A Silver Lining Inside This Cloud
June 19, 2020
Notes from the Show

For all the terrible challenges business owners face in 2020, there is actually some good. If we approach this right, many firms will not simply survive but will come out stronger because of it. In this episode Susan Tatum talks with Ben Lack, CEO of Interrupt Media, about the opportunities to focus, to become essential to our clients and to strengthen the bond with those we love.

Transcript

Susan: Welcome back to stop the noise. I’m Susan Tatum and today I’m talking with Ben Lack, who is the founder and CEO at interrupt media. Welcome, Ben.

Ben: Hi, Susan. Thanks for having me today.

Susan: Very glad to have you here. Before we start talking about the good stuff, give us the one minute spiel on who you are and what you guys do.

Ben: So Interrupt Media is a full service digital marketing agency that’s based out of San Francisco, California. We help companies anywhere, from startups to small businesses all the way up to publicly traded companies drive more pipeline and revenue for their business. We typically help companies that are working in the b2b space, and we focus on doing demand Gen content marketing, and marketing and sales operations all with a focus again on trying to drive pipeline and revenue for companies.

I myself have been working in the marketing space for my entire career. And I have really enjoyed it because I think that the marketing challenges that companies face are just really fascinating to me. And I really geeked out on working with a lot of really smart people to help businesses make it to the next level. I’m an investor. I’ve been advised a number of companies and working with companies of all shapes and sizes has been a really fun career journey for me. So that’s a little bit about me in the business.

Susan: I can hear the passion in your voice.

Ben: Thank you.

Susan: You mentioned the challenges of marketing being interesting to you. And we’re recording this on the 15th of May and we’re all facing some new challenges or we’re facing the same challenges, I think. In my view, I haven’t seen too much change, the old problems are still there. But we’ve got even newer ones that have been added on. What are you seeing?

Ben: I think what I’m seeing is that the problems aren’t necessarily new, either. They’re just more acute. And it’s because so much of the economy right now is not working. And like, as a system, it’s not working, because people are trying to protect themselves from from being sick. And that’s going to put stress on everyone, globally. From a company perspective, it’s an opportunity and also a challenge, because the challenge is how do I continue to maintain my business or keep my business from going under or grow my business based on whatever the goals that you know, have been set out, but it’s also the opportunity to look inward, and really be honest with yourself and your business of what’s going really well and where are some areas that we could try to invest time and money into improving so that when times get better, we’re going to really come out with a lot of momentum and very optimistic about future opportunities.

Susan: So it’s kind of a chance to look at what’s really necessary in what you’re offering.

Ben: That’s correct. I think sometimes businesses are, just really laser focused on the bottom line. And in the moment, companies tend to sometimes not make the right decision. We’re all we’re all human, and we’re not going to be perfect all the time. Well, a certain project or certain business initiative may have sounded like a good idea at the time something was implemented. Maybe now after months or years, it may not be the right fit anymore. And so this is instead of continuing to go with it to try to make it work. This may be, a really good time to ask some of those hard questions and see what comes out on the other side.

Susan: Are you seeing people – buyers – looking for ways to maybe make a smaller commitment, whereas pre COVID, they might be looking to commit to say, a 12 month program, whereas now they’re more likely to just look at what they really need to have right now and want to buy it. Maybe a little bit at a time.

Ben: Yes and no. And it’s actually more no than it is yes. For companies that we’re talking to, or for our clients who are serving their customer base, they’re finding that budgets are just being frozen across the board, or budgets are having to be cut or reallocated based off of the current environment. And so in many cases, companies are not wanting to do that. That said, for companies that are positioning themselves as an essential product or service, they’re either successful and continuing to be available and getting the kind of market price that they’ve put out for their product or service. Or if their clients are, you know, really having a hard time. They will have some type of a payment plan or some type of preferred pricing to make the investment in their product or service more palatable.

But I am seeing more frequently that clients are just being told straight up No, or I’m still interested but I need to push this out three, six months, nine months, 12 months before we can actually have a conversation. And I think that some of that is in packaging. companies could could certainly get more creative about how to entice their clients in just getting their toe in the, you know, kind of just getting in the door, so to speak, and just starting with something small. But for many of the clients that we work with a lot of their customer base services the mid market to enterprise space, and so the problems that they saw that they’re solving are fairly big in scale. And so it’s hard to actually walk before you run, so to speak, even though on the surface, that sounds like a really reasonable idea.

Susan: So, I was gonna ask you, you’re talking about the need to be essential. How does a company go about doing that? figuring out what is essential

Ben: A couple of things. Number one, you’ve got to understand your data. And when I say that, what I’m trying to mean is that if you start seeing an average sales cycle start to be longer than usual, or you’re losing deals that you’re supposed to be winning, then that’s a really good indicator that something’s up. The best way to find out why you may not be essential, is to go straight to the horse’s mouth and go speak with customers or prospects. Customers are really valuable because you already have a vested interest in their success. And they’re going to be really honest with you in times like now, on what’s working for them, what’s not working for them, and where you could potentially add value.

If you ask the right types of questions, and you let them do the most talking, and you come in curious, you may actually uncover opportunity and value that they don’t even know you can provide. You have to do some creative problem solving think outside the box. But if you go to your customer base, it’s going to be, you know, really good data points for you to figure out what if what is what you’re offering, really important to them.

And what are nice to have. For prospects, if you can actually get conversations with them. If they’ve chosen somebody else, which doesn’t happen all the time, but happens and is something you should do. Many people are going to be very upfront with why they didn’t pick you, and why they chose to go with some other product or service. And that’s going to be really important feedback for you to understand why you did not make a strong enough arguments for why your product or service was so essential that they saw enough value in it to pay what you wanted them to pay you.

And so I think those are two approaches of leveraging data not just in what you may see in like a CRM or in your marketing tech stack, but also from the horse’s mouth to understand how to kind of gauge whether your product or service is essential. And if it’s not, what are the steps that you can take to steer your offering in that direction, so that you can continue to, you know, have confidence that you’re going to hit the goals that you want to hit for the year.

Susan: So what kind of questions do you ask because you said if you ask the right questions,

Ben: It’s gonna be different for everybody because every company is solving different forms of pain. But one of the questions that I like asking our own customers as we’re doing the same process right now, is how are we doing? we just had a retrospective with a client yesterday where we have a great relationship with the client. And we wanted to be very upfront in our view of things that we saw thought were going really well, and our own view of things that we thought needed work. But we spent a lot of the time and really most of the time listening to the customer and telling us where he felt like we were providing the most value, and where he felt like we had opportunities for improvement of providing value in other areas. And that was really useful for us, because there was a lot of things that we had assumed that got confirmed. But he also shared some things because we would kind of ask a question of like, how are we doing? He would give his response and then my strategy is always to say, Can you tell me more? Or can you give me a little more detail and just kind of see where that takes them.

We really uncovered some really interesting perspectives about his business, some perspectives about ways that we may be able to support him that we really had never thought about before, that are now forcing us to sharpen our approach to how we can be a better partner for our client. And I’m really glad we did that, because had we not done it and just gone through business as usual and done our weekly check in meetings and really been, you know, focused on the tactical, we wouldn’t have been able to uncover some really interesting insights from him that would allow us to provide a better service to our partner.

Susan: Something that you said just then about business as usual, I think is really important because I see people that are assuming that things are fine. Especially If there is, like you were mentioning, maybe something that’s been put on hold, or a client or customer that says I can’t spend anything right now we’ll do it in three months. And to walk away and not continue the relationship from that point and just wait three months to get back in touch with them, I think is really dangerous.

Ben: It’s hard. You also have to show empathy, because sometimes the customer’s right. In many cases, the customer knows what’s best for them. And even though what’s best for you is to have that person, sign a deal with you or continue to work with you or do more with you. It’s important that you share in the opportunity, but also the risk. And it’s a hard balance, which is why figuring out what’s essential is so important. Because if somebody comes to you and says, Hey, can we just chat in three months, you know, like, I’m just not in a position to like pull the trigger on this now, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to work for work for you. But it also means that you haven’t found ways to add value to their business in a way that they want to move forward.

We have a client who services the hospitality and events space and they’re having a really hard time. I mean, they almost went to zero. And all the all the events that they’ve been hired to do have been canceled and rescheduled for next year, a certain percentage of them. So there’s no way that somebody today is going to say, Yep, I’m gonna sign up with you, no matter what they do, it’s just not going to happen. It’s not going to happen. So there’s no point in trying to go down that path.

What they’re trying to do instead is to figure out how they can add value in the meantime, even if it’s not their core business. And what they’ve recognized is that a lot of people that were working at those companies are now either out of work, or they’re having to take pay cuts. So for those folks, they’re going to have less discretionary income to spend on things they want to spend on. Because the money they have now has to go to essential things like the electric bill, the rent or mortgage, the food, you know, all that that very essential stuff.

What our client is doing, they’re going to be launching this very shortly is they’ve recognized that it’s a stressful time. And one way for people to get rid of stress is to get exercise. Signing up for a gym, or hiring a personal trainer is a luxury in times like this. In most cases, gyms aren’t even available because of what’s going on. So what they’re going to be doing is they’re going to hire trainers to lead exercise classes for free for the entire community. And all the hospitality community needs to do is sign up for a class, open their zoom put on their workout clothes, and do the class for 30 minutes. And that has nothing to do with their core product or service. But it is a way to help out and trying to relieve stress during a stressful time. So that when things do come back because they will, they will be recognized as a company that listened and really lead with empathy. And hopefully that will bring the business back even faster because they’re really going to need it too in order to be able to stay afloat.

Susan: I think that’s a brilliant example, Ben. I wasn’t suggesting that keep trying to sell somebody on signing a contract when they don’t want to sign a contract. My point was find a way to help them, offer some value if you possibly can,because somebody else may come along and do it if you don’t, if for no other reason than that, but I think now is the time for building and continuing relationships and maybe having a little bit less focus on the margins.

Ben: We have a client who we really, really like working with. And they need some extra help. And we’re just doing it because we have some extra hours to burn with a couple of people on our team. And we’re not even charging them for it. Because their top salesperson needs a couple things done. And their existing design and dev team don’t have the bandwidth to get it done right now. But we do, we can just do it.

Susan: And they’re gonna remember that.

Ben: I literally told the CEO, like, don’t sweat paying us for this part, like we’re just going to do it. It’s important, and we’re just going to get it done. Those are the really easy things to do, because that’s, the business value that we can provide. But I think to be interesting for a lot of your listeners is that there are other ways to add value. To your customer base, that’s not just business value, much like this client who’s trying to go find trainers and like try to help people get exercise, you know, right now. So I think it just creates an environment for creative thinking and thinking outside the box for how you can provide value and what that really means.

Susan: It’s not a bad way to think, even when we’re not in a crisis, like we are now, if people continue to think, how can I help? How can I add value throughout any kind of relationship in any kind of economy? I believe we’d all be more successful.

Ben: I agree. And I think the premise is that, to a certain extent, our backs are all against the wall right now. We’re really like, in a tough spot, and that really makes it very easy to be very focused.

There’s a talk that Dwayne The Rock Johnson the big WWE star, now he’s this huge action star, gave to the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, where he talks to them about how he approaches every day as though his back is against the wall. Because if he doesn’t, he’s concerned that he’ll get complacent, and that he won’t be able to bring this kind of mindfulness thinking and creative thinking to his business every single day. And so he just has trained himself over the years to just always feel as though his back is against the wall.

And that may not be applicable for everybody to do. But I think the takeaway for me is that just don’t rest on your laurels, because nothing is guaranteed. And if you continually remind yourself of that, then regardless of whether you’re in good times or bad, you’re putting yourself in the right mindset to really try to do what’s the most important for your business at that time, regardless of what’s going on in the world.

Susan: I agree. I think the other thing that we’ve seen in this situation is people making changes that they resisted for a very long time and they’re forced into a situation where they’ve got to do it. I guess the most obvious example of that would be commuting, working from home, doing things by zoom, not having to be face to face, jump on an airplane all the time. So I think it’s funny how circumstances will make you more open to doing things a different way.

Ben: I can’t tell you how many CEOs I’ve talked to, that have told me that they love the new environment, because it removes so many distractions for them, because they don’t have to be in the office and people aren’t trying to grab the five minutes for this or that they can just get what they need done because they’re, isolated away.

And while every single CEO at the same time says, I miss my team, I miss the interaction. I really wish you know, I could be in the office and kind of be there with every everybody and have that kind of collaboration. I find that I’m really productive right now. They’re also saying that it’s just really intense, because there’s nowhere to go. And so there’s either take care of your family or work and that makes life really simple.

I’m 36 years old, and I’m right now living in the basement of my dad and stepdads house. And my baby brother, who’s the executive producer of Stanford athletics is also living in the basement with me, and because I didn’t want to live by myself when all this was happening, and neither did he. And I think it’s important for us to either have family or friends nearby, as we kind of create our own mini pods to form some form of community during this type of time. But I never imagined that I would be you know, 36 living at home, so to speak.

Susan: but you never imagined a pandemic either.

Ben: That’s right, but there’s a lot of really good things that come out of it. I will, you know, agree with the CEOs that I’ve been able to be extremely productive from work. I’m also able to spend a lot of really quality time with family right now. I take morning walks every day. My dad comes with me with the dog so we get to have really good you know, conversations about whatever’s going on in each other’s mind at that given time. That’s something I’ve never done with my father before.

That’s going to end at some point and I’ll be ready for having my own independence at some point but it’s really nice. My brother and I have another brother. He’s married and he and my sister in law live in Sausalito. And so they’re only a few minutes away from the house in Mill Valley. And they come over every night for dinner. And I’ve been single for the last couple of years and I’m used to in most cases having dinner by myself. Now I feel like I’m back in high school and middle school where I’m you know, having a family meal with everybody every night and I’m responsible one night, they’re responsible one night, the baby brother is responsible one night, stepdads response one night. So it’s just a really special, unique time. And yes, what’s going on is terrible. And I hope that it ends way sooner than later. However, I’m getting some really quality time with some really important people in my life. And I’m going to look back at this time, and remember that stuff. And I think that that’s something that folks that are listening in can also very likely say about themselves as well, both on a personal level, and also a professional level, regardless of whether they’re going to be successful or not professionally.

If the business does the right thing, and they end up better on the other side. Everyone’s going to look back at this and say, wow, do you remember when the pandemic happened, and we did X, Y and Z thing and we just, it sucked and it was a pain in the tush. And, but we still made it out. Oh, my God, I don’t ever want to do that again. But you know, thank God, you know, there was always a, you know, the glass half full kind of approach.

Susan: Yeah

Ben: That’s gonna happen for a lot of people. And for the ones that are really struggling, that are having a really hard time. Fortunately, this is only temporary. And so they may not have as positive experience as others may, but I’m sure that people are going to learn something out of this experience. And that’s going to ensure that they’re going to be better off the next time whenever something like this or some other, you know, catastrophic event happens that may help them be more resilient for the next time and that’s also good. So it’s not fun right now, but I’m trying again, I think mindsets just really important, regardless of whether you’re trying to overcome this personally or overcoming this professionally.

Susan: Well, you certainly have the right mindset and I think what you’ve articulated with your family are things that will stick with you for the rest of your life. And I wish I had that opportunity with my parents now. But it’s good that you’re taking advantage of it. And I agree with you. And I’ve told a number of my clients, I think 2020 is such a turning years. Everybody’s going to look back on this at some point and say that 2020 is the year I got my act together, we became essential. We pivoted the business or changed the business in a way that it got us through and put us in a better place or it’s the year we fell apart.

Ben: Right. I agree with you and that’s okay.

Susan: Thank you for sharing good stories and good information and advice and if the listeners want to follow up with you to learn more about what you do or talk to you about any of these ideas, how should they go about doing that?

Ben: Definitely check out our website www.interruptmedia.com i-n-t-e-r-r-u-p-t-m-e-d-i-a.com or feel free to shoot me an email [email protected]

Susan: All right. Well, thanks again, Ben. This has been very valuable. I appreciate it. The listeners appreciate it.

Ben: Happy to do it. Thanks for the time and the opportunity.