Scott Baradell is founder and CEO of Idea Grove, a public relations agency that focuses on building brand authority for B2B technology companies. Idea Grove got its start as an industry blog that Scott began writing in 2005. The blog’s mix of entertaining and educational content—supported by Scott’s promotion of it via PR and social media—attracted attention from major media outlets, public relations journals and conferences, and ultimately, B2B technology companies seeking PR and digital marketing services. To this day, Idea Grove has earned virtually all of its clients through PR, customer referrals and other strategies fueled by organic third-party validation. This is the unique expertise that Idea Grove lends to its clients. Prior to Idea Grove, Scott served as a senior executive at Fortune 1000 companies in the technology and media industries. He began his career as a journalist for major-market newspapers. He grew up in Virginia Beach, has a B.A. with distinction from the University of Virginia and an MBA from Southern Methodist University, and lives in Dallas with his wife and four children.
How did the concept for Idea Grove come about?
I had just left my job as corporate communications VP for a billion-dollar media company after three years. The job had been a disappointment for me because like many traditional media companies, it simply wasn’t nimble enough to change at the pace required by technology. The low point was when I had to defend the company’s decision to send legal letters to critics of its news coverage who had “deep linked” to pages within its website. That’s right; it was complaining about inbound links and traffic. It was so backward and the opposite of where everything was going.
When I left, I knew I wanted to be on the front end of things, so I immediately started blogging. This was at the beginning of 2005, and at the time blogging was mostly associated with politics and entertainment, not business. But I felt like this was the beginning of a massive change. So partly because I was early to the game, I became a top blogger in the PR space, shot to the top of the search rankings, and started to get business as a result. The blogging is really what kickstarted my career as first a freelancer and then an agency owner. I was having fun doing it and charting my own path, so I couldn’t imagine going back to corporate work.
How was the first year in business?
It was incredibly difficult. I was overwhelmed by challenges at home. My mom passed away unexpectedly late in 2004, and in 2005 my wife was diagnosed with cancer and my brother had a severe stroke in his mid-40s. Mentally and emotionally, it was more than I could handle, really. The blogging was therapy for me. I was posting eight times a day sometimes. I went from an executive paycheck to making about $20,000 in 2005; I had to dip quite a bit into savings. But the blog ended up setting the table for a successful 2006, and by the middle of that year I knew I had a business that could last.
What was your marketing strategy?
I preached what I practiced. Most of my early clients had no idea that blogging and social media could even be used for business purposes. So I got those clients in on the game early and it really paid off for them. For example, I started working with an HR technology startup in 2007 and I got them into blogging and even created a site for them that ranked the early HR bloggers based on various popularity metrics. It got that startup’s CEO on the radar of every top influencer in the HR tech space. And the company went from two guys bootstrapping an idea to a $100 million exit eight years later. They were Idea Grove’s client through that entire run.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
It grew quickly in the first two years but it plateaued after that because I was a one-man show. Then in 2011, I finally took the plunge of leasing office space and hiring my first employees. That was pretty scary. I still remember being so anxious about signing that first three-year phone contract. But once I started hiring, the company took off. We ended up ranking in the Inc. 5000 three years in a row.
How do you define success?
Just being happy. I have never had financial goals, to be honest. I just like having the freedom to pursue the things I find interesting. And I’ve come to enjoy the idea of having a team of folks to share that with.
What is the key to success?
It’s cliché, but it’s definitely passion. It’s the gasoline that runs the engine. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to drive into a tree, but you won’t go anywhere without it.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I mentioned that my wife was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. She died in 2010, and we had two small children. That was the worst experience of my life, but it also made me stronger. It made me less afraid to take on risks. I had already been through the most terrible thing that could happen, so what was there to be afraid of at that point? If I hadn’t gone through it, I don’t know that I would have ever had the courage to sign that first office lease.
What are some quotes that you live by?
After my wife’s death, I posted a quote by Kenji Miyazawa on the wall over my computer: “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” I lived by that and it allowed me to put things into focus.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Only a few months after we moved into our first office, a close friend who I had brought in as a business partner told me that he was moving to China. I had planned to rely on him for so many things that I saw as weaknesses of mine, from sales to operations. I really only liked the client work. When he lowered the boom on me, I realized that I had to take on a lot of roles and responsibilities that I wasn’t comfortable with. I got through it, but that was a very scary day.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
My family. I remarried and we have four wonderful children. They are depending on me. I’m pretty sure if not for them, there are a dozen times I might have said, “Screw it.”
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
You know in your gut if you are ready to be an entrepreneur. Some people are entrepreneurs from their childhood lemonade stands onward. Others, like me, never cared much about money or business. I started out as a newspaper reporter, so obviously money was not my motivation. But I was always intellectually curious and sought out new challenges, and that’s what eventually made me realize I was ready to take the plunge.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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