Students vs. Startups Episode 8: Making the Transition from Student to Startup

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Featuring Gray Street Solutions

Welcome to episode 8 of Students vs. startups, we’re happy to be back after a short holiday break! On this week’s episode, John Gilroy sits down with a previous “student” who has been on many of our past shows, to hear about how he has started his digital marketing firm, Gray Street Solutions.

 

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Transcript:

John Gilroy: Welcome to students versus startups, showdown on the Potomac, my name is John Gilroy and I’ll be your moderator today. The structure for this podcast is pretty simple. We normally have students sit across from startups but today’s show is the last podcast of the year so what I thought we’d do is a little curve ball here. We have one of our students who is also a startup, it’s Tyler Gray. I’m sure you’ve heard him on the air before and what we’re going to do is have a little bit of extended conversation with Tyler, talk about some of the challenges of starting up a company, why he has a startup, his experience in school, if that’s been value to him at all and maybe he can share some insights for our listeners on what it’s like to put a stake in the ground and try and go off on your own and try and make some money in your own company and whether he regrets doing that or now. That’s going to be kind of interesting.

The founding sponsor for students versus startups is the Radiant Group. If you enjoy solving problems and like to work with bright people, the Radiant Group is the place for you. Contact Al DiLeonardo or Abe Usher at theradiantgroup.com

Here we go, round one and round two, it’s just going to be round one. Our student today is also our startup, Tyler Gray. Tyler has a master’s degree from Georgetown University in the technology and management program and he has also started up a company, so let’s start off with your student side and then make a transition to the company. Tyler, tell us about your education background and where you’re born and raised.

 

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Tyler Gray

Tyler Gray: Sure, so I grew up primarily in Northern Virginia, did my undergrad at George Mason and from then I was fortunate to get experience with a lot of different industries like a lot of folks here. I did political campaigns, worked on the hill, but I’ve also worked in the private sector doing everything from automotive fleet sales online to retail cell phones, so a variety of different things, but in terms of Georgetown and why I started that, like a lot of people I was looking to make a career change and I was evaluating different programs and what really stood out about GU, not to say that other universities aren’t doing good things on their own, but at Georgetown they’ve got a great program called startup hoyas which really leads a two month business incubator over the summer that’s free and open to anybody and as soon as I saw that, that was really the impetuous that I used to kickoff and decided to go to graduate school and that really also helped motivate me to, not only think about but follow through on starting my own adventure.

 

John Gilroy: Where can they get more information about your company? Is it gray street solutions?

Tyler Gray: Sure, yes, it’s graystreetsolutions.com and G-R-A-Y.

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John Gilroy: Great. I was there this morning and two words kind of jumped out at me and those words are going to be obvious to you, may not be obvious to our listeners, fearlessly agile. This word agile has some connotations in software development, so what do you mean by fearlessly agile?

Tyler Gray: Sure. I think, especially now, the concept of agile is pretty well understood from a programming and product development standpoint, however where I feel that there’s still a lot of work to be done is on the marketing and consulting side of the program. A lot of times clients will want a fully baked content or marketing plan that specifies to a tee exactly what’s going to be said on every single day, of every single quarter. The problem with that is it doesn’t leave you a lot of time or energy to be responsive and reactive to current events so we adopt a fearlessly agile approach to our website and mobile development as well as our marketing efforts which clients can be a little bit scared at first that we’re not going to give them the entire plan and have them approve every tweet or every Facebook post, but as things go along results tend to speak for themselves.

John Gilroy: You know many realize that Google has 200 changes every year, so it’s almost impossible planning anything over three or four months and that’s why you have to be agile. You have to float and move because if you just, I remember giving a lecture in school and in the middle of my lecture Google changed their algorithm and so I had this slide up and it was the wrong slide, they just changed completely, they tried focusing on mobile, so that’s hard to convey to clients isn’t it?

Tyler Gray: It can be difficult. One thing is, my particular agency we’re six strong and growing so we’re not an exact fit for everyone out there. However, at the same time I think where we can stand out and really excel is that we can’t afford to fail on any particular one client because so much of our business is driven by referrals so I think as an agency we’re more stake than necessarily a lot of other folks might be in the outcomes of our particular clients and making sure that that’s successful and part of that is learning to say, when to say yes and also when to say no.

John Gilroy: I have a good friend Joanne Conley, and she founded a company called Conley Works, focuses on the federal government. Well, Tyler we’re in Washington, D.C. it seems like that’s the place to go, so is your focus on the federal government or where is your focus?

Tyler Gray: It’s interesting you bring that up because when I started the firm I thought we were going to be doing exclusively federal work because I’d had an internship at the small business administration working on their project RFPs so I felt I had a lot of knowledge about federal government contracting, however I was very fortunate in the sense that one of my former bosses went on to become a VP at a missile systems company and they had an urgent need to basically start up and launch their own marketing program so we had our own lucky strike client, if you will, and that actually does surprise a lot of folks that we actually don’t do any federal or any state work or any political work, but yet we’re going into our fourth year as a digital agency here in Washington, D.C. While you can be quite successful and a lot of companies here at Eastern Foundry and others are, you don’t necessarily have to service the federal or state or local governments.

John Gilroy: When I go to your LinkedIn profile you talk about social media campaign management and when I think about a company called HubSpot, up in Boston, and they had a big event here a couple weeks back and they have a local user group called HubSpot User Group, HUG and they’re meeting tomorrow night. Typically, agencies like yours may sign up and become resellers for a company like Marketo or HubSpot, have you pursued that?

Tyler Gray: That’s definitely something we’re starting to explore more and more. I’ve used HubSpot before. I think it can be a good resource if you’re at a company that can, number one afford it, and number two understands the power of what it delivers, so we do have agency partnerships for social media monitoring software and also some hosting companies, but I think what’s important, at least that we do and some other folks do but not necessarily everybody, is to disclose those sort of affiliate relationships because the last thing you want is for every solution to be a HubSpot solution, or every solution to be a brand watch solution just because I happen to be selling those, so it’s great, it’s really powerful software. I think they’ve done a lot to advance thought leadership in the industry as a whole and they’re website grader is certainly something that I, that they’ve built and that they’ve given away that I’ve used to pitch clients to win business and sell them on websites without necessarily the HubSpot part.

John Gilroy: Here we are sitting in these fancy offices at Eastern Foundry, and they have 91 startups here, maybe more. If you could have all those 91 startups in a room, and you got a half hour, what would you tell them?

 

 

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Tyler Gray

Tyler Gray: What would I tell them? I think it’s less about what I would tell them and more about what I would ask. What we try to do with anybody we’re meeting with is really try to understand what the goals of their business are, who their audience is, what the timeline is, who their stakeholders are, and then also what sort of channels they’re interested in in marketing. For some of those we’ll be a good fit, for others we might not necessarily be. There’s certain sectors that we have and my team has experience in and others that we don’t. What I think iss really interesting about Eastern Foundry is, number one how much it’s expanded and how Eastern Foundry makes off with 1776, WeWork and others are really contributing to quite a robust startup ecosystem here in Washington, D.C. that wasn’t in place when I started the program at Georgetown in 2012.

John Gilroy: For many years of my life I studied Japanese cooking believe it or not. Japanese cooking is all about a balance in harmony, and when I look at marketing, which you do, I think the balance is strategy and tactics. Is that a fair balance or am I missing something?

Tyler Gray: No, I think that sums it up very well. It’s important not to get too caught up in your short term tactics. There’s been a lot of agencies and a lot of other folks who will get caught up in vanity metrics, so boosting your Twitter followers and while that’s nice and important, having a lot of Twitter followers for example is not a strategy, it’s a means to maybe a particular end, whether that’s boosting your search engine results or getting more traffic or e-mail signups, so it’s keeping those in balance is something that we see a lot of clients struggle with and that often times will have to come in and unpack and, in some cases, take a step back for them, that maybe it’s you don’t need to be on every platform, it’s can you actually maintain that Instagram, Pinterest, to Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn presence and if you can’t, that’s okay and to focus more where your strengths are and where that conversation can be actually authentic and meaningful.

John Gilroy: One of my favorite books is “Twitter’s Not a Strategy.” It’s a blue book, you
can get it at amazon.com, it’s an interesting perspective on that. Strategy versus tactics, but when you interview a customer, for example if you had talked to someone at Eastern Foundry, I mean you wouldn’t use the word strategy and tactics, you’d probably start the conversation in a different aspect but maybe roll back into strategy.

“Yup. We have an acronym that we borrowed from our project management system Asana that’s GACTS so it’s Goals, Audience, Channels, Timeline, Stakeholders.”- Tyler Gray, Principal Gray Street Solutions

Tyler Gray: That’s really our approach to working with clients and to onboarding them and because of the small, we’re a small but growing agency that we have to do our research up front and make sure that we really understand that and surprisingly I don’t think a lot of other folks necessarily go through all those steps or really take the time to understand the primary and secondary business objectives and to really figure out who the audience is. Are there internal audiences? Are all the project stakeholders actually in the room? How hard or soft are the various timeline you’re working on?

Then really working all that back and then making a decision whether or not you’re a good fit and we recently had to walk away from a really pretty high profile enterprise, healthcare startup project just because it was too aggressive on timeline and there were too many stakeholders in the room. It would have been a fantastic project but it would have come at the expensive of too much of the rest of our other work.

John Gilroy: In the real estate agency there’s something called buyer remorse. If I have friend named Claude, he buys a house, the minute he signs that contract he goes, “Oh no, I could have bought a house two miles away, cheaper, and better, and bigger,” and so there’s buyer remorse. Do you have any remorse for starting your company? Do you think you should have just worked for one of the big vendors out there instead of beating your head against the wall 16 hours a day, 7 days a week?

Tyler Gray: There’s certainly a lot of things that I am, if I’d known then what I know now, but I think paramount among that would be obviously I have the benefit of going to Georgetown and meeting excellent professors, present company obviously included, and so I think one thing that a lot of early founders don’t do that they should is to reach out more often and earlier when you do have questions and to just ask for feedback. There’s very few folks who won’t take 10, 15 minutes to jump on the phone or get a cup of coffee and explain to you things like, “You really should be outsourcing your bookkeeping, your accounts receivable from day one because you don’t want to be caught up at the end of the year trying to play catch up on those things.”

That’s certainly reaching out to mentors, outsourcing some of the business operations are things that I’d wished I’d done, but then also anybody who’s started a company or working at a small business, one thing I’d wish I’d done is do a little bit more to prepare my friends, family, and loved ones for the exact toll that this work takes on you. You’re going to be gone and it’s going to require a lot of commitment, so if people know that up front it’s a little bit easier for them to help keep you on track and maintain the work life balance as best you can.

John Gilroy: You’ve been on the student side of the table, now you’re on the startup side of the table, I’ll ask you the question I ask the startups, so what business problem does your company solve?

Tyler Gray: In terms of the business problem that we solve it’s gray street solutions, we are a solutions focused agency, so what that means is we’re generally agnostic to technology platforms but that we really try to work with clients to get them to a point where they can actively take over and manage their digital presence. At the end of the day there’s very few consultants who are going to be true subject matter experts in the field. You might know a lot and we might be able to give some feedback but it really should be client focused, client generated content, so what we do is help companies get to the point where they have structures and systems set up to have a professional robust digital presence that is remarkably easy to maintain and keep going that they can also understand and run by themselves but then also empowering them with the tools and insights to show that return on investment for more skeptical stakeholders in the C suite.

John Gilroy: Well if someone’s listening to this podcast, how can they find more information about your company, Tyler?

Tyler Gray: Sure. Our website is graystreetsolutions.com.

John Gilroy: Great. That’s easy. We are hosted by Eastern Foundry, a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information go to eastern-foundry.com. Our monthly sponsor is F5 Networks. They are the global leader in application delivery networking. Contact F5 to learn how they can help your agency strengthen performance and security.

Welcome back to students versus startups, showdown in the Potomac. Round two. It’s not really round two, more of an extension of round one here. This is our last podcast of the year so instead of having this traditional student versus startups, we have just one student who is also a startup. His name is Tyler Gray. We talked a little bit about him earlier in the show, we’re going to talk a little bit more about his whole journey from different types of occupations to going to school and starting this company and whether he had any regrets or not. I think the real question I have for you Tyler, so where do you see yourself in five years?

Tyler Gray: Sure, so it’s building a professional services firm is tough because it’s obviously labor dependent so like a lot of other agencies that are now looking to pilot and start their own products, we’re following in a roughly similar vein. It’s really what we’ve been working on for about the last 14 months is developing our own software offering which is called Edge Mobile Analytics and it’s a customizable media monitoring application for primarily for enterprise but the catch is that anybody can deploy it within two or three days and that it’s only for you and your team and it only pulls in the news that you find most valuable from the sources that matter, which if you’re dealing with a crisis communications issue, gives you the ability to send push notifications to your team and bypass the whole e-mail inbox fiasco that often happens and high stress or breaking news environments.

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John Gilroy: Now I’ve interviewed hundreds and hundreds of services companies in town here, and they give very very good services and they put their little toe into the world of product and then they smash against the wall and so this is just, “Oh I can play football, I can play rugby,” no this is like “I can play football, no I can play the piano.” This is a whole different world, isn’t it? Product is different from services.

Tyler Gray: It very much is and that’s something that we’ve certainly struggled with. We’ve had, when we first had the idea about a year and a half ago, we put together a pretty comprehensive pitch deck and we made a rough template and we shopped it around and what we did was we ended up applying to the Washington, D.C. economic partnerships, they had a contest where if you’re a small business and you send them a compelling pitch deck you could go and demo at their house at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, so we sent them our pitch deck not having built this product at all and low and behold it was accepted and they’re like congratulations you now have space to demo this here down in Austin so that was sort of one of the points where we started to freak out a little bit and pull our hair out.

Thankfully it’s mobile technology and platforms have advanced to the point where it’s a little bit easier to build applications now than it was when we started or even six months ago so we found a good application development framework and we’re able to launch and get a beta up in time to debut it at South by, which we’d been working on and it still needs a lot of work but it’s definitely a different mindset and something that we’ve struggled with, actually a little bit of on our own. On the one hand it’s we’ve got a successful agency business that requires my attention. On the other hand we’ve got a promising product so it’s division of labor and focus has certainly been a challenge for us.

John Gilroy: I think the lesson is, take advantage of some of the money that’s available for small startups. For example, in Virginia, you can get a grant of $10,000 if you’re going to go to a trade show. I mean there’s all kinds of opportunities there and you found one just from the District of Columbia, which who even heard about that? I didn’t know that at all.

Tyler Gray: Yup, so there’s a lot out there and the state and local government and cities might not have the resources or be able to publicize these too well but at the same time there’s certainly folks at different accelerators, incubators, meetups, events, that probably know about this kind of stuff and yeah, it’s a fantastic opportunity and Washington, D.C. could probably follow Virginia’s lead on that. I’m not sure if they have something like that but I think it would be definitely advantageous.

John Gilroy: Well it’s a matter of pride. It’s like I’m John Gilroy, I know everything, no, you’re humble. I’m Tyler, look I’m learning, I’m trying to find out, perhaps there’s an avenue there, perhaps we can try this and try different things and see where they’re going. I keep thinking of we’re sitting here in the offices of Eastern Foundry and there’s 90 startups floating around here. If one of the startups is listening to this podcast and they’re going, “Yeah, I’d like to grab that Tyler and ask him a few questions. Maybe he could work with me.” How can they find you?

Tyler Gray: Sure, so there’s a lot of great events around town but one that I’ll definitely be at coming up here on, I believe, February 2 here at the Eastern Foundry in Rosslyn is the grand opening of this actually very nice office building location so I would be happy to chat and have a drink or two and talk technology, talk sales and marketing and all those fun lessons learned that you can only experience or relate to I think once you’ve gone through them yourself.

 

John Gilroy: Football coaches all come from defensive background or maybe an offensive background, they all have certain preferences or biases and when I look at your background, digital consulting, product development, strategic communications, social media campaign management, you’ve got to have a favorite in there. If push comes to shove, what are you going to maybe put on top of the heap and what do you maybe wait for Friday afternoon to do?

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Tyler Gray

Tyler Gray: In terms of all of our practice areas, I think I really enjoy the social media campaign management and the digital marketing the most. While building websites is fun and can be technically challenging and there’s a lot you can do on the design side, it’s a lot of those tools quite frankly are getting much simpler, square space and WordPress is getting easier and easier to use by the day but at the same time that also makes the marketplace more competitive so now it’s just having a website isn’t enough, the content’s got to be good, it’s got to be marketed strategically with often times very limited resources for any size company really so I think that’s more where the direction the marketplace is shifting towards. It’s not just having a nice and well-designed mobile responsive website, that’s part and you should already have that but now it’s what type of content are you putting on there? How well is that being marketed and to what specific audience and what use of resources?

John Gilroy: Are you familiar with Gary Vaynerchuck or Marcus Sheridan and these folks? These folks say, “Hey, it’s got to be video.” In fact, Marcus has hired a full-time videographer to follow him around and Vaynerchuck’s got one too. Where does video play in the whole matrix of marketing today?

Tyler Gray: Well it’s a lot of times you don’t necessarily, you can just follow what some of the big smart men and women are doing, so Facebook wouldn’t be advertising their Facebook live video platform on national TV if they hadn’t put a lot of time and research and development into it, so I think video media and immersive media’s becoming more and more prevalent. Twitter wouldn’t have made the deal they did with the NFL, so you’re seeing a lot more adoption because it is engaging, and that’s really what it’s about at the end of the day. If you’re watching a good compelling video, that’s going to keep your eyeballs on it more than a block of text or even perhaps a well designed infographic, so if the video’s short, it’s punchy, it’s compelling, or on the flip side if it’s live and it’s timely and it’s up to date, that’s going to be something that nobody’s quite figured out yet, but it’s certainly an area of growth and opportunity for companies to do as long as it’s authentic and interesting.

John Gilroy: Interesting. Normally we have startups here frequent, we have the CEOs from startups sitting across the table from you, but I want to switch and talk about SEO, search engine optimization. There are some people, and you’ve written articles, SEO is dead. What do you think? Is it still worth pursuing? Is it something where it’s just decreased in value compared to four or five years ago? Search engine optimization, SEO.

Tyler Gray: Yeah, I think it’s still valuable but a lot of the ways of shortcuts are no longer working because there have been some bad actors. Macy’s got in trouble for hiring, it wasn’t them but they hired an agency who hired somebody else who built up all these phony websites to link back, so some of the more mechanical things I think are not going to work as well anymore. What is, I think valuable, and is still worth looking at is the effort that Google’s doing with the A&P page speed boost, so it’s to the extent that your website loads mobile responsive, Google’s now featuring those in their Carousel and that’s something that a lot of businesses are not taking advantage of because it is still emerging and it’s still useful so well the basics of key words and descriptions and meta tags, those are going to become less relevant or less a differentiating factor. I think what will be mattering more is your page loading quickly? How well recommended is it on the social networks and by sites that really really matter? So your. edu’s and your higher level news sites.

John Gilroy: I think this loading time is really really key and i think that if you’re listening to this, this is really the differentiator between the good sites and the not so good sites because people are on their phone and it’s almost to the point, if they have to wait two seconds, they’re gone. They’re going to bounce right out of there and so you get this thing called pogoing, people want to go to your site but “Eh, that’s just,” and so they’ll get out of there and so the emphasis on speed I think people forget about that. They worry about the color, they worry about the layout, they worry about the positioning, but you know, you got to hit hard and move. I mean this is just, there’s so much information to go and speed is the ultimate authority I think. It’s important.

Tyler Gray: Absolutely. It’s a tough balancing act because with their mobile phone you want to go a little bit lighter on your video and your media content while still getting your messaging and your core material across but, yes, I think that the speed is going to become more and more important. People are conscious of their data caps and mobile phones might have limited cellular connections in the Metro, so if your website loads while on the way down the escalator, I’m going to spend my time looking and reading at it. If it can’t, I’m going to bounce somewhere else to read that news article or learn about whatever product there is.

John Gilroy: You’ve been in this business 13 years, you have a pretty wide background, you talk to a lot of people, when someone approaches you and asks you to do something, how do you know where to draw the line? For example, if someone walks up to you sand said, “I want you to do a 15-minute video on my new product,” do you say, “Yes we can do that,” or do you say, “No I’m going to have my friend Dan Bowman do it.” Where do you draw the line between what you can handle and what stretches you and what stretches you too far?

Tyler Gray: It usually comes down to the timeline and it’s is there a real demand that that video has to be done by a certain date or is that more of an artificial one. At the end of the day we have to be focused on our current retainer and ongoing clients because they’re the ones we’ve been working with, delivering value, so it is a tough balancing act of not wanting to compromise your current success for future opportunities but at the same time, a referral network is certainly valuable so if there’s a project that is too big or too small, there’s a lot of other great people in the area or nationally that I know I’m happy to pass the work on to so it’s not a zero sum game. I’ve never felt like that in any regard and there’s plenty of work out there for anyone who wants to do it.

John Gilroy: Do you ever look back and say, “Well geez, I sure like to have weekends off and have a 40-hour week and maybe go see the Nationals every now and then and go to the beach,” or do you ever regret this little adventure you’re on?

“At certain times, yes, other times no. There is certainly a tradeoff. You do trade what you get in freedom, you have to make up for in responsibility is really what it comes down to.”- Tyler Gray, Principal Gray Street Solutions

Tyler Gray:  I’ve got a great team of folks who are committed to the firm and our clients success, at the end of the day, it is me there who’s got to keep the lights on and keep things going but what I would say is that in having done this, I’ve advanced more professionally and personally than I would have had if I kept working at my former agency or even joined a larger one because it’s really getting used to making those tough, lonely CEO decisions when you have imperfect information.

At your former example where we’ve got to say yes or not to a project and we’ve got sort of limited resources and do we stretch for that and you don’t know the right answer necessarily at the time but you have to make a decision. That can be tough but I think if anything I’m getting better at it and a lot of that has to do with taking advantage of professional networks, mentoring, resources, and doing more to communicate with other founders and different sectors because a lot of those core struggles are the same regardless of the industry or vertical you’re in. I think that’s …

John Gilroy: I think probably one of the advantages of being affiliated with Eastern Foundry is that you can sit down, have a cup of coffee with other kindred spirits and maybe discuss some of these challenges and struggles that you have.

Tyler Gray: Absolutely. It’s well some of our team is distributed, I definitely believe that working together in a centralized space that there is value for that so it’s yeah well you can save some money and have people work from home and that’s a good benefit. Having folks in the office, there is a certain amount of collaboration and creativity that won’t happen elsewhere.

John Gilroy: Well Tyler G-R-A-Y, how can people find more information about your company?

Tyler Gray: Sure, so our primary website is graystreetsolutions.com and if you’re interested in our mobile analytics, it’s edgemobileanalytics.com.

John Gilroy: Interesting, well Tyler we’re running out of time here. I’d like to thank our founding sponsor, the Radiant Group, our host Eastern Foundry, and our monthly sponsor, F5 Networks. If you’d like to see a transcript of this episode, please visit the blog at eastern-foundry.com. Signing off from high atop a nondescript building in lovely downtown Rosslyn, Virginia, I am John Gilroy, thanks for listening to students versus startups showdown on the Potomac.

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