Lael Sturm | Dot Com Early Mover – from CNET to MTV to Emerging Social Media Leader

Lael Sturm is the Founder of Long Place Strategic Solutions (LPSS). He founded the company in October of 2001 and delivers sustainable growth strategies and tactics for businesses of all sizes. They use tools such as social media search, content, marketing, blogs, and newsletters, and all kinds of other resources and customized plans based on the goals of their clients’ businesses. 

Lael is also a Partner at Linus Capital Management. He earned his MBA from Columbia Business School and his BA in Media Arts from the University of Arizona.

John Corcoran, host of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, is joined by Lael Sturm, the Founder of LPSS, to talk about Lael‘s entrepreneurial journey after working for MTV and CNET. They also discuss the effects of the 9/11 tragedy and COVID-19 pandemic on businesses, and how Lael uses social media to drive business for his own company and as well as his clients’ businesses.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • Lael Sturm talks about working at MTV and starting his business right after 9/11.
  • Lael shares what it’s like to work at CNET and at Interscope Records.
  • How Lael’s entrepreneurial family influenced him and how he got started his entrepreneurial career as a child.
  • What drove Lael to start using social media in his company,  Long Place Strategic Solutions (LPSS), to help drive his and his clients’ businesses.
  • The lessons Lael has learned from the effects of the pandemic and economic downturn on businesses.
  • The people Lael admires and respects in his industry and those he acknowledges for his achievements and success.

Resources Mentioned:

Sponsor: Rise25

Today’s episode is sponsored by Rise25 Media, where our mission is to connect you with your best referral partners, clients, and strategic partners. We do this through our done for you business podcast solution and content marketing. 

Along with my business partner Dr. Jeremy Weisz, we have over 18 years of experience with B2B podcasting, which is one of the best things you can do for your business and you personally. 

If you do it right, a podcast is like a “Swiss Army Knife” – it is a tool that accomplishes many things at once. It can and will lead to great ROI, great clients, referrals, strategic partnerships, and more. It is networking and business development; and it is personal and professional development which doubles as content marketing

A podcast is the highest and best use of your time and will save you time by connecting you to higher caliber people to uplevel your network. 

To learn more, go to Rise25.com or email us at [email protected]

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Episode Transcript

Intro  0:14  

Welcome to the revolution, the Smart Business Revolution Podcast where we ask today’s most successful entrepreneurs to share the tools and strategies they use to build relationships and connections to grow their revenue. Now, your host for the revolution, John Corcoran.

 

John Corcoran  0:40  

All right. Welcome everyone. John Corcoran here. I’m the host of this show. And you know my story, I’m a recovering political hack and a recovering lawyer. I spent many years working in politics including as a speechwriter with stints working in the Clinton White House and for California Governor, I spent years practicing law in Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area. And 10 years ago, I discovered this medium what we’re doing right now recording a podcast. I’ve been doing it ever since. And over 10 years of hosting this show. If you go back into my catalogue, you see all the amazing conversations I’ve been able to have with top CEOs, founders, entrepreneurs, all kinds of different companies ranging from YPO, EO, Activision Blizzard, Lending Tree, Open Table, and many more. I’m also the co-founder of Rise25, where we help b2b businesses with the strategy and production they need, create a podcast that produces tremendous ROI and connects them with their ideal prospects and referral partners. 

And before introducing today’s guest, I want to give a big thank you and a shout out to Paige Buck and Maggie Kennedy as well, the two co-owners of Kennedy Events based in San Francisco. They are members of EO San Francisco, and Paige is the incoming head of the EO Accelerator Program which has had a big impact on my business and I also know on our guests business as well and that’s how we originally connected but my guest today who is Lael Sturm. Lael is the founder of LPSS, which stands for Long Place Strategic Solutions. He founded it back in October of 2001. So coming up on 20 years, and they deliver sustainable growth strategies and tactics for businesses of all sizes. They use tools, including social media search, content, marketing, blogs, and newsletters, and all kinds of other resources and customized plans based on a business’s goals. He has his MBA from Columbia Business School, and lives not too far from me in Mill Valley, California, with his two kids.

 

Before we launch in this episode, though, I first want to say that this episode is brought to you by Rise25 Media where we help b2b businesses to get clients referrals and strategic partnerships with done few podcasts and content marketing. We specialize in helping b2b businesses with the high client lifetime value. So to learn more go to rise25media.com. All right, Lael, I’m excited to talk to you. And now take me back to the start of this business. And then I want to go back even further into the beginning of your journey into entrepreneurship. But take me back to October 2001. It’s right after 9/11. And you start a business. And I think that’s such a crazy time, which in many ways, there’s parallels to what we’re going through now in November of 2020, in the midst of a global economic shutdown, but what was that like finding a founding and starting a company right after 9/11.

 

Lael Sturm  3:16  

So it was, it was an interesting time to be alive, to be sure. It was only sort of related to 9/11. What happened was at the time, I was working for MTV, running promotions over there for the digital group. And they sent me to business school, and my first day of business school was September 10 2001. So the day before 9/11. And in the aftermath of 9/11. There was an economic crisis, and it had a massive impact on the media space. Most people don’t even realize this, but because of the 24 hour news coverage dedicated to the events of that day, there were millions 10s of millions of dollars in lost ad revenue that had to be made good and there’s only so much ad inventory. So all of the media companies had to shuffle, including MTV. And, my group was eliminated. So I found myself without work. And you know, thankfully they had sent me to business school. But while I was in business school, I was scrambling to figure out what to do. And at the time, most of the people in business school were bankers or big firm consultants. I was one of the few people that had any internet experience that had any media experience and had any marketing experience. So over beers, people were pitching their startup ideas to me, and I was giving them feedback. Oh, yeah, I saw something like this in San Francisco in 1998. Or, yeah, that, you know, hit something like this is a great idea. Here’s who you need to talk to, or, you know, here, here are the software providers that you should get in touch with in order to develop partnerships or whatever. So it was very casual and those casual conversations led to paid consulting when some of these companies actually raised capital or actually launched and had Bible businesses and and, and from there I grew it into a consultancy where I was working with mostly tech companies but but other startups as well. And when I returned to the Bay Area, obviously, there was another wave of technology startups to support. And that was the genesis of this business.

 

John Corcoran  5:29  

Wow. And you actually even earlier than MTV, you worked for CNET. early on, I remember reading CNET back in probably lead for 99 2000. Probably around the time I started reading them, maybe 98. I always loved the content that they put out. But what was it like working for CNET, because I actually can’t remember the name of the person but I know interviewed someone else who was a senior who’s at CNET in the 90s have to look and see if I can figure out who it was. But what was it like working at that early web property, which was kind of a groundbreaking web property at the time,

 

Lael Sturm  6:03  

it was a lot of fun. So I was there. You know, before, before you were reading it, I was there in the mid 90s. Scene, it was a brand new thing. It was actually primarily a television studio, they were producing a television show. That was picked up by a couple of cable channels. And then and then the web business was kind of bolted on to the side. And it was great. I mean, San Francisco in the mid 90s, in the early internet boom was like 1930s Hollywood, it was, you know, everything was brand new, everybody was excited to be a part of it. There were only a handful of companies at the time. So everybody knew each other, we all went to the same parties together. It was just a really, really great time. And I’m still friends with a lot of a lot of the CNET alumni and the people that I came through through the organization with and and you know, to your point, they’ve all gone on to start their own things and get involved in different projects. And CNET alumni are everywhere.

 

John Corcoran  7:07  

That’s really cool. And then Interscope Records. So you’re working for a record company after that. So after seeing that, but doing online marketing, that was an interesting time period, because you know, you have Napster they came along, you have a lot of distrust for, you know, online music distribution. It’s a record, you know, it’s an industry that was kind of experiencing disruption, what was that experience at that time like?

 

Lael Sturm  7:40  

So that was an interesting time to be in that business. You know, people definitely focus on the disruption, but the fact is that the music industry is not that old, itself. I mean, it was still grappling with what it was, I mean, the whole apparatus of what the music industry was in the 80s and 90s was set up to, you know, move pieces of plastic that had music etched into it. And you know, the relationship between record labels and radio stations and ultimately, MTV was fraught and complicated and interesting. It’s a great read if you can ever find any books on that subject. But yeah, to your point, I saw the whole Napster train wreck happen in slow motion. And, and I was the internet guy, you know, for a time at Interscope.

 

John Corcoran  8:32  

Who would the juggler be who are the acts that were at Interscope at the time.

 

Lael Sturm  8:36  

Yeah. So, we had a lot of hard rock and we had a lot of hip hop, so, you know, Nine Inch Nails was a big act that we had. We had. We had, you know, a lot of the LA gangster rap was on Interscope at the time. And then we had some really strange kind of square pegs in round holes, if you will. So we had the wallflowers Jacob Dylan’s band based, you know, mostly on the strength of his relationship with Bob Dylan. I’m not sure we would have signed them otherwise. It was.

 

John Corcoran  9:18  

Yeah, did you have any crazy experiences like you sitting down with Trent Reznor trying to explain to him their website or something like that?

 

Lael Sturm  9:27  

So I never had to explain the website to Trevor. He was actually really really smart. I did, you know, cross paths with Gwen Stephanie, Marilyn Manson was in the office a decent amount. He is a very, very tall, very, very clever, really interesting guy. He looks terrifying. 

 

John Corcoran  9:49  

But did he come in full regalia, like dressed up every time he ever came dressed down, right? Wow. Nope.

 

Lael Sturm  9:55  

No. When he would show up in a suit, it was like you know, very, very Very unusual. Yeah.

 

John Corcoran  10:02  

Interesting, interesting guy. When did you get into entrepreneurship? So, you know, it seems like, you know, you got even up at Columbia getting your MBA, but you know, it was that, had you been interested in business at a young age?

 

Lael Sturm  10:18  

Yeah. So I was always into entrepreneurship. Both my parents were entrepreneurs in their own right. My grandparents were entrepreneurs. From a very, very young age, and I don’t know if this is where it all started, but I was always looking for little opportunities. I remember there was a time, in probably fifth or sixth grade, where I would go to the corner store after school and, you know, for $2 or something, I would get a bag of 100 Pixy six, and then I would go to school the next day and sell them for 25 cents each, you know, so I would turn a couple of bucks into $25. A year one of the smart ones,

 

John Corcoran  10:57  

I used to see other kids doing that. And I don’t know why I didn’t think of doing it myself.

 

Lael Sturm  11:03  

Yeah, well, I’m not sure it was my idea. I imagined I was inspired by somebody else. But, you know, there was clearly a demand for candy and, and I saw that the opportunity existed for me to, you know, buy low and sell high. And so I did. And that’s not to say that every venture that I embarked upon was a success. I flamed out spectacularly as well. But, but it’s nice to remember the winds

 

John Corcoran  11:27  

What did your parents and grandparents and what kind of entrepreneurs are they? What kind of businesses do they have?

 

Lael Sturm  11:32  

They were actually all in the jewelry business. So my, my grandparents fled the Nazis, they got out kind of right as the Nazis were marching into Austria, and they got over here with, you know, very, very little to their name, they had to leave whatever wealth they add behind in Europe. And, and, you know, ultimately, my grandparents opened a jewelry store in downtown San Francisco and were very successful with that. My dad got into the jewelry business and was basically a merchant of colored stones. So So if you think precious gems that are not diamonds, that was his thing, and, you know, he would carry a bag full of full of gems with him everywhere he went, and then we would, you know, call on various jewelry stores, and he lay out his wares on the counter and, and it was, you know, it was his own business. He didn’t work for anybody else. He had a line that he bought, and he sold at a profit. My mom was also in the jewelry business for many, many years. And in fact, she still is, to some extent. And yeah, everybody in my family was entrepreneurial.

 

John Corcoran  12:44  

I don’t know if you were your dad like the Adam Sandler character and uncut gems.

 

Lael Sturm  12:48  

I don’t know if you saw that. But crazy. Absolutely nothing like I took my dad to see that movie thinking oh, here’s a movie that I could go to with my dad. 20 minutes in, you know, not to spoil anything, but it’s like hair on fire the entire time. Yeah. You know, nail biting, like disaster. Yeah, 20 minutes in he turned to me. He goes, is this what you thought it was gonna be? So he was not like that at all.

 

John Corcoran  13:18  

It’s top of mind right now because we’re recording this on election the day after election day. And last night, there’s a bunch of comedians I follow on Twitter. They’re super funny. And last night a comedian posted about knowing a little stressed out by all this, I think I’m gonna go watch uncut gems to relax. Right? Um, well, so you start businesses and young age, you end up going off and you start LPSS while you’re in business school. And tell me when because now you do social media is that’s a big chunk of what you do. Social media, of course, wasn’t around in 2001, when you started, when did you see it emerging and see it as something that you can help other people with?

 

Lael Sturm  14:02  

Yet, to your point, Google was barely around in 2001. That I mean, the whole, the whole internet, as we know, it emerged since I started this business. So I’ll tell you two, two sort of important things happened in the evolution of LPSS. One is I was serving startups, supporting them with revenue strategy. So I’d go in and kind of help them figure out how to turn their good idea into a good product and into a business, which was revolutionary. I mean, nobody was trying to turn products into businesses at that time, they were just trying to raise money. The problem was that they were always trying to raise money and, and my fees were sort of contingent on their ability to actually, you know, bring in the next round of funding and, and that was not sustainable. So I was susceptible to the kind of the cyclical funding callin Under, and anytime a round went out of favor, all of a sudden, all my clients would go bust and I would have no, I would have no revenue. Often they’d go bust without having paid me at all. So that was not long term viable and a very wise business coach said, Hey, I think you need to look in the mirror and be your own strategy consultant and think about your business. So I did and quickly realized that it wasn’t viable long term. The other thing that happened is, as a consultant, I was paid to give advice and, and you know, to be somewhat cynical consultants are often paid to give advice, which the client then ignores, and then hires the consultant back a year later, to give them the same advice. That wasn’t very rewarding. So you know, that the uncertainty with serving a market that was always on the verge of collapse, and giving advice that was often not taken, and therefore not being able to kind of realize that the fruits of my labor, both of those things contributed to a change in the business. And the change was, simply, hey, maybe we should start providing some of the services that we’re recommending. So, you know, social media and search marketing, and that sort of thing weren’t big when I launched the company. But by the time I pivoted, they certainly were important, and they remain important today. So, so I was able to, to, initially, I was just referring out, I had a list of people that I would say, Hey, you know, we think that you should, you know, do Facebook advertising, and here’s a guy who can do Facebook advertising for you, and then eventually rolled those people into the business, and started selling those services. And, and over time, that actually became the bulk of the business. So we still do strategic advising, we’ll still consult when the opportunity presents itself, but more often, we serve as the outsourced marketing department. So business will come to us and say, we know we need to do advertising, we know we need to do search engine optimization, or we know we need to send outreach emails, but we’re not staffed to do it. And we don’t really know what we’re doing, can you just do it for us. And that’s now the business. Now I’ve got a team of people that actually provide these services. And it’s been great, it’s more stable. It’s more of a long term relationship. We’re actually invested in the success of our clients, we like to say, when our clients succeed, we succeed. We’re accountable for results, which is, which is pretty different from the consulting model. And, and it’s been great, it’s been great, we’ve been able to grow and thrive with this new model

 

John Corcoran  17:47  

That’s super similar to our trajectory as well, where we, for many years, told people they should start a podcast, and then people wouldn’t do it, they wouldn’t follow that advice. And then we finally said, okay, no excuses, here’s our team, use our team, our team will, will help put it together for you. And then there were fewer excuses. And people actually had to do it, because you could do it for them. But I know for you, you know, a big part, if you now are only working with clients that you know, you can help you don’t want to, you know, unlike a consultant, give them advice, watch them flail and not, you know, and actually implement it. So that’s a big priority for you. But as social media was emerging, you know, it took so long for social media to even adopt tools or third party software that help you to measure the actual results. So what was that like in the early years of using social media where, you know, you were probably a proponent of it, I imagine saying, hey, you should get involved in this, but harder at that point to pencil it out and see results or even guarantee results?

 

Lael Sturm  18:55  

Yeah, it’s definitely been an evolution, I’ll say that, you know, the platforms have evolved, our use of the platforms has evolved. For better or worse, I am absolutely not a, you know, a firm believer that social media is all good, I definitely see the downside of it. We initially started advocating the use of social media as a way to demonstrate expertise. So you know, if you’re a thought leader in your industry, the only way that somebody would know that is if they were to have met you or go to a conference where you were speaking, we thought that social media provided an opportunity to showcase some of that expertise to really demonstrate the thought leadership and to document it in a way that was referenceable. So so you know, blogs are equally good for that. But social media is somewhat more prolific and it’s also more centralized. So you know, if everything lives on LinkedIn or Facebook or even Twitter to some extent it’s pretty easy to find versus a blog, which your potential customers may or may not see, generally, they are going to see your social media profile, if, you know, if you get a referral or you meet somebody out, you know, out in the real world, they’re going to check you out before they engage with you. And so we saw social media is that the measurement tools have come a long, long way. And not just social media, but you know, on search, Google provides some great tools, there’s some terrific third party software that you can add on, to help you get visibility into your whole process. And, to your point, we only work with clients that we can actually deliver results for, you know, that gets to kind of two of our core beliefs, which is one, everything must be measured. So we only trade in services, so that that can be measured and documented, and marketing is an investment. And if you’re going to invest in marketing, you should be able to actually look at the return on that investment. So you can make an informed decision about continuing or not continuing or what changes need to be made. If you can’t measure the return, then it’s impossible to consider marketing as an investment, the way you would look at real estate or the stock market or something else. You’re basically just throwing darts. So let you know, long way of answering your question about measurement. I said, it’s absolutely critical. And there’s a number of great tools now in the marketplace.

 

John Corcoran  21:39  

Well, that makes total sense. Because you’re pretty unusual in that, you know, there’s a lot of people who could start a company helping other companies to do marketing with social media, but you’ve got a background with an MBA from Columbia, so you have a deeper understanding of metrics, numbers, how to track metrics, then your average company that does social media is going to have

 

Lael Sturm  22:04  

Yeah, absolutely. Right. And, and, you know, I’ll add kind of, despite my, my, my time spent in the first internet bubble, where, you know, revenue and, and actual kind of business fundamentals were not highly valued. I’m old fashioned, and that I believe that, you know, business has to be viable before it can scale, you can’t scale and then figure out how to become a business, you really want to create something that’s going to be able to grow and sustain itself and sustain its growth. And, and, and support everybody involved. So that’s what we look for in clients that are sensible and sober, that have real, measurable growth goals. ambitious, to be sure, but measurable, so not abstract. It’s very, very clear what success looks like, and how they can define success so that we can actually deliver on those goals.

 

John Corcoran  23:01  

You know, you’re coming up on your 20th anniversary, congratulations with the company. That’s an amazing, long time for any business. The last seven or eight months or so have been during Coronavirus. And of course, your company has weathered other storms before, but what lessons Do you take away from the last seven or eight months either from your own business or from clients? You know, what are some of the takeaways that you take from this pandemic and economic downturn that we’ve all been through?

 

Lael Sturm  23:31  

Well, the first thing I would say is, with the pandemic, I’m just extremely grateful at the position that we hold, you know, this, this business, serving clients in digital format, with a team that can work remotely. I just lucked into that. I mean, you know that with all of the effort that went into building my business, I never anticipated that we’d be in this circumstance so so I’m very grateful that I’m in a business that is able to weather the storm. In terms of the lessons that I’m learning, most of the lessons are coming from clients and prospects that I’m seeing out in the marketplace. So, you know, we have clients that that are in the event space, that are in brick and mortar retail that are in hospitality, who suffered immensely in the beginning of this and, and thankfully, nearly all of them have been able to, you know, to overuse the word pivot into digital channels, some of them with our help some of them without our help some of them, you know, they just they figured it out on their own, and most are thriving a number or having bigger years in 20. Then they even had projects in the real world businesses because they moved into digital. So I guess what I’ve learned is, you know, circumstances are going to happen. And, and you need to be prepared to make changes and not be too committed to any one path to any one strategy. You need to be nimble. And, you know, we’ve seen the benefit of that.

 

John Corcoran  25:15  

Yeah, yeah. Great advice. And to wrap things up, two last questions I always enjoy asking. So number one, a big fan of gratitude. So you know, when you look around at your peers, others in your industry, maybe even you know, those in your industry are a little bit ahead of where you are. Who do you admire? Who do you respect who you look up to?

 

Lael Sturm  25:41  

Yeah, it’s a great question. And I agree, gratitude is absolutely critical. I will say I’ve got, I’ve got one friend. He’s, he’s in my industry, to the extent that he’s, he’s a, you know, he’s an internet entrepreneur, he’s had a lot of success. But you know, he’s a product guy. And he’s actually jumped over the fence and is now a corporate guy. But I really admire him. And he’s somebody that I go to for advice and to bounce ideas off of a guy named Jeremy Toman who said, He’s a senior exec at Warner media now. And I just have been grateful to have his counsel and sort of watch him build and sell businesses and kind of move from one project into the next and also just be very generous with his time to get back to the community. I’ll also say, if you’ll allow me, John, you and I know each other through the eo accelerator, where, you know, we are in an accountability group together. And I have to say, these monthly meetings, where we all get together and share about how our business is going. I’m moved every single time by the kind of openness and the willingness to support that everybody gives. But I’m also just so inspired when I see what everybody else is doing with their businesses. And frankly, that includes you. I mean, I’ve really been inspired by what you’ve done, just even in the last couple years that you and I have known each other.

 

John Corcoran  27:21  

Thank you. Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I’m a huge fan of those meetings as well. I mean, absolutely. Slam Dunk for sure. And anyone who’s listening who’s curious about the accelerator program, feel free to reach out or Google it, you can learn a lot about it. And then the final question, well, let’s pretend we’re at a more awards banquet, much like the Oscars or the Emmys. And you’re receiving a lifetime achievement for everything you’ve done up until this point. So who do you think are the people? You know, the mentors, the friends along the way, it could be a teacher from your childhood, could be a professor from Business School, could be a mentor along the way, who the people that you would acknowledge?

 

Lael Sturm  28:00  

Yeah, great question. So kind of continuing with the theme, I would thank the coaches that I’ve had, through EO more broadly, the companies that I’ve encountered, in EO. But ultimately, I think it really comes down to my parents, you know, they really set a great example, they really pushed me to be my best. I’m the first first member of my family on either side that graduated college, and I didn’t stop there, I went on and got an MBA. And, you know, that was that was because I felt supported. And I felt like, like, they wanted more for me even than I wanted for myself. And even though I didn’t go into the family business, kind of seeing them thrive and seeing their success. And, and frankly, seeing their failures too. And I mean, it wasn’t all, it wasn’t all good. kind of gave me the strength that I needed to go out and do things on my own. I knew that it was possible, I knew that I didn’t have to. I didn’t have to go corporate and frankly, corporate wasn’t for me, so so I’m glad that I had the role models,

 

John Corcoran  29:09  

and not too late to join the family line of work. By the way, if Adam Sandler’s movie didn’t inspire you to go into it, then you know, it’s still good. Crazy movie, if you haven’t seen it, definitely check it out. Leo, where can people go to learn more about you and connect with you to learn more about LPSS?

 

Lael Sturm  29:27  

Yeah, so the website is lpss.co. That’s not.com. So it’s important that you put the ‘co’ and, and or you can google me and find all sorts of good videos and webinars and courses and things there. You know, that one of the benefits of working in digital marketing is, is I’ve got a whole team of people that do digital marketing for me in the business. So, there’s a lot out there. That’s great. All right. Well, thanks so much.

 

Lael Sturm  29:57  

Thank you, John.

 

Outro  29:58  

Thank you for listening to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast with John Corcoran. Find out more at smartbusinessrevolution.com and while you’re there, sign up for our email list and join the revolution. And be listening for the next episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast.

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