Below is the audio and transcript of the most recent Smartups with Jeb Banner, CEO of SmallBox. I will post this transcript here for now, but in the future we will be posting them on our site, once we get the new one live.
So tonight I’m very excited for this first one. I wanted a really good speaker so I figured we’d ask Jeb because he’s one of the better speakers I know of, and he talks about something that’s really interesting and about how businesses as they try to help create greatness among people and help people reach for that inside their businesses.
Jeb started SmallBox in 2006. He’s a serial entrepreneur and he’s got a lot of great experience in how he’s grown SmallBox from a web development company, as they say, to something a lot more, to being an integrated web services company, marketing company. So I want to, if we could, give Jeb a warm welcome and we’ll turn it over to him for the remainder of the night.
[Jeb Banner, CEO SmallBox]
Thanks, Tim. Hello. How are you guys doing? It would be better with some beer I realize, but we’ll get that. At the Speak Easy not only do you have to speak, but you have to be a sound engineer. Thank you, Tim, for having me. I’m really honored to be the inaugural speaker here and I think there’s a real need for this kind of meet-up. There’s a lot of emphasis on technology, a lot of emphasis on startups, but how can a startup market themselves? How can they build their brand?
It’s a unique challenge because branding has changed. Marketing has changed. A lot of companies that are around right now, they started when branding was in its old phase, and I’m going to talk a little bit about that. And it means a different thing today to build a brand and you have to approach it differently. But I’m going to start with my story and then I’m going to move into some high-level recommendations for a startup, not necessarily just marketing related, but in preparing for this meeting I actually did a count of how many organizations I’ve helped start or cofound and I realized it was eight.
And I was like, “Wow. I guess I should know what I’m talking about.” I still feel like I make it up every time, but there are a few things I’ve learned along the way that I want to share that seem to be consistent across those experiences. And I want to talk a little bit about brand of course, and then I want to move into language because to me language is really critical, and then talk a little bit about software and work itself.
So I think of myself as an accidental entrepreneur. I wanted to be a rock star. I didn’t think business was cool at all. I played music growing up and I really wasn’t paying attention to my dad who was running this business. And I realize looking back on it that he was teaching me things like how to delegate and how to lead. So when I went to college I think I attended about as many shows as I did class. It was a pretty even mix, and one of the things that I really got into was promoting. I was working in a club and putting together shows. I was a janitor, the door guy, the booking agent, and I was doing all these things but I still didn’t think about myself as an entrepreneur or a businessperson.
I thought of myself as a musician. And a point came where my dad said, “Hey, I’ve got to retire. Do you want to take over the business?” And I said, “No. I don’t see myself that way at all.” So life went on and I did not become a rock star, surprisingly, and I was taking a walk one day after I moved to Indianapolis in 1998 and I ran across a friend and said, “Hey, Dan Ripley is looking for an assistant.” I was like, “What’s he do?” “He’s into antiques.”
So I went and I met Dan and he hired me on the spot and I fell in love with antiques. So I took my girlfriend at the time, my wife now, Jenny. We went on a road trip and I had $1,000 – I don’t remember why I had $1,000 – and I went and blew it on antiques. I bought all the antiques I thought were cool because now I’d been doing this all of six months, and I brought them back to Dan. I laid them at Midland Antique Mall and I said, “Hey, look at this stuff. You want to buy it?”
He said, “No, but have you heard of eBay?” I said, “No. I haven’t heard of eBay. That sounds really interesting.” Another six months later and I had started my first business called StuffE. And we started that by buying a large record collection which then turned me into a record collector, which is a habit I haven’t kicked yet, and I was off and running and suddenly I was an entrepreneur. So I fell into it kind of backwards, not the normal way of actually sitting down, thinking I want to start a company, but more like I had stuff I needed to sell. How am I going to sell it?
And suddenly I’m taking consignments. And from there I realized that I actually was pretty good at it. I built out a system. I could handle inventory. I could market things. I could sell them. I could fulfill. I could pay consigners. I could hire people. I’m like, “Hey. All this stuff my dad taught me is coming back almost like he had programed me in my sleep.”
And then Dan came to me, after I had quit working with him. He said, “Let’s start an auction house.” And that’s when we started Antique Helper in 2001 and we used eBay live systems to bring live auctions to the Internet. So you could bid online and live, and that went gangbusters, better than we thought. And we grew very quickly, but by the end of 2005 I was getting burned out. If you know the auction business, and Jerome here knows it a little bit, it’s all about stuff. Stuff, stuff, stuff.
And I was interested in building things, not moving things. You tend to just move things around a lot. You take things from one estate, bring them to the auction house, and move then into another. And I really enjoyed building things and we’d been building websites during that time, including the Antique Helper website, database-driven websites in MySQL. I was working in phpMyAdmin. I was like, “This is awesome.”
We built a site called Musical Family Tree around that time in 2004 and that’s when I really got hooked. I was like, “All right, this is it.” It was an online archive of Indiana bands and I fell in love with the web in a big way. I figured people would pay us for this so I left Antique Helper at the end of 2005 and took my buddy, Joe, who is the developer I was working with, and we started SmallBox. And the first thing we did is we went and pitched NUVO Newsweekly.
We had built all of two websites at this time. We didn’t know really much about what we were doing, but somehow I sold them on it and we built NUVO a new website in six months. A little bit after that we ended up connecting with a company called MediaSauce. Your next speaker next time, Brian, was affiliated with way back when and then we ended up building websites with them, and learning a lot about how agencies work, and that was a crash course in a whole ‘nother level of business.
SmallBox since then has grown from 2 people to about 20. We focus on fully-integrated web marketing services, so building that website, marketing that website, and increasingly even do consulting around the organization itself. I want to explain what culture-powered marketing is because I think it was up here earlier and you’re probably going, “What the hell is that?”
The further we got into this we realized after we built a website, okay. Now we need to get people there. That’s SEO. Then we get into marketing and we get further and further and further, and we realize that this website was just an amplification of the organization’s voice. It’s like an amp like this. It was amplifying their voice, and we also recognize that if that voice wasn’t ready to be amplified, it wasn’t good for anybody to have it amplified.
No one wants to hear a bad voice, an unhealthy voice. We realized that the health of the organization, specifically the culture, was critical for the marketing that we were doing. And if the culture was not healthy, the marketing would not have the impact and in fact, if anything, it may create more problems than solutions. So when we talk about culture-powered marketing what we’re talking about is thinking about the health of that organization and working with them to make sure that it’s ready for marketing because not every organization is ready for marketing.
So that’s kind of the background on that. I want to talk high level. Who’s starting a company right now? So you’ve got a lot of people that are in startup mode. The thing that I made mistakes on a lot early on were struggling with the difference between the vision I had for the company and the opportunities that company was presented. Opportunities versus vision. You’ve got to make payroll, right? You’ve got to pay the bills.
You’ve got to get money in. Work is going to come your way that pays those bills but may not be in your wheelhouse. It may be something quite far afield from that. Be very intentional about straying from your vision. Almost every business I’ve started looks radically different a year later and I think that’s okay, but be very conscious of it. What happens is a lot of organizations wake up three to four years later and suddenly they are nothing like they thought they’d be.
They’re doing work they don’t believe in. They’re doing a large selection of work instead of a focused group of work, right? They’re doing everything under the sun because they just needed to pay the bills. So one recommendation to you is be very intentional about the opportunities you seek and accept because as you have success your opportunity pool will increase and the first inclination of an entrepreneur is to do what? Go after the opportunities, to find a way to monetize them and serve, serve that need.
So be very intentional about that. Another thing I’ve noticed – and I’ve talked about this in the past, but I’ll mention it again – is when you start a company you’re in superhero mode. Everybody in the organization is essentially a jack of all trades. Everybody’s doing every job, and especially the founders are superheroes. They’re designers, and coders, and salespeople, and accountants, and there’s a lot of ego in that and that’s just the nature of it is that you have a lot of pride in the fact that you’re carrying this company on the back.
But a mature organization is not served well by superheroes. A mature organization is served by servants, leaders that put the organization’s needs first, not their ego or their need to be busy and active and have the business dependent upon them. A lot of founders get into co-dependency mode where they stop thinking about what’s best for the company and just think about how they can provide value. They want to look like they’re valuable.
You get stuck in this mode of thinking, “I need to do these things.” They have trouble delegating, trouble letting go. Maybe you’re not the right person to run that business. Maybe you were the right person during startup but not later on. So you have to switch your mindset from being a superhero to a servant and that’s a hard switch to make and it’s one that I’ve been undergoing with SmallBox. And it’s like how can I best serve this organization? And it’s part of wearing two hats, master and servant.
Master because you’re an owner and you’re sitting on the hill and you’re looking down at your business and you’re thinking, “How is my business doing?” Servant because you’re in the business serving that business, and it gets very messy sometimes when you have to move between those two roles. And I recommend that you structure your business so that you have regular strategic or quarterly, whatever you need, meetings so you have that ownership conversation separate from that servant/leadership conversation, in other words, a leader within the organization.
I think you need to think about the CEO role and the founder role as being two different things and distinguish those things in your work and communicate that way to your staff. “I’m speaking as the owner. I need more money.” “I’m speaking as a CEO. We need to serve our clients.” It can get messy. Expect your team to change as you grow. Again, this gets back, the same people that served that organization well during startup may not be the ones that serve it well later, including yourself.
So expect team changes to happen and prepare your team for that and say, “This is healthy. This is a sign of growth. It’s not easy, but it’s a healthy thing.” I would recommend you place a premium on your time early on. This gets back to, again, thinking about how to truly serve that organization. Delegate as much as possible. Give up control as much as possible.
Let others carry that vision, but place a real premium on your time, and I recommend that the premium should be spent on people, not on technology, not looking at screens. There’s time for screens, but most of the time a leader should be in front of people if you’re in a leadership role. If you’re a programmer then obviously you’ve got to program, but try to be face to face with people as much as possible because that’s how you’re really going to inspire and lead.
And then this last one transitions to branding, but focus as much on building your organization, your company’s language, as building your product. So many people rush into building their product or service and they don’t think about the language of their business. Your language is your operating system. You have to build that first and that gets into really defining why are you here? Why are you on this earth?
Why does this business exist? Why do people get up in the morning to come here? What is your mission? How are you trying to execute that purpose? What is your vision? What does it look like when it’s been accomplished? What are your core values? How are you going to behave?
The core values are so valuable and I missed that for years. We have three core values: curiosity, collaboration, and growth. And we use those all the time to consider how we hire, and how we behave ourselves, and how we engage our clients. Beginning with curiosity. Why are you in business? How can we help you? What’s going on?
Collaborating with them on a solution, and then being in a state of perpetual growth, leveraging and amplifying that solution. Identify your core values. Build your language like you build your product. Your product is full of language. It’s got to come from somewhere. If you don’t do that intentionally early on you won’t stand out and your marketing won’t have any sizzle to it.
So brand, in my opinion, is 90 percent language. It used to be the other way around. This is how brand has changed. I talk about this like with icing and cake and I think about it in the old days was you had the company say, “Here is our cake, oh great ad agency. Please go sell it.” And the ad agency would say, “It’s kind of crumbling, and falling apart, and tastes like shit, but you know what? We’ll sell it.”
They put icing on it. They make it look nice. They put it in the window. They get people to show up. They take a bite. It tastes like shit, right? They have no one to tell. They didn’t have a phone in their pocket. You have a phone in your pocket. It’s changed the way marketing and branding work. Now 90 percent of brand is language. It’s us talking about that brand, that brand talking about itself.
It’s flipped the paradigm and it’s made it very important to create a good cake, to create a good experience. You can no longer trick people with just a nice slogan and logo, right? It has to go deeper than that. So when you think about your language – this gets back to building it out – you have to figure out what is the meaning behind your business. You have to build your meaning in the business.
You can’t just put together a bunch of catchy words. It has to have real resonance with you. I often think about a business as an instrument. You have to tune it, and when you tune it and it’s all in alignment, it sounds beautiful. When it’s out of tune, once again, like an unhealthy voice, it sounds terrible.
So as you build out your language and there’s a lot of ways to do it. We do a lot of whiteboarding with clients, but I think the main thing is is just be intentional. When you start using those core words – you’ll hear me use these words again and again, curiosity, amplify, greatness. These are things that are part of our language and I use them all the time. Use them.
The leadership has to use them. If the leadership is not speaking that language, no one in the organization will and then your marketing will not represent it and it will be fake and inauthentic. There’s a great quote from IBM’s CEO. She said the biggest change to data, big data and the web, is bringing is it’s forcing organizations to be authentic. I often think about the web as a big spotlight on businesses and it’s just going in there and saying, “Here’s the whole thing. Here’s the warts and all.” And that forces you to be held accountable from that transparency.
It forces that authenticity. You either choose to accept that or you run away and hide from it. That’s the choice the web gives you. You can go hide and you may or not survive for a little while, but chances are you’re not going to make it. So once you have that language that’s when it gets into marketing. Marketing is really just taking that and broadcasting it across what we call the digital ecosystem.
You’ve got your website as the hub and you’ve got all of these other things around it with e-mail, and social, and search, you name it, video, et cetera. I’m not really going to talk about tactics. I figure you guys can research tactics. I want to talk more high-level thinking. If you don’t take that language seriously, it doesn’t matter how good your tactics are.
You may trick some people initially into buying your product, but they’re not going to spread your message very well. They’re going to spread whatever message you make up about your product if you’re not being intentional about that language. So marketing has changed. Brand has changed, and I think that if you want to think about it on a high level, marketing is no longer a discrete function.
It used to be you had the marketing department and it served that purpose. Marketing is now everything. It’s HR. It’s obviously sales. It’s everything around the experience of your company, your brand, your product, your service. So it’s gone from being this very discrete, often outsourced function to being something which is completely pervasive across the organization, and that’s a big shift.
So when you start your company, think about that. Everybody’s in marketing. Everyone’s a brand ambassador. It’s not just the marketing person. They’re just leading the charge, but they’re not the whole army. Your team is.
I’m going kind of fast here because I want to do Q&A which is the fun part. I want to talk about software a little bit. I think that we get a little enamored around software and code. We’re living in the golden age of programmers. If you’re a programmer you can make a good living right now and that’s great. I think code will become a commodity in the next five to ten years.
It’s already becoming commoditized. Coders are coding themselves out of a job. It’s a matter of time before we simply talk to machines and they build what we want. Designers will be the premium. It’s about designing the experience. So when you think about how you’re building your company and the emphasis around code, I would encourage you to think into the future and think about how these tools are becoming more and more automated. And I don’t think coders will be the premium that they are right now.
Designers will be a premium. Creating and designing experiences. Strategic planners. People that understand how to use language and design will be very important to businesses in the future. I want to finish saying something about work because I’m obsessed with work. I personally get really upset when I see people doing work that brings no meaning in their lives, and I think a lot of the reason you guys are here is because you’re starting a business that you hope creates meaning, not just more stuff, right?
We don’t need more stuff. We’ve got plenty of stuff. You’re trying to create meaning, build meaning in people’s lives – your life, your employees’ lives, your customers’ lives, the community. I would encourage you to keep this as your focus. There is a huge difference between an inspired employee that is passionate about their work and somebody who is talented but begrudgingly doing their work and hates everything that comes their way.
It’s exponentially different, and you all know this but when you build your business the temptation – this gets back to opportunities – will be to go after opportunities that your people don’t really like or enjoy or love or care about and you’re going to say, “We need the money.” And it’s going to kill them, and they’re going to lose their spirit, and you’re going to lose them. So focus on creating a meaning for your employees. In turn, they will create meaning for your customers who will then do the marketing for you.
I believe a healthy organization, an authentic organization, pretty much markets itself. So that’s my spiel. Any questions? What do you think? Am I full of shit?
You mean like standing out and being unique? That gets back I think to being an authentic organization, one that is, again, creating meaning, not just stuff. That purple cow is essentially something that – it’s like the iPad. It’s something you had to have you didn’t know existed, right? That’s a purple cow in many ways. It’s having the vision to see something out there and you can’t do that unless you have an organization that’s committed to being very innovative and disruptive, right?
And you can’t have that if everybody hates what they’re doing. So I think it’s a bit of a stacking thing is that you create purpose and meaning for people. They’ll give their heart and soul to that business and they’ll come up with ideas that innovate and disrupt and marketing them then almost becomes a byproduct. Does that answer your question?
It’s very challenging. We deal with that a lot with our clients. Baby steps. Awareness is number one. One of the things I recommend is the organization do the Five Dysfunctions of a Team test. It’s 15 questions. It’s very easy to do. Trust. Conflict. Commitment. Accountability. Results. Those five areas are critical to a healthy culture so that you have – five dysfunctions, Patrick Lencioni. So creating awareness and then dialogue around that.
Why are we afraid of conflict? What is it about conflict that makes us pull back? I’m not talking trust falls. I’m talking conversation, being willing to engage in conversation. Usually during that time, in my experience, organizations that start to change, people leave. Some people leave. They opt out. Some people are told to leave if they’re really dysfunctional and that signals to the rest of the team that this is legitimate.
I’m not saying that’s a requirement, but usually that’s a sign that change is happening is that there’s some turnover. But the number one thing that needs to happen is the language of the organization’s leadership has to change. The organization’s leadership has to be very intentional about how they use their words. They have to be very consistent in what they’re saying. Otherwise, it’s all BS to their employees, right?
So I think awareness and then it requires really strong leadership, sticking to their guns, and building that language. There’s a lot more to it, but on a high level. I know there’s more.
Yeah. It’s like, “We’re doing culture this month,” kind of stuff. Persistence. I can’t say I’m a real pro in that situation because there’s a breaking point for me personally as a consultant where I’m like, “Either you guys are committed and in this for the long haul or I’m not involved.” It’s wasting my time and their time, but the main thing – one thing I heard someone say once, “We already worked on culture. We’re done.” Obviously that’s an awareness thing of – it’s like saying you’re done exercising.
You’re not done exercising. So I think that there’s some – again, this gets to leadership and accepting that change is required. If they don’t really believe that change is needed then we can’t help them. Nobody that does this can help them, and this is not a mature service for us. Our mature service are websites and marketing.
This is something we’re passionate about, that we talk about a lot, and that I personally do some consulting as well as some of the other team members. So we don’t have a mature service around this. This is more a thought leadership thing for us, if that makes sense. And I think when you think about your company and marketing you have to have your core services and you have to have your thought leadership as well that’s kind of tugging you into the future.
And this is that and we’re building them out as we go. Does that make sense.
I was an English major. Cheers. I was raised a Christian. I’ve reformed since then. No offense to Christians. I have high respect for them, but one of my favorite Bible passages is “In the beginning was the Word.” I’m like, “Wow.” Language is that powerful. It created existence and I think there’s something to it.
It’s like there is the ability to build your reality using language, and as you build that you bring others into it and then they build it as well. And it becomes organic and that’s the culture – that’s why I call it an operating system. Your language really is your operating system. Be very intentional with what you say.
Patrick Lencioni has a great quote. He says CEOs should call themselves CROs, chief reminding officers, just reminding people all the time. This is why we’re here. This is what we’re doing. This is how we’re going to do it. And the more I get into this whole CEO role the more I recognize that I’m best when I’m like that, but the weird thing is is that’s not what I’m necessarily inclined to do.
I’m inclined to walk in the room every day and say, “Look at this shiny object.” So I have to discipline myself – this gets back to wearing a couple hats, saying as a CEO my job as a servant of this organization is to be focused and repetitive while still sounding fresh every day and that’s really hard. But as the owner of this business I get to sit on the hill and think about how can we be innovative, and disruptive, and throw a wrench in this whole thing.
And so we’ve had to learn to box disruption which is why we do a Factory Week every six months where we take a week off from client work and we just focus on disrupting ourselves because if we didn’t have that space – we’ve been doing it over two years – and if we didn’t have that space in the past it was like being constipated. It’s all these ideas got bottled up that then started distracting us from our focus, but we needed a space for them organizationally.
And I need a space for them because I was going crazy because I couldn’t get to these things. Anything else?
How do you get to the turning point where you go from the outbound to the inbound, essentially the switch. That speaks to brand, and it speaks to who your audience is, how big that audience is, whether you’re dealing with repeat – what’s your industry? Repeat clients? New clients? So it’s different for every industry and business somewhat, but I’ll speak for myself.
We turned that corner when we started to be very intentional about why we were in business and that was about two years ago, when we started doing Factory Week. So we started saying why are we here, not just what are we selling. And we started attracting people around the purpose of our business. Our purpose statement is to do great things.
That may be a little bit vague and big, but to us it means partnering with people to have a really positive impact and to create meaningful work that we can then broadcast through the web. So we know what it means to us. So as we started saying that to ourselves, once again language, we started doing that kind of work in the community and then that started to attract. I think the number one rule of marketing should be let others praise you.
Let others do your praising. It drives me crazy and we struggle with this, I’ll tell you that, when brands are just like, “Look at us. Look at us. Look at us.” It’s so much better when you’re saying, “Look at this cool thing these people are doing here.” How much more powerful is that? So we’ve tried to focus on that, like how can we go and find things that we love in the community, and how can we support those things, and help make them happen?
We feel that if we just give back, the energy will return to us and we’re not worried about it being specifically one type of return or another, but you start building your brand around that contribution. And I think that you see that with really strong brands is that they just want to – they want to create an impact, not make a sale. And so I think when you start doing that you start becoming magnetic and you start to attract opportunities.
But first you’ve got to know who you are. I think 90 percent of businesses don’t know who they are, really know who they are. So it’s hard for them to be magnetic because they don’t even know what they’re trying to attract. They just want money and money’s not a purpose; it’s a byproduct.
He’s asking do we do anything to give back to small businesses that don’t have the budget to work with us. So pro bono work for businesses. Well, that’s okay. I’m not against it. We do more with nonprofits. I’ll tell you a little story about how we built up our nonprofit business, totally accidentally. About five years ago our design director, Lydia Whitehead, came to me and said, “Hey, I want to do this thing called a 24 Hour Web Project where we pick a nonprofit. We do a website in 24 hours.”
And I said, “Sure. Let’s do that. It sounds fun.” We did Second Helpings’ website and then after that we did Madame Walker and we’ve done a bunch of others. We’re about to do Partners in Housing here in October. That has done something really interesting, not intentionally. It’s created a really strong brand for us in the nonprofit sector.
So we went and we just gave back to that community and we said, “We’re just going to give you a website. No strings attached. We just want to have an impact.” We found that if we spread out our giving across all these little touch points, if we didn’t have the impact of our whole team obsessing over one project. When it comes to business, our way of giving back for small businesses has been more like this space, which I was a co-founder of the Speak Easy, and the desire here was to create an environment for people like you to come and connect with other people that are starting out, to share resources and to pay very, very little money to use a space that can help your business grow.
And it’s done that for a lot of businesses. What you need is at this point connecting to the right people who can help you get further, I’m guessing, right? So this is about creating a habitat. I often talk about this being like the soil, not the seeds. You’re the seed. You come into the soil. So that’s more the way we think about that, but I’ll tell you.
I meet with almost anybody that comes my way. I spend time with people. A lot of my team does all that. Some of the developers aren’t quite as social, but that’s the way developers are.
How do you sustain a brand or culture going forward? We have a chief culture officer, Sara, who’s sitting back here checking her phone, probably tweeting something. We’re very intentional about investing in it. Her job is HR and marketing because I firmly believe that HR is marketing. The people you hire are the frontline in your marketing. They’re creating that experience.
They’re your brand ambassadors. So we’re very intentional about it. We have cultural institutions. We have boxes. In other words, like Factory Week, 24 Hour Web Project, Nice Grants, Think Kit, Musical Family Tree, these are all things that we have that we maintain. We have a mural we just did in our new building on the bottom that tells the story of SmallBox with all those institutions.
Storytelling is very important for businesses. I’ll just tell you a quick little side thing on that. They did a study about families and they found that families that had a strong narrative were much healthier and happier than families without a strong narrative, like where the kids to the grandparents could tell the story of the family. And the most powerful narrative is the one where there was a lot of ups and downs but an overall upward trending arc.
I think it’s the same as businesses. Businesses are different than families, I’ll say that. But I think that businesses need to build their story. So often business is focused on the future, not the past. There’s a time to be able to stop and say, “Hey, this is our story.” When new people come in, whatever it might be, you need to build your story. So I think telling your story to yourself and then letting people add to that story as they come on, I think that’s one of the ways to create some consistency with your culture. But culture is not stagnant. It always changes. [Applause] Thank you. I appreciate it.