Read consistently and learn constantly.
Aaron Burnett is CEO and founder of Wheelhouse Digital Marketing Group, a fast-growing digital marketing agency recognized by Inc. Magazine as one of the best places to work in the United States and by both Seattle Magazine and the Puget Sound Business Journal as one of the best workplaces in Washington State.
His more than two decades of business and entrepreneurial experience was defined by an early realization: that conventional, mercenary business practices offer little joy or fulfillment. Instead, Aaron has cultivated and built a thriving company based on an unwavering focus on helpfulness, generosity and joy. Wheelhouse is the culmination of Aaron’s experience and commitment to values-driven decision making. It’s a story told through performance, such as:
• The 50 percent year-over-year growth the company has enjoyed for the past five years – all through referrals from delighted clients.
• Inclusion in the INC 5000 list of fastest growing companies in the United States for each of the past four years.
It’s also story told through people—by strings of adjectives, straight from Aaron’s colleagues, employees, and clients: “trustworthy,” “astute,” “imaginative,” and “scary smart,” to list a few.
Prior to Wheelhouse DMG, Aaron was president of Produxs, a UX design firm (acquired by UpTop), was founder of Nuevas Fronteras, the first telecommunications service aggregator serving the Hispanic community in the U.S., SVP Marketing for Speakeasy, VP of Marketing for NetMotion Wireless and VP of Sales & Marketing for AT&T Wireless.
Where did the idea for Wheelhouse Digital Marketing Group come from?
Wheelhouse began as a new practice area within a user experience (UX) design firm I was running. At the time (2008), UX was applied mainly on design for software and complex web interfaces (platforms and portals). As a consequence of the paradigms to which UX design was being applied, very little in the way of performance data existed. So, winning new business required a sophisticated buyer – someone who could tell that our design artifacts (wireframes, user flows, interaction mapping) were superior to another agency’s design artifacts. I reasoned that, by seeking out and working with ecommerce companies, we would be able to demonstrate the value of UX design in clear, economic terms – the byproduct of which should be that we could approach prospective clients with undeniable proof points regarding the value of our work. This reasoning proved correct. We now could tell prospective clients things like, “we increased ecommerce conversion rate for company X’s site by 56%” and “we doubled revenue for company Y.”
Search engine marketing and UX are natural complements to one another in that both rely – at least in part – on website structure and presentation for their efficacy. As we began to work with more ecommerce companies, we heard variations of the following question with increasing frequency:
Is search engine marketing in your Wheelhouse?
I knew quite a lot about search engine marketing through my previous work as a high-tech marketing executive and consultant and so, decided to launch and lead that practice within the UX design company. Two years later, the search practice was larger and more profitable than the UX design practice. I bought my partners out and Wheelhouse Digital Marketing Group was born.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Wheelhouse DMG now has approximately 40 employees in two offices and clients around the world. A typical day for me starts at 5:30am, when I work and/or read for an hour before anyone else is up in my house. This uninterrupted time is essential to maintaining clarity of thought, coming up with new ideas and establishing focus for my day. Without it, I find that my days become interrupt-driven.
I’m married and have two daughters (one 11 and one 15) and, as much as possible, try to be there to have breakfast and chat with them. My youngest daughter isn’t a morning person so we’ve developed a routine to give her a cheerful start to the day – I gently tickle her awake each day, which ensures that she starts her day with laughter and joy.
I’m usually at my desk by 7:30am. As my company has grown, the nature of my work has changed significantly. No longer is my productivity measured by the work product I produce. Instead, it’s most often measured by the questions I ask, the direction I can provide and the extent to which they create clarity or help a team member to find a solution to what may have seemed an intractable problem. As CEO, my focus in on strategy, culture and people. I try to make each day productive by maintaining focus on these three things and allowing others in my company (who are more capable than I am in their respective areas of expertise) to manage the rest. I am productive in that I can enable the brilliant people who work at Wheelhouse DMG to do excellent work in an environment in which they have clarity regarding our values and mission, feel personally known and valued and fully and passionately engaged in their work.
How do you bring ideas to life?
In one of two ways:
• I plant seeds with others by making suggestions and asking questions. In so doing, I can set people on a course of thought and direction consistent with my aims – but in a manner that cultivates personal buy-in and enthusiasm on their part. Through taking this approach, my ideas often are improved through the contributions of others. This also means that, when launched, a new idea or initiative becomes something that seemingly originated with others – and not me. Doing this repeatedly cultivates confidence in other company leaders (and self-confidence in those same leaders). As an entrepreneur, this creates increasing freedom in that I’m not seen as the essential source of good ideas and change in my company.
• I directly evangelize a new idea, rallying others to my cause and creating a shared sense of mission and enthusiasm. I try to use this approach sparingly, for reasons alluded to immediately above.
What’s one trend that excites you?
Artificial intelligence! We just developed and are bringing to market a new platform that uses AI to identify non-obvious characteristics and create hyper-granular profiles of an ideal customer for B2B companies, then leverages this insight to mine the entire prospect universe and surface prospective customers that are most closely matched to an ideal customer. The power of AI to unlock value in this paradigm is profound.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I’m a voracious reader and have a capacity to synthesize disparate, complex ideas and distill them into what is meaningful and relevant for a particular situation.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t chase after status and income – in isolation, these things won’t make you happy. When I was younger, I was on fire with ambition. In my 20s, my particular focus was on becoming a VP at AT&T Wireless (where I was employed) by the time I was 30 years old. I worked immensely hard to get there, ignoring that I was often unhappy in my work, anxious and ill at ease. I somehow believed that, if I could achieve my goal, everything would change – my achievement would make me happy, fulfilled and at ease.
Ultimately, I missed my goal by one year, become VP of Sales and Marketing when I was thirty-one. I was a VP in a globally recognized company, was making more money than I ever had – and the earth didn’t move. I wasn’t happier, I wasn’t fulfilled and I wasn’t at ease. I got what I wanted – and I was miserable. Status and money didn’t change how I felt about the work I was doing or about myself. Just as I had been before my promotion.
For years I had worked for the approval of others – for a raise, a promotion, the status of a new title. It took four more years to realize it, but what became clear to me is that my fulfillment, my status and even my comfort in my own skin could never be bestowed by someone else – they had to be self-generated. For me, these have come from creating a company, a culture and a daily existence focused on service to others as a first principle. It is in this pursuit that I have found purpose, meaning and even joy.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Working to ensure that employees feel known and loved creates profound, long-lasting value and change for them and for the businesses in which they work.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Read consistently and learn constantly.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Helpfulness and generosity are core values at Wheelhouse DMG. We strive to be helpful to everyone with whom we come in contact and do so without expectation of business value for us. This means that virtually every contact we have results in a positive impression – and in the person or company with whom we interact coming away with something of value.
In a related fashion, we tell every new client that Wheelhouse DMG exists to be helpful and that our helpfulness is not constrained by what is and isn’t in our contract. A digital advertising client can ask for web development support and an analytics client can ask for SEO support – and we’ll help. We commit to being generous with our time and expertise which often means we do work for which we’re not explicitly paid. But we commit to looking out for the best interests of our clients and we rely on them to look out for our best interests (and we tell them so when we begin to work with them).
Our experience is that, in nearly every instance, this approach is rewarded with trust, rapid establishment of true and authentic partnerships and an openness of communication that can otherwise be quite hard to establish. The other happy byproduct is that, as we support clients with services for which they didn’t originally contract, we have the opportunity to demonstrate our prowess in new areas – something that often results in expanded business relationships with clients.
From a business perspective, this approach has driven an average growth rate of 55% per year for five years running – all without any formal marketing or business development functions at Wheelhouse DMG.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I had two partners in a prior company. Over time, it became increasingly clear that we weren’t aligned ethically. I was deeply uncomfortable with their approach to business and some of the choices they were prepared to make to reach their goals. Ultimately, I bought them out of the business and have never had partners since.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
A white-glove service that specializes in wholesale conversion of homes from traditional lighting and systems to home automation-enabled high-efficiency systems, appliances and lighting. The options in this space are so diverse and so many as to be overwhelming and daunting for most consumers. Add to that the complexity of integrating and automating them and many (if not most) consumers become daunted and stalled. A one-stop service that offers templatized design packages and the full implementation services that should go along with them would do very well.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I bought a hand-forged carbon steel pan. It’s a game-changer in terms of the quality of the food I can prepare and the precision with which I can cook.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Wunderlist – I manage all task lists for both my personal and professional lives using Wunderlist. It’s simple and easy to use, and it syncs among all of my devices so it’s always with me. If it’s not on Wunderlist, it’s probably not going to happen for me.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“The Art of Possibility” by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
For me, so much of the joy of entrepreneurial life comes from the ability to look at a problem, and opportunity or a conventional way of doing things and come up with completely novel solutions by approaching the issue in unexpected and unconventional ways. This book provides a set of practices and a perspective that unlocks that kind of thinking and approach.
What is your favorite quote?
“It’s all invented anyway so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.” – Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander
- Starting the day with uninterrupted time can ensure the day is not driven by interruptions.
- Cultivating personal buy-in and enthusiasm means ideas can be improved by the contribution of others. Contribution builds self-confidence as well as the confidence of others in one’s leadership.
- Read consistently and learn constantly.