Build a teaching organization. There’s always a competitor who pays better salaries than you. There are times when culture breaks down. You can get past all of that if your team knows they’ll learn new stuff and develop their skills. Good employees prize that. We do a monthly all-day event where all of Portent gets together. Topics range from highly technical stuff to broad concepts around client communications. It energizes everyone. But we also give everyone permission to research and learn ways to get better at what they do. It’s in our core values: Intellectual curiosity and teaching.
I had the pleasure to interview Ian Lurie. Ian is Founder and CEO of Portent, a Clearlink Digital Agency. He’s a whole-brained digital marketer who’s worked in everything from copywriting and messaging to analytics and SEO. His agency works with companies of all shapes and sizes, from Princess, Patagonia, and Hitachi to amazing small businesses and startups. Ian teaches his team, consults with clients, and writes and speaks on an array of marketing topics. You can find him pedaling his bike up Seattle’s ridiculous hills, or send him a note on Twitter (@ianlurie) or LinkedIn.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My career path is completely, utterly random. I graduated university with a degree in History. I couldn’t think of anything better to do, so I went to law school at UCLA. I limped through three years and barely graduated. I never practiced. After law school I became a technical and marketing copywriter. After a year doing that, I started Portent. We were a copywriting agency. Within a year it became clear the internet wasn’t a fad, and we started helping clients publish their own content on the web. The rest is history.
One caveat: I’m not one of those geniuses who learned to program in a day. My parents are both scientists. We had a computer in the house when I was 9 years old (in 1977 — yes, I’m old). It was a Heathkit with 4k of RAM. It ran on DOS. You stored files on it using a cassette player. My nerd credentials were pretty strong, but I learned it all the hard way.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
I have miserable people skills. I was fortunate to have very tolerant people — clients, team, and colleagues — around me when we started. Otherwise, Portent wouldn’t have made it past 1998.
I only got better with very deliberate work.
The lesson, for me: Soft skills aren’t always natural. You can get better at them. If you’re a leader and you care about your team, you need to make the effort.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I had a lot of advantages. Some may seem cliché but they’re important:
- My wife supported the idea. There were plenty of times when finances got tight, or I worked late, or I came home grumpy as hell. Dawn could have said “screw this, go get a real job.” She never said that. Not once. There’s no way to overstate the importance of that.
- I had a liberal arts education and a computer background. I’m biased, but the balance between left- and right-brained thinking is a real asset. Most CEOs who survive have that balance.
- I am stubborn. Very, very stubborn. Not always an asset, but there were plenty of times when it kept me going.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Do something! There’s never a perfect plan. At some point, you have to execute. Otherwise, you die doing nothing. In 2002 we looked at going into performance marketing. I sat on my hands. I was intimidated by the complexity. That may have cost us millions of dollars. We’ll never know.
- Lead your team. You make the decisions. Holocracy and self-management rarely works. Be ready to provide direction and set the org chart. For example: If there’s a role to fill, think about it, then assign a person to it. Don’t let someone naturally “fill the vacuum.” That person will be the worst match. Another example: If your company is considering adding a new product or service to the portfolio, get everyone’s input. Then you decide. You’re in charge. You’re paid to make the big decisions. So make them.
- But don’t micro-manage. Let team leads make decisions that impact their team. Let them do the hiring. Give them a budget and let them spend it. Let them decide who to promote and how to do the work. If you can’t trust them, you made a lousy hire. For the first fifteen years as CEO, I sucked at this. I would drop in, tell a team how I wanted them to practice their specialty, then head to the next team to do it again. It caused chaos.
- Don’t be “nice.” If you have an employee who’s failing for whatever reason, fire them. You don’t have to be a jerk. But you do need to look after your team. Leaving a poor performer on your team because you want to be “nice” isn’t being nice at all. You’re screwing everyone else, and they know it. I once kept someone on board for six months in spite of clear signs they were just terrible at their job. During that six months, I lost five other great people. That’s not a coincidence. Whether they’re good people or horrible human beings, fire employees who can’t get it done. You owe it to everyone.
- Build a teaching organization. There’s always a competitor who pays better salaries than you. There are times when culture breaks down. You can get past all of that if your team knows they’ll learn new stuff and develop their skills. Good employees prize that. We do a monthly all-day event where all of Portent gets together. Topics range from highly technical stuff to broad concepts around client communications. It energizes everyone. But we also give everyone permission to research and learn ways to get better at what they do. It’s in our core values: Intellectual curiosity and teaching.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I wish I had a good answer to this. Being a CEO is really hard. You’re going to feel burnt out.
Maybe that’s the answer: Know that it’s OK to burn out from time to time. Nothing is wrong with you. You’re not the only one. Successful CEOs aren’t naturally resistant to burn out. They don’t thrive every day.
That also means it’s OK to walk away for a short time. Take a mental health day. Play a video game.
Also: Have an exercise program. It may be a 20 minute walk every two days, or crossfit. I don’t care. Do something. It may literally keep you alive, but it also gives your brain something else to focus on. You will be amazed what a difference it makes.
Do not kick your desk. I broke my toe that way.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There’s not one particular person. My wife, certainly — she’s been on my side from the start. My parents taught me to use computers and did things like pay for my college. That gave me a huge advantage: I could start my own business debt-free. I got amazing advice from colleagues along the way.
Picking one person wouldn’t be fair. ☺
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Personally: I want to bike a century again. I’d also like to frolic with capybara in the wild
Professionally: I’d like to be involved with digital marketing on a Democratic Presidential campaign. There, I said it out loud.
Both: I think I have at least one more book in me. I’d like to write it, whatever it is, and get it published.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I don’t have one. I’m not Abraham Lincoln. I’m just a dude who built something because I was pigheaded. If I helped people build and grow their careers, that’s more than I ever hoped for.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
I’m not sure about “great influence” ☺
But if I could start a movement? I’d get everyone truly educated about climate change. If they disagree on action, OK, but everyone should make decisions based on the science.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
About the author
Carly Martinetti is a writer and entrepreneur who previously founded two award-winning pet tech companies. She loves to explore the intricacies surrounding what makes a successful business leader, their passions, and motivations to improve the world as we know it.