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Adam Helweh: Self-Taught Social Media Powerhouse

Today we introduce a new series of articles that will be an exciting addition to the Social Media Club. The articles, penned by award-winning Silicon Valley tech and fiction writer Dan Holden, profile some of the leading influencers in social media today. But instead of being the typical biographical profile you’re likely to hear at a tech conference, these profiles look at where these tech leaders came from, how they became interested in social media, their strategies for achieving success and where they are going from here.  It’s a fascinating look at the personalities behind social media thought leadership. 

The Genius Behind SecretSushi Creative is Hard Work and a Heart of Gold

If you attend social media events in the San Francisco Bay Area, you are almost assuredly familiar with the work of Adam Helweh – whether you’ve met him personally or not.

Adam is a popular speaker, author, moderator, podcaster and organizer of social media events from San Francisco to San Jose and beyond. As a graphic designer, website developer and enthusiastic social media user, Adam has grown a devoted clientele and following throughout California. As a multicultural and highly skilled businessman and organizer, Adam continues to expand his range of influence, most recently participating in a major business conference in Malaysia.

Like many influencers in the social media community, Adam puts forth a strategically appropriate public face and leaves his private life in the background. But he was more than happy to talk with us about who he is and how he worked his way into social media leadership. 

What emerges is a view of an intensely active man, deeply committed to cultivating and nurturing relationships and fascinated by the tools that facilitate his objectives. Equally fascinating is the fact that much of his knowledge and experience is homegrown, self-taught, and meticulously self-tested. 

Adam is a singularly genuine individual in an environment overrun with high-profile personalities. His passion for social media is completely organic, just like the name of his company, Secret Sushi Creative.

“Even if he never got paid a dime, I’m convinced that Adam would still be doing exactly what he does today,” said Brian Remmel, digital account supervisor at Cohn & Wolfe, who has worked with Adam on numerous social media events and projects. “His dedication, passion and generosity are truly rare in today’s digital world.”

While anyone who has followed Adam for even a short time will know that he is Muslim, most will be surprised to learn that he was born in San Francisco.

Adam’s father immigrated to the United States from Lebanon. His mother is an American-born Caucasian who was adopted into a US Navy family that travelled extensively, eventually landing in San Francisco where the two met and married.

Adam’s family lived in Daily City until he was around seven years old. He spent grade school in Cupertino, middle school in Milpitas, and high school in Santa Ynez, a small community in the Santa Barbara area.

“My dad’s company at that time was making chips for telecommunications carriers, when the entire department was sold off and moved to Golita,” Adam reflects, in his radio-worthy baritone voice.  “It was the first time I had ever been out of the Bay Area.” 

After high school Adam moved to Santa Maria, a somewhat larger town nearby, where he took his first shot at living completely on his own. 

He banged out his early jobs the same way he would later get into social media: Through trial and error, melding things that he enjoyed doing with gigs that financed the adventure.

“In high school, I belonged to the Youth-to-Youth Club, which was a nation-wide peer organization that encouraged kids to stay away from smoking or drinking and focused on violence prevention,” said Adam.  “It was about doing cool things and community service.”

The organization was particularly active in California, holding conferences throughout the state. A unique feature of the club was that the organizers of the events were the students themselves.

“The first day of the conference, the facilitators would train the student leaders to organize the event. So they would take about 30 or 40 kids and give them tools and training, and the next day those kids would help run the conference where kids would learn about drug abuse and violence prevention.”

Adam was appointed a facilitator for many of the California conferences, traveling all over the state to help organize other students.

“For some reason, I always ended up being on the staff, never operating just as a participant,” said Adam. Those who know him would say it was an early indication of his natural leadership ability.

“I spent all of my resources doing this,” said Adam, adding that he made money working as a DJ for childrens’ parties, clubs at Pismo Beach and school dances for $50 a night.

“It was worth it because it was just cool to be a DJ, into music,” said Adam. “I knew who all the musicians were, I had a personal collection of over 500 CDs, and some borrowed equipment. I thought I was on top of the world. I was pretty popular.”

While he was living with his parents, every penny he made went into the youth organization.

“All my savings went to gas money to get me from one conference to another. We did a lot of great events, everywhere from San Diego to Shasta and from El Dorado Hills to San Ramon. I got to meet people all over California, and I still connect with many of them.”

Eventually, Adam realized he had to move on.

“I wanted to focus on working with or for people,” said Adam. “I wanted to positively impact or contribute to something with a bit more purpose. So I started working for a company that ran care homes for adults with disabilities.

“That was my 9-to-5, going to the care homes and working with people who had some pretty severe disabilities. At first I was the guy working with people who needed to be showered and changed and all that, but eventually I moved into doing more vocational work, taking adults to their job sites and helping

It may be hard to imagine that someone so helpful could be struggling with his personal life, but in fact he was.

“I had a fiancee at the time, but it wasn’t really working,” said Adam. “I was also living with people 10 years older than me and it was uncomfortable. I began losing focus, procrastinating. Eventually I lost my job and my girlfriend and my place to live, more or less all at the same time.

“I ended up sleeping on a mattress at a friend’s house, working at a Warehouse Records store for like nothing, minimum wage. Fortunately I was within walking distance of work and the grocery store because my car broke down about then, too. 

“That got me to move back to the Bay Area, to my support system. There just wasn’t anything there for me anymore.”

After returning to his family home in Milpitas, Adam got a job at the Santa Clara County Office of Education, working with autistic children throughout the district.

Then, the world opened up for Adam.

“One day I overheard my Dad talking with a relative about Lebanon, where my family is from. And I said, ‘I’d love to go there.’

“So my Dad said, ‘OK, I’ll buy you a ticket.’ So I went to Lebanon for the summer.”

“It was an awesome opportunity that allowed me to do a lot of things,” said Adam. “I had been there before when I was like five, and again when I was sixteen, but now I was doing it on my own. 

“I got to see my grandfather who had cancer, and I met the woman who would be my wife.”

Adam had actually met Fatme many years before, because she worked for his family and was helping take care of his grandfather. Now, he had time to get to know her.

“I found out that we had a lot in common, like a love of music and culture,” said Adam. “I liked her style. She would tell me that she just wanted to break out of the box and express herself differently. She lived in a culture where it was traditional for people to get married and just stay right there, never travel or in many cases even leave the city.

“I never really formally proposed to her. It was more like, ‘I think we can make this connection and make it work, and then you can travel all you want.’ And at that point we just knew that we wanted to get married, so we stated our intentions to our families. It took about eight months after that to get her over here.”

Adam and Fatme moved to Sacramento where he continued working in a vocational setting with adults with disabilities. Things were going well. They were on their own. Life was grand.

And then on September 11, 2001, everything changed. Again.

“Fatme had only been here for a couple of months when the World Trade Center Towers were attacked,” recalls Adam. “She was just getting to know America, and the America she was getting to know didn’t like Muslims. It was very difficult.”

That experience forced Adam and Fatme to return to Milpitas. Nevertheless, out of this dark time came the rebirth of Adam Helweh. 

“Everywhere I ever went, as soon as I had a decent Internet connection, I would get on AOL and chat, explore, interact with people around the world,” said Adam. “Way back in 1994-1995, I was making friends with people everywhere, racking up phone charges for dial-up minutes. My interest just kept growing. 

“I was downloading any new piece of software I could find and checking it out, whether it was legal or not. I would get onto file sharing sites, download every piece of creative software I could find and teach myself how to use it at a computer that took up about a third of our kitchen table.”

Over time, he began to realize there might be business opportunities as a web designer.

“Eventually I started thinking it might be nice to take some courses and learn how to use this stuff. So I was taking courses in how to use Macromedia and Adobe Illustrator and PhotoShop. I set up a little bedroom office and started experimenting with an eye toward drumming up business doing graphic design for websites. Then I found out you could get a free website, and use Xoom to teach yourself HTML, and then I learned that you could link one page to another. That just blew me away.”

Adam’s enthusiasm is more than just intellectual, he admits.

“I’ve always been kind of hyper. Even as a kid I knew I had to focus myself. It was kind of what I consider my weakness, but focusing on learning how to use these tools really helped. It allowed me to be not completely off the reservation,” said Adam.  

The need for focus also reunited Adam with his other passions, religion and Taiko drumming. 

Adam signed up for more software classes and taught himself how to use still other programs. Eventually, all the tinkering and studying began to pay off.

“What I might lack in artistry I could make up for because I knew how the tools worked,” said Adam. With his friend Tosh, he began to build a business in website design.

“About 50 percent of what we do now is design. Tosh has worked with us since the very beginning. We had a lot of little jobs doing web design, print design, and so forth. It was my first time doing projects for customers and clients. It was scary at first, like jumping through flames, but I always knew that if I just got through it I would have learned something when I got to the other side.”

To build his business, Adam networked the old fashioned way.

“I would go out and get leads from the local chambers of commerce. I gained enough skill doing this that I was elected to be president of a leads group,” said Adam. 

Adam took a job creating a website for a personal fitness company. Often working as the go-between from the CEO and founder of the company and the designers, programmers and product managers, Adam had a unique opportunity to help communicate the CEO’s vision both within the company and to angel investors who participated in a major round of funding. 

“The marketing guys had a few things to learn about branding,” said Adam. “They had a logo that was dark and foreboding, so I recommended that they change the colors to make it bright and engaging. That really invigorated the company, got them on track, and with the funding they got the designers and developers they needed. I made myself the creative director.”

Adam’s skills in web design and creative design expanded considerably. He became expert and developing sites for usability.

Feeling empowered by the experience, Adam finally decided to develop his own creative agency, relying on his associations for clientele.

It was at this point that the Secret Sushi name came to being.

“The Secret Sushi name started out as a parody website,” said Adam. “Tosh and I were goofing around with a project that we called the Order of the Secret Sushi, it was going to be a blog written from the perspective of a fish that was intent on slowly taking over the world. We had done a couple of posts and then set it aside.

“When I started up the creative business I knew I needed to do something fast. Back then a new domain name was very expensive, nothing with a ‘corporate sound’ was available for less than $7,000, so I looked at what I had already and found that. So I decided Secret Sushi would be the name of the company.

“My family and friends looked at me like, ‘Are you crazy? Why would you want to name a company Secret Sushi?’ And I said, ‘Well, when it comes to marketing and branding, sushi makes a beautiful presentation, it looks good, tastes delicious, has substance to it, fulfills a need and keeps the customer hungry for more…and if you have the secret sushi, you have the stuff that keeps customers coming back.’ 

“That’s what I have been telling people all these years since. It turned out to be a really good choice, because people remember it even when they don’t remember what the business is about.”

The business started off on the slow but quickly blossomed.

“I would take on any project that came along, even if there wasn’t a lot of money in it,” said Adam. Then suddenly “all of the seeds that I had been planting started to grow fruit.”

“I got a contract from an ongoing business in health care, and that ended up growing our reputation considerably,” said Adam. “I was doing whatever, staying up till three in the morning to get it done. I was also getting into social networking, social media, online software at this time. I was downloading everything, experimenting with everything, testing products. If I felt the user experience was lacking I would write the company a big email about it. Eventually some of them were asking me to come in and talk to them, hiring me as a contractor.”

“People were lighting up when you would talk about online marketing,” said Adam. “Business started to ramp.”

“My wife and I were able to build a bank account and move to our own home in Milpitas,” said Adam. “From there the business really started taking off and I realized that I really love social media.”

“Secret Sushi began to take on a new meaning, because we were creating a blend that intersected what we knew about technology, design, working with people, and social media, and making a serious business out of it,” said Adam. “We realized we had a knack for the creative, for working with pen and paper, paint and music, just broadening our palate. We realized that we were crafting experiences.”

“We were watching what other people were doing, seeing the patterns that were developing from different social networks, the things that were working, the personalities that were developing, the conversations that were happening every single day. It was like we were all one big family, or very close friends, even though we didn’t see each other every day.” 

At this point, Adam began to realize that he had something to talk about. Something he could teach and explain.

“A lot of people were talking about what social media is but not understanding the technology or how it works, but they all had an appreciation for one another, and they all needed someone to partner with.”

Adam’s keen understanding of social media mechanics has gained the attention of other social media greats, including Jason Falls, CEO of Social Media Explorer, who about a year ago asked Adam to participate as a regular blogger and vlogger for his site.

“Adam is the embodiment of the social media vibe. He’s smart, generous and kind with his time, and a true care-taker of the attention of his audience,” said Jason. “His observations and insights help us at Social Media Explorer provide smart advice to businesses exploring the world of digital marketing and social media. I’m glad to know him and proud he’s on my team, for sure.”

Whether blogging for the Social Media Explorer, planning social media strategy for TEDxSanJoseCA, or organizing conferences for the Social Media Club and other organizations, Adam has put his exceptional conversational skills to good use. 

“I tend to be careful about contributing in conversations,” said Adam. “Sometimes I am not sure if what I am talking about is new and what the other person is saying is old, or vice versa, so I tend to frame conversations based on our previous understanding and try to find new ideas and common ground.”

“For instance, I assume that the way I look at websites, everyone sees the same thing I do, but quite often that is not the case. It took me a while to understand that a developer has his own way of looking at things and I can make it hard on them if I expect them to see what I am talking about in the same way as I do as a designer. Instead I would have to learn how best to frame and communicate things from their perspective.” 

Adam’s keen sense of his contribution to a project, and how to communicate it, have served him well, creating many long-lasting social media clients.

“He is the one in the room who makes sure everyone is on their toes … not to show them up, but to ensure everyone knows to only promise what they can deliver,” said Jai Decker, CEO of DrivenTide, a San Francisco-based company that frequently partners with Secret Sushi Creative to deliver digital, search engine and social media marketing.  

“His take during client pitches or calls is to dive deeper into the why of a client’s issues and not solely the solution.  This allows for discovery, especially to uncover the pain-points that stem from deeper or easy-to-fix issues. That said, he also has the humility to ask questions about strategies or tools he is unfamiliar with and will quickly integrate them into his ever deepening box of knowledge.”

Adam’s valuable experise has allowed him to help a variety of startups shortcut months of additional development time for emerging products, like web-based Apps.

 “Social media has build its reputation only in the last three or four years, and a lot of startups are coming
around,” said Adam. “Most of these are being started by developers who have a narrow scope, if you will. They start working on web-based apps that are ugly at best, they force-feed a user interface, and then they give up and ask for help. 

“That’s when we come in and show them how the app has to be not just functional, but usable by people who know nothing about how it works. We have to explain that they are using a toolset that is way too technical for about 99 percent of the people who will ever use the product, so we change the interface to make it more familiar to digital natives and non-natives alike.” 

Being fully immersed in projects for a variety of Silicon Valley companies, Adam has gained a greater appreciation for the transformation that is taking place in here.

 “I like what Steve Jobs once said, that computers being like trucks and mobile devices being like cars. Mobility is changing the interface again. The world is looking very different from when I graduated from high school and logged on to AOL.”

“From my perspective now, deeply enmeshed in social media, I can see that the Internet has already completely changed our day-to-day activities, but this evolution needs to start helping people in a social sense, not just in a business sense, so they can communicate in a way that enhances understanding.”

“Social media isn’t just a way to amplify a message,” said Adam, “it’s a form of interaction that has to rise to the top through trust and education.  It’s why content marketing is so important; the information shouldn’t just be about your product, but about what makes your customers faster, better and stronger, what helps them make better decisions.”

To Adam, this means making the user experience as intuitive as possible. 

“I like to think that social media marketing is successful when, like the movie Inception, the audience/consumer/customer trusts you so intently it’s as if they believe they have already bought in on the idea. They only need to understand where to sign up. Those are the ideas that people will tell their friends about.”

Adam continues to search for that stronger connection with people, not just as social proof of his work, but to share his understanding and expertise. 

“I would like to be thought of as a thought leader at the intersection of social, design, technology and user experience,” said Adam.

We think he’s already there.