Kent Lewis, CMO at Deksia
For those who don't know anything about you or your work, can you provide a bit of background?
After graduating with a degree in business and a marketing concentration, I jumped into the agency world as a PR intern. Four years later, I was Vice President at a startup agency, where I ran the digital team. I started my own agency in 2000 and sold it to Deksia in March 2022, so I could focus solely on marketing and thought leadership pursuits.
Was any one person who was instrumental in helping you get from where you started out, to where you are now?
There are dozens of influential managers, coworkers and business owners that influenced my career, but nobody more than Ryan Wilson, who recruited and developed me as a digital marketer in 1997. His guidance led me to start my own agency, Anvil, with confidence. I still use his insights today.
Is there a particular piece of advice you were given in the early days of your business journey that you still benefit from today?
Perception is everything. I didn't realize that office hours are suggested, when I started my first jobs. A coworker and long-time friend advised me that you're less likely to get ahead if you fail to factor in perception. As a result, I started arriving earlier to work (just before my manager) and left shortly after they did each day. Suddenly, I was seen as a more productive worker. Sad but true. As a business owner, I try NOT to manage by perception, instead, I've developed goals, metrics and regular check-ins to measure progress and performance.
What is the most important lesson you've learned about leadership in your business journey so far?
Impact trumps intent. Now that I'm an employee and not a 100% business owner, I've been able to reflect on how my actions (with the best intent) sometimes backfired with past employees, where the impact of my decisions or behaviors put off employees. Some of my poorly executed/communicated initiatives actually drove good employees to leave and it sticks with me to this day even though it was a decade ago.
What are the top three things you wish you'd known when you were just starting out?
I've learned a good deal, but there are three lessons I wish I'd known when I first launched Anvil, a digital agency, in 2000.
1. I wish I'd documented expectations with early employees, including their wants and needs, so we could create a more successful long-term roadmap for their success. While my first 2 employees lasted nearly a decade with me, the endings were painfully abrupt and could have been avoided if I'd set expectations properly from day 1.
2. I wish I'd inspected and not expected. I took common advice and hired smart people and got out of the way. Unfortunately, I didn't build an infrastructure that included external feedback regarding capabilities, fit and performance. The results included managers with questionable practices and employees stealing IP and clients.
3. I wish I'd hired slower and fired quicker. Too many times we were challenges to get talent in the door and hired talent that was unqualified or otherwise not a good fit. Some created a toxic workplace when their tenure was extended far beyond their fit.
In your experience, what is the most effective way to build a strong network of mentors and advisors to guide you in your business endeavors?
While it's always a good idea to tap your existing network for advisors and mentors, I've found tremendous value joining professional associations like Entrepreneurs' Organization, SEMpdx and ThinkNW to learn and grow. I've tapped members of those organizations as board advisors over the years with great success.
How do you determine when it's time to pivot, and what factors should you consider in making that decision?
I had to pivot my business in 2013, as my agency was obsolete within 10 years of launching the digital agency. I knew it was time when I didn't enjoy coming to work in the morning. I didn't trust or respect key members of my team and the feeling was mutual. I was frustrated by disrespectful clients and entitled employees and would have quit or shut down the business if I didn't decide to pivot. I developed a Credo, shared it with the team and the clarity became a magnet the repelled most existing employees, but attracted talented new employees that were aligned with the vision and mission. It was a painful but necessary move. I suggest business owners take time away from the office (a day or weekend) to self-assess and evaluate the business health and future and make decisions from there.
How do you stay motivated and inspired during the business cycle of ups and downs?
Having a clear vision, mission and core values has been essential to making informed decisions. Surrounding myself with growth-minded, committed and passionate talent as well as challenging but engaging clients has kept me inspired and motivated, especially after we pivoted the business in 2013. It was a difficult decision to sell in 2022, as I was happier working in the business than I'd been in more than a decade at that time, but I had other personal priorities and professional goals. It also helps to sleep, eat well and exercise daily...
Looking back, what one thing would you do differently if you could start your journey over again?
If I could start my career over again, I fear I wouldn't be as successful if I took short cuts. The pain of failure was a powerful tool in my personal and professional growth. Most of my biggest mistakes could be easily avoided in retrospect, but the learnings were invaluable and likely led to avoiding larger and more costly mistakes. If you're looking for a literal answer, however, I'd say be careful who you partner with when building a business. I've lost friends through my entrepreneurial journey and would prefer to have avoided the loss by choosing different partners that weren't friends or doing it on my own.
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