Eric Yaverbaum of Ericho Communications: “Tenacity”

Resilience, similarly, helps you dust yourself off and bounce back from the inevitable stumbles and falls you’ll have throughout your career. Things are going to go wrong — that’s just the nature of business — and when they do, you need to be able to push through these challenges and come out the other side with the same verve, […]

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Resilience, similarly, helps you dust yourself off and bounce back from the inevitable stumbles and falls you’ll have throughout your career. Things are going to go wrong — that’s just the nature of business — and when they do, you need to be able to push through these challenges and come out the other side with the same verve, passion, and determination that you entered with. Without resilience, without being able to pick yourself back up, it’s impossible to keep moving forward.

Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications, is a communication, media, and public relations expert with over 40 years in the industry, having co-founded Jericho Communications and served as President from 1985 until its successful sale in 2006. Eric has worked with a wide range of top-of-their-industry clients, including Sony, IKEA, Progressive Insurance, Domino’s, Beachbody, H&M, and fitness guru Jack LaLanne. Eric is also a bestselling author who literally wrote the book on public relations — the industry-standard bestseller Public Relations for Dummies — as well as six other titles, including Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs (with over a million copies sold). He will be recounting his lifelong ability to look towards the bright side for his upcoming book The Audacity of Silver Linings, set to release in 2022. He is a regular TV pundit, and his expert commentary has been featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, The Washington Post, The New York Times, HuffPost, CNBC, MSNBC, Fox Business, Inc., and PR Week, among others.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’ve been in PR for nearly 40 years now. Getting Yours: The Complete Guide to Government Money by Matthew Lesko was the book that literally started my career. After meeting Matthew at 19 in DC, by sheer luck, I convinced him to let me run point as the PR person for his book’s campaign. I was still in my sophomore year of college and originally just looking for some work experience outside of the classroom. However, Matthew was unconventional, creative, encouraged my sense of hustle, and willing to try whatever idea I came up with. Between doing hours of classes, piles of homework, and all my other jobs, I promoted that book everywhere I could — eventually landing it on the New York Times Bestsellers List. And thus my career in PR was born.

After working with Matthew, I received some really exciting offers, including to run the Atlanta Braves communications department. Ultimately, I ended up moving to Toronto to head the communications department of an international tech company. However, after only one year there, the company went bankrupt. It was devastating — I had uprooted myself to another country to pursue this dream, and it had completely blown up without me being able to help the company.

In the aftermath, I returned to DC and decided to bet on myself instead of someone else — and started my first agency on Capitol Hill, Jericho Communications.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

After selling my first, big agency, I spent a little over a year as a managing partner at the Wall Street holding company that bought and merged us. Big lesson learned there, I like running the show, not working inside a large company. I’d been an entrepreneur — and my own boss — running a company for so long, and as a naturally curious person, I kept wondering, I had built a successful company from the ground up, could I do it again? I found myself uncomfortable inside a Wall Street machine, and I was eager to creatively engage with all the moving parts of a business again — something that had been a part of my professional life for decades. However, there were some things I wanted to do differently this time around. I didn’t want the job to consume me the way it had in the years before — I had kids and a family that I was raising and frankly, there were more important issues to me than just my business. The “Aha” moment really came when I decided to ensure that my next agency offered balance. I wanted to work more for a purpose than just profits. And I wanted to balance my professional life with parenting at the time. This was something that had been more elusive while running my first agency. And making that idea of purpose central to my entrepreneurship this go-around has made me, my company, and the work we do better than ever. I feel like a walking hashtag for loving what you do now. It’s so much more gratifying. It’s still working, but I genuinely love every minute of it.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

I would consider myself something of a natural entrepreneur — I’ve always been a hard-charging, get it myself kind of guy. I’m more comfortable on the ledge than I am safely inside. I get genuine joy out of building something from nothing, out of juggling the highs and lows of business and doing the day-to-day work that keeps a business going. While I’m most “famous” for my public relations expertise, building businesses and helping those businesses make money is what inspires me daily.

As a caveat, I will admit that my aptitude for running a business wasn’t innate — it’s a skill set that I’ve been studiously developing over the last forty years. I don’t think that anyone is necessarily born knowing how to run a business; it’s something you have to learn and practice. There aren’t any specific personality traits that make someone better in business than anyone else; in fact, bringing yourself to your business is what will make your work different from anyone else’s. Whatever your background, if you’re willing to work hard and learn a whole lot along the way, you can succeed in business.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Matthew Lesko was hugely influential to me as a budding entrepreneur. He was smart and driven and taught me that anything was possible if I was willing to put the work behind it. When we met, he’d left a hugely influential career as a former lobbyist and head of his own DC think tank to pursue writing. He was willing to take a chance on me, an unproven newbie, to take that journey with him and learn as he was learning. He was open, always willing to share what he knew, and I realized that was a big key to his success. Watching him go for the things he wanted without fear and with complete focus and purpose while encouraging me to do the same inspired the rest of my career.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

When it comes to Ericho, I think our most distinguishing feature is that we’re not the largest agency, but we compete with them. Staying highly selective about who we take on was a very intentional choice I made when I started Ericho. We’re not one of the giant mega-firms, so it’s easy to be underestimated because there is often an assumption that you may not have the resources or connections to produce the same work as those larger firms. However, the level of personal attention, time, and care we’re able to give each of our clients are unmatched. Everything we do is completely personalized and bespoke for each client, something you simply cannot get at an agency with a revolving door of clients. Building real relationships and long-lasting partnerships is what we do. And the level of creativity we bring to the table is unlike anything I’ve seen at larger firms. Our clients are continually impressed by the way my team is able to pull new angles out of thin air and turn them into meaningful opportunities to share client stories. We love telling our clients’ stories, putting them out in the world, and shining a light on the great things they’re doing, and I think that genuine passion and commitment to the work — and our clients — is what makes our influence as outstanding and outsize as it is.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I think the trait that best defines entrepreneurship is tenacity, and I’ve always been tenacious if nothing else. I was a student-athlete and grew up with a point guard’s perspective on teamwork and leadership. When I signed my first publicity client at nineteen, I was eager to do whatever it took to deliver. I’ve always been very determined, and while that didn’t take the form of entrepreneurship in my early youth (instead it was directed toward school and sports), by the time I was twenty-three, I had struck out on my own by starting my own agency.

While it was hard, and I eventually did feel burned out by the pace and marathon at certain times, I never lost that drive to push myself and continue to do the thing that I love. And I think that’s indicative of another trait conducive to success: passion. So many successful leaders in business are powered by a passion greater than themselves. When you’re able to connect your career to something you’re passionate about, it all just clicks. It’s still working, but having a passion fueling that work will take you far. You’re more willing to put in the necessary time and effort, never getting swept up by the highs and lows, but staying focused and on course in pursuit of your goal.

The third trait I think that has been instrumental to my success is being a lifelong learner. I’m always continuing to learn from those coming up behind me. As a younger person, I remember having my input and contributions being disqualified or ignored due to my youth. Once I was in a position of leadership, I made it a critical part of my leadership model to hire people I trust, people I respect, and people who are smarter than me. Being comfortable in not knowing, and willing to learn from people regardless of their age has kept me ever ahead of the curve.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

To be frank, I think the bulk of my formal education was advice that I wish I’d never followed. It was all about rules, staying in the lines, and following a formula; they may teach you to be a CEO, but it’s the CEO for one and only one company. In the real world, color by numbers simply doesn’t work. There are no one-size-fits-all ways to be a leader, and I quickly found that sticking to the textbook didn’t work as well as the lessons I learned through experience and by simply doing things myself. I made it up as I went along and trusted my gut. And how gratifying it was to see how successful I could be that way! No textbook for that. To be clear though, there is a value in mastering the art of how to learn and more importantly to finishing something you start. Those are habits that have both served me well in life and at work.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

I think it’s important to remember that each worker is an individual with their own strengths, weaknesses, and challenges. Encourage them to create boundaries between work time and personal time and respect those boundaries. In my office, flexibility is really the name of the game. We’re fully remote now so my employees can work wherever they choose, but I expect them to be readily available during office hours. I similarly don’t expect responses to emails over the weekend and ensure that my calendar is kept up to date with their availability as much as they are aware of my own.

These little things communicate that I value their time off deeply and hold great respect for them, their boundaries, and their lives outside of work. It’s too easy to blur those lines and if you’re never off the clock, you’re setting yourself up for burnout. Productivity doesn’t mean constantly working. It’s about delivering quality (not quantity). Communicating explicitly and implicitly to your employees that you want them to enjoy the work they’re doing while also reaping the fruits of their labor (like some vacation time) helps to foster a more balanced work culture.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

Creating a consistent public identity, founded on integrity and things you actually believe in, are key to building trust, credibility, and authority in any industry. Consistency in messaging, point of view, content, or engagement; this way your audience can gain a sense of who you are, what to expect from you, and can decide whether or not to give credence to your brand. If you want to be seen as a “subject matter expert,” there must be an adequate display of your expertise, usually in the form of a consistent media presence. It doesn’t have to be through a media organization (though those definitely help to establish credibility in many circles) — social media platforms can be just as effective at communicating to and influencing audiences.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

It’s particularly necessary today to be able to control your own narrative because otherwise, it’s very easy for someone else to steer it for you, and you may not like where it goes. The power of social media is such that untruths, misunderstandings, negative interactions, and third-party stories can take on entire lives in a matter of hours and become national news shortly thereafter — all without ever needing to be verified as the truth. Having your own communication channel that not only serves as your mouthpiece but as a living record of your stances and what you want the public to know can help you craft and maintain your narrative and prevent untruths from spinning out of control and co-opting your story.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think the most common mistake I see is people who come into entrepreneurship with the presumption of immediate success. The truth is, there are no overnight success stories. In fact, it takes decades to be an “overnight success.” Success is a lot like an iceberg: whatever you may see above water, there’s a whole lot more you don’t see below the surface. Every single “overnight success” spent years working tirelessly to build, define, refine, manage, and promote themselves and their work.

The best way to avoid this is simple self-awareness. Remain humble and understand that running a business is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes years to develop a brand, identify, and hone your audience, establish the necessary support network and relationships, find the right people, and hit the sweet spot of “success.” You have to be prepared to take the good with the bad, the losses with the wins, and learn a new lesson every time in order to persevere in the business world.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

I think that being an entrepreneur, by definition, you are subject to fairly dramatic highs and lows (though you do have the option of how you react). You’re literally building something from nothing, oftentimes under new circumstances with no roadmap. Whenever you’re aiming for greatness, there are bound to be massive triumphs and exceptional failures. This is really just a fact of life, so it’s something everyone needs to learn to navigate. When you’re working for someone else though, you don’t have to be concerned with the various ins-and-outs that make the business tick — someone else administers everything; so your benefits, pay, time off, etc. are a given (in theory). When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re the one responsible for everyone else; you’re the one in charge of making sure the business keeps ticking as it should. Being responsible for others does add a lot of pressure to whatever you’re doing. And there are many more moving parts to contend with as a leader and entrepreneur, but it’s managing these moving parts that keep me feeling young and inspired.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

In 1986, I was two years into building my first agency. I was single, broke, and wanting to write a book — so I looked for a way to remedy this all in one fell swoop, so to speak. My business partner and I endeavored to write a book giving advice for dating on the cheap, with creative, low-budget date ideas that were sure to impress. We pitched to every publishing house and agent we could, trying to sniff out some interest from anywhere. We got none.

So we devised our own press push to see if we’d be able to drum up some interest in a nontraditional way. We placed stories about our own adventures being single in newspapers and magazines and called for submissions for a book we intended to write responding to the question: “How do you date cheap with a class?” We solicited readers to send in date ideas for the chance to be a published author with their name featured on the cover of the book. We received hundreds of submissions, and eventually, we were even offered an actual book deal for our publicity stunt. However, the publishers were unwilling to honor our request that all 100+ of our submitters be featured as co-authors on the cover so we had to decline. This was one of the earlier times in my career that I remember really grasping the power of PR as a truly effective and engaging marketing tool with the ability to produce tangible results if you were really willing to think outside of the box. And little did I know I would go on to write as many books as I have. Not so ironically every one of them has benefitted my business.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

One of my scariest times as an entrepreneur was in the late nineties when the dot-com bubble burst. One significant division of our business was solely for dot-com companies, and I would say about 90% of those businesses ended up going under. As I watched that side of our business collapse, one after the other, I became exceptionally worried about the future of our company after taking so many losses. How would we be able to continue to pay and support the people that worked for us? What would replace the revenue from this massive dropoff?

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

I never lost faith, and I kept working, kept my nose to the grindstone seeking out new opportunities for my business. Perhaps it was by virtue of not giving up (or some other stroke of luck), but our last remaining dot-com client ended up being bought by Google, allowing us to keep everyone on the payroll. The lesson I learned was to never quit and to never get caught up obsessing over your losses — just learn from them and keep moving forward.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Tenacity. You need tenacity, perhaps more than anything. That unwavering persistence and determination are what make it possible to maintain equilibrium as your business and the market grow and change around you. Without that fighting spirit, it’s near impossible to manage the peaks and valleys of entrepreneurship.
  2. Resilience, similarly, helps you dust yourself off and bounce back from the inevitable stumbles and falls you’ll have throughout your career. Things are going to go wrong — that’s just the nature of business — and when they do, you need to be able to push through these challenges and come out the other side with the same verve, passion, and determination that you entered with. Without resilience, without being able to pick yourself back up, it’s impossible to keep moving forward.
  3. Grit. When you’re starting out as an entrepreneur, you’re literally building from nothing. It means that you have a vision so strong and self-belief so assured, that you’re willing to go out on a limb and bet on yourself to make it. That takes grit. The first few years and even decades of entrepreneurship are the most challenging — and without the propensity to dig in and fight through the grimy parts — you’ll never make it.
  4. Curiosity. A good entrepreneur is naturally curious and always looking for something new to learn, a new venture to try, or a new connection to make. I think curiosity gives people a certain open-mindedness and willingness to try new ideas which are core characteristics of the entrepreneurial spirit. There are no hard and fast rules to entrepreneurship, no class or guidebook, no easy answers — so being curious and eager to go out on a limb and try new things is a must.
  5. Dynamic. In the same vein of remaining curious, you have to try to learn something new every day. There’s always going to be new technology, new tactics, new ideas, and new ways of doing things that can expand your horizons. I believe that when you stop learning is when you stop being really good at what you do.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience is the ability to see the positive possibilities beyond a tough situation. It’s being able to confront challenges head-on, on an ongoing basis, and be willing to try again when that approach doesn’t work. Resilient people don’t give up and are able to dust themselves off and bounce back from adversity. They don’t look at life’s challenges as insurmountable obstacles but as opportunities to flex new muscles, learn new lessons, and grow in doing so. They have an innate understanding that obstacles actually are the path, not just something in the way. I think that learning something from your challenges and applying those lessons as you move forward in life is a key aspect of resiliency. You don’t just bounce back — you absorb, adapt, and bounce back even better than you were before.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

I was a basketball player for most of my childhood — despite being considered much too short to play the game. Everyone was bigger than me; I got knocked down (both verbally and physically) a lot in no small part to my stature and because I played point guard where the ball was in your hands to start the offense right from the start. I think the basketball court really defined who I would grow up to be. It’s where I learned the fundamental lessons of never giving up, holding my own, never being intimidated, and staying the course, even in the face of seemingly oversized challenges. Every game I had to push harder than everyone else on the court. I had to be better and think faster than my opponents, be nimble both mentally and physically to keep up with my competitors and beat their defense, not to mention defend them. A lot of these lessons have carried through with me over the course of my forty-year career. Most importantly was the lesson I learned from playing and winning so many games my team was expected to lose. It’s a lesson from Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp, “That’s why they play the game.” I never gave up before I actually tried! The game isn’t decided on paper. One team might have more talent and might be favored to win the gameby oddsmakers, but when the game is actually played, anyone can win.”

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

I’ve always been an optimist (in evolution), it’s a deliberate point of view I’ve cultivated and in fact, learned and studied throughout the decades. I think the secret to that is learning to not get swept up in the enormity of any one situation and remembering that as long as you’re breathing, it’s possible to turn any situation around. Reminding myself of the challenges I’ve overcome already — and there have been many, many of those — reflecting on the lessons those challenges taught me and the growth I’ve experienced as a result of them, helps to keep me focused on the bright spots in my present and future. I just don’t like to miss too many moments in life. And I don’t. Worrying too much is a great way to lose the present moment. To me, that’s a waste of a moment! We all only get so many, and we should treat each one of them accordingly.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

Leadership sets the tone for an organization and the best leadership is thoughtful, communicative, and transparent, but positive, encouraging, empathetic, and grounded. You have to be the light in the storm for your team.

A year ago, I was diagnosed with COVID-19 and spent 90 days running my business from my bed. This year, almost to the day, I found out that I had contracted one of the COVID-19 variants.

If the world weren’t scary enough, your boss getting COVID-19 not once but twice could easily stir up a lot of fear within a company.

In both instances, I made sure to share with my team and my clients that I was sick, update them frequently on how I was feeling, both mentally and physically, and ensure that they were always in the know about what was going on with me and how it would impact my work. We’ve all built strong personal relationships through this particularly challenging year, and I’ve encouraged them to be open with me about what they’re going through as well. And through it all, I project hope and positivity: about my own recovery, about the company, about the state of the world, and about the unique personal challenges my team and my clients are all facing. This mindset literally saved us my first go-around as the scariest and most uncertain days of the pandemic swept over us.

With this second diagnosis, I’ve seen that positivity returned many times over, as my employees check in to offer words of encouragement and see if I’m okay. I think that my confidence the first time, eventual recovery, and positive outlook surrounding the virus itself (which I’ve shared with my employees throughout the pandemic), has really helped them to feel more secure and more buoyant at such a terrifying moment in history.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

Don’t count the days, make the days count. I think I’ve perfected the art of being present and therefore the art of maximizing my day to its fullest potential. I don’t worry about the future or regret the past, I live only in the moment that I’m in currently.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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