Michael Transon of Victorious: “Having a leadership team that is egoless and anti-cynical”

…Having a leadership team that is egoless and anti-cynical. At Victorious we believe as the leader goes, so goes the organization. If you want an egoless and anti-cynical environment where people are valued and they put forth a genuine effort, you have to institute it at the leadership level first. “Leadership” as an important concept […]

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…Having a leadership team that is egoless and anti-cynical. At Victorious we believe as the leader goes, so goes the organization. If you want an egoless and anti-cynical environment where people are valued and they put forth a genuine effort, you have to institute it at the leadership level first. “Leadership” as an important concept may seem like a given for a Great company, but too often, we humans are drawn to affability and dynamic personalities — which do not define great leadership — rather than humility and sanguineness.

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Transon.

As Founder and CEO, Michael is responsible for setting the overall vision and organizational trajectory for Victorious. He launched Victorious in 2014 and quickly led the team to numerous awards, including three Agency of the Year distinctions and back-to-back placement on the Inc. 5000. You can usually find Michael nose-deep in a copy of Good to Great or glued to the television watching Arizona State football.

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 graduated with a marketing degree from Arizona State University in 2012. I had a full time job in marketing right out of college, but I wasn’t pulling enough hours so I decided to pick up freelance work on the side to supplement my income. I helped companies with digital marketing and social media marketing. That was the beginning of Victorious. Success came quickly. In the span of a couple months, I ended up quitting my job and I gave my freelance work all of my time. I hired some friends and close contacts to help with the workload as I brought in new clients from my sales efforts.

But a short time later, I realized I wasn’t happy with the value I was creating with my time. I was bringing in new business constantly, but I wasn’t fulfilling a greater purpose. I decided I wanted to pivot from just making money, to building an enduring company. I read the book Good to Great by Jim Collins and that experience deeply inspired me to transform Victorious in a remarkable way. I embraced fundamental, philosophical concepts of what makes a company great — hiring self-motivated and disciplined people, cultivating a culture of ownership, and defining a clear core-focus we can be the best in the world at.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

One of the hardest things I dealt with early on was determining who were the right people and who were the wrong people to get on my proverbial “bus”. We needed people who could execute on the vision of our company while aligning with the established culture and values that establish our day-to-day actions. It’s a lot harder than you think. For example, there’s a temptation, when you’re first starting your company, to take any piece of business that walks through your front door. That same temptation extends to hiring employees. Hire anyone who’s willing to take the financial risk of joining your unestablished company.

What I realized quickly is I was operating out of a scarcity mindset — and I made some less than effective personnel decisions. These decisions addressed immediate short-term concerns but, in the long run, were bad decisions. Those people didn’t line up with the culture and vision for the business. The most valuable lesson I learned in this season of the company was: your company must limit its growth by your ability to attract enough of the right people. For us, we defined “right people” as self-motivated, disciplined, empathetic professionals with the self-drive to be a part of something great.

Every entrepreneur deals with self-doubt at multiple stages of the journey. Anyone who says they haven’t is probably not telling the truth. It’s about being committed to your vision for a better future while embracing the brutal facts of your current reality — and then having the paradoxical response that no matter what, you will succeed in the end. Coming into contact with hard times or difficult circumstances is not a matter of if, but when — and a positive mindset is a large part of what defines those who persevere and those who do not.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

During the first year or year and half of my business, I exclusively hired all of my college friends as part time employees of my business. If you want to know what it feels like to lose all control and discipline in your entrepreneurial endeavor, then hire your drinking buddies! But seriously, I did learn that a healthy lifestyle for an entrepreneur involves clearly defined lines between work, family, friends, and recreation. While I certainly don’t think it’s unwise to make close friends with those in your professional circle (I have many myself), it’s important to be intentional and thoughtful with how blurred the lines become. It’s difficult to be friends with employees who report to you — choosing those relationships wisely and not overextending allows an entrepreneur to maintain healthy relationships and boundaries that benefit every area of life.

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

One of the things that makes Victorious stand out is our professional discipline. We’ll say no to any opportunity that doesn’t align with our core focus, which is specifically defined as “systemized search engine optimization”, also called SEO. In SEO, there’s a complementary service called PPC, which stands for “Pay Per Click” advertising. We are often asked if customers can pay us to run their PPC campaigns. In the first few years of Victorious, we did offer those services — but quickly determined that was not the way to make our company great. We realized we were trying to be a jack of all trades and as they say, a master of none. To be a great company, we had to become the best in the world by investing your whole self — finances, time, energy, brainpower — into one singular core focus. We’re now disciplined enough to stay focused on what our core focus is — systemized search engine optimization — and not get distracted. Even if a new service line would generate more revenue or make our company grow faster, we consider the opportunity cost. Instead, we offer a world-class SEO solution that has propelled us to the upper-echelon of our industry and made us one of the fastest growing companies in the country.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

My first tip is to recognize when your efforts begin to achieve diminishing returns on the number of hours you’re working. For many of us CEOs, the answer to our problems lie in more hours worked, but more hours rarely yield a better outcome. I think it’s important to be professionally motivated and disciplined with your time — which means working hard when it’s needed, and working smart when you’re tempted to take on too much and burn out.

I would also highly recommend improving the underrated professional skill of executive delegation. I’ve witnessed my most intense seasons of burnout correlate to when I’m ineffectively delegating. Some of the best leaders are delegators — not because they’re lazy — but because they understand how they can be most effective to the success of the company. As CEOs, our job is to identify strategic opportunities for the business and supply those opportunities with the appropriate resources to take advantage of them. Personnel, in fact, is one of the key resources that a CEO can leverage to take advantage of opportunity. The ways CEOS can utilize personnel resources is by delegating effectively.

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?

Oh this is an easy one! My wife has been a huge support mechanism for me throughout my journey as a founder and CEO. She’s great at listening and understanding the ups and downs that inevitably come with building a company, and gently providing perspectives on situations that help me see an angle or a blind spot. These blind spots have big implications on the overall health of my company and my overall happiness.

Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

I would define a “good” company as an organization that maintains a culture of mediocrity due to an inability to build incremental momentum as a result of chronic corporate inconsistency. It may continue to operate in perpetuity, but the stagnation of the organization due to undisciplined leadership leads to regular turnover of employees and customers as they seek out somewhere of greater value and purpose.

A “great” company, on the other hand, is defined by a team of people who are self-motivated to make the company a better version of itself than it was the year before. The people are disciplined to see through the day-to-day efforts required to create incremental momentum that drives that improvement forward. A great company doesn’t rely on massive market positioning pivots, “savior” hires in leadership roles, or organization restructuring. Instead, a great company takes a brutal and honest look at itself and determines what it has the ability to be the best in the world at, and then puts forth consistent and incremental effort as a team to make that potential future a sure reality. And finally, a great company has no egos. The people recognize that to build a great company is to build a great life, and to build a great company requires the shedding of egos and selfish ambition, from the CEO to the individual contributor.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Getting the right people on and the wrong people off the proverbial bus. As Collins shares in Good to Great, people are not your greatest asset. The right people are. If a CEO is struggling to determine if someone is the right person on the bus, a great question to ask oneself is, “If I could go back in time, knowing everything I know about this person, would I still hire them?”

2. Identifying and leaning into your company’s core focus. This has been one of the most important transitions for Victorious as we started our journey from Good to Great. A company must have the discipline and honesty to look at their business model and ask, “Can we be the best in the world at this?” and “Are we truly passionate about this?” and “Can this create enough revenue for us to succeed as an entity?”. If so, the next (and most difficult) part is creating a “Stop doing list” of all of the things that do not fit the intersection of these three questions. It might mean eliminating some of your greatest profit centers — something we did at Victorious. We eliminated every marketing service except for SEO, so that we may become the best in the world at it.

3. Instituting a culture of self-motivation, discipline, and accountability. I believe many employers over-emphasize ”hard-skills” as a way to compensate for internal cultural dysfunction of “soft-skills” — things like self-motivation, team discipline, and peer accountability. Who on your team cares if your new hire is the best engineer on the team if he’s a total jerk? At Victorious, “A-players” are personnel with the soft-skills to succeed in whatever area they direct their focus and drive towards. Hard-skills can be taught — soft-skills, much less so.

4. Having a leadership team that is egoless and anti-cynical. At Victorious we believe as the leader goes, so goes the organization. If you want an egoless and anti-cynical environment where people are valued and they put forth a genuine effort, you have to institute it at the leadership level first. “Leadership” as an important concept may seem like a given for a Great company, but too often, we humans are drawn to affability and dynamic personalities — which do not define great leadership — rather than humility and sanguineness.

5. Embracing the idea that greatness happens incrementally rather than suddenly. Great companies know greatness does not happen overnight. It requires long seasons of fanatic discipline to the vision of the company. This creates slow moving, but incremental, momentum as an organization. While it may feel unfulfilling to narrow your core focus and see revenue come in much more slowly, the unwavering belief that you will succeed in the end keeps the motivation to stay disciplined and realize the eventual breakthrough into greatness.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

At the end of the day, everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves. You see that play out in the social sector, the education sector, or even religion. It’s an inherent part of the human experience. So it makes sense that this same human desire would extend itself to the area that people are spending their most waking hours and energy towards — work. People desire purpose and meaning in their work — and that’s a good thing. What “purpose driven businesses” enable is a social, inherent good that’s being generated by the time and energy that people working at the company are spending towards it.

At Victorious, one of our core values is “process perfection”. What this actually means is we’re fully committed to becoming a better version of ourselves, both individually and corporately. It’s important for companies to embrace the value of a working relationship between itself, its employees, its vendors, and its customers — it should create a better world for anyone that comes into contact with it.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

In order to boost growth and restart your engine, look to your core focus. What do you feel like you can be the best in the world at? How do you enjoy spending your time? Stagnation is a product of a leadership team spreading resources too thinly to be effective. That often translates into new service lines, new products or new industries that were initially meant to drive growth. Too often, the company leaders do not put the appropriate resources, planning or strategy in place in order to see those “new things” through to effectiveness. There’s always a tradeoff — for every dollar or minute being spent in these new areas, another dollar or minute gets taken away from a different area of your business that might be generating better results. If you’re stagnating, look at whether or not you need to confront the brutal reality of some things just not generating the growth you thought they would and then making the difficult decision to eliminate it and refocusing your energy on what you believe your company can become great at.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

My first piece of advice would be to plan for it to happen before it happens. Prepare your business for what downturns look like, while things are still looking great. Institute good financial systems to ensure your business has strong cash flow management. Without cash flow, you can’t invest in marketing or advertising and you can’t pay your employees. No growth strategy matters if you don’t have cash. Institute strong AR systems to ensure you get paid as quickly as possible with favorable payment terms in your contracts, get AP set up correctly so you are pushing out payment schedules as long as you possibly can, and consider opening up a line of credit to ensure you have cash to pull from if your cycle gets skinny.

Once you have the cash figured out to institute strategies, don’t stop advertising and spending money on marketing. Henry Ford once said, “A man who stops advertising to save money is like a man who stops a clock to save time.” For many businesses, the first thing they do in a difficult economy is cut off investments to the areas of the business that are generating money in the first place. You can find incremental opportunities to cut costs, in areas such as general administration. Then funnel that money into advertising and marketing. Further, be intentional and strategic with marketing dollars. Don’t just advertise to the general public in turbulent times when there are other areas that will generate higher returns. In most cases, this is with your current customer base. If your customers are staying with you through the turbulent economy, look for ways to continue to mine those areas of opportunity. This could be in the form of getting your customers to commit to a longer term contract or giving them discounts to expand their relationship with you. Invest with the people who are investing in you.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

The most underestimated aspect of running a company is making effective decisions, as generic as that may sound. As a business leader, you’re presented with complex decisions that have far reaching implications. These implications affect not only you and your business, but also your employees, your customers, their families and even their coworkers. And a lot of times, these decisions need to be made quickly. A lot of business leaders (including myself at times, as I’m still learning), make decisions based on immediate emotions and current circumstances. People underestimate the ability to consider a short term problem and solution with the long term implications the decision may have. It’s really important to balance all factors, and consider long term impacts, when informing your choices and to determine sound, effective decisions.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

1. Target the right visitors. Not all website traffic is good website traffic. If visitors are coming to your website that are not qualified buyers with a purchase intent, your conversion rates are going to decline. This comes back to making sure your website has effective content that is targeted to a specific audience or a specific purchase intent.

2. Find ways to convert visitors into contacts in your database and implement effective drip marketing. Some folks think that a buyer’s journey simply consists of the buyer being interested and then purchasing. Behind the scenes, there is a lot of emotional and mental work that goes from just being interested in a product to actually purchasing. Companies should recognize that their ability to be influencing and engaging with a potential buyer through that emotional journey gives them a greater opportunity to end up with a purchase. Examples of this includes offering a free purchasing guide or a free research study in exchange for their email address. From there, start a consistent email campaign that provides them with free, valuable information to help inform their decision making process.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

1. Deliver on what you say you will in your marketing and advertising — never overpromise and underdeliver. One of the biggest reasons why brands are seen as distrusted is because the experience that people receive is vastly different than what they were sold.

2. Find a way to celebrate and socialize those moments of delight when customers are over delivered on what they expected to receive from your business.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

The most important part of creating a “Wow!” customer experience is taking the time to understand the emotional drivers that are informing your customers’ reasoning. For example, maybe you’re in a meeting with a SEO customer, and you learn that her yearly bonus is tied to increasing her company’s website traffic. It’s now our job to figure out why that bonus is important to her. It’s in those conversations where we find out she’s trying to save money to take her grandma on a European vacation, for example — something that is really important to her.

If as a company, you can find the emotional underpinnings and reasons why people are choosing to work with you, and how it affects not just their professional life, but their personal life, you can create those “Wow” experiences for customers. It comes down to finding those small moments of human connection that really help to create a bond between your business and their business.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

The biggest way to minimize this concern and reputational risk is to be viciously proactive in your pursuit of a strong online reputation for your brand. If you’re passively sitting and waiting for your brand to develop a solid, online reputation, and hoping people will speak highly of you, you won’t get the results you’re looking for. As a CEO, I’m less concerned about this as a passive, reactive measure as I am in putting forth policies, systems and processes to ensure we’re taking advantage of the great experiences we have with our customers. Then we have to make sure we’re converting those experiences into high value case studies and online reviews to help further cement the brand. You can’t avoid a bad review, but you can minimize its damage by being proactive and getting a greater number of positive reviews out there.

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?

Some common mistakes I’ve seen CEOs make are:

  1. Overextending the company’s service/product lines too quickly — As mentioned, defining a core focus is so critical to building a great company. CEOs and founders need a clearly defined strategy and stay disciplined to it.
  2. Using cash to solve institutional issues — Money does not in fact solve all problems. CEOs and founders need to do the time consuming work to determine if a problem is due to lack of funds, or issues such as the wrong people on the bus, an undefined core focus, or a dysfunctional leadership team.
  3. Burning out due to ineffective delegation — You can not do everything yourself! And you should not need to. When adding new roles to the organization, take a hard look at your responsibilities as a CEO and identify the tactical areas that take up the most of your time. Eliminating those from your plate allows you to be more strategic for the company and assume the role you’re meant for.
  4. Underestimating the power of online visibility — Online visibility is the fastest way to ramp up a small company looking for growth. If you neglect this area of your company, you may find yourself stuck in perpetual mediocrity, as the market has no way to find or clearly differentiate you from your competitors in the crucial research phase of the buyer’s journey.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I love this question — If I could successfully start any movement… I would appropriate .5% of annual GDP from the top 10% richest nations in the world by domestic nominal GDP towards pro-rata housing, health, and human services for the 50% poorest countries in the world by domestic nominal GDP. 1 in 8 people across the world live in a slum — that’s over a billion people. This would fund over 500 billion dollars in efforts to help bring folks out of generational poverty and promote an inclusive and globally-minded world.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Readers can find and connect with me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaeltranson/.

For more information on Victorious’ services and offerings, visit: https://victoriousseo.com.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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