As a CEO and founder myself, I have found over the years that I spend my time equally thinking about the same things. The first one is I’m always thinking about my products and services. Are they enough, competitive, or priced right? Equally, I think about cash. Sometimes it’s where to find it or how to spend it.
Third, I am thinking about my team. Are they happy? Do they like what they’re doing? Do they want to have different experiences? I am constantly thinking about those three things, and I couldn’t tell you which one I spend more time on because it feels equal to me. After working with hundreds of leaders over the years, I’ve realized that I’m unique in that way. Most people don’t think about their people as often as I do.
I’m extremely excited to introduce you to our guest, Victor Drabicky, with January Digital. Not only have they experienced 60% growth in 2021, but they were recognized for it as the fastest growing company and also the best place to work, which in the digital marketing industry I find very hard to earn.
He and I are cut from the same cloth in many ways because, as we have been chatting, he cares as much about his people as he does about his business. I’m extremely excited to share more about how he thinks, what he’s done, the things he’s messed up, and the things we’re in places where he has turned the corner.
Victor Drabicky, Welcome to the show.
Thank you so much. I appreciate that and the acknowledgment too. We’ve worked hard to try to be a best-in-class place for place people to work but also be a good company too. We’re trying to find that balance for sure.
Before we dive into that, to give everybody a little bit more context, what do you guys do over there at January Digital?
We have two businesses. We are a digital marketing agency where we buy, place, and optimize digital media for some of the world’s largest brands. We’re pretty heavy in retail and CPG, everyone from The Honest Company to David’s Bridal to a whole host of other luxury brands. We’re a full consulting firm and this is where we sit in-house as a CMO or chief digital officer, a whole bunch of other things to help solve some of the biggest challenges that brands have. It’s a nice little combination of strategic and tactical work, both of which are people-heavy. We are a people business more than anything else.
Tell us about your team. What’s it made up of? How many people do you have?
It depends on the day. We’re growing quickly, and the last few years have been sharp growth, starting with about the midyear of 2022 after the pandemic. We went into the pandemic with maybe about 35 people. We’re up about 100 now. It’s fun but also stressful and trying at times too.
That sounds a little bit overwhelming.
There are days where it’s overwhelming, without a doubt. There are also good days, and you got to try to average them all out. If your average is on the positive side, you know you’re doing something good.
Tell me about that journey as a leader, though. You founded this. There were days early on where you could turn around and talk to your team, and they were right there. Is that the case now? How have you grown as a leader? What have you noticed about yourself over the years in terms of how you had to change?You got to average your good and bad days. If your average is on the positive side, then you know you're doing something good. Click To Tweet
What I’ve learned more than anything is that I had to change a ton, and I say that honestly. I didn’t start the company because I was like, “I’m a great leader. Let’s go get a bunch of people to know and follow me.” That wasn’t the case. I felt like I was somebody who was good at products and the services that we provide. I was okay at managing a team, but I wasn’t a leader by any means. It’s taken a lot of time, energy, and screwups to get where we are now. Right as I felt like I was getting better than the pandemic hit, all of a sudden, now you had to learn how to lead in a different and remote way.
There’s been a ton that I’ve learned about myself. Everything from how I deliver to how I take in information to what’s most important to me and what do I share with people versus what do they share with me, and how do we balance all of those things together to try to make me the best leader that I can be by no means. Am I a finished product? I screw things up pretty sure every day. These groups maybe are not quite as bad as they used to be.
I have a mantra that I am not the leader I need to be a year from now, but I will grow.
That’s one of the hardest things about running a business. Everybody else understands this, and I don’t, but when you hire people and start building a company, they look at you and expect you to know what to do. A lot of days, I don’t know what to do. I’m learning this along the way, and I’m going to screw it up. Sometimes that pressure upward, and not only as CEOs or founders but whether you’re a VP or whatever else it might be, people expect you to have more of the answers than maybe you do.
The approach we’ve tried to take here, and I’ve got great people around me to help me do this, is to be open when I don’t know something, but I’m going to go figure it out. We found that builds a lot of great credibility with the folks around you, who give you the grace to make mistakes, knowing you don’t know it all, and you’re not pretending to know it all.
It’s interesting how I find very few leaders feel comfortable being vulnerable with that. That vulnerability strengthens us as leaders.
It also sounds like maybe you’ve read Brené Brown’s book on vulnerability before. I would agree with you. I always struggle with it because I feel as though there’s a fine line between being vulnerable and being seen as aimless or soft. You’ve got to get those things just right. You want to show your vulnerability and the things of who you are. If the only thing you ever are is vulnerable and you don’t have a path, now you’re in trouble.
It’s important to make sure you know the things you know well. You’re vulnerable about the things you don’t. You keep those things in balance. If you get out of balance, maybe you’re out way too far out to be doing what you do. If you’ve never been vulnerable or felt comfortable, you’re probably being too conservative and not pushing yourself enough.
Would you mind sharing one of those moments where you were more vulnerable with your team and what happened?
Let me go through my Rolodex. I’ve got a million of them. One that still sits with me that’s hard, and I still have no idea if we did the right way, which is when COVID hit. We are a retail heavy business, and within the first six weeks, we lost about 75% of our company.
I have a friend that had that same thing in his digital marketing agency.
It’s unbelievably tough. It’s hard to think back to those times of you’ve got personal strife, business strife, and all sorts of things. You can see this thing that you’ve been building for years crumbling down around you with no recourse. We had to sit down. We have a phenomenal COO who helped me every day talk through this, of how we were going to restructure contracts and do all these things. Unfortunately, during that time, we ended up having to lay a few people off. We were a smaller organization. It didn’t feel right to send emails to people. What we decided to do is do them over Zoom one by one.
We couldn’t do them all at once. We told everyone, “Unfortunately, you have to go through this.” There was an hour period that it took us to go through all of those things. We thought we were doing the right thing by being individual with people. The feedback we got afterward was that it was the most dreadful hour they’ve ever had in their life, not knowing if they were getting laid off or not. I had to stand in front of the whole company and be like, “I thought that was the right thing. It was the caring thing to do. I didn’t mean for it to back for this. I screwed that up. That’s on me. Please know my intentions were right, but my execution wasn’t the way it should have been.”
I was lucky that we’ve got a great team who said, “We know you to be generally a good person. We know you screwed up, but we give you the benefit of the doubt that you tried your best and being able to come forth and admit that mistake.” It was a hard one for me because I tried hard to do the right thing. We’ve tried to model things after that.
Whenever we’ve messed something up, we try to be upfront about it and go, “Here’s what the mistake was. Here’s how we got to that end point of how we thought it was right. We think given the information you have, you would get to that same endpoint too. Here’s what we learned and here’s how we’ll change next time.” As long we’ve taken that approach with each of our mistakes, people have rewarded us by saying, “Yes.” Even if they disagree, they’ll come and say, “I disagree. I would’ve thought of it this way.” At which point, you’re having a much better conversation. We’ve used that as our lesson and our model to follow.
For us, 2019 was our horrible year. We lost $300,000 worth of business in the last quarter of 2019. I had to do layoffs. I was making payroll with $100,000 in the bank account, and I was celebrating. I was like, “Yes, I did it again.” When 2020 hit, I was like, “This is our year.” When COVID came around, I felt like I had just gotten off the battlefield. I was in the medic tent, and suddenly, I was back on the battlefield again. It was brutal. It was such a hard time.There's a fine line between being vulnerable and being aimless or soft. You've got to get those things just right and balanced. Click To Tweet
I know everybody says it sounds cliché. If you think from 2020 until 2022, the amount of monumental shifts in the world between COVID and you have a massive change around George Floyd, election, more COVID, recessions, war, and all these things. It’s become hard. It seems as though the amount of big things to deal with has been compressed into a timeframe. If you’re not careful, you run from fire to fire. Instead of saying, “I made it through the first portion of COVID, and we’re still here. Let’s celebrate that moment for a second. Let’s move on and deal with the next challenge.” I feel you on that one.
You bring up something that is neat, and we can always look for the victimhood in it to be like, “Why does this keep happening to me?” We can say, “What’s the opportunity right now?” For me, when COVID hit, even though I had just gotten off the battlefield, I was looking around. For the first time in my life, I had space and time, and I could think. I realized that I, too, hate sales. I don’t like pushing my company.
I was like, “I got to get off this sales. I don’t want to do this anymore. I had not taken the time to think.” Since then, we’ve made massive transformations in our company because of the opportunity that came out of COVID. Another key leadership thing is always looking for that. What is the opportunity in this disaster?
The second you lose focus and think there is an opportunity, it’s already your past. You’ve got to move on. I’m a firm believer, and most founders think this way that the next year is always going to be your best year. To your comment earlier, like, “I’m going to be the best leader I can next year.” It’s the same thing. You got to think. The second you stop thinking that, maybe it’s time for a larger shift.
Let me ask you this. Did you hire back any of your alumni and even the folks you had before?
There’s this woman on our team, and her name is Kenzie. She was someone who was new that we ended up having to lay off. We had to lay her off, not because she was bad, but it’s because she was new and the timing wasn’t right. We told everybody, “We have no idea how this thing is going to last, but none of you are getting laid off because you’re bad people. It can’t happen.”
She was someone who meticulously, about once a month, said, “I know you might not be ready yet, but I went and took this course. I went and learned this thing and did this.” I have to tell you. She was the first person we called. She came back, and she’s been incredible across our entire company. The way that she’s operated and affected other people. That resilience that she showed, we value so much. She’s the shining star. It made me feel great to be able to do that.
I’ll point this out. That’s a testament to the way you did the layoff. When you can hire back your alumni, it means you did do it with grace, and you did it well.
I hope so. I don’t know, but I appreciate you saying that. I’d like to think that. We know it’s not always going to work out with everybody here. Sometimes, it’s going to be our fault. Sometimes, the fault is more on them or there’s something else to blame that causes it not to work out. We hope we always treated people right when they left with grace, and we hope when they look back on this, they might say, “It didn’t work out, but I understand who the people are and who the company is. I believe them to be good people.” If we did that, we’re going to be in good shape. We might not always see eye to eye, but that’s okay. As long as we can respect each other as good people, I feel pretty okay with that.
I’ve been amazed that even some of the people I have let go of, we’re still in the community together. I had never thought of business as a community. People call it a family, and I’m always like, “I don’t know about that.” You don’t fire your family, but it is community. Even the folks that have come and gone, I’m still in touch with them. Some of them hire us to do training for them. They still refer us, and I think that’s darn cool. There are maybe 1 or 2 that I will hope I never see again.
I was going to say, “It always works out.” There are 1 or 2 that we’ve royally screwed up. You look back on it with a little bit of embarrassment, and there are 1 or 2 that you’re like, “That was on you.” We couldn’t have done anything better. We look back and hope you have made a better decision in hiring next time. For the most part, I agree with you 100%.
What do you do when you are getting ready to hire? What is your process? I noticed you have a lot of openings now. What is your process for figuring out what you need?
There’s always a business side to it. We always begin with the business side and go specifically on what is the business need. We always look at it over the course of time. Is this a business need we have for 1 month, 6 months, 1 year, or unending? If we got growth, we need to add more people to it. The first thing we do is look at what the need is. That allows us to map the skills.
Once we map the skills we need, we can map the cost against that. Once we have that, we can go to the market and go, “We need this type of job at this level. This is what our pay range is going to be.” That’s where most companies probably stop, and that’s an okay place to stop, but we’ve tried to take it a step further, knowing that our culture and our values are so much important to us. We go a step further. We use some external, but we use in-house recruiters who, in that initial screening call, they’ll go, “Are you aware of our traits and values? If not, I’m going to walk you through those.”
We make sure that we have a diverse and equitable process for recruiting candidates. We require diversity in all of the initial screenings and the second-level interviews as well. When people meet with us, they meet with multiple levels of people and multiple people who go everything from hard skills to soft skills and everything in between.
What we want, and we say this upfront in interviews, and I say it religiously, “In an interview, what we don’t want is you to give your best self and us to give our best self. What we want is you to give your true self, and we’ll tell you our true self, the good, the bad, and the ugly. When you show up on day one, you are what we expected, and we are what you expected.” Everything less means we’re now in this awkward marriage that is going to last somewhere between three months and a year until someone feels like leaving it. That’s a bad spot for us.In a job interview, don't give your best self; give your true self. Click To Tweet
Even using that process, we still miss without a doubt, but we try to do that upfront. We try to make sure the business case, soft values, traits, and all those things are right in line from the get-go. If so, the chance of you finding someone who fits with your beliefs in the same things, not necessarily the same thing as you would say, but believes in the same things as you and aligns with the skills. The chance of that happening goes up quite a bit.
I start every interview off with, “I know this is a stressful day for you. I’m grateful that you’re here, and my whole goal is I want you to love this job. I will lay all my cards on the table for you and tell you anything you want to know because I want you to love the job.”
That’s such a great way of doing it. You got to find a way to break down that invisible barrier that they’re selling a version of themselves. You’ve got to find a way to break that down and figure out who they are. You’ve got to be who you are as a company. Let them know the bad, hard, and good things. Find the right balance of all those things. If you do that, you can start people off on the right path.
Another thing you said that has probably been the thing that has made the biggest difference for me is hiring with those values. The skills are important, but a lot of times, they can be taught and you want to teach them the way you do it anyway. Not on everything, but it’s that hiring to the values. When I first opened up this business, I was like, “It seems fluffy.” We don’t have time for that. It has ended up being the thing that has kept our people and our team moving. Aside from the layoffs, I had to do because of cashflow challenges. We’ve not had any bad turnover in several years.
The idea that that’s not on a plaque behind you is surprising. That is phenomenal. You’ve got to be thrilled with that.
It’s eating our own dog food. We better do it right if we’re going to be out there consulting with companies and telling them how to do it.
You spoke of values, and I don’t know how if you feel this way, but finding out what your company values are or what your personal values are, is way harder than it seems. I find far too often that either individuals or companies come up with fleeting values and, all of a sudden, each year, you’re adjusting them. For us, myself, and there’s a whole bunch of people that contribute to this.
One of the key contributors is a woman named Megan Jones. She’s my first employee. She’s still with us several years later. She’s put her stamp all over this entire company. It was hours upon hours over the course of several months of us sitting in our room and whiteboarding, “I have an idea. Let me talk to you for five minutes.” She’s slowly piecing these things together with a lot of outside help.
We came up with values that we firmly believe in staying on the test of time, which is actionable and measurable. You can point to how people do them. We’ve incorporated them into everything we do. It’s one thing to put them on a wall, say them at the beginning of every meeting, provide awards for people who fulfill them the most, share them with clients, and tell them that’s what they can hold you accountable to. Tell clients you’re going to hold them accountable for operating in a similar way, like putting it in there. We began with some good values that took us another year or two to figure out how to build them into the actual fabric of our company.
That’s exactly what we recommend companies do because you want to hire, fire, manage, train, govern, promote, and compensate against those values. If you can’t do that, they’re not real. They’re aspirational, inspirational, or accidental. Accidental values are the worst ones.
This is going to sound like this is planted, but it’s not. Everyone that joins gets their welcome kit. On the inside of it, they get this little card, which has our company motto and all of our values. In the back, some rules to guide us or how to act when you’re here. Every single person that gets one of these goes through everyone’s onboarding.
At the end of their first week, I meet with every individual person, and I talk to them about how we got to them, why they’re important, how they can hold me accountable to them, the company accountable to them, and how we’re going to hold them accountable. While some of its repeats from what they get in onboarding, I want them to hear it from me and why it was important to me to write this down, why it affects our business, and how it can affect our people. We try, from the beginning, to make sure it’s unbelievably clear how important they are to us.
I’m going to steal that idea for myself. Do you think that that’s helped you with the hockey stick growth that you’ve had?
Being an agency, your business is people. It’s the vast majority of your cost, and your product is how well your people are able to execute your vision, marketing campaigns, and those sorts of things. For us going through a ton of growth, if you have people in here who don’t abide by your values, all of a sudden, the way that your clients or the industry can view your company can get skewed in a hurry. Even those that didn’t leave on the best of terms, there’s not one person that has been in our company since we’ve had these values that I think is a bad person. I say that confidently.
It’s helped us to maintain our quality of work, even when times were tough during COVID or whatever it might be. Even when we’re stressed, it has helped us maintain our quality of work. When you go to our clients, and you ask them, “How would you describe our team?” Often you hear them spit back our values, which is like, “Now we got it.” Clients see without being prompted. You know we nailed it. That I think is strong.
Tell us what your values are. What’s in that book?Four things prevent people from giving. They don't have time, money, or know-how to do it, or they're just a jerk. Click To Tweet
We do them a little bit differently. We have four values. There are seven, but we pair them together. The first two are informed but curious. We expect everyone to show up with a well-informed opinion that you’re ready to share, but you’re not arrogant as to think yours is the only opinion. The next two that pair together are driven but collaborative. We want people who are unbelievably eager and hungry to make progress, learn and drive themselves in the company forward, but we don’t want a single person who is only centered on doing that for themselves.
We always tell people on the collaborative side, “You got to bring people along with you. As you progress here, part of your ability to progress is how many people on your team have grown, gotten promoted, learned more, and so on.” The third is direct but kind. This is a direct steal from a woman named Kim Scott and her book, Radical Candor. You should be unbelievably direct with our feedback, but you can only do that if you’ve spent the time so that people know you genuinely care about them.
Our fourth one is fun. We’re still selling clicks on the internet and a digital ad agency. It’s important that we do it exceptionally well, have a good drive, a curiosity, and all those things to do great things. At the end of the day, it’s still important that we sit down and have some fun together. Not as a family, but as colleagues, parts of a team, and a community as you described it earlier.
It’s important that we have fun together too. That fun can be anything from a happy hour to celebrating someone getting married, someone’s promotion, spending a few minutes together, doing community service together, or whatever it might be. There are a million ways to have fun, but it’s important that we mix that into.
With that in mind, I noticed on your website that you have this good works program. What is that?
It is something that I am most proud of that we’ve done. It was a dream and a half in the last few years. It’s come to be something that has taken on a life of its own. The idea is that no matter what role you’re in here, you’re in a better spot than the vast majority of the world. We’d be silly to only look inward. The premise we always had was that there are four things that prevent people from giving back.
If you don’t have the time, we give people unlimited time to volunteer in their communities. If you don’t have the money, we give people unlimited money to support causes within reason. You don’t know where or how to do it. At this point, we have people who are dedicated to searching out opportunities and bringing them to the table for us. The fourth one is you’re a jerk. If it’s the fourth one, we don’t want you in the company at all. That’s the premise of it.
What we’ve done is we’ve said, “We know if we go out into our communities. We will have an outsized impact on that community.” If we do something nice for someone, we’re going to feel good about it. If someone else is going to see this happening, they’re going to feel good about it too. It has a multiplicative effect on it. Over the years, it’s continued to progress. It began as one Friday a month. The whole company would take off when we went volunteer. We’re all the way now to where a good portion of our people’s bonuses are based on the amount of hours and dollars our company gives back each year.
We’ve given back over 5,000 hours. At this point, we’re over $300,000 or $400,000 we’ve given back to our communities. For the past several years, we have built what we call the January Room at a women’s shelter. It’s a place where kids can go and just be kids. They can play, learn, and screw around while their mothers get counseling or legal advice. It’s a safe place for those kids. It also provides a place for our folks to go and volunteer anytime they want. It’s that combination of giving back to the community but making sure we’re always involved. We feel passionate about it, and our people enjoy doing it. It’s great. I love it. I’m proud of that one.
Thank you for doing that.
We’re happy with how it’s evolving.
With that in mind, the last thing I would ask you is what do you do to keep growing and learning? We mentioned earlier that my mantra is I’m not the leader I need to be a year from now, but I will grow. What do you do to continue to fuel yourself?
This has been one of the hardest things for me, without a doubt. It’s that the whole work from home COVID, no travel, and no anything. I’m very much a physical learner. I’ve got to be around, see things, and experience it to piece it together. It’s been hard on me, and it took quite frankly a few years ago. My three key leadership members came to me. They’re like, “You got to get out of your house. I don’t care what you do. Go somewhere. Break away from this and get your brain back to where it needs to be.”
I’ve had to restructure schedules and habits to force myself out of my house, out of the day-to-day of running the company, to make sure that I’m thinking enough. It started in little bits and pieces, which was I blocked off twenty minutes each morning to leave my house. I didn’t care if I was sitting at a fast food restaurant. I would spend those twenty minutes reading things. Different folks outside the industry give you different perspectives.
It evolved from there to, “Maybe I can take a day a month where I do that. I turn it all off when I go somewhere and I do something else.” It’s continued to progress from there. Now I’m back to spending a little bit more time going to, whether it be a trade show, client meetings, or things outside of our organization, to help give me perspective. I’m continuing to evolve on it. I would say that the biggest takeaway for me is I still dedicate time each week to reading things that don’t have anything to do with my industry, leadership, different thought pieces, or whatever might be. I’m reading those things, number one.
Number two, I get out of my house a whole lot more. I walk a lot more and think a lot more. I turn it all off for a little bit more. Three is just getting out and being around other people who have smart perspectives that I can ask questions and learn from. Those are the things more than anything else. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention it. I have an incredible leadership team around me that holds me accountable for that. They maybe don’t want me around so much, but either way, it’s working. Taking out a lot and taking my head away from the business is remarkably helpful.Taking your head away from your business every now and then is remarkably helpful. Click To Tweet
If I don’t create that space to think, my body will wake me up in the middle of the night. My husband calls it my CEO meetings.
I feel the same way. My wife is like, “What is wrong with your sleeping?” Once you wake up and it turns on, you can’t quite turn it off. That still happens. Finding other time to do that has been helpful in curing some of those thoughts, for sure.
We’re closing out here. Tell us one of the most crazy weird benefits that you have that you provide that are not your traditional things that every company feels obliged to provide.
I have no idea what’s crazy or not these days. Benefits are all over the place. There are some that I’ll mention. Anytime someone here has a child, we set up a $1,000 college scholarship form when they’re born. They completely own. I know it doesn’t sound like that much, but $1,000 for each employee turns out to be a pretty decent amount.
We give everybody a couple of thousand dollars to spend on their own mental or physical health. There are very few restrictions, but there are restrictions to it. You can’t blow it on something silly. If you need a rowing machine and you want to pay for whatever it is, you have the ability to do that. The last Friday of every month is an all-company holiday for mental health. We let our clients know there are no meetings, on-call, or anything. That’s a sacred time for us. We have summer Fridays, which are half days. We have twenty-plus company holidays too.
We’re trying to find the best mix of giving people time to themselves and giving them resources. Mental and physical health folks come in and speak about once every six weeks. I don’t know if things are crazy. What my hope is that all of them build complete perspective for people and that 75% of them apply to people in the right way. Maybe you’re young, and you don’t care about the scholarship, but you care about the mental health benefits, the extra days off, the flexibility and schedule, or what have you. We try to do that. We try to find the right mix of all those things.
That’s a great list, Vic. I need to ask that question to a lot of companies. That’s not crazy, but a unique list.
I appreciate it. We’re doing our best. There’s been a lot of requests for pet insurance. We’re not quite there yet, but we’ll see what the next year looks like.
I have a Frenchie. It’s a scam anyway.
I’m recording this and taking this to my people. We’ll see.
This was a wonderful conversation. I could talk to you all day long about all this. Thank you so much, Vic, for your time and for sharing your insight. This is a very joyful experience for me, thank you.
I appreciate you and all the work that you do. Even your consideration in talking to me. Thank you very much.
For everyone who’s reading, thank you for reading. I was joined by Victor Drabicky. Thank you so much to everybody, and we will see you next time.
About Vic Drabicky
Vic Drabicky is the founder and CEO of January Digital, a strategic consulting and digital media company. An expert and innovator in all areas of digital marketing, branding, retail, consumer behavior, and the consultancy vs agency business model, Vic has two decades of experience leading marketing strategy and brand development for leading global brands including Nike, The Honest Company, Neiman Marcus, and Peapod Digital Labs.