I’d find a mentor and find them quickly. As a young entrepreneur (I started Walk West when I was 24), I didn’t yet know that I knew absolutely nothing.
Brian Onorio created O3 (now Walk West) in 2007 as an alternative to traditional web design and development companies who provided thoughtless, commoditized, and templatized products and services. Before O3, Brian worked at Cerner Corporation in Kansas City, Missouri as a Systems Engineer and worked with several large, enterprise-level healthcare IT systems. Brian migrated back to his home state of North Carolina where he spent two years with Duke University Medical Center developing proprietary medical software. Having only been in the professional world for three years and at the ripe age of 24, Brian started O3 out of a spare bedroom in his 800 square foot rental house. Under his stewardship, O3 has been internationally recognized for its unique approach to digital presences. He continues to lead the company in the role of partner and CEO. Brian provides sound digital strategy on every project. He’s been the driving force over continued and sustainable growth the company has experienced without jeopardizing the quality of the services the firm offers. Recognizing the evolvement of the brand on the company’s ninth anniversary, Brian announced a brand relaunch as Walk West. Walk West recently announced a merger with public and government affairs firm Laurie Onorio, LLC, to expand its services and provide a fresh digital approach to issue advocacy and lobbying.
Where did the idea for Walk West (formerly O3) come from?
We spent a lot of time going through several rounds of potential names. We found some great ones that didn’t allow us the opportunity to trademark. As it turns out, my sons’ middle names are Walker and Westfield. Although Walker Westfield sounds like a fantastic 1960s era madmen agency, it wasn’t right for the approach we were taking. We had a team member suggest shortening the name to simply Walk West. Although it has that personal meaning for me, it gave us a ton of creative options for how we want to build and portray the brand.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My typical day usually starts the night before when I take a quick peek at my calendar for the next day to determine what preparation work needs to be done to accomplish my list. A day at Walk West for me is a mix of client, prospect, and internal activities. Although we have a wonderful team that can handle any one of those activities, I’m usually playing a role ensuring client delivery, landing the next opportunity, and managing a rapidly growing agency. To keep a level head and keep it productive, I try to limit my thinking to one task at a time. If I have an hour scheduled for a client project, I put everything else down. If I can’t do that, I reschedule. Doing half of anything isn’t worth the brain matter.
How do you bring ideas to life?
It’s really about believing in something and making smart, calculated decisions. My partner and mentor, Donald Thompson, gave me an excellent lesson about the risk of stagnation as a company. During a meeting last year, he decided to give me a gift – a mid-2000s Palm Pilot. After holding the device in my hand for a few seconds, I sarcastically said, “thanks.” He explained that the Palm Pilot held a near monopoly on the handheld device market throughout the early part of the 2000s. They sat stagnant as Apple and Android came to market with a superior product that they never recovered from. The lesson was simple and something that sticks with me to this day: if you stop thinking about what’s next, you run the risk of being what I was holding in my hand.
We’ve got some exciting internal projects that we’re working on that we’ve done a lot of thinking and research on. Although it’s much too early to disclose details, it’s a commitment to what’s next that drives us and our culture. I make sure to back that up with the resources necessary to make it happen.
What’s one industry trend that really excites you?
We try to steer clear of trends. The concept of a trend is that it’s hot for a minute and then cools down. Trends come and go, but a commitment and dedication to looking past trends and leveraging the tried and true while being forward in your approach really speaks to me.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
As an entrepreneur, you’re always in go-mode. And, it can really wax your mind if you’re on a thousand things at any one moment. I used to be a big subscriber to inbox zero – the idea that you want your inbox with little or nothing in it by the time you leave the office that day. I let it go. I decided that I wouldn’t let my email control me – that I would control it. If someone really needs to get in touch with me, they have my number. I’ve got a great supporting team where if there’s something that is important, it’s tended to. I definitely check my email, but I’ve let go of the overly simplistic inbox zero concept. And it feels great.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
Fortunately, I haven’t had many jobs as a professional since starting an agency so early in my life. I could point to the service jobs like carhopping at Sonic, waiting tables at an Italian restaurant, working retail at Express Men, or working technical support at a local Internet service provider. But those jobs weren’t terrible and I learned valuable life lessons like the value of a dollar (working minimum wage will certainly teach you that – and quickly).
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I’d find a mentor and find them quickly. As a young entrepreneur (I started Walk West when I was 24), I didn’t yet know that I knew absolutely nothing. I also found myself on a sort of island where my peers hadn’t experienced what I was going through. I didn’t have a way to toss ideas around and get sound feedback. There’s an entire network of people that are ready and willing to give their time to help young and seasoned entrepreneurs alike fulfill their dreams. I would’ve sought out that support much, much sooner.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
For me, it’s work. I had the luxury of time before having children. I take my time off to regroup and maintain my psyche, but it’s work mode for me. If you’re chasing a dream, if you’re serious about what you want to put your life’s stamp on, don’t stop. I’ve seen others take their shot at entrepreneurship, but it was always a straddled fence – working a full-time job and doing the entrepreneurship on the side. I did that for the first year but decided that I would have to put down one of them.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
It’s important to be great at a few things. No one is the best at everything. But it’s malpractice not to look around you to see where opportunities lie. We experienced tremendous growth when we made a dedication and hired against complementary services that we weren’t providing. Every deal we were leaving a lot of opportunity on the table for someone else. We took a calculated risk, hired against the skill sets that we needed, and we saw our business boom.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
It’s only a failure if you don’t bounce back from it. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced failure at that magnitude where there was no going back. Sure, I’ve made my fair share mistakes but none have been insurmountable. Looking back, I think my relative risk aversion really hindered the agency’s growth. Sure, I had quit my full time job, but I didn’t make my first full-time hire until my 4th year.
It’s a heavy mindset when you look at employees as expenses instead of investments. When you view them by what they take instead of the additional opportunity they provide, you inherently hinder your growth. That was step one for me in overcoming to achieve the scale and growth we’ve sustained.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
In the agency space, there’s a lot of software-as-a-service offerings to help manage the day-to-day operations. None of them are great. As a matter of a fact, none of them are even good. I’ve yet to find that end-all, be-all agency management platform that handles internal operations and external communications. As a result, we string together 5 or 6 solutions to do the job. I’d pay good money for the one that does it all.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I did a spa day not too long ago. For those that know me, I’m not the pampered type. When I go on vacation, I look forward to action packed days. But I did take a Friday off and hit the spa and turned off the cellphone for 6-hours straight (a record for me). Sometimes, you have to have time for personal reflection and time to reset your mind.
What software do you use at work? What do you love about it?
My favorite piece of software we use is Slack. Above, I mentioned I had a zealous approach to inbox zero. Slack at least eliminates the countless internal emails and allows us to communicate freely and in real time with our team on any given subject. Slack has definitely changed the way we communicate with each other.
What is the one book that you recommend we read and why?
A recent book that was recommended to me is “Six Thinking Hats” by Edward de Bono. I got a copy for our entire team. It does a great job in giving a platform for thinking – a way to express emotion with being emotional, risk without being negative, and opportunity without wearing rosy tinted glasses. It’s a wonderful framework for interpersonal communication and, when used appropriately, can give your team an avenue for candid conversation.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
My partner, Donald Thompson, has had a big impact on my way of thinking. As a college dropout with multiple exits under his belt at a young age, there’s surely some valuable insight.
In regards to the agency space, there’s a few folks that I routinely follow. I’ve seen Paul Roetzer speak on a few occasions and he the author of “The Marketing Agency Blueprint,” which is a great read for modernizing the agency setup.
On my daily reading list is Advertising Age, your standard issue tech blogs like Gizmodo and TechCrunch.
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Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.