Ian Lurie of Portent, Inc. talks about his career and building one of the premier digital marketing agencies around.  You can find Ian at Portent, Inc and on his Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.  

What do you do for a living?headshot1

I’m CEO and founder of the digital marketing agency Portent. I started the company in 1995.

How would you describe what you do?

I spend a lot of time curled up in a ball under my desk. We all call that “Ian’s thinking time”…

OK, I’m kidding. Mostly.

I have 3 jobs:

Clarity: Making sure everyone at Portent knows why we’re all here. I believe great marketing can change the world – I really do – and that what we do here therefore matters a lot. I want people working with me who can believe it, too. I also work to get that out beyond Portent’s walls – I blog, speak and teach as much as I can. Every novice we can make into a good marketer becomes a better potential partner for us.

Teaching: I now do 3+ training sessions/week with the various teams at Portent, record training, etc. I also do consulting with clients.

Strategy: I work with the company’s President and directors on Portent’s direction, on new tools, and on research project.

What does your work entail?

My company does search engine optimization, pay per click management, social media, analytics and digital strategy.

…no one succeeds in building an agency alone. From your spouse/partner to the people you hire to the folks who advise you, you’ll get lots of little boosts along the way. Don’t be afraid to reach out for those boosts, and don’t hesitate to give credit where credit is due.

For my part, I do lot of writing and communications of various kinds: Recording videos, sitting down with staff and clients, etc. I also spend almost as much time researching everything from machine learning to what made David Ogilvy’s advertising so great. I’m a perpetual student. I love it!!!

What’s a typical work week like?

I don’t know that I have a ‘typical’ work week. But Mondays and Fridays are usually research and geek-out days – I put a lot of time those days into prepping training and/or noodling with Python, coming up with potential tools for Portent. I also wireframe stuff to hand off to team members.

Tuesday-Thursday I spend a lot of time on client work, either working with Portent folks or doing a really deep dive into strategy for the clients who hire us specifically to work with me. I also do a lot of training with the team those days. I do all the random social media stuff we all talk about, plus I write blog posts and such. I don’t get to do that nearly as often as I’d like – I used to blog 3-4 times a week. But now I’m at 1-2 times if I’m lucky. Sigh.

How did you get started?

It’s a bit complicated, but here goes: I grew up around computers – both my parents are scientists – so I was very comfortable with them. When I was 8 we had a Heathkit at home. I remember being blown away that this computer could guess what I was going to type from the first 2 letters of a word, and then finish the word for me. That got me hooked on computers, but I never studied them in school. I was a history major in college. I loved writing, too.

I went to law school, hated it, graduated and was looking for something to do with my life. In 1993 I went to work for an engineering company in Seattle, doing their technical writing, marketing writing and such. In 1995 I struck out on my own, and Portent was born. I started out with a credit card and a spare room in my house, doing any writing I could find. By mid-1995 I was helping clients do marketing using the internet, AOL and CompuServe (I know, ancient). In 1997 a client asked me how I could help them rank higher on Alta Vista. I was hooked.

What do you like about what you do?

I love the teaching. I love the writing and the nerdy math-and-programming-games of it all. And I really get a charge out of helping other companies win – I’m a ridiculously competitive person and everything about this business appeals to that side of me.

I also like the idea that I’m helping connect people to stuff they’ll value. To me marketing isn’t about driving raw numbers – it’s about making the right connection with the right customer, one customer at a time, at a massive scale.

What do you dislike?

I don’t like dealing with the aftermath of ripoff artists and people who claim to be ‘experts’ but aren’t. We get so many potential clients at Portent who have zero trust, few remaining resources and real business issues because of that. It drives me completely berserk.

I also don’t like dealing with people who refuse to see the value in what I do. I don’t mind that they don’t see it. If you don’t think what Portent does is valuable, that’s OK – don’t hire us. But I fail to understand why so many people think they’ll somehow get a better deal by calling and telling me “I can get what you do for 1/10th the cost!” If you can, go for it!

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

Most of our work is retainer-based: Ongoing SEO, PPC management and such. We also do some one-off projects, and very large advertising buys where we get paid a percentage of the overall spend.

We’ve occasionally done performance-based stuff, but at this point I’ll only do it if we have control over the entire distribution chain.

How much do you make? 

I now make $275,000/year. That sounds grand, doesn’t it? Well, keep a few things in mind:
The first 5 years of the company, I made less than $30,000/year.

The second 5 years, I made less than $100,000/year.

I could pay myself more, but end up re-investing a lot of money into Portent. I absolutely have no reservations about it, but if you want a business where you can take most of the company’s earnings for yourself, marketing ain’t the way to go.

So the potential is great, but you need to be willing to reinvest a lot of money in the company, in your people, etc. If you just strip out all the cash to pay yourself, you’ll end up killing the organization.

How much money did/do you make starting out?

See above. Not a heck of a lot. The first year running Portent I made less than I now pay in monthly rent.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

Well, I can verify that a history degree works 🙂

Seriously, any type of education can work. It’s the skills that matter:

You must be both a left- and right-brained thinker. If you can’t think creatively and analytically, you’ll have a tough time running a digital marketing shop.

You must be a top 1% writer. I don’t mean you can write best selling novels – to me that’s top 1% of the top 1% – but you need to be able to easily write in a clear, succinct manner.

Integrity. If you can’t deal honestly with people, don’t even try going into this business. It’s a small world.

I won’t say you need ‘people skills,’ because I don’t have any. But you must be an empathetic person, while still being able to sometimes lay down the law. The work we do can be pretty stressful on a day-to-day level. It took me years to learn how to deal with the little and big speed bumps without freaking out.

A good example of #4: In 2004 or so I screwed up a project. It cost us $15,000. I screamed. I cursed. I punched things and cracked the hell out of my hand. I thought, “Hey, I’m mad at myself, so this doesn’t affect anyone else.” But of course the rest of the company sits there thinking, “My god, I work for an insane person.” You have to understand that your actions affect those around you far more than you think they can or should. Getting mad is OK. Acting like Mr or Ms Hyde is not.

What is most challenging about what you do?

See above. Doing personal work with personal impact without taking it personally is nearly impossible. Everything we do – yes, even SEO – has some aspect of creativity to it, which means it’s a very personal investment of effort. But almost nothing we do gains unconditional acceptance. Taking criticism that isn’t always carefully delivered can really be a challenge. But you learn a lot, and the result is usually a huge win.

What is most rewarding?

Getting the big, long-term wins for clients. Seeing a company, or a political campaign, or a non-profit really, actually change because of stuff you’ve done. It’s more addictive than chocolate.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

I’m stealing from David Ogilvy, but: Do NOT start an agency until you’re 35 or 40. I scoffed at that when I read Confessions of an Advertising Man. I started mine when I was 28. We limped along until, surprise surprise, I turned 35. Suddenly, I had some semblance of patience and maturity (I won’t say an age appropriate level of maturity – I still don’t have that) and the company took off. When I turned 40 in 2008, that began the huge growth period we’re in now.

Of course, you’re going to go start your agency when you’re 28 anyway. When you do, find a mentor, and listen to them. When you’re sitting there thinking you’ve just bolluxed things up worse than anyone in history, realize that I or someone else you know has done things at least as dunderheaded, and survived, and grew because of it. Learn from them.

Be honest. It’s always easier. White lies to spare a client’s feelings may lead to financial losses for them. Showing integrity after a mistake may win you a long-term client. Dealing with employees in a forthright manner will always pay off.

In 1998 we had what I call The Great Philsophy Massacre. I misspelled ‘Philosophy’ on a client’s print materials (one of the last print pieces we ever did). We printed a ton of them. Then we fond the mistake. I could have forced the client to pay – they had to review the proofs and sign off – but I didn’t, because I felt ridiculous. They worked with us for over 10 years. Was that worth the $2500 printing job? Damn right.

Finally, business is personal. Don’t think you can run any business of your own and just put it away when you go home each night. It’s going to impact you and your family, hopefully for the better in the long run, but starting a business is a decision you need to consider carefully if you have a family.

How much time off do you get/take?

I take 1-2 real weeks off per year. “Real” means I’m only checking e-mail maybe once a day. I do get little mental health breaks – a day here, a day there – but most of those I’m still very connected to the office.

It’s improved a lot in the last 4 years. Before then, I don’t think I had more than a few days truly off per year.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

That I spam Google. I could write 17 pages about this, but I won’t.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I’d like Portent to reach a point where it’ll outlive my career, for one thing. Pay for my kids’ education (I know, pretty mundane). Work on a Presidential campaign (less mundane). Speak at TED (riiiight). Get to the point where I can pedal my bicycle over some of Seattle’s hills without my tongue flapping in my front spokes.

Any two of those, really. I’m easy to please.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

Just that no one succeeds in building an agency alone. From your spouse/partner to the people you hire to the folks who advise you, you’ll get lots of little boosts along the way. Don’t be afraid to reach out for those boosts, and don’t hesitate to give credit where credit is due.