Ryan Malone, CEO and Founder of SmartBug – A DotCom Magazine Exclusive Interview

Ryan Malone
Ryan Malone, CEO and Founder of SmartBug

Ryan Malone is the CEO and Founder of SmartBug. Ryan Malone is a thought leader, influencer, and risk taker, and provides the vision and energy that has inspired the creation of SmartBug. Ryan Malone joins other leading CEOs and Founders taking part in our Leader Roundtable Interview Series. The DotCom Magazine editorial team has awarded SmartBug as an Impact Company of 2019, and we are delighted to have Ryan join us for our Leader Round Table Interview. The SmartBug story is very interesting, and we are very excited to not only interview Ryan about his very successful business and entrepreneurial spirit, but also put Ryan through our popular speed round as well.

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Ryan, thank so much for taking the time out of your busy day for this interview, and answering some questions about leadership, your vision, and your passion.

1. Can you describe what the “elevator pitch” for SmartBug is?

SmartBug Media™ is an intelligent inbound agency focused on revenue growth. We build high-growth sales and marketing systems by combining inbound marketing, digital, paid media, CRO, and public relations. We are HubSpot’s Global Partner of the Year and the highest-rated inbound marketing agency in the world.

2. Many of our readers are just starting to build a company. What advice can you give CEO’s just starting out regarding keeping a company moving forward, and please tell us the key to your company’s success?

I think one of the biggest mistakes that entrepreneurs make is simply starting with an idea and believing that this idea will be the single most important factor to their success. The first thing I recommend is that founders think of their vision—not just a lofty goal but a distinct, well-defined vision that is different, is something that they can be passionate about every single day, is defensible, and is evergreen. In other words, create a vision that stakes your claim and ensures that you wake up every day excited to take on a new challenge. Make sure that your vision is something that is unique and can be defended against competitors. Finally, make sure it is something that the world (your target audience) will need for a long time.

Once your vision is in place, it is time to start thinking about your goals and how these goals translate into activities that drive results over time. I like to start with a big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG). This is that life-changing goal that, if it were to happen, you would sit back in retirement and feel like you had an incredible impact on the world.

Our BHAG is to change the way that agencies operate and be on the cover of Fast Company or Inc. as a recognition for doing so. Once you have your BHAG in place, think about your 10-year goal and start breaking that 10-year goal into a five-year goal, and then a three-year goal, and then a one-year goal. Each of those smaller term goals become building blocks that enable you to identify what your company should look like in order to achieve that goal.

For example, if I work from my 10-year goal, what does my company look like? What will we have had to have done? And what challenges will we have had to have solved in order for us to make that 10-year goal? Similarly, what would our company look like at five years in order to position us well to achieve that 10-year goal? If you follow that model all the way down to your annual goals and your quarterly goals, it’s easy to break down exactly what you need to do each quarter— or even each month and each week—in order to try to achieve these goals. And in doing so, the insurmountable fear that goes into chasing your BHAG and your vision have now become digestible and easy-to-pursue actions that you can hold yourself accountable to each week.

If you do this and you stay focused, before you know it, you will have made incredible progress toward your goals.

3. For other entrepreneurs seeking to build a business as successful as SmartBug, what advice can you give them when times get a little challenging?

My advice is to do everything you can to take the emotion out of a challenging situation. Instead of thinking about a challenge as an overwhelming event, think of it as just another problem to solve, a system to implement, and a reminder that there are many paths to the same outcome. The fact is, you will face many problems—some that seem completely insurmountable—but in reality, they are all just problems looking for a solution. To the extent that you can solve these problems in a calm, methodical, focused manner, you will be much more successful and sleep better.

4. How important is the commitment to client satisfaction at SmartBug, and how do you make sure your customers will become raving fans of your company?

Client satisfaction is incredibly important to SmartBug, and our focus on this is evident in how we staff, execute, and support our work. First, we do not use interns or offshore our work, as we believe that the key to customer happiness is ensuring the people that do the work are qualified to do the work. While this seems obvious, a high percentage of inbound agencies either leverage interns or “generalist” workers, or white-label other agencies. We believe that our clients should work with senior-level strategists who have walked in their shoes and truly understand the implications of being wrong.

We are insanely focused on data from the beginning of our contact with a prospect. We work with the prospects to understand their goals and then build models based on past performance to ensure that their goals are viable for the budget they have. We invest heavily in creating a digital marketing strategy for them that requires a significant dive into their business and their sales and marketing practices. This deliverable often takes 100-plus hours and results in a complete blueprint that defines how to grow their business to meet their goals.

We also don’t use account managers. For most agencies, the account manager role is simply a liaison between the client and the strategist, but the client wants to talk to the strategist. So we eliminated the account manager role so that the strategy team at SmartBug acts like an extension of the client’s team—their “director of digital” that just happens to be on the other end of the phone, rather than at the office.

We are 100 percent transparent about campaign results so that we can collaborate with our clients. We found this is in sharp contrast to many agencies that only show certain insights each month—the good ones. If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.

We have found these philosophies to be a “money where your mouth is” business model that elevates client happiness.

5. What is the one overriding belief that SmartBug has about what it is doing?

That everyone should be able to have a rewarding and growth-oriented career with people they have deep intellectual respect for, and do great work that provides growth to our clients and our brand—all while enjoying the flexibility to create the things that matter most in life: memories. Our company is built on this premise, and it is our North Star.

6. In today’s fast changing business environment, what do you do to keep up with the changes? What do you read to stay abreast of things?

I read a lot—not just business books, but history, psychology, and leadership books. In a remote business like ours, understanding people, motivating them, grooming strong management, and being a strong leader is really important. As a company, we have internal marketing labs where we share new techniques, tools, and vendors in an all-hands-on-deck format each month. Add some podcasts in during the gym, and I spend a lot of time learning and teaching.

7. What is your “Why”? Why do you get up in the morning, and how do you keep yourself at peak performance to lead SmartBug?

My “why” consists of two distinct motivators. First, from a business perspective, I am fascinated with building a high-scale remote agency that delivers incredible quality and results for our clients and sources the best talent from across the globe. As we get bigger, the challenge of maintaining the intimacy of our teams and the operational efficiency of our work is really fun and intellectually stimulating. As I look forward to leading a company that will have several hundred employees, so many facets of management will be required, and it is exciting to grow every single day.

From a personal perspective, we have built our business model in such a way that it motivates people to do amazing things with their lives and still have great careers. So when I look at people at SmartBug who have moved to Portugal to rock climb, traveled the world with a new SmartBug friend, spent time with a sick relative, or trained for a race that matters to them, I feel like I am responsible for that in the smallest and most humble of ways. My goal is to be able to do that for as many people as possible because that makes me feel good about myself and proud of what we are building.

8. Can you recommend a book that has had an influence in your career? How did it influence you?

Navigating the Growth Curve by James Fischer. I found this to be the most profound business book that I have read because it is practical, inspiring, and resonates with every single issue a high-growth entrepreneur has to grapple with. While most books are theoretical or not directly applicable, I found that this book provides the marching orders I need to maintain a healthy SmartBug as we continue our growth.

9. In one sentence, can you tell us what the most important thing about being a leader is?

The most important skill is knowing when to be confident, when to be vulnerable, and how to make tough decisions with limited information.

10. In one sentence, can you give some advice to fellow entrepreneurs wishing to build a company as exciting as SmartBug?

Ignore the haters, focus relentlessly on your vision, spend quality time with those you love, and take time to celebrate every small victory—they make you stronger.

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Ryan, we would like to have some fun and do our famous “First Reaction” round with you! We will ask you ten more questions that we want you to answer in just one to three words only.

Here you go!

1. In three words or less, What makes a successful CEO?
Vision. Focus. Empathy.

2. Describe SmartBug in one word?
Magical.

3. Describe SmartBug customers in one word?
Family.

4. What one attribute do you look for when hiring an employee for SmartBug?
Discipline. (You want to people who understand the work, learning, or whatever, and are not afraid to be disciplined enough to chase it.)

5. What is the one word you want your customers to say about SmartBug?
Partner.

6. In three words or less, describe your passion?
Helping people win.

7. In three words or less, describe what it takes to be successful?
Relentlessness, focus, empathy.

8. In three words or less, describe your first year in business at SmartBug?
Liberating, excited, and rewarding.

9. In three words or less, describe how running a successful company has changed you?
More patient.

10. What is the one word that you believe has the most power in the English Language?
“Thanks.”

Ryan Malone, thank you so much for sitting down with us at our DotCom Magazine Impact Player Round Table. We very much appreciate the time you spent helping others to learn more about your company and what it takes to be a leader. We we wish you, your family, and of course SmartBug, nothing but the best. Thanks again!

The Ryan Malone Roundtable Interview brought to you by DotCom Magazine.