“The thing that I kept coming back to was whether you are talking about a family, a business, a non profit, a very early stage startup, a city government or a national government, the thing that you always want to be able to point back to are your values and the reason you do what you do. If there’s not alignment or agreement there, you’re gonna have a very hard time keeping anybody happy.”
Nathan Ryan – Founder, Blue Sky Partners; Operational alignment in business and values; Needs in leadership; Having honest business conversations.
Segment 1: (Length :04:00) – General Updates; Introduction to Nathan Ryan and his journey as an entrepreneur; Dropping out of college; Working with Disney and Startups; Becoming CEO of Toi; Starting Blue Sky Partners
Nathan’s finer points:
“I dropped out of community college to get my first job and that’s exactly what happened. I was studying design and wasn’t even quite sure that I wanted to be doing design but I had a family friend that was a designer and I figured I would try it out because he was gonna give me an opportunity to go work with him in his own personal studio in Burbank, California.”
“I was studying it and I also had this mindset that even in 2007/2008 when I was really getting started in this field that a lot of the more traditional jobs were gonna go away, that automation was a thing.”
I just felt like anything that's outside of the creative realm is probably gonna be the kind of thing that computers are gonna take over some time in the next 20 years, so I wanted to get into something creative.
“I started working with this friend of mine who had his own studio. He got hired by Disney in a senior VP position for one of their startup divisions.'”
“A startup division at Disney is defined, at least in our case, as having 200 million dollars in seed funding. So I got this crazy self education through my work there in what it means to work in a startup and also work for a massive corporation because we had 25 people working around the clock on a worldwide initiative, but we also had all of the bureaucracy of Disney and that executive team breathing down our neck all the time, so I lost like 40 pounds in my time working there over the course of a year.”
“Then the financial crash happened and when that happened, they moved me over to another agency and they outsourced all the work to that agency. They cut their team in more than half, more than in half to about three people, outsourced all of the work there, really put a shell management team internally and kept that going there.”
“Then outsourced the rest of it to China, which is where the business was actually being conducted for the startup division. I worked at that agency for about a year. Then went freelance and actually took the Disney contract with me.”
“During that time period, I started a magazine. We developed this worldwide community around the arts in parts of the world that weren’t typically known for their art scene. We were doing a ton in downtown LA. We were focusing on the suburbs and trying to find really interesting artists in those areas and putting on interesting art shows in just a random café in a random suburb all around the world, was what we ended up building. Our team didn’t get paid. It was just this really amazing formative time.”
“Started a co-working space. Had an investor pull out. There are lots of little stories in here but I’m trying to give the highlights and rush through.”
It started with Toi in 2011. With Toi, we were a digital marketing agency. We were doing a lot of word press work, marketing, messaging, branding. All of that kind of stuff. I had to really get up to speed on the digital side of things because I studied packaging and print design and branding and all of that stuff.
“When I joined the company, I had a conversation with the founder and I just said, “Hey, I’m really not interested in just being a designer. I’m more interested in people and managing people and leading. Are you okay if you know that I want your job?” He was like, “Yeah, absolutely.” He and I developed this partnership from the beginning.”
“He became a very formative part of my upbringing and just a good friend and partner to me. Built the company there, spun another magazine out of that called Life & Thyme, which I’m still involved with. They just won an Emmy.”
We were working with startups and VC funds. We worked with Peter Thiel. We worked with Mark Cuban and his companies. We worked with a lot of people in that realm and startups that were at various points in their journey to help them get out into market. Some of them were bought
“We had one called Genie that was bought by Microsoft. We had one called set for service. It was picked up by a company called reserve out of New York. Really cool success stories. We also work with Verizon and extra space storage. We have this really wide swath of the kinds of clients and the kinds of work that we were doing.”
“After six years there, I was CEO for the last two and a half, from 2015 to mid 2017 and we saw a lot of success, felt really good about it, built our team to four offices, moved to Austin in the process. I was in LA before.”
“We opened an office in San Francisco, one in Buenos Aires and then Austin was our last office that we opened in 2015. I noticed all these trends, all these things shifting, the idea that creativity could not be automated went out the window in the last few years with things like square space and the grid and all of these frankly great tools that you can use to build a marketing presence online pretty quickly without the use of an agency or outsourcing or anything like that. That really puts a lot of downward pressure on a market.”
“At the same time, I noticed that a lot of the organizations that we were working with were really missing a critical factor and that was that there were so many alignment issues between, let’s say what their marketing team wanted to do and what their sales team needed in order to actually do their job, or what their production team was actually building versus what their marketing team wanted to talk about and what their sales team wanted to sell.”
For me, earlier this year, I started ... I just really started thinking critically about what I wanted to do next and I feel like when you're CEO, that's a hard thing to let yourself think, but I took a few road trips towards the end of the year last year and earlier this year and just had a lot of time by myself.
“The thing that I kept coming back to was whether you are talking about a family, a business, a non profit, a very early stage startup, a city government or a national government, the thing that you always want to be able to point back to are your values and the reason you do what you do. If there’s not alignment or agreement there, you’re gonna have a very hard time keeping anybody happy. You’re gonna have a very hard time keeping yourself happy and you’re gonna have a very hard time moving the needle on the things that are actually important to you.”
“I stepped down in June and spent a couple of months thinking through that even further. Went off to the mountains in Washington state and cleared my head and came back and started Blue Sky Partners with my friends, Tim Seton, who was the previous COO at Toi along with me, then Matt Glaser who ran the Austin young chamber of commerce and had just done a bunch of other cool stuff, as well himself.”
“We started it because we want to focus on that. We want to help organizations that want to do good things, do them better and align themselves around the things that are most important to them in order to fulfill their promises to their customers and to their employees and live happier lives.”
Segment 2: (Length :08:00) – Talking with Nathan; Blue Sky Partners key focus; On having values for the company; Working with companies with purpose; Having honest business conversations.
Nathan’s finer points:
“We’ve got a pretty full roster of clients thus far already. Frankly, we get brought in to help solve very specific problems and that’s part of how we position ourselves and we can talk about this a little bit later. We bake the conversations around values and culture and growth and scale, which is the four areas that we focus on.”
“We define growth as revenue growth. We define scale as size of your audience. That’s who you’re talking to, how many people you’re talking to, what you’re talking to them through, which channel, all of that stuff. We come in to help solve a very specific problem usually but we attach the conversations around values and culture to our conversations around specific problem solving exercise.”
If we're coming in to help you build a sales pipeline for instance, we're gonna ask a ton of questions that are gonna feel off topic but the reason we're asking them is because we want to make sure that we understand ... We want to make sure we understand more than just the tangible reasons like, hey, you don't have this tool setup, why you might not actually be accomplishing the goal. We want to understand if there's something a little bit more first. Usually there is.
“Like I was mentioning before, usually it’s like, “Hey, the marketing team is talking about the product in this way and they’re actually really setting the sales team up for failure because they’re not setting up the conversation correctly,” or the sales team doesn’t truly understand the product.”
“They’ve got a really good lead list. That pipeline is huge, but they can’t close because the product itself is not great, or they are closing at a pretty high rate and customer retention is not good because the product isn’t good, so we get brought in to help increase the close rate and what we actually end up doing is having a conversation about, “Is quality one of your values?” It is, okay great. Then can we talk to the product team? Because these things are way off.”
“For me, I think that it’s really important for people to understand what kind of a precedent you set by not actually living up to those values. When we have the conversation like that with people, we find that they are very open to having us come in to help fix a problem and hopefully uncover a few more that we can speak to as well.”
If your why doesn't match your what or your how, it's gonna feel off and everybody is gonna feel off about it and you're gonna potentially set yourself up to fail.
“The reason the thing that I go to typically is the example of let’s increase a pipeline, let’s actually have a conversation about your marketing and then your product is because that is the most common scenario we find ourselves in. Somebody is ready to scale. They want to get the word out to a lot more people. We get hired to come in and help them put together that plan for scaling, but their product isn’t ready.”
“You go in and you look at it and you’re like, “Come on team. You want to scale because you have good cash flow right now and that’s great, but we need to take like 30% of that 100% that you were expecting on spending to increase your pipeline and we need to shore up your product team, or we need to spend some time on your sales scripts and your sales process and we need to go back to the drawing board to put your personas together, because there’s not a good market fit here. There’s not a good product market fit. The market that you’ve identified, you’ve been trying for for awhile and you got a few really good hits in this one area and now you want to go all in and that’s great, but you know what? Actually we did some more research and that’s not a thing..”
I would say of the nine or so clients that we've worked with in the past few months, probably a good third of them have been that exact scenario. Like you said and it's really true, we look at this as a partnership. We look at ourselves as coming in to help a company that we believe in too. We really do try to only take on, and have thus far, only taken on work with companies that we want to succeed. For us, it's an honor and a privilege to get to go in and work with these companies and help them work through some of their blockers.
Segment 3: (Length :10:00) – Organizational alignment in politics; Operating “above the line”; Needs in leadership.
Nathan’s finer points:
“Clearly we don’t have the best leadership in every position across the country right now and that crosses party lines. That’s not a partisan statement. It’s just truth.”
“Also, I think that we’ve gotten pretty lax on what we will and will not tolerate. What you will and will not tolerate is a value statement. That’s why my head has been there for the last year or so.”
“For me, when I think about how you put a great team together at a small scale, you have to be pretty cognizant of what you value as a company, who you’re working for as a company.”
As Jim Collins likes to say, good, great and that kind of stuff. Do we have the right people on the bus? If we don't, how is that affecting our ability to actually deliver on the values, or actually deliver for our customers?
“The politics you experience in a team of three people is pretty intense sometimes. That’s politics. One business partner goes to talk to another one and leaves the other one out. That’s politics. That’s what it is. You scale that up to 330 million people, it gets a little hairy.”
“Then when you lose sight of which values you actually all hold together, you’re gonna rightly run into some bumps. That’s why I think this conversation is so important. We’re starting to a little bit of work with city governments. We’re doing a lot of work with non profits, because with them, it’s even more important to us.”
“We want them to have that right cultural and values framework in order to deliver on the work that they’re doing because frankly, at the end of the day, good government is a good thing for everybody.”
People's lived experiences are not lining up with the words that they read in the constitution, so they're rightly frustrated. Then there are all these different definitions, like what does free speech actually mean? The left has one view. The right has another view.
“What does the right to bear arms actually mean? The left has one view. The right has another view. We’ve got the same words and we’re referring to the same value statement and to a large degree, I would say the majority of this country agrees but their lived experiences running into those things are not lining up with the ideals that they have in their head, and then their ideals don’t line up with their neighbor’s definition of the very same ideals.”
“There’s a lot of blame being thrown around. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of this is justified, most of it is.”
“I’m going through a leadership program here in Austin called leadership Austin, creatively titled leadership Austin, and it’s really great. One of the things that they go back to all the time is this idea of staying above the line.”
The idea is that when you're above the line, you are accepting reality, you're owning it and you're doing what you need to do to get on with it and solve the problem. When you're below the line, you are blaming, you are scapegoating, you are maybe unconscious that you're even doing it.
“When I think about how bigger groups, or just groups in general, tend to come to have hard conversations, they usually start below the line. It’s very rare that you’re gonna have a transformative conversation.”
“It’s very rare if we are brought in, if I am brought in to do some sort of massive transformation at a company. It’s very rare that we’re being brought in, that people want to spend the money that it takes to hire us, because they’re like, “We had a really friendly conversation and now we want somebody to come in and help us reformat everything.”
“It’s usually there’s a lot of blame going around. We’ve had this thing that’s just been eating everybody up, or so and so is really mad and we all don’t know why. What we want to do is bring those conversations back above the line, but in the moment, it’s really unhealthy.”
Right now, we're going through what feels like a very maybe unhealthy period of time in the country in terms of our national discourse but hopefully, we can pull it away from some of the blame shifting and some of the anger and move it back above the line, to let's start accepting reality. Let's start owning these things and let's get on with finding some solutions.
“I think at the end of the day whether you say it out loud or not, people expect that your word is your bond and if you’re in a company or you’re reading the constitution, you’re expecting that your life is going to reflect that, that value statement or those value statements, and when you say those things, when you say things out loud or you write things down, you make a promise.”
“You know, we were thinking about what we wanted to do and the kind of work we wanted to be doing with the kinds of companies we wanted to be working with, the kinds of projects we wanted to start on our own and the idea for us was that we not only don’t want to box ourselves in, I think we’re pretty clear on the areas of focus in terms of values, cultures and scale.”
“Those are our areas of focus but when we approach a problem, we want to approach it with an open mind. We’ve got models for how we go in and we help people work through problems that they’re experiencing but we don’t want to go in with preconceived solutions in most cases.”
“Blue Sky Partners came from the idea that not only do we want to be able to take on whatever we want to take on because it’s interesting to us, so we have a blue sky there, we also want to keep an open mind when we go in, that maybe we can learn something that’s applicable for us or for other people by approaching each problem on its own, as opposed to coming in with a preset solution like I already said. That’s where the idea came from.”
“Segment 4: (Length :03:00) – Hustler Thought of the Day:
Nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy. - Barack Obama
Nathan Ryan – Founder, Blue Sky Partners
Former CEO of international digital agency, Toi, now founder of executive consulting firm, Blue Sky Partners.
Nathan has spent the last decade building, launching, and scaling brands, and is now focused on working with companies of any size to help them find their purpose and ensure that they’re delivering on the promises they make to their employees and their customers.
He’s also a public policy wonk, working on affordable housing and next-generation education initiatives across the U.S.
He and his wife, Amanda, live in Austin, TX, with their dogs, Max and Rory.
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