Interview: Jason Surfrapp

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Yes, that really is his last name, for this year at least! He’s the guy that auctioned off his last name to the highest bidder (The Surfing App bought it for $50,000) and he has also made over a million dollars wearing t-shirts with other people’s logos on them.

Now his latest project is on the table, a book called Creativity for Sale. It looks behind the scenes at how Jason made his first million by selling his name and his chest. But the book alone is also a unique piece of ‘off the wall’ marketing because every page is ‘paid for’ by a sponsor, including Treehouse. We thought it was such an interesting idea that we paid for the cover!

We caught up with Jason Surfrapp to ask him a few questions about the man behind the marketing ideas.

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Give us a brief history of your education, which parts of it do you use in your business today?

My education was fairly standard except for the fact that I moved around a lot as a kid. I attended nearly 16 different schools, four different ones during my high school years. I didn’t want to attend college, I wanted to keep building websites using Dreamweaver and Geocities. It was decided for me to attend college so I could get a degree as a backup in case building websites didn’t work out. I graduated with a degree in Graphic Design after five painful years of undergraduate schooling. This was in the early 2000s and I was already way ahead of the curriculum being taught. So far ahead in fact, that I actually helped teach the “Introduction to Web Design” and “Introduction to Flash” classes.

I definitely didn’t learn any practical skills while in college, but the experience taught me a lot about working with people and furthering my own education on my own. My years of experience doing design and (light) development work helped me understand UI, UX, and how to speak to engineers and freelancers. That’s incredibly valuable, but it’s not something I learned in a classroom. Real world experience has been the best educator I’ve ever had.

You’ve earned a name for yourself by offering sponsorships of your name, your clothing and your book. How do you come up with such unusual ideas? What are your tips for thinking outside of the box?

I think the common thread that brings all my projects together is wanting to do something differently while helping businesses get exposure in unique ways. When I started IWearYourShirt in 2009, the entire premise was telling a business’ story in my own words each day. People don’t line up to watch a billboard advertisement change, but I was fortunate to build up a sizable audience of people coming to the IWearYourShirt website each day to learn about a new company.

When I sold my last name I had no clue what to expect. I knew it would be an interesting opportunity for a company to get some great exposure, but I didn’t expect it to have the success it did. When Headsets.com won the auction for my last name in 2013 for $45,500, they saw an increase in sales of $250,000 (in the first few months). Their company was also featured on the homepage of CNN, USA Today, Huffington Post, and many others.

My book was basically a way for me to circumvent the standard publishing industry and do things on my terms. With the awesome help of Treehouse (the front cover sponsor of my book) and 203 other sponsors, I was able to make $75,000 as my own book advance. The sponsors of my book became a second story within the content of the book itself.

I strongly believe that anyone can think outside the box, the trick is to let yourself do it without criticism. I have an exercise I call “No Bad Ideas Brainstorming.” In the exercise, I invite a friend (or co-worker) to sit with me for an hour and brainstorm with zero criticism. It’s kind of like improv comedy meets creative thinking. The idea is that you focus on one subject and brainstorm ideas like crazy for 30-45 minutes (with no technology and riffing back and forth). At the end of the time, you circle back and highlight ideas that might work and try to flesh them out further. This exercise can work for anyone, but like anything else, if you’ve never done it before you need to practice.

Is there anything you wouldn’t allow to be sponsored and why?

I wouldn’t ever do an irreversible sponsorship. Some people call me a “sellout” because I’ve worn sponsored shirts, had a sponsored car, did a sponsored fitness challenge, had a sponsored last name, and now a sponsored book. What those people don’t realize is all of these projects have been a blast for me. I’ve controlled them all, always had final approval, and none of them are ever permanent. Personally, I think the people who sellout are the people who get paid to work at jobs they hate. I’ve really enjoyed working with over 1,600 companies and creating a crazy career out of it.

What’s next for social media? What trends do you see emerging?

I’m actually moving away from focusing on social media. Does that mean I’m deleting my Facebook and Twitter account? Certainly not. However, when you put all your effort into building a following on a network you can’t control, you’re doomed to fail. My huge focus these days is building a list of rabid email subscribers. I haven’t done a great job with email marketing over the years, but I’m learning a ton and seeing some incredible value from nurturing a list of passionate people. The huge difference between social media marketing and email marketing is that the email algorithm won’t change any time soon. Email is controlled almost completely by the user. Facebook on the other hand, well, that’s for another conversation.

If you like Jason’s ideas sign up for Treehouse using his special ‘two weeks free‘ referral link.

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