This is an interview with designer Fu-Tung Cheng, an exemplary practitioner of what we in the marketing world call Content Marketing. Fu-Tung does this so naturally, I refer to him as an “Organic” Content Marketer. I believe marketers and other business leaders will find valuable insights in his story.
Why This Interview?
In certain circles of architectural design, Fu-Tung Cheng is a big name. He’s literally “written the book” about a narrow but expanding field — concrete countertops.
He strongly influenced my life. His business’s online content changed me. I learned from him, began to trust him, and then happily bought from him. I touch his products every day, many times a day. And, more than a year later, I’m still a very satisfied customer.
My wife Kathy introduced me to Fu-Tung, through his YouTube videos, as we planned to build the home we live in now. We had the idea of building our own cabinets, using concrete countertops, as a creative project, one that we hoped would save us a lot of money.
We also liked that concrete is considered a “green” product, as it’s locally produced, and that it allows for infinite customization and personalization (embedding rocks, metal pieces, fossils). Our countertops would be truly unique, one-of-a-kind.
Kathy had been researching concrete countertops, and she said Fu-Tung’s name seemed to be everywhere. He was “The Master.”
His videos are quietly persuasive: simple, direct, practical, and full of the kind of tips and tricks that can come only from a true master of a craft. His work had won awards and been published in major magazines. He had also published a couple of books, and we bought one, Concrete Countertops Made Simple. It included a DVD.
We read the book and watched the video several times. We were convinced — we could do this.
The logical place to buy the supplies was from his company. We bought tools, and ordered supplies.
We followed the book’s instructions, and built our countertops. It was a lot of work, but we loved the creativity of the process. It did save us thousands of dollars. And we love the results. Visitors to our home are wowed. We are rightfully proud of what we accomplished. And it’s largely due to Fu-Tung.
I’ve been using my experience with Fu-Tung when describing the power of content marketing to potential clients. Here’s an example where we were sold, without ever feeling like we were being “sold.”
We learned, became empowered, found we naturally trusted him, and then wanted to buy from him.
This path — from learning to earned trust — is how and why content marketing works for businesses around the world.
I spoke with Fu-Tung recently from his office in the San Francisco Bay area.
I’ve wanted to speak with you and learn about your company, since your educational materials empowered us to add a lot of personalization to our home. Why did you end up working on homes and construction in your design career?
In the early ’70s, there were not a lot of good jobs for fine arts majors. I had always worked with my hands, in painting, sculpture, and other things like that. While I was an art student in Berkeley, I was living in an old house that was falling into disrepair. I talked to the landlord about letting me fix up the place in return for free rent. He was willing, so I did; I fixed the whole place up, and that’s how I learned.
I wired the house, I fixed drywall — not all of it to “craftsman standards” (laughs). I learned. I had opportunities to do small jobs for people, jobs that would stimulate my creative side, not just repairing things.
I began to see opportunities. The biggest opportunity came when I found my house, which I still live in today. This was just a shack — I mean really a shack. And I had no money. I moved in and started working on it. I bought it in ’71, and by ’83, I still had no kitchen, I just cooked on a Coleman stove. All my time and money was spent doing things like working on the roof rafters, making them look good.
I poured the sidewalk in front of my house — with no training, I just watched some guys pour a sidewalk, and watched them finish it. I formed it up with two-by-fours and finished it myself. I watched and did and made mistakes and kept on going.
Cheng earned his BFA from Cal, then worked for years doing small projects, remodeling and designing solutions that used all types of materials, including lots of used wood and metal. By taking things apart, studying the problems, then building something new, he developed his personal language as a designer and his expertise as a problem solver.
In ’77, a book came out, that influenced my career and how I saw my approach. That book was A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander. It was sort of a treatise against abject modernism. The book helped me feel empowered that what I was doing was not “nuts.” When I put in a window, I put it where I did because it fit me, not because of some code or rule.
How did you begin to create educational materials about countertops?
I continued to get a reputation, mainly in kitchen designs and remodels, and started to get some attention from design magazines. I saw an article in Fine Homebuilding, about concrete countertops.
It showed these people, pouring concrete, in the home, on the counters. I said to myself — my god, that looks like a bad sidewalk job, lifted up in the air and called a countertop. I used that moniker later when I started teaching. I said, “a countertop is not a sidewalk. Forget what you know about finishing concrete.”
When you’re standing, looking at something that is three feet up in the air, you see so much more than something that is at your feet. It has to be a beautiful surface. It has to be smooth, it can’t be just hand-troweled. I read that article, and I was appalled. I said this doesn’t represent what can be done.
So that’s when I went to Taunton [Press, publisher of Fine Homebuilding and other magazines] and showed them photos of what I had done. They asked if I wanted to do a book, and I said yes. It took two or three years, but it finally was done, my first book on concrete countertops.
About A Pattern Language
We didn’t get back to talking about this book, but some ideas from it suggest why Fu-Tung was influenced:
(excerpts are from the Wikipedia article for the book)
According to [the author and co-authors], the [book] originated from an observation that “At the core…is the idea that people should design for themselves their own houses, streets and communities. This idea…comes simply from the observation that most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects but by the people.”
“Some patterns focus on materials, noting that some ancient systems, such as concrete, when adapted by modern technology, may become one of the best future materials.”
“We believe that ultra-lightweight concrete is one of the most fundamental bulk materials of the future.”
You started out as a fine artist, then developed as a craftsman, then as a designer. You’ve also become a very successful businessman. Does that label fit, businessman?
No. Learning business, I made so many mistakes. I did things so naively. I had no idea about distribution, or pricing.
Everything I’ve done has been a product of not trying to start a business, but just trying to improve the design environment. The whole motivation was not to make money. Just the opposite.
When I got a design job, I used up the money trying to make a better product for the client, something unexpected and original. The client didn’t expect the things I delivered. They didn’t expect a kitchen hood that was custom made. They didn’t even think of the idea.
But you cared.
Yes, I cared. I saw every job as an opportunity to see what I could do. It’s been about solving design problems. I now solve them for people like yourself. You want to know how I got started with Concrete Exchange, and the products for homeowners?
I’d love to.
The whole thing started just two weeks before my first book, Concrete Countertops, was about to be printed. Everything was in, I had reviewed the galleys, all the layout and photos were done. The editor called me, and asked if there was anything else — because we were going to print. I said, I don’t think so, but let me sleep on it. That evening I was lying in bed and realized: Oh my god. I’ve written a book about how to build these countertops, and that you need these materials. And people are going to call me, and ask where can they get six ounces of plasticizer? And these pigments? They don’t sell that at Home Depot.
All the things I had described using to make the countertops, I had scavenged. I had gone to the ready-mix guys and snuck in the back room and asked if I could get some of this water reducer. They said, “Sure, we have it in 55 gallon barrels.” Can I just get a gallon? That will last me forever.
I had been getting my supplies from wholesalers, but the book was going to go out to homeowners, who would need these same things, but in small quantities. At that point we didn’t know how many copies of the book would sell, but I had some experience with some of the articles that were published about my work. I would get lots of calls from people asking for information, like where I got a particular lamp shade. We would have to field all these calls. It was before the Internet became where people did research for shopping, so locating materials wasn’t as easy as it is now.
So I said to myself, this will be a nightmare. I went into the office, where at that time we were making hoods [custom, kitchen-stove hoods] and custom concrete countertops. I told the people there — we are in the concrete countertop supply business now.
I called the editor back, and told him to add a Resources section, and a listing for purchasing pigments and additives — I forget the exact list, which was rudimentary. But it listed a phone number to call, Cheng Concrete. At the time I put that in, we had absolutely nothing for sale. And we had six weeks, before the book would be released.
So we started buying supplies, and putting ingredients into small bottles. And we did a [VHS] tape of me doing some things, showing how to build a countertop.
So how did the book sell?
The publisher thought it would sell about 5,000 copies in the first two years. Instead, the book sold 15,000 copies in the first three months. We reached number 12 at Amazon, and number 1 in Amazon’s home improvement category. It’s now approaching 185,000 copies sold.
When I first learned about you, it was because of your educational materials. When my wife and I wanted to do concrete countertops in our home, we researched the topic, and all we could see was your name. We watched some of your videos on YouTube. We decided to buy your book and watch the DVD. We were educated and empowered. And because your educational materials were not just commercials, we didn’t feel any suspicion toward your motives. We just trusted you, and then wanted to buy from you. This is an example of what we in the marketing world call “Content Marketing.”
It’s based on trust earned through free sharing of information that is educational, useful, and relevant. And it is powerful precisely because you were not trying to sell. If you’d made those videos as commercials, they wouldn’t have been as effective. They’d just have been another “infomercial,” which we all have learned to tune out and mistrust.
That’s the opposite of what I did.
Exactly, you set out not to sell — you set out to educate. If I hadn’t heard your story, I would have guessed that you hired some marketing firm several years ago, and would have been told by them, here’s what you need to do to attract a big audience that will buy from you. You need to publish your book, and put out lots of educational material that will educate people, then they will trust you and want to buy from you. You found this method, naturally. It was how you operated.
Yes, I’ve always liked to share with others what I have learned. That’s why I wrote my first book, to correct what I saw as an incomplete understanding of what was possible with concrete as a design element. At the time I wrote the book, there wasn’t much information available, and the people who were doing good work were keeping their methods to themselves.
One of the hot issues at the time was sealers. Everyone was very secretive about sealers, as we were just learning what worked. Most people were very protective of their techniques and materials.
Once the book came out, things started to change. Other people who were doing good work saw that the market was getting bigger, and there was growing demand for seminars and books. Jeff Girard started the Concrete Countertop Institute. Buddy Rhodes also wrote books and started teaching. With all this information getting out, it built credibility for all types of concrete products.
I’ve written a blog article proposing that your approach — freely sharing information without trying to sell all the time — isn’t for every business or organization. There must be an alignment between your values and this principle of openness. Companies whose leaders want exclusive control, who want to keep their methods proprietary and secret, are not likely to use Content Marketing effectively.
I just want to keep elevating the idea that people can unleash their creativity with these new materials. That if I can do it, starting with that crude sidewalk in front of my home, then anyone can use this information — and make anything they set out to do. I see this when I go to a job site for one of the homes I’ve designed. I like to talk to the subs, who are doing the work.
They may be more skilled at the craft than me, but they haven’t been allowed to be creative. They’ve been relegated to becoming assembly-line workers. It’s all about how flawless the floor is, or the wall, or whatever they are building. I go to the site and add some car parts, or some fossils. It’s not that hard. I want to encourage creativity, and I love how it opens their minds up to new possibilities.
An “Organic” Marketer
I was delighted to learn that Fu-Tung Cheng, one of my favorite “poster children” for content marketing, is a natural. He’s what we might call an “organic” marketer. I’m using the word in the same sense as when we refer to visitors to a website, who arrive through a non-paid search engine result, as “organic” (as opposed to those attracted by paid search).
Organic content marketers are driven by some type of positive desire: to create something new, to improve a profession, to make lives more fulfilling, to make the world a better place. Examples are everywhere, in all professions.
What examples of businesses and business leaders can you think of, in your industry, that are helpful, open, and trusted? Are you part of that kind of company?
I want to thank Fu-Tung Cheng for accepting my invitation to be interviewed, and his Marketing Director Annalyn Chargualaf-Peluso for her extremely helpful assistance. I encourage our readers to share their thoughts and questions about this type of natural, or “organic” content marketing.