Sean Johnson – Partner of Digital Intent

[quote style=”boxed”]Deliberate practice – consistently focus on being staggeringly good at what you do.[/quote]

Sean Johnson is a partner and leads product development at Digital Intent, a firm that conceives, builds and grows new digital startups. He has helped companies like Groupon, Follett, HarperCollins, Sittercity and more create innovative digital businesses and help them grow. He is also an adjunct professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

Sean previously was the VP Product Development at Brill Street, where he was tasked with building an “eHarmony for jobs” algorithm-based candidate matching system. Prior to that Sean worked in New York at GoalQuest, a higher ed marketing startup, where Sean led product development of UPeers, a white label university social network that was implemented on over 300 campuses around the country. GoalQuest was acquired in 2007 by EducationDynamics, where Sean served as the VP Creative Director.

Sean runs the Chicago Growth Hacking Meetup, and started Jelly Chicago. He writes about how to accelerate your career, get more done and maintain a healthy balance between work and personal life on his personal blog, and has written for Lifehacker, Technori and Inc Magazine. He has spoken at universities around the country on digital marketing, career development and entrepreneurship.

Sean has a degree in marketing from the University of Colorado. He lives in Evanston with his wife and two kids.

What are you working on right now?

I’m a partner and product lead at Digital Intent. I’m also an adjunct professor of marketing at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management teaching a course on entrepreneurial tools for digital marketing.

Where did the idea for Digital Intent come from?

We saw a shift in the startup space. There used to be scarcity of capital and prohibitive technology costs, but neither of those are the case anymore.

What’s scarce today is top-shelf talent – it’s difficult for people with a great idea to surround themselves with a team of talented people.

What we try to provide people is a “startup team in a box” – 3 or 4 people who can help with nearly every facet of the product development process. We help validate the idea with customers, create the interface, develop the product and acquire users.

For many of our clients our product is the next round of funding. Our goal is to help them provide investors with sufficient evidence that their idea has legs – not just that they can get the product built, but that it meets a legitimate need, and with visibility into channels for acquiring customers that can be scaled.

How do you make money?

We send our clients invoices, and thankfully they pay us on time.

What does your typical day look like?

I’m up at 6 and out the door to drop my kids off at school by 7:30. I take the train downtown and try to read my Bible, then I grab a spot at Little Goat and work on my most important task until 9 or 9:30.

Once in the office I tend to get swallowed up in meetings most of the day. We’re at an interesting time in our company – adolescence is a good way to describe it. I’m simultaneously managing my team, doing some operational work myself, and responsible for bringing in new business. Wearing all three hats can be a challenge, but it means we’re growing.

I leave by 4:30 and read interesting articles I’ve saved from my Twitter feed on the train ride up. I pick my kids up from school and play with them until my wife gets home from work. I make dinner and eat with the family, put the kids to bed, and spend the evening with my wife or one of the six books I’m currently reading.

Before bed I stretch, plan out my most important tasks for the next day, and pray. I try to be in bed by 10:30pm.

How do you bring ideas to life.

Our job is mostly about helping our clients bring their ideas to life, which mostly is a function of talking to customers. We do plenty of design workshops and internal discussion with our team and the client, but it’s all pretend until you go outside and talk to people.

We try to shoot holes in ideas and kill them as early as possible. We could have decided to be a traditional dev shop, building their projects to spec and saying the business itself wasn’t our problem. But we’re not cheap, and we feel like it’s a disservice to our clients to build products that won’t be successful.

That doesn’t mean our clients always succeed – we still have plenty of failures. But we like to say our goal is to go from having 9 out of 10 businesses failing to only 6 out of 10 of ours failing. If we can do that consistently the world will beat a path to our door.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’ve been pleased and excited by the focus recently on growth. For a long time, people seemed to think that getting the product built is the hard part, but that’s not true. Getting customers is way harder.

In the last year or so it seems like people figured that out, and are trying to focus a lot more energy on user acquisition, retention, etc. That’s great news.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

My first job was when I was 16, selling American Express cards on the phone. Sitting in a cubicle farm getting hung up on hundreds of times a night doesn’t exactly fill up your soul, but it’s a great way to get a thick skin. It also paid way better than being a lifeguard, and I don’t get tan.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I think I would have spent a few years in the valley when I got out of school. I ended up in New York, which was awesome and allowed me to meet a ton of people and work on interesting stuff. But the concentration of talent in the valley is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Deliberate practice – consistently focus on being staggeringly good at what you do.

Many people simply aren’t willing to work that hard. Others work hard, but their work is unfocused. The people who succeed work harder than their peers, but it’s focused. They identify areas of weakness and attack them. They resolve to learn more about their craft than their peers, and then outwork them.

Everyone says you should hustle, and I agree. But you can spend a lot of time hustling without actually getting better at what you do. Deliberate practice is critical.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I fail every day 🙂

One that comes to mind is when we first started consulting. In many ways we were cowboys, and were high on our own success. We thought that because we could design, validate, build and deploy one great product rapidly that it would be easy to do that for a number of clients at the same time.

Wasn’t true.

It turns out that at least half of consulting is about communication and project management. We built great products for people, some of which are still in use and are pretty well known. But because we did a bad job in those areas, those relationships suffered.

We had to learn the hard way that we were bad at those things, and had to learn how to remedy that. We have a goal to become known just as much for our great project management as for our work product.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

It’s a mat. And it has different conclusions on it…

People put too much value on ideas and not enough value on execution. The fact that everyone who’s answered this survey gives them away tells you that a) everyone is full of ideas, so they aren’t scarce, and b) they must not be that valuable.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I’d want more people to know Christ. It’s kind of popular these days to make fun of Christianity – largely because many of his followers make it so easy to make fun of. But no single person has had the impact he’s had on the world, and I think there’s a reason for that. It’s hard to actually read what he said (which surprisingly few people have actually done) and not come away thinking he was someone worth listening to.

Tell us something about you that very few people know.

Part of why I work as hard as I do is an underlying fear that I’ll create something or say something and everyone will discover I’m a hack. Whenever I’m sitting in front of a blank page or Photoshop document, I think to myself “This will be the one that makes everyone realize I have no idea what I’m doing.” I’ve never been able to shake that feeling.

What are your favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

1) Twitter. It’s replaced RSS for me, and is largely where I get my news.

2) Quora. Brilliant people answering almost any question I can think of.

3) Evernote. My digital brain.

What is one book that you recommend our community read and why?

I’ve always been a fan of the E-Myth. He accurately diagnosed the reason most entrepreneurs fail, and provides a great roadmap for how do operationalize your business.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

@joelgascoigne and @danmartell both routinely share great links and are working on awesome startups. And @andrewchen is just plain smarter than most people.

When was the last time you laughed out loud, and what caused it?

My wife took me to a Jim Gaffigan show. His pale jokes hit close to home.

Who is your hero?

My mom. My parents got divorced when I was little, and she raised me and my brother until she remarried when I was in junior high. She always made me believe in myself and have big expectations for myself. No one had a bigger impact on my life.

What would be your advice to someone just starting out in business?

Focus on cash in the bank. Every day that you have cash in the bank and can keep the lights on you’re succeeding.

It sounds obvious, but it’s not. This isn’t just a function of selling enough, although that’s certainly a huge part of it.

You have to make sure you are consistent and methodical with collecting on time, or even get customers to pay up front if you can pull it off.

You want to enter into long-term agreements carefully, and with terms that are as favorable as possible.

You have to monitor expenses carefully and avoid waste while still providing a productive and pleasant working environment for your team.

You have to pay attention to the ROI of marketing and business development initiatives to make sure you aren’t simply lighting money on fire.

Lots of companies fail because they don’t pay enough attention to cash in the bank. Don’t be one of them. Watch the money.

What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?

He loved God, loved his wife, loved his kids and loved doing great work. In that order.


Sean Johnson’s Site:
Digital Intent:
Sean Johnson on Twitter: @intentionally
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Sean Johnson on LinkedIn: