Six years ago, I found myself crammed in a van with seven other people driving up the side of a mountain in Nicaragua. The views were breathtaking, but I was too distracted trying to figure out how to not sound stupid around a bunch of older men who had traveled and lived all over the world, primarily starting and growing businesses and organizations. They were all headed to a coffee plant, which was a part of a Young Life camp, to offer their advice and expertise on how to grow the operation. I just so happened to be along for the ride.
To try and pass the time in the van, I struck up a conversation with one of the guys there about sports. Little did I know that my conversation with a die-hard Denver Broncos fan would turn into a long-term friendship and source of advice for years to come.
Meet Adam Williams, serial entrepreneur and CEO of marketing and brand development company, Magneti. Although his company may be relatively unheard of, the clients he’s worked with and awards he has won, set him apart from most. Just this past year, Magneti was a part of the Inc. 5000 fastest growing companies in the country, nominated by Entrepreneur magazine as one of the top 360 companies in the country, and voted one of the top places to work in the state of Colorado. Accolades aside, A short conversation with Adam would tell you pretty quickly he knows a thing or two about starting and growing companies in a way that benefits everyone involved. We sat down with Adam to learn a little bit more about how he got started, what he’s done to make Magneti a great place to work, and valuable lessons he’s learned along the way.
When did you know you wanted to be entrepreneur? What events in your life helped unearth that desire?
There were really two different points in life. The first one that comes to mind is when I got a paper route when I was seven years old. I did that in part because I grew up with just my mom and it was a good way to contribute to family. I would get up some mornings at 5:30 a.m., fold papers and go run my paper route before going to school. That instilled in me a particular work ethic and that was kind of my initial exposure to entrepreneurship.
During my formative years in high school and college, I thought all the time about how fun it would be to build a business. I remember one time in college I wrote a paper about how I was going to own all these businesses and retire by the age of 30, which I find hilarious now. I’m pretty sure I got a D on that paper because it was so unrealistic, but I always had this very bold idea of what I could create through business.
The second real inflection point was after I graduated college. I had recently spent a bunch of money on college and was also a newlywed. I had a hard time finding a job and had to get a job making sandwiches at a sandwich shop for $6.25 an hour. I actually ended up becoming the general manager and subsequently the managing partner of that restaurant. I loved every piece of what I did there from an entrepreneurial standpoint. That really started to build my entrepreneurial chops and helped me grow into a pretty good entrepreneur today. When you have to manage food costs and labor costs and other things that come with running a restaurant, its actually really good training for growing a company.
The thing I always noticed during all of these experiences, and what made me gravitate towards entrepreneurship, was when I couldn’t get money or I couldn’t get what I needed, I knew through a business that I could make it out of thin air. That’s the real beauty of entrepreneurship and business ownership is that you can make something from absolutely nothing and create a life and create economic value in the world with it.
So fast-forward a little bit after your experience with the restaurant correct. You started Magneti, well, what eventually was acquired by Magneti out of your basement?
Yes my basement and it’s kind of embarrassing to say why I started the company. I read a book that most people know, the 4-Hour workweek and I was fascinated with Tim Ferris’ approach to automation. I didn’t ever believe in a 4-Hour workweek and I still don’t know that I’d want that, but the notion of how you create value through that was really fascinating to me.
I started thinking about what businesses I could actually create without going and asking for a lot of money. I’ve grown up a lot now, but at the time I didn’t want to carry the emotional weight of an Investor’s money so, it had to be something I could bootstrap. The first company that got us into marketing services was called Global Seven Agency. I had a day job at the time and with my partners built the entire company between 9 pm and 2 am.
How old were you at that point when you started this?
I was 33 years old. I had some good experience with some of the other small businesses I started in the past so I knew what I needed to do.
And this brutal schedule you were talking about how long did that last?
It lasted for a couple years and then I had a real traumatic event my life. I lost someone who was very dear to me in an accident and I came to this epiphany that it was now or never. I could keep my day job and I could take a little bit extra cash from my side hustle or I could see this as an opportunity to potentially change my life and my family’s life. So, I walked in the next day and I gave my resignation, which was hard because I loved the company and people there.
I think the first few months I took a 90% pay cut. Thank God for a wife that is willing to put up with an entrepreneurial husband that will go on 90% reduced salary for a year to build something special. They don’t make a lot of people like that.
Thinking back to that time, did you think that you’d end up where you are now or did you have something else in mind?
It went beyond my expectations. I really had this idea in the beginning that I was creating a lifestyle for myself, but along the way I came to understand that Magneti was about more than just my lifestyle. I felt the Lord had given me stewardship over this organization and I was being called to lead. I really believed in what we were doing and believed we could create something greater. At first, my vision was small and it’s become a lot more than I ever expected in good and bad ways.
With this shift in perspective you are describing, would you say you changed how you’ve done things, if at all, once this happened?
You know, it’s funny, it’s been more of a psychological shift. I find myself having a lot more anxiety when I try to take time off, whereas with the initial way we were building the business, I would take time off and not even feel any anxiety about it at all. Now, I always have this looming sense that there’s something to do, so that’s not been a healthy thing for me. It’s less to do with the actual company and more to do with my own journey as a human. I think I’ve had to get more efficient in what I put my time into. I’ve tried to get better at delegating and choosing the mundane tasks that I used to involve myself in. Learning to trust my team a little bit more with everything from finances to how accounts are being delivered. I’ve had to really focus more on building leaders instead of fixing things myself.
How has your view of leadership and doing that successfully changed during your time running Magneti?
I started with one viewpoint, shifted to another, and have come racing back towards my initial viewpoint. I have always been a person that believes in hiring great talent that is smarter than me and more talented than me. I made a decision early on in the company to trust anyone I hired with a role and not micromanage. As we were really hustling to build this company, I started to really gravitate towards micromanagement and felt like the success of the company was dependent on my every move.
Now, I’ve come back to the point of understanding that the success of the company is dependent on how well I can raise leaders up. I’ve seen some of them grow into a better leader than I could ever be and that’s been a real joy to watch. Sometimes, it’s hard to give up that leadership from an ego standpoint. I’d like to be able to say that I don’t have any ego when it comes to my leadership but I think everyone does. Being able to learn to leave my ego at the door to build something greater and allow people to take the reins has helped me come racing back towards that initial point of view towards leadership. It’s really what a company needs to scale and grow.
I’ve come back to the point of understanding that the success of the company is dependent on how well I can raise leaders up. I’ve seen some of them grow into a better leader than I could ever be and that’s been a real joy to watch.
What were some of the intentional things you did from the beginning that helped lay the foundation for the culture that exists at Magneti?
The focus from the get-go was always on culture. We knew as founders of the company could all go get jobs making a lot of money for other great companies, but how much would we enjoy that?
The first thing we wanted to do was create an environment that we all wanted to work in. That kind of environment is really centered on our three laws of gravity, which are: over-communicate, nail the details, and have fun. Those are the only three rules of Magneti.
Having fun is really not a trite comment. At heart, my nature is very playful and goofy. I’m always making a joke and can’t take anything seriously. So when we started we made sure not to take everything so seriously and that really became a core of who we are. If our team is not having fun, they’re not going to do good work and I think that’s true for any work you do on a daily basis.
Enacting those laws of gravity really took investing in talent upfront which I was nervous about in the beginning but it’s helped us build a great reputation and execute from the get go.
What’s been the strategy behind working with the clients that you’ve worked with? I know you’ve worked with a lot of different nonprofits. Have those things fallen into your lap or has that been something you’ve been very strategic about?
It’s strategically fallen into our lap, How’s that?
By that I mean we invested in quality and did incredible, award-winning work for clients in the beginning and because of that they told all their friends. Your cheapest sales funnel is keeping the clients you have. Your second cheapest sales funnel is making them happy enough to refer you to all of their friends.
One of the beautiful secrets of Magneti is we are an amazing marketing and services company that has never had to market ourselves. The quality of work we are doing is so good, the phone rings all the time with people wanting to work with Magneti.
What’s great for us is, as we start to invest more in what we actually do for other people, our growth can be potentially exponential. We just want to make sure that we do that in a sustainable way. We don’t want to be another one of those case studies of a company that grew too fast and imploded the culture.
Who/what have been the inspirations in your life that have helped get you to where you are today?
Yeah, so from a people standpoint, I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of really good mentors, advisors and friends. One of the most influential people in my life that has inspired me on a daily basis is my business partner Jesse Marble. He is one of the most brilliant businessmen I’ve known and has a drive and passion to succeed far beyond me. We’ve also got a couple of leaders on our team, Ben Rob and Ray Cameron who are both phenomenal inspirations to me.
Outside of the company, I’ve been inspired by my favorite book, Art of War by Sun Tzu. The principles that he discusses in terms of how you treat friend and foe, how you interact in the world, and how you approach the world is some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.
I’ve always been inspired by people who have conquered adventures or athletes who have overcome challenges. People like Peyton Manning that were written off and let go from a team only to resurrect from the ashes.
I’m glad you brought up sports because I’ve got to know… Is Joe Flacco elite?
That’s good. It’s a great question. If you rate him over the past 10 years on the metrics that we rank quarterbacks on, he’s not. Does he give us an upgrade and give us a better chance to win? Probably yes.
What has been the greatest failure you have experienced up to this point in business and what did you learn from it?
Several years ago, I went through a really bad, what I’ll call, a business divorce. My partner and I were building successful businesses together and I realized made a decision to go into business with a person that I wasn’t emotionally, spiritually, morally aligned with. I had to make a very difficult decision to walk away from that. It was a very painful and difficult process that made me feel like a failure. What I realized long-term is that, that challenge in particular helped me learn to have a harder shell and emotional resolve on how I deal with setbacks and failures. There’s this really good book I read a while back called Anti-Fragile. It talks about conditions that keep a person from being fragile about the things that happen in their daily life. It helped me get a whole new perspective on failure and this failure in particularly. It was the absolute best thing that I ever went through in my career. I never want to do that again though.
What are some of your daily rituals that are really important to you getting things done?
I like to get up early and spend quiet time in the morning. It’s the most sacred time to me and I find that when I don’t take the time for myself in the morning, I don’t ever have time for myself during the day. So spending time there in the morning sets me up for success during the day. Probably the best habits are the habits that David Allen Green talks about in his book, Getting Things Done around delegating and doing things. I’m a huge believer in it.
How have you learned to balance the demands of your job with demands of family/personal life?
It’s really hard. I think it’s harder emotionally than it is physically. I go in at normal time in the morning and I come home at a normal time at night. So from a physical standpoint, it’s incredible. I’ve been at every swim meet I possibly can be for my son. I’m home for dinner every night and I get to travel a lot with my family.
The hardest thing to manage is being emotionally present. Being an owner of a company carries a lot of weight emotionally and my mind wanders a lot wherever I am.
When I get home at the end of the day and I don’t want to talk about my day, that’s usually the first thing I get asked about. I’ve had to learn to be cognizant about walking in the door and forcing myself into this place where I realize I have an opportunity to do something that no other human in the world has the opportunity to do right now: sit down with Aiden and Jess and intentionally engage them on life.
What’s one thing you are into right now?
There are two things that I’m always into and I will probably be into for the rest of my life. It’s winter right now so I’m skiing as much as I can. I’m passionate about it and it helps keep me centered. You know when it gets warmer it will be fly fishing and traveling to the ends of the earth with a fly rod in hand.
What are some major challenges you see on the horizon you are looking forward to figuring out?
From a Magneti standpoint, it’s figuring out how to continue to scale a business where the culture is not defined by me or my business partner Jesse.
We’re creating a culture that goes far beyond who we are and a culture where our names never even get mentioned. I see the next few years being focused on building greater processes, building greater scalability and building a greater culture and team.
Taking the business to that next level is really the challenge. When the business was just a handful of people, we could do whatever we wanted and get immediate results. Now, there are a lot of steps that have to be taken to create buy-in and belief in decisions that we are making. Doing all of that while keeping the same level of fun and enjoyment will be really challenging.
Last question, What’s your ideal weekend?
There’s a small town in the Rockies that shall remain nameless for purposes of this interview because I don’t want anybody to show up there. An ideal day is waking up in this small one-stoplight town in the heart of the most beautiful mountains you’ve ever seen and going down with my family to our favorite coffee shop. Once we’ve had some great conversation and some breakfast, heading down to the river and doing a little fishing or playing with the dog. After that, head over a great Thai place and then the local brewery. Finish the day off watching the sunset over the mountains with my family. That’s the dream.
For more information on Magneti, visit their website at magneti.com