rebellious and throw brass knuckles to the status quo. He's like, that's why, and ultimately why people are going to hire you, you just don't know it yet.

Sunny (14m 30s):

They're already doing it. You're just, you just, you just don't realize the gift that you're actually giving. And it was in that moment that really became pivotal. And, you know, we tucked that phrase away in 2007, ran our company now have been in some of the biggest brands on earth. We now have clients as big as Google and Hershey's and Microsoft and 20th Century Fox and now Virgin. And the funny thing is, as we wrote this book in 2019, which we wrote it for our younger self, we wrote it for the change maker who had always felt like an outlier who had never felt like they fit in because so many of us don't have a book. We don't have anything to go to. Every leadership book that you read is about changing the parts of yourself so that you can fit in so that you can climb the corporate ladder.

Sunny (15m 15s):

And we wanted to write the anti-thesis of that. You know, what, how do we actually succeed because of who we are, not just the pretty parts, how do