Notes from the Show
In this episode, we join James Robert Lay, CEO of Digital Growth Institute, to talk about the importance of digital growth diagnostics for businesses operating in today’s fast-paced and ever-changing technological space.
- How value creation is the way businesses make money
- How specialization is the only path toward building deep expertise
As James says, “Any business that gets stuck in the operating mode of doing, with the pace of today’s technology, is in a very dangerous place.”
Intro: You’re listening to Dare to Differentiate, a podcast for business owners in crowded industries who want to learn how to rise above the noise. In this show, we focus not on doing everything for everybody, but on doing a few things for the right people with excellence. So, if you’re ready to leave the herd, then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get into the show.
Susan: Welcome back. I’m Susan Tatum and today, I’m talking with James Robert Lay, who is the CEO of the Digital Growth Institute. James Robert, welcome to the show.
James: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Susan: So, we’re talking about differentiation and focus in business, and you have what I think is a really eye-opening story about how you started your business and achieved success and then nearly lost it all. Can I get you to tell us about that and then about what Digital Growth Institute looks like now?
James: Yeah, so let’s go back. The year was 2002. The date was February 11th. There was this young kid who was a sophomore in college playing in a punk rock band – I’ll bet not a very good one – waiting tables, trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, and a girl set him down in the library one day, said, “Your band’s not very good. Why don’t you so something a little bit more worthwhile?” And so, this young guy wanted to impress this girl and he started this web design company. Now, if you recall back to 2002, the web, the internet, was really still in its infancy, flash websites were the cool thing.
Susan: I remember those, yeah.
James: You remember those Skip Intro pages?
Susan: Yes, exactly.
James: So, that’s when I began this whole journey and got in with some local ma and pop shops to begin with, very quickly found myself in the financial services space within the first year working with some credit unions. At the same time, I had some moderate success. It was an early social network. I was thinking about that since our last conversation. It took me back a while.
We had one of the very first social networks at Baylor University in North Texas and it was called Bear Swap. It was basically a peer to peer book selling system where if I had a book I wanted to sell, I could sign up, find someone else who wanted to buy that book, and we were beating the bookstore. So, it took me way back.
Susan: And that was 2002-ish?
James: 2002-ish, yeah.
Susan: Yeah, wow. We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?
James: We really have. And so, flash forward back to the financial services space. Started to gain some success there and grew a team up to about 12 people. The reason for that growth was clients were asking, “Well, you helped up to do this website. Can you help us do this marketing campaign? Can you help us do this print ad? Can you help us do this video?” And being the young and naïve person, really not having any experience with business, coming from a family of moderate means, I saw this as an opportunity to make some money.
Well, the success was nice, but the problem was that the growth was being driven by the external environment, not intentional. And so, what I found was the more people I hired, the more work that I had to sell, the more doing I had to sell, and that led down a very dark and dangerous path because there was no really defined purpose, there were no real roles. People were getting brought in to fill a seat and to do the work, but it was really becoming controlled chaos that I saw the writing on the wall when my wife pretty much approached me because I was speaking and traveling a lot at that time. She said, “Look, we have one kid. We just had out second and it’s either me and the kids or it’s the business. You know, you’ve got to make a change.”
So, those were some really dark days. And I remember thinking there’s got to be a better way, and having a couple peers and colleagues in the industry who I think had experienced similar situations – maybe not as dark as mine, but it’s a matter of perspective – I had to bring in some outside help because I was basically stuck and I needed to escape this cycle of commoditization of “creative services” at the time. 2012.
Susan: So, when was this? This was like – 2012?
James: That was 2012, so that was ten years into this journey.
Susan: Yeah. And you were already seeing that implementation was becoming commoditized then?
James: It was very, very clear that something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on it. The problems, you know, when you’re asking – for example, someone sends you and RFP for the website and you’re like, “Oh, wow. They must think that we’re doing some really cool work,” and so you respond to that RFP but then you don’t hear anything back. And it’s this repeated pattern of like, “Well, what’s going on?” Why does no one want to listen?” Like, even if a client that we might be doing like a creative website that we did win the RFP, which honestly, a lot of the work was just won by other means, later on, I can kind of go back and say, “That work was won because of expertise, not because of the RFP.”
No one would listen, and the reason is because they didn’t bring you in for expertise. They brought you in to do a job that they had already self-diagnosed: this is what they need. So, they didn’t have the ears to hear what really needed to happen based upon, at that time, you know, ten years of experience.
Susan: So, you said your growth was being driven by external forces. By that, do you mean that you were letting your clients sort of dictate or decide what kind of work you were going to do and you were just happy to be getting the work?
James: Yes. You know, I kind of say this tongue-in-cheek and it’s not meant to be crass or put someone off, but it’s like we had become the creative bitch. Someone says, “Do this,” and you just have to do it. There’s no dialogue, there’s no discussion, there’s no discourse of, “Based upon our expertise, here’s a better possible path, XYZ reason.” You just become a doer and you get stuck and that’s where we were.
You get stuck in the operating mode of doing, and that is the most dangerous place for any organization, whether they be in creative services, whether they be like the financial institutions that we consult and guide with now, it could be education, any business that gets stuck in the operating mode of doing. At the speed of the change the environment is transforming today because of technology, it’s a very dangerous place to be stuck in.
Susan: So, if you went back before 2012 and a client came to you and said, “We want you to build a website,” how would you change how you approached it to be more strategic with it?
James: Oh, we would say, “Well, let’s talk about that first. Let’s get to the root of the understanding. You self-diagnosed that you need a new website,” and that’s exactly how we operate today strategically. And so, we actually won’t even talk about building the website; we’ll dive into a diagnostic model, a diagnostic approach. I would say we’re probably operating more like a physician to where we want to look at the deeper pains. Like, you’re presenting, saying, “I need a website,” but is that going to actually cure the deeper pains that you’re having as a financial brand? And really, what it boils down to is, “I want more leads, I want more loans, I want more deposits,” and if you’re in another vertical, “I just want more business,” and a website may or may not be the cure.
And so, we actually have a model, a methodology we call a Digital Growth Diagnostic utilizing a blueprint that has nine specific areas of focus to where we can benchmark and score how they’re performing in these nine different areas and a website might actually be a recommendation that we say, “You know what? Fix all of this stuff first. You know, 12 months later, once you have this foundation in place, that’s the optimal time for you to build a website that sells.”
Susan: And so, this is a service that you charge for? This diagnostic?
James: It is. It is.
Susan: And how difficult did you find it to move people from, “I need a website,” to, “Okay, let’s let you diagnose things?”
James: That was a transformative time, and it was one to where I was having to dismantle the old business model and let clients go because, you know, they’re so preconceived that you work in this old legacy world where you’re trying to create this new future. You’re going to have to let them go. Staff. You’re going to have to let staff go.
Susan: That must’ve been hard.
James: It was. It was not an easy time period, but I knew it was what was needed first and foremost to create the business that I wanted to create for myself, for my family first, and then be able to create a business to make the world – because we’re on a mission now to make the world a billion times better by helping a billion people get beyond their financial stress to a better future. The only way that we can do that is aligning ourselves with other financial brands who share that same type of a purpose, and if they don’t share that purpose, at least provide them with a path to identify what that is.
And so, yeah, you know, you’re going to have to say no to opportunity to create space, to create capacity, to think, to review, to reflect and really escape that sense of doing. And so, a lot of it was making some pretty courageous decisions that were hard at the time but have really yielded results over the last, now looking back, six to seven years of making that commitment.
Susan: How long did the pain last?
James: Oh my gosh. A good two to three years because there was no playbook, per se, of how to move toward more of a consultative-like approach. It was kind of the school of hard knocks, and you’re having to do your own industry research, you’re having to build up some really deep level expertise around these nine core areas of this Digital Growth blueprint. So, we were doing a lot of studies. The fortunate thing is we had, you know, some very successful years and were very well capitalized, so we had some runway to burn through.
But I had made the decision that either, A, I’m going to go down with this ship and take it all the way to the bottom – I was ready to make that commitment because my backup plan was, “Well, I could always move in with my in-laws. You know, they’re going to take us in.” And I make peace with that. I made peace that that’s what failure is. But failure to me is not an option, so I’m going to do everything possible to avoid that. But I made peace. Like, that’s the worst-case scenario.
The best-case scenario, if this does succeed, wow, what are the opportunities that come from that? And so, it was a two- to three-year period of like questioning and soul-searching. I would say it was around 2015 that we finally started getting some market validation that there was a possible path forward with this when we started hosting these training bootcamps at our office in Houston, where we would have clients come in and they’d spend the day and we’d kind of work them through this early level blueprint methodology. And a couple of them said, “Hey, that makes a lot of sense. Can you actually come and diagnose?” And so, we’d take that and we’d make it a little bit more practical. Somehow, after five or six years of doing this, the patterns are very, very clear of, “This the roadmap that a financial branch should take on their Digital Growth journey.”
Susan: So, I think you told me maybe in an earlier conversation that you didn’t actually plan to specialize in financial services, that just happened?
James: That was a stroke of luck, but – and I read this on a fortune cookie last week when we were having dinner with the family – what is it? Luck is when hard work and opportunity kind of collide. And I had not planned on focusing on financial services as a niche market. I’m very fortunate that I found that early on. My challenge was, yes, I had the niche, but the breadth of services within that niche became way too wide and expansive and we lost that expertise at that time, looking back, you know, 15 years now.
So, in today’s commoditized world, specialization, focusing on a niche, I believe is really one of the only paths forward if there’s an organization who has a desire to build deep level expertise and be very profitable from that expertise.
Susan: So, you mentioned I think when we talked previously something about everything single vertical has become commoditized.
James: Digital is the great equalizer. I see this happening obviously in the industry that we’re working with, financial services. [Inaudible 15:02] can compete on rate per service. I see this in the education space where the education vertical is being turned upside down. You’re seeing this really in retail as well. But the flipside, even in food, everything has become homogenized. And the opportunity for education, you’re starting to see the rise of these niche education providers who aren’t the traditional university, but they’re creating value to a smaller subset of the marketplace. You’re seeing that with financial brands or fintech who are creating brands that are targeting a very smaller subset of the marketplace. Because there are still the needs, but it’s not going to be a one to many, it’s going to be a smaller market pool, but the value creation from that smaller market is where, for people like what we’re doing, they have the opportunity to really create a lot more value, and when you create value, that’s where you make your money. It’s value creation.
Susan: I agree. Talk a little bit more about the customer experience that you mentioned that, once you get past the buzzy-ness of the phrase, being a way that you can differentiate a bit.
James: I mean, when we talk about customer experience, I think digitally, we look at three types of experiences any firm can have. You have a lead experience, you have a customer experience, and then you have a referral experience. What is an experience? And experience is nothing more than well-defined processes that have been thought out, applied, and then refined and optimized over a set period of time resulting in either a positive or a negative emotion.
And so, when we look at that idea, that academic definition of “experience,” we’re more of, I think, engineering and it’s less about the creative. The creative comes as a result of the study of marketing and sales and technology and human behavior. And so, it’s really the collide of all of those disciplines and then the only way to create value is to be focused on a smaller subset of expertise. You can’t be an expert at all things.
Go back to the physician analogy. You have a general practitioner, you have your GP, but then he’s going to kind of get the high-level diagnosis and then he’s going to send you to somewhere else. Like, if you have a heart problem, you’re going to see a cardiologist. If it’s the bone, you’re going to see an orthopedic. So, I think there’s a lot that we can learn from the healthcare world in regard to specialization and customer experience through that specialization
Susan: I think it’s also a good example, James Robert, for not letting the client, i.e. the patient, tell you what needs to be done.
James: Oh my gosh. Yeah. Like, we’re in a world where we can gain a lot of knowledge with a simple Google search. That can be very, very empowering. That can be very, very dangerous, too. I mean, how many of us have actually freaked ourselves out? You know, you Google your symptoms, right?
James: And then you go to the doctor and say, “Doc, you know, I have XYZ,” and they’re going to look at you like you’re crazy. They’re like, “Did you Google that?” and you’re like, “Yeah.” They’re like, “Stop doing that.”
So, there’s a lot of power from the knowledge that we can gain, but it’s not the knowledge, it’s how that knowledge is applied to someone’s unique situation and pain points.
And so, if a client comes presenting these symptoms and they’ve already self-diagnosed, saying, “I need X, Y, or Z,” there’s a very slight and slim opportunity to say, “Look, I understand where you’re coming from.” Empathy is going to play a big role: “I understand where you’re coming from, but based upon, you know, for us, working with more than 475 financial brands now, I really recommend taking a step back and let’s look at the bigger picture.”
And one of two things is going to happen, and you have to be comfortable with this. Either they’re going to say, “You know what? That makes a lot of sense. I appreciate the methodology that you’re going to bring to bear.” Or they’re going to say, “You know what? No. It’s not a good fit.” And that’s okay. I would rather have someone opt out because they are not a good fit to work with us. It’s not are we a good fit to work with them; it’s are they a good fit to work with us and the methodologies that we bring to bear and be comfortable, be okay that you’re probably going to lose more “opportunity,” but the opportunities that actually convert, they’re going to be a lot more pleasant to work with, they’re going to be more receptive to ideas.
I think it’s important, at least for someone to go down a journey with us, to have an open mind because we’re going to challenge – respectfully – some of their legacies, some of the habits that they’ve engrained and we’re going to have to start unwinding that very slowly. And if you can self-identify, or at least if they can self-identify that they’re not a good fit earlier on and if you can guide that, push them away, the better off both parties will be I believe.
Susan: I agree with you. Absolutely. So, what kind of guidance could you give the listeners about things they might look for in their own businesses that is telling them they need to rethink what they’re doing so they don’t get as far down the path of potential disaster as you did with your family?
James: Gut check. Like, just do that inner gut check and is what I’m doing – look beyond the money. Because I think a lot of us get stuck in this idea that, yeah, money is important and we need to be profitable as a business. But if we’re chasing that almighty dollar, we’re actually living in somewhat of a fear-based, scarcity mindset. And I still have to gut check myself like this multiple times, but it’s an awareness, right?
You know, the best questions to ask yourself is, “If I were to look ahead and put myself three years into the future, what has to happen between now and then for me to feel good about the progress that I’m making within my business, within my organization? And then what are the roadblocks that I need to be aware of? And then what are the opportunities that I need to capture?” And have that conversation with yourself on a quarterly basis, on a biannual basis, or at a minimum, at least just an annual basis. Because the earlier that you can identify you’re drifting off of where you want to take this thing – and that’s the key. It’s intentionality, right? – the faster that you can self-correct and the less painful it’s going to be.
But just like anything, pain, change, transformation, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. So, having that sense of awareness of best-case and worst-case scenario, play that game with yourself, and if the worst case, if you can stomach that, and the best case is ten times better than the worst case, at least look to find the courage to actually commit to move forward on that path.
Susan: You know, it seems like it’s not an easy path, right? But light at the end of the tunnel, if you will, is I find worth it. You found it’s worth it. It’s not a journey I think that you can make by yourself necessarily. There’re a lot of people out there that can help.
James: It’s not. Yeah. The way that I’m viewing the work that we’re doing with financial brands, but I really feel it’s applicable for anyone, is: are we creating a business for the future, or are we really stuck in the present moment, kind of head down, and are we making decisions based upon what we’re seeing in the present reality, or even worse, making decisions based upon what has worked in the past?
James: Because the decisions that we’re making should actually be future-focused. What is leadership? Leadership is guiding someone. That someone is even yourself. You’ve got to be a leader for yourself. Guiding someone beyond the present reality to a bigger, better, and brighter future.
You know, just as some current news in this industry, there’s a big merger happening between SunTrust Bank and BB&T Bank.
James: And they just announced today a new brand. And I had posted on a couple of my communities, I really applaud the courageous leadership for them to commit to a decision like this because right now, they’re getting a lot of flak and criticism on social media. It’s so easy to jump on that negative bandwagon. And to loop this back, you can’t do this alone.
Ever since 2012, I’ve had an outside advisor, a guide, a coach, in some shape, form, or capacity, whether that be like a David Baker or Blair Ens or [inaudible 25:05] strategic coach and a few others that have helped just, you know, hold me accountable but get me out of my own head. And I’m using those same types of thinking with the clients that I’m working with because it’s so easy to get stuck. It’s so easy to get stuck in your own head, and by having that objective outside perspective or advisor, it creates a lot of value. So, it’s something I do highly recommend, to come back to your point of not doing this alone.
Susan: Yeah. Yeah. So, I could talk about this with you all day. I only ask for a certain amount of time. You’re on this mission that you mentioned. Can you say that again? You’re going to change a billion people or something?
James: Yeah, it’s to make the world a billion times better. And it took me a long time to come to this realization of: Why am I doing what I’m doing? And, you know, we position around we simplify digital marketing to educate, empower, and elevate financial brand marketing teams with new systems, processes, technologies, and habits. That’s what we’re doing, but the purpose is the why of what we’re doing. And it is because money’s stressful. That stress takes a toll on peoples’ health, their relationships, their overall sense of wellbeing.
And you could look at a variety of reports here just in the U.S. alone – between 70% to 80% or 85% depending upon the research, people report feeling some type of financial stress or anxiety. And the world that I’m doing is to help financial brands go beyond just talking about dollars and cents. Let’s look at really three areas. People want three things at the end of the day. They want to feel healthy, and so when someone is financially stressed about dollars, there’s a direct correlation between their financial wellbeing and their physical wellbeing. They want to financially wealthy, and it’s not being a bazillionaire, it’s just, “I want to be able to have some money saved, set aside, I’m not having to worry about paying the bills, put food on the table,” you know, basic Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And really, the third is, “If I can feel healthy and feel wealthy, then I can really feel happy,” because then there’s the mental wellbeing of all of this.
And if the work that we’re doing here at Digital Growth Institute – you know, that purpose of making the world a billion times better by empowering a billion people, we can’t do that ourselves. So, that mission is way larger than just what we’re doing here. So, the only way that we can deliver that is by elevating our platform, elevating our thinking, our knowledge, and then transferring and disseminating that to a much larger scale of financial brands. Some will accept it, some will reject it. But it’s the ones that accept it. Those are the ones that I really have a passion about working with and guiding.
Susan: Your passion definitely comes through and you’re very inspiring when you talk about it. You know, I have this goal to rid the world, starting with LinkedIn, of noise, marketing and sales noise. But sometimes, that feels very like out of control, too. But I like the way you phrased what you’re doing.
So, thanks again for coming on the show and talking with me and sharing your ideas. If people want to get in touch with you, how’s the best way to do that?
James: Best way: LinkedIn. Just Google me. James Robert Lay. Connect with me on LinkedIn. Send me an email: [email protected] And then, coming in April of 2020, you can find me on Amazon. I just signed the book deal to write the book, Banking on Digital Growth: A Modern Marketing Manifesto to Financial Brands. So, just starting that process and journey.
James: Yeah. Thank you.
Susan: I can’t wait to read that one. That’s cool. All right, well, James Robert, thanks again. It has been a pleasure. Bye-bye.
James: Thank you. Cheers.