Jeff Hilimire is Co-Founder and CEO of Dragon Army, an Atlanta-based mobile and innovation company that helps clients navigate today’s connected landscape through the use of new innovations and technology. Prior to that, Jeff founded and sold two additional marketing agencies, Spunlogic and Engauge, within a 10-year span.
Jeff has over 19 years of industry experience and serves on the boards of the American Marketing Association (AMA), The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce as well as Central Outreach and Advocacy Center. He is also Co-Founder and Board Chair of 48in48, a nonprofit that builds 48 nonprofit websites within 48 hours in cities across the world. Jeff is alumni to Leadership Atlanta’s graduating class of 2013 and is both an Atlanta Business Chronicle 40 under 40 and Most Admired CEO award recipient.
Outside of work, Jeff enjoys spending time with his wife of 19 years, Emily, and their five children.
Shantel: Hi Jeff. Welcome to the Imagine More Podcast.
Jeff: Thanks for having me.
Shantel: Of course. We’re excited to learn more, all about your company and all the projects you have going on. To kick things off, will you tell our listeners a little bit about Dragon Army and how you got started?
| BUILDING THE DRAGON ARMY |
Jeff: Yeah, sure. Happy to. I started Dragon Army four years ago. We’re a mobile and innovation company. We’re one part agency. We get to work with large clients on mobile innovation projects, which is really fun, but then we have our own studio where we get to work on our own product, and mostly, that’s mobile games. We build mobile apps for businesses, for example, and then we get to make our own mobile games. The company is just a little over 30 people today. It’s been great these four years. We’ve had a tremendous 2017. Everything is pointed in the right direction heading into next year.
Shantel: Thirty people in four years, that’s amazing.
Jeff: Thanks. I appreciate it.
Shantel: I know you’ve had some experience just in with some offline conversations of starting other companies. Can you tell everyone a little bit about how Dragon Army, what the shift was, and the connection between some previous businesses?
Jeff: My first company I started in college. It was called Spunlogic. It was an agency as well, more web design. We grew that to about 75 people over 10 years. We sold that company, which then became Engauge. All this was in Atlanta, by the way. Engauge was also an agency that was anywhere between 200 and 250 people over the next five years. We sold Engauge to Publicis which merged our team with Moxie four years ago, which is when I started Dragon Army. The agency world has been something I’ve been involved in since college, since I started my first company. Mobile gaming was an entirely new endeavor.
Shantel: Did you always know you wanted to be in the marketing agency space even when you were younger?
Jeff: No. I don’t know that I knew the word marketing when I was younger. I went to college. I was a computer science major, but I wanted to play tennis. I thought I wanted to be a professional tennis player. I had no ambition of starting a company, doing anything in marketing until Raj Choudhury, my college roommate and I, decided to start a company building websites. Everything took off from there.
Shantel: Looking back, was there anything that really stands out that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?
Jeff: You know what’s funny is, if I had known then how hard it would be, how much credit card debt I would personally rack up in the first run, the odds of a startup or entrepreneurship journey working, I probably never would have done it. I’m glad that I had no foresight and just started fresh and made lots of mistakes, but that’s the only way to do it.
Shantel: I’m sure that’s really encouraging, but it is still a lot of fun and you learn every day. It certainly can be really daunting and scary and draining sometimes.
Jeff: I think you have to be willing to take the risk and know that most likely it’s not going to work out. If your life is only going to be fulfilled if you give it a try, then you just have to jump off that cliff.
Shantel: Speaking of being a little drained or taking those risks, what do you do to recharge and stay focused and inspired?
Jeff: It’s a great question. I don’t think I had a good answer to that until I started having a family. My oldest son is 13 now. For the last 13 years I’ve had a family. They allow me to really forget about everything, step back, recharge, and then when I go back to work on Monday or after a holiday, I have a new perspective. It’s definitely spending time with the family and the kids that allow me to just take a break and think about other things.
Shantel: Have they started to express an interest in also owning their own business one day?
Jeff: That’s a great question. I try really hard not to push my goals and hopes of trying to live my life through them. What I try to do is expose them to entrepreneurship that Dad has a company and what does that mean, so that that’s an option for them. The only one that’s old enough, my 13-year-old, to really be thinking about what he wants to do with his life, he actually wants to be an actor or a writer, which that was not my path, so I’m thrilled that he’s excited about that. My dad was an entrepreneur. He had his own vending company. He never talked to me about running a company, but when the time came for me to make that decision, it wasn’t foreign to me and I knew it was an option. I think having entrepreneurial parents or mentors or family members helps people go, “Yeah, all right, that’s one of my options,” so that it’s not as daunting.
Shantel: I love that. We actually had, I believe he’s your business partner for 48in48, on this show, Adam Walker as well. He touched a little bit on that of exposing the children to that. I thought it was interesting that you both mentioned it from that angle.
Jeff: Awesome. He’s the best. I’m glad you had him.
Shantel: I’ve been following your blog for some time now. It seems like writing comes naturally to you and your son or your oldest. When did you start writing, brain dumping, some of these thoughts and sharing it with the world?
Jeff: It’s interesting. I started blogging I think in 2009. I did it because Engauge needed to really stay on top of social. This is early in the Facebook days and Twitter days. I went through a process where I had, I don’t know, maybe 100 employees reporting to me.
Shantel: Are you there? Hi Jeff. Welcome. Jeff, from following your blog for some time now, and it seems like writing comes naturally to you and your eldest, but what sparked that idea to brain dump all of that information and share it with the rest of the world?
| BLOG LIFE |
Jeff: Thanks. I never saw myself as a writer and never did any writing really until in 2008-2009 Engauge needed to find its way into social for our clients. I decided the best way for me to understand social is to be in it. I created a blog. The first year or so of that blog that I wrote about social media and trends and so forth, and then as I started to get more comfortable, I started writing more about things that I was interested in. Now it’s evolved into a place where I share a lot of things that I’m working on and thinking about with my companies, with the nonprofits that I get involved in with, the things that at that moment are important to me. It’s funny, if you look back, I don’t know, a year and a half ago, you’ll see me writing a lot about a company’s cash flow and their runway. That’s because we were struggling with that at Dragon Army back then. Now you’re going to find I’m writing a lot about purpose and the importance of that for a company. I really enjoy it. It’s very much almost like a diary for me. It’s the way that I can get my thoughts out. I find, too, as your company grows, it’s a nice way as a leader to not have to hold a big town hall and give a big speech. You can also do it through something like a blog where your employees can read and understand the things that you find important and make sure that everybody’s on the same page.
Shantel: I love that. I struggle personally with just articulating the vision and the excitement behind what we’re doing. I also am not super crazy about writing. I’m trying to find some outlet. Maybe the podcast will be that for me. It’s nice to hear that you can try different things and feel what clicks best for you to share with the team.
Jeff: For sure. I’ve tried podcasts too, by the way. You’re already doing a much better job than one person.
Shantel: I thank you for saying that minus some WiFi hiccups. Is there anything that’s still on your plate that you’re eager at one point in your life soon to pass off?
Jeff: You mean things that I do that somebody else can be doing?
Shantel: Mm-hmm. Some things that you wear the hat for that one day you’re hoping to pass off.
Jeff: Yeah. I think at Dragon Army we’re still small enough. It’s funny, I was just talking to Adam Walker about this an hour ago. We’re still small enough where I have to manage my schedule completely and set up meetings and all these things, things that I have had as Engauge was much larger, an assistant that could help me with those things. I do think as you scale your business and as you grow as a leader and if you get involved in things outside of that that take your time, that your time becomes the most precious commodity that you have. Finding ways to take the things off your plate that someone else could help you with and focus on the things that are your real gifts, that the more you can do that, the more successful you will be. I think it’s a constant struggle, having a large family, having community and doing good things that are important to me and then having my company, that it is a struggle constantly to figure out how can I get more things off my plate and say no, quite frankly, to things that distract me from what I should be doing.
Shantel: Speaking about optimizing your day, do you have any tools or systems or planner? How do you work through your day and really prioritize what’s most important?
Jeff: That’s great. I use a color coding system in Google Calendars to designate time in the office, things that are more personal, things that are doing good in the community, things like that, so I can look across a week and go, “Oh man, I’m spending way too much time out of the office this week. I need to reshape that.” That’s one half that I’ve used. I definitely try to look at my calendar very frequently and make sure that I’m not spending too much time on things that I shouldn’t be. I heard a lecture once where a CEO talked about his calendar. He said, “I used to think that the busier my calendar was, the better because that meant, man, I’m doing all these things.” What he came to realize was that the more empty his calendar was, the better because that made sure that he had time to react to what he needed to react to, that he had time for his team when they needed him, and that he had time to think and process and look at the vision of the company. I struggle with that, but to me, that would be ideal that there’s huge segments of your calendar that are free as a leader to be able to do those things.
Shantel: I appreciate you sharing that. On the other spectrum, this idea of 15 meetings a week, and you’re kind of a local celebrity on the podcast; a lot of people have mentioned that they learned this from you, but they’ve shared that their goal has now become setting 15 meetings a week that can grow your company. I’d love to hear from you, with that in mind, is that still a big focus for you? Do you still stand behind that as a route to your success?
| 15 MEETINGS PER WEEK METHOD |
Jeff: Yeah. That comes from the idea, I’ve probably told you that, I’m guessing, before. I tend to tell everybody that one thing. It comes from the idea that if you’re trying to grow a company, especially a company that has clients, and that would be the difference between a startup that’s building a product where you need a million people to download your SAS product, when you have clients and networking and relationship building and reputation are key to getting new business, I think you have to be focused on that. The 15 meetings a week, I do more than 15 meetings a week. That’s the baseline that I give people who ... It’s sort of the most shocking number when they first hear it. They’re like, “What? Fifteen a week?” I do much more than that. It makes you go, “Oh my gosh, I have to reshape the way I’m spending my time.” I feel like if you don’t have somebody at the top, preferably the CEO, as focused on growth as possible, what happens is then the company tends to scale only when the CEO has time. Otherwise, they get distracted if they’re … I’m lucky that I’m the worst at everything at my company except sales. When we win new business, they’re not asking me my opinion on the user experience for the mobile app. That would be crazy because out of 30 people, I’m the 30th most experienced in that. It allows me to not fall into the trap of okay we won this new business, now I’m going spend two months onboarding it. I just think focusing on growth, making that a key part of your life, and then, again, getting the rigor around your schedule of I’m going to be out there, I’m going to be meeting with people, I’m going to grow my network; I think that’s an invaluable tool for a leader.
Shantel: I’m glad that you touched on that. We’ve spoken offline a little bit about that too. I’m so excited to share that we have a sales admin joining us in January to just help with the proposal and onboarding process and an office manager to help with some of the ordering office supplies that’s still on my plate, so that I really can focus on that, so thank you for that advice.
Jeff: That is awesome. Congratulations.
Shantel: Thank you.
Jeff: That’s a big step. That’s a big step.
Shantel: We are really excited. Let’s shift gears to your nonprofit and some of the work that you do in the community. We’d love to hear about that.
Jeff: I went through a life-changing experience in 2012-2013. I went through Leadership Atlanta. What I really learned through that process, it’s a leadership program. It’s about a year long. What I learned was even though I have worked hard and even though I have pushed through tough times to keep the business alive and keep going, I was still born with a tremendous amount of privilege simply by luck. There are so many people ... Anyone that is not a white male, just to begin with, is at a disadvantage to me. I realized that and decided that I needed to really find ways to use my talent of growing companies to do good in the world. 48in48 was my first chance to do that. In 2013, I went through Leadership Atlanta. By 2015, I had come up with the idea of 48in48 and was ready to pilot it. I grabbed Adam Walker as a co-founder. The idea is to build 48 nonprofit websites in 48 hours. He probably told you about it but we now ... so that we did it in Atlanta the first year. Now next year we’re going to six cities, including London. We’re doing our first international city. The big goal is to do 48 of these on the same weekend in 2025 across the globe. Each event donates, and you guys have helped with those events, so I appreciate that, each event donates about $1.5 million of value to that city’s nonprofit. When we do 48 in a weekend, we’ll be effectively donating $75 million across the globe with about 10,000 volunteers. That I’m really excited about because I think that it can impact the world, and it’s something that I can, again, use the experience that I’ve built up in scaling and building businesses to help do some good.
Shantel: Thanks so much. One, it’s amazing, the vision and the goals for that company. I can’t wait to watch you guys achieve them all. I think so much of you growing businesses, you have just an innate ability to build a really strong team. Do you have any advice or single things that really resonated when you were growing your team that you would want to share with others of the importance of that or any tips and tricks?
Jeff: Yeah. It’s the most important thing is your team and the people that you put around you. I think one of the things I’ve learned is to be very clear about the vision and very clear about the values. I hadn’t done that until Dragon Army, effectively. The importance of making sure your team is all pointed in the same direction, buys into that vision, understands the strategy to get there, understands the values that will guide everything; the decisions, the people you bring in, the clients who are ... the values guide everything along that journey. That is critical, I think, to building a well-run, effective team. I just had my leadership team at Dragon Army all read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, a book by Patrick Lencioni. It’s fantastic, if you haven’t read it.
Shantel: I’ve heard about it, and I know I’ve listened to The Blinkest for it.
Jeff: There you go, the Cliffs Notes.
Shantel: It never hurts to read the entire thing.
Jeff: I would encourage you to check it out. It’s an easy read because it’s told in the story of a parable. I honestly think every leadership team should read it. I would not have said our leadership team currently is dysfunctional, but what it does is it breaks down how to build trust within a team, how to get everybody pointed in the same direction. It’s a wonderful, very fast read. I think those are important aspects of building a team. I also think trust is ultimately what it all comes down to; building trust and being open and honest. I try to be very honest with everybody. At Dragon Army, we have complete open financials, so everybody knows all the finances. Other than individual salaries, they see every number. Again, that starts to build trust so they understand why decisions are being made and where everything’s going. If you can find ways to build trust within the team, especially from an early standpoint, I think it’ll make a huge difference.
Shantel: Wow. I love the transparency there. Those are a live scorecard that they can access at any point?
Jeff: That’s right, yeah. We run a version of The Great Game of Business, which is another great business book. It basically puts everybody on the same page too; here’s the goal we’re trying to hit for the year, guys. If we hit it, we all win, if we don’t, none of us win. It’s not individual bonuses. We’re all in this together. Part of that is everybody knowing the score, which means knowing where we’re at and where we spent our money and what our goals are and where our sales pipeline is. I will never run another company that isn’t based on that model. I’m sure of it.
Shantel: Have a lot of the values trickled down from Spunlogic to your companies that you’ve started today, the same type of values, or do you create different core values and mission statements for every company?
| WHAT MOTIVATES YOUR TEAM? |
Jeff: Awesome question. At Spunlogic or Engauge, we never articulated the values. I never really knew to do that. I would say they are the same values. I just never knew how to put them into words. The big consistency between my companies is ... With Dragon Army, we have a purpose, our why, our reason for existing, and that’s to inspire happiness. This is something that we’ve really put into practice this year. It’s the idea that I’ve always wanted this for my companies, I’ve just never stated it. I’ve always wanted to try to make sure that people who came to my company loved being there as much as I could make that happen. It would be such a drag if somebody spent 40 hours of their week every week at a place that they couldn’t wait to get out of and get away from. I think that’s, unfortunately, the way most jobs work. We always had pretty good cultures. I think the difference with Dragon Army is we’re explicit about what it means to inspire happiness, and that we’re focused on making sure each of our team members is as happy and as fulfilled as possible at our company. That means we need to understand what motivates them, what drives them, what are the things that they want to do with their life, and how can Dragon Army help them move closer to that. I’ve flipped the model of looking at performance reviews of an employee sitting down and you saying, “Here’s the things you need to do better to help us, the company.” Instead, it’s, “What does the company need to do for you to make you as happy as possible?” Part of happiness in life is feeling like you’re contributing something, feeling like you’re creating something. Work is still there, but it’s deeper than that. I think the difference now with Dragon Army is we’re living this purpose, whereas before at my first two companies, it was more I want everybody to be happy. Let’s have a cruise and let’s have fun. I didn’t really put it into practice and bring it in to the company more than just at surface level.
Shantel: Do you think that just this simple shift in the questions and those touch bases with the team have really impacted ... maybe the bottom line, but also just the culture?
Jeff: A hundred percent, yeah, a hundred percent. I think Dragon Army right now is the strongest culture that I’ve built. I think we’re just getting started. I think it all comes from being clear and consistent in what we believe in, who we are, and bringing everybody along that journey.
Shantel: That’s really neat. I appreciate you sharing that. We’ve recently revised our touch bases monthly and quarterly and scratching the idea of a yearly evaluation, and would love to bring some of those thoughts into that. I’m excited to implement that, and I appreciate that.
Jeff: You bet.
Shantel: Outside of the Five Dysfunctions of A team, are there any books or podcasts that really have just excited you lately?
Jeff: I would say all of Patrick Lencioni’s books are terrific, especially for an entrepreneur. I have been fascinated recently with How I Built This, the podcast at NPR. It’s fantastic. Have you listened to that?
Shantel: That’s in Atlanta, right?
Jeff: How Stuff Works is in Atlanta.
Shantel: That’s what I’m thinking.
Jeff: I think this one might be out of New York. How I Built This, it tells the stories of all these startups. It’s fantastic. You will love it. It’s 30 to 45 minutes. It’s really about the early journeys of companies like Instacart and Lyft. It’s fascinating. Terrific stories. I drive a lot of insights from hearing other entrepreneurs’ journey. Again, The Great Game of Business, to me, is a book that whether you employ the tactics in the book or not, I think every entrepreneur should read that one.
Shantel: I’ll definitely have the team and research that myself. I’m excited for that. I just have a couple more questions for you, Jeff. First, I know that you’re really active on quite a few boards as well. When did you start getting involved on a board level for other companies, and are you still learning from being a part of all these other companies as well?
Jeff: I started joining boards for the wrong reasons, nonprofit boards. It was to build my network. Probably about 10 years ago I started joining some boards in order to build my network. Now, that proved successful because in Atlanta especially, but in most cities, nonprofit boards are great ways to network. You really should be doing that for the right reasons, because you’re passionate about the cause and you really want to help. I definitely tried to help, but I’ve now steered my thinking around getting involved in nonprofit boards to really making sure it’s a cause that I think that I can help and that I’m passionate about. They’re less driven on who else is on the board and more can I help. I do think it’s great if you can mix the two and say here’s an organization that I love, I’m very passionate about it. I actually think my skills can help, and gosh, they’ve got a great network on their board of people that I’d love to get to know. That’s an awesome way to build your company because it’s built in a genuine way. Currently, I’m involved in too many things. One of my goals in 2018 is to try and slim that down. I’ve blogged last week about the things that I’m involved in. After I got done, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, that’s way too many things. What am I doing?” Again, it goes back to your time and making sure that you spend your time in the right place so you’re not too spread thin to not make much of a difference. I’m also more interested going forward in trying to start my own nonprofit ideas and companies because I do think I can make a bigger difference doing that than sitting on a quarterly board with some people. That’s going to be one of my goals going forward as well.
Shantel: I’m excited to see where that goes, hear more about it.
Shantel: Last question, how can people get in touch with you if they’re interested in learning more about Dragon Army or 48in48 or just have any follow-up questions for you?
Jeff: Thanks, great. The first place is my blog, which we discussed I’ve been writing on since probably 2009. That’s jeffhilimire.com, one L. My Twitter is also Jeff. Those are probably the easiest ways to get in touch with me. Maybe LinkedIn, but I get hit up on LinkedIn quite a bit. It’s a tough network to really connect with people on. I think those are good ways to continue the conversation.
Shantel: Great. Thank you so much for spending the time with us. We really appreciate it.
Jeff: Thanks so much.