Jason Cormier, Cofounder of Room 214, with co-host Jaime Zawmon, Founder and President of TitanCEO
Marketing is a vital part of the business. As such, there are so many subject matter experts that claim they have the best practices. However, when everybody's doing best practices, they all end up doing basic practices. Working his way around that by understanding how things fit holistically, Jason Cormier co-founded Room 214—a growth studio that helps bring coherence across an organization's brand marketing and sales efforts. In this episode, he joins Jaime Zawmon, Founder and President of Titan CEO, to share how he is helping businesses achieve that while taking us across their shift from digital marketing to growth and coherence. He also talks about the role of human intelligence, the iterative growth in digital, and the value of data gathered from customer conversation. Plus, Jason also shares some of his best leadership lessons, emphasizing how, at the end of it all, it is the people that leaders should take care of.
Watch the episode here:
Jason Cormier, Cofounder of Room 214, with co-host Jaime Zawmon, Founder and President of TitanCEO
Thanks a lot, Bob. I appreciate it.
We talked a little bit before the show. I am fascinated by what you do. If he could tell us a little bit about your business and who you serve.
The name of company is Room 214. We are what is called a growth studio. We help bring coherence across an organization's brand marketing and sales efforts. We have a digital marketing agency background. A lot of folks come to us for those kinds of services. We've migrated a bit outside of what you would probably consider as traditional digital marketing and social media. Real quick to finish the answer to the question, the clients that we serve vary quite a bit. From funded startups to Fortune 100, across multiple industries over the last several years.
The question that comes to my mind is you've migrated a bit from digital marketing to growth and coherence. Paint me a picture of what that looks like.
When you look at digital marketing, in particular, and what you understand about marketing in general is that when everybody's doing best practices, what they're doing is basic practices. What you learn pretty quickly is what worked last season doesn't necessarily work this season, or what works for your competitor doesn't necessarily work for you. What happens is you get a bunch of people in marketing that are frustrated over time. They're working their butts off. The chief marketing officer and the chief revenue officer, these two roles these days, there's so much responsibility on their shoulders to increase leads, increase sales, whatever the case may be.
The problem is they keep running up against the same walls. There are a lot of great subject matter experts in digital marketing and a lot of great marketing agencies out there, but what we found over time, and this is the migration, is that understanding how things holistically fit is where that's going to be most helpful to people. For example, this concept of coherence. If you look at a CEO or even ask a CEO, “Where's there coherence in your business?” You might get a deer in the headlights look from them. If you say, "Where is the incoherence in your business?” You're never going to hear the end of it. A lot of what we've done with this migration from a marketing agency to a growth studio is we've recognized that if we can bring coherence across an organization's brand marketing and sales, this is something that is missing. This is something that will make a tremendous difference in terms of their growth.
The term I always hear is alignment. It's pretty hard to be aligned if you don't even know that you're misaligned.
[bctt tweet="When everybody's doing best practices, what they're doing is basic practices." username=""]
In order to act quickly, you have to be aligned deeply. In order to adjust often, you have to be aligned deeply.
I would imagine that message resonates well. You’re a combat information center, former Navy guy, and the difference between data and an actionable intel, there’s a wide gulf between the two. It sounds like this is an iterative event of what you did in the Navy.
There are some interesting connections for sure. The interesting thing about data is companies have invested so much in data. It's almost like there are good reasons for it, but quite ironically, as a company that comes from this digital marketing background, what we've found is that the data is always flawed. What happens is organizations have first come up with data initiatives, investing in a lot of this data. They've hired expensive data scientists who ended up spending all their time fixing the data and making the data make sense. It's funny, we say that the data is always flawed. What's ironic is that the most important data we've been able to collect comes directly from customer conversations, not from web analytics. I'm not saying web analytics aren't important or advertising data sets and all that. That's important, but more people stake their reputation on that. They've rolled the dice and I'm afraid that they've lost in a lot of cases.
To finish up the thought, in the military world, there was a focus on human years and years ago, where you had actual human intelligence on ground in country. The human intelligence world thought the simple fix was data. They spent a great deal of time, effort and money on trying to do the data capture, whether it's signals, intelligence and others. The reality is without the human side of the intelligence, the rest can lead you astray. I'm an old intel guy. It's an interesting parallel.
When I was in the Navy, my ship was a taxicab for Marines. We had Navy SEALs onboard. We would be cruising about a mile from the beach. We knew what the weather was, yet these SEALs would depart our ship a mile to the beach. They would be hanging out on the beach, getting beat up in the surf for hours. The whole idea was you needed someone to be there. You needed human intelligence in the trenches or on the beaches. You couldn't say, “The weather forecast is this. We know everything we need to know.”
The interpretation of the data by a human, he says, “Yes, I appreciate that.” Maybe it challenges my thought process, but it matters to crank it through a human or two to find out. I was reading some of your work. That's what struck me as I was reading that earlier. Jaime, I’m sorry. I'm back down the rabbit hole again.
Congratulations again, Jason, for being recognized as a 2020 Titan 100. I'm holding up a copy of the Titan 100 book in which Jason was recognized and profiled. This platform recognizes Colorado's Top 100 CEOs and C-Level executives. Jason, as part of the series, I always like to ask our Titans, what characteristics do they believe it takes to be considered a Titan of industry?
[caption id="attachment_5646" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Room 214: In order to act quickly and adjust often, you have to be aligned deeply.[/caption]
A Titan of industry, thanks. It's an honor. I love being part of the whole Titan community. It’s awesome. I’ve learned a lot as a result too. For me, it's been a lot of leading with humility, understanding that I don't have all the answers as someone who leads a company. That was a huge part of why we adopted open-book management and have done a lot in that area, getting more minds on the problems. Curiosity, I can't say enough about that. If you think you've arrived, you are wrong. Especially with my industry, things change so quickly. I have to rely on curiosity to make it so that I'm spending time looking at the right things on behalf of my clients.
Those are two huge things. Generally speaking as well, from a values perspective, acting out of love instead of fear. It's easy to get into a mode of cover your ass with marketing in particular. People want to know, “What's the return on this? Did this thing that we did, did that actually work?” Sometimes it works great and sometimes it doesn't. Being very upfront and honest about that in an industry that's probably full of a lot of snake oil too. Our mantra is creating valuable relationships. There's no substitute for that. People want to buy from who they know, like and trust. You can't fake that. That's probably it and all those things.
It’s a profound thought. As I know you, because I've known you for some time, you lead with humility. Your whole statement around acting out of love and not fear is something that is painted on your office walls because I have been to your offices before. I love that statement. I wish more people would act out of love and not out of fear.
To think about that point though, it takes an extraordinary amount of courage to function from that place because there's risks there.
There is a risk. The idea of open-book management, for example, is part of that risk that we take on. There's transparency with the numbers. It's not a report that's given out in terms of the way we do it. Every other week, people see all the numbers. What are the labor costs? What are the revenues? What are the profits? When things are going great in your business, it's great. When things aren't, people tend to have more questions. To your point, that's a risk that we've taken. Over the years, we've had open-book management over the last few years. There's been a lot of uncomfortable situations. At the end of the day, it's worth it because it's always about people. The appreciation there is that there's an honest discussion about all those things. People would rather have that even if it's uncomfortable, than just given some glossy view of how things are good when maybe they're not so good. At least that's my experience.
Circling back a little bit, we talked a bit about your Navy exposure. What's your path from there to where we are now with your company on Room 214? People would be interested on how you got from there to here.
Before the Navy, I was at Colorado State University with my business partner, James, at Room 214. Unfortunately, Room 214 happened to be in a party dorm. It was a party room. Nothing good happened at the original Room 214. After a year of that, I somehow concluded that I needed discipline and to my parents' chagrin at the time, it was like, “I'm enlisting in the Navy.” I had no money. It seemed like I need to get as far away from this place as possible. I enlisted and I got my GI bill, which meant that going back to school was going to be paid for.
My lovely wife and I got married about six months prior to getting out of the Navy. She was my high school sweetheart. We could live anywhere we wanted to live. She graduated from college and it was like, “Take your pick.” We chose Santa Barbara, California and Santa Barbara City College. I decided I was going to be a computer science major because that's where the money was at. It’s so happens, I was terrible at computer science. I was not a good coder. I was struggling and suffering. It was 1995.
[bctt tweet="More people should act out of love and not out of fear." username=""]
A friend of mine said, “There's this thing called Netscape that allows you to get on the World Wide Web and have this visual interface of it. It's not just words. Here's a copy of Photoshop.” He handed me a few disks and, “Here's a one pager on this thing called HTML.” It's easy compared to the type of programming that we do. In a very short period of time, I taught myself how to build web pages. I decided, “Maybe this could be a business.” A real estate agent approached me and said, “Would you build a website for me? If you did, how much would you charge?”
I said, “I don't know, $350?” He's like, “Let's do it.” The next thing I knew, I was like, “This could be a business.” I had a one-pager called, “Why do you need a website?” I walked the streets of Santa Barbara passing this thing out and most people were like, “Get out of here, kid. What is this? We'll never need a website.” One thing led to another and I ended up growing a web development firm and selling that firm to a competitor after about 2.5 years. I was a VP in that company that bought mine and ran a web development organization that was nationwide at that point. It was a series of different businesses that followed after that.
I connected with my old-time friend, James, who had gone into public relations. There was a pretty big disconnect between PR and what was happening in the digital world, websites and things of that nature. James had interestingly coined a term that he called the placement crash. What that was in PR was that a company would work with the PR firm. They would get a big hit in USA Today or Wall Street Journal or whatever. Their web traffic would spike. It would be incredible. Everybody would be slapping high fives. It’s a major win. Within 48 hours, it was as if nothing happened. The web traffic flattened out and that was the placement crash.
James and I were talking about that back in the day. It was like, “What would happen if there was preparation and content was produced on the web? There was a way to capture that traffic so that a company that experienced a big PR hit didn't have a placement crash?” Those were the conversations that we had. By 2003, Google AdWords was pretty much a brand-new platform. We started to tinker with it together. We saw that there were a bunch of bads out there on like, “Buy this, buy that.” We thought, “What if we produced an ad that said, 'The top five things you need to know about,' and fill in the blank?”
We were working with a China manufacturing company at that point called Vital Sourcing. We created this white paper called Top Five Things You Need to Know About Manufacturing in China. We thought, “What if we placed an ad around that?” At this point, ads were $0.05 a click, which is ridiculously cheap. That ad started getting clicked on left and right. It drove them to a page where we asked them for their name and email address in exchange to download this white paper. That's the most basic Content 101 marketing there is now. At the time, there were very few people doing that. We were flooded with leads from all across the world. It was this massive success story.
We were optimizing a website to make sure that we were showing up. To fast forward this story, what we realized was that there was a business in helping companies use this new thing called Google AdWords and WordPress. We started Room 214. We got lucky too. Three years after we started, Facebook wasn't just for college kids anymore. We got a call one day from a PR firm in New York and they said, “We've got this client in the Travel Channel. Travel Channel is asking us questions about Facebook and YouTube. There's this new Twitter thing out there. We don't know how to answer these freaking questions, but we heard about you clowns in Boulder, Colorado that had been playing with this. Maybe you can talk to Travel Channel.”
The next thing you know, we're managing Anthony Bourdain's Facebook page. We're setting up Facebook pages for all Travel Channel TV shows and Twitter accounts. That led to this two-year engagement, $1 million client. We faked it until we made it. We've learned on the job, but the timing was such that if you did a search for social media agency on Google for years, we were in the number one or number two spot. Companies from all over the place came to us like Sanrio, Hello Kitty, “Can you help us with Facebook?” We built our business and we rode that wave for many years. It's been an interesting journey. There were some other businesses in between. Some did okay and others failed. This is when we've been at it for a while.
[caption id="attachment_5647" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Room 214: There is far more value that comes from the data that can be taken out of a customer conversation, applied to content and advertising strategy.[/caption]
I love listening to the history. There's so much that's very rich. You were on the forefront of a lot of new age market adoption. I still think it's hysterical that you were walking around asking people if they wanted websites and people were laughing like, “What do I need a website for?” It's mind blowing in 2020.
The thing is I was discouraged by a lot of people, even though it was obvious with this internet thing, a visual, and a web browser. To me, this is clearly the future, but a lot of people were like, “You can't create a business selling websites. You're going to have to go figure out how to do something else.” I'll tell you, the epiphany came up with Kinko's. People out there remember Kinko's, it's FedEx now. Kinko's corporate was 30 minutes down the road from me. I knew a woman there named Mary Hamilton, who was a friend of my wife, who worked in the marketing department.
They had paid big money to some San Francisco firm to build their website. They didn't want to do that anymore. She had heard I'd been doing some website development. She called me up and she said, “Jason, we've got some website maintenance, some pages we need developed. I heard you could do this. Would you please give us a bit for this?” I looked at the work and I thought, “I'm going to charge a $1,000.” I was nervous about this. I put the bid out there. I sent it over the fence, $1,000. She got back to me and she said, “I don't know how to tell you this, but I'm going to be honest with you. Let's consider this a confidential call. In order for my company to take this bid seriously, we need to add another zero.” It took me aback. I was like, “Can you give me 30 minutes? I'll revise that and get it back to you.” Anyway, it was less than a day of work for $10,000. She signed it that day. It was at that day, I realized, “The naysayers are wrong. This is something that's real.”
I think about the journey you're talking about. For me, first assignment, Fort Carson, Colorado, they had a computer on post and it was punch card. My college had one computer punch card. My kids grew up in the age of computers and the iterative event. I can remember in the day I was with Merrill way back when. The head of that whole division said, “The Internet's a fad. It will never amount to anything.” He said it in front of hundreds of guys. It’s an interesting progression though. There’s a lot of disbelief at that day.
In 2.5 years from that time, I sat across from a CEO who was interested in buying my company. It was a scene right out of a movie. He took me to breakfast. It was this amazing hotel...