Aaron Burnett is the Founder and CEO of Seattle-based Wheelhouse Digital Marketing Group. Wheelhouse is an award-winning digital agency and has made the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Companies list three times in a row. Aaron is here with us today to discuss diversity in the workplace and what Wheelhouse is doing to create a culture of inclusion.
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[00:00:44] Hello, everyone, Chris Snyder here, host of the Snyder Showdown, president at Juhll Agency, and founder of Banks.com. On this show, we take a no B.S. approach to business success and failure. Told you the stories of the top entrepreneurs and executives who have lived them. Join us today as we get the unfiltered backstories behind successful brands. Just a quick word from our sponsor. Today's show is sponsored by Banks.com, the world's most comprehensive and trusted branding and discovery platform for banks and banking related products. Banks.com is aligning consumer core values with trusted financial institutions, bringing attention and awareness to leading financial brands. To learn more, go to Banks.com forward slash partners or you can send an e-mail to info at Banks.com. OK, without further ado, our guest today is Aaron Burnett. He is the founder and CEO of Seattle based Wheelhouse Digital Marketing Group. Wheelhouse is an award winning digital agency and has made the INC 5000 fastest growing companies list three times in a row. Aaron is here with us today to discuss diversity in the workplace and what Wheelhouse is doing to create a culture of inclusion.
[00:01:58] Welcome, Aaron. Thanks very much. It's great to have you here. A fellow agency comrade. So it would be a fun conversation. Thank you. Thank you for coming today. Before we kick this off, though, tell us a little bit about your upbringing, where you grew up and how you got to where you are today.
[00:02:17] Sure. All right. I grew up in a small town about 90 miles south of Seattle, little town called Edna. When I say small, I mean really small. The high school had 150 students total. I went to school there until 11th grade. I finished the curriculum in that high school, switched to another larger school to finish out my high school career.
[00:02:40] I think I listened to an interview that you had with Lee Mills where he talked about his background and growing up in Lubbock Test, Texas. Yeah, that was a great place to grow up. It wasn't a place that he'd necessarily want to go back and live, work, visit a lot. And that was this for me, right? A little bit of a fish out of water and a place that was great to be from, but a place that I was interested in moving away from as well. When I went to school at Washington State University and studied communications, graduated from college, and I kind of had wanderlust decided I wasn't ready to jump in and get a job. I wanted to go traveling. I worked in restaurants to pay my way through college. And I met a guy working in a restaurant here in Seattle, just come back from a year traveling in Southeast Asia. And he had some great stories and great adventures and that sounded pretty good to me. And so I bought a one way ticket to Bangkok, Thailand, and started traveling. There had been in Southeast Asia for about five months. When I met a girl on an island off the coast of Malaysia, Growth New Zealand, who just started her travels, we hit it off and stayed up till 3:00 in the morning talking and met up the next day. And we were engaged six days later, married three months later from New Zealand. We're about to. Well, we I guess we just celebrated our twenty seventh wedding anniversary. Oh, wow. Yeah.
[00:04:11] So this is it. So this is an I don't know if you ever watch that show locked up abroad. Have you ever seen that show? I have. Yeah. Oh, my God. I thought you're gonna take this in a different direction and that shows crazy. I'm like, oh, here we go. Oh no, nothing.
[00:04:26] You got the you got the best story, which doesn't seem like it ever works out. Did you. You like, nailed this thing. So it's pretty. I go to Bangkok. Did you have a job when you got there or is it like so cheap? You're like. Look, I showed up with a thousand bucks. I'll figure something out. How did that work?
[00:04:44] I saved a bunch of money.
[00:04:45] So after I graduated, I went again to work in restaurants, work double shifts every day, pretty much seven days a week to save money and just went traveling. And it was really inexpensive. You could travel and live like a king, but maybe a prince for five hundred dollars a month. So it doesn't even seem real. It was fantastic. So I just went traveling and the plan had been that I was going to travel for a year in Southeast Asia and then I was going to go to Japan for two years. After that, I'd studied Japanese language and this was early 90's. So Japan was still very much a dominant economic force and in their ascendancy. And I'll just go work in Japan and purrfect my language skills. But five months in, I met Claire and she was on the way to Europe to travel. I was on the way to complete my travels and then go to Japan. Neither of us did that. We met, got engaged, travel together for a few more months. Went to New Zealand, got married. And the rest is history.
[00:05:45] So you got married in New Zealand. Does that make you a New Zealand resident?
[00:05:50] It does not. My kids are dual citizens, so they can go. My wife and my daughters could go to New Zealand right now because of Kova. New Zealand's pretty locked down that only come in if you're a citizen. My wife and daughters can go. No problem. I would have to petition, especially as the spouse said, a citizen.
[00:06:09] Wow. But your wife's an American citizen because she's married to you. Right. She is a resident alien. So she has a green card. Oh, interesting. Yeah. Yeah. All that works. But I think you should go for the New Zealand thing given given the state of the chaos in our country right now. Maybe come back in six months. Yeah. Like, seriously entertain plans like that. Yeah. It seems a little dreamy.
[00:06:32] I read something where all the bazillion errors that it might not be New Zealand, it might be one of these, you know, Baltic states or Norse. Now it's New Zealand. Yeah. They're they're never really buying all the land, setting up server farms and, you know, crypto mining outfits. And I think, you know, if you say it's New Zealand out, your pipe is from there. But I'm just like I think they're locking down. They're not allowing that anymore because these guys are basically buying the goddamn country based on.
[00:07:01] Yeah, yeah, that's exactly right. They they put new restrictions on. Foreign citizens buying property there, particularly large pieces of property. I think they put that in place about a year ago. But you're right. There are some pretty notable Americans who have a lot of land in New Zealand.
[00:07:19] Yeah, yeah. Crypto in crypto mining outfits would suck a ton of energy. But the energy there is relatively inexpensive because they've figured out how to make energy relatively inexpensive, unlike us. We know how that works. But yeah, so. So you so you get married. And then what do you do? You come back to a boring life in the US, newly married and you're like, OK, shit. I guess I got to be a grown up now and get a job. Like what happened.
[00:07:46] Well it definitely came back and said, gotta get a job. And the thought was, you know, when you get a green card, you get a conditional, you get conditional residency and you have to sort of be in place and be stable's for two years and then that conditional residency becomes permanent. And so I did come back and look for work and I got my first job was a temp job with a company called The Cost Cellular, and it was a data job. So entAarong reports that had been manually completed by folks in the field into a database and about three weeks same, I'd noticed patterns in the data and went to the supervisor I was working for and said, here's what I'm seeing. I'm not hearing anybody talking about this, but this is what I see in the data. And it turned out I was right, which got some attention. And so I was hired as a permanent employee and then shifted to a marketing role. And I'll kind of skip some steps here. That division I was in was an in-flight colectomy division. So AT&T Wireless and before the Macross Cellular had an in-flight celebrity product called Air One. And my role was to build a group of 75 marketers who would fly on these aircraft to promote the product report on its technical performance and train flight attendants.
[00:09:02] And so this was this was, I think, Boingo Boingo in flight. Is is am I saying outright this was probably way before that, right?
[00:09:12] Yeah, this was. So this was before that. So I will tell you, though, that go go in-flight right now. Yeah. Still uses a lot of the terrestrial network that we built for this system.
[00:09:23] That's unbelievable. That is. Yeah. Again. So you're telling me that being a journalism and PR guy that's been traipsing around Southeast Asia and all these amazing places, you're a communicator. You come back, you become a data nerd. Was that an accident or did you always like data in college?
[00:09:41] And now I always like data. I was like data and technology.
[00:09:45] Yeah, that's that's interesting. So you're basically a data nerd. You find out this stuff and then you become a marketing guy in the way you sold this stuff, which you actually put human beings on airplanes to talk to other human beings about Internet to to evangelize the system.
[00:10:02] Yeah. So we're into train flight attendants. And so within a really short period of time, I was managing, you know, a seven by 24 operation with 75 employees. And did that for a number of years. And then sort of continued in my tenure there to build additional programs or take on additional departments until six years into working there, maybe seven. I became V.P. sales and marketing division. So so I was one of the youngest V.P. is in AT&T Wireless at the time and had really, really worked hard to get there. Got it. And found. OK. This is great. It hasn't entirely changed my life though. It's not it's not the brass ring that makes me feel completely so fully satisfied, which was a little bit alarming at the age of 31. Too hard for something. Get it and then find out.
[00:10:56] It's not all that I wanted. I.
[00:11:00] Transition then to working in smaller tech companies, because the thing that I really didn't enjoy about working at AT&T Wireless is that the more that it became AT&T, like, the more political it became all the more I knew you were going to say politics. Yeah. So this is a company that started to record about every six months now. And you and I both know right now, both in agencies, where really good, really good marketing strategy typically doesn't come to fruition in six months. No. So if you're working at a high level and marketing strategy, you don't have anything to show in six months. The only thing that you have to show that makes you defensible is the relationships that you have and the sort of political game that you play. And I really, really didn't like that. And so I shifted to smaller companies, kind of mid-market companies that were much more focused on achieving business outcomes, started to focus a lot on digital marketing. And as that became more prevalent and in particular on MCO. And again here, the intersection of a love for marketing strategy and data and technical acumen really put me in good stead. Ended up acquiring a half interesting UX design company with a couple of partners, built a search practice in that you X design company and you. Over the next couple of years, the search practice became bigger than the other side of the business. And so when I had the opportunity to buy my partners out of the search side of the business, I did and created Wheelhouse. Ten years ago, October 5th.
[00:12:34] Yeah. So it's interesting as you think about these dates. You know, I would say having working for AT&T during this time, I remember I graduated college in 98 and I remember the first kind of cell phone I got was an AT&T, Motorola, like it literally looked had a green screen.
[00:13:01] You couldn't send text messages that had a little tiny antenna. Sometimes it works, sometimes it didn't. It sounds like star tech. Yeah, I think they're calling plans were like three or four dollars a month or whatever. But my employer was paying for it. Right. Right. And then the reason why maybe SDM took off more than, you know, the SBM business started taking off because back then, Google, I don't think they went public until 2000 or 2001 or something like that. They were I mean, they I mean, they went on a public listing out like 80 bucks a share or some stupid shit. Yeah. And you could buy clicks for what would be you know, you'd pay twenty dollars a click in today's world for what you could buy for pennies back then. And nobody understood it. Right. Right. Let alone you are are you x right. Like most of the Web sites were flash. That was amazing. They put like a film reel on a on the Internet. Everyone was pumped about that. There's banner ads. And Google was like they were dominant at that time. So you got it. So it sounds like you got an SUV and you got an S.A.M. early and then you started Wheelhouse Digital Marketing Group based on MCO and SDM kind of best practice initially based on SVO.
[00:14:17] I've been helping people ride in this you X design company and kind of get in a consultative capacity. But I've always had this notion that, well, let me tell you what I saw on the market at the time. Right. So pretty early for SCA. I saw two different kinds of SVO entities are practitioners. I saw sort of Joe's house of SVO. Maybe a guy working out of his home office, has some technical aptitude, knows how to implement, but very little sophistication from the marketing perspective. So technically, do the work can't necessarily achieve a business outcome that has any value. You know, really early on, just as now, there is a lot of talk about best practices and SVO was approached almost like a recipe. You just do these things and everything will be great. And in the early days of SVO, that was true. That still didn't mean that the traffic that you got was worth anything.
[00:15:08] But you can look at look at list or look at eBay or look at Reddit. These are all probably perfect examples of amazing SVO, but maybe not so great on the rest of the marketing strategy and design.
[00:15:24] Exactly right. So on the other end of the continuum, there were a few agencies that did a pretty good job of combining strategic acumen with technical aptitude so they could implement and they could implement something of value. But they were also predatory in the way that they price their services, because there was there were buyers who were really ill informed. Lots of traditional marketers who didn't really understand what it was they were purchasing, didn't know whether it should cost five thousand or fifty thousand dollars. And so it seemed to me like there was a great opportunity in the middle of that market to. Well, come to bear with really sophisticated marketing strategy that focused on business value and an outcome that had meaning for the client and implement on their behalf with a high degree of technical sophistication and charge a fair price. And that proved to be the case. And so that was the genesis of Wheelhouse as an SVO entity. And then as we started to work with clients, we've really long term relationship. So, for example, I still work with the first client that I signed in 2010. Are you kidding me? No, we are a really long term relationship.
[00:16:33] This is really top secret shit here. I don't think I think the most. I think the longest when I went back and looked through all of our agency stuff. I think the longest we held a client was like twenty eight months, something like that on on on average. You know, clients attrite every 18 to 22 months. Right. So I guess you may have figured out some way to avoid being commoditization. You know, your competition or your client, either its pricing or something. So how is it? And it feels like I mean, you can't last this long in an agency world unless you figured something out. Sure. So what is it that you feel like you do differently and better to keep someone around for 10 years?
[00:17:23] Yeah. All right. So it's a combination of three things. The first is just foundational. It's the performance that we deliver. Yeah. Really good. And we'll do pretty much anything to deliver exceptional performance for clients. So, for example, I mentioned that client that we still have today, the first client that we we signed. This is the first SDM client. So for the last nine years, we have delivered an average of a 66 percent increase in return on ad spend. Year over year. And this is on millions and millions of dollars in revenue. So every year we get better and better and better for that. So from a business perspective, they can feel great about that. But the real thing that sets us apart is the way that values and culture come to bear on the way we engage with our clients or engage with one another. What we say and what is true is it's the experience of working with and for Wheelhouse that sets us apart. You and I are both agency guys, so we know that there are thousands and thousands of agencies. And of those thousands, there are hundreds and hundreds that will claim to be the very smartest digital marketers on the planet. It's a fool's errand to claim that we are the smartest. What we are exceptional at is is taking great care of our clients, looking out for their best interests, not being an agency that tries to monetize client relationships.
[00:18:47] Instead, we focus on being helpful and being generous with our time and having confidence that if we look out for our client's best interests and they look out for ours, that that's a super healthy relationship that puts us in a position where we know that we really are are caring for each other. We don't have to hold our wallets as we interact. We can just relax and get down to business. And we found the money works itself out after the fact. And then the other thing that we've been able to do to help us to drive performance is to take a super rigorous, data driven approach to the work that we do and to augment that data driven approach with some proprietary IP that we have developed that allows us to perform analysis and derive insights at scale in a way that others really can.
[00:19:33] And if they had to throw bodies at that, there would be have to be expensive analytical domain experts that would have to go in and maybe apply the same kind of rigor that you've already developed with software, which may increase your costs by 20 percent minimum.
[00:19:50] Yeah, well, the other thing is that we were talking just before we we started about churn on the employee side, which is problematic in an agency. So in the same way that we have really long term relationships with clients, we strive to have long term relationships with employees, too. So the SVP of Digital Strategy here has worked for me for seven years. The director of Digital Strategy five fellow Gav's my engineAarong just had his fifth anniversary. Same thing for the person who leads analytics. We have really experienced people who've been with us for a long time. And so the expertize they make that they can bring to bear is so profoundly different than another agency who has a recent college grad that they put through some digital marketing training. And so now you're RSG?
[00:20:40] Yeah, I feel like it's tough because, you know, you get on these Web sites, there's all kinds of options. And you're not discuss this a little earlier to, I think, competitive advantage as as we get older and we do this a long time. We just we've seen a lot of stuff. Right. And there's some pattern matching, whether qualitatively or quantitatively. You know, however you do your presentations. But there's pattern matching with everyone. And I think that an advantage of working with a firm that's been around for 10 years is more boutique or not. You know, it doesn't have 100 or 200 employees. People know each other. If they need something, they know they can contact the V.P. of strategy at eight or nine o'clock at night, be like, hey, Bob, we've worked together a long time.
[00:21:28] The new ice cream company ping me about this thing. Bob's probably more than happy to help out, right? Absolutely. You know, you get into these big, gigantic, politicized organizations, though, and it's like like why are you bothAarong me in my week? They don't have any personal relationships like that. Right. You hear about these cultures. No Amazons in your backyard. There's been a lot of PR negative PR about that culture. Obviously, they've they figured something out. There's no knockout cultures, culture. In my opinion, if you do want to work there, don't work there. Like that's that's on you. Right. You know, it sounds like what you've done is align your team with some some core values and aligned your clients with some core values that allow you guys to be sustainable. Yeah. Let's let's talk about. You know, you traipsed around Southeast Asia and you married someone from New Zealand. Let's talk about diversity in the workplace and inclusion and sustainability and in what you think that means to your firm and what you think it should mean to all of us. Yeah.
[00:22:31] Yeah. Well, so, you know, you touched on values. Let's kind of start there, because our values really are part of a jumping off point for why diversity is so critical for us. We've got core values here, five core values, two of which are kind of conventional for an agency being trustworthy and being good stewards of client resources. That would be true of pretty much any agency. The three that are pretty unconventional, though, right? So one is helpfulness. We believe that we exist to be helpful and our helpfulness isn't constrained by a statement. So we have digital advertising client. They get stuck with an engineAarong problem. They can ask us and we'll help. There's not going to be a change request. There's not gonna be an incrementalists O.W.. We're going to engage in other value, which is generosity. Right. So we we commit to being generous with our time, with our expertize and with our resources to looking out for our clients best interests with confidence to look out for our best interests, just like we're the nice people at work that we were before we came to work. And that would be a good, healthy relationship. And then the third is a notion of pursuing joy at work and joyfulness. I don't think that, you know, we talked about how agencies can be a grind, and that's true. They can be a grind. But I don't want wheel has to be a place where anybody comes to grind. I want this to be a joyful experience. Doesn't mean every second of every day is a delight. But if you're not getting joy out of your interactions with your peers, the work that you do, the things that you're learning, the clients you're working with, then you're in the wrong place or we're doing something wrong. So if you start with those values, there are there are some byproducts that come out of that. Right. So one is that we have is our mission. If we're gonna be one of the best places to work for as many people as possible, which is one of our our goals as a company, we want to ensure that all of our client are all of our employees feel known and cared for. If you're going to be going to feel known and cared for, you have to be known on every dimension, every aspect of your personal identity. We want people to feel completely at ease with whoever they are, whether that is their racial identity, sexual orientation, gender, all along any dimension. We want people to bring their whole selves to work. So that's sort of philosophically why we think it's important. We also think it's important because we have absolutely shown and there's a huge body of research around this data around this that proves this out, that the company works much better. The more diverse it is. If we go back five, six years ago, we were like pretty much all of tac male dominant. Maybe a little bit of a bro culture in some pockets of the company as well. Not any female presence on the leadership team at all. So an entirely male leadership team. Some tensions that were related to those two facts. And we really started to focus on diversity and inclusion, then went through a year long series of training. So three and four hour training sessions every two months focused on unconscious bias, how to have tough conversations, how to be allies for other people, how to interact with people in a way that makes them feel heard and understood and cared for and the change that came out of that. And then the work that we continued to do was pretty profound for us as a company.
[00:25:55] So you look at various you did this before all the stuff that we hear in the popular media. You did this a couple years ago. When did you start this journey?
[00:26:04] We did this. We did our first series of diversity, inclusion training in. Twenty fifteen or twenty sixteen.
[00:26:14] Oh, wow, you're well ahead of the curve. Well, it curve in your lane. Now, look, we know you're a privately held firm. Know your you you you only you only eat what you sell, right? Yeah. And you're taking dollars out of profit sharing, equity in the firm, your own personal finance to fund diversity and inclusion training sessions, right? Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So not only do you pay for programs, probably up professionals come in and teach these programs and give homework and all kinds of other stuff. You have to have people who are billable and our business, their billable paid for their time. You're pulling them out for three or four hours at a shot. Many people are attending these programs at your firm.
[00:27:01] Every person who was an employee. This is a lot of money. This is a lot of money. This is a big investment. Let's call it DOT, because that's what it is.
[00:27:10] So it is a big investment, but it makes a big difference in two ways.
[00:27:15] Right. So, one, there's the fundamental qualitative improvement in the way that the company works. One, more balanced. So we fast forward to today. We are 47 percent female. Our leadership team is up 40 percent female. We're ethnically diverse as well. We're not as ethnically diverse or racially diverse as I would like to be. Which is one of the things that we talked about as part of the Black Lives Matter discussions. But the company just just works much better than it did when we were an all male leadership team overweighted on the gender side as well. The other way that this makes a big difference and it's critical to make this investment. Aside from just issues of justice or societal benefit, is that we hire people who really care about the world and have a high degree of empathy. So the way that we cultivate and nurture those client relationships, that mean that we still work with this. That first client I signed 10 years ago is that people here have they're really good at at building and nurturing relationships. They're very empathetic. They're engaged with the world. They're engaged with causes. They're passionate. And so you mentioned Black Lives Matter. The moment that started to develop and the protests started to occur. I had lots of employees who were there and who were at the protests who really cared about what was going on. And one in particular who wrote an all company email saying, hey, this is what's happening. And this is on the first weekend that there were protests in Seattle. This is what's happening. She is a person of color. And she said, this is really important to me and here's why. And I hope I can get support from real House. And she didn't mean the company necessarily. She meant her peers. And the response to that from her peers was absolutely. And the response from the company and for me was absolutely. And so in this instance, what we did is, again, you're right, that time equals money. But I think your values really only count. There are only real if you're willing to spend money against them, invest in them, incur costs against the against them. Otherwise, they're just wall hangings. They're nice things that you say, platitudes to bring people in. So if you're willing to spend money, those values are real. And I'm willing to spend money against our about. So we've gotten together a number of times to discuss the situation, to develop a plan for engagement and response. We made all five thousand dollar donation to an organization here that we believe in. We matched any employee donations up to ten thousand dollars during the month of June. And we've again embarked on a new series of DGI trainings that start with an unconscious bias session. And in this instance, we spent more time than we thought we would. We spent six hours with every employee over the course of three different sessions, really delving into this and getting into the data and people's experiences and attitudes and our own implicit biases. And you're absolutely right that it is very expensive to do that, but it makes a big difference in. The engagement of employees, the confidence that employees have, that we mean what we say, we really care about the things that we say we care about and that we're willing to invest in causes that we think are just and worthwhile. And this is this is not new for us. We have what are called generosity days. Every quarter is a company. Every employee takes a day and can go volunteer their time to work for the organization. And we make financial contributions to each organization with which we work as well. So it's a muscle that we're working to strengthen all the time, and it's well developed. This is just a new context in which we're applying that same muscle now.
[00:31:12] Well, Aaron, I've got to tell you, I mean, there's companies that do billions of dollars, a quarter in profit that are, you know, a thousand times bigger than you guys. And they don't take, I don't think, the same effort or put the same kind of care into this stuff. I guess when applied by peer pressure, they do. But because we're doing this well before, you know, anyone told you that you should start thinking about it. It almost feels like it's an obvious thing to do, right, from a human standpoint. You see stuff. You hear stuff. All of us were raised with a certain set of morals and and principles and values. And, you know, I think it's time for folks to really just start stepping up and not only worry about their pocketbook. One hundred percent of the time, we've kind of lost our way a little bit as it relates to tech industries in general. I would consider the kinds of companies we serve, you and I and the kinds of things that we do are more tech ish. Right. We're not manufacturing. So. But it's been. Yeah, it's been it's been a it's been 20 years of, you know, a lot of probably, like you were suggesting, male dominated in the boardroom and the executive teams and some of this stuff. And I hope it does. I hope it does get better. I think it will. But they've got a lot of companies got to put their money where their mouth is, though. And, yeah, they've got to do what it takes. Yeah.
[00:32:34] And then you have to make practical changes.
[00:32:36] I mean, you have to be open enough and clear eyed enough to either identify where you're falling short, where, you know, let's say in the hiring process. One of the things that came out of their discussions that that we had around Black Lives Matter is OK. We focused on DTI in the hiring process, but we're not as diverse as we want to be, apparently, because we're we are partly because we're in tech. But still, we're not as diverse as we want to be. So how can we look at our hiring process and figure out what structure is, what processes might be in place that make it more likely that we don't hire a diverse candidate? More likely that we hire people who look like a majority white employees that we have here. How do we have the most diverse applicant pool? How do we ensure that the job descriptions that we have aren't accidentally biased in a certain way to weed out people based on gender or based on race or based on cultural experience? How do we ensure that the review process is blind, that we're using objective exercises and tests so that the objectively best candidate is absolutely assured that they are going to rise to the top in the process? And even though we've been working on this for years, we have a DTI committee.
[00:33:58] When asked the DTI committee to look at our recruiting process and our interview process, they still found things that we needed to change and improve on and we're still in process of doing that. I don't think that you're ever done with this. I think it's just a process of, OK. This is better.
[00:34:14] Not how we make it better than this, you know, is brilliant about what Amazon and Google did was. Amazon was spending so much money on their own operations and server farms and tech. They created Amazon Web Services because they were like, we worked so hard to figure this out, we're going to sell it to everybody else.
[00:34:37] Right. Have you thought of offAarong this as a service because you guys have built some muscles here, right? This would be something that I think you guys could really hammer down on.
[00:34:48] Yeah, I think we still have quite a lot more to learn and that there are others out there who are ahead of us from education.
[00:34:56] InfoSpace because they. Yeah. Yes. On it. Yeah. I think you know where I thought of that more is. We're pretty good at hiring. After 10 years of hiring, a specific kind of person who a good culture fit with us, which is quite difficult to do in which we learned by messing up a few times on the way. We're pretty good at that. And I have thought about offAarong that as a service.
[00:35:20] Let's talk about services. Kind of seen around corners. You've been around for 25 years. Plus you've seen a lot.
[00:35:31] We talked about SVO, we talked about SDM. When you see the next phase of marketing, what corners can you see around where we are evolving? Because candidly. You know, I kind of feel like, OK, Facebook hit the scene 10 years ago or among that range, whatever it was, really started picking up steam.
[00:35:53] And now it feels like everybody and their grandmother is a Facebook expert or a Twitter verse or whatever. So what's next? Right. I know SNAP had a good earnings call and I think they're doing some good stuff in more direct response and performance related. What do you see? Come on, man. Where are we going with this?
[00:36:16] Yeah, I guess. I will answer that kind of from the agency side where I where I think things are headed. On the agency side. What I'm I'm not seeing and am reacting to. So first, something that we talked about earlier on. I think the notion of discrete services and digital marketing is a risky path to pursue. Right. So if you're going to offer just MCO as SVO or just paper click as paper click and you're going to do it in a silo, you've got a bunch of clients who just get one thing from you. I think that's that's risky. First of all, just from a business perspective, you're not really developing much of a relationship potentially with them. But I think from a practical perspective, from the perspective of driving business value and avoiding commoditization, all of those things really are interrelated. At this point, they all fall or fall under the egis of digital strategy, particularly on the nonpaid side. So for us, in the same way that we have long term relationships, it's really common for us to have multi discipline relationships with clients. Digital strategy that includes MCO and Web development, engineAarong and content strategy and implementation and S.R.O. and some paid social promotion and paid search. And all of these things are a part of an integrated strategy. It's in delivAarong exceptional integrated strategy and then executing against that strategy that you can avoid commoditization in the agency world and avoid competing with you.
[00:37:51] And you're talking about freelancers, freelancers who say, I can do this work and I can do it for a few thousand dollars or a few hundred dollars a day or just kind of following a recipe have to be better than following a recipe. We actually consciously try to avoid using the phrase best practices because best practices aren't really worth anything. Any client can go read a list of best practices. It's understanding which aspects of each of these disciplines is most valuable and impactful to employ and focus on and to do that in Armenia's way that drives outsized business performance. So that's the first thing I really need to focus on digital strategy overall as opposed to siloed services. The second thing from an agency perspective is that I think that that increasingly the intersection of technology enabled service and digital strategy is kind of a sweet spot for agencies.
[00:38:45] I think if you're just employing human capital, human hours, time spent on a project without being technology enabled, you're not well differentiated, you're not defensible in market, and you still run the risk of commoditization.
[00:39:01] And that's that's more like potentially marketing automation. And everyone seeing the Martek landscape from Scott Brinker. It's like three out ten thousand companies doing Martek stuff. That's HubSpot sales force. Marketo, you've got all the power B.I stuff. You've got data studio. This is that's the those are the things you're talking about. Right.
[00:39:27] Well, I'm taking it a step further. So wheelhouse. We've actually focused on developing our own proprietary tech. And so I'll give you I'll give you an example. We developed a platform called Mosaic Mosaic. I can be applicable in lots of context, but let's think about it from a B2B perspective. You've got a B2B client, maybe got a roster of customers that have been successful for them. Let's say they've got a thousand and it's like any other business where 20 percent of those clients are raped and another 60 percent are OK, and then another 20 percent are not too hot or at the very bottom.
[00:40:04] They want more of the 20 percent at the top.
[00:40:07] So Mosaic uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyze the ideal customer for a client and then to bring in data from two other sources. Everything that's available online. So we have a hyper fast web crawl and crawl, two million pages a minute, and we have an API interface that allows us to to map to ingest data from third party sources. So we start with this roster of clients, ideal clients.
[00:40:37] We then discovered everything available online about those clients. We bring in third party data about those clients as well. That might come from government agencies, reports, other data sets, and we create a hyper granular profile of an ideal client. So here's the thing. You thought you knew about your client here, a whole bunch of things you had no idea you knew. We've looked at this data and we've evaluated revenue and we've used machine learning to understand which of these are most important. So now we really know what we're looking for. And Wilkins, it's super focused, which is great. Now we can take Mosaic and use that massive crawler that I talked about and integration with these other datasets. And we can go canvas the universe and we can come back with. All of the available bailable prospects in rank, order of pattern match against ideal clients. It's that kind of thing. So we have Mosaddeq, we have a bunch of other technologies that we use in content, auditing and strategy that we use to monitor sites from a search performance perspective for analytics, integrity checks and monitoring a whole bunch of things like that that enabled us to do things that others can't. At the same speed and at the same scale.
[00:41:54] How do you get the idea for this? Are you? I mean, I know we talked a little bit at the beginning about you being a little bit of a data nerd, but I've done some dev myself, started a few companies with developers and done some of that stuff. This is like this complicated stuff and this requires some pretty good investment. How the heck did you come up with this? Get into this? How did that work?
[00:42:17] We had another long term plant that had a problem. Right. And in this story, you'll kind of see how Wheelhouse responds to client needs and opportunities. And the reason we have such long term relationships that points. Problem is this. They're a consultancy. They help manufacturers to find more clients themselves and to optimize their manufacturing processes so that they have more revenue and that revenue is more profitable for every time they engage with the manufacturer. They drive fantastic performance. Their problem was they weren't well-known and they didn't know where to find other manufacturers with whom to engage.
[00:43:01] And so they needed a punch list and they had a defined geography as well. This was Washington state. That's their territory. So they needed a punch list of. All right, who were the manufacturers who are in these specific industries where we have a super solid track record that we should go talk to? And how do we know which ones we should talk to as well? So they came to us with this problem. And I have the good fortune of working with super smart people here from the very first days of wheelhouse. I always had engineers on staff. Implementation was always part of what we do. And as we've grown, the engineAarong challenges has become more sophisticated. And I have engineers, I have analysts and I have data scientists now. And one of the data scientists got together with an engineer and said, you know, we could build a thing. And here's how it would work and here's how long it would take. What do you think? And the client agreed and funded that development and we retained the IP and touch productize.
[00:44:00] That's awesome. Have you thought about. Well, two questions. Do you use this for yourself for agency prospect team? First question and then second question is, have you thought of products using that in licensing that as SRS?
[00:44:17] Answer the last question is yes, we were just starting to do that when Cauvin hit and we kind of pressed pause on that because we've been distracted by other things. We've we have used it for ourselves, but only to a pretty limited extent. Kind of funny in that, ironically, we've not had any sales or business development, any marketing or business development for the history of the company until probably 18 months ago or so. And the reason is that we've grown so quickly through word of mouth and expansion that we've never really had the capacity to ingest anymore. We talked about the fact I don't have investors. So this is all bootstrapped. We're growing based on cash flow that we've grown. Fifty five percent a year and five of the last six years just through referral and expansion. And so we haven't really had need or even capacity to undertake really broad prospecting, which is what Mosaad would provide. We might not know.
[00:45:19] Excellent problem to have. Yes. Let's talk about remote given Cauvin. We talked a little bit about office space. Thank you. And I have an opinion on the matter. We know that there are some larger companies that are going to not do what they said they were going to do with office space, which isn't a problem for me. I don't it's not a knock on them.
[00:45:41] They just realize that, you know, people are probably more productive and they enjoy work from home lifestyle a little bit more. I don't think we should transmute the office environment to somebodies home. I think this is going to require people to think, rethink the way that they run an organization, completely rethink it. I think we've done that here. I think you've done a flavor of that. Talk to us about work from home, some of the winds you've seen or some of the challenges you've seen and how you're going to come out of this this whole thing with work from home.
[00:46:17] Yeah. So we went remote on in Seattle. We were kind of the early epicenter of Kovik, remote March 4th.
[00:46:25] And so we're but six months out.
[00:46:28] And I have two contradictory reactions or kind of reports to how that's gone for us from a productivity perspective and a delivery perspective. The team's been phenomenal. If anything, I think many people on the team became more productive. We have offices, but mostly we're an open office environment. And so we already had people saying, listen, I got to work from home today because I have to do this. Heads down, Project Focus. You have got to focus. So the office already didn't work for a certain type of work or a certain type of project when people weren't remote. There weren't many distractions for most of them. And they did a great job of delivAarong the work, if anything, more efficiently than they did when we were in the office together. So that's been great. I actually don't have concerns about our capacity to deliver or be productive. I think what's been more challenging is, as you can tell from the discussion, we're really focused on culture and relationships and values and we've needed to figure out how to continue to nurture our culture and take care of people in a virtual context. And we're certainly a lot better than we were at the beginning of this. I think we're still kind of figuring it out. There's a lot about the way that we engage with one another that's based on being in the same space in spirit, experiencing things together, having informal conversations or having common experiences. And we've not been able to we've not been able to figure out entirely how to do that as a company yet. But we're getting there. Know, we started to do things virtually that we originally would have done collectively. So, you know, I focus on experiences. One of the things that that's been important for us is a company that we focused on is exceptional instances of hospitality. We want to develop really strong relationships with clients. We want to take exceptional care. So in what context and what experiences have we seen exceptional hospitality delivered? And what does that look like and what does that feel like? And so we've done things quite pandemic, like we had an oil company wine tasting and had a sommelier come in and had that experience. What does it feel like to do this? What is it like to savor this? And how can we deliver something similar to a client that has that feeling? It's not wine, but it has that feeling of being really well cared for and well educated by someone who is experts and then having a fantastic experience as a result. Those kinds of things we've started to figure out how to do in a virtual environment. We've had virtual wine tastings. We're actually about to have a virtual Payá cooking class that's like a rice pan.
[00:49:17] And then you see the like the street vendors or the was up Brazilian. What is that, Spanish? Spanish. Yeah, mazing. Oh, my God.
[00:49:27] It's really good. And it's a fun thing to make. So we'll do that. Collectively done cocktail making classes. We'll do a painting class, things that we can experience together, even in a virtual context. It's not a replacement for being in the same place together, but we're getting there. How do you think? Go ahead. Sorry.
[00:49:48] So moving from, you know, internal company pivot. How are the clients dealing with it? I know verticals have been hugely impacted. Hopefully that's not a big cut of your base, but obviously travel, hospitality, some of these guys. But how are your clients doing during covered and in what are some of the things that you could immediately focus to help them with that either you didn't do before? You're doing triple the amount of work on it now?
[00:50:18] Yeah, you know, we've really got we've got a mixed bag. Most of our clients have done very well. Some of them have done phenomenally well in this context, either because they're in an industry that's well positioned. Or just the business fundamentals research that they're doing well, particularly on the digital advertising side. Then you have some clients where spend has in some instances quintupled in this period of time and it's delivAarong are alive. That is as good or even stronger than pre pandemic. A few clients who, particularly in March, just kind of came out and said, we have to pause. We have no idea what's going to happen for us. In one instance, you know, it's a Sask business. The way that I get new customers is by getting on a plane and going and demoing. I had to demo because I'm selling to a fairly unsophisticated manufacturing constituency. And so it doesn't make sense to keep doing this. Have some folks in traveled who had to press pause immediately and in some instances have continued to press pause and other folks with other kinds of manufacturing who press pause for a time and came back. In every instance, our response was the same. A you get the sense for, you know. How little effort we put into rigidly holding anybody to a contract. So it didn't really matter what our contract said, if somebody said I'm my business is in trouble and I need to stop. We said, OK, let's stop. And what can we do for you to help you right now? Now, we don't care if you're paying us or not. Here are some things we've thought of that we should probably do for you. Let us know if there are things you thought of in some instances. In one in particular, we had a pretty significant analytics deliverable for our clients and it was putting in place instrumentation and tracking so that they could know what content they just published a whole bunch of new content in a new site, architecture. And what we were working on would let them know what content actually was driving revenue. And in that instance, they pressed pause and we said, great, we respect that, but we're gonna keep doing this work. And you just pay us at some point in the future when everything shakes out because you're going to need this information in order to make decisions in the future. And so it's really about a combination of empathy and understanding where people are and relieving at least the pressure of any financial burden that would would have been associated with our relationship and then being as generous and helpful as possible to give them what we can to help them get through this period of time. And in some instances, we've taken on a couple of clients in the endemic companies that had physical retail and just were completely shut down and needed to pivot and go online. And we've helped them go online at a loss so that they could save their businesses. The loss. I mean, the loss was ours. We did it for a fraction of what it would have cost otherwise.
[00:53:23] Yeah, well, and sometimes I got to tell you, there now is the time to kind of hold the line. I've been telling people that it's like this focus on growth and profit almost at all costs or any cost in a lack of focus on sustainability. I think we've all had to sacrifice quite a bit, whether it's a percentage of our salaries or whether it's snacks or lunches or whatever the whatever the perks may be. I think you realize that a lot of it becomes less important in the people, whether they be clients or whether they be staff. Like we just have to figure out how to hold the line. Right. Yeah. I totally agree. And as the mental switch happens, you'd mentioned a manufacturing client that couldn't seem to understand that or their clients couldn't understand that. You know, doing an important person demo is like a way of the past. I've seen very extreme acceleration with some of our clients and others that I've talked to where they are now embracing Zoom. And I think they just had to understand that. Yeah. In March, I think everyone thought would be over in three months. I was like, I don't think so. I don't think it's gonna be over. We have a vaccine candidly right now. They all probably realize like, oh, shit. Okay. I waited it out. It's not going away. So you better get your ass on Zoom, right? Better get on LinkedIn. You better start using tech or else you're just going to wake up. It's going to be. You're not going to. You're not going to know. You'll be irrelevant in a year. You will literally be irrelevant a year if you don't start doing some of the things like, you know, you and I. But on this wagon for a long time. But some folks, man, they still log into my Zoome calls and they don't show their face. They don't. They dialing with their phone like man. Are you guys still do not get it. You're not getting the memo like this is out right now. This is how it's done now. Right. So slack confluence JIRA, asynchronous communications, undistracted work time because, you know, moms and dads are now teaching their kids at home. So better planning and better project management. Know a little more forgiveness when the dog parks barks or the cat screams or the kid runs Binder's diaper while you're on the Zoome call.
[00:55:38] That's happening. All of it. Yeah, absolutely. There's nothing wrong with that. I mean, look, it took me a minute to be like, yo. We're having a business meeting here. And then it was like, well, wait a second. We're. Yeah, we're having a business meeting. But it's not possible. It's just the math.
[00:55:55] Well, we were talking about we are kids, right? People are trying to at business meetings and we have employees who maybe are working at a dining room table. Yeah. And you've got three kids behind them who are also trying to do online school. Yeah. And have questions and need help. And everybody is trying to figure it out all at once. And the degree of grace has been required.
[00:56:17] Yeah. Forgiveness, grace, innovation. I think we're gonna come out of this a lot stronger. I think it's on.
[00:56:24] If you're if you're stubborn and you're unwilling to see around this corner, I don't think it's that hard to see around this corner, by the way. It's going to be painful. So get with the program. Call Aaron. Call me. Email us. We'll tell you what to do. It only takes us like 30 minutes or an hour. It does give you all the tools. We give you our list. Right. You'll be fine. But you've got to do the work. You guys have to do the work we're doing the work. You guys gotta do the work. So as we wrap this up, we've got many years of experience, probably twenty five years plus. I'm guessing that doesn't date you. That just makes you a sage.
[00:57:04] Now, that's a really good guess. That's about right.
[00:57:07] So what do you have as words of advice for our mostly founder, entrepreneur, executive level centric audience that hopefully tunes into the show to get this kind of advice and hear these stories and maybe it helps them sleep a little bit better at night knowing that there's other people doing what they're doing and fighting the good fight. So what are your words of advice?
[00:57:34] Take my words of advice. They're probably different now than they would have been pre pandemic. But I'll tell you what I've thought about during the pandemic, and it's been a reminder of something that I knew before, and that is.
[00:57:47] Focus on the thing about your business that makes you passionate. The thing you truly and intrinsically care about. And make that your North Star invest in that, build around that. And you'll be able to create an existence, a career, a business that doesn't get old.
[00:58:10] That won't burn you out, but you'll still like to go to every day because you've focused on the core that has meaning rather than just the pursuit of money or some technology that you think is a passing fancy or exciting in the marketplace. Find the core that you care about and focus on that.
[00:58:28] I love that I had a call today with a coach in him and I were talking about that. But it's like, you know, when you're in it, you know, the bullets are flying and all this, you know, crazy stuff is happening.
[00:58:41] You have to really figure out how to take a step back and figure out what's important to you. Right. When founder of a firm or the CEO of a firm or whether you're a senior marketing director, I mean. You have to figure out how to just put the white noise on and go, OK. What do I love about what I do?
[00:58:59] And if you don't love it, then figure out what you love. Fade like is right. Miserable. Trust us. We've been there. You will be miserable if you don't figure that out. I don't know yet.
[00:59:10] Sometimes you don't. You don't want to wake up and find out that you're owned by your business.
[00:59:14] Yeah. Imagine that. Oh, this could be a whole nother podcast. So I'm going to shut this down, but I feel like we could go on for a lot longer. Aaron Burnett is the founder and CEO of Seattle based Wheelhouse Digital Marketing Group. Their award winning. They've made the INC 5000 fastest growing companies three times in a row. I think you said your business grows. Fifty five percent year over year for the last five out of six years. Correct. That's hard. That's bootstrapped. No v.c, no investor, no outside money. Run in your mofo business hard. Good job on that. Look these guys up. We'll put him in the show notes Aaron. I really appreciate your time today and all the best, you and your family.
[01:00:00] Thank you. You too. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thanks.
[01:00:03] Take care.