As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Welsh.
Neil is the Founder and CEO of Silverback Strategies, a rapidly growing digital marketing agency in Washington, D.C.
Thank you so much for joining us! 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 barely made it through high school and never went to college. After high school I sold used cars, which gave me a great education in people. Sales is more about listening than talking. In a very short window I had a to build trust, establish rapport and sell a product. I quickly learned how to ask questions and guide people towards the purchase that provided the most value.
In 2007 a friend of mine hired me to lead the sales and marketing department of a real estate development firm. One of my first jobs was to audit the marketing budget. I was shocked by the costs of advertising in newspapers and magazines. We were selling luxury mountain property in West Virginia and I wondered how many people that saw these ads were ever going to be in the market for our product.
I peeled off some of the marketing budget for Google Ads in 2005. Google allowed advertisers to target search engine users based on intent. If people were looking for luxury mountain property in West Virginia, we could reach them and we only had to pay if they clicked on the ad. I thought, this is going to kill traditional media and I want to be a part of it.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
We hired a Google Ads consultant to help us with our campaign. His knowledge of Google’s advertising platform was exceptional, but it was difficult to communicate with him. The jargon, acronyms and technical talk (PPC, SEM, CTR,) were over my head. I thought, what if we could take a technical expert and train them to communicate clearly without the jargon. My bet was that marketing leaders would have better results if we improved the line of communication.
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?
In the early days of Silverback we went to National’s Park for opening day. This opening day fell on April First. At the ballpark I received an inspiring email that led to an impromptu motivational speech to our small team of 5 employees. It turned out that our Director of Web Development created a fake email address and wrote a fake email as a joke to get me hyped up. Half way through the speech he tugged on my jacket to apologize for letting it go so far.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I started Silverback Strategies to make marketing leaders more successful. Our focus was to drive better marketing results and give our clients the reporting and insight they needed to clearly communicate the impact of digital marketing investments.
We recently hired the Sinek Company to help us refine our company why and our values. I’ve realized our purpose is deeper than how we work with our clients. It’s how we work with each other and how we build an environment that embraces trust and encourages vulnerability, which gives our people the courage to evolve and go further. Our belief that together, we go further means that we empower each other to be vulnerable, to take risks and to evolve.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
Truly embracing this means important decisions like hiring and firing people are made based on company values. We’re rolling out new HR guidelines that weave our values into everything from praise to feedback to compensation. We’re also working with our sales team to make sure our sales prospects understand and embrace our beliefs. Simon Sinek has a great quote, “The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have, the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I’ve always believed that if you take care of your people, your people will take care of your clients. The job of a leader is to serve. Organizations that embrace servant leadership have more engaged and productive employees. When employees are more engaged, everybody wins.
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?
I founded Silverback with a partner. Our deal was simple: I sell the service and he delivers it (my background was sales, his was Google Ads). Six months later my partner left the company and took half of our clients with him.
My lawyers went into attack mode, laying out various options for filing law suits and collecting damages. I decided it would take too much focus to pursue a lawsuit and spent the next year working nonstop to learn everything I could about Google Ads. I moved back into my parents’ house and rebuilt the business.
Looking back that was a defining moment in my life. I could have easily quit, or focused my energy on destroying somebody who wronged me. Instead I dove into the business head first and came out in a much better place. I don’t think I would have made it this far without having come so close to losing everything.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Our values have helped us navigate growth while staying true to our beliefs. I’m currently working with our HR team to better weave our values into every aspect of how our agency operates. This is especially important in a remote environment where employees have less face-to-face interaction.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
Burn your ships
The most successful entrepreneurs don’t have a plan b. Marc Lore who sold his company jet.com to Walmart for 3.3 billion tells the story of early investors asking him why he invested $390,000 instead of an even $400,000. Marc explains that $390,000 was every penny he had and by investing everything he had he found extra gears that would push him through the most difficult times. There was no fallback plan. The company had to work.
Trust and physiological safety are two key components of high performing teams. You can’t just direct your team to innovate. You have to build an environment that encourages people to speak up and challenge the status quo with a new idea or concept. At Silverback we recently adopted the motto what if we… to bring this to life, our leaders and managers created an environment that makes people feel safe when asking what if we…
Make listening a priority. Soliciting constant feedback from clients makes them feel heard and gives you an opportunity to improve your service delivery. Listening to employees should also be a key part of your job. We send weekly anonymous surveys to employees, the feedback we get is incredibly insightful and offers a perspective our leadership team may have missed. Employee feedback has helped us dramatically improve nearly every part of our business.
Leaders eat last
I was the lowest paid person on our payroll for the first five years. If you have funding, pay yourself a decent wage, if not, invest as much as you can into new people and new products in the early years.
Attracting and retaining top tier talent is the most important part of scaling a professional services firm. At Silverback, the only thing more important than our clients is our people. If you take care of your people, your people will take care of your clients.
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 always tell aspiring entrepreneurs that it’s hard to succeed if your spouse doesn’t fully support you. I wouldn’t have made it this far without my wife, Lindsey. Six months into our relationship, a few clients were late paying their invoices and I didn’t have enough cash to cover payroll. Lindsey wrote me a check from her savings account to cover payroll and get through a rough spot. If you have somebody in your corner that believes in you and has a high tolerance for risk, you’re already a step ahead.
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. :-)
Without a doubt, meditation. I practice Transcendental Meditation twice a day and it has changed my life. With minimal training meditation can greatly reduce stress and anxiety and help people live happier lives.
How can our readers follow you on social media?