Hiring for Good Ep. 11 – Ryan Buchanan

Hiring for Good

It is always exciting to meet with a new guest in the studio, but we were not prepared for how meaningful and special our conversation with Ryan Buchanan would be. Speaking with Ryan about his journey as an entrepreneur, executive leader, and respected community organizer was like attending an unexpected professional development seminar you didn’t know you desperately needed. Ryan’s willingness to be vulnerable, discuss the setbacks he’s experienced along his path as well as his triumphs, and examine his desire to give back to his community after successfully scaling his company made for an engaging and motivating discussion. Particularly meaningful were Ryan’s thoughts on the definition of success, paying attention to who your heroes are, and the important ways those with privilege are called to show up.

Thank you for tuning in to Hiring For Good. This podcast episode is with Ryan Buchanan, Founder and Chairman, Thesis – a digital marketing agency..

Ryan Buchanan’s innate entrepreneurial and leadership talents have shaped his career. Early to conceptualize the inherent power of online communication, he grew an email marketing service into a full digital agency focused on strategic planning and creative execution. He is also the Co-founder of two nonprofits, SINE (Survival Is Not Enough) and Emerging Leaders PDX. Recently, Ryan won EY’s Pacific Northwest Entrepreneur of the Year award.

As Founder and Chairman of Thesis, a digital marketing agency, Ryan has over 21 years of experience in inspiring and partnering with great brands, such as Nike, Adobe, HP, Spotify, Oregon College Savings Plan, and Taco Bell. He has a marketing mindset with an innate curiosity to stay ahead of the frenetic pace of growth in digital marketing channels and trends. He is also a Section4 Certified Brand Strategist, with the skills and knowledge to build and manage powerful brands in the digital age.

Tanis Morris: Director of Business Development at Acumen Executive Search Email: tanis@acumenexecutivesearch.com

Suzanne Hanifin: President at Acumen Executive Search Email: suzanne@acumenexecutivesearch.com

Acumen Executive Search, Portland, Oregon, is proud to present the Hiring For Good Podcast. Follow Acumen Executive Search to be notified of new episodes.

Hiring for Good Transcript

0:00 hello everyone we’re here with Hiring for Good podcast discussing leadership

0:05 and transformation and lessons learned along the way uh I’m Tanis Morris and

0:12 I’m here with my trusted friend and co-host Suzanne Hanifin good morning and

0:17 our guest today is Ryan uh Ryan Buchanan

with a thesis and um I’m just going to

0:24 say a few words about Ryan before we get going so um Ryan’s innate

0:30 entrepreneurial and leadership talents have shaped his career he has founded multiple companies I was trying to count

0:37 exactly how many I’m not sure if we include uh companies and industry

0:42 associations and board leadership positions and uh nonprofit board positions over um decades and he uh is

0:52 also founder and chairman of thesis a digital marketing agency who has extensive experience representing

0:58 national nationally recognized brands and uh in recent efforts um he has

1:04 founded we believe in Portland which is a Grassroots Community organization dedicated to a vibrant and thriving

1:13 Portland our home city and he also is the founder of The Script uh a an agency

1:20 or what a social Enterprise removing barriers for diverse talented young

1:26 people seeking their their future in the workplace is that sum it up that’s my

1:31 bio I like how you you’ve written and reframed my bio so it’s kind of nice I

1:37 was like keep going all right well I mean there’s a lot of content and and of course we’ll ask you

1:42 to speak to um a little bit about your background so go ahead and flesh out so what I said and I’m anxious to hear uh

1:50 you know your delivery of of this journey yeah and I’m going to throw in there you know because this is a

1:57 learning podcast you know let us know those aha moments and what you’ve

2:02 learned and and what you would do different possibly okay yeah I uh I grew

2:09 up in suburbs of DC and uh fell in love with the Northwest uh in college after

2:16 my freshman year I drove in my wood panel station wagon and worked as a night janitor at Glacier National Park

2:24 um at Lake McDonald Lodge and then the next summer a bunch of my buddies were a

2:29 little jealous cuz that was such an adventurous amazing summer not the cleaning out the deep friers but like

2:35 everything else in Glacier uh that we came out and worked at Black Butte Ranch

2:41 um so uh again not glorious job of like

2:46 the being a dishwasher or what have you but um just in just paradise um and uh

2:52 fell in love made a couple um weekend trips to Portland and knew I was going to end end

2:59 up there so after I went to the University of Virginia after college moved out I um got a job as a finance uh

3:08 Financial Analyst at Intel their relo package moved my two best buddies and me out here um since we’ve all married

3:16 older women have two daughters who are now heading off to college or mine are already both there um and and live still

3:24 live close by and still super close but yeah and then so fast forward to uh

3:31 leaving in early 2000 Intel and starting

3:36 what was GC Materials which was kind of like DocuSign meets um base camp or some

3:45 project management system or air table what have you for the construction industry and I was at a pitch event this

3:53 is what Tanis and I were chatting before this and uh I co-founded this entrepreneur kind of tough

4:00 uh support group called StarveUps not Starbucks but StarveUps we were all starving startups and our our logo was a

4:07 peanut butter that we could live off of a jar of peanut butter for you know for a long time I believe the tagline was

4:12 operating on 90% less Revenue than Bay Area companies or something yeah we were scrappy uh but uh

4:21 a couple of the guys in that group were I don’t know if you met Leaf and Lars um

4:27 with cooler email but we started so the construction software company wasn’t

4:33 really working out great because it was way too far before its time and I was

4:39 you know just stumbling along with that and um so I started reselling this uh

4:46 email marketing software a lot like MailChimp just not as pretty actually and uh

4:52 we so and we also had freelancers that would help branded email templates and

4:59 tell that story and so we I really did a lot of networking in um in all these

5:06 business associations in Portland and so I got quite networked with a ton of CEOs and marketers to start um and started a

5:14 company called Email Roi that became EROI that then finally five years ago we

5:20 named it that with a with a real name Thesis uh that had more meaning to it

5:27 and um so we really we really grew in the small to midsize business place and

5:34 uh it was so it was through StarveUps that it really kind of um was able to use that as a platform to grow and then

5:42 some some major milestones of like almost business death failure of trying

5:49 to become a software company ourselves and um over the course of a

5:56 couple years realizing that that million and a half investment was not going to

6:02 work and we um yeah so when when I

6:08 officially pulled the plug on that effort we went from 41 employees down to about

6:14 12 and and a lot of that wasn’t layoff it was just a you know people saw the

6:20 writing on the wall the culture became toxic and I was you know perceived as a

6:26 pretty smart leader before and then I was now like the the dumbest CEO on the planet for allowing that to fail and and

6:35 I started to have many panic attacks I had tasted iron in the back of my throat almost had a heart attack all this stuff

6:41 and um I had to pay the bank back a half million dollars right and so I and pay

6:48 investors back and all this stuff so I basically it took five years to um dig

6:53 out of that hole and we went back to being to being much more transparent about being a digital agency and licensing

6:59 software instead of representing it as ourselves and then a couple years after

7:07 that low low point um you know didn’t have a heart attack all you know

7:12 survived we I used link like LinkedIn is a beautiful tool and so a friend actually

7:20 one of my sister’s close friends I saw through Linkedin that he was in a pivotal spot at Nike and that he was

7:26 even in Portland so just you know kind kind of struck you know hey you’re like let’s hang out and that led to us

7:34 becoming pretty quickly Nike’s email agency of record and since then we’ve grown significantly there and we’re now

7:41 almost 300 employees and and and we pivoted from having 300 plus small to

7:48 midsize uh business clients to having about a dozen that the Nike Taco Bell

7:54 Spotify a lot of major major Global um consumer brands and a few others and

8:02 then the other key milestone to bring up and then we’ll get to your questions um is I was at a um a business event that

8:13 was not I wasn’t hosting but 90 business owners in the room a lot of them my

8:18 friends again from um from doing all the networking and something that seems so obvious in retrospect but it really hit

8:26 me uh about half hour into the into the this important event I look around the

8:32 room and 85 of us are white men and uh three women and two men of color and I

8:39 was it was like a voice ca..coming to me and was like you are part of the problem

8:44 a big part of the problem because I had not used my network I hadn’t been

8:49 intentional about creating relationships in communities of color um and really

8:55 just there was just no intentionality so my company like almost like most

9:00 companies um not only in Portland but in every city reflect the the comfortable

9:07 networks that we have and not the you know intentional like life-giving you

9:12 know learning networks that we could have if we were more intentional and so I wrote a blog post called business

9:18 Portland um Portland business community two white two male and the effort was I

9:25 had gone to a friend of mine who uh guy named Ben sand and uh a few months later one of our one of

9:32 my entrepreneur friends Sue Embry joined as co-founding this nonprofit called The Script where um that that blog post was

9:40 basically a call to action to CEOs of like hey you know why don’t you participate in this program thought we’d

9:45 get like maybe a half dozen and we had 35 wow companies sign up that first

9:51 summer and since then we place about uh anywhere from 100 to 150 college so we’ve placed over the

9:58 past 8 years 800 60 college students and recent College grads of color at um 150

10:04 Portland companies so and that’s led to some really rich relationships um close

10:10 friendships and the last thing I’d say on that is I launched uh about five months ago a um

10:20 entrepreneurs CEOs of color small group called Blueprint Founder Circle focused

10:26 on building generational wealth and we have um we have folks like Rakyah Adams

10:32 and um and Alice Tang come in as uh as

10:38 guest speakers and just really foster really a sense of empowerment and um how

10:43 do we build value not only in our companies real estate and the things that make up wealth but you know shift

10:50 our mindset and support one another as we grow our businesses so it’s been it’s

10:55 been an awesome journey and uh here we are at Thesis I guess the last main point is I um a couple years ago I uh

11:05 shifted things over to my now business partner a woman named Keelie York who run

11:10 is now CEO of Thesis been around for 22 years but she’s really been instrumental

11:17 and way more skilled operationally than I am um and we have a good chemistry

11:23 she’s just has incredible business intuition and um

11:29 and is like uh can read a room well it’s a little skeptical of um certain

11:35 situations where I’m like this annoying optimist so we have this good balance

11:41 that meets in the middle and um so I think she’s been a big part of why we’ve grown so much recently um and then we

11:49 the last thing I’d say is that we moved into this 40,000 ft Mass Timber

11:55 beautiful building that we want to be the hub of community so we we partner with a lot of other uh events we’ve had

12:01 are we believe in Portland Afterparty with a couple hundred people there and um moved into that building five months

12:07 ago um in on the edge of Slabtown okay wonderful I think that is amazing and

12:13 again talk about this journey and lessons you were at a ultimate low and

12:21 and really you said it took five years to kind of pay it off and to keep building talk to me about other

12:29 formative lessons you’ve learned because that’s a huge learning to go from 40

12:35 employees you said down to 12 yep and now 300 yeah so I did kind of a top 10

12:43 list of uh learning from failure and I I actually really enjoyed talking about failure because it was so painful at

12:51 least I can have some nuggets to talk about and not like uh just drown in my

12:57 tears but um I the biggest lesson is um be careful who

13:05 your heroes are and uh that is like when I create when we shifted to

13:13 become uh more of a software company I looked to build my board and I

13:18 looked at a lot of um uh like really successful software

13:24 entrepreneurs whose values didn’t align with mine at all but I was so a gamed

13:29 with their business success that I um yeah so I just you know looked up to

13:37 these folks who scale these you know big you know companies and all that and then

13:43 I didn’t really take stock in like oh they got divorced right after they sold

13:48 their company they like um they just did a lot of immoral things you know like

13:54 things like that and you know that isn’t uh it just created

14:00 I realize instead of like looking up to the not only folks within my network but

14:06 also the Steve Jobs of the world and all of that like really my heroes are more people like my dad like my mom who are

14:13 entrepreneurs who just you know were in it for the long haul they um they just

14:19 have really really strong values and uh they built community all along the way

14:24 so really my um my goal has always been

14:30 to use thesis as a platform for good in the community and that’s what you know

14:37 with we believe in Portland with the script I can be so much more successful

14:42 attached to uh my company and you know inspire and influence 300 employees to

14:50 role model it for the city rather than sell the company and be just

14:57 another not not I don’t want to paint the picture of like all like you know

15:03 middle-aged white men who sell their companies are then depressed but like I just would like I think there is

15:09 actually a pretty high you’re not off yeah but just to ha…

15:14 just think that there’s real power in the long-term commitment to community

15:21 into place and to to people um to to lift them up and inspire you know

15:27 inspire city but also goal and in my life now is really to try to be more

15:33 behind the scenes more on boards and like you know you have other people um

15:39 lead the way and me to be kind of a right you know right behind the scenes

15:45 doesn’t always work out like that with we believe in Portland and stuff like that I you know um but I’m trying to

15:51 find someone to like you know be out in front so anyway it’s a work in progress

15:56 well and it’s interesting because in recruiting you know we talk about this match between values and cultures and and

16:04 goals and in as an employee employer if those are off it doesn’t last a long you

16:11 know the longevity is not there that’s interesting that you brought it up for board members because again it is that

16:19 relationship that critical relationship has to be there and that alignment I me it’s power structures too right so yeah

16:27 and I I think another they I think CEOs are the limiting factor of the health and growth of

16:35 companies and as one gains more self-awareness for example one of my

16:41 weaknesses is I when I was CEO I would

16:47 allow um often newer exacts uh manage up

16:52 really well to me and not be and so I was fooled that they were doing a good

16:59 job when really their teams were suffering and because they weren’t managing their teams well um and

17:06 sometimes their the values alignment was off so it’s sometimes it’s hard in a podcast when you’re listening of like

17:14 getting generic um you need to communicate better you need to have values alignment it’s it’s hard to see

17:21 that when you’re in it yeah so it has been helpful to step back a little bit

17:28 from well not in the day-to-day at all but to you can see things more clearly

17:34 when you’re when you’re not because I’m so uh I so love people I can just look

17:41 past certain things and focus on their you know what I really love about

17:46 someone um but their teams you know can suffer when that when that happens so I

17:53 I’m trying to get more self-aware yeah well I mean I think it it’s really interesting hearing hearing

17:59 you so humbly speak about um some of the areas that you’ve experienced you know

18:05 opportunities for growth or or that have been challenging or even dark times you know everybody goes through that really

18:12 and those those are where we learn you already kind of touched on it without us even asking you but um when you go

18:21 through these experiences they really crystallize what your values are so at thesis and then in on the boards that

18:28 you sit on you know what are the personal values that you hold that um

18:34 you Tred to instill in the organizations you participate with yeah I think I mean

18:40 one of the ones that again I’ve been I think it’s more

18:45 instinctively Keelie’s role modeled it really really well and I’ve gotten better at it and still not quite as good

18:51 as her at it is having uh is healthy conflict like having hard conversations

18:57 with grace I think is humans and especially Portland nice like there’s a

19:02 lot of um you know trying hard to be nice when that doesn’t benefit uh it

19:10 really exacerbates and allows for a situation to to build up and get worse

19:17 versus like nipping it in the bud and just calling it out um and especially in

19:23 a creative agency where your product is your people and um a lot of uh sometimes

19:32 in an agency atmosphere it’s becomes a lot of feelings management instead of like how

19:39 is like how is this helping the company and how is this helping our clients um

19:45 and so there’s a balance there of empathy um balance with accountability

19:52 and that serves everyone well so I don’t I don’t know if I fully answered your

19:57 question but I just think that that one value I think is one that we’re trying to put as much effort into as possible

20:04 and so when you’re looking about building teams and expanding beyond your you know

20:12 your mission what’s the approach and how do you take those values to scale and to

20:20 operationalize um so I mean one one of the under like if you go to our website

20:27 at thesis we’re really trying to highlight the humans behind the work and

20:33 and a lot of times um agencies across the country I

20:39 think the averages is like it’s 88% white employees and yet the

20:45 consumers that we serve like we’re the country is going to be a minority majority in the next you know 15 years


so our project teams should reflect the consumers that we serve and they don’t

20:58 and so we really want to highlight um the people making the work and um and

21:05 you know the get the human often times the best marketing message that comes

21:11 out is the origin story of that company of where that product is really coming

21:16 from the people behind it so um so anyway uh I got lost on that one on that

21:25 one thought I don’t think I fully answered your question well and previous to starting this podcast

21:32 you said that in your industry it’s a two-year long longevity of employment

21:38 yeah there’s a lot of turnover right so when you’re looking at building teams and especially on your leadership team

21:45 you know matching the who your customers are that’s important but what other aspects do you bring in when you are

21:55 hiring so our industry is you know there’s some is going through a tough

22:01 time like especially in Portland you probably saw Weiden and Kennedy did massive layoffs instrument and few others we’ve

22:08 had to do some small adjustments um with Workforce reduction but have made some

22:16 adjustments and and communicated really transparently along the way I think um you know when we’re in

22:27 that tough spot from from an executive standpoint hiring Executives who’ve been

22:33 through hard things um uh there’s a book uh the hard thing about hard things I

22:39 mean it it’s much more helpful because otherwise if someone hasn’t been

22:47 through um a tough thing like a layoff or what have you there it’s going to be

22:53 such a shock to the system that it’s uh they like aren’t going to

22:59 stick around long um I’m giving you very topical uh things of like the in the

23:07 moment and I’m I I’m realizing that I’m really focusing on the hard things but I think that you know we we went through a

23:15 pandemic and then business-wise certain um Industries like our company actually

23:23 really benefited uh we we tripled in size in two years um um in 21 and 22 and

23:31 then at the end of 22 it was like wow we went from hiring 175 people per year um

23:39 for two years to like we got caught up in the lack of accountability and not

23:46 being close to maybe our more mid-level managers that were saying we need to

23:52 hire more more more because our people are overworked when in fact um the data

23:58 didn’t really support that and so um so that’s why I’m getting to this place

24:05 where they’re not only within thesis but you know I mentioned other agencies and

24:11 then I’m actually a judge for uh Ernst & Young entrepreneur of the Year award and so across the whole Mountain West States

24:18 and so I have like 70 different data points of applications of um of the best

24:25 of the best companies like all really going through hard things and 23 and then still uncertainty um in the first

24:32 half of this year so I I I really value executives who’ve been through hard

24:37 things well and you mentioned three big core values and I’m going to repeat them

24:44 um as you take this approach of scaling growing or rightsizing your organization

24:50 and you mentioned empathy a few times sure transparency and

24:56 accountability and it’s those are big topics and hard words

25:01 to operationalize right but when you’re looking at these 70 Ernst & Young

25:08 entrepreneurs a year do you take those type of qualities and is that part of the measurement or is it just on revenue

25:16 and scale I mean it’s half and half you look at my takeaway is looking at these

25:24 applications and all these executive teams doing the

25:31 hard things but it may not show up in the financial numbers for several years

25:36 because it takes a while to um for that to turn around the bottom line um but we

25:46 not only within organizations but I think city governments and cascaded throughout the country there was this

25:54 you know initially with the pandemic is we’re all going to die and then it’s

26:00 like okay we’re going to live um but uh we have to drastically change how we

26:06 work and I I think hybrid um in terms of remote versus in inperson work is like

26:13 the the future um but I just think and especially for those of us who

26:21 have a lot of you know 20s and 30 somethings employees I think learning what

26:28 accountability really looks like is a really tough process to go through and I think we’re in that right now across all

26:36 organizations absolutely that’s really interesting well our last question that we ask is um what does hiring for good

26:43 mean to you yeah I mean so a huge uh part of our values we a b Corp and um we

26:52 believe that business is a Force for good which we’ve also gotten the

26:57 positive affirm that employees new employees like seek us out and our existing employees like

27:04 really appreciate that we have a third party like um borp you know kind of

27:09 validate that um not only of how we treat our people but um how we show for the planet and all that um but yeah I

27:17 just think hiring for good is I I’m going to try really hard not to

27:23 not give the platitude but it is like the values alignment that is you

27:29 know are employees going to show up to volunteer are they are they but

27:38 also are they going to be motivated to show up for clients and like you know if

27:44 there are some setbacks with their cat getting sick or what have you that

27:50 they’re not going to take the month off like they might have like I’m like exaggerating but but you know when in

27:56 2020 um so I think um hiring for good is

28:03 just hiring like really well balanced employees who and executives who are you

28:11 know willing to do the hard things but then show up

28:16 for their community and and get outside of the office walls to like engage in

28:24 community efforts um so that’s what it means to me I think I think it can mean a ton of things to different people but

28:30 I I love the that you’re planting the seed of you know thoughts become things

28:37 and so if you’re having all these interviews with different execs to think

28:42 about every hire that they make is like how am I hiring for good I think that’s a good reminder well and I’m gonna ask one

28:48 more question if I can because you’ve had such a journey and ups and downs

28:54 what advice would you have given your 20-year-old self

29:00 I you know I think it’s the ups and the downs are all part

29:06 of it and I think it’s all a gift especially in retrospect because when

29:12 you’re going through it it is not a gift um it is pain um but yeah I don’t think

29:19 I’d do anything differently because it’s all led me to where I am so I love that

29:26 what a great journey yeah thanks thank you so much it was such a pleasure we just um really I knew this was going

29:34 to be a really interesting interview and um you did not disappoint wonderful some great

29:40 takeaways and I think for our audience as well so yes appreciate you all right thanks y thanks for joining us today at

29:47 hiring for good if you were inspired by our conversation don’t forget to like follow And subscribe wherever you get

29:53 your podcast and if you want to learn more about our executive Search services check us out at www.hiringforgood.net

30:01 or our company website Acumen Executive Search thanks so much and

30:06 don’t forget to join us next time for another in-depth conversation about transformational leadership till then

30:12 have fun