This is the fourth installment of my “5 Questions for a CEO” series. The first was with Raymond King, CEO of Zoo Atlanta; the second was with Devon Wijesinghe, CEO of Insightpool; and the third with Mark Feinberg, CEO of Uruut.
I’ve known Simms Jenkins (CEO of BrightWave Marketing) for a long time and I’ve always been impressed with how he’s built his business. They are truly experts in their craft and have that awesome agency culture that I love so much. Some of my favorite people have (and still) work there, so I know personally that he’s a terrific leader and I was excited to get to ask him these questions.
Explain BrightWave and give some background on when and how you started it.
BrightWave Marketing is North America’s leading email marketing agency. We help great brands like Aflac, Chick-fil-A, Cox Business, Equifax, Google and Phillips66 elevate their email programs on many fronts.
I started in my guest room in Q4, 2002 which was a brutal time in our economy following the dot com busts. I incorporated BrightWave in February 2003, so we just celebrated our 11th birthday which is kind of hard to believe.
I don’t have the classic story of having an amazing business plan or even an entrepreneurial itch to scratch. Quite simply, I needed a job or source of income as Cox had just shut down our business unit and I was a newly married guy with a mortgage. I had spent a lot of time on email marketing as head of CRM at Cox and began with that as the core for consulting services and it slowly but surely took off. My first client, CoreNet Global, hired me right out of the gate and they were a client for nine years which is something I am very proud of.
How would you describe your leadership style and why has it been so successful in building a great company?
I think I am a pretty versatile leader. As the founder, my leadership focus is to make sure our team knows about what has worked (and hasn’t) over 10 years and what makes up the BrightWave DNA. As CEO, I set and articulate the vision and act as a consensus builder to ensure a proper execution of it.
I truly believe in hiring great people and letting them influence the culture, operations and overall impact of the business on top of the foundation that I built early on. My leadership style has certainly evolved as I would say I was more of the roll up your sleeves and try to do it all myself kind of leader. Economics and maybe a bit of the need to control things dictated that but I feel very comfortable delegating now and choosing carefully where I spend my time.
The first few years of the company I viewed myself as an email marketer trying to manage a business and now I view myself as an agency leader managing a growing email business. Thankfully, we have hired quite a few email stars here to be the subject matter experts for our clients. The transition was difficult but it is still crucial that I remain on the front line, spending time with our clients talking about email, speaking and writing about trends and ensuring our team here is fired up about our industry and where it is headed.
What are 3 pieces of advice you have for people thinking of starting a business today?
So many people are focused on the wrong things when starting a business. How much money have you raised, who your VCs are, how fast can you grow and your exit strategy. Not that there is anything wrong with these things but I believe what I call “slow growth” can be equally beneficial for all relevant parties and more sustainable in the long term. What I mean is it is OK to not hit certain financial milestones or hire your 50th employee until later as long as you are building something that can last and is making an impact on multiple fronts.
So one of my lessons related to this is not letting those kinds of things distract you. Very few businesses will sell to Google for a billion dollars. There is nothing wrong with a multi-million dollar business generating cash to its stakeholders, providing a great place to work and creating success for its clients or customers. Stay focused and determine what is truly important to you and your business regardless of the headlines that may be dominating Twitter and the business media.
Related to that, don’t raise money from any outside parties unless you absolutely have to or is essential for the type of business you envision. Having the ability to control your own destiny, especially at the beginning of your journey, is really important. If you do need to raise outside funds, understand what that truly means. I have seen plenty of well-intended entrepreneurs be forced out of their company down the road and it is devastating.
Lastly, love what you do because you may find yourself and your business doing it eleven years later! I may be the rare bird but I am more passionate about my industry and what we do for clients than I was in the first few years. I have had to have thick skin and a deep belief given the plethora of email marketing naysayers over the past decade.
How do you stay productive day to day with all of your responsibilities? What’s your morning routine?
My responsibilities are crystal clear but my focus can vary a great deal based on many variables. Our leadership team meeting on Monday morning really helps set the agenda for the week as well as synch up on issues that relate to our 3 core areas of focus for the agency in 2014*. If a topic doesn’t fit into any of these 3 buckets it isn’t the best use of our time to discuss it. I have a great team here at BrightWave on all fronts but our leadership team is in a nice groove on how we communicate and collaborate and I also heavily rely on our Operations Manager to keep my feet on the ground and aware of any issues that may not be on my radar but should be.
As a dad to three young kids, I am up early and quickly scan my email for anything urgent as it relates to our business. I take my two sons to school which is a nice bonding ritual and also gets me to the office before 8 where I generally have a very productive hour before moving into meetings or responses to emails. I try to work out in the morning as opposed to after work but it doesn’t always work out that way (or anyway really).
The holy trinity of Apple products (MacBook Air, iPhone and iPad) keep me connected and productive and believe it or not email is my most used app on all 3 products. I am also a big fan of Evernote and Dropbox and how they have expanded what efficient workplaces can mean.
You have a young family like myself and I know you prioritize them over everything else (one of my favorite things about you). How do you make that happen and is it realistic for new entrepreneurs?
As you know, family can keep you grounded and inspired and I take great comfort in that. When I started the business, I was a newly married guy and my wife played an essential role in many ways of getting the business off the ground and having someone to bounce things off of. So having her involved since day 1 has been wonderful and part of the winning formula.
I ask myself at least once a year what I would miss about BrightWave if I sold the company or something changed where I didn’t run the company. Without a doubt, one of the top things would be the flexibility to play such an active part of my kid’s lives. What I mean by that is not stressing about volunteering in their schools or leaving work early to coach their basketball team. I just make sure it is a priority the way I do for BrightWave or other things I am committed to. Of course, I spend plenty of time working on BrightWave away from the office but being able to have a significant role in their lives on all fronts is incredibly meaningful and something I don’t take for granted since I know plenty of great dads that can’t be as involved due to their jobs.
You have to really know what is important and what the realities of starting a business are. I was lucky that my early, grind it out days were before I had kids and I am sure I would find it uniquely challenging if I started a new company today with three kids under 10. Either way, entrepreneurs want it all and have such passion and drive that they typically can juggle better than most.
*in case you care, growth, client success and culture/people are our 3 buckets for our leadership meetings.