As part of my series about “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Perry, co-founder, president & CEO of Engagency.
Engagency is an award-winning digital transformation agency based in Austin, Texas, and Reston, Va. It has been named one of the top B2B companies in the world for its services and brand reputation. For the past six years it has been consistently named one of top Sitecore development partners in the world and a top B2B company in the US. Engagency is a Gold Sitecore and Silver Optimizely certified partner with award-winning customer service. Key clients include global investment management firm PIMCO, Interstate Batteries, Alliant, KinderCare, Unum, Legrand, Materion and more.
Founders Jason Perry and Carla Romaine bootstrapped the business from a home basement in 2002 to a multi-million dollar venture with employees and outposts in Oregon, Romania, Texas and the Washington, D.C., metro area. Engagency’s mission is to help companies drive top line revenue by building content and commerce solutions that engage customers and clients.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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?
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I wanted to change the world when I graduated from UC Berkley with an environmental science degree. Once I started looking for work, I found few opportunities to thrive. A friend of mine got a job in the tech industry, and it inspired me to look into it as well. I soon fell in love with this new world — websites were brand new at the time — they were a “blank canvas in the “wild west” of the tech industry. I saw it as a place for unlimited dreams, and I jumped in with both feet. I started a business developing websites for other people which grew along with their needs. What started as a garage-based, bootstrapped business has turned into a multi-million dollar global venture.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Well, I don’t know how funny it is, but early on we didn’t do a great job at hiring the right people. We weren’t intentional about it at all, so we attracted a lot of unintentional people. We have some hilarious stories that we can laugh about now, but they were painful lessons at the time. We learned that when you get intentional about the culture you want to create, the right people will come to you. Hiring the right people is a lot easier when you’re leveraging the law of attraction. That starts with defining what you want to attract and putting it out there.
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?
I would say this is not even about me. What I’ve achieved has been because of all the people who have gone before and guided me. So everyone — from my football and rugby coaches when I was young who taught me about work ethic, timing, and the art of war, to my first bosses and mentors who took me under their wings and showed me how to get my business off the ground… to my business partner who was crazy enough to take over the operation like a boss … There have been hundreds who have inspired me. I have learned that to survive and thrive in business, I need to convey information that lifts people up and makes them feel a part of something greater than themselves. This whole journey that I’ve been on has been about destroying my ego and learning to serve — that is my mission. That is where my truth, strength and perspective come from.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
That’s the interesting part of our journey and story. In the beginning we had no purpose — we were “just building websites.” But at a certain point, on the edge of burnout, we realized that we needed to be intentional about what we wanted to create. We knew the work needed to be purposeful and excellent, and the culture needed to be enjoyable, so we envisioned our first cultural mission and put it in our job announcements. Then people who sought the same things and thought the same way started to appear. That was the beginning of who we are today.
The vision and purpose of Engagency is to serve as a haven — to create an environment in which people feel nurtured and empowered and feel a sense of agency and autonomy while also feeling supported. If the team leaves it all on the field for the business, it is the businesses’ responsibility to take care of its team. It is this reciprocal relationship that empowers the team to serve with all their heart. My job is to create this culture for these people — to curate an experience for them that fuels them to always do their best.
A great example of this ideology is that prior to Covid, we daily served lunch to everyone on site. We tended to hire a lot of “introverted workaholics” who often worked alone so by serving a delicious meal every day, we invited them to take a break, put something nourishing into their bodies and feel connected to community.
Another example is that we pay for national and state park annual passes for our team members. That is because we want to send a clear signal — we expect you to get out, take a break, disconnect and recharge. If you don’t set expectations like this, then people who are dedicated to their work will just burn themselves. Some employers may cringe at these expenses, but as we’ve discovered, it’s a small price to pay for that return on investment.
We do technology for a living, but we’re in the service business, and we want to make sure that’s a pleasant experience for everyone. When you create the right culture, people will wake up excited to go to work, and they will show up ready to serve. This is how we consistently deliver on time, on budget and in the right way the first time. It’s a simple equation.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
Engagency specializes in enterprise digital transformation projects. We’re trusted by market leaders and underdogs in a variety of industries to help them architect and implement digital experiences that engage, convert and create lifetime customers.
We put out fires and rebuild digital marketing experiences. On another level, we help organizations understand what organizational and technological changes will help them move the needle the most. We then help them implement those changes and measure their success. We typically start with emergency support, and then, once they feel supported, we walk with them through the digital transformation they’ve been trying to get around to. We help companies eliminate the “bug list” and get focused on the “wish list.”
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
AI-driven personalization will be the next big disruptive force. It will allow the market to finally manifest what has basically been a pipe dream since the early days of the Internet. Futurists like Hans Peter Brondmo were publishing information about this in 2000, but from what I understand these ideas were born in the ’80s. We are still chasing this dream in 2021.
Advancements in personalization by companies like Sitecore and Adobe have driven our business. They were the first to have personalization as part of a complete “experience platform.” Now you see Episerver and Optimizely coming together to form a new AI-driven approach to creating the personalized content and commerce experiences that we’ve been trying to create for years. There should be an impressive horse race between the companies in this space to make it easier to create the experiences people crave.
The holy grail of personalization is to create individualized relationships that nurture the customer through the entire lifecycle, across multiple channels, and at scale. The future is going to be a more pleasant marketing experience because eventually it won’t feel like marketing. We are now on the precipice of experiencing this.
The problem with personalization thus far is that that humans have had to do all the work and the thinking. In the past you had to attend workshops, pay expensive agencies to come up with a strategy, figure out all the personalization rules and then implement them. It’s expensive in terms of time and money. This is a complex, analytical, pattern-recognition-type of problem to solve — and machines are just better suited to that kind of work. With AI, machines rather than humans will do most of the work of analyzing, planning and executing delightful, individualized experiences in real-time, at scale and across multiple channels. Humans will only have to connect the dots and feed the machines data and content. I envision a day when AI will instruct humans on the type of content it needs to engage particular persona so we may be working for the machines one day soon.
Also, as tech has grown so have businesses and their needs. When we first started, we had a client whose website was hosted on a small server with two gigs of RAM. As the business grew it had to adapt to new tech. We then had to solve hardware issues, implement hosting and help them rebuild all the code so it all worked together and was performant. We then moved to the cloud because it became commercially viable and affordable. Now that CMS and software are written around the cloud, the cost has decreased — the CFO has one invoice for licensing, hosting and 24–7 support which consolidates work and drives down the costs of upgrades and maintenance. As upgrade and maintenance costs go down, there is more money for content and creativity in marketing.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
It was in 2000 when I read a book called The Engaged Customer by Hans Peter Brondmo, and I took my first job in tech. I saw the future — I saw the vision that Hans had painted of a very empathetic and pleasant marketing relationship based on relevance … decluttering the noise and focusing on what is relevant to a person. I had been in the environmental science world and was determined to save the world, but when I read that book, I knew this was the field I wanted to dedicate my life to. That “aha moment” led to the origination of Engagency.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
Since we didn’t have to pivot and learn a new a whole new industry, we are right in the path of where future marketing dollars are going to be spent. This is no longer a pipe dream, and we are going to double down on it. We have been building towards this during our entire career. We have been waiting for this moment.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
The most interesting experience is we landed the largest client in our history, a $2 trillion-dollar financial services company, through our website’s chatbot. What’s interesting about this is that tech does work… when you put the right people and systems in place you can land phenomenal clients. If you create the right website experience with the right conversion tools, you will land business you never imagined.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
Be the greatest servant of the organization. When people feel nurtured and taken care of, they have the resources to take care of customers. They have all the support and empowerment to put their best foot forward and lead with grace.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
To encourage them to get out and have adventure … when times are uncertain you need to hit the road and take a break when you can. See the world and find yourself because we can get lost in the gerbil wheels we are on. I look at business leaders such as the founder of Patagonia Yvon Chouinard and his ideology in Let My People Go Surfing. When you give people more freedom they show up, do better work and are more efficient.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I have a few that have helped.
- Believe in something, but don’t hold tightly to attachments. Attachments are tightly held beliefs that blind us from truth and opportunity.
- Crush your ego and embrace discomfort. I’m working with a young man that has tremendous potential as a leader and innovator. We’re starting a small camper van rental business together out of my garage. But in this dynamic, he’s the boss and I’m his apprentice. He’s learning the art of managing a completely unmanageable person (me), and I get the gift of humility. Crushing your ego allows you to serve others.
- Serve others. Because when you’re coming from a place of service, you design the best products, services and experiences.
- Show gratitude always and in all ways. Gratitude is a grounding energy. When we have success, creative energy can get trapped in us if we don’t give it a path back to its source.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Going with the lowest bidder.
- Trying to build Rome in a day. Usually, people come in with big ideas they want done in three months, but that is just not realistic. Instead, they need to create a minimum viable product that can be built on over time. This is important because you must lay the big rocks down first and then the smaller ones will come later in an agile manner as you go along. This will help optimize the solution because you have more information down the line. It’s arrogant of us to think we can create a master plan from soup to nuts in the beginning of a project — that’s not the way real innovation happens in a complex problem. Remember, this is a phased approach.
- Picking a partner that is excellent at sales and horrible with delivery. They hire a shiny agency with a dazzling sales team. But once they sign on the dotted line, in walks the “B” team and all hell breaks loose. They were sold the “A” team and got the “B” team. Pick partners that always do their best, are impeccable with their words and won’t leave you in the lurch.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Reimagine your business in the most convenient form for the customer that you can imagine. Imagine how this technology can be utilized and adapted to the particular product/experience you are trying to sell. Don’t’ think about limitations such as data silos and internal politics. Go into an “all things are possible” mindset and imagine a future that is better than what you have now. This is what we do every day for our clients.
- Identify the big items that need to be done first (place the big rocks first) and the rest will work itself out more naturally. Many people want to try to conceive of the entire thing all at once, but sometimes you can’t wrap your mind around whole picture until you put something down and start to iterate. We are going through this with a client PIMCO that came to us with a new UX they wanted to create — they brought in the right people for the right jobs and did a lot of the envisioning themselves. The first question they asked was, “What are we missing?” The second question was, “How do we do this?” And we went from there.
- Have the right people in the right seats and have their hearts in the right place. Find a partner who is going to help you not just deliver what they say on time and on budget but who is also on a mission to help you get the greatest value out of the investments you are making. They must translate ideas into a workable plan, disrupt some of your thinking and help you understand the nuances of how these tools can transform the experiences you are trying to create. Make sure your partner is a translator and a guide of your ideas. We have won awards for this type of work.
- Get your ducks in a row. Clean up your data and get it out of silos. It is about moving your digital assets into digital asset management systems, moving your product data into product information management systems, implementing an e-commerce platform and a search experience that leverages that structured data and presents that information in an individualized manner. The goal is to create an individualized search, education and transaction process. Then you can maximize customer lifetime value (CLV) by using AI to nurture each individual relationship over time. For example, ConnectWise re-platformed onto the right CMS tool, and now we are in the process of helping select and implement a digital asset management system. They are well on their way.
- Reimagine the customer experience through their eyes and how you can make it into something better by leveraging AI-driven personalization. AI is going to disrupt nearly every business on the planet. Embrace the future now. We’re working with PIMCO to reimagine its entire global presence and then undergo a digital transformation that ensures that its fund management experience is the best in the industry.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Never take anything personally.” When you don’t take things personally, and you realize that it’s not about us, it serves as a hack for the somatic nervous system and keeps you in a connected state that is absolutely necessary for creativity, abundant giving and unconditional love.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Yes. You can follow us at www.Engagency.com.