Paul Weinert – Founder & Principal, GRAYBOX

Paul Weinert has been working with companies to develop their digital strategies for over a decade. Before founding GRAYBOX in 2009, Paul enjoyed a successful career as a user interface designer and eCommerce business consultant. He has helped businesses use digital technologies to increase revenue, streamline operations, and present themselves better, including personally overseeing the launch of 100s of websites and apps.

Paul graduated from the University of Oregon with a Bachelor of Science in journalism in 2006, with minors in computer science, political science, and public speaking. Paul is married to his delightful wife, Lydia, and has two amazing and energetic, young sons: Aaron and August.

Tell me about your early career.
I started my career as a writer, photographer and graphic designer for a newspaper. I was really into page layout and found myself working for various agencies as a freelance graphic designer in college. At one of them, they said they didn’t need a print designer, but they needed someone who could code websites, so I started doing that. I’ve always been a tech nerd and had grown up coding, building computers and helping others with technology problems, so I started designing and building websites as well.

After college, I moved from web design to user interface design, focusing more on the business and how a digital system can solve business problems than on the look and feel of the site or application. I started working at an Internet business consulting at a firm near Seattle and lead their UX, eCommerce and marketing practices for around five years.

How did the concept for GRAYBOX come about?
The company we are today is very different than when we first started. I call them GRAYBOX 1.0 and GRAYBOX 2.0.

For GRAYBOX 1.0, I started the company right at the start of the recession (early 2009) as a way to combine all the super talented and out-of-work marketers, designers and developers that I was meeting all over Portland and Seattle. I figured that if I could get everyone to come together to form a collaborative network that I called GRAYBOX, we could compete with other full-service agencies by providing a better product at a lower cost than everyone else. Basically, using the supply-side excess of the recession to create a competitive advantage.

This worked great for four years, then the recession started getting better in 2012, so I saw my network decimated by everyone taking full-time gigs at the agencies and companies that were hiring up for marketing again. As such, I had to pivot to GRAYBOX 2.0.

This next phase has been us moving into more of a traditional firm model. We have staff and we work with our client partners to solve business problems with digital solutions in both the marketing and operational sides of their businesses. Since we pivoted, our growth has just exploded and we’re in our fifth year of this model.

How was the first year in business?
Rocky. It was hard to get people to talk to me too, so it was all about taking a scrappy approach to finding work, a lot of blind RFP responses, and investing in our long-term marketing presentation. Turns out that focusing on our marketing presentation was a great bet, as we were able to appear larger than we were and had great SEO placement pretty early on.

What was your marketing strategy?
Be everywhere online and track everything.

If you searched for websites or digital marketing, we were there. I was in every company directory, every ad placement or online marketplace I could find. I then tracked EVERYTHING with a granular tagging structure, so I could tie it back to lead volume, lead scoring, and my sales close rate. Everything was a test, and I was ruthless about paring back with what was non-performing and doubling down on what was working well.

For example, when I started using AdWords, I initially paid for 650,000 different keyword combinations, and I was committed to eliminating at least the bottom 50% of them, based on their performance each month. Within a year, we were bidding on only the best 150 best terms. Today, as we’ve expanded our practice, we bid on around 100 terms, but it remains very results-focused.

The best marketing strategy, to me, is one that is measurable and consistently produces effective results.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
It was fairly small throughout all of GRAYBOX 1.0. I was the only employee and I did all of the sales, account and project management.

Then, with the shift to hiring employees and operating under a more traditional model, we starting growing very quickly. In the last five years, we’ve grown around 181% annually by headcount, and more than that by top line revenue.

Our first office was 120 square feet. and I had to break my six month lease on that space because we outgrew it so quickly. We had one desk and three of us shared it, and whoever was the last person in, sat on the couch.

Our second office was 900 square feet, and it felt gigantic. We had our own meeting room and I had a private office for a few months. Again, we had to move out of that after eighteen months (breaking another lease) because of our growth.

Our third office was 3,200 square feet, and it felt so luxurious. We had multiple meeting rooms and private offices, but by the time we left two years later, all of the offices were gone because we needed them for meeting spaces, and there was always a queue for the restrooms.

Our current office is massive at 11,000 square feet, and we’ve built it out for 85 people. Currently, we’re at 47, so we expect to be here for a few more years.

How do you define success?
I think a lot about balance and health, lately. I think our success is directly tied to the health of our client partners’ businesses and how our work contributes to that. That’s first and foremost.

In addition, we want our team to live balanced lives and to achieve success in a way that’s good for everyone involved — partners need a great product and experience, staff needs to feel empowered, challenged and excited by their work, and as a business, we need to be financially healthy.

What is the key to success?
Being good to people. Relationships are the key to everything in professional services. Personally, it feels like I’m dating 100 people at once, between staff and our partners. We earnestly care about our partners and team, and I strive really hard to get my team to truly live out the mission of a servant, to selflessly make our partners’ businesses better.

It sometimes hurts to be super good to everyone, but I’ve found that when you are truly on another person’s side, they feel that care and we can form a great bond that serves everyone better.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
One thing I think about a lot is this quote from Steve Jobs:

“When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is, and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. . . . Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

I love this and it’s very motivating to me. We can change things, build things, and make life better for ourselves and for others.

What are some of your favorite books?
I like to read, and I generally have at least a few books going at a time.

BusinessManaging The Professional Service Firm by David Maister. It’s an older book, but it’s full of wise gems about running a knowledge-based firm.

Nonfiction — Anything about economics, biographies, the environment, or general life lessons. Some of my favorite authors are Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, and David Sedaris.

Pleasure — Anything that builds a good world and I can get out of my head for a while, including Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Ender’s Game, Harry Potter, and Mistborn.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I don’t have a lot of tough days. I love what I’m doing and our team is amazing. There’s just a lot of crazy days! I’m always pulled in a hundred directions, so it’s always an exercise in prioritization and picking what I will succeed and fail at each day. It’s part of the curse of fast growth for sure, but it’ll get better.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
My commitments to my client partners and my team, no question.

I started the company, but we’re building it together and I owe it to them to keep going and do my part. They trust me and depend on me to get it done. That’s a huge responsibility, and I need to honor that trust and fulfill it. This is true for our team, as well as for our partners who hire us to make their businesses better.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Don’t be afraid to dive in and figure it out along the way. Everyone is amazing at a few things and weak in many things. So live off your strengths and shore up your weaknesses one at the time.

I think so much of business comes down to three things:

  1. Be okay taking a calculated risk on a good idea.
  2. Be good to people and be a good citizen in your community.
  3. Be consistently improving your weaknesses.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.