When I was nine, my little brother and I walked to school together every morning. On the way, we’d always stop at this little convenience store between our house and the school. They had this huge pail of assorted candy by the register and everything was ten cents a piece. We’d buy as much as we could hold and, when we got to school, we’d sell it for a quarter a piece. This proved to be a viable little business for quite some time and, eventually, Sammy and I were big ballers. Eventually my teacher found out. He confiscated my candy and told me that I was no longer allowed to sell candy at school. The next day I got to class to find that he had put a small vending machine in the back of the class and was selling candy. He was charging fifty cents a piece. This taught me everything I ever need to know about capitalism within the confines of a regulated economy.
Why did you start your business(es)?
My sad little pipe dream for most of my young life was to be an actor. Its tough to find a job that allows the massive amounts of flexibility you need for auditions, rehearsals and shoot dates. I had always dabbled with website and software development and started writing little snippets of code here and there for people as a side gig since that’s something you can do anytime, anywhere. I slowly built a steady Client base. Eventually (and predictably) I failed miserably as an actor but proved to be a pretty good digital marketer / entrepreneur. I say “good” comparably. Meaning compared to me being an actor. Something I was horrible at. So “good” is pretty subjective here.
What entrepreneur has most inspired you?
My Dad. That whole cliche “never give up” – that was written for and about my Dad. Nothing can hold him down. Nothing can beat him. I’ve seen life throw a lot of stuff at my Dad and I’ve never seen it do anything but make him stronger. He’s like a mountain in a storm. If you get really close and you watch any individual part of the mountain its obvious that the storm is winning; the mountain is being completely torn apart. But if you step far enough back you see the truth: the mountain isn’t going anywhere, the storm is just a nuisance it has to weather. Not only that, but the mountain has been protecting everything and everyone it loves by standing in between them and the storm. That’s my Dad.
My Dad also taught me everything I know about analogies so you can blame him for that whole mountain thing.
What is the biggest obstacle you have overcome thus far in business?
I have had some pretty epic, crushing and seemingly insurmountable failures. And then there’s this fear that the failure brands you with. You carry it around with you and let it convince you that it defines who you are and what you’re capable of. Putting that fear down and walking away from it, that’s the hardest thing I think any Entrepreneur has to do. Failure is baked into the system. Its almost a prerequisite. We need it. We need to learn from it and grow from it and be strengthened by it. We just need to remember that it isn’t something we have to take with us.
What have you learned from failure?
1) Nothing is forever.
2) Its never as bad as you think its going to be.
3) Integrity matters more in failure than in success. Anyone can be a good guy when times are good. Its takes a very real BAMF to be a good guy when things are horrible and the world is falling apart.
How does your leadership style foster your company’s culture?
I hope I lead by example. There’s very little in the way of “management” in my company. We use project management tools to track tasks and stuff (because you have to) but we don’t do hype meetings or any of the cliche procedural things I see elsewhere. I think if you hire right and you set appropriate expectations then you shouldn’t have to spend a ton of time managing. At that point you just need to get out of people’s way and make sure they have the support they need.
We still do quarterly reviews just to make sure everyone is on the same page (that goes just as much for me as for my staff) but other than that there’s not a whole lot of the hierarchal structure baked into our company. I have found that the right people will take the initiative and do the right thing and be rocks stars simply because they’re the right people. The wrong people won’t. So just hire the right people and make sure they’re in the right seats on the bus. Once you have a rock star staff you’ll end up with a rock star company that attracts rock star Clients and makes rock star money. That’s exactly what we have with Solutions 8 (did you see what I did there? That’s called a “shameless plug” and, as the name denotes, I am not ashamed).
What are your top 3 responsibilities as a leader?
One responsibility with three facets: to serve.
- Serve my staff
- Serve my Clients
- Serve my industry
In that order incidentally. I don’t believe “the customer is always right” – if we have a Client who isn’t congruent with our corporate culture we make a very friendly departure and just let them know that we’re not a right fit. You have to protect your staff sometimes, even if they tell you otherwise. One poison Client can kill a company.
I hate to say this because it sounds so arrogant but the truth is that we’re in an industry where everyone wants what we’ve got and we happen to be amazing at it. There’s no reason to suffer in silence or compromise our values for a paycheck. If a Client isn’t kind or doesn’t have realistic expectations or doesn’t value what we do then there’s no reason for us to force a square peg into a round hole.
I also think I have a responsibility to serve my industry as a whole. I do a lot of information sharing – most of which I have very little direct benefit from. While I might profit more in the short term by hanging on to “the good stuff” and letting others flounder I also think it does my entire industry a disservice in the long term and ends up forcing a brand on digital marketers as a collecting; a brand that I ultimately have to wear too. There’s more than enough to go around, if you know something other people don’t then be the good guy and tell them! I promise you the roles will be reversed more often than not.
What internal process do you use to guide your decision-making?
We have experimented with a few tools. The front runners at the moment are a dart board, a spin-the-wheel thingy and a magic eight ball…
I’m only kind of joking! What’s so much fun about digital marketing is that you just don’t ever really know “the answer”. Part of that is because everything so new but part of it is because everything is so multifaceted and there will really never be “the answer”. I can be exceptionally successful with one Client and then take on a Client in the exact same vertical and none of what was successful for the first will be successful for the second.
A lot of what we do is really intelligent guess work. We call it “making and validating educated assumptions” in Client briefs and when we do our initial sprints but we might as well call it wild spaghetti throwing. I tell my Clients that they’re paying us to make their mistakes for them, we just make them better and within the confines of a vetted system. I believe that. I’m a professional mistake maker. Making mistakes is really the only thing I’m good at.
How do you define success?
If you asked me that question when I was younger I would have said “happiness” and I would’ve believed it. I don’t think that’s true any longer. I think happiness is important but its too static to be the highest ideal. There’s not enough to being “happy” to satiate a person. Fulfillment on the other hand is meaty. It might not taste as good but it will nourish your soul forever.
If happiness is dessert then fulfillment is that stew your Mom made on really chilly days. The kind you’re supposed to serve in wooden bowls and is almost thick enough to cut with a knife. Doing something you’re good at and that helps people, there’s something just so fulfilling about it. And yeah, happiness is a common fringe benefit but its not the “why”.
I won’t tell you that money isn’t important. Its sort of how we keep score. But only in as much as it allows you the freedom to be fulfilled. I also think its important as entrepreneurs to guard ourselves from the money trap. I’ve got a bunch of friends that do the San Diego beach house / Ferrari thing and I’ve seen first hand that there’s something really stressful about it.
Once they put that out there they have to keep feeding that image. It changes everything – where you shop, how you travel, what you wear, etc. And for a lot of them its really just vapor. They made enough money to really allow a stable amount of freedom and they chose to purchase a smoke and mirror act instead. I hate to sound so condescending but I think I’m a little bitter about it on their behalf. Its just such a waste.
I drive a Kia. My wife drives a Toyota. Our house is 1,500 square feet. From the outside looking in we’re doing “just fine” but we also have literally zero debt. Our cars are paid off. Our home is paid off. We own some multi-family property that helps diversify our income a little. I have zero stressors related to finances and I honestly believe that it makes me a better entrepreneur. I can take risks my beach house buddies can’t take.
I can go without a paycheck if that’s ever something that needs to happen. I also get to act with more integrity when I make financial decisions. We’ve all been in positions where we took a Client we shouldn’t have just because we needed the money. I think aiming for freedom instead of opulence is a higher principle for an entrepreneur and it positions you to make better decisions and act in a way that’s more congruent with your values which is ultimately more fulfilling. See, I went all full circle and stuff.
Which book has inspired you?
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the single most important book I have ever read. Its not a sexy read and there’s nothing inherently exciting about it. its just good, wholesome stuff. It is to books what vegetables are to food. You aren’t going to love it but there’s just nothing better for you. Also – I’m not sure why I’ve dropped two food analogies. I’m not a foodie or anything, it just happened.
I also really loved Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. I think a lot of entrepreneurs are probably pretty active thinkers and there’s an immense amount of power in learning to look at that predisposition from an alternative (and maybe more productive) paradigm.
What do you think is the coolest technology out there, and why?
I think Google is one of the greatest things to ever happen to things since things were invented. I love how high integrity Google is with its ranking system and how it just continues to improve itself. It sounds so obvious but the internet would be a fraction of the value without search and the Google machine is just such a phenomenal search tool. I really wish Google Plus took off. I thought the concept of compartmentalizing and contextualizing your connections was brilliant and maybe just a little ahead of its time. I love Google now and am excited to see what predictive search turns into.