Ep. 111. - Hennessey Digital President & Chief Operating Officer, Scott Shrum

Ep. 111. - Hennessey Digital President & Chief Operating Officer, Scott Shrum

The CEO may be the idea-generator and visionary for the company, but the COO is likely to be the gatekeeper. This is what Scott Shrum is to Jason Hennessey. As Hennessey Digital’s COO, Scott filters Jason’s entrepreneurial ideas between what should be done and what should be put on the back burner. Starting out as a purely SEO agency for law firms, Hennessey Digital has branched out into paid ads, social media and other areas and has been recently named to the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in America. Join Cameron Herold as he gets a tour into the organizational dynamics of this vigorous company and the critical role that Scott plays in it.

Scott Shrum is President and COO of Hennessey Digital, a digital marketing firm that was named to the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in America. Hennessey Digital helps law firms, healthcare companies, and other businesses get found on Google through search engine optimization and paid ads placement. The company operates entirely virtually with about 80 employees in 17 states around the country. Plus, they have workers in Europe and Asia.

Scott describes his primary role as translating the founder’s vision into reality by coordinating the efforts of brilliant marketers and software developers all over the world. After graduating from MIT, Scott started his career in marketing and product management in the enterprise software space. Realizing how quickly the consumer internet space was growing in the late 1990s, he moved into digital publishing for several years before going back to school to earn his MBA at Northwestern.

After earning his MBA, Scott moved into a career in consumer-packaged goods brand management, which he credits with giving him many of the skills he uses today. Most immediately before joining Hennessey Digital, Scott ran a well-known national test preparation provider. Before that, the business was acquired in late 2018. Scott has had five main jobs since college, all in different industries, giving a broad perspective on how he successfully manages businesses, both large and small. Scott’s also a member of the COO Alliance. Scott, welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me, Cameron.

I didn’t know that you were an MIT in Northwestern. You’re one of the dumb guys out there.

Yeah. I got by on charm in both programs.

I get that much. I got to know you a little bit more at one of our events and realized how smart you were but I didn’t know that you were technically that smart as well. What was it like going to MIT?

It was humbling. I wouldn’t say that I was an arrogant kid at all but in high school, I would get the highest scores. I did well on the SAT, and then you get to MIT and you’re like, “If I’m average in this room of people, I am thrilled.” It was super humbling.

I was always average in high school. I got 70% on everything. I would try my hardest and I never got over 75% on anything in my life. In fact, I didn’t even know you could get above a 4.0. Somebody once said they got a 4.2 and I’m like, “What? How’s that even possible?” I didn’t even know that. I was like, “A 3.0 would have been amazing.” You were the smartest kid in school all of your life probably and then to go to MIT. How do you get through that? What do you have to do as the mind shifts for that?

You got to take a dose of humility. You learn quickly that you’re going to have to work. There are some classes more than others in high school where they weren’t all that hard for me and I knew I could get an A. Whereas at MIT, there’s no gentleman’s B that maybe some colleges are known for. No way to fake your way through the final. You have to be super smart and you also have to put in the work.

Jim Collins in the book Good to Great talked about level five leadership and I almost think that maybe where you’re level five leadership kicked in was probably that first year or so at MIT when you realized that humility, drive to succeed, and smarts all started to combine. Do you think that’s the case? Were you aware of that? Did you become cognizant of that at that age as well?

By the end of my freshman year, I did. When I was at MIT in the ‘90s, the entire first year was a pass/no record. If you pass the class, you need to get a P on your transcript. If you don’t pass, it’s not even on your transcript. They’ve since changed it so the first semester now is pass/no record. The nice thing about that is you realize there’s so much there where the institute wants you to succeed. They don’t have the philosophy of, “You’re all going to come in and a third of you’re going to fail out. It’s survival of the fittest.” It’s not that. They want you to succeed and you end up working together with your classmates a ton. We would get a problem set from a professor and we would have maybe 2 or 3 days to do it.

It wasn’t a competitive environment at all. It was more of an, us versus them mentality where other students would get together and be like, “We’re going to work online in this problem set, but he’s not going to stump us.” I found myself falling into those habits without even realizing it. By the time I was toward the end of my freshman year, I realized I had found that additional gear. Not in terms of book smarts, but working with others or figuring out what I’m good at versus what my friend is good at. We work together to get even more than. I don’t know how much of that is by design but I grew a lot in that regard.

Tell us a little bit about Hennessey Digital. I know I explained it roughly in the intro, but for some people that maybe aren’t as aware of what digital marketing might be, although it’s becoming more mainstream. Maybe give us a little bit of a glimpse of or an overview as to what the company does and what you’re doing for some of your clients.

We started out as a pure SEO firm, Search Engine Optimization. Within that, we started out working with law firms. Our founder, Jason Hennessey, through some connections and meeting the right people at the right time, he started doing that for law firms. There’s a few buckets of digital marketing and I’ll talk about it, but doing SEO, that’s probably the hardest bucket to master. Doing it in the legal space is probably the most competitive space, at least nationally in the United States. For a point of reference, if you’re bidding on a keyword on Google, some of the most expensive keywords in America are things like mesothelioma lawyers and things like that. Those can cost hundreds of dollars per click.

If you through search engine optimization can get your firm on that first page of Google, maybe you can pay to be in the top spot, the Google Ads spot. If you can be in one of the “free spots” down in the lower part of the page, and firms spend a lot of money on SEO services to get there, that’s a free click. One of those clicks can be worth hundreds of dollars and that case could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars potentially. That’s where we started out. In the first few years of the firm, we were doing SEO primarily for law firms but not exclusively. We do have some clients in different verticals.

Essentially, we were doing the hardest practice for the hardest vertical, which was SEO for law firms. We’ve gotten into the other buckets of digital marketing. The other big bucket would be paid ads and within that, you have paid ads to Google Ads or Bing Ads. Anything that advertisers do on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, that’s all paid media. We made a big hire at the beginning of January of 2020 to have a director come in and take over our paid ads business.

We were doing that by demand. Some of our clients would ask us to do it but we reluctantly took on but now, we’re making a big push into paid ads as well. As part of that, there’s also social media management. We’ll do that for our clients and we’ve started to push out into other verticals. Not only legal but we’ve taken on some healthcare clients, consumer products, and companies, and we’re getting a little broader there.

You’re following the demand and when the customers are asking for it, if it fits within your sandbox, you’re saying yes. Are you saying no to some areas?

I would say with the paid ads, we were saying no. We were resisting until it finally made sense for us to do it. There’s not too much that we’ve had to say no to yet in terms of practice areas. For some types of clients, we’ve had to say no because what their expectations were and what we’re built to do weren’t going to line up. For law firms, this is a big investment. Some law firms pay us tens of thousands of dollars a month. There are others, say a dentist, will come to us and he deserves to have a good SEO practitioner, too. The way they work and the way we work, we’re an inexpensive hire for somebody with a small practice like that. We’ve had to be a little bit deliberate in terms of who we’re serving.

Has SEO changed over the years? In the several years that the firm has been running, have you seen any changes happening or is it still largely the same?

SIC 111 | Hennessey Digital COO
Hennessey Digital COO: The hardest thing about SEO is that Google is a moving target. It means you have to target lots of different parts of the page with different tactics.

 

It’s changing a lot. The hardest thing is that Google is a moving target. That first page of Google is a moving target. Google, it’s their right. They’re a for-profit business, but they’ve been monetizing more of that page. Not only the top part of the ads, but more of the pages becoming less. When Google launched, there were ten blue links on the first page. If you can be the first link, you can model it and tell the client that they’re likely to get over 60% of the clicks.

Over time, you’ve got the ads and now you have what they call featured snippets. They’ll pull a quote directly from a website. They might have product ads there and they might have the map pack if it’s a local-oriented business. Doing SEO meant one thing. It means being good at closer to a dozen things because there are opportunities, but it means you have to target lots of different parts of the page with different tactics. You can’t use the same tactic.

It’s gotten broader than it used to be then. You mentioned that your role is to make Jason’s vision come true. First off, what was it about Hennessey Digital that you saw that you liked that got you to join them? Because you could have had to pick up lots of companies. What was it that you think Jason saw in you that brought you on board?

Jason and I both happen to live in Southern California but we were introduced by a mutual friend in New York. The first time that Jason and I started talking, I used to run a national education company. I’d started as a marketing director there and eventually moved up into the SEO world. As a marketing director there, I had become familiar with digital marketing. I was stealing our digital marketing efforts including SEO and paid ads for years.

The first time we met, Jason was mentioning a little bit about what he does. I said, “I used to work with Jim Boykin.” In the SEO space, he’s one of the old granddaddies. He’d be on the Mount Rushmore of SEO. I was a client of Jim Boykin and I could tell Jason’s eyes got wide like, “Nobody knows Jim Boykin except for some of these in the space.” He suddenly looked at me differently like, “You do know this stuff.” He was describing what he was doing.

On his phone even, he pulled up some analytics of some client sites he had. My eyes got wide like, “This guy is the real deal.” The nice part of that digital marketing is that it’s low startup costs. The bad part of that digital marketing is that it means there are a lot of charlatans. Maybe they’re not dishonest, but they’re essentially ineffective. Anybody can hang up their shingle and say they’re a digital marketer in SEO. I had done it myself. I’d been on the client-side.

He showed me some things that right away I can tell like, “These guys are the real deal and they’re fast.” I’m impressed. In terms of what Jason saw in me was one, how I was familiar with the space, but then two, we got to talking. I was telling him some stories about how we grew my own company, Veritas Prep before we sold it. I’ve been there for over a decade. It reminded him a lot of where he was hoping to take Hennessey Digital in the coming years and we hit it up from there.

You did click and sink in both on getting to know each other, but in the industry, on the depth of the experience that both of you had. How did you get to understand the vision of where he wanted to take the company? How did you get in sync with that?

It wasn’t like one deep conversation or anything like that. It’s been dribs and drabs. The one thing that I admire about Jason is that he thinks expansively. He’s the visionary. It’s not so much drawing it out of him but he and I will be having a conversation with someone else, and then he’ll take a side path and start brainstorming. We’ll be having a tactical meeting about accounts payables or forecasting, or something like that, and then he’ll go off on a tangent and start dreaming up some new big ideas.

Sometimes, after talking to other members at the COO Alliance, I’ve heard similar stories. Sometimes, you have to put some parameters. Other times, it’s my job. I got to start a list and I got to write some of this down. I’m like, “We’ve been talking about this before but what you are saying was making a lot of sense about what we could be doing 2 to 3 years out.” I’ll give you one quick example. We’ve developed a lot of software internally to automate some of what we do and much of it, at least from where I was coming from, I wasn’t even looking at it with an eye towards commercializing. It was making us more efficient and it was allowing 3 people to do the work of 10 or 12 people.

We have another guy in our team, David, our chief strategy officer. In a conversation with Jason, I realized their vision was, “This is something we could potentially commercialize.” That made me start thinking about it in an entirely different way. I wasn’t looking at necessarily the cost center, but I’m starting to think of it as, “This is an opportunity. What things do we need to start doing now so that this is something we might be able to commercialize in a year or two?” Those will come out in one conversation here or there, and I have to be ready. Sometimes, I’m the goaltender and I’ll swat away the idea. Other times, “No, I’ve got to take this on and run with it.”

How do you say no to some of his ideas or not now to some of his ideas? Most CEOs are entrepreneurial quickstarts. They have ideas all the time and that’s their job but sometimes, our job is to play gatekeepers or swat it away.

The honest answer is I get a look on my face that Jason and I know each other well enough that when he sees the look, to his credit, he takes the foot off the accelerator a little bit. I’m not necessarily the quickstart. I will ask a lot of questions. I don’t want it to seem like I’m shooting holes to be the pessimist or the cynic. I’ll start to ask questions and I usually will frame it. Other than the funny look I give him, I’ll usually frame it in terms of choices. “That’s interesting. We have that team. We set that team to work on this. It seems to me that this is something that would have to come and fall into place after we finish that other project.” “Am I reading it wrong in terms of where the priorities are?” Usually, we go from there. A lot of that will end up in the parking lot at that point.

That’s where they should be at that point. One of the things we’ve done at the COO Alliance is to get everyone to do a Kolbe A profile. Have you done your Kolbe A profile yet?

No.

I’d love to know what your Kolbe profile is and what Jason is. There are some interesting data points between the style of communication and also how you start projects. You said that you ask a lot of questions to start. I’m curious whether your first number is quite high. My guess is you probably are something like an 8, 6, 4, 2, and my guess is he’s probably more like a 4, 3, 7, 2. He probably starts but maybe not quite as quick as some. I’m curious where we line up with that. Harvard wrote an article called The Misunderstood Role of the COO and they explained there are many different types of COOs. I’m curious how your role is different from then until now.

I’m going to start with a similarity, and this is another reason why Jason and I hit it off. When I was at Veritas, it was founded by two guys and I reported to them. One was he was a much behind the scenes kind of guy. The other one was a serial entrepreneur like Jason. Veritas, our education company, was one of at least half a dozen businesses that he owns. He was involved with others. He was more of a silent partner. Over the years, they got to the point where they were comfortable. The one founder moved back home to Norway, which is where he grew up, and the other founder had all these other businesses.

At a certain point, they were comfortable handing me the keys and saying, “We’ll check in weekly-by-weekly. You’ve got this. Run with it.” Jason is similar in that. He has a lot of ideas and he has a lot of little sister businesses that are sprouting up around Hennessey Digital, which is the main one. I spend the majority of my day focused on the one that’s generating all the revenue and profit, which is Hennessey Digital. I tried to free him up to be able to be expansive and focus on some of those other things, which I’m also involved in. I’d say that that’s a similarity.

One difference for me has been that joining this team has been like hopping on a train that was already running at full speed. When I joined my previous company, they’ve been around a while. They were already quite successful before I ever got there. Especially with Hennessey Digital, it felt like I was jumping on a train that was already going fast. What I had to do was I wanted to evolve some of the things that we were doing but I also had to be smart about adapting myself because I didn’t want to come in and change everything because that’s how Scott wanted it done. In the first few months, it took me a lot of learning. Not that there was ever friction, but I had to get with what we were doing and fully understand it before I could ever take out a scalpel and do anything with it.

How have you adapted then? How did you have to adapt?

I’d never worked on a business for certain clients and there’s a certain cadence to that. If we’re a good agency, we’re not being reactive. We’re not living from the client meeting but there’s always a little bit of that. If on Friday at 5:00 PM, a client sends an email about they’re unhappy, then that’s what you’re focused on Friday evening. That was a learning for me. The other thing that was a learning for me is that you mentioned that we’re a fully virtual company with people spread out all over the country and in many other countries outside the United States.

SIC 111 | Hennessey Digital COO
Hennessey Digital COO: Everybody needs to be working off of the same sheets all the time so that there’s little mystery in terms of what’s going on.

 

That was a learning for me where communication has to be a lot more deliberate. I have to make more of a concerted effort to communicate and check-in because you’re not bumping into people in the hallway and you’re not having the proverbial water cooler conversations. That took a little while. It wasn’t a problem for me but I realized I had to be a lot more intentional about communicating because otherwise, there are members of my team that I would go a week or two without talking to.

You talked about the 80 employees you’ve got and all of you are remote. How many employees were there when you came into the organization?

When I joined, we were closer to 50 and now, full-time is 80 and if you include all of our workers, we’re closer to 100.

Rapid growth in one year to double. I want to talk about the double. What I’m more curious about to start with was we’re in this stage in the middle of this whole Coronavirus, the COVID-19 stage of business, or whatever we’re calling this, where many companies have had to go virtual. I’m curious about what you already know or maybe already took for granted that you can pass on as lessons. What works well to run a good virtual company? How have you had to adapt to this crisis even though you’ve had a remote team? Have you had to change or adapt at all?

We’ve been lucky in that. This is how we operated where I spend hours per day on Zoom. That’s how every day is for me before the word Coronavirus was on anybody’s mind. We’ve been lucky in that regard. Where it works best for us is that we all are looking at the same scorecards and we’re all looking at the same measures. We use Asana for project management. We’re not much of the Slack shop. We do much of our communication on Skype and I rely less on email. We have a ton of makeshift CRM. We’re building our own client dashboard, but we have our own spreadsheets where we have client work, client priorities, and snapshots of communications with clients.

Everybody needs to be working off of the same sheets all the time so that there’s little mystery in terms of what’s going on. Something that we started using, it was you who mentioned it to us first, is the commit to three. We rolled that out for the team simply because Jason or myself, there were people 2 or 3 levels down the organization. They’re working hard every day and I know they’re doing good work. I can’t possibly check in with them every day. If I’m getting status reports from managers all the time, then all I’ll be doing is reading status reports. All the managers will be doing is creating status reports.

We’ve tried to come up with some other low time commitment ways that we can get an easy snapshot into what people are working on. If things look a little out of whack, then we’ll check in with the employer, the manager, and say, “You seem to have been stuck on that for the last week. What’s going on?” That’s helped a lot. We haven’t had any stresses during the pandemic because this is already how we’ve been operating.

Being an agency serving clients, anybody who’s on the client-side is in the line of fire. If there’s a problem with the client-side or things like that and they need to have easy access to the people on our team who can solve those problems, we’re okay in that regard. A lot of times, our client management team still has to play a lot of defense. We were able to marshal the resources and get something fixed or jump on an opportunity. I would give us a B minus in that regard. We can get better.

Have you had to change or iterate at all because of the COVID crisis with your team? How have you dealt with them in communication and staying in touch with them? I know that you’ve always used the same tools, but have you had to do anything to communicate with them during this time?

One thing that we do is we have a Monday morning meeting with the entire team and this is our company-wide huddle. This is something we were already doing. I and other leaders, we made the decision like, “The only thing on anybody’s mind is Coronavirus. For the start of every call, we’re going to give everybody a frank update on the state of the business.” We’re lucky. We have had a decline in revenue. We haven’t had any clients quit us but we’ve had some clients ask us to pause for 30 or 60 days or to reduce their investment but it’s natural. Everybody’s wondering, “Is my job okay? What’s going around with the company?” Another thing I’ve learned about a virtual business, which is true in many offices, is if there’s a vacuum of information, information starts spontaneously getting created and it’s often the wrong information.

In the absence of facts, people make up their own.

Especially when it comes to things that people are worried about, their livelihood, or anything. We’ve devoted the first part of those team huddles to candid updates. “We’re applying for one of the PPP loans and we’re arranging some financing should things get rockier. We feel good about where things are, but we’re taking more steps.” That’s probably been the biggest thing. Individuals have come to us with concerns, whether it’s maybe they’re sick or their partner is dealing with Coronavirus. We’ve been dealing with those one-on-one and we’ve tried to deal with those compassionately. Process-wise and business-wise, we were one of the lucky ones so far.

You’ve talked about leveraging your commit to three and some of the time with Jason and the weeklies. What other meeting rhythms do you have that run the company?

With my direct reports, I meet with them at least once a week. I meet with a couple of them twice a week. Our chief strategy officer has a lot of little fingers on the org chart reporting into him. This is something we started doing because you’ve got to be delivered with communication. Monday is devoted to that team huddle, but the other four days of the week, we do power updates with managers every morning. The chief strategy officer who has a lot of departments reporting to him, he does fifteen minutes with each of his department heads every morning other than Mondays. Communication flows up and down. The organization has gotten a lot better since we instituted that.

It’s almost like agile computing with Scrum. That model works well in operations, too. I’m surprised more companies don’t do it. You said you’ve doubled the size of your staff going from about 50 to about 100 in total. Any big lessons that have come through doing that?

It’s definitely true that I or Jason can’t be involved in every discussion and in every decision anymore. To Jason’s credit, he’s let go where he’s needed to let go. Even since I’ve come in here, I’ve already had to step back from some things. I’m like, “You have got this.” We’ve got the right team and we’ve got the process. It usually worked out. I still think we’re getting better there in some places. You don’t need me to weigh in on every one of these decisions. I physically can’t attend every one of these meetings. That’s required more trust for 1 or 2 steps down the organization. That’s been a biggie. Commit to three was instituted in part simply in other corners of our business that I can’t track hour-by-hour or day-by-day. That’s probably not the best use of anybody’s time. We’ve tried to put in these other proxies and try to make that a little bit easier.

How about in the hiring and onboarding of people? That’s a lot of people to bring on. What tools are you using to assist in that process especially when you’re remote? Walk me through what your recruiting and interviewing process is like.

Life in that area got easier when we hired our first proper HR person and she’s good. She does everything that you would call HR, so a lot of handling employee issues and compliance issues, but she’s also the first step in recruiting. If we’re hiring for a position, normally, we’ll go to her and arm her with everything she needs. She’ll post the job and she’s the initial screen of resumes. We’ve trained her in terms of what we want. It depends on the rolling department. She does that initial filtering and she’ll hand off maybe 5% of those resumes that we collect to the hiring manager. The hiring manager will do at least 1 interview, but often 2 interviews.

One area where I don’t know when I’ll be comfortable giving up is not so much on some of the offshore people, but any of those hires on the last interview. I’ll meet with them. In fact, I had an interview with a potential new hire. It’s not a lack of trust of our lieutenants but the culture is important and it’s hard to undo when you hire the wrong person. By the time they get to me, they’ve already talked to the HR manager and they’ve already done multiple interviews with at least 1 or 2 directors, and then I’ll interview them.

I always call that the sniff test. Google does a good job where the leader has to interview two letters below them. Any of your direct reports, clearly, you’re interviewing but anyone who reports to your direct reports, you still have to be involved in that process as well. Why are you not involved in anybody overseas? Are there people that are 1 or 2 layers below you over there? Is that more of lower-level admin tasks that are being done from over there?

A lot of the overseas teams are inherited. Meaning, they were already here when I got here. We have some India dev teams where it’s a little more project-based. We’ll hand them the project and they’ll come back with the project 72 hours later. They’re never even involved with anybody else on the team other than their 1 or 2 points of contact within our engineering team. Cultural fit is not even a concept in terms of that regard. It’s project work. They’re more like contractors.

How about your skills? Where have you had to grow in this role? You’ve come into the organization and you joined the COO Alliance. It’s a way to work on some of your skillset and leadership development. Where are you focusing on growing and where have you grown over the last couple of years?

I’ve already been learning from you and maybe this is because of the virtual nature of what we do. I’ve gotten better and I still need to get better at running effective meetings. I came from teams previously where we were always physically together. We were in such close touch all the time that the meeting naturally ran smoothly, whereas here, a meeting has been a little more of an event. I’ve gotten better at running an effective meeting in 2019 but I still need to get better in that regard. That’s one area.

I would say another one is goal setting. From the previous roles I’ve had, I’ve done consumer goods brand management. I’ve worked in technology and education. Goal setting has never been a challenge but for me, coming into what for me was a new business and entirely new ways of doing things, I have to think differently about goal setting. I’m thinking about business goals or thinking about, “What’s the unit performance of work? What is the right way to staff that or budget for that?” I’ve had to grow a lot in that regard.

How about in terms of growing your people and the one-on-one meetings that you do with your team? Do you have a philosophy or a style that you grow people in or that you manage and lead them?

My style and I would even go so far as to say it’s the company style, is we tend to give people a lot of autonomy and a lot of leashes until they demonstrate that that’s not working for them in which case, then we’ll start to manage them a lot more directly. When I do my one-on-one with people, I expect them to control the agenda. They’ll come in and say, “I wanted to cover off these five things with you.” At the end of the meeting, I might have a few things that I want to cover with them. Most of the time, that works well. If we’ve hired the right people, and a lot of our team, some that I inherited and some that I’ve hired since coming here, they respond to that and they rise to the occasion. When they don’t, then we need to manage them more directly. Sometimes, that means that they’re less of a fit or maybe they’re not quite in the right role.

When you joined the organization, were there any decisions that you wanted to make early on and you held back in that first 90-day period, where maybe you gave yourself a little more time to understand the organization? How did you come in those first 90 days? Did you have a process or a thought and a way to onboard yourself?

I was a student and a fly on the wall. We were usually in Zoom or Skype. My days were completely full of observing meetings. I would say the first week or two, they say, “Who’s this guy, Scott? They’re bringing the COO. Everything’s going to change.” They would be talking and they would say, “Scott, is that okay?” I’d say, “I’m a fly on the wall. I’m not evaluating you. I’m writing furiously because I’m learning.” After a week or two, people caught on like, “He is learning. He’s asking diagnostic questions.”

I kept a list of things that I’m like, “I want to come back to this. I don’t know that there’s anything wrong, but I don’t totally get it.” Something that I’ve instituted in my previous role, of those things, probably more than half were communication-related. There were things that I observed that I wouldn’t even call broken, but like, “I might know what would go better here.” It would be instituting an additional meeting or creating an additional channel.

SIC 111 | Hennessey Digital COO
Hennessey Digital COO: If we’ve hired the right people, they will rise to the occasion. When they don’t, we need to manage them more directly. Sometimes, that means that they’re not quite in the right role.

 

On Skype, we have all kinds of chat threads. “This one has engineering and client services together. This one has marketing and the executive suite together.” We’re creating a lot of those. I would hang back, but I kept that list. As I started instituting, the majority of them were communication-related. People understood like, “This is better. I’m glad we started doing this.” It was little by little but by the end of 90 days, I was doing a lot more instituting and not just learning.

I love that you’re keeping the ongoing list of stuff to come back to and stuff to dig into and stuff to go, “This is interesting.” Instead of acting or reacting, you gave yourself time to think about it and then come back to it later. It’s super smart.

Sometimes, I hadn’t learned the whole picture yet. I might come back and be like, “I don’t know that I can prove this. This is not worth our time. I don’t like this. Let’s cross it off my list.”

Last question. If you were to go back to your 21 or 22-year-old self, you’re graduating from MIT and you want to give yourself some advice, what advice would you give yourself back then that maybe now you know to be true, but you didn’t know when you were starting out in your career?

The thing that I realized in my career after I’ve been working fifteen years or more was I ended up learning many things that I didn’t even know I was learning at the time. When I graduated from college, I joined an enterprise software company and I said, “I want to go into software because that’s where the opportunity is.” My role evolved and I ended up doing a lot of business development and some product management. That’s not what I set out to learn.

I went to work for The Motley Fool, the financial website, and I was like, “I want to go there because I want to learn about digital marketing.” What I learned that I was getting good at was coordinating the efforts that people in other departments. Even though they didn’t report it to me, I had to get by on persuasion. I became fascinated with that and I said, “Nobody’s better at that than brand managers who work in consumer-packaged goods.” I went and got my MBA, and then I went and worked at SC Johnson. I was a brand manager there working on Scrubbing Bubbles and Ziploc.

I went there because that’s the technical thing I want to learn. Once I was there for a couple of years, I realized, “I’m doing more of influencing people in other departments because now they report to me.” Every job I took is because I wanted to work out this muscle, then by the time I left, I realized, “I was working at this muscle the whole time.” That was maybe the first thing I was learning but the second thing ended up being even more valuable, and that’s continued in my career.

It’s funny I was in the house painting industry for seven years. When I was leaving it, I met with a group of CEOs and I kept thinking that all I knew is house painting. They reminded me that I built a franchise company in two different countries and had 120 employees. I’m like, “I know how to build companies.” It’s weird.

It’s like a frog in boiling water. You don’t even notice that you’re doing it but it becomes a strength.

Scott Shrum, the President and COO for Hennessey Digital. Thanks for sharing with us on the show.

Thank you, Cameron.

Appreciate it.

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About Scott Shrum

SIC 111 | Hennessey Digital COOScott Shrum is President & COO of Hennessey Digital, a digital marketing firm that was recently named to the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in America. Hennessey Digital helps law firms, healthcare companies, and other businesses get found on Google through search engine optimization and paid ads management. The company operates entirely virtually, with about 80 employees in 17 states across the country, plus workers in Europe and Asia. Scott describes his primary role as translating the founder’s vision into reality by coordinating the efforts of brilliant marketers and software developers all over the world. 

After graduating from MIT, Scott started his career in marketing and product management in the enterprise software space. Realizing how quickly the consumer internet space was growing in the late 1990s, he moved into digital publishing for several years before going back to school to earn his MBA at Northwestern. After he earned his MBA, Scott moved into a career in consumer packaged goods brand management, which he credits with giving him many of the skills he uses today. Most immediately before joining Hennessey Digital, Scott ran a well known national test preparation provider before that business was acquired in late 2018. Scott has had five main jobs since college, all in different industries, giving him a broad perspective on how to successfully manage businesses both large and small.

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