Steve Parker, Jr.: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO of Levelwing
Give others the reins. As a founder, you get your hands dirty in the details, from finances and new business to account management and perhaps even fixing the office toilet, but you also need time to set the company’s vision. At some point, in order to scale and grow, you need to turn over the reins for many parts of the business to others that you can trust and hold accountable. Let me be very clear — many people will have a different way of accomplishing these things and that may bother you. Scratch that, it will definitely bother you. But find peace in it, because it gets better. And frankly, they are probably better at or will be better at it than you would have been anyway.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Parker, Jr., CEO and Co-Founder of Levelwing, an independent digital marketing agency specializing in analytics, media, creative and social.
Levelwing was born in New York City and today operates in New York, Charleston (HQ) and San Francisco, serving some of the world’s most recognizable brands.
Parker has led the company since it was founded and has produced record-setting and award-winning advertising campaigns on the largest global stages including cultural moments such as the Super Bowl and the Olympic Games. He has also been a part of the leadership team that has garnered recognition for the agency’s growth, including four consecutive years on the Inc. 500|5000 list of Fastest-Growing Private Companies in America.
He has spoken at industry events and conferences around the world, including the Adobe Digital Marketing Summit, iMedia Agency Summit, Afri-Tech Digital Summit, and Search Insider Summit. Parker was named 2011 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the YearTM and has appeared in various publications including Ad Age, WSJ, Fortune and Entrepreneur.
Previously, Parker worked for America’s Health Network, News Corporation, Medscape, and iVillage, building digital capabilities for the organizations from the ground-up. He is also credited with creating and producing some of the biggest digital moments in history, including the first live-birth on the Internet during his time at America’s Health Network. Other achievements include launching HealthWatch by Medscape in conjunction with CBS, and creating the first simultaneous cross-platform advanced video campaign across linear, cable, satellite, OTT and digital.
Parker began his career with Fortune 500 Company Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corporation. There, he helped to build the company’s digital media initiatives into one of the largest and most successful of its kind in the world.
Currently, he is also a Founding Partner at Third Prime, a venture capital firm focused on seed-stage investments with offices in New York, NY and Charleston, SC.
Parker graduated with a B.S. in Healthcare Administration from Western Kentucky University.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was born and raised in Nashville, TN. When most people think of Nashville, they think of music and entertainment, but since the 1970s, it has been the healthcare capital of the United States. Currently, over 800 healthcare companies are based in Nashville, producing over half a million jobs, and a large percentage of hospitals in the country are owned by companies based in Nashville.
So, in college, I decided to get a degree in Healthcare Administration because my thought was that if I had a specialized degree, I would be a more attractive hire. It was 1995, and that approach worked; yet, as fortune would have it, the largest healthcare provider in the United States at the time, Columbia HCA (now HCA), was looking to hire a candidate for a non-defined role to help “figure out the Internet” for this large Fortune 500 corporation. I say it was a non-defined role because the job description was literally an article from USA Today about the founders of Yahoo! — I still have that article. It was a great time, the Internet was new, this large company was willing to entrust its digital future to a small team of five mostly 20-somethings. I was 21, and within a year, we managed to build and launch a corporate website, intranet and help launch 352 hospital websites. Today, if you expected a team of 100 to do that they would panic. But, it was all new and exciting and we were given an opportunity. That started me down the path of digital media, and it’s been a great ride ever since.
Since then, I have helped launch a cable/TV internet company that was sold to News Corp., I moved to New York City, and did the start-up IPO thing — twice, with nothing but experience to show for it. I also turned down two jobs at Google in 2000 (both painful personal financial errors, but they make for great stories), and then eventually co-founded Levelwing in 2002.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
I would love to share two:
One of the first challenges I learned is that my co-founder, Jeff Adelson-Yan and I, although great friends, didn’t accomplish things in the same way. So, you have to overcome that. I know many people that have not been able to overcome that initial test. Most co-founders I have met have failed at effectively working together for any length of time, often arguing about the approach and disagreeing on the outcome. For us, the way to overcome this was to focus on the outcome. We still follow that to this day. We try our best to define the outcome, always align on it, and then whoever has the greatest skill or passion for that requirement leads while the other supports.
People are wonderful, passionate, difficult, contrite, humble, and/or arrogant. The list goes on. In fact, we are all of these things at any given time. Starting the business was easy. People are the challenge. And by defining “people”, I humbly include myself. I am sometimes the challenge, as well. We all have different desires, wants and needs. Employees have them, clients have them, our families and friends have them, and that provides us with this interesting context from which to view behavior. What I have found is that people simply like communication and transparency. They want as much clarity as possible, and if this is done well, then it’s likely to be digested, even if the answer is not what someone wants. So, regardless of technology, interpersonal communication (preferably in-person) is incredibly valuable. Texting and email doesn’t solve issues and tends to prolong them. Just having a simple conversation can cure so much.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
The first would be getting over the initial fear of failure. We discussed founding Levelwing for the better part of a year and delayed it because we weren’t sure we would succeed. Many close to me thought we were a little crazy even after we started. And then one day, many years later, you find success and folks will literally tell you: “You are so lucky.” I always smile at that. I do consider myself lucky, but luck was not part of this process…
The second would be the people around me, professionally and personally. I now have two great partners in Levelwing, and I also work with some other really tremendous people. There are always challenges in the business, but you quickly see who is with you, who isn’t, and who is just along for a ride. I am also fortunate that I have a creative and understanding wife, Deanna McBrearty, who literally scaled to the very top of her profession as a dancer with New York City Ballet before retiring. I admire the dedication and commitment she had from a young age to become that successful in her career, and because of her background, she completely gets my mentality around growing a business and the challenges that creates. That said, I do struggle with the term “successful” because it does always feel just slightly out of reach. The problem for those of us that have this desire to create businesses or opportunities is — the bar always moves, and that drives me personally.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Give others the reins. As a founder, you get your hands dirty in the details, from finances and new business to account management and perhaps even fixing the office toilet, but you also need time to set the company’s vision. At some point, in order to scale and grow, you need to turn over the reins for many parts of the business to others that you can trust and hold accountable. Let me be very clear — many people will have a different way of accomplishing these things and that may bother you. Scratch that, it will definitely bother you. But find peace in it, because it gets better. And frankly, they are probably better at or will be better at it than you would have been anyway.
- Pain will come. It’s not if, but rather when. Every business has challenges. Raising money, bootstrapping, production, distribution, you name it they all come with some difficulty, but this is not the pain, that was simply a scratch. At some point, hopefully, you are fortunate enough to have wild success. But then you have a “Tuesday.” It’s a day that slaps you in the face and sends you to your knees. All businesses have these days. A large client loss, bad press, you’re out of cash. My experience was a series of internal communication issues that spiraled untamed while we were in a very prosperous period. We then lost some business, and those issues combined with a financial hit immediately became apparent. It hurt. It was crippling in fact. A potential business loser. This is the pain setting in. But at that moment, you either get up, find your will, put your tail between your legs (along with a hugely bruised ego) and stagger into the fight again — or you quit. It’s that simple. There are no other options. Win again or quit. Your choice. I wish I had known the gravity of how this moment would have felt in advance, but it is not a teachable moment or something you can truly understand the depth of unless you experience it. Just know you will for a fact face it. I’m grateful I faced it, along with a few other brave souls, and found success again. Best lesson ever. We built a better business and are better people from that experience.
- Separate real life and work life. For years I was frustrated with the person I felt I needed to be at work, versus the person I needed to be at home. I’m not certain why, other than I was trying to be something I wasn’t. In advanced leadership training courses, they will call this a myriad of things, but essentially you are avoiding responsibility for something and the “payoff” is you get to be right, or prove someone else wrong. In either case, this will cost you something, and that something could be the love for your work, love for others, a lack of fulfillment, or perhaps your well-being. I know it sounds harsh, it’s psychology. Either that or it could have been too many episodes of Miami Vice as a kid that did that to me. Nonetheless, the lesson here is to be yourself, at all times. It makes life and work easier, you sleep better, you accomplish more. And the best part is, you don’t need to do anything but be the true you.
4. Good work alone is not enough. You can put all your blood, sweat and tears into the work but it may still not be enough. Performance and facts (e.g. data) are one thing. However, perception and politics are another. Large companies have bureaucracy and layers of approval. Privately-held companies have strong opinions and perhaps rightfully so; they have been successful in making opinion-based decisions. Small businesses either think small or have a very low-risk threshold, at times suffocating. Either way, your data or performance may not matter. To truly be successful in any of these businesses you need to dig in and understand the people that make it all tick and align with their true expectations and desires. I’ve literally been in meetings at a Fortune 500 company and asked to dial back the performance so that improvement did not happen too quickly. Get to know your true audience.
5. You don’t learn it all in a book, or in school. There are very few things you can learn about actually running a business from a book, and almost zero in a classroom. Let me be clear, there are plenty of things you can learn both in a book and classroom — accounting, finance, rules and regulations for example. However, to truly operate and lead a business there are things you must just experience, and hope to hell you are making the right decisions at the right time. You can have all the learning you want, but just like in football, you can study game film all day but when the defense changes their scheme you better have the ability to react in real-time and make decisions.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I recently had a discussion on this topic with a woman that works with me, and my advice is to use your time wisely. It’s literally the only thing you truly own, time. If you have vacation time, take it — maybe not even in one or two weeks chunks like many, but rather target periodic short 3–4 day trips that allow you to breathe and think a little. Most folks run until they burn out and then take a week or two. But this can be avoided, mostly through strong prioritization of how you use your work time, coupled with periodic getaways that allow you the freedom to think. For example, I travel a lot for work. For most people that would be plenty and they would have very little desire to step on another plane. But I love to travel and experience new places so a few times a year I will take a short, completely off the beaten path, 2–5 day trip. For me, these aren’t true vacations but rather “clear your mind excursions”. I am still connected and do some work while away, but the time itself gives me this sense of being distant from work and sharpens my thoughts. Last year I went to Shanghai, Botswana and Hawaii. None of them were more than five days in total, and it’s amazing what you can do in a couple of days if you are willing to take a long flight. During these trips, I always spend time re-prioritizing my work and family time. When I return I feel refreshed, energized and ready to go!
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’m actually grateful for so many people, but I’ll tell one story that has always stuck with me from a young age, so much so that I can even smell the air from this day in my mind.
My Dad always inspired me to achieve something. He didn’t come from much, and he wasn’t overconsumed with what career I would tackle, he just wanted to see me work hard and take responsibility. When I was young, he was a junior high school history teacher and football coach. When I was six years old, he taught me a lesson that I truly believe led me to my determination for success.. After watching my Dad and the other coaches at football practice one day, I walked to the locker room to play, as I often would. On that day, I made a decision to “collect” all the loose pencils and pens laying in all the players’ lockers and make them mine. Finders keepers, right? I bundled them all up with some rubber bands I found. Jackpot! I was rich with at least 50 Bic pens and half-chewed #2 pencils.
After practice, I would sit in the coach’s office while they chatted about practice, the upcoming game, fishing and whatever else came to mind. When it came time to leave I got in the car with my Dad and we drove home as usual. When we got home my Dad noticed the bundle of fine writing instruments in my possession. Our conversation went something like this:
Dad — “Son, where did you get those?”
Me — “From the lockers.”
Dad — “Those aren’t yours, those belong to all those boys.”
Me — “But Dad, I found them, they were just lying in the lockers.”
Dad — “Was it your locker?”
Me — “No, but…”
Dad — “They aren’t yours, and you will have to give them back tomorrow.”
I immediately cried, I remember that. I wanted those fine writing instruments. But I had no idea how memorable my next experience would be and it has stuck with me like a tattoo on my skin ever since. The next day after practice, my Dad gathered the entire football team, 50–60 of these gladiators in the parking lot outside the locker room and said: “Boys, my son has an apology to make to all of you.” I just remember looking at all of their faces, I can clearly recall they were in full uniforms, sweaty after a long hot practice, helmets in hand. I remember just staring at them, and them staring back and feeling awful. My Dad said, “Steve, go ahead tell them what you did and apologize.” And with all the fear and emotion running through me, I fell apart and cried and cried and with a very little broken voice said: “I stole your pens and pencils and I am very sorry. I want to give them all back to you.”
And with that each of these boys came up to me and one after another took a pencil or pen until there were none left. Some said kind words like: “It’s ok.” Or “Little man, don’t worry about it.” But I was crushed. I just cried. At that moment, I learned not only to never take what is not yours, but I also learned to take accountability and responsibility for myself and my actions.
Some may say, I was a little boy and didn’t know better. Others will say, it was a good lesson. I’d say, in the words of comedic hero Kevin Hart: “You gonna learn today.” And that’s right, all of us, you included. You gonna learn at some point otherwise you never grow to your potential. Worse yet, you either learn or your entire life is a derailment of issues. Yes, that’s all on you. That day, I learned one of many lessons. This lesson was — Take Responsibility.
To be successful in anything — a job, a sport, a committee or as a parent, one of the hardest concepts to truly own is full responsibility. That doesn’t mean you never screw up, but it means you take responsibility for it at all times. Watch closely, most people try and skirt around being responsible at every opportunity. Most people aren’t trying really hard, and in fact, they are actually working harder at intentionally avoiding issues, the way I tried to avoid being tackled in football. Most people don’t do what they say they are going to do. Most people make excuses. It’s everywhere.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
To communicate more clearly.
To not involve myself in every situation, even when I know I can help.
To enjoy the wins more.
To be present and in the moment at all times.
To apply the above to both my personal and professional pursuits.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
Wow, this is such a deep question.
Purely related to business:
- I hope that I am able to leave a mark on the advertising and media industry with the approach to business our firm, Levelwing, takes in the areas of transparency and fundamentals — both of which lead directly to transformational media impact and creativity. These core principles have a great opportunity to create a legacy of transformation in the industry, and someone has to lead by example.
- I would like for the investments we are making with my other company, Third Prime (the VC firm I helped co-found) to help other founders and businesses to shape a better future for mankind. These companies are creating solutions and technology that better the world, such as: open access, career transformation, healing the sick, providing cleaner foods, financial resources for disenfranchised, a cleaner environment and more.
I simply hope that my kids and other loved ones in my life will have stories that include me, like the one I shared with my Dad. I have tons of hopes for what I want to achieve in both personal and work endeavors, however after losing people close to me and seeing so many close family and friends go through hardships, regardless of wealth and opportunity or lack thereof — I just want to love and experience joy. Really, that’s all that matters.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be?
There are so many great causes that are personal to each of us, where we pause to think if we could do better in some way. I’ll just leave you with this:
Don’t consider yourself an expert or a guru. There is always more to learn.
Don’t be an asshole to everyone. Maybe only two or three people deserve that.
Do tell people you love them. It’s ok and it’s really nice to hear those words.
Do spend time with your family. They already know your flaws and still care.
Do the right thing. Spike Lee taught us this back in the 1980s.
Always communicate. Even when it is difficult, always talk it out.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Linkedin — https://www.linkedin.com/in/steveparkerjr/