Our guest today is COO Alliance Member, Steven Willi, President of Rankings.io.
Steven Willi joined Rankings.io, formerly known as AttorneyRankings.org, in 2013 as a web developer and only the second employee of the company. In the years that followed, he honed his SEO skills and his position rose as rapidly as Rankings’ growth. He has been Rankings’ Lead Developer, Creative Director, CTO, and Vice President.
Today, he is the President and leads the Operations division of the company, simultaneously overseeing the work of nearly all operational employees and also continuing to “get his hands dirty” in the production of a wide range of digital assets.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- The Kolbe profiles of Steven and his CEO
- How Steven interacts with his CEO who is a high D on the DISC assessment
- How Steven became the de facto second in command over Rankings.io
- The core resources Steven has used
- What makes the yin and yang partnership so strong and complement each other
Connect with Steven Willi: LinkedIn
Rankings.io – https://rankings.io
Get Cameron’s latest book “Meetings Suck: Turning One of The Most Loathed Elements of Business into One of the Most Valuable
Get Cameron’s Online Course Invest In Your Leaders
In this episode, our guest is COO Alliance member Steven Willi, President of Rankings.io. Steven joined Rankings.io, formerly known as AttorneyRankings.org, in 2013, as a web developer and only the second employee of the company. In the years that follows, he honed his SEO skills and his position rose as rapidly as Rankings’ growth. He’s been Rankings’ Lead Developer, Creative Director, CTO and Vice President. In 2022, he’s the President and leads the Operations Division of the company simultaneously overseeing the work of nearly all operational employees and also continuing to get his hands dirty in the production of a wide range of digital assets. Steven, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Cameron. I’m happy to be here.
It’s pretty rare that somebody comes into an organization like a “I need to get some stuff built. Can you build it for me” guy. I don’t think your CEO was thinking back then, “I need a second in command.”
Not at all. I was a technician back then. Growing from a technician standpoint, it’s affected me where I’m at and the decisions I’m making, my viewpoint from an operational standpoint especially.
In 2013, the gig economy was starting. It was in full swing back then. Was this a gig? Was it a part-time role for you or was it a full-time job?
In 2013, it was bordering on from part-time to full-time. I was a creative director at another agency. I’ve been there for five years. It was a very secure job. I started freelancing for Chris. We’ve known each other for a very long time. He mentioned, “I need a developer and designer. Can you help me out here?” It went from one-off projects to staying up until 4:00 AM to try to get things out. I ended up started making more money freelancing than I was at my full-time job.
The natural evolution of that is he needed that full-time employee because of a lot of the technical stuff that he could do, from SEO, operation and a lot of the stuff that we founded. What SEO is, he could do that but from a technical standpoint, he needed someone to depend on. That’s when I made the big decision to leave my job with the creative director for the other firm and then come work for Chris as a lead developer.
When you were a creative director at the other firm, did you have some employees reporting to you at that as well?
Yes. We had fifteen designers under me.
How big was that company overall? How many people were there approximately?
Our section was probably eighteen. It was an arm of a larger corporation. It was an immediate buying agency so we were just a small facet of that.
You were part of a real company and you had a real job. How old were you ballpark back then?
I was 28 to 30, somewhere within that range.
You’re at a stage when your career is starting to get going. Did you take this as a part-time gig to make some more money on the side or was it more to help a friend?
It was a little bit of both. Initially, I started to help him out. I then started to see it and he started to grow. It was a financial flow to me at that point.
Would you have quit your creative agency job and joined him without it being a full-time job yet or did you need the money?
We were in the process of having our first kid so I probably wouldn’t have.
You’re entrepreneurial but not quite on the lunatic fringe of quitting your job and starting. You needed the paycheck.
Absolutely. Risk mitigation is always top of mind for me.
It is a core part of the COO role too. I’ve talked for years about one of the most critical things that a CEO needs to do when they’re hiring a second command is hiring someone they trust. You and Chris already knew each other. How did you guys know each other?
A decent portion of our company grew up within about twenty minutes of each other. I’ve known that we were acquaintances in high school. We were friends in college. We separated a little bit once we entered the professional sphere. I ran into him at a birthday party and he was telling me what he did and how he needed a designer and developer. I’m like, “I’d be happy to help you out.” I wasn’t anticipating any compensation or anything where we’re at. It was much more like, “Let’s make a connection and see what we can do.”
You like that entrepreneurial energy that he had. You believed in the vision of what he was building. You saw that you could help out with natural fit. Are you guys the same in terms of the DNA or personality profiles or are you different?
We’re complete opposites. If you look at our Kolbe and DISC, everything about us from how we react to how we speak to how we interpret things is the opposite. We depend on DISC at work. If you look at the DISC, he is a very high DI. I’m smack in the middle of this. I am considerably more cautious. I tend to be risk-averse. He’s running at full speed. I looked at our relationship as if he was driving 200 miles an hour. I’m pumping the brakes around the curve. I still want him to go but I want to make sure that we stay on track.
In my DISC profile, I’m a 98 on D and I 74, which means I’m driving 200 miles an hour but I can only see 100 miles in front of me. It’s insanity. You’re pumping the brakes. What’s your Kolbe profile?
My Kolbe profile is 7-5-8, I believe.
Seven is your highest of the four numbers?
For anybody who doesn’t know Kolbe, the first of the four numbers means you’re a very high fact-finder. You ask a lot of questions before you start projects. Do you know what Chris’s Kolbe is?
It’s very low. If I’m starting a project, I want all the information down to the pound of paper that it’s printed on.
Chris starts things so his third number is very high. How do you guys reconcile that? When you want all the facts and the data and he doesn’t want that, how does that cause problems? How do you guys work through that?
A lot of it is an understanding from growing and maturing with each other. Initially, especially on my part, it was incredibly stressful. Being a risk-averse individual that yearns for stability, I have to reach across the aisle to get where he’s at and understand where he is going. A lot of what we do is he’ll come in with a raw idea to my office and my initial feeling is, “That’s crazy.” I then realize whom I’m talking to.
He’s thought it out. We tend to forge it and refine that idea. I’ll certainly throw in anything that I would think will pay me and make it safer or more successful but from a standpoint of how I deal with it, I have a deep understanding of our relationship. We’ve gone from a symbiotic relationship to a mutualistic relationship.
What’s that mean?
We work very well together, more of a hand-in-hand rather than one person remaining static and the other person going. From that standpoint, I’m aware that I’m not him and he’s aware that he’s not me. A lot of my weaknesses, he’s very strong at. A lot of his strengths, I’m very weak at. We have to marry those two. We’re cognizant of that. Sometimes, he’ll walk in and say, “I got an idea. You’re not going to like it.” He already understands but then we hybridize that. I’ll say, “Let’s put a bike helmet on it to make sure that we’re okay.”
Do you say that exactly? Do you use that term?
I haven’t used bike helmet. I just made it up but I’ll have to start using it. I think it’s having a hyperawareness of who I am, being aware of my weaknesses and trying to grow them. If Chris is the foot, I’m a hand. I’m going to bleed into that for the benefit of the company.
Be aware of your weaknesses and try to grow them.
How do you say either know or not now to his ideas without causing friction or getting him positional?
I’ll typically say, “Let’s wait 24 hours and get some more data on it.” Sometimes that idea may evolve in 24 hours or it may not even be a thing. Especially with that personality profile, they come in very hot. They have this idea that’s going to change everything that this is what we’re going to do and then 24 hours later, it’s something even better.
They change their mind on the go.
Instead of saying no, sometimes I’ll pivot it. “What if we do it this way? What if this happens?” We refine that idea or sit on it to get more data. I want to see everything so that for whatever he proposes, I’m coming at it from an educated base.
I’m very similar to Chris. I also go that 100 miles an hour. I’m with this weird dichotomy. I’ve got very entrepreneurial and I run the COO Alliance. I’ve been a COO but I’m this bizarre human. My second in command who worked for me for years used to come to me when I had these crazy, amazing ideas that were going to change the world. Her first words were, “I love it. Let me ask you some questions.”
The reality was she didn’t love it but she knew that by saying “I love it” would allow me to answer all of her questions. If she asked me questions, I used to get frustrated that she was arguing with me. She’s like, “I’m not arguing. I’m trying to understand it.” Do you have that discussion or does he already know that your questions are you getting up to speed?
Yes, to ensure that he doesn’t take it personally. As a disclaimer, we don’t have conflicts. We get along very well. He admires my personality type. I admire his personality type. That revs me up. That’s not me but I love it. I love seeing it. We call it hole poking. A lot of the time, I’m saying, “I don’t hate this idea. I’m poking holes. That’s part of my job.” I’ll then say, “What if this happens?” Not as a wet blanket but forecasting a potential issue that could arrive later on the road should this idea be implemented.
Were you always the defacto second in command because you were the first employee in or were there other people that were more operational that you were reporting to or that he would lean on in the earlier days?
It’s always been me. We’ve had to have some account managers. We have a stunner Vice President of Operations. I could not do my job without her but from the get-go, we were working side by side starting in his apartment. We’re a remote-based business with 24 employees. There are only three of us in the office, me, Chris and our Director of Finance. We work so closely. From the get-go, I’ve always been that default number two.
How has that changed for you? How has it changed being that default number two as the company became more mature?
I had to learn to delegate and trust others. There’s something that you said in one of our meetings. Delegation starts with hiring. I don’t have the tattoo but if I did, that’s a front-runner man. A lot of it is coming from a technician base and it was me and Chris. As we added to our group, I had a very hard time letting go of things and not being in the mix because I’ve done and seen this before. “Here’s exactly what you do.”
I was like that for a very long time. I had a very difficult time. We hire very good people but I still had that disconnect where it’s like, “Let me do it.” That is detrimental to both entities. With that, I’m stressed out. I can’t grow in my position because I’m trying to be good at other people’s jobs. As a negative effect of that, I wasn’t growing to the extent in my position and it was also affecting them. If I do everything or stick my hand in everything, where’s the growth and uncomfortability with them? How can they learn?
How many employees do you have in 2022?
We have 24 people.
Has this been a learned thing right from the earlier stages or have you had to develop it more as the company’s gotten a little bit bigger?
It’s been a learned thing. Within the past year specifically, during the pandemic, I’ve come to the realization, “I need to change how I’m doing things.” Not that I was uncomfortable with people handling things but I would constantly be in the trenches with everybody. There’s something that you’ve said before that has to be done but not by me or something like that. I love that mentality. Even hearing things like that started to mental shift.
What about your skills as you’ve grown? What have you had to work on for yourself?
That’s clearly one of them.
Initially, I was very comfortable being a leader and a manager. I did it for five years at the other agency. I had no issues with that. Coming on historically at that agency, I had people under me that I could work with to get things done. In the initial start, it was just me and Chris. Chris started as a technician as well. There was an extreme level of uncomfortability there. Under that uncomfortableness, growth happened. I was forced to learn this and this, read this book and see it in a real-world setting.
In the uncomfortableness, growth happened.
From there, once we start establishing ourselves as a business, growing and getting our surface area out there and hiring more employees, I had to refine what I thought was leadership, what I specifically servant leadership and what I thought via coaches, masterminds and business groups. I haven’t arrived but I’ve matured significantly.
What do you think were the core resources that you did use?
I would say probably Google, which is great because we work with Google. I’ve always been good at interpersonal stuff, working with people. The other weakness that I was aware that I had was, “How do I handle this situation? What do I do here? What’s going on here?” I’ll listen to a podcast or read a book. Having that, I may shelve that information for a little bit until I pull it back out again once I’ve run into the situation. It then becomes like nature to me, rather than me pulling from a resource.
It starts becoming that unconscious competence. You start building on it. Have you seen the website Let Me Google That For You?
No, I haven’t but it’s an awesome URL.
It’s so good. You go to Let Me Google That For You. When somebody asks you a dumb question like, “How do I use a record player,” you go to Let Me Google That For You and type in, “How do I use a record player,” it will give you this spit-out thing. It’s a link you send them. When they click on it, it’s like open Google and then you can see it type in, “How do I use a record player?” It’s awesome. It’s telling people, “Why are you asking me stupid questions? Go look up for yourself.” My mom used to drive me crazy with that. I’d be like, “Mom, how do I spell encyclopedia?” She’d say, “DICTIONARY.” I’m like, “What?” She’d make me go and look it up. She was teaching me how to learn. Do you have any areas that you’re currently working on or developing?
I’m still working on delegation. I haven’t totally arrived there. At our company, there are two hemispheres. Chris does sales and acquisition, whereas I’m operations retention and internal growth. As we scale the business and my role even from now changes, I need to get considerably better at finance and sales. I have a Southwestern consulting sales coach. I’ve been reading as many sales books as I can. I’m acutely aware that that is a new atmosphere that I haven’t pressed into. It’s super exciting. Not that I’m going to be a sales guy or a hard seller. I’d rather be bitten by a snake than hard-sell somebody but having that awareness excites me because it’s something new.
What’s interesting is when you hire a person who is strong in a specific area like sales for example and you listen to them and watch them, you’re talented at this. I’ve got a guy that works for me, Jesse. I had two people in sales. We’ve got our third. Gordy was my first guy. He’s a good guy relationship. He didn’t know how to sell to save his life but he was good at sales because he threw relationships at the people.
When you put Jesse in place, he’s a stone-cold hardcore sales guy for eleven years who sold high-ticket items to people who didn’t need them. He sold timeshares and automobiles and was high performing with $250,000 a year in both those roles. When I listen to him, he’s like, “That’s this type of an objection.” He can name the objection. He knows. He’s like a scientist. It’s a whole area that they’ve studied. He points to certain books and tricks. He was like, “This is an NLP response.” I’m like, “Are you kidding? You’re unbelievable.” What you’re saying though is you don’t want to be good at it. You need to know about it.
Correct. I need to have an awareness of it so I can speak to it and guide that hand-in-hand with the Directors of Sales and Directors of Finance.
If I was thinking about marketing, I need to know that SEO exists so I can ask questions like, “How are we doing with our SEO? What are we doing for SEO? Where are we wasting money on our SEO? Where are we ranked? What metrics should we look at?” I don’t need to know to be good at it but I need to know it exists as I need to know about paid search and retargeting. You’re smart on that to have a bit of a cursory understanding of it. I’m like you. I’ll never be good at financials. I’m good at the P&L but with the balance sheet and ratios, forget about it. I’m a master. I probably need to get better there or hire smart people that I trust implicitly. What have you struggled with as a leader and COO?
Understanding that I’m not good at finance. I used to look at people like, “I’m the president. I should be everything. I’m the COO. I should be everything.” Having an awareness that I can dictate processes and I’m very good at a rough draft of a process but there’s someone who loves that stuff. They can put together a video and a huge document and then make a glossary of all of our processes and how to find them.
I love the initial part of that but I bore very quickly. I used to beat myself up on things like that. As an agency, if I’m the foot or a hand, if I have a very strong knee or elbow, I’m not going to try to beat them. I certainly have an awareness of what they’re doing. That way I can QA it and learn from that. Hands down, the hardest part is I used to beat myself up for lacking in specific areas because I thought the expectation was on me.
It’s like you’re the general contractor. You don’t have to be the best plumber, finishing carpenter and cabinet maker but you have to be able to align and pull all those resources together. It’s funny. You went as COO and President. For anybody reading, the titles are very interchangeable. The reason that we call this the Second in Command Podcast is there’s one person in every organization that is the second in command to the CEO.
Sometimes it’s the President title. Sometimes it’s the COO title. Sometimes it’s the VP of Operations or General Manager. It doesn’t matter. It could even be CFO or CMO. I look at it as if the CEO was sick and in hospital for six months, who’s running the company? Who is the real yin and yang to the CEO? As you see it as President and from the beginning, outline for us high level again. You’ve said it a couple of times but I want you to hit it home. What do you think makes you a strong partner that yin and yang to Chris as CEO? What are the maybe top three things?
Our personalities complement each other and we have an awareness of it. It’s not like he steps into my office and I say something that would be expected of me. He’s not that effing guy. It’s not that type of relationship. He trusts me and I trust him. Even if I don’t agree with what he says, I trust that he’s making the right decision for the company regardless of how uncomfortable that makes me feel. I’ve gained that trust from him working for him over the years.
One of our core values is called send and delete. If I email you something, I delete it. I don’t think about it because I trust that you’ll get that follow-up. We try to be that to each other. If I send him something or send an employee something or he sends me something, he doesn’t even think about it because I got it.
On the trust side, would you give him access to your bank account and your passwords and let him take care of your kids?
Yes. There’s no question in my mind. I feel that way about a lot of our directors starting businesses, having that strong trust and a very familial feel to it. It’s throwing gas at our growth and making it a cool place to work for.
You’re right. When the trust starts to permeate through the organization, it throws gas on the fire. It’s like nitroglycerin. What’s the third?
The third one would be continued education and an awareness that I need to grow. I’m circling the top point. Me being aware that I’m bad at finances, me talking with you and me being a part of the COO Alliance. I will pick up things and apply them. It’s crazy that they work.
Was it a little hard?
Yes. I’ll pick up an artifact here and apply it later. I’m like, “Wow, that works.” Having that type of mentality is specifically for me because I’m a very hungry, competitive individual. I love little tricks and applications like that. Speaking with you, being a part of a peer group, several other groups and coaches, it’s all a compounding effect that I’ll never be there but it’s fun growing.
Where is Chris gaining his skills? Is he learning as well? I can’t imagine he’s just sitting there thinking he knows everything.
No. He’s a part of two masterminds and has three coaches.
Do you know which masterminds he’s a part of?
He’s a part of Jason Swenk’s mastermind. He just started another one. He has a business development coach. I believe he’s started a few more but off the top of my head, I can’t think.
It’s interesting. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. I’m in four mastermind groups that I pay to be a part of. Whenever I walk into the room, I’m like, “There are some cool people in here.” It stretches and motivates me. It also makes me realize they’re as dumb as I am at times. We’re all trying to figure this thing out.
Especially within the breakup sessions of the COO Alliance. I’m continually hyper-impressed with people. Sometimes I’ll sit back like, “That’s smart.”
Wait until you get to your first in-person event as well because when you get to spend two and a half days with people like the COO Alliance in person, the relationships go to the moon. It’s awesome and super cool. What about the low points? What were some of the hardest points for you as a second in command and maybe for you and Chris as well? Let’s go to two points. One, without being involved and one with him.
I’ll circle back around. I used to beat myself up because I wasn’t everything. As someone hyper-aware of what I say, my limitations or something like that, it stresses me out when I’m having a hard time with something. I would love to grow our employees and grow along with them but then I would see facets of those employees that I was growing along with that I admired. I’m like, “Why can’t I be like that?”
I’m the number two guy. I’m strong in a lot of other areas. It was me stressing myself out, trying to force myself into another box that I don’t live in. Certainly, be acutely aware that that’s something I need to grow at but this was something that I used to beat myself up on. I would have an incredibly hard time with it. It’s the first time I verbalized this. I’ve internalized it for a long time.
What’s a specific one? What’s an area that used to bother you?
Our VP of Operations, Sonya, is fantastic at taking data and applying it to training with hyper-intensive processes. She’s very detailed. I am very good at giving her this raw idea. “Here’s what I wanted to do. I’ll shoot a quick video. You take it from here.” She’s doing the processes way better than I did. With a lot of them, I’m like, “I should have been doing that all along. Why did I not do that?” You see a deficiency in yourself where you’re expected to be very good but what I’m not seeing is I’m very strong in all of these other applications and I have a very strong person doing this.
What’s always amazed me is why I never got fired when I passed things off and realize how bad I was. How come it didn’t ever show up as a black mark against me? I used to create these dashboards that we would send out. This is back when I was second in command for 1-800-GOT JUNK?. We were only 50 employees at the time, maybe 20 franchises.
I was creating a weekly dashboard of our franchisees’ numbers and every time I would send out this spreadsheet, there were always 1 or 2 mistakes. One of my guys would always point it out and I’m like, “Crap.” He’s like, “Let me do it for you.” I’m like, “Could you do this?” He goes, “I could do it.” I gave it to him and the next week, his dashboard came out and it was formatted better and color coordinated. It didn’t even matter if the data was right. It looked better and the data was right. I’m like, “Why was I doing this?” He’s like, “I don’t know.” No one worried about it. All they saw was the result was better and I was able to do something else. That was a real learning point for me.
I feel the same way.
How are you growing your leadership team and managers inside the organization? What are you doing to grow those people?
We enroll each of our leaders. Each of our directors or EOS leadership team has unique coaches, masterminds and business groups. Some of our other directors like our Director of Sales has two instances of sales coaches that he has. Our Operations has Brett Harned, who’s a fantastic operations guy. From an SEO skillset, we also have an SEO coach that will then come in from leadership on down to make sure that we’re on at SEO and that we know our business.
Is his name Stephan?
Nathan Gotch is whom we use. This is what we say to all of our employees, “If you want to take a welding class, we’re not going to pay for it. but if it’s beneficial to the company, it grows and helps you and we’re better, we’ll pay for it.”
You’re so close to one of our founding members of the COO Alliance. Their old company would say yes to every course that anybody wanted to do because they’re like, “If you want to take a welding course, we’ll pay for it.” They were in nursing. They’re like, “We know it didn’t impact nursing but if it made them happy and they were growing.” They had sent sixteen people to a Tony Robbins seminar one time. Everybody had coaches. It was like, “What’s your cap?” She goes, “We don’t have a cap because we know the more we grow our people, the more they grow our company.
It’s very unusual that you have it. It’s very smart because most people will grow the CEO or maybe they’ll grow the CEO but then they forget about the managers and leaders. The more we grow them, the more they grow our business. Let’s go back to the last question. If we were to go to your 22-year-old self, just graduating college, getting ready to go off on your first job, what advice would you give the old Steven Willi at 22 that you know to be true now but you wish you’d known at 22?
I would’ve never thought that I would be here professionally and financially. Even with three kids and a wife, there were so many ones back then. For an individual that’s hyper-aware of, “What do I say to someone? How do I do this if I get beat up?” I would say embrace a lot of that failure and being super uncomfortable, something in that stress because you grow in that. I used to have a hard time because I’m always trying. I’ll fail and try but it would bug me. Especially those initial failures and even errors, I’ve grown so much within that. I’m a considerably different person personally and professionally. Be aware of that.
Embrace a lot of that failure and be super uncomfortable because you grow in that.
All that pressure creates diamonds. Steven Willi, the President and second in command for Rankings.io and COO Alliance member, thanks very much for sharing with us. I appreciate it.
This was fun. Thanks, Cameron.
About Steven Willi
Most personal injury attorneys struggle to rank at the top of the search results. That’s why we’re here: We help elite personal injury law firms generate motor vehicle and serious injury cases through Google’s organic search results.
We understand how frustrating it is to find a reputable search engine optimization partner, which is why we’re proud to say we’ve helped dozens of personal injury law firms just like yours generate millions of dollars with SEO.