Grant Leonard is a marketing wunderkind. While most of his peers are out seeking corporate careers, Grant is already 3 years into running his own digital marketing agency in Arlington, Virginia at only 25 years old. Grant is an up-and-coming Vendasta partner and an entrepreneur to watch due to his expertise, enthusiasm, and innate business acumen.
The Local Marketing Diaries series shares the journeys of business owners and entrepreneurs as they strive to grow and scale their businesses. This is Grant's story, as told to Patrick Liddy of Vendasta.
I LOVE running a business because every day I have the opportunity to decide how I should move forward and improve. I get to come in every day and build my story. But I honestly never saw this coming. Back when I began working for a startup right out of college, I had no idea that six months after joining the company, I'd be starting my own!
Before I began in business, I had the opportunity to receive a private education here in DC.
I'm very grateful and fortunate that I went to a very competitive all-boys prep high school that drove me to a high level of academic, athletic, and even community service achievement. That education taught me a lot about leadership, service, gratitude, and what it takes to be a man.
After graduating, I went to Virginia Tech with the intent of getting a business degree followed by a law degree. The idea was to try to be a sports or entertainment agent—a cross between Jerry Maguire and Ari Gold (laughs).
I was a good student, I got good grades, had a good SAT score, and I did well enough on the LSAT to go to law school.
However, my close family friend, Scott Berg , had launched a startup and had another idea for me.
Scott called me and asked, “Hey, so what are you doing after school?”
I told him my general Law school plans and he replied, “Well, how about you come work for me, my company needs some marketing support and no one on the team has a marketing degree. On top of getting great experience, I’ll introduce you to people that you otherwise wouldn’t necessarily meet. I'll take you to meetings that otherwise you might not be going to. Then who knows? Maybe by the time you're 30, you’ll be starting your own company.”
How does that sound?”
At that point, while I did well academically, I wasn't necessarily working very hard, wasn't very motivated by academia, or with the prospect of three more years of it in law school. I decided that making an entry-level salary doing something that my undergrad education allowed me to do sounded pretty good!
That's how I began as a marketing associate working for a startup right out of school.
Scott was and is a tremendous mentor to me. He continuously exposed and conditioned me to the types of conversations that entrepreneurs, investors and founders were having, even inviting me to networking events in that world.
One time, we had just arrived at this event and he says, “Hey, I have to run, I just got a phone call and I have to go put out a fire.” He left me there on my own, which could have intimidated me, but I just went in there, mingled, and talked to people.
So I was very familiar with how people who start companies operate, and encouraged to make my own path.
After six months of working for his company, Scott called me in on a Sunday for what I assumed was my 6-month performance review.
We were a startup, a small company, and Scott is a family friend so I didn't think that a Sunday thing was that weird.
In this meeting he walked me through all the things that we had discussed over the last six months. Both tactically for my marketing efforts, and also more enterprise, future-focused in terms of considering what I wanted to do beyond this job.
He asked me to circle on a whiteboard all the things in the skills and experience section that I was good at. I circled all the social media stuff.
Startup founders and small business owners don't have the time to do #socialmedia themselves and they don't necessarily want to hire a full-time person for it. They just need an in-between solution.Click To Tweet
Then he went through the structural framework things and asked, “Okay, so in the meetings, conversations, events, and articles that I've exposed you to, what do you think people need right now?” This was 2015 and social media marketing was an ever-growing need, so again I pointed to social media.
Next, he asked, “So what's a big problem that these people are having?” From my experiences, I knew that startup founders and small business owners don't have the time to do social media themselves and they don't necessarily want to hire a full-time person for it. They just need an in-between solution. So again, I said social media.
He responded, “OK, do you think at a certain price point with a certain scope of work more than one person would buy something like that?”
I replied, “Of course!”
So finally he dropped this on me, “OK, Grant, most entrepreneurs never jump off the cliff because they don't have anyone to push them, but I'm going to push you…”
“You're fired, and I'm going to help you start your own company.”
I was stunned.
I was like “WTF, are you serious?” But he replied, “Yeah, you're ready for this. You literally just drew up your company on that whiteboard and three window panes! There's a demand for what you wrote there, and you have the skillset, so you have the supply.”
Scott had masterfully mentored me to realize something that was right in front of me, but I didn't even realize. That's the beauty of mentorship right there.
Plus, he told me, “I'm not just stranding you out on an island. I will help you start this company. In fact, I’ll be your first client!”
So, at the age of 22, my former employer became my first client.
His next advice was, “This is where you decide what existence you want to have. This is where you build the livelihood that you want to have. This is one of those moments where you make a big life decision and need to have the will to follow up on your own decision.”
I was scared shitless, but I started a company about three weeks after he effectively fired me, and here I am!
The sequence of events that happened next is kind of crazy. I moved out of my parents’ house on March 1st 2015. I started the company on March 5th. I turned 23 on March 13th. Then, on March 27th I tore my ACL playing lacrosse.
I had about as much money saved as you'd expect someone six months into their first job out of college to have.
I didn't have any clients beyond my former company.
I had to start this company, build a website, create a pricing sheet, produce marketing collateral and figure out a way to get some clients. Plus, now I’ve torn my ACL and have to rebuild my body while building a company.
When all my friends were working 9-5 and going to happy hour, I was working! I was building my business and rehabbing my knee.
When all my friends were working 9-5 and going to happy hour, I was working! I was building my #business.Click To Tweet
But I wasn’t alone...you can’t do it alone!
I had my mentor plus some generous people who took meetings with me, had coffee with me, had lunch with me, got on the phone with me, offering some time and a nickel's worth of free advice.
The support came basically in getting a nurturing nudge in the right direction when I needed it. I had some people who saw motivation, persistence and grit in me. My first couple clients invested in me when I barely had a website (I built it myself on Wix and it wasn't very good), and I didn't even have my own social media channel going since I didn’t have time to do that.
I had no credibility, but I had a story.
My first clients bought into that story. However, I couldn’t scale it on my own. Although in the first two years I built out a nice portfolio of clients, I was only selling my time and my work was owning me.
Once I finally got back on my feet with the ACL in 2016, I charged ahead, working 12 to 16 hour days seven days a week.
As I was quickly being consumed in the quicksand of my work, I was by myself a lot. There were many long nights and early mornings, being by myself in the office.
I burned out three times. Real burnouts. One time, I almost couldn't finish my walk home because I was about to just collapse on the ground from exhaustion. The last burnout was May of 2017 where I fell asleep at 7 pm and slept for 18 hours—that was after I hired a bunch of interns that ended up being more time and effort to manage than anticipated.
I was exhausted all the time, and my relationships were suffering. I didn’t have time for a doctor's appointment or even for a client to call me with a question because I was so underwater in the fulfillment work of my business.
After several months like this, I realized that I had to start saying no, to prioritize things, and to get some help.
You see guys like Gary Vaynerchuk talk about working 18 hours every day. You see all sorts of blog posts from people who condone that, saying this is what startup life is. In truth, there is a time when you literally must do that just to survive and get the cash in order to get some help, but it’s not sustainable long term.
This was a tough lesson for me as a startup owner, but you have to learn how to say no. There's always going to be someone who’s upset. There's always going to be an expectation that you let down. Everything’s a trade-off. So there's always going to be something that you can't do.
By learning how to say no...that leads to better yeses.
I was literally the president, CEO, social media manager, accountant, intern, and executive assistant all in one!
If I had work for a client with 5 social media channels getting daily content, I was creating all that content. It wasn't sustainable, so I waved the white flag and made my first hire.
I started by bringing in a couple folks to help me between January and August 2017, and then in August I came across Vendasta and kicked off a partnership in late September.
It’s now two of us here in DC plus Vendasta doing the fulfillment work.
As I progressed and evolved from constantly working and being consumed with my work, I realized I was also making the mistake of identifying myself with my work.
If The Grant Leonard Group wins or loses, to me it means that Grant wins or loses.
I shifted my perspective. I decided to look at it like I have a job and I work for a company that I happen to own. This helped me remember that when someone insults my company, they’re not necessarily insulting me as an individual.
I realized okay, I really really really care about this because I own it and it's mine, but there are important people like my parents, my girlfriend, and my friends who also really really really care about me and would like to see me. And when they do see me, they need me to be present and not to be overcome by what’s going on with my work. I also need to take care of myself as the most important asset to cultivate a stronger mind, body, and spirit.
I need to take care of myself as the most important asset to cultivate a stronger mind, body, and spirit.Click To Tweet
When push comes to shove, I needed to prioritize and create a better perspective around my work. I decided to make some changes.
I got an office.
I don't work at home anymore.
I leave my laptop and iPad at the office.
I take most weekends off.
I stopped scheduling more than six hours of my day—I'm now controlling my day within an eight hour time frame. I started working on my business as opposed to in my business, and that allowed me to develop a more refined process.
Despite running a social media and digital marketing company, I spend a marginal to minimal amount of personal time on social media. It's how I disconnect. By operating less and working less, I’m accomplishing so much more!
I took a commitment to nutrition and fitness, so the first part of my day is spent journaling, doing interval training, practicing yoga, meditating, and doing breathing exercises. I even have an inversion table where I hang upside down like a bat for up to 20 minutes every day.
Yes, my stress and work challenges come into my head and try to infiltrate there, but I know that that's not where I'm going to solve those problems.
Now, I'm doing the things to put my body, my mind, and my spirit in a position where I can operate at a peak level of performance.
What’s Next for The GLG?
Right now, I have 1x goals and 10x goals.
The 1x goals are the ones that I'm actively striving for and building out processes to achieve.
Things like hitting a certain amount of clients who pay a certain amount per month, at a certain contract length. Or we get a particular amount of new customers per month, and we're doing an array of different services or deploying diversified products etc.
The next step is to further bolster my team of empowered professionals, people who take ownership of their role.Click To Tweet
The next step is to further bolster my team of empowered professionals, people who take ownership of their role. We're going to continue to build out our presence here in DC, which is still very much a traditional business ecosystem where face-to-face networking is a huge deal. Once we’ve built out our presence here in DC, we can then explore new markets - perhaps out west or abroad - by leveraging digital channels to drive new business.
The idea is to get to a point where I am empowered to say alright, I’m going to Denver, Colorado for the next 3 months to try to plant some seeds out there. It's going to take some growth here in DC before I'm a position to do that and that's the cool part. That's the fun part.
Then there are the 10x goals.
What I want to eventually achieve as a 10x goal is to become a speaker and author to apply my experience, my background, my network, and my resources to mentoring other people. I’d love to find myself in a position where I can write and speak about my experience and apply that in order to help others.
I think ultimately if we're not paying it forward then what the hell are we doing it for?
I certainly have a long way to go to get there, but when I look back, I see that I've learned so much since my decision to launch The Grant Leonard Group. I've experienced more, I've failed at more, I’ve been more fulfilled, and I've been more satisfied than I ever thought was possible!
I love waking up every day knowing that I get to go construct what I think my business could be. It’s an invigorating lifestyle, one of opportunity and adrenaline, and one that I am very grateful for.
As told to Patrick Liddy exclusively for Vendasta. Design by Rory Lawford. Vendasta is the #1 platform for agencies selling digital solutions to local businesses. We empower you to acquire, retain, and grow your client base. Want to be featured in a future Local Marketing Diaries episode? Just let me know in the comments below or reach out here.