How to build and grow a digital marketing agency by Michael Mothner - Founder, Wpromote
Michael Mothner is a thought leader in the online community, a regular speaker at leading industry events, and an Internet pioneer. In 2001, Michael founded Wpromote, The Challenger Agency, out of his dorm room at Dartmouth College. The company is now one of the fastest growing and widely recognized online marketing firms in the country, and he has served as CEO since its inception. He is a columnist for Inc. Magazine and was the recipient of the PricewaterhouseCoopers Entrepreneurial Spirit Award. When occasionally pried away from his laptop, Michael can be found screaming at the Lakers, eating epic sandwiches, and spending time with his dog Reggie.
In conversation with our magazine team, he talks about his personal and business growth journey.
Tell us about your professional journey so far?
My professional journey has pretty much been one ride my entire adult life. I was coding computer games in high school, building websites while in college and founded Wpromote “to help businesses succeed online” out of a Dartmouth dorm room in 2001 when I was 20, and basically have been at it ever since. This year we crossed 340 employees in eight offices nationwide and are the single largest independent digital agency in the country.
Tell us about your company. What challenges you faced while growing your company and what you did to fix them.
Oh gosh, we faced it all. What we always knew was the internet was this amazingly powerful medium to help businesses find customers (and vice versa) and that if we helped facilitate this, we would be hugely successful. What we didn’t know is everything else: how to hire and retain employees, how to do accounting, finance, manage cash flow and budget, how to build culture, how to acquire companies, the list goes on. Pretty much at every turn, we were faced with new challenges and experiences, and the one thing we had was the confidence to figure things out, to try and fail and iterate, to test and rinse and repeat.
Your Successes/failures in life.
I don’t really think of successes and failures in a binary sense. Overall the journey has been a successful one, but full of failures and learnings along the way. I think of it as a ship sailing to a great destination, but with lots of minor course corrections along the way. By getting a lot of little things wrong, you are likely to get the big stuff right.
What choices did you make in your life which made a significant difference in your life?
Always pursuing things that I found interesting, fascinating or inspiring, and not what others thought I should pursue, has made a huge impact in my life. My parents were both teachers, and from a young age I just loved business, so I just did what felt right and for me, that was constantly doing entrepreneurial things. The single biggest ‘fork in the road’ example of this was my senior year of college when I had Wpromote as this little dorm room hobby business, and ultimately walked away from a job as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs to do “that internet thing.” Needless to say, not a lot in my life would be the same had I chosen the other path at that moment.
Walk us through your workday?
My “work day” doesn’t have clear delineation from my “nonwork day” because of my flexibility in where and when I work, and also because I really enjoy the significant majority of the work I do. That said, my work efforts are roughly split into thirds: about a third of my time on the client side, both developing new business and working with existing, a third of my time goes into our marketing, speaking and thought leadership, and a third of my time goes into strategic planning and execution (internal meetings and planning, M&A, budgeting/forecasting).
How do you keep yourself productive and motivated?
I am lucky to wake up every day motivated to create, grow and move the ball forward. It gives me so much intrinsic satisfaction and that is what keeps me productive. My frustrations generally come from things moving slower than I want, and of course when we suffer setbacks that are just a part of doing business.
What do you do to keep yourself on the growth path?
We have always been growth-oriented; we have clear revenue and profit growth goals, which feeds down to departmental goals, which feeds into individual goals so that everybody is rowing in sync in the same direction.
What tools/apps do you use for managing work and life?
The day to day tools that keep everything running is Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Slack, Asana, Highfive, and TinyPulse.
Your favorite books?
Some favorite books: The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz, Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, Zero to One by Peter Thiel, Good to Great by Jim Collins, and everything by Malcolm Gladwell.
People who have inspired you and made a difference in your life.
I really haven’t been blessed with personal mentors from a business perspective, but my parents have been a supportive force in all of my crazy ideas and schemes since childhood, and I love aspiring to be like the great business people of the modern era: Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Howard Schultz, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.
How do you hire your team? What traits do you look for while hiring?
We hire across a lot of different disciplines (marketing, sales, engineering, data science, copywriters, designers) but the common traits across all of them is a passion to learn, an ability to work independently and also collaborate well in teams, being great communicators, and an excitement to grow both in knowledge and as people.
What advice did you get which changed your life?
If You are not making lots of mistakes, you are not trying enough things.
What advice would you give to people looking for success and growth in personal and professional life?
Trust your gut, and just get out there and do it. Whether that is somebody that wants to start a new business, move on from a relationship, take up a hobby… I think that deep down our guts and intuition are much better than we are trained to give them credit for. Trust it, and trust in yourself, stop talking about it, and get out there and do it.