Zach Williams, Founder and CEO of Venveo, an agency providing building product marketing, addresses this niche market’s unique challenges (including “invisible products”) and diverse target audiences (big box stores, retailers, builders, contractors, and homeowners). In this interview, Zach:
- Presents questions to ask when considering niche specialization: “Who do we do the best work for?” and “How to get into that market?”
- Acknowledges the accompanying fear that “putting a stake in the ground” will mean turning away clients outside the targeted niche
- Speaks to the importance of perseverance and education in building solid industry understanding, and
- Admits that desperation can be useful in driving innovation and creativity.
His recommendation: Find something you love and, when you identify that niche, specialize sooner.
His warning: If you’re aiming for nothing, that’s exactly what you’re going to get.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Zach Williams, Founder and CEO of Venveo based in Blacksburg, Virginia. Welcome, Zach.
ZACH: Hey, thanks for having me. Appreciate it, Rob.
ROB: It’s great to have you on. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Venveo and what it’s great at?
ZACH: What we’re great at, oh man. Venveo is a digital marketing agency. Like you said, we’re in Blacksburg, Virginia. Officially been in business 10 years, but I’ve been doing this a little bit longer than that. We primarily specialize in the building products arena. A lot of people don’t know what that means, but what I tell my parents is, if you sell something at Lowe’s or Home Depot, chances are we can help you grow your sales.
We’ve got around 25 people on our team. We focus on everything: from the standard website build to more advanced applications, as well as full-on digital marketing suite from automation, SEO, content, ,social, things of that nature. At the end of the day, those are tactics. What we really try to do is figure out how we can help our clients grow leads and sales.
ROB: Congratulations for getting to 25 people. That’s no small feat in a business where you’re largely providing services.
ZACH: Thank you. I appreciate that.
ROB: How did you come to look at the opportunity in marketing building products? I think that’s a fairly unique thing. We haven’t had a ton of those conversations on the podcast.
ZACH: Probably similar to a lot of people, my story is that I fell into digital marketing because I loved it. I think I was also good at it, candidly. But as I started to grow my business, I found that I hit a cap in terms of finding a way to really bring in leads for our own business. What I found is that if you’re aiming for nothing, that’s exactly what you’re going to get.
So we looked at our client portfolio and looked at who we did the best work for. My background is in design and architecture, so I really decided to plunge into the building product space just because it’s a natural fit as well as who we did really good work for.
That was a really strategic decision for us, and I think it was a smart move. It was not easy. You feel like when you’re putting the stake in the ground to say, “This is who we do work for,” you’re going to turn everybody in the world away. And for a while it felt that way, until we really understood how to get into the market. It took a long time.
I think it was a smart move and was the right move, and we didn’t look back after we made it. That’s the short intro to that.
ROB: Is there anything you can think of about yourself or your team that maybe you didn’t realize when you started, but really aligns you well to that industry?
ZACH: That’s a good question. I mentioned earlier that my background is in design, but if we look at building products, they look a lot at the construction industry as well as building products and architecture and things of that nature. That sales channel is really, really unique—depending upon what you sell. You’re selling to anywhere between 2 and 7 people, different players involved.
I think our understanding and desire to look at customer segments and the audience segments that are involved in that was a really good fit for us because we do a lot of research on audiences before we do any kind of marketing. Which I’m sure a lot of people do, but when we look at what we like and what we enjoy, the building products arena and the design around that fit really nicely with our team as well as, frankly, myself and what I really enjoy.
ROB: Understanding what the building products are loosely, although I think it would be interesting to get into some of the individual types of products as well—what are the different customer segments we should be thinking about? Are we talking about getting a retailer to carry these products, are we talking about getting contractors to use them, are we talking about consumer, are we talking about other commercial applications? What’s the range of who you’re marketing to?
ZACH: It’s all of the above. It’s big box, it’s retailers, it’s Amazon—interestingly that’s becoming a bigger part of what we do. It’s the contractor, the homeowner, the DIYer, the pro, all of the above. It really does depend upon what an individual manufacturer sells, and frankly how they sell. You could have the same exact product and distribute it differently depending upon where you are, how big you are, and how you take it to market. So it’s not a one size fits all.
ROB: Do you have different teams that are a little bit focused on different channels or different segments? I think that would be a challenge that many people would experience in any business and any agency—different marketing channels, different segments, different ways of thinking.
ZACH: We definitely have some industry expertise, but we do a lot of internal market research. What that means is we will look at the different audience segments and decide, “Hey, here are contractors. We want to target them. Let’s learn everything we can over the next year about their buying habits.”
For us, it really comes down to how do we learn about them, how do we interview them, how do we understand them? Not just for marketing purposes, but for really helping us to do our job. We share a lot of that data and do a lot of education internally with our team, as well as with our clients.
ROB: I would imagine that’s also helpful in onboarding talent. Are you pulling new team members out of school, from other agencies? Where are you attracting talent? Tell me a little bit more about that onboarding process. People who probably didn’t grow up dreaming of marketing building products . . . .
ZACH: That’s a good question. We’ve been really fortunate. A lot of the people we have on our team do have experience in the space. At the same time, depending upon where somebody is in their career, they might not have anything.
There is a lot of education involved. It takes . . . goodness, to really get to a point where you feel like you can talk confidently, it could take years. It is an investment, for sure, education. At the same time, we’ve got a lot of people around the individuals who are newer on our team to support them.
I also like to think that, on a separate note from a recruiting standpoint, working at Venveo is by invite only. I like to say, “We are so, so picky about our team.” But yes, I think that it’s a team effort too, because there are some things that you might experience on a given account that you can apply to somebody else’s.
ROB: Was there a point where you had considered a different career path, where maybe you didn’t think you were going to start a company and be responsible for other people’s mortgages and grocery bills?
ZACH: Honestly, no. [laughs] I’ve always wanted to start something. Even in high school, I owned my own business. I’m not saying that to say, “Look at me,” but it’s just how I’ve been. I never thought I’d have this many people working for me, but I always knew I liked starting something and building something. It wasn’t necessarily even owning a business.
So I think the answer to that is I have worked at other agencies and I really treasured and valued that time there, but I was never really content unless I was starting something on my own.
ROB: Then, did you start Venveo by yourself?
ZACH: Probably like a lot of people, I did freelance through college, and at the end of college I brought on a partner. We weren’t really making any money. [laughs] We weren’t doing very well. We were just trying to bootstrap it, trying to find a way to get off the ground. He got offered a really nice job at IBM. He was like, “Hey man, this is fun, but I’m out of here. Peace. Out.”
For me, for whatever reason, I just kept trying and kept working at it and slowly built it up over time. So I did originally have a partner when I started Venveo, but it wasn’t probably for more than 6 or 9 months until I was out on my own.
ROB: Talk a little bit about the decision to start and stay in Blacksburg, Virginia. Were you from there, were you from Virginia? Were you from somewhere else?
ZACH: I’m originally from outside DC, and I met my wife at college; her family is nearby. But in college, I got pretty well-connected with the business community here in Blacksburg and kind of fell in love with it. I think there’s a lot to be said about big cities, and I enjoy visiting them, but I really like our town. I just think it’s really cool. It’s got a lot to offer. It’s relatively centrally located around a lot of cities, but I also feel like the quality of life is just tremendous.
It wasn’t like, “Hey, we’ve got a ton of talent here” or “This is a hidden gem.” I just love the area, honestly.
ROB: Home football games or basketball games as well?
ZACH: Yeah, a lot of that fun stuff. For those who are listening, Blacksburg is where Virginia Tech is located. I enjoy that part of it, but it’s not like I live here because of that. But it is a lot of fun.
ROB: It’s a nice perk. I’m a Georgia Tech alum, and we’re right in midtown Atlanta.
ZACH: I hate playing Georgia Tech. I hate it. Paul Johnson, man. He knows how to get you.
ROB: [laughs] It’s a mutual feeling, in a respectful way. It’s a series that can go the wrong way on you, even when you think you’re doing well.
What are some things that you’ve learned in building the company so far that you would consider doing differently if you were starting over again?
ZACH: Good question. I would probably say specialize sooner. Specialize in something, find something you love. I love building products. I love everything about it. I like the industry, I like the results and the things we can do for our clients.
But I also think that it’s like most things in life: it’s having the mentality to persevere. We didn’t do very well as a company for a long time. It was a lot of deciding to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and persevering even though it’s difficult. Which sounds great now on the other side, but when you’re in the middle of that, like that’s your life, that’s really not easy.
ROB: Right. You talked about this moment where you were swimming in uncertainty. You talked about committing to the specialization in building products, but there being this season where it wasn’t quite clear whether that was going to work.
Certainly being comfortable with the uncomfortable is part of that middle; in the moments where you doubted, what were the keys when you realized, “Hey, I think this is going to work,” or maybe the glimmers of hope along the way that helped offset the times when it wasn’t quite as straightforward?
ZACH: Man, I don’t know. [laughs] I don’t know the answer to that question. I wish I could give you some examples. I just had to keep pushing even if I didn’t see the results. It was for our team and our employees, even though we were small at that time. For my family, too. I think being in marketing and doing digital marketing specifically, we celebrate creativity and innovation, but oftentimes the best creativity and innovation comes out of a place of desperation.
ROB: Chalk it up to the spirit of the entrepreneur: that certain people are wired in a way that makes them want to push through when things are tough. Some of that is learned and some of that is hard to develop.
What are some of the things that you market that people might not even realize are marketed? Does that make sense?
ZACH: The products?
ZACH: Man, there are so many things inside a wall or a house you don’t even know are there.
ROB: [laughs] Like what?
ZACH: This is something a lot of our clients deal with, but how do you market a product that isn’t seen? Whether it’s some sort of insulation component or sheathing that you don’t even think about or something as small as a particular bolt or electrical element—there’s a lot of that kind of stuff. Granted, we do a lot of more visually-oriented products too, but some of the more obscure things can be everything from the flooring that’s underneath the flooring to a very particular kind of drywall that works in temperate climates.
I don’t know if I’m giving you a very good answer, but it’s all of the unseen in a building, whether that’s commercial or home.
ROB: What marketing channels are you in that are perhaps a little bit different from just your standard digital marketing firm? Or, I’ll twist that a little bit and say channels that behave differently from how a normal, pure digital marketer for everyone and everything might see those marketing channels?
ZACH: Let’s say you sell lumber, for example. Let’s say you’re a homeowner; you might go to Lowe’s or Home Depot, or if you really know what you’re doing, you might go to 84 Lumber, something like that. Most of the time, if you’re a lumber company, you might sell through one or two distributors, a one-step or two-step distributor, before it even gets to a lumber dealer. Then a lumber dealer is selling it to a contractor, who’s then selling it to a homeowner.
So who do you end up actually marketing to? Do you market to the one-step who actually buys from you as a manufacturer, or do you market to a homeowner who’s the one actually using it? That’s the quandary a lot of these manufacturers deal with.
I think that where we can come in is just a lot of expertise and experience and data supporting who’s the right person to go after at the right time depending upon the buyer journey.
ROB: I think perhaps folks marketing in the medical vertical may have some similar interesting restrictions, but in some ways they also have better regulatory guidance. They have to tell people, “We can’t tell you why you want this medicine, but ask your doctor about it.”
For you, the book’s more open. You can say, “Buy this lumber because your house is going to last a long time, but you’re probably not going to buy it, so ask your contractor.” There’s lots of different ways you can spin that. You almost have less regulatory constraints that leave the book wide open to you.
ZACH: Yeah, it’s true. I’m sure there are a lot of different industries that have to sell through multiple players, so that’s not necessarily uncommon, but within building products there are just so many unique people you have to go after.
ROB: One channel that may be visible to some people is Houzz. I think at one point it was a big deal. Is it still a big deal for certain types of product, or has it attenuated a little bit?
ZACH: Houzz is interesting because they’re very much VC-funded, from what it appears. For a while there I thought they were going to kick the bucket. I just didn’t think they were going to make it. But they’ve really started to focus more on home goods and home products. They’re more DIY- and homeowner-focused. They’ve got some really interesting features they’re rolling out in relation to their image galleries, which is I think what made them popular in connecting that to products.
That is definitely a channel specifically online, but really nobody holds a candle to Amazon. This is probably for most industries, but whether it’s Houzz or Wayfair or Build.com or all these other ones—they’re all great and they all have a role, but Amazon is really leading the pack specifically for buying products online. In this space, at least.
ROB: I thought we might end up in the Amazon vicinity. Not that many marketers—at least a lot fewer—have experienced marketing on Amazon. What are some of the real interesting keys there that make it its own special animal when it comes to being effective for clients?
ZACH: Amazon is its own beast. I think it’s important to view it as a search engine. What’s interesting about Amazon is they will sometimes triple-dip when it comes to charging you to be on their site. They charge you to be listed, they charge you to advertise or rank well, and they’ll also charge you depending upon your distribution avenues. So they’re going to make their money.
But finding a way to rank on that site is really the key. You sometimes have people who aren’t paying as much to rank outrank other players because they’ve just got better reviews, or they’re checking all the boxes that Amazon’s looking for. They’ve got really rich content, they’ve got all their suite of information, they’ve hit a certain number of positive reviews.
And they’ve also got really good ship times, too—which most people don’t think about, but Amazon really cares about that deliverability rate. If you’re doing shipping yourself and you’re not delivering, your deliverability rate is really poor, Amazon’s going to automatically update that on their site. But they’ll also ding you, if you will, from a ranking perspective.
There are so many things, even including profitability (how much Amazon is making) too. Again, that’s like a rabbit trail in and of itself, but it’s interesting to look at.
ROB: Sure. We have had one deep dive on a previous episode with Eric Heller of Marketplace Ignition. His agency was acquired into one of the major holding companies, and all they have done for the entire life of their agency is Amazon, all the way down the pipe. We did a pretty deep dive into that. Folks who want to dive into that world can go back and listen to that as well. Are you familiar with them?
ZACH: No, I’m not.
ROB: They were acquired into Wunderman. It was an interesting story because part of the reason they sold was that they were working with some bigger clients in ecommerce, and they were starting to get pushed on their Agency of Record, their AOR agreements, because these brands were being asked to sign their ecommerce as part of their AOR and they couldn’t do it with an independent anymore.
They happened to match up with an agency holding company that needed this piece of their puzzle. So it was a really interesting dance about acquisition as well there.
ZACH: That’s interesting, because that’s a different way to look at specialization. You either specialize in a vertical or you specialize in a particular craft, if you will, or specialization within digital.
You might just be really, really good at frontend development or design and just go super deep into design, or you go super deep into automation. There’s so many different ways to specialize, but you can’t do everything for everyone. You’ve got to find a niche.
ROB: For sure, and I think you’ve got a great example of that. What’s coming up for you, Zach, or for Venveo or broader digital marketing that’s exciting? What are you excited about?
ZACH: That’s a good question. I think what’s interesting is that people are really catching on that there’s, for lack of a better term, an arms race around online. Not just ranking well or having a pretty website, but how you can view your online presence as a capital asset and the things surrounding it. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the next thing; I just think that there’s more understanding around where the industry is going, and specifically what users are doing.
I am excited about where ecommerce as a whole is going too, because what we’re seeing is that Amazon is definitely a huge monster, if you will, but I think we’re going to see a lot more social commerce come out of—you’re already seeing it somewhat, but Facebook, Instagram, and even Pinterest. I think Pinterest could really push Amazon in some respects if they play their cards right. They, from my standpoint, are allowing the bigger players to lead the charge and let them innovate, and they just copy that and apply that to their platform.
I don’t know if that’s a very good answer or not, but I think there’s a lot to be said about people looking at experimentation around digital. Everything from AI, a bit, and even how that translates to e-com.
ROB: How does it translate to e-com?
ZACH: I think the jury is still out a bit on that. There’s definitely case studies about it. I haven’t necessarily read anything about that in relation to building products, but optimization within let’s say Facebook for e-com, there’s a ton of AI supporting that. But at the same time, I don’t know if every mom and pop shop is doing AI yet. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think the day that that happens, that’s going to be really exciting.
ROB: Very interesting. Zach, when someone wants to get in touch with you, how should they find you?
ZACH: My Venmo account is—no, I’m kidding. [laughs] You can shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can just go to venveo.com and shoot us a note there. That’s probably the best way to find me. I’m also on LinkedIn as well if you want to shoot me a note there too.
ROB: Excellent. One thing I remember that I want to rewind on a little bit—you were highlighting, in what you’re excited about, the centricity and value of the website as a capital asset. I think where that’s interesting is it’s sort of a land grab back from the energy that existed around social. People started to think of their social accounts as a capital asset, as this thing, “get more followers on Facebook and your life will be wonderful.”
I think a lot of people have realized that it’s not necessarily wonderful to have a bunch of Facebook followers. To a certain extent, do you think some of the centricity of the website and perhaps, adjacently, of email lists, is due to a retrenchment from social?
ZACH: No, I don’t think so. I don’t even necessarily view it as the website; I just view it as digital holistically. I think people are viewing it as—and there’s been a lot of talk about this, but it is an extension of the brand. If you’ve got the best online presence, you’re delivering the most value, that’s really the arms race. How can you deliver more value than anyone else?
Commoditization across every single industry is happening, and the ones that are standing out are the ones that market the best and deliver the most value and most insight and most help to their audience. That help can be in the form of customer experience; that help can be in the form of industry knowledge. But that’s really the name of the game: how can you create an online presence that helps your audience the most?
ROB: How much of that helpfulness is video playing amongst your market?
ZACH: I think it’s a lot, especially in DIY. How to do something, let’s say on YouTube, is really big. Or tutorials. That’s really, really big in the building products arena now. It can encourage someone to buy, or push them away from doing it if the video works or if it doesn’t.
ROB: Good stuff. Zach, thank you for your time. Thank you for sharing some very good lessons in specialization. You’ve been living out the values, and you’re proving the value of specialization through what you’re doing with Venveo, as well as specializing in an area that you can be true to yourself in and not just chasing something because it sounds like a good specialty.
ZACH: Yeah. You can’t look at somebody else and go “ooh, I want to do that.” You’ve got to find something you really believe in. You’ve really got to believe in it, to the point where you just keep doing it even if it looks like you’re failing. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] Awesome. A special thanks today to Jason Swenk, one of our previous guests, for this introduction. We couldn’t do this podcast without great recommendations. If you have a great guest recommendation, do reach out to us. Thanks so much for your time, Zach.
ZACH: Glad to help. Thanks.
ROB: Take care.
Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email email@example.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.