Joe Erwin of Erwin Creates: “There isn’t anything I wish I had known first”

There isn’t anything I wish I had known first. I like the journey of learning for myself. I did have to learn some painful lessons, but I wouldn’t trade a day, even if I would have been better off had I known. I went through hell a few times, but when you get through it, […]

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There isn’t anything I wish I had known first. I like the journey of learning for myself. I did have to learn some painful lessons, but I wouldn’t trade a day, even if I would have been better off had I known. I went through hell a few times, but when you get through it, and you realize because you hung in there and you did it right, when you made it through the gauntlet, that’s when you feel really, really good about yourself. It’s a truism, that you wouldn’t want a crystal ball. You might think you do, but no, you don’t. You want to live it, you want to learn it, you want to go through the grief, and through that to the joy.

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Erwin.

Entrepreneur Joe Erwin is the co- founder and former president of national marketing agency Erwin Penland and is co-founder of Clemson University’s Erwin Center for Brand Communications. As president of Erwin Creates, Joe founded the creative collaborative co-working community Endeavor — which has been named Best Co-working Space two years in a row by — and is the owner and chairman of Greenville Triumph, the USL League One Title champions.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

For the first decade, my childhood was pretty unspectacular. My mom stayed home with my younger brother and me. My dad, who I had incredible affection for, was in sales. He was my baseball coach and was involved with me in Scouts; he was the dad who could cook! But when he was 39, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. After a month in the hospital, he came home for Christmas, and died three days later. I was 12. My childhood swung wildly, and I took on this feeling that I had to make the Erwin name worth something. For the rest of my life, and even today, I have felt that I had to make my life meaningful to make my dad proud.

That led me to always look to be in a leadership position. I didn’t plan it, I just did it. I was the youngest senior patrol leader, student body president of my high school, and captain of my high school soccer team, even though I wasn’t the best player.

I pieced together later in life that his death, while tragic, changed my life for the better. We take what we get and make the best out of it. I don’t look back on “what ifs” — I don’t have that thought process in my head. It doesn’t do a damn bit of good.

At Erwin Penland, the ad agency I co-founded with my wife Gretchen, we had a rule that we didn’t look back on success or failure except for one day a year at our company retreat. The next day, it was all about moving forward. I don’t think it’s emotionally healthy to look back. If you look at the bad things, it brings you down. If you look back at the good things too much, you can become complacent, thinking, “I’ve done enough.” Well, I haven’t done enough. I’ve got things to do!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two. Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” That’s super powerful. Ever since I saw that, it has driven my life. What am I doing today to make someone else feel special? If I can make someone’s life better, I didn’t suck today. I want to always memorialize that thinking.

The second is from my college roommate’s mom. She was a country woman who called everyone “Hun.” She heard us complaining about a professor who had knocked us down a letter grade. She looked at us and said, “Hun, people ain’t no damn good.” My mom raised me to look for the best in everyone and this woman was saying they weren’t good. You find out in life, sadly, that there is some truth to it when you add one word: some. Some people. As a leader, when you realize that some people are not good, it’s not your job to try to make them good. For example, I hate laying people off, but firing is a different thing. After a painful lesson of not knowing how to fire people effectively, I learned that if they earned their way to be fired, fire them. Get them out of the door or they are going to be a cancer to everyone else.

How would your best friend describe you?

My friends say that I am always open to joy and extend that joy to other people whenever possible. They would also say I am relentless and have a boundless imagination, and “the right amount of crazy” to accomplish things that others might not imagine, and help others to believe they can, too.

They would also say that I am universally fair and inclusive. I hate bullies. As a young boy in the 60s, I watched on TV as police released dogs and sprayed fire hoses on African Americans who were marching peacefully. No one had to tell me that what I saw was wrong. It made me sick to my stomach and shaped me to be a champion for underdogs — whether that be people of color, women, people with disabilities, those who weren’t “born in the right family” — anyone who is looked down on for no good reason.

At Endeavor, our creative co-working community, we level the playing field for people who left big agencies to start their entrepreneurial journey so that they can compete at the level of their talent. I know what it is like to be a small agency with a big dream.

Same thing goes for soccer. It is a universal sport across gender, race and income levels. That’s why I love it, it’s not for the business. I don’t want to play or live vicariously through our players. But the game is special, perhaps unlike any other sport, as it has the simple power to unite people.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much?

Recruiting the right people can be hard but I am thankful to have the ability to attract those who are outstanding at what they do and who also want to join me.

Knowing how to enjoy the ride. Along the journey, you have to recognize the moments that are special and not be so fixated on the mission that you miss them.

I have a dogged determination to succeed. The outcome might be different than when I first decided to do something, but I work pretty hard. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it. I would be at the beach picking up shells.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

After having successful careers at big New York ad agencies, my wife Gretchen and I moved back to South Carolina to open our own agency, and in 1986, Erwin Penland was born. We had one account and one employee, and grew it into one of the largest ad agencies in the Southeast — with 400 employees between our Greenville and New York offices, working across all marketing disciplines, with clients including Verizon Wireless, Denny’s, Confluence Watersports, Lockheed Martin and Michelin.

In 2012, Gretchen and I founded the Erwin Center for Brand Communications at Clemson University, my alma mater, to help graduates enter the workforce with the tools necessary to succeed in marketing and communications careers. One of the biggest challenges that the advertising industry has faced through the years is not having enough diverse talent to help brands tell their stories to a very diverse America. Through a partnership with Denny’s, we started the Erwin Center Summer Scholars program, a week-long, immersive hands-on experience for diverse students, especially those attending HBCU’s. Our goal is to help build a more inclusive and diverse workforce in each area and level of the agency or brand.

At the end of each week, these students present their projects to a group of professionals. When I got home after the first year’s presentations, I told Gretchen how amazing these kids are, that their work would make any agency proud. The lesson we’ve learned is when you give your money, do it in a way that helps many people, that has a multiplier effect. It can create a wildfire of positive energy. Many of these students were the first in their families to go to college, and now they’ve had this incredibly enriching experience and met top brand leaders in the country. While we planted the seeds and anticipated some of the outcomes, we then see what they learned from each other and how the sum was greater than the individual parts. If you can get good people in a place where they can thrive, they will exceed your expectations and give it back to others. That’s what we are doing here and it’s a lot better than asking how our investments did today.

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

Erwin Penland was a dream for me. It was my baby. When co-founding Endeavor, our creative collaborative co-working community, I reinvented my purpose to be all about helping others achieve their dreams. I also look back at EP with great pride because of the relationships we built there — and some of the members at Endeavor are here because of what we did there. Here, we have 129 members, and not one of them works for me. We work for them. It’s not a reinvention of my skills. The skills are the same, but it is taking that passion and using it for new purposes.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

In my last years at EP, our corporate ownership group asked me to define transition plans. I wasn’t planning on transitioning! But they kept asking for me to identify the next generation of leadership and prepare them, which I understand. Here’s what you learn: when you tell people they are the next generation of leadership, they start to want the keys to the car. That was about the same time that I came to understand that having done well on the success metrics of money and recognition, I was ready for a new challenge. When I walked out the door, I thought, “What do I want personally?” I wanted that feeling again that I had at 30, of having people tell me what I was doing was crazy. “You want to launch a pro soccer team in a city where it has failed twice? Are you crazy?” Yes, thank you, I am.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

I’ve always been around sports, but to learn a new industry and to understand how that business works, to create and launch a consumer brand that isn’t an extension of me personally the way Erwin Penland was, to a degree, was something I had never done. It’s like learning to walk again after running for so long.

I researched forming a professional sports enterprise, hiring the right people for launching a sports brand and building an organization in support of that brand. I don’t know if it required a ton of new skillsets, but it was bringing together a lot of things that I had been around at some level throughout my life, while creating this new enterprise from scratch. That was a bit of reinvention and a new challenge and it still is, but I will tell you, it is so much fun.

How are things going with this new initiative?

Things are going well. There is some real excitement because three years ago when we started, what we lost financially in first year was way more than we thought we would. Last year, it was more than I wanted, but much better than the prior year, and this year projects to be even better. All that does is get me fired up. There is not a person in the world that could tell me we are not going to get this thing to break even and make a profit. I don’t care if the profit is 1 dollar one of these years, I am going to frame it. You start to lie awake sometimes as an entrepreneur with some level of success and think that it really isn’t about getting to the level of profit, or building a building, or winning X, it’s about the journey. The journey is everything, because along the way, it is the opportunity for you to treat people well, to show them the dream, and let them realize their own dreams. That’s what’s good. So, to answer the question, “Is it going well,” the answer is it is going wonderfully. It’s just expensive.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have two. The first is my mom. She taught me to be fearless, to believe in myself, and she let me be rebellious. I was a handful, but still she championed me. After a campaign speech attacking an overly-strict, bully of a librarian, I was elected student body president. The principal then announced he would not let the election stand because of what I had said. My mom called him out on it and told him to make me apologize for what I said, but that he couldn’t take the election away from me since I had won.

The second was my boss at Baskin-Robbins, my first job in high school. He taught me that customer service is everything. If someone comes to the door as you’re closing up, serve them with a genuine smile and be thankful they’re there.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

We launched a pro soccer team in a town where pro soccer had twice failed. In the formation stages, our club president, Chris Lewis, was at a Clemson University women’s soccer game with his young daughter and recognized soccer legend John Harkes on the sidelines. John was watching his own daughter play as Clemson’s team captain. Chris asked if they could talk about Greenville Triumph and John agreed.

After a quick search, I learned that John is in the US Soccer Hall of Fame, and was an Olympian, among many other remarkable achievements. If we played our cards right, he could be Greenville Triumph’s coach. As luck would have it, he agreed to meet. At dinner with John and his wife, Cindi, who by the way, is also a soccer legend in her own right, we each talked about our personal philosophy. There are times when you have this type of discussion, there is something swirling around and you “see the signs and know that they are speaking to you,” as Natalie Merchant would say. I knew when we left dinner that he was going to be our coach. His philosophy about how to treat people, to teach the players how to be ambassadors for the city, sportsmanship, tenacity and fearlessness — that’s everything we want to be as a club. He has been our coach going on three seasons now and has led us to the USL League One championship.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

Do I have doubts? Yes, but I always come back from that. I gather myself, exhale and say, “Yes, we can and yes, we will. Get on board, let’s go.”

As the Triumph was gearing up for its first season, a friend asked me if I were going to set a cap on what I could lose. All that did was get me mad. About the same time, I listened to The Obstacle is the Way on Audible. The book illustrates how some of the great thinkers, people who had conquered the world, overcame the obstacle of their lifetimes. The lesson is to spin your thinking, that the obstacle is the blessing. It presents itself as a challenge that makes you better and stronger. You just have to believe and look at the ways you can advance beyond the obstacle.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

This goes back to the question on the qualities that have helped me be successful. First, recognizing that you have to have a passion driving you that is almost maniacal. You also have to surround yourself with people with that same kind of passion, who work as hard as you do to make things come to life. If you are able to blend all that, you have something special, whether it is two or 400 people. It doesn’t have to be a big army, just the right one. You must have self-awareness of what you bring to the table and then what you need. If you don’t have a core team to go into battle with you, it can get awfully lonely.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

When you are doing something new, you want to take advantage of everything you’ve learned, but you must also to be willing to throw some of that out and do things dramatically differently. Don’t think you can recreate the past. You can’t. And besides, what’s the point in that?

One example. In a way, I deal with the soccer team very differently from how I dealt with our team at the agency. At EP, our staff did what I did, or had done, over the course of my career. With soccer, though, these young men are world-class athletes. I was not. I think the play on the field is great and winning is great, but it isn’t everything. To them, it IS everything; it’s a critical part of their journey. They are wired differently, and talking with them, you realize you’ve never walked in their shoes. But what’s the same as EP is this: I care enough about them as human beings and the fact they work for this brand we are creating, to understand who they are, what’s important to them, what their family situation is and what they need from me as a leader.

For our co-working space, Endeavor, it’s a little different. I wouldn’t do it unless my business partner Shannon Wilbanks led it with me. Having a partner that you trust enough to singularly run the show while you focus on the other things is critical. It’s a big deal to get to the point where you can say, “You’re driving the bus here, but call me if you need me.”

I still have to learn not to fear success. We all fear failure, but don’t be so afraid of success and telling people that things are going well that you can’t take stock and find joy. Some people fear success, and that fear prevents them from changing enough to get there. It’s got to be so different that you have to change. Why be afraid of that?

To paraphrase Amelia Earhart, making decisions is the hardest part; everything else is just tenacity. What great wisdom that is! I have been crippled at times on deciding, but sometimes, you have to do it and then just be tenacious. You don’t give up. You must be willing to pivot however many times it takes, and always be evolving. Guess what? It usually works out.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

There isn’t anything I wish I had known first. I like the journey of learning for myself. I did have to learn some painful lessons, but I wouldn’t trade a day, even if I would have been better off had I known. I went through hell a few times, but when you get through it, and you realize because you hung in there and you did it right, when you made it through the gauntlet, that’s when you feel really, really good about yourself. It’s a truism, that you wouldn’t want a crystal ball. You might think you do, but no, you don’t. You want to live it, you want to learn it, you want to go through the grief, and through that to the joy.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Look, I’d love to be pithy or all knowing, but it is simple. Love each other. If everyone is good to each other, if we love each other, love our mission, and love our role in that, everything that is a problem or challenge in front of us all, would all be a better journey.

If I did have influence, and I don’t know that I do, that is the message I would want people to listen to and act on more than anything else.

What do you want to be remembered for the most?

Calling back to a famous Maya Angelou quote, I would appreciate being remembered for how I made people feel, not just for any particular thing I did. That would be part of a life worth living.

Each of us has had days that are just hard. And then someone says something that makes you feel like it is going to be ok. That’s why you go out of your way to say something nice. Think about what you say very thoughtfully. If you make sure your intentions are good, you can make a difference in people’s lives that is sometimes hard for you to appreciate. When I was going through tough times and self-doubt, one of my mentors put an arm around my shoulder and said, “Do you realize how good you are?” Twenty years later, I go back to that moment and remember that someone believed in me when I wasn’t so sure about myself. We can all do that, for our teammates, for colleagues, for friends, for strangers — and more than anything, for children and young people. To show you believe in someone can literally change their lives.

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