How SmartBug’s Remote Culture Works: An Interview with SmartBug® CEO Ryan Malone

For more than a decade, SmartBug Media® has made a name for itself as the Intelligent Inbound® marketing agency that assists businesses in growing revenue through digital marketing, revenue operations, PR, and web development, helping those businesses increase qualified leads, close customers, and enhance the reach and loyalty of their brands. Comparably spoke to SmartBug® Founder and CEO Ryan Malone about his vision for a remote workplace built on smart hiring and innate trust.

Malone says he is not the typical agency person because he came up through technology marketing. While working at Seagate and various early-stage tech companies, he says he realized that when a tech company hired an agency for a campaign and the campaign did poorly, the tech company was often blamed.

“What we realized—and I think this is a significant problem in the agency space—is that the partner would sell the contract, and the people doing the work had never done marketing strategy before,” Malone says. “So in order to keep costs down, the people doing the work were interns, graphic designers, and copywriters. To be clear these are critical people for any agency, but they are not the folks you think of having the deep marketing strategy you hired the agency for.”

With that industry-wise pain point in mind, Malone was inspired to start SmartBug.

“In speaking to my friends in similar roles, I found they all had the same problem and were looking for an agency that was ‘by marketers for marketers,’ [because we knew that] you want to work with an agency that had launched products, managed P&Ls, and had the scars on their back of explaining what happened to a campaign that didn’t work,” he says. “Because if you [have had to] go into an executive meeting and … explain what happened to a half a million dollars, it changes you, and it impacts every future marketing decision you make.”

Malone’s personal desire to live a well-rounded life was an inalienable factor of his drive to start a company. A still-aching loss inspired Malone to build an element of work-life harmony into SmartBug so employees would always have time to attend to the things that matter most: memories with the people they care about.

“When I was 17, my dad passed away, and I still miss him quite a bit,” Malone says. “When I started this company, I didn’t want to be the CEO who was never in the office, because nobody wants to work for that person. I also didn’t want to be the dad who was never at home, because I wanted to see my kids as much as possible. I felt like I didn’t have to sacrifice either.”

The only way to solve the problem, he says, was to go fully remote. So that’s what Malone and SmartBug did: “That was ten years ago, when nobody thought remote was possible. And now we’ve got 102 people in more than 40 states and a couple of countries. So here we are.”

Part of Malone’s initial mission was to perfect a remote workplace where the most inspired, talented employee could deliver their best work.

“I think the challenge is that so many companies make you choose between a challenging career and making memories that are important to you,” Malone says. “We had a hypothesis that if we created this environment where [people have] a challenging career with people [they have] this intellectual respect for, but at the same time, they have the flexibility to create memories for their life, then we would attract better people faster, and they would stay longer and they would do better work for our clients.”

Thus was born an early model of success based on the ability to do fully remote work—a skill set that, in 2020, seems like an enviable superpower.

CULTURE

“There is a misconception that culture creates itself, and I don’t think that it’s true,” Malone says. “I think that you have to be very deliberate about it at the same time that you allow certain organic elements to take hold.”

“What we finally figured out,” Malone goes on, “is that if you’re in the marketing department at a company with an office, it’s very typical that the thing that holds your group of work friends together is the fact that you’re all in marketing. So people in marketing go to lunch with people in marketing, and people in marketing go to happy hour with people in marketing. Rarely do you see marketers, for example, grabbing people from accounting and engineering and going to grab a beer. It just doesn’t happen because of the way that offices are laid out.”

This stratification didn’t sit right with Malone. “What we do differently,” he says, “is we have [each new employee] host a get to know you call with everybody at the company. And the whole point of that is that you don’t talk about anything related to work; it’s just a chance for you to get to know your peers. And so what happens is you have people across the company from all of these different departments held together by common interests rather than just by their department. [SmartBug employees] end up being friends with a broader group of people, and they end up having a broader set of interests. Better yet, because new SmartBugs have found a number of smaller affinity groups, they have a built-in support network which accelerates their onboarding.”

When asked to describe SmartBug’s culture in a handful of adjectives, Malone offered the following:

  • Energetic—“We have a ‘shout out’ group internally, and every day there are probably 50 or 60 individual comments about people that are doing a great job.”
  • Caring—“[We care] not just for each other, but also for customers.”
  • Supportive—“People are always there to help each other because they know that if they need help, somebody is there to help them. It’s sort of self-perpetuating in the sense that if anybody has a question, there are lots of people waiting to help them.”
  • Motivating—“I look around and I’m constantly amazed by the type of people we have and the types of things that they do to impact the world outside of work.”
  • Inclusive—“I think because we’re distributed, we have to be open to all kinds of different backgrounds, orientations, beliefs, and goals.”

“Your culture is really just the combination of all the things that occur … at your company,” Malone adds. “It’s the collective ethos of everybody that’s at your company.”

Malone is particularly proud of one recent initiative to contribute to that positive collective ethos.

“We have a program here called Healthy SmartBug,” he says, “and it comes from the idea that I have two little girls and as a parent, it’s my job to make sure that my kids are happy, healthy, safe, and resilient until they can do it on their own. And I think what we learned a long time ago is we should look at our company and our employees in the same way like a family you need to protect, nurture, and develop. So I will call a handful of people at the company every week and I will just say, ‘How can we make SmartBug healthier?’ It’s contagious and it has resulted in many incredible changes at SmartBug.”

Using the real-time feedback he receives, Malone can quickly and efficiently implement necessary adjustments to improve the health of the staff.

SCALING TEAMS & PROCESS

“The way that we structure our customer-facing teams,” Malone says, “is that we have a manager who owns the account along with one to two specialists who support that manager and work closely on a portfolio of accounts. We call this a pod. ”

A number of these SmartBug pods are part of larger teams that are managed by a director that ultimately rolls up to a client services leader.

“Each of these teams has their own kind of subculture,” Malone says of the nested teams. “And then those teams report up to a client services leader. So you have small groups that roll up into bigger groups, and as we get bigger and bigger, it’s really just a matter of adding an additional manager and specialist pair to unlock capacity. We found that is the best way to scale the people piece.”

To further explain how process is scaled, Malone uses an analogy familiar to anyone who has ever participated in track and field (or watched it during the Olympics).

“The people who win the relay race aren’t always the fastest,” Malone says. “[But] they’re the ones who hand off the baton the smoothest. We have invested really heavily in process to make sure that everything we do at SmartBug has a system, and every step has a definition of what needs to get done and how to determine whether it’s done. The person who gets an assignment has everything that they need to complete it with a high level of quality that yields result for their client.”

 ADVICE FOR LEADERS AND EMPLOYEES

“Look for opportunities to solve problems and make yourself indispensable. You will always have a chance to grow an account or close another deal,” Malone says. ”

“If you’re an agency and a customer comes to you and they have a number of problems to solve,” he says, “see if you [can] take the most painful one off their plate and solve it rather than trying to solve everything at once. You create a lot of trust with the client, and it reinforces the culture of the company because by focusing on a longer view of a customer relationship, you give your team the time to make the best decision for the client.”

Malone also reminds leaders and managers that if there are any concerns about a remote workforce’s productivity, there are easier ways to address those concerns than by attempting to micromanage everyone at once.

“The return on investment of being a micromanaging boss is near zero,” he says. “I am not saying you need to be silent, and you do need to set the direction, but where you need to spend your time is in making sure that your hiring process is really, really good, so that the person who made it through your hiring process is going to be amazing and you don’t have to worry about the rest of it. I shake my head at managers who think that because they are looking at someone in a cubicle that somehow that means they are working. If hire the right people and trust them, it doesn’t matter where they work; you know that they are doing your job.”

In conclusion, Malone sums up the appeal of SmartBug—and of a healthy workforce—this way:

“When you’re in an energetic, caring company that supports each other, you see the things that motivate other people, and you’re open to ideas,” he says. “And that naturally translates into a situation where you can empathize with customers’ opinions, and you can empathize with the pressure that they’re under to deliver for their respective companies. I think it takes a certain amount of maturity and self-awareness to look at a customer’s unique situation and put yourself in their shoes and truly understand that they have pressures on them. They have things that aren’t related to you. They have priorities that are assigned by somebody besides them, and you need to be respectful of that and deliver for them at the same time”

It’s that kind of openness that marks a great culture, remote or otherwise. Those looking to go fully remote in the future can learn a lot from SmartBug Media and the way Ryan Malone successfully reimagined how a marketing agency can succeed in the modern world.