Cameron Madill | From Candy Reseller to Employee-Owned Entrepreneur

John Corcoran 11:13

So you started the company around 2003. By 2009, you were doing about two-thirds custom software, about a third of websites. As you mentioned, your dad loves coding, you’re really good at computer science. And unfortunately, the phone stops ringing. And around the same time, you also decided that you were going to move away from the custom software because of changes in the model and the changes in the business market. At that time. So take us through how you came to all those realizations.

Cameron Madill 11:45

Yes, deep psychological pain. Yeah, I mean, 2009 was a really, you know, you know, painful, you know, kind of humiliating time for me and I think, but also really powerful. So I think I got clarity that my dad and I, as much as I love him and as smart and talented as he is, that we weren’t a good business partnership goes back to our core needs.

John Corcoran 12:09

A big age difference makes a big difference. Yeah, exactly.

Cameron Madill 12:12

Right. So for him upside at no appeal. And any risk was unacceptable because he had basically set himself up. So as I really came face to face with that, I was really terrified. We have a really close family that you know, we all know these families where it’s like, you know, oh, like the Johnsons. They’re so nice, how come they don’t talk to each other anymore? Oh, that’s right, that thing with money. So I was really nervous, but it just got bad enough that I felt like I had to have the conversation. And I had this intuitive realization that he really just wanted to be an employee, he didn’t want all the stress. He didn’t want to think about strategy. He didn’t want upside. He wanted predictable income. So you know, I approached him and you know, he’s an amazing person, he actually handled it really well just kind of thought about it and said yeah, I sort of figured this would happen someday and it was as smooth as can be. But it was really intense emotionally. 

There was a lot of fear around that. And then I think as I got through that, I just got to you know, I had my ego said You know, I should be on the cover of Ink Magazine, I should be leading a venture-funded capital you know, company but I as I really started kind of looking in the mirror being forced to from the circumstances I realized, well, you know, what, if you want to lead a venture-funded capital, like company moved to the Bay Area, join those circles, build that kind of company. And if you don’t, you have 10 people back there who are scared they’re counting on you to like, you know, bring in business and creative direction through this really scary economic climate and so I really kind of own my role. I think it was the first time I ever really understood the difference between leadership and management. And so I really started to own leading the team I had versus the team I thought I should have in my head. 

And part of that was realizing like, well, how can I be a leader if I’m not passionate about what we do and I just really did not like the custom software we were we were pretty darn good at it. We had a lot of talent, there’s a lot more to be good at the cost of working software than just being able to code but we’re able to code really hard things but just you know, the jokes and I feel like I have a lot of peers in this area. You know, someone comes to who’s got a bunch of money because they’re a trust fund kid or they sold their company and now they want to build an app you know, or they want to build Facebook for dog owners or whatever it is. And they were just all terrible ideas impossible to scope and just but you know big money temporarily, and so I just felt like this is like drugs we just like get off it and focus on websites which we can do in a really you know, consistent we can bound them we can consistently make the clients happy,

John Corcoran 14:49

more clear scope, more repetitive process and a good way.

Cameron Madill 14:53

Exactly build a process etc. So we’re just I’m just gonna go all in on that. I guess that was the first time I did this. You know? I’ll talk about the second time as well. But I just said, we’re gonna go all in on this and like, Damn the torpedoes. If we go down, you know, at least we’ll have learned something. And we’ll have done it like, you know, doing what I want to do versus what I’m, you know, basically acting out of like, maybe passion and conviction versus fear.

John Corcoran 15:18

Yeah. And your data actually kept on working for you. So after you dissolve the partnership, he continued working with you for another eight years after that. How was the relationship at that point when you’re

Cameron Madill 15:31

no longer partners? Yeah, it was really awesome. I mean, I think like I said, we’re a close family. He’s, uh, he’s just really like a gem of a human being. And I think it was a mostly younger company, people in their 20s and 30s. Instead of having this guy in his 60s there who is just coding in the back. Yeah, exactly, exactly. And he’s just, you know, he’s a funny guy. He’s a smart guy. He says some really quirky things. And he kind of has that like, a hat, I should say, at that time, that kind of like, end of career just didn’t really give a damn. 

So we’re all kind of like trying to be professional and growing in our careers. And he just was just himself. And I think he really was very influential on our culture. And I think we loved having him around. And he kind of went down to four days a week, and then three, and yeah, I just saw the photos the other day of his retirement party in 2017. Working with my dad for a decade was really unique and you know, always an experience, I’ll treasure. Now

John Corcoran 16:27

The next day, you mentioned some big pivots in the business. This sounds kind of a totally different direction. But you decided you wanted to become the Gallup of mid sized companies doing kind of heavy research projects on what’s driving success and failure with midsize companies. You are passionate about it. But it ended up ultimately kind of taking you in the wrong direction. So take us through that. Yeah,

Cameron Madill 16:51

Thanks for all these questions. John, you’re helping me to learn my own story better? Yeah, yeah. You know, I did all this work with the EO Entrepreneurs Organization and their accelerator program. So businesses to 50 to a million are trying to grow rapidly above a million. And of course, I had my own journey. And I really had a lot of likes, why is this so hard? You know, how does this work? And so much of the business stuff I was coming across was these huge companies. And it’s like, well, great, whatever, Coca-Cola markets this way, what does it have to do with like a 10-person web design company in Portland, Oregon, right. And you can go through all, you know, Southwest, airlines, Apple, whatever. And, and so my, my sort of idea was I had this partnership I built with E-Myth, the, the, you know, famous book and well known coach and got a copy of it over here. 

Yeah, I figured the audience. Yeah, I had done a podcast with them that kind of went viral. And so then I built a relationship with them. And then I just thought, you know, I want Good to Great, but for small companies, small and mid-sized companies. So we spent three years doing an annual survey. I think we had something like 800 companies a year. We filled it out with 60 different questions, detailed financials. And we really got in there with a couple friends of mine, who are PhDs and entrepreneurship to really dig into the data and be like, what are the things that lead to success and failure, I still hear from people to this day, who talked about how the learnings, you know, shaped their business or influenced their career change their life. 

But the problem was, by year three, it just became really clear that while we had a big following, and a lot of people showed up to the webinars and downloaded the report, if they really liked the material, which a lot of people did, and they liked me, they’d be like, I want to hire that guy to be my business coach or to consult, they wouldn’t say like, I want to hire you to do my website, like it. So it was it, you know, and it’s the kind of it was

John Corcoran 18:46

that the ultimate goal was to sell more websites, or is there another business model to it, like, the companies would buy the data or

Cameron Madill 18:54

something? I mean, personally, I think it was a better business model for E-Myth. But you know, that was that sort of their leadership team at the time. They, you know, ultimately, I think didn’t make it work enough for them either. But yeah, I think it was, you know, at a really basic level, there’s a lot of passion, but there was a mismatch between the product and the service on at least not, you know, pixels, folks, and got it

John Corcoran 19:17

got it because it didn’t lead people to even if they showed up for the webinars, or were following the work didn’t lead them to say,

Cameron Madill 19:23

Now build me a website. Yeah, I mean, why would you? You wouldn’t want Jim Collins to build you a website. You want him to come in and tell you what strategy so right

John Corcoran 19:33

it’s a totally, totally different direction. Yeah. Yeah. So and then you did have kind of an epiphany, which is when you got to be a corpse and got passionate about that. Tell people listening who don’t know what a B Corp is and how you found that community?

Cameron Madill 19:49

Yeah, so yeah, right around that time is that that sort of strategy was failing. A friend of mine actually through EO was They were the first certified B Corp in real estate, I think west of the Mississippi. And she just started telling me about it, and it sounded cool. And so I got invited to an event. And that was where I first learned about certified B Corp. So basically, sometimes it’s a little confusing. It’s a certification that’s kind of like Fairtrade, or you know, LEED for buildings. It’s a holistic certification of a business’s impact. So kind of their triple bottom line, like, you know, people planet profit, there’s different ways it’s discussed. But basically saying, in addition to the financial outcomes, this business is also committed to environmental and community outcomes, and you could have other buckets, workplaces, and so on. 

And it really just felt consonant with what I had always believed, you know, I just never was a believer in sort of the, you know, Wolf of Wall Street, you know, model of capitalism, it always felt to me like it was sort of, obviously harmful, like the idea that that free market, you know, taken to the extreme, naturally leads to ideal outcomes for all stakeholders just struck me as nonsensical. And so the idea, but then I also feel like there’s every business that wants to think they’re the good guys. And so the idea of a really rigorous framework, which they have, it’s a 200 plus question assessment, where you can actually really know you get a score, and it’s like, yeah, and none of us are good or bad. We’re all somewhere in the middle. And this allowed us to figure out where we benchmark it and get all these ideas for how to get better. 

And they also have a really amazing community around it. So I think that combination of a really rigorous certification and a really compelling community is unique. And that to me, we just felt like those are the people I had been looking for all along. And I don’t think, you know, I think if you don’t believe this, if you don’t have integrity behind this kind of way of doing business, of course, it won’t be a success. But I believe, if you do, it’s a really powerful strategy, to create kind of a flywheel effect between really deeply engaging all these stakeholders getting more engaged and more committed employees. I think we all know that, you know, most everyone who is buying their product is gonna buy you because you’re sort of a positive impact company. But if you’re in a tie, and it’s like, oh, these guys are doing all this good stuff for the world, or their workers or whatever, you’re probably going to choose the company that’s doing good for the world. So I, I just really felt like I’d found my home. And that was a place that we wanted to be forever. Yeah.

John Corcoran 22:38

Because you do hear people say that it is better for the bottom line. When you embrace these principles. When you think about it, I think people plan something else, probably something, you know, so Did you see that when you went into this community, when you got certified as a B Corp? When did you start? I don’t know, formalizing some of these processes to make sure that you are thinking about the planet and the people and all that kind of stuff. Do you see an impact in terms of business?

Cameron Madill 23:09

Yeah, I mean, it’s always hard. I mean, as you mentioned, I have a physics degree. So I’m by nature, pretty skeptical when someone is like, here’s the study, and you know, 60% of people, you know, use this toothpaste and their businesses are more profitable. It’s just, it’s easy. There’s so much data, and everyone is selling something. So that being said, I will sell what I believe in. Yeah, I think we immediately saw what it was, it’s kind of like if, you know, if someone says like, Hey, I went to MIT, you’re like, Whoa, I bet he or she is pretty damn smart. 

I don’t really know if that’s relevant to the current situation. But I bet you’re smart. And it’s kind of like this badge of integrity with regards to impact, that no amount of other things you do as a company. It’s just like a shortcut to that. And so where we saw the biggest impact, far and away was in recruiting, I think it helped with retention, that’s a little harder to measure for sure. But I mean, we immediately saw an uptick in the caliber of applicants.

John Corcoran 24:11

And because people wanted to work for a company that was really focused on on purpose.

Cameron Madill 24:16

Yep. And we heard this again and again, in interviews. So we knew it wasn’t just like, it wasn’t just like a coincidence, like, you know, like, really high quality candidates was because, right, most jobs, because who wants

John Corcoran 24:28

to work for a company? That’s just yeah, whatever. Yeah, yeah. So yeah,

Cameron Madill 24:32

That was huge. And I think if you’re committed to pursuing it with integrity, I think it’s a very powerful strategy. Cool.

John Corcoran 24:39

You end up selling your company to your employees in 2020. Now you didn’t leave right away, you end up serving a CEO role beyond that. I want to get into that. Also the pandemic hit in 2020. What order did those happen in? Was it something you were thinking about selling your company to your employees when the pandemic happened? Um, how did that come about? Well, we

Cameron Madill 25:02

also my wife and I had a child in May of 2020 to throw that into. Yeah, do it all at once. Um, I started thinking about it in 2017. And I met a guy actually at a B Corp conference who ran Blake Jones, the founder of Namaste, solar, a 200 plus person solar company in Colorado. And we were working together on these leadership projects. And I had heard him mention, you know, employee cooperative a couple times. And but I was like, what is that, you know, like, and so I just started chatting with them. And sort of like, when I found the Bitcoin community, I just was like, like, I want to do that. That just sounded right to me. So I got really excited about it. We, of course, then immediately had our worst year and a half a decade in 2018. 

And I just had to, like, put it on the shelf. Yeah. It was funny. Anyway, we ended the year in a really good position. But it’s like we made half of the profits for the entire year in December. It was like we were really weird. Anyway, So we should

John Corcoran 26:02

mention that somewhere around here. You also decided to focus on credit unions, too, as it Yeah,

Cameron Madill 26:07

yeah, exactly. So we lost over that. There’s kind of this theme of getting clear on where I want to go. And then just really committing until it succeeds or fails. I think a lot of times people don’t stick it out long enough. But yeah, you’ve heard some of these things failed, some of them didn’t. So credit unions, we in 2016, just went all in and said they were like, maybe 10% of our revenue, but we just felt like there was alignment, probably we were doing kind of our B Corp culture, and their cooperative values. 

And we just put 100% of our marketing efforts towards them. And it’s grown to the point where today, it’s like 95% of our revenue. So that was a key strategy, I think, to really get the business to be highly profitable and grow and consistently, you know, growing 20% a year. And, yeah, so out of this 2017 meeting, I just felt inspired by the worker ownership thing, but I put it on the shelf, at the end of 2018, I told my leadership team. And then at the beginning of 2019, at the company retreat, I told the whole company, this is where we’re going. 

And so we took the whole year kind of interviewing other employees at companies, lunch and learns, etc. We found some really good failure stories, too, because, like I said, everyone’s telling you something, but the failures are where you really learn. And so it was really, you know, quite intentional and planned. Looking back, of course, it’s hard not to smirk a little and say like, oh, you sold someone a company in January of 2020. 

But, you know, on the one hand, obviously, I had no idea there’s a pandemic coming. And two, I’m not sure we would have done it if we would have waited another year, right. Like I think the pandemic took so much out of everyone that I’m really grateful that we got through all that work. It probably made the first year harder. But we had, you know, we got through that big conversion. And it’s been really, really great for

John Corcoran 27:54

  1. Yeah. And so tell us a little bit about here’s Well, there’s there’s, we were talking beforehand about this, there are different models around employee owned companies, there’s an ESOP is employee owned copper cooperative, which is what you did an employee own trust. And, you know, what are some of the challenges around doing it? 

You know, when you share that with employees that anyone says, I’m out, I’m not interested in that, where there’s some people that you know, not everyone’s in a player, right? There’s some people who are like, I don’t want him owning part of the company, or others are like, I want to own part of this company, but I don’t want her to own part of the company. So take us through all those different challenges.

Cameron Madill 28:32

Well, that’d be a whole nother podcast, but I’ll try to get to some bullet points. Yeah, for sure. I mean, they, like, like so many things as a leader, right? There’s that moment of you putting all this work and you unveil something and then it’s like, really, this is the reaction, we get some for sure. There are a few people who are like, what’s the catch? And you know, is the company failing? Are you going to quit tomorrow? And it was like, come on, like, it was a good thing.

That’s a good thing. Like, oh, Lord. So you know, there was some of that.

We had gotten really rigorous about Topgrading, for sure. Not everyone’s a player, but also, we had a really damn good team. I will say one of the things I was really adamant about one of the big design decisions if you do cooperative, which is kind of the most participatory model of employee ownership, because you have a board and you have one member, one vote. So that’s really different from an ESOP, where there’s a trust that represents all the employees, but the employees don’t like voting on key strategic decisions. 

So I was really adamant that it had to be a three year qualification period before you could even apply to become a co owner, one of the members of the cooperative because my personal experience was that lots of people are amazing for one or two years, but until they’ve been at the company for three years or longer, and because Have over three years, you’re gonna have one big down in your life at least. And I think that’s the moment where you really learn. Is this a long term relationship or not? So that was something I was really adamant about. You asked about some of the key challenges. Yeah.

Unknown Speaker 30:14

Yeah, I

Cameron Madill 30:15

I think it’s, I guess, a couple things. I was really bummed at the end of 2020. It was a really hard year. You know, I took three months off for maternity leave COVID George Floyd’s murder, employee ownership conversion, I don’t know what else I’m forgetting. Oh, yeah, going all remote, probably the hardest thing of everything. And I called up that, that several mentors who had, you know, big, successful employees in cooperatives. And there were a few key things I took away from that, you know, one was this idea, probably a five year journey. And it was like, Oh, well, it’s your one of a five year journey, probably should feel kind of hard, you know, so that this is not a switch, you flip, and you’re done. 

The second one was the idea that it is really like five conversions in a worker in a cooperative that happen. There’s a legal one, which is self-evident, there’s a financial one. There’s an operational one, like you have to learn how to run board meetings. And it’s weird, because you’re kind of taking one hat off and putting another one on. There’s a cultural one. And that’s the one we really dropped the ball on, it is just a straight up different way of thinking and being. And I think that, you know, we should have spent the whole year investing in that. We ultimately spent a lot of 2021 in that. And then lastly, there’s kind of this last conversion where we’re at now, where anyone who was not an owner at pixel spoke, they only have ever known us as a worker cooperative. 

So there’s no old code in their mind. It’s just pixels spoken as a worker cooperative. They don’t know anything different. And I think that’s kind of that integration phase. So I think just, those were a lot of the bumps we had along the way as I wasn’t thinking about all five of those areas, I was probably too focused on the legal and the financial conversion, which is obviously really important. But it’s not, not, not the whole thing.

John Corcoran 32:01

And you continue to serve as CEO, even after this process has been initiated, I think, even after the transaction has been completed, is that correct?

Cameron Madill 32:10

Yeah, you know, this is part of why I did this, too, as I just had, I had met enough. And with all due love to marketing agency owners in their 60s, I’ve met enough marketing agency owners in their 60s, who just seemed really burnt out and misanthropic. And I just felt like, I was like, I don’t want to be in my 60s and running this company, as the sole owner, I just, I didn’t think I had it in me. I wanted to change the ownership while I still had the energy to do it really well. So I wasn’t burnt out when I sold. And the plan was always that I didn’t have an exact number. But you know, three to five years was kind of what I was targeting. 

And, you know, this is my life’s work, right? I’ve put 20 years of my life into that company 16 At the time of the sale, and I wanted to do everything I could to ensure that they’re just going to absolutely thrive. And, you know, kind of our big dream is to be a case study in, you know, both the employee ownership and the B Corp space. And I think we have, you know, we have succeeded in many ways. But if only if we stay a thriving business, will we continue to be a case study? Otherwise, we were just kind of an interesting moment in time. And that yeah, that’s kind of our big, our big why’s to inspire more companies to do these sorts of things. Yeah.

John Corcoran 33:25

Now what I’m moving on to what you’re focusing on now, you’re kind of building the next chapter around this couple of work working with entrepreneurial couples. What drew you to that?

Cameron Madill 33:38

Yeah, so the, you know, the short version is I was in my early 30s, I had a relationship that was failing, I was known as the guy who had read any book, any book, you reference I’ve read, you know, like many books, I’ve read, probably four or 500, business books. So many of them, I probably have brain damage from it all. So many of them are just awful, awful literature, if we can even call them that. And I had this relationship that was failing, it was a couple years, you know, that we’d been together. And I looked in the mirror, and I just maybe figured it was figured out if I couldn’t, if I actually looked in the mirror, but I had this moment where it was like, I have never read a book on relationships. 

I haven’t even read a blog post on relationships. Like, what the hell right? Like, if this is, if you know, this is like, if I say I’m looking for someone to spend the rest of my life with, why would I read zero? Even if I’m not, just with my level of intellectual curiosity, I should have read at least one book, right? So that kind of sent me down the path. I think it was too late to save that relationship. But I read probably half a dozen books and you know, probably very poorly self administered some of their techniques. And then I did kind of a, you know, a deeper dive after the breakup. And that was when I found the Gottman method, which for anyone who doesn’t know it’s the most evidence-based method for a couple to either do kind of, you know, therapy for severely distressed couples. But what’s really cool is coaching and improvement for couples that are average or good or mediocre, but they want to be better and it’s just got this unbelievable evidence based background, and then these incredible tools. 

So I’ve, my wife and I have used it from, you know, probably early on in our relationship. So that was kind of my passion for that world. And then this last summer, I had this insight that I had started leading these couples workshops, and some of my friends were like, hey, we want to come, because you and your wife both have your own companies, and the way you navigate that, and marriage, and parenthood is inspiring their words, not mine, I would not call us inspiring. But you know, it’s kind of that realization that Oh, like, that’s kind of the intersection of my passion for couples work. 

And this Gottman method, and then my lived experience of like, I think we entrepreneurs bring a lot of really good things. And I think we bring a lot of challenges to a romantic relationship. So that’s why I came up with this idea to interview 100 couples, where one or both of them are entrepreneurs. And it’s a little more of a qualitative research project than the previous one I told you about. But it’s been utterly fascinating to kind of break it down into four types. And you can see these kinds of strengths and weaknesses that each has. And then kind of what are key tools and opportunities to strengthen those different relationships?

John Corcoran 36:10

And are these interviews going into a book or a podcast or these more research interviews? Yeah,

Cameron Madill 36:16

I mean, you know, since I literally wrapped up my last job, December 20. I haven’t made as much product as I would have liked. But I’ve done a little under half of those 100 interviews, we are planning on launching a podcast called The entrepreneurial couple podcast. And I would like to turn it into a book. That’s the intention. But I imagine that’s more of like an early 2025 thing just given, you know, kind of where I’m at with all the other projects in my life. Cool.

John Corcoran 36:44

All right, good. That’s great. And I look forward to seeing that when you guys, when you put that out. I want to wrap up with the last question I always ask, which is my gratitude question. I’m a big fan of expressing gratitude, especially for those who’ve helped you along the way in your journey. And I’d love to hear you’ve mentioned your father, you’ve mentioned others here. But who would you want to shout out? And thanks for being there with you and kind of helping you in your journey?

Cameron Madill 37:11

Yeah, I mean, it’s a hard question. Because I think as we all know that the list of people who have helped me is so long, I couldn’t even Yeah, it’s like, feel like it would fill multiple books. But the the person who just springs into my mind, I think he’s actually still our attorney. It’s this guy, Joe Durkee. He’s an attorney in Portland, Oregon. Really nice, funny guy. And I’d gotten introduced to him by a friend, sort of randomly. And we agreed to meet for lunch. And he had some questions about SEO for his law firm. And you know, I just always sort of like, Sure, let’s meet up. So we got together for lunch. And you know, I’m generally a believer, when someone asks you how you’re doing that you either tell them you’re doing well, or you lie that nobody’s asking that question to hear all of your problems. But I was honestly so low, this was like March 2009. 

I just kind of said, Honestly, man, I’m falling apart. And I just sort of spilled my guts to him. And part of what was going on at that point was our single biggest client had stopped paying, and it started threatening us and kind of threatening legal action. And it kind of just blew my mind that I just sort of think I’m like, not the kind of person who would ever get sued. Maybe that’s hubris, but I think I’m sort of like a, you know, like a squeaky clean guy, at least that’s what I try for. And it was just devastating on every level, because we needed the money. And I think like, ethically, morally, I just sort of like my identity was breaking. 

And the more I told him about it, the more I kind of wound up. And he said, This is why I got into law in the first place. So you know, big guys can’t beat up on little guys just because they’ve got more money and power. And he basically wrapped up the Pro Bowl he did, he represented us pro bono and the entire case, it’s the only time we’ve ever had, you know, any remotely legal thing in the business ever went to trial or anything like that. It just ended up being kind of like a nasty gram sent back and forth. 

But he basically just was the forcefield between me in this very aggressive company. And kind of like put them in their place and just said, like, you got to pay for the work that’s been done. And, you know, you’re you’re free to go you’re free to move on if you’ve done that, but you can’t just, you know, beat someone up because they’re smaller than you and and he just he refused all kinds like no matter what I did, he refused any kind of payment so I finally made like a donation in his name to some group but I just am utterly grateful for the you know, kind of like the the vote of confidence in who I am as a person and the willingness to do that. I, you know, said it probably wasn’t that hard for him, but it just meant the world to me that someone believed in me. I mean, for sure. One of the darkest lowest points of my life. Yeah,

John Corcoran 39:48

Well, I am a recovering lawyer and I can say he is a unicorn, because that is unusual. You don’t hear that very often. Yeah, the lawyer just does it all pro bono. So hopefully there’s a great Get a camera and this is great. Where can people go to learn more about you and connect with you?

Cameron Madill 40:03

Yeah, my, my somewhat primitive website is It’s got information about the couple’s work I’ve been doing and the employee ownership work I’ve been doing and then of course, you can find my, I guess, you know, I still have some ownership in it. But my company I founded at, they’re a really amazing bunch as well. Cameron, thanks so much.

Cameron Madill 40:29

Thanks, John. Really appreciate you having me.

Outro 40:34

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