How Joe Pulizzi Started in Content Marketing

From Joe: This Q&A is courtesy of Jerome Knyszewski, which was part of an interview series. Thanks to Jerome for helping to make this happen.

Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was overeducated and underexperienced upon graduating with my master’s degree from Penn State University. After sending out countless resumes, I removed the MAC degree and applied to a number of temp agencies. After two bank gigs filing documents, I lucked into an internal communications division at a Cleveland, Ohio-based insurance agency. Three years there and I landed a position at an international business-to-business media company.

The company was large but the department was small. It was in custom media (now called content marketing). Basically, we produced high-quality magazines for large B2B companies like Autodesk and HP.

Within a short period of time, our company was near death. To give you an idea, upon joining the company, their publicly traded stock was $34 per share. Less than two years later it was seven cents. I obviously added a lot of value to the company.

While terrible for most, it was a blessing for me. After rounds of layoffs, I ended up running the custom media department, mostly because I made the least amount of money and they could actually afford to pay me.

I fell in love with the practice of custom media…the ability for brands to build their own audiences and tell their own stories, instead of distracting audiences with advertising. By 2007, due to Google and the rise of social media, custom media was booming. Later that year, I decided to leave and start my own company, which ultimately became the Content Marketing Institute.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

One of my roles in running the custom media department was selling directly to chief marketing officers. I would go in and tell them about custom media, and literally by the time I said “media” they were already sleeping.

I tried a number of terms. Branded content? Nope. Custom publishing? Nope.

Finally, I started pitching the services as content marketing. Upon doing this, instead of the CMOs falling asleep, they scootched forward in their chairs to listen. They had no idea what “content marketing” really was, but they were now interested.

From that moment on, everything changed. More and more senior marketers started to become fascinated with this thing called content marketing. Content marketing is the same as custom publishing, custom media, and all the other terms, but it made it sexy, especially for marketers. If you want anything in marketing to take off, it actually has to have the word marketing in it (ala, social media marketing, direct marketing, search marketing, etc.)

Positioning is everything.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

By the fall of 2009, the new company was struggling. We launched a matching service for brands and content creators called Junta42 (dubbed the “eHarmony for content marketing”). I thought it was the greatest idea ever developed. Interest was good but the financials were terrible.

I was ready to pack it in and go back to the corporate world. I even dusted off my resume. Thankfully, my wife told me to give it a couple more weeks. She knew that I never wanted to go back into a corporate environment. A few days later I finally began to look at the feedback from our blog subscribers. There were a number of emails I just didn’t make time for previously. So many of our subscribers were asking for content marketing training, for a large content marketing event, for more consistent education about content marketing.

I was so focused on what I wanted to sell, I didn’t listen to what our audience and customers wanted to buy.

I grabbed a cocktail napkin and wrote down new goals. It said that by 2013, we would create the largest online destination for the practice of content marketing, the largest in-person event for content marketing, and the leading print magazine for content marketing. We launched the new initiative, called Content Marketing Institute, in May of 2010. It took off immediately.

We hit all our goals by the end of 2012 and became the fastest growing private business media company (Inc. 500) three years in a row.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success? 

When my wife and I started the business, I wrote down the goal of selling the business by 2015 for at least $15 million dollars. We sold in 2016 and I stayed on until the end of 2017.

What’s interesting, and what I think about often, is how close we were to success and almost gave up. In September of 2009 I thought the world was ending. I believed I made a poor decision to leave an executive job to start a business. Less than nine months later, once we made the business pivot, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

What if we weren’t patient? What if we lost faith? It was only a matter of nine months.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What we did differently is focus everything on the needs of the audience. Every blog post we wrote, every tweet, every LinkedIn post was focused on how this small piece of communication could help our audience in some way.

This became our saving grace since the only thing we had after the first three years were 10,000 blog subscribers. Without those, the rest of the business never would have happened. With those 10,000 subscribers we were able to secure some early sponsorships that kept the lights on while we worked toward the larger revenue opportunities, like our big event.

But it really hit home when we had our first in-person event in Cleveland, Ohio. We were honestly hoping we could attract 150 marketing professionals to come to Cleveland. It was amazing when over 600 showed up. I was able to talk to most of the attendees, with many conversations resulting with them in tears about how much impact we had made on their lives and their jobs. I had no idea how our content approach had such an amazing impact on our future customers.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

This example is more tragic than funny. The success of our “content marketing matching service” depended on marketing agencies and journalists investing in the service. In essence, they had to pay money in order to receive the leads from the system.

How could I make such a huge mistake? There are two groups of people in the world that have no money to spend on their own marketing. The first is journalists. The second is marketing agencies. I left a secure job with benefits to target a group of people that, even if the service was amazing, would never pay for it.

The learning? Your revenue plan should target a group that will actually create revenue for your business.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

I’ll give you three. I reached out to a few people before starting the business. I also did hours of research online. I was told 1) don’t hire your friends or family, 2) make sure you find a suitable office location and 3) hire the right people and don’t use contractor relationships.

Initially I tried to follow this advice, but ultimately (and thankfully) we went the opposite way on each of these. First, the majority of the people we worked with were our very close friends, and still are to this day. Second, we decided to have a virtual office environment, which, at the time, no one did. Third, we didn’t hire anyone directly and, by the time we sold, worked with over 50 independent contractors. Each of these three were critical to our success.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Patience. Success doesn’t happen overnight, and a leader needs to plan for that. When we started the business in 2007, we planned for success to take five years minimum. My wife called it the bologna and ramen noodle years. We cut back on everything from a financial perspective to survive the marathon. I know most entrepreneurs want to see immediate success, but it rarely happens that way.

Understanding your skills. When I initially started the business, I believed I was good at operational functions and details. Couldn’t have been further from the truth. It took a number of friends and team members to help me realize that was not my strength. From that feedback, I put together a list of what I thought I was good at and what areas were not strengths, and then shared it with a number of people. Then, I made sure anything I was not good at I stayed far away from. Maybe the best decision I ever

Goal setting and exit strategy. Some people find it hard to believe, but I wrote down my exit plan in 2007, even before we had a dollar in revenue. I wrote under my long-term goals that I would “sell the company for $15 million dollars in 2015.” Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? The people I shared it with thought I was crazy. But I read that goal every day to remind myself of what we were shooting for.

We sold for $20 million in 2016.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Read your written goals every morning when you wake up and every night before you go to bed. Burn out happens, but if you focus on why you are doing this, and what the big goal is at the end of the day, everything runs smoother. Plus, when you read your goals before you sleep, your brain works wonders doing the night and makes for a more productive next day.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Many founders feel they have to have their thumbs on every part of the business. That leads to control issues, which can take a lot of the decision-making power away from your team. The best advice would be to hire smart people and let them run their projects like it was their own company. As a leader, ask your questions. Listen, don’t tell. Let them do their job and get out of their way. If, at the end of the day, team members feel ownership over what they do, it will ultimately be successful.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

This seems so obvious, but it’s the little things that matter. The uplifting texts to team members. The instant messages. Taking time to celebrate when someone does something good (not amazing, just good). Taking time to relish in the wins.

The most underestimated skill in communication. The check ins matter. The weekly emails doing updates and praising team members matter. Do you know how many workers out their never get praise for their jobs? The majority. People just want a little appreciation. When it’s done consistently, they will run through walls for you.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each. 

Audience first. Product second. – When we first began our journey, we had a very specific idea of what our products would be. Each one of those ideas failed miserably.

When all seemed lost, it was reading emails from our audience that told us exactly what they would buy. This included training and events, which ultimately became our core products. If only we would have started out by just building a loyal audience and then listening to what they really wanted to buy.

Less is more. In the beginning, we tried everything from a marketing standpoint…blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Facebook, discussion groups. You name it we tried it. We were slapping our content everywhere. After doing much of this without success, we focused our attention on being great at two things: a consistent “how-to” blog and our annual content marketing research report. By focusing on just those two, we were able to take resources from other areas to make sure we were exceptional in just those two areas. They ended up carrying the business model and, after a year or so, we were able to drive significant amounts of revenue.

There is no perfect time to start a business. It was about 2005 when I really wanted to leave and start a business. My wife and I had two boys, ages two and four, and I believed the timing was bad. Well, that, and we didn’t have any money. So, bad timing and no savings, two good reasons for not starting a business, right?

Well, it wasn’t much different two years later when I actually made the leap, except for the fact that the kids were four and six. The learning? There is never a good time to start a business. There is also never a bad time to start a business. If you want to do something, just take the leap. If I did that, I could have had a two-year head start.

You can’t be too niche. When we launched the business, the target audience were marketers who handled content in large organizations. At the time, this audience was small. Many of my friends said the target was “too niche.”

That initial audience was small, but they became devout fans of our brand. Those people spread the idea to marketers who were not involved in content, which spread the idea to execute marketers who were not familiar with content marketing. A few years later, the content marketing industry was one of the fastest growing areas of marketing on the planet.

I learned that you can never be too niche when starting a business. In actuality, it’s an advantage where you can quickly become the leading informational provider in a very short period of time.

Ask questions. When starting the business, something in me said I needed to research everything on my own. I needed to do it myself. So, instead of reaching out to people, I wasted valuable time by myself, in a vacuum, trying to figure out how to run a business. Boy was that a mistake.

After a year or two of fits and starts, I finally began to put my informal mentor list together. I began emailing questions. Setting up coffee meetings. Everyone was more than happy to help, and some of them actually asked “what took you so long?” There are so many people out there willing to help you, all you have to do is ask.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My oldest child was diagnosed with autism at a very young age. Even at the age of three they could not verbally communicate. Consistent and aggressive speech therapy did wonders (they are in college today and is amazing).

We were lucky we could afford speech therapy services (plus my wife was a social worker in her first life). But through the process I found out how many families cannot afford speech therapy and are forced to go without it. What a tragedy.

While there are many amazing organizations that research autism and apraxia (and they do great work), there is not enough attention on how we get speech therapy services for families who can’t afford it.

In 2014 my wife and I started the Orange Effect Foundation. Since that time, we’ve been able to deliver over 5,000 hours of speech therapy to more than 350 children in 37 states. But we’ve only scratched the surface. We need more passionate individuals to get behind this cause so that these children have some chance of being whoever they want to be in life.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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