Ben Cash | [Top Agency Series] From Struggling Musician to Thriving Agency Owner

Ben Cash 9:12

Yeah, there were others that were doing the same thing. I think one thing that’s always been interesting about this industry because it’s so new, and we’re all figuring it out, is there are no established mentors in this field. You don’t like music, you ghosted, like in San Francisco, I studied with Mark Lawrence, who was at the time the principal promoter of the San Francisco stuff, like that guy was a mentor. He was amazing, right? But in the digital world, this is all new. There’s no guy who’s been doing this for 30 years, and it’s gonna teach you the ropes and also how to run a business and those things. So we all had to figure it out together. And so I had, you know, people that would outsource things to or collaborate on projects with and we share ideas and things. Frankly, a lot of it was just figuring it out yourself. 

John Corcoran 9:56

At what point did it become a business at what point did it grow beyond you designing websites for clients?

Ben Cash 10:04

I mean, that’s a business. Right?

John Corcoran 10:06

I will say, Sure. And many people are happy with that. There’s nothing wrong with that. Sure.

Ben Cash 10:11

I mean, yeah, I actually think of those the good old days, right? It was pretty simple payroll was myself, there was no overhead, I was the overhead. So, but at a certain point, I had enough clients that I was just pulling my hair out to stay afloat. And I had to partner with some folks, I started outsourcing a few things, narrowing my skills more towards the front of the business in less than the deployment side, and ended up working collaborating with a developer who was also a trombone player, ironically, which is where we met not in my first employees were musicians, because they just had that musicians are curious, right? So they learn this new stuff. And we ended up working on a number of projects, building a lot of great software and other things together. And there’s a certain point where, like, should we partner up and do this thing, and we partnered with 5050. And from that point on, sort of, you know, grew and sort of doing marketing and hiring employees. And, you know, it was a business at that point, and all the trappings

John Corcoran 11:11

And what was the business called with that boy?

Ben Cash 11:14

Blue key.

John Corcoran 11:15

Blue key, okay, and what did you, you know, how did you grow it? What did you know how big I know, eventually, you have a merger in 2018. And we’ll get to that. But before we get to that, you know, how sizable did this business get, you know, was a big

Ben Cash 11:31

team. For me, being a musician and being about the work, I didn’t have a business growth mindset, I just liked doing the work and making clients happy. So that’s really, by keeping clients happy, and just loving the work, when you put good work out. That’s how we grew. But it was more of a lifestyle business, I think a lot of agencies are this way, one of the founders of agencies just loves the work, they love the industry. It’s a lifestyle thing, right? So we’re very comfortable with that for a while, and when most we got up to at that point was, you know, 20 people a couple million in revenue. You know, and I never had any kind of desire to grow a lot bigger. And at a certain point, I wanted to really lean in, maybe it was a sort of a second kick or a second career change, if you will, after, you know, rather than being in the business, I’m gonna work on the business, no cliche, but it’s, but it was, it was true. And I had to learn how to pull myself out of the business, and trust my colleagues more. And think about what’s next, get out in front of the business. And I started going to the Bureau of Digital events, I hit that was a whole talk about mentors. I mean, that like that was a whole new community of people who were transparent and sharing ideas and what they tried and whatnot. And so it was great to meet that Canadian and change the game for me, learning the things to sort of be a better leader, better agency, owner, and, and partner. And then starting to have more of a vision, setting goals, etc, rather than just lifestyle. And one of the things that came out of that was all the different speaking, I was doing and sort of like getting out and about and meeting people. I met my now partners, Sean and Keith, who were running an agency up in Canada. And you know that that was a big growth step. And now we’re over 50 people, and, you know, want to get into more risk averse projects. 

John Corcoran 13:38

I want to get into the why behind that. But first of all, I do you know, you started around 2000. So probably the dotcom meltdown. 2001 probably wasn’t as much of an impact to you. But by 2007-2008, the whole financial meltdown, I imagine you’ve grown to a size by that point. How did that affect you?

Ben Cash 13:57

Actually, oddly enough, it didn’t affect us at all. I remember talking to a lot of people in the tech industry at the time, who were with software companies, startups, non agencies, you know, etc. And they were, they were getting laid off. They were having issues funding was a problem. We were helping small businesses get on the internet. We were helping them to increase their traffic on Google, we were , you know, doing things that every small business needs. We weren’t reinventing the interwebs with some sort of new startup that had no foundation or real business idea, or a profit plan, right, which is a lot of the stuff there but just you had an idea and a good pitch and you could get some funding, but we were just helping small businesses do business better and that really, that was in demand. All the time. I think maybe there was a bit of a slowdown at that time that affected for like one month my partner I took like 15% off our salary And then the next month we stopped, we were fine. But we were very lucky in that respect that we applied.

John Corcoran 15:07

By the time you get to the merger in 2018, I don’t think your partner is still around anymore. Is that right? Well, what did you do? You went separate ways. And how did that happen? Yeah. So

Ben Cash 15:16

musicians, right, he ended up becoming the executive director of the Charleston Symphony. And because he had been playing with them, he was also like a trombone player. And really turned that organization around. And that became his new passion. And he went through some different orchestras. And now he is, I think, the general manager of the Kansas City Symphony, a really great guy, and was a great partner, but he just took a different path. And, you know, I had to kind of figure out, you know, all the skills that he had to get better at books and the left brain stuff. Because I couldn’t lean on it anymore. And I think, in retrospect, that was really great, made me a better, better CEO, because I had to learn, not just be the creative people, person’s sort of, you know, right brain guy, but the left brain, you know, the books and the development and all those things. 

John Corcoran 16:11

So yeah. And so, around 2017 2018, I guess is when you meet Keith and Sean, at a Bureau of Digital event, and were you thinking about merging with another company at that point, or what, what inspired it

Ben Cash 16:26

or change it over the years, I mean, there were a few agencies that I, you know, entertained the notion with, you know, a huge agency out of Chicago that approached us about buying our agency, but it just never felt right. And it just felt right, you know, partnering, partnering with people, it’s like a marriage, you know, aside from the market advantage, or the, you know, the stuff on paper, you just got to really trust them, because they gum fundamentally like them. And I saw Sean, and he’s actually at a number of different conferences, in addition to the Bureau of Digital, and, you know, I’m taking a shot to the airport at one point in the long conversations we had beers with Keith. You know, I mean, it was, it was an overtime, and it was, so it’s like a, it’s like a marriage to me.

John Corcoran 17:18

Yeah. So it sounds like you kind of figured out whether it’d be a good fit first, isn’t it? Would you? Is it fair to say that it was more of a personal fit, you figured that out first, and then later figured out whether it was a business fit? Or was there also a business component to where you figured out, these guys would be a great fit? Okay,

Ben Cash 17:37

I’m a little of both, because, you know, we were also built on the same platform, which is one of the ways that we had met each other. So there were some commonalities there. We all had a similar vision for the kind of agency we wanted to build when we grew up, and thought we could do it better together. But for me, it’s just fundamentally until I’d really trusted someone and can see making tough decisions with them being in the trenches, because agency life is not for everybody. A lot of ebbs and flows of that there’s, you know, it’s a tough nut to crack. And so you really need to trust the people that you’re going to be in the trench with. And I trust those guys. Yeah, right.

John Corcoran 18:17

Now, anytime you have a merger of a couple companies, there’s challenges, right? You know, yeah, taking two different cultures, and figuring out what the culture is going to be for the new organization, slps processes, figuring out how to merge those together, you got two different companies on different sides of a border. So talk a little bit about those challenges that you experienced, once you merge the

Ben Cash 18:41

companies together. I don’t think this podcast is long enough to unpack all that. You know, I think we went in with rose rose colored glasses, because we do the sort of SWOT analysis, and we’d like, love these couple quadrants here, and like, oh, we’re gonna be fine, right. And I think I even recall a deck that we made with just some flat out ignorant things. We were saying to our employees, when we, when we unveiled the merger and stuff, you know, let’s, you know, hindsight, as it were, what, what were some of those things? I mean, you know, we’re like, no one’s gonna lose their job. You know, and I was like, it’s good. We thought people were gonna be scared when we announced this, right? This is going to be awkward once you know how they’re going to react. And we just want to like them a little bit. You know, what our intention was, man, we love all of our team. They’re all valuable to us, and we want to keep all our colleagues. But the reality of it is that some people are going to be on board with this. And you might have to make some decisions to make the new entity work that are in alignment. And so you can’t promise that that it’s going to be rose colored glasses and, so we had some turnover. We had two people who were not on board with what we were doing and we wrestled with that for a while. But, you know, I think it was merged. two companies with two cultures, two sets of processes, different customer bases, you know, different way of decision making and, and effecting change. It’s wow it’s it’s, it’s intense.

John Corcoran 20:19

So you would have done differently now if you go back if you go back to before the merger, the anything you would have done differently or thought about

Ben Cash 20:28

Oh, so many things, I think, not trying to change so much so fast. Rely on external people who had done this before. I think we thought, Well, look, we do complex things. This is we’re strategic, we can solve this, we can do this, we can figure this all out. But there are people out there who’ve done this before, whose business is helping people merge or you know, that as a new strategy, we should have relied on other people rather than trying to figure it out. I mean, there were fun aspects to it. Right was another element. addicted to projects. Like it was, it was cool, it was fun. But it just wasn’t, it wasn’t wasn’t very efficient and productive. And it sort of went backwards for a while as we figured our shit out. Mm hmm. 

John Corcoran 21:19

You know, it’s funny, we were joking before the recording here that in 2018 you did the merger and then just in sequence, you had a couple challenging years. You also had kids, you had twins in this period of time. So you got the family stuff going on at the same time? 2019 you decide to rebrand if appropriate deception are.

John Corcoran 21:43

You did you change the names of the company into one name, to Reason One, why?

Ben Cash 21:47

Yes. So one of the stipulations I had in merger conversations was that we were going to rebrand and set a new course, that would unify both companies so that we no longer had these legacy things that we kind of felt like we had some allegiance to etc. And we did that. And a lot of that was very cerebral in our market positioning. And, and here’s the industries and verticals that we overlap, and all these kinds of things. And it worked to some extent, but it wasn’t a compelling reason to get a bed for everybody. It wasn’t something bigger than themselves. So, you know, I had some great colleagues around us who like we’re pushing Sean and a decent idea kind of, you know, guys, this is not sharpened up. And we, you know, I think before our mindset was we’re gonna dress for the job that we want, right. And then we sort of changed a little bit and sort of what’s what’s our, in our shared DNA, right. And that changed my thinking. And we realized that, you know, nonprofits, healthcare organizations, businesses that use their businesses for good, that’s really our passion. But we also have a lot of great people who care about the world around them. And so we serve in essence, we want to be an agency that helps those who do good, do better. So we saw two ways that we were going to make an impact because personally, I was like you say busy raising twins with my wife You know, running a business just so busy I saw all these things happening out in the world and in community and politics and whatnot, and I just didn’t have the time to get involved so I thought what’s the one thing I have one vehicle I have that can making a difference and it’s the business so so this notion of ripple effect through working with purpose driven clients, that by helping them we can and focusing on them we can make an impact but also that we have these 50 odd people that they themselves can make a difference and we actually went down the B Corp path if you’re not familiar with,, a really global movement to use business as a force for good and that was also a path where we wanted to not just do the clients that they’re the only ones doing good we wanted to as a business to do good and you know big more run our business more with a triple bottom line you know yeah profit people in planet

John Corcoran 24:15

Now give me an example where push came to shove You know, I’ve talked to people before who say that you know, they we work with clients that you know, help people do better or nonprofits or businesses that are for good Have you ever had a client come to you where were you guys had to say now we can’t do this

Ben Cash 24:34

all that all the time? Yeah. And the more you do it, the easier it gets?

John Corcoran 24:38

Give me a hard case where you know you’re kinda like on the I mean, it’s easy to say like the NRA came to us we don’t want to do that or something, you know, where you just disagree, right? But give me a hard case where you weren’t sure.

Ben Cash 24:53

I’ll give you one where the sort of, you know, money hit the road as it were. So we had a new Not a client, not gonna have their global brand not gonna, you know, call them out or things like that, but they’re they’re okay clients, you know, like any big corporation, kind of messy, you know, leadership and decision making, and they were just kind of hard to collaborate with them. But they weren’t, they weren’t offensive, they weren’t doing things that were like, Oh my God, that’s, you know, yeah, like in our like an array. Yeah, a pourraient. But, it was a million dollars, right? And we’re like, Well, you know, they’re kind of our benefactor, they’re going to help us transition to a more purpose driven clients over time, there’s certain point we just don’t, this is just not us, the more our team has to spend energy and investments and all these things to this client, the more they’re not doing it with the clients that matter. And so we fired a million dollar client, to allow us to focus on those things. 

John Corcoran 25:54

And the irony was there were some breaking points. What was the reason that you decided to fire them?

Ben Cash 26:00

Well, we actually have a little more cash and profit than we had, and we realized, if there was ever a time to do it, we’ve got some buffer now. Because we were a little more lean, and then during the pandemic, and you know,

John Corcoran 26:12

but without identifying them, or what they do, is there something that they did other than messy leadership that caused you to say, you know, we want more purpose driven companies, and this is not it, I think

Ben Cash 26:24

it’s, it’s, it’s one of the same if, you know, if your energy needs to be focused on your ideal client, whether the client you’re, you’re actually focusing on is a boring, or just mediocre, yeah, it doesn’t matter, it’s still pulling you away from where your focus should be, and leaning into those great clients. So the irony of the situation was that, because our heart wasn’t in it, they actually had a similar mindset, they had a different direction they wanted to go. So we, you know, our team got together and like, how we’re gonna have this conversation like, God, this is gonna be awkward, you know, we’re going to give them six months, we’re going to do a whole runway and, and we’ve prepared this conversation, or, you know, as managers, you know, lead this conversation and they kind of go, yeah, we’re, we were kind of going to have this conversation at some point where, like, How awesome is that? Right, like, so if you don’t do it, they’re going to do it for you at some point as amicable divorce, amicable? amicable? Divorce? Yeah. 

John Corcoran 27:17

Yeah. I know, you like to talk about embracing change. And, you know, the last few years have been a lot of change that, you know, you go into the pandemic, what was the pandemic like for you? And how did it accelerate change for your company?

Ben Cash 27:35

Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to minimize the, the

tragedies, and everything that occurred in a pandemic, it’s been tough for everybody, colleagues, and family and everybody. But if there’s all you know, there’s a silver lining, right. And I think for any big change event, anything like that, it creates constraints. And I, I’ve always been a fan of constraints, because they, they force your hand, they force decisions, they, you know, make you a little more binary, and to what you value and what you don’t value, you know, you might value this, even over this. And it forced us to really think about that, and a lot of different ways. You know, I think it forced us to create a better culture. Before we were more of a hybrid agency, we had an office in Toronto, and one in Charleston. And even though our teams were working cross border, you still when you when you, you know, hung out or bonded or you know, pretty relationships are typically in that physical office. And so you had these siloed cultures, this sort of hybrid approach. And it just, it just created for weird, weird culture. It’s not as effective. And the pandemic forced us to actually be remote, fully remote, not hybrid, but fully remote. And through that process, and really learning how to do it. We had to reinvent how we come together, you know, what are we shooting, how our culture works. And it forced us to be more intentional. And as a result of that, we decided, you know, what we, we don’t need to be, we don’t need to have offices Actually, I had an office building in Charleston sold the building. We’re trying to solve problems with our office and we’ve gone fully remote and it has brought us together in a much more democratic way than we’d ever, ever thought it would be our culture. And I would say hopefully, not because I’ve turned here our team feels closer together and that we’ve been more like Reason One than we do. The old companies,

John Corcoran 29:48

right now, it wasn’t all easy because you did have to do a round of layoffs during the pandemic. What was that for you like, like for you personally? 

Ben Cash 29:56

It was tough. We did one, a small one, we got maybe five or six employees early on, right away. Just because we felt like, let’s get ahead of this. We, you know, leadership also took a pay cut or think 10-15% like that. And we were lucky in that a lot of our clients in the industries that we work in we’re, we’re still the contracts were still there. I mean, I will say, from a growth standpoint, if you know, it was, it was a little harder, because we had just closed some really, really big engagements. And they all put everything on hold. But we came in. All right, that’s great.

John Corcoran 30:48

And talk a little bit about some of the opportunities that you were able to pursue as a result of the pandemic,

Ben Cash 30:54

I think the culture shift was important. We also, you know, I think networking was one of our big ways that we got clients, you know, we would go to conferences, we would meet up with people, you know, we’re not a volume business, we were trying to find those ideal clients. And that’s often just human interaction. And we had to learn how to be more virtual, be more effective at virtual events, create connections, or wherever our marketing manager had a phenomenal idea. We went to a copper healthcare conference that was going virtual. And we reached out to the organizers, and said, we’d really love to create an event. And we, we knew the folks at one hope line, which is actually a phenomenal purpose driven organization that they have you buy their wine and you there’s a pause, phenomenal wine, check them out OneHope winery, but we held a virtual wine tasting, the OneHope wine sent wine things to all of the attendees, we got on, they took us through a virtual tour of the winery took the laptop there, and we drank wine for like an hour or two. And it was wonderful. And we’ve never done anything like that if we weren’t forced to figure out how to come together, you know, virtually, and I think those same things, the same ideas and tactics and things are ways that we’re trying to create connections, because our clients are all over North America. You know, while we have offices, we don’t do a lot of business. The majority of our business is spread out across North America. So we’ve got to figure out ways to come together and connect with that. I think that was a real opportunity. With that, I wish I’d invested in Zoom before the pandemic started.

John Corcoran 32:46

Yes, they’ve done certainly well, really well. Well, I want to wrap things up with a question that I always enjoy asking, which is, you know, I’m a big fan of gratitude and expressing gratitude, especially to those who’ve been important to you. If you look around at your peers and contemporaries, you know, people who you respect and admire, who would you want to acknowledge,

Ben Cash 33:08

I think first, I mean, obviously, we knew the shop family, but I think the peers that are most, you know, are just appearances I work with every day. They are always coming to the table with new and better ways to do things holding us accountable in the way that we run the business. trying new things, just nothing has to be better leaders in humans. So just the people that I get to work with, I still talk about gratitude, I feel really lucky to get to work with them every day. And then I think they’re the bureau community and communities like that. I also recently joined a unit called kindred, which involves a lot of purpose driven brands and organizations trying to use their business as a force for good. And that is this industry, both the economy industry and is related to industry. All want to do better, and are just so forthcoming. So there’s so many agencies, and you know, again, thanks to Carl for, you know, helping to be a good facilitator for that. So I don’t have any one specific thing, like I said, I think you know, back in the musician days, you had a teacher that was like, so and so, you know, Arnold Jacobs from triggers for the Chicago Symphony, but now I think it’s just a collective it’s a community of agencies and organizations. helping each other out, clearly. And the

John Corcoran 34:43

Reason One is the name of the agency, where can people go to connect with you and learn more about you? 

Ben Cash 34:50

Yeah, sure. Yeah, no worries. Yeah, that’s, that’s our website. We’re on social media and Twitter and LinkedIn as well.

John Corcoran 35:07

Alright Ben, thanks so much. Thank you.

Outro 35:10

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