Building a Company Based on Values, with Russ Stoddard, Founder & CEO, Oliver Russell

“There’s been times we’ve lost business because of these values or walked away from it, but over the long haul, living up to your values pays off because the right clients will find you and stick with you for that reason.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Russ Stoddard, President and Founder of Oliver Russell, a company that operates at the confluence of cause, commerce and community, providing brand design, integrated campaigns and cause marketing for purpose-driven companies.

What is your “backstory”?

I founded Oliver Russell back in 1991 as a full service advertising and PR agency with social responsibility at its core. In 1991, leading with our values and having concern for the business’s social and environmental impact made us rare. We took this commitment to the next step by becoming a certified B Corporation in 2011 and later, our state’s first legal public benefit corporation (think Patagonia, TOMS, etc.). Beyond that, I’m a serial entrepreneur, writer, mentor, and urban farmer at a sweet little spot here in Boise with my wife, Sara.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

How about the time we were going to make a pitch to a leading craft beer company for its national account and we missed a connecting flight, so all piled into a rental van and drive from Salt Lake City to Palo Alto, California — 12 hours — and made it, sweaty and road weary, just in time for the presentation. We didn’t get the account, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Nothing builds the bond between your team like a road trip!

Are you working on any meaningful non profit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We’re helping the Smithsonian National Zoo and its Migratory Bird Center promote bird-friendly coffee, which supports sustainable coffee-growing practices and protects migratory birds. We make impact investments in social enterprises — a brewery, a workplace certification program, so far — and over our history have donated more than $2 million in cash and services to nonprofit causes.

Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

We led a crowdfunding campaign for Jim Walker, a 77-year-old who had been wrongfully imprisoned for murder for more than 20 years. After being released, he lived with his aunt. When she died, he had no means whatsoever and we helped raise $50,000 and found an apartment for him to live in.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.

I was so bull-headed as a “young pup” — an important quality in any entrepreneur — I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway! I wouldn’t trade all my scrapes for anything, but here goes.

First is hard work. I learned this from my years as a river guide on the Middle Fork of Idaho’s world-famous Salmon River. I get up at 4 am, read, workout at the YMCA, and then crank out a lot of work and end my day with more reading and trying to learn more things. Hard work beats smarts any day.

Second is relationships matter a lot in this world, and in business. I used to think doing a good job was the most important thing for client work, but really, it’s developing a relationship with your client that will see you through the good times and the hard times that’s essential for building and growing a business like mine.

Third, your employees matter — more than clients, even. We put most of our emphasis on treating our workers in a way that’s respectful and encourages personal and professional development. We offer paid family leave for moms and dads for this.

Fourth, values matter. To be creative, collaborative, progressive, which we define as moving forward through change, and to be socially responsible guide everything we do at Oliver Russell. There’s been times we’ve lost business because of these values or walked away from it, but over the long haul, living up to your values pays off because the right clients will find you and stick with you for that reason.

Lastly, money matters. I like to say, no margin, no mission. You can do a whole lot more good in the world if you have money to invest, whether that’s in taking your employees on an international service trip, which we do periodically, or offering impact investments in startup social ventures, or even just being able to take on really meaningful pro bono work.

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?

Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. And I’d like to have lunch with him after a morning of flyfishing. Why? He’s my role model for creating a business that consciously does good in the world.