Interview with a Corporate Idealist: Brooks Bell, CEO of Brooks Bell Interactive

2009 August 19

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Brooks Bell, CEO of Brooks Bell Interactive, about her experiences starting up her company, coping with growth and change, and learning to be a strong leader. Her answers were so candid and insightful, I knew the readers here would appreciate them as well.

Brooks Bell, CEO of Brooks Bell Interactive

Brooks Bell, CEO of Brooks Bell Interactive

Corporate Idealist: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Tell us a little, if you would, about how Brooks Bell Interactive came to be and what the company does.

Brooks: Brooks Bell Interactive was founded about 5 years ago, and was spun out of my first company, NovelProjects. At the time, NovelProjects focused on corporate website design and had a considerable amount of success. In 2003, we started to work with AOL on data-driven online marketing rather than website design, and it quickly became our biggest focus. It made sense to spin out another company with a new positioning to maximize our opportunity in online marketing.

Brooks Bell Interactive continues to focus on data-driven online marketing. We do strategy, design and A/B testing for acquisition and retention programs in the online subscription space. Our clients include Chase Bank, Dow Jones and AARP.

Corporate Idealist: I understand you went through a risky process relatively recently of hiring an executive team and “replacing” yourself in running the business. How did you arrive at the decision to do that, and how did you adjust to the change?

Brooks: I had hired several new designers last year, and was also still managing several key accounts, acting as our creative director and also overseeing operations. I was directly managing 14 people, and quickly became overwhelmed. My team wasn’t getting the direction or training they needed, and I had very little time or mental capacity to work on the business rather than in the business. I knew that this status quo was far from sustainable and had to make the choice either to invest in a management layer or to scale back my team. Scaling back the team wasn’t really an option, so it was clear that making the investment in my executive team was a step that I needed to take for the company to really have a shot at long-term success.

Looking back, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Our revenue is up 50% this year, stress levels are down, and we are more productive than ever.

Corporate Idealist: You’ve previously talked about the process of defining your core values and culture, and what a challenge that was. What made it so challenging?

Brooks: Defining core values was a challenge at first. We were a simple transactional company in our early years: a new project would come in, we would do it, and get paid, and move on to the next project. I didn’t feel a strong sense of control over where the company was going and couldn’t easily articulate why we were in business. So, core values seemed irrelevant to me.

This perspective changed in 2006 when I did a retreat with two of my early senior employees. We used the later chapters in E-Myth for our retreat and started with the Primary Aim. It was a powerful, eye-opening exercise that helped me dramatically change my point of view on the company. We established our core values to align with my own personal values, and started to use them as a foundation on which to base our future decisions. The company’s culture started to shift almost immediately, and a new, much more motivated and positive company attitude emerged.

Corporate Idealist: How did defining your core values contribute to being able to run a successful company? Has company culture been an important element in your success and maturity as a business?

Brooks: We defined our core values at the same time that we articulated our company purpose and vision. The effect of those three things was somewhat intangible, but it shifted a perception away from ‘I’m working for Brooks’ to working for a deeper, more individually fulfilling vision. It allowed people to buy in to the company’s purpose, spending energy on something that was in line with their own values and more satisfying than just a paycheck.

Core values, purpose and vision have absolutely helped us in our maturity, resulting in a more long-term approach to decision making, as well as more consistent success in recruiting and hiring.

Corporate Idealist: What did the road to maturity as a business owner and business leader look like for you?

Brooks: I would say that I’m still on this road to maturity as a business owner and leader, as I learn ways to improve myself and my leadership skills every day. The road to where I am now has already been quite a journey. My adventure has included incredible winning years, stressful losing years, partner challenges, constant growth, HR headaches, increasingly high standards and a quickly evolving role in it all.

I am currently managing an incredibly smart, capable team, and my new challenge is to stay ahead of them and provide the direction, goals, and accountability framework they need to perform. It’s tougher than you might think; they really keep me on my toes.

Corporate Idealist: What have been some of the stumbling blocks or setbacks you’ve experienced in growing your company?

Brooks: The biggest challenge for us was to manage the evolution of our biggest client, AOL. In 2006, they represented over 70% of our revenue. In 2007, they were around 15%. In 2008, they were an almost negligible percentage of our revenue. AOL was undergoing massive corporate changes in that period, so we suspected that this might be the case. We needed to replace that revenue quickly to maintain our momentum. In addition, we had been accustomed to servicing only 2 or 3 large clients at a time, so we also needed to build the architecture to be able to service a much larger and more diverse client roster.

It was not an easy task. I feel proud of what we’ve accomplished in the last 2 years. We now have a strong, diversified client base, a well-oiled infrastructure and a well-trained team of professionals to ensure a consistently high level of service.

Corporate Idealist: As we talk about Corporate Idealism on this blog, it’s about doing meaningful work, being creative in business, and focusing on the customer. A lot of your company’s history seems to parallel those values. Do you have any words of wisdom for our readers about being a real-world “Corporate Idealist” and business leader?

Brooks: Yes! I was recently reading some notes from a speech I gave to college students when I was a recent graduate myself. I had just started my first company and was just beginning to have a taste of success. I gave some advice back then that I still think is so relevant on many levels. I said “Success is not about our design (some people have questionable taste anyway), it’s not about our technical capabilities (some may not even realize that what we’re doing is as strategic as it is). We are successful only because we do everything we can to make the right people happy.”

I think this is still relevant because the ‘right’ people are often your customers, your client’s customers, your manager, your CEO, and your investors. No matter what business you’re in, success almost always boils back down to making the right people happy.

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 August 19

    Very enjoyable article and some great truths. The only issue I have is the closing comment about making the right people happy.

    Too often companies get so busy trying to make people happy — any people — they forget why they are in business or get off track from their own value system.

    Without the strong values discussed earlier in the interview this could lead to chasing a buck versus building a business serving like-minded clients.

    I know I am nitpicking, but if someone isn’t already clear on their own values (possibly a young person starting out in business), this advice could easily send them down the wrong track.

    I agree we need to make the right people happy — and in addition to customers etc, they should be people who share our values.

  2. 2009 August 19

    A worthwhile point, Bill. Thanks for the comment.

  3. 2009 August 28

    Nice article. I know of Brooks Bell Interactive and it is a people-oriented company and that is one of the most important aspects of any business. Brooks Bell is well on her way to being highly successful.

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