Your Team is Everything” The 5 Lessons I Learned Being a 20-Something Founder

I had the pleasure of interviewing Grayson Lafrenz, CEO and co-founder of Power Digital Marketing, an elite digital marketing agency in San Diego, CA. He’s received acknowledgement from San Diego Metro Magazine in 2015 as an awardee for the 40 Under 40, a competitive annual recognition of the top 40 San Diego-based business people under the age of 40 as well as San Diego Business Journal Most Admired CEO’s 2017. He has a decade of experience working with organizations ranging from Fortune 500’s to startups and possess an extensive sales, marketing and management background with a focus on developing scalable distribution models and marketing programs to help take organizations to the next level.

Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?

Ever since college, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur and founder. I had some side hustles and ways to make money without having set hours to a job and developed 5 different business plans that launched as I got into the later years. One was a college prep course to better prepare students for life on their own. The goal was to address the massively growing and expensive rates of students that fail out. Another was a restaurant concept focused around the stock market supply and demand in terms of the prices of food and drinks.

As I graduated college, I quickly learned I needed to develop a real world skill set and realized that ideas were worth very little without real business skills and a track record of success. That led me to starting my career in sales and the first chance I had, I jumped ship and joined a startup which ultimately led me to founding my first company. Since then I’ve founded 5+ companies.

Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think one thing that makes Power Digital stand out is the rapid success that we’d had. We’ve been one of the fastest growing companies in San Diego since we were founded in late 2012. It’s interesting because we’ve grown at 100% every year and we’ve felt like we have had our foot on the break and paranoid about growing too fast and having out product and culture diluted. We have always felt like we have had to slow down and that’s unique.

We’ve been really entrepreneurial in our growth, starting with three people and one core channel in 2013 and now we have almost 60 full time team members. We also have put forth a model where the original team members have become founders within the company and lead different business units and service offerings such as the launch of our Influencer Marketing offering and CRO offering.

Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?

We have been working heavily on developing further technology to really tech-enable our service offering and give us even more upside when it comes to scaling and the stickiness of our engagement with our clients. We have 4 proprietary software systems that we developed over the years that we are building off and have a road map of about 10 other key pieces of tech that we will be building and deploying over the next two years.

Typically our industry is heavily service based and so are we, which is why we created proprietary processes but the development of the tech has been a game changer for us and allowed us to do things faster and more efficiently. One example is our strategy building and pricing software called RainMaker which takes a really complex sales process and makes it really scalable so that every single one of our 60+ team members can build custom strategies and price them through this intuitive platform.

Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

“The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. This books stands out because I read it a year and a half ago and at the time I had difficult decisions to make within the company. I found that what was required of the leadership and team had really changed a lot from when we were a team of 15 to when we were a team of 30+ and this book really helped me understand the “what got you here won’t get you there,” mentality. The book also shed light on the different skill sets that are required for companies based on their lifecycle. As our company was going through rapid scaling challenges, this book provided a lot of comfort and clarity and for me, it acted as a really critical strategic driver in some hard decision I had to make.

Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a 20-Something Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1 - Your team is everything.

When I was first starting at 25 years old I was super cheap when it came to talent and I undervalued really premium talent. Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s totally worth paying to be around the best. But it’s also key to be smart with it and understand the skill sets that you need most where you are at as a company. I’ve learned that sometimes the best isn’t the most experienced person, but someone that has a great attitude and star potential, who is willing to do what it takes. You have to find the right talent for where you are in the lifecycle and I’ve made the mistake of hiring vets who didn’t want to get their hands dirty and I’ve also made the mistake of bringing on young team members that have star potential, but can’t problem solve at the level that’s needed. Finding the right balance is the key. Pay for talent.

2 - Your work is a reflection of you.

We’ve lost money sometimes by going way above and beyond and a lot of people would have drawn the line in the sand. It’s important not to get taken advantage of, but I’ve found that going above and beyond always pays off. I can think of an incident in particular where I felt we went above and beyond to make the client happy and lost a ton of money on the campaign initially, but then the key contact came back to us a year later and had a multimillion dollar project that we were a dead shoe in for because what they saw on that first project was that we were willing to do what it takes even under the toughest circumstances.

3 - Don’t hide out in your ivory tower.

As a twenty something founder, I’d say that as you go from founder to CEO, which is a change, as you your company is getting traction and you are moving into CEO seat, there is a fine line between being too in the weeds and being too high level. I’ve seen other CEO’s that go too high level and lose their edge with that their teams. They become delgators that the team doesn’t respect and want to work for. I’ve had to balance not being too far in the trenches, but I’ve found in my early years as a founder that it’s a safer place to be because your team will respect you battling it out with them and you will know the customers and challenges at every level.

4 - Focus on revenue generating activities.

For every founder and CEO, these need to be on your mind 24/7. There are so many details to keep an eye on that come with being a founder and running a company. Many of which are very important, but typically, revenue and profit solve everything else. The second you take your eye off the RGA’s is going to be the second that you become very vulnerable to failing or digging yourself into a hole that is hard to dig out of.

I’ve had this happen to me many times where we are cranking and have blow out months and get focused on other things, then all of the sudden two month later, I realize that I took my eye off RGA’s and I’m paying for it. So I try and remind myself of this every day.

5 - Develop your employees.

As a young founder, if you do it right and you build an all star team around you that you develop and empower and work incredibly well with, not only will your current company thrive, but also you very likely will have your squad for life and future evendors. So the time is now to really invest in the development of those people and understand their goals and what they want to accomplish and help them win.

The development of these team members doesn’t need to be expensive. For instance, at Power Digital, we created a free MBA program for the employees looking to challenge themselves and grow their overall business savviness. We brought in outside speakers to touch on different general business topics and held a 14 week course which not only challenged our team but motivated them to use their learning in the workplace and better retain clients.

Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Mark Zuckerberg. He represents the truest of the true when it comes to an incredible founder because he built one of the most powerful companies in the world from his dorm room and made it all the way through until the end. He raised money, acquired and sold companies and was never ousted as CEO. He never gave up his vision and has been able to make a massive impact on the world. He’s positioned to do even more because of the power of the data and user base along with the control of the audiences he’s created.

Jean: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

— Published on June 27, 2018