Ep #52 | The Time Is Now

Mikeheadshot.jpg

Mike Popowski is the CEO of Dagger. Mike drives Dagger’s vision, culture and growth. He brings over 17 years of digital, social and brand-building experience. A proven client service and team leader, Mike has had success building campaigns for the world’s biggest brands across a variety of industries.

Mike joined Dagger from TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, where he led the global repositioning for GSK’s global smoker’s health business, Nicoderm CQ (US).  Mike was previously SVP, Client Partner at Moxie (formerly Engauge), where he architected the agency’s first content marketing practices for Cisco Systems, UPS and Wells Fargo. He was an early pioneer of social marketing as a consultant for AARP from 2008 to 2011, and implemented early digital content practices for AARP’s renowned Travel Ambassador, Peter Greenberg, and Health Ambassador, Martina Navratilova. Mike’s previous stints include AOL and SureClick, an Inc. 5000 digital agency based in Washington, D.C. 

Mike’s a native Vermonter so he really enjoys winters in Atlanta.

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Shantel: Hey Mike. Welcome to the Imagine More podcast.

Mike: Shantel, thanks for having me. How are you?

Shantel: We're good. We're good. Thanks so much for carving out the time. I know our listeners are eager to learn more about Dagger and your journey of becoming the CEO. And I suppose to kick things off, can you tell our listeners a little bit about who you are and what Dagger is?

| ATLANTA'S FASTEST GROWING AGENCY |

Mike: Sure. So, Mike Popowski, CEO of Dagger. I lead the culture, vision, and growth for Dagger. Dagger is really ... We call ourselves a strategic content agency. But the word content is a biggie and it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I think there's two things we're looking at content in a very focused way. One is that it's a consumer-driven world and so consumers are consuming content in areas that are ... or platforms that are changing very, very fast. So I think that's one variable in the approach that we look at content. The other is the fact that video is just on the rise. So when we look at content, we're looking at video much differently than I think agencies were looking at it 10 or 15 years ago in that brands need to be publishing almost in perpetuity now to meet consumer demand. So I went a little deep but I feel like this word content is a biggie and I thought I'd click down on that. But we've been around for three or four years. And I think we're actually ... Atlanta's from 2015-2018, I think, we looked at the stats. I think we are Atlanta's fastest growing agency which is quite an honor and it's been quite a ride of the last three or four years.

Shantel: That's a huge QST, you guys. How do you find out if you're the fastest growing? We'll have to look into that for our company.

Mike: I think we just looked at the newest agencies and we just went on the Atlanta Business Chronicle list and looked at size wise against newness to the list. And did a little bit of extrapolation.

Shantel: Nice. That's a big accomplishment. How did you learn about Dagger? What was your journey in becoming the CEO? Can we talk a little bit about what you studied? How you found out about it?

Mike: Sure. So I can take it back a few years or I could take it back to the beginning of my career because I think my entrepreneurial journey started well before I started or was part of the founding group of Dagger. So, marketing and management undergrad, double major, and then my first job was at AOL. And I spent about a year at AOL really doing the corporate thing. And I worked on a big sales team. And I was the business development coordinator. We were selling display ads within the AOL network to pharmaceutical companies. I quickly left that and my next job was the employee number one for two twin brothers that broke off from AOL and started their own agency. So they were two 27 year olds and I was 25. So it was basically the kids just running the show which was ... but that was really my foray, I would say, into entrepreneurship. Because these guys really thought outside the box. Highly, highly ambitious. Very aggressive. Strong, strong work ethic. And I think they just made it seem possible, right, that you could go out on your own and once you get a couple clients, you can get it started. So I would say that was the inception moment probably. I didn't grow up a big entrepreneur. I thought I would have a corporate job. And I was taught get there early, stay there late. Climb the corporate ladder kind of thing and that was my, at least my father's, approach. So it was always there inside me at least since I was in my mid-20s. And then, so I did five or six years at that agency. And then, I did try to go out on my own and I was consulting for a few years. And then, came in contact through my consulting work with an agency called Engage which I would say one of the top social/digital agencies here in Atlanta in 2010-2011. Ultimately grew and sold to and merged with what's now Moxie. So I did Moxie for about a year. But through my time at Engage and Moxie, I met a group of folks which really became the founding group of Engage. So when I was ... I left Moxie. I was in New York. I'd spent about a year in New York. I was at an agency on Madison Avenue there doing that and got a call one day about this opportunity from one of my contacts at Engage. And said hey ... and the agency had started in a very smaller capacity. They were out of Atlanta Tech Village. They were called Sandbox. And about three people. And were really looking for a CEO. And it was ... I mean, it was kind of serendipitous. I flew down about a week later, interviewed with the board. The previous CEO who was exiting the founding group, original founder, and on the way to Marta said hey, I'm in. I went back to New York, resigned, two weeks later, moved all my stuff, subleted my apartment in New York and moved back down to Atlanta. So that happened within about six weeks. I don't know. That might have been more than you bargained for but that's probably the journey from I would say inception point, till wanting to run my own shop at some point, to the actual opportunity and the actual call.

Shantel: I love that. No, that was great. Great detail. And I think it probably speaks to those initial three board members and the culture they built and you probably trusted.

Mike: Yeah, I trusted the two ...

Shantel: And you'd want to be part of that right away.

Mike: That was big. I did know the board members and they were one of them was the previous president of Engage. And I had a ton of respect for him. I think he's been on your podcast. I'm not going to name names unless you want me to. And then, I knew two of the original leaders in the group so one who now leads our operations she was on my team at Engage and then the original founder who now leads all of our strategy, she was a member at the digital innovation group at Engage. And so, we didn't work a ton together while we were at Engage but I knew her by reputation. So I was coming into a very, very strong team and I felt like yeah, I felt like the stars had aligned and the opportunity was there. I only saw opportunity. And it's kind of interesting when I look back, there was a leap, a giant pay cut. Moving my life. But I said to myself if I fall, if this doesn't work, the worst case scenario is I go back to New York and get another job. And that's a pretty good worst case scenario. So I would say I've applied that lens or that just way of thinking to other aspects of my life when I'm making a tough decision and just fast forward five years and say what's the worst case or what do you regret less, you know? So yeah, so definitely serendipitous. Definitely something I was looking for. And came into a really great team and it took off from there.

Shantel: That's great. You spoke early on about you lead culture, vision, and growth. And I think we'd like to dive deep into that culture piece because it's something that's so important, excuse me, when you're starting a business and you're growing a business, is really honing in on that. And if you can share what does culture mean to you and your team? And what are some ways you guys really elevate the playing field there?

| THE VALUE SET |

Mike: Yeah. It's interesting. Out of vision, culture, and growth, culture is the intangible. I mean, we've got a vision statement. I think I can say and I can point to hey, here's where we're going. With growth, I can look at revenue. With culture, it's a really interesting thing that I'm honestly continuing to learn more and more about. I think where it starts from my standpoint and probably one of the biggest things I've learned in the last few years is this is 100% a talent business. And I think all business really is. But even more so an agency business because that's really all we are. We're a collection of our people and our processes. We're not selling shoes or pencils or insert anything, right? It's really the people. So with that, when we first started out and we started to get a little momentum, we had around 10 or a dozen people. We took a step back and looked at those people and we basically said out of our stars or our A players or however you want to frame it, we said what are the intangibles that those people bring to the table that has nothing to do with their hard skills, right? So if they're not a content creator, not a strategist, not an analyst, what are the intangibles that if they came fresh out of school, what are the things that they possess? And that's actually how we established our value set. And then, we interview ... We have a culture committee set up that's a big part of our interview process that actually susses prospects out against that value set. Right? So if I look at uncomfortably comfortable or grit or proactive service, those are a couple of our values. There's a whole interview based around that. And they can give a thumbs up or a thumbs down on a candidate. So we take a very, I would say, intentional and careful approach to talent because at the end of the day when those people come on board, they are additive and they become part of the culture, right? It's not one person. It's not about me. It's not somebody who's managing our culture. It's everybody. And it's the values and the energy that we collectively give off. One thing I would say too quickly is the reason I, not couple those things, but put those things into a trifecta is those things play off each other very much so. I think part of I talk about a culture of growth, I think when you're growing if there's definitely this infectious feeling in the agency. When you're winning business, if you've been on a winning team, there's this visceral feeling and I've been on both sides. I've lost pitches in a row. We've lost clients. And we've been in agencies where people get laid off. That's not fun for the culture. So I do think growth has something to do with our culture. And then, I would say vision adds to our culture too. I think we are all collectively trying to achieve something that feels a little impossible, or feels a little ambitious. And that's kind of exciting too so I think that fuels us. And then, there's a lot of the things that we just do together. I mean, we have a quarterly CSR program. We've got different habits on a weekly basis that bring us together. I'll give you one example. It's updates. We actually call it pupdates because we're a big dog culture. But we're basically go around and pass a ball around and everybody talks about their biggest achievement for the week but they're acknowledging somebody else. And so, little things like that I think just bring us close together as a team. And I think the stronger the fiber of the team based on a common set of values ultimately is the output of a culture that's much bigger than any one of us. And so, the way I look at it is I'm just trying to create the arena for that to take place. I'm not trying to dictate the culture. I'm trying to put in the tenants or the frame for the culture to then populate itself from there.

Shantel: Yeah. I love how you mentioned the culture committee helps with the interview process. Right now, our leadership team is popping into those interviews and all of the questions are centered around our core values. But I love bringing in some other people from the team really that are leading that we call it, culture club. But leading the culture club to give their stamp of approval as well. So I'm glad you mentioned that. Great snippet of information.

Mike: Cool.

Shantel: One of the questions that was actually following which you kind of touched on already, if being the fastest growing agency in town, and I'm only speaking from my experience. Some of the process that we use to use or the team that used to be great, as we're growing, may no longer be the right people or the right process. And that is changing the culture. So do you feel that way as well? As you're growing, things have changed?

Mike: 100%. Yeah. Absolutely. And so, I think the easiest way to say it is the processes or the lack of process that we used when we were seven people in a room just quite frankly hasn't scaled to 40. And it can't. So that threads through everything. That threads through the way that I'm communicating to the team. How do I be more quote/unquote scalable in my communication? It comes down the time tracking. We're using Harvest for time tracking to just our different processes to the way we're running meetings. And then, we got to this point where it just felt like meeting overload. So then, we created a no meeting Wednesday. And so, there's a lot of I would say ceilings of complexity that we face as an organization that then force us to rearchitect our processes to be who we are now and be future proof. So 100% on process. People yes too. That's the hardest thing with this business is editing the team. And I think invariably, you're right. Some of the people that come in may not be the right people when we're 100 people big than we were when we were 10. And those are some of the tougher conversations to have. But I think you've got to have them in order to be successful and scale.

Shantel: I'd love to talk a little bit ... So you mentioned Harvest. So jumping over to tools or software, just to optimize your day as someone who's super busy. How do you stay organized and are there tools that you really recommend for people?

Mike: I'm pretty basic. I'm not a ... Between Google Calendar and Evernote, my day runs on those. I take time every Sunday to really try to map out my week to make sure that I've got time for health, time for focus, that I'm moving meetings forward. That I'm meeting in the right frequency with our clients and things like that. So Calendar is just really my entire compass. And I actually just totally rearchitected it which would be a tangent if we want to get into it about how I set up my week. So that's one, and I know it just seems basic because I know everybody runs Calendar. But then Evernote for me just because I just think it's a powerful tool. It's in the Cloud so I can pull it up on my mobile. Take notes there. If I've got one on ones with my leadership team, I've got a running note for each team. I can organize them by client just the way you're organizing Evernote I think is really powerful. But I don't have a big secretive tool or tip that I think is completely innovative. Now some people might think Evernote's innovative but I know it's been around for a bit. But yeah, I would say those two ground me in terms of tools. And fortunately, I'm exempt from Harvest and time tracking.

Shantel: I have exempted myself as well. But it was ... So I did track for four or five months. It was really, really helpful to see where I was spending time to help adjust okay, maybe I'm spending too much time here and I need to refocus.

Mike: Smart.

Shantel: So I'm not getting caught in the weeds somewhere but no, I feel you there. Let's dive into your Google Calendar because that seems really interesting. How did you rearchitect that?

| REARCHITECTING THE GOOGLE CALENDAR |

Mike: Yeah, I think for me ... So I think we had coffee what probably six months ago where I limped in and barely sat down. And so, I actually had a pretty bad back injury about nine months ago. Had back-to-back back surgeries. Since then, health has been a big, big priority for me. It's just foundational to me being able to operate as a CEO, to be the family member that I want to be, to be the friend that I can be. And I think it's easy to say okay, well I'll work out tomorrow or I'll go to yoga tomorrow. I'll meditate tomorrow. So I actually built my ... The first things I put in my calendar were like a daily exercise or meditation. So, that was the first thing that went in to make it a priority. And then, I looked across everything that I do. And so I have one on ones with leadership team, creative directors. I have a 90 minute leadership meeting. I do a monthly town hall. I obviously have client meetings. I also do one on ones with everybody in the company. And I used to do this ... actually I used to do it before I went out with my injury and then, I'm just reinstituting it where I've got ... I'm calling them Friday 15s where if for basically my non-direct reports, I do a 15 minute meeting. We're doing six per Friday where I sit down with everybody in the company and just talk and goes back to what I said is talent is the name of the game. And if we've hired some of the best and brightest minds in Atlanta, I want to be learning from them and have them feel like they've got clarity from me. And so, long story short, I have all of these things. And so, the way that I did it is I've got Monday and Friday, I'm in the office. So I do all my one on ones, my leadership meeting on Monday. I do my Friday 15s. And therefore, pupdates on Friday. Wednesday is no meeting Wednesday. And then, I do all my meetings on Tuesday and Thursday. Now, we'll see how this works. But I think the no meeting Wednesday thing is interesting and it actually stemmed from ... I don't know if you know Jason Fried, founder of 37Signals. And then, they built Basecamp. But he's wrote the book Rework and he just says something about it's like the office tends to be the worst place to get work done. And people walk in with their own agenda and then their calendar basically goes through a Cuisinart when you walk in the office. And you probably know that. You've got demands on your time. Demands on your schedule. If you're sitting at a desk, you seem available and people are going to pop in and either ask you a question or remind you of something or whatever it may be. But most of our deep thinking and strategic thinking and our best work comes from a level of deep thought that exists without distraction. So especially for a creative-based company, we wanted to have that time. So we basically just made Wednesdays as a focus day where yeah, we've got some small exceptions. If you need to push something through, if you're stuck. But by and large, there's no meetings. So that's how I restructured it. We did the Monday/Friday in the office, internal meetings. Tuesday/Thursday, a lot of external prospects, clients, partners, prospective talent, et cetera. And then, Wednesday is really the time where we think and use our brains.

Shantel: I love that. I have also started to carve out time for just lunch. So 11:30 to 12:30, don't book anything. I find that if it's in the calendar, then it's helpful to not overbook. Now I have a question on the Wednesday thing, so no meetings, even external client meetings?

Mike: So we'll have exceptions and we will make exceptions but we try ... We've talked to our account managers. We call them business leadership team here. So the business leadership team and project managers are, I don't want to say instructed, advised not to book on Wednesday if at all possible. And we communicate that to our clients why this exists, right? And this is ultimately for their benefit. If we are creating better work and having better work output, that benefits them in the long run. So our account folks should be able to tell to our clients the narrative of why we do things this way. Now sometimes it's unavoidable and we'll make exceptions. But the general rule is to try to not book meetings on Wednesdays.

Shantel: That's great. I just have a couple more questions, Mike, to wrap things up. And the first, for our audience who want to start a company or are in the weeds of their small business, do you have one piece of advice that you've heard maybe from those two guys that you joined when they were starting something or from a mentor of yours that you would suggest really just keeping top of mind?

Mike: I mean, yeah. A lot of my mentors, I haven't met them. They're people who I watch or listen to their podcast, watch their videos, watch their interviews. And one that I love especially when it comes down to starting your own thing is Gary V, right? And it's don't just start without a plan. He'll tell you everybody's got time, right? So if you really want to start something, you could keep your job. Let's call it 9:00-5:00. And then, what are you doing from 5:30 and really taking honest inventory of your time? What are you doing from 5:30-11:00 PM every night and what are you doing on the weekend? Because there's a lot of time there to start something on the side. And especially in the world that we live in now where it's flat because of the internet and people can become content creators or influencers from their backyard in Georgia. The opportunities are there. So my situation was different. I definitely took a big leap. I was leaping into something that semi-existed. But for somebody who is just going to take a leap of faith, one I would say do it. I think everybody says oh, in a year or when I get this amount of money in my bank or when I do this. I think there's ... You're never going to find the right time. And for me, it still wasn't a great time. I took a massive, massive pay cut and I basically had to rearrange my entire living situation just to make it happen. But I think it's now and I think it's be calculated and use the time not at work to start to move the ball forward. And then, once you have the ball in motion, at some point you've just got to take the leap and rip the bandaid off and the universe will take care of you. That's kind of how I ... That's what I would say.

Shantel: Definitely keep moving. Keep shaking. I think that's great. How can people get in touch with you, Mike, and learn more about Dagger?

Mike: We're at dagger.agency which is probably the best place. If you want to follow us on LinkedIn to hear about jobs. If you want to learn more about our culture, Instagram's probably a great place @daggeragency. And then, yeah, I'm on LinkedIn as well. And that's probably the best way other than showing up at my front door.

Shantel: Well, that would be creepy. I don't suggest any of you do that. But that's perfect. Thanks so much, Mike, for being on the show. We really appreciate it.

Mike: Yeah, I enjoyed it. Thanks for having me.