Jeff Hilimire, co-founder and CEO of Dragon Army (Atlanta, GA), a mobile and innovation company that works with large companies to navigate emerging marketing channels, talks about the impact a company philosophy can have on its employees, its clients, and the larger world. Jeff defines the purpose of his company as: “to inspire happiness,” and his personal vision as: “to make this world a better place.” He aspires to build “a company that has heart and does more for its team members and employees than any other company.” The result of his unique brand of leadership: Dragon Army has tripled in the last year.
Jeff Hilimire also founded 48in48 (48in48.org), an initiative that mobilizes marketing professionals to build 48 websites for 48 nonprofits in 48 hours. He blogs about entrepreneurship, leadership, and doing good at jeffhilimire.com. The company website is: dragonarmy.com/
Rob Kischuk: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m very excited today to be joined by Jeff Hilimire, co-founder and CEO of Dragon Army, based in Atlanta. Welcome, Jeff.
Jeff Hilimire: Hey, Rob, how is it going?
Rob Kischuk: It’s going great. How about you?
Jeff Hilimire: It’s awesome. It’s a Friday, so I’m psyched about the weekend.
Rob Kischuk: Indeed. Thanks for making time. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Dragon Army and about what the company is great at?
Jeff Hilimire: You got it. Dragon Army is a mobile and innovation company. What that means is we work with brands, usually large companies, to help them understand where digital is going, how they can use new, emerging channels to better connect with their customers—build deeper relationships. It really came from my past of working with large brands and having digital agencies and realizing that is the biggest struggle, both for the agency and for the client, to really wrap their hands around what’s coming next and what rabbit holes you don’t want to go down, but where do we need to test and learn. So, with Dragon Army, that’s really our laser focus. The unique thing about us is we also have a studio which allows us to build our own products and games, so that we’re always constantly learning.
Rob Kischuk: And folks can find some of those games or are there any things they should be looking forward to? What should we find in the app store, Jeff?
Jeff Hilimire: Yeah. So, probably the one that people should look at is Little Broken Robots. That was the last game that we did, but we’ve really been on pause for the last two years on the game side as we built up the agency. So, it’s probably going to be another year or so before we have a new game come out—so nothing to report there yet.
Rob Kischuk: Got it. If people look you up, they’ll see that you started a company called Spunlogic, which I like to call the company, “it’s so nice you sold it twice,”—very successful and known in Atlanta agency circles. What led you to come from that and decide to start Dragon Army instead of—I don’t know—kicking back, going to the beach?
Jeff Hilimire: So, Spunlogic, I started with Raj Chaudhary in our dorm room at UNC Charlotte. It was 1998 when we started the company. We loved building websites and I loved technology. So, we started that and ran Spunlogic for 10 years. Eventually, we got to about 75 employees, sold the company to a private equity group which then created Engauge. I stayed at and helped run Engauge. Five and a half years later, we sold to Publicis Moxie. So, that was the selling it twice reference you made.
I’ll tell you; I’ll be honest. The main thing that I want to do with Dragon Army is, I want another swing at the plate—to create a company that can be truly special and truly different. You know, I’ve had my own, where it was entirely mine and Rogers to do what we wanted, but I was a baby, I was 21 . . . 23 years old when did it. I was learning—not only learning how to run a company and be a CEO, I was learning how to be a grown up.
Then the second phase was with Engauge. I was on the Board, but it wasn’t mine to control. I learned a lot through that process. So, to me, Dragon Army—I just really wanted a chance to continue to learn, but take a lot of the things that I had experienced and build what I hope can be, quite literally, one of the best companies in the world. And I get to define what best is and—you know—I’m certainly not going to be the size of an Amazon or something ridiculous. But for me, I want to create a company that has heart and does more for its team members and employees than any other company. And that’s sort of the pulse of Dragon Army at this point.
Rob Kischuk: So, that’s what the best company is for you then?
Jeff Hilimire: Yeah, I think a company that relends our purpose at Dragon Army. This is something that I didn’t have in my previous companies—purpose; a reason for being, your “why.” Our purpose at Dragon Army is to inspire happiness. I truly want Dragon Army to exist to make our team members happier than they could be in any other job, loving coming to work because it fulfills so much more than the need for a paycheck.
We’ve got 45 employees today. I want to understand what it is that motivates them—what fulfills them. What are their passions outside of work? How can Dragon Army help move them forward on all those initiatives? And if we just make our, right now, 45 team members happier . . . healthier, then the world is a little bit better. Maybe, if they affect other people around them, then it’s a little bit better even than that. Just those ripples of positivity that can happen if you’re focused that way and that’s what’s different, I think, about Dragon Army than my previous companies. It just really has a purpose that we all believe in and it’s what I love about building this company.
Rob Kischuk: Right. When in the life of the company did you establish that purpose?
Jeff Hilimire: It’s great question. So, Dragon Army is four-and-a-half years old. I would say, about a year ago is when I really landed on it. I had always thought that the purpose of a company had to be, in some ways, a direct output of what the company produced. You know, you hear about like Kind Bars or Tom’s Shoes and it’s literally, “We make this thing and because of this thing we make, the world can be a better place.”
What I realized is, through some mentors and reading some books, that your purpose can be more than that. To me, that was the enlightenment that I went through that helped me understand that Dragon Army can exist for something bigger. It had always been inside and I sort of did it, but I had never articulated it.
Rob Kischuk: Very cool. One critical decision in building any company is, I think, clearly because of that Spunlogic and Engauge background, you had a wide variety of people you could have chosen to go into business with when you were building a new company. Who did you decide to go into business with and how did you—of all the people you could have decided to work with—how did you decide to work with them starting Dragon Army?
Jeff Hilimire: Well, great question. So, number one, I was going to start a company with Ryan Tuttle. He ran operations for me at Spunlogic and then stayed at Engauge for just a little bit. But I know that I need an operationally minded, a more calm and conservative voice to what I do, so he and I work really well together. So, I knew he would be one of my co-founders.
And then, honestly, having known David Cummings for a long time, obviously. I’m very inspired by what he’s done and the things he’s done in Atlanta. He and I talked right before I was starting Dragon Army. He was in the process of investing in some companies and wanting to help some other people that I had known in town. We talked about it and he joined as the third co-founder and investor when we started.
So, I’m a big believer in having a partner. I do think you can do it without, but I also think it helps tremendously. So, I was excited to specifically start with Ryan and have us try to do this together.
Rob Kischuk: Right. Many people in Atlanta will know David Cummings’ name at the drop of a hat. Some outside Atlanta may or may not, but David, of course, started Pardot, sold it to Salesforce, and is a tremendously involved investor/angel investor locally, as well as running Atlanta Tech Village; which is an awesome co-working space and community here.
Jeff Hilimire: Yeah, that’s right.
Rob Kischuk: So, how did you weigh the decision, when you were approached to sell Spunlogic? And how would you contemplate that decision differently now, if someone came to you and said, “Look. This Dragon Army thing . . . I know you’ve done this before and Dragon Army’s looking pretty good . . . We might want to buy it.”? How would you think about that?
Jeff Hilimire: Yeah. So, Spunlogic was always, from day one, meant to be sold. Raj and I talked about it from the beginning, “Wouldn’t it be great, if we could build a company that eventually we could sell”. So, we had that mindset from the beginning and the timing was right. We ended up getting very lucky and selling in March of 2008, right when the economy was collapsing. We must have been one of the last deals that happened in this space for years because we got super lucky.
So, you know, that was always part of the plan. With Dragon Army, we’ve already been approached by a couple of companies that were interested in acquiring us, prematurely for sure. But there’s definitely been interest because we focus on the future of marketing and technology. With Dragon Army, it’s different because we have the studio side and because I’m building a company that I think needs to exist in the world. It was different with Spunlogic. With Dragon Army, if we do the things that I want us to do and hope that we will do, I think that it can have an impact on the world. I’m not sure that I want to give that up.
So, right now, there’s no plan for acquisition. I’m certain, as we continue to grow, we’ll get more and more people reaching out to us, but I feel like we’re just on the beginning of this journey. So, it’s really not on the roadmap at this point.
Rob Kischuk: Right, I think there’s a key takeaway. The one thing I hear underpinning that is that you realize that you have an opportunity to build the company that you want. You want to have a game studio and so you can. And nobody can tell you that you can’t do that unless it just isn’t going to work. But you have that opportunity to build what you want without maybe some of the pressure you kind of had.
Jeff Hilimire: That’s right. It does give me the freedom to really say, “Okay, what do I want to build and where do I want to invest the profit from this company? I’m okay over indexing on making sure that we’re creating the best possible work environment for our employees and so forth because I’m not driven by how much profit I am going to make and how big my salary is going to be this year.
Rob Kischuk: Right. And so, with that past experience, in what ways has it been easier this time to build a company and in what ways–you know–people would think it’s gonna be easier, but it actually has been just as much work as it always is?
Jeff Hilimire: Yeah. You know, what’s funny is, if I were to plot out the biggest mistakes I’ve made as an entrepreneur over the last 20 years—I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 21 and I’m forty-two—the three biggest mistakes I’ve made have been since I started Dragon Army, which should not be the case. The reason it is the case is because I don’t expect not to make mistakes, but I can now make them on a bigger scale. And so, I’ve had to learn that I need to be a little bit more cautious and thoughtful on decisions because I basically have a bigger bat.
And so, I’m continuing to learn. It’s been, I would say, no easier this time around and in fact, in several ways, it’s been harder. But I think it’s just always—entrepreneurship as you know, you’ve been entrepreneur for a long time—it’s always a journey, you’re always learning. So, I’m just constantly trying to learn from people, from books, from other entrepreneurs, so that I stop making all these darn mistakes.
Rob Kischuk: And people can learn from some of your mistakes on your blog; right? You’re very–how often do you blog?
Jeff Hilimire: So, my goal this year, for 2018, is to blog every weekday.
Rob Kischuk: Okay.
Jeff Hilimire: Yeah, So, five days a week.
Rob Kischuk: There’s a lot of good content there. People can find that where?
Jeff Hilimire: It’s Jeff Hilimire– one L–jeffhilimire.com.
Rob Kischuk: Awesome. And so, all those three biggest mistakes, what are they? How much of those can you share and what can we learn from those situations?
Jeff Hilimire: Yeah. You know, some key lessons—I think, doing deep diligence before making a big decision. I’m somebody who certainly likes to weigh a decision and think it through, but I’m also not somebody that wants to die from analysis paralysis and sit on something for weeks—like, I want to go. I’ve had to learn and I made Ryan promise me he’s going to make sure the next time we have a big decision, that he forces me to slow down, to really take my time—sleep on a decision, really think it through when you’re taking big swings.
So, I think that’s the first thing. The actual tangible example is one of the biggest mistakes I made with Dragon Army . . . what I should have done is . . . so, today, we have the agency and the studio. The agency is 45 or 44 people. We have one person on the studio side. But for the first year and a half at Dragon Army, we were just a studio.
What I should have done at that time is to start both. I should have thought about the fact that I had no experience in gaming, but I did have experience and a reputation in building an agency. If I had taken the time and really thought it out, I would have realized that I could have started the agency and had that fund the game studio from the beginning; in which case—four and a half years—we’d probably have 150 people today and we’d be thriving on the game studio side. Instead I spent a lot of money trying to get a game studio to work for a year-and-a-half before I realized, “You know what? I have to go back to what I know to fund this new experiment.”
Betting on what you know is always a good thing. I lost sight of that and said, “Well, I’m an entrepreneur. I’ll figure it out.” I couldn’t figure it out before I needed to pivot and do something new.
Rob Kischuk: Right. Having been in gaming myself, I know how hard that is. At least for me, the most terrifying part was when I realized what I would like to receive as a salary and what I was paying my team and how many 99 cent purchases and transactions you had to sell to pay everyone. I don’t know what the numbers you ran looked like on that, but that gets intimidating at some point.
Jeff Hilimire: Yes, it definitely does. So, I think the biggest learning I’ve had is just, “You know what? Take your time, do some deep due diligence on big decisions, get lots of opinions, and really think it through.” Because, again, when I was younger and moving fast, the swings weren’t so big. If I made a mistake, it was a small blip. Now, I have the means to make big, hairy mistakes and that’s what I have to cover for.
Rob Kischuk: If someone looks at your bio on your blog, one thing I think they’ll see is that you’re involved in a lot. I think it would be easy to get the impression that, “You know, what Jeff does is Jeff spends 12 hours a day in the office and then runs around at a bunch of other meetings.” But I think you’re a lot more intentional about how you manage your time.
How do you choose when to leave the office, when to invest time in other things? I think it’s very tempting, when building an agency, just to be all-in and maybe at some point, early in this Spunlogic life of things, you were.
Jeff Hilimire: Yes. One of the number one questions I get from people is, “How do you spend so much time on all these other things? What percentage of your time do you really spend on Dragon Army?” I think they’re shocked to hear that I spend 95 percent of my time on Dragon Army. It’s absolutely what I spend—and then I compartmentalize other things.
I’ve come to a realization that my purpose, my personal “why” is to have an outsized, positive impact on the world. And so, I look through that lens and say, “What can I do that’s more than what one person should be able to do, that makes the world a better place?” I use that lens to decide what I spend time on outside of Dragon Army. But, as I told you earlier, l see Dragon Army as an extension of that.
So, when I started 48in48—that’s a hackathon, a web hackathon—where we bring several hundred people together in a city and we build 48 nonprofit websites in 48 hours. I started that four years ago with Adam Walker. This year, we’ll be in six cities, including London. It’s continuing to expand. That one thing I created is continuing to have an outsized, positive impact on the world.
So, with all the things that I do, I look and I look at my calendar and try to make sure that I’m giving my family, number one, enough time and then Dragon Army second, because that fuels a lot of these other things. I try to be strategic about how I spend the rest of my time. I’m home no later than 5 o’clock every day. I do get up early and get going, but I very rarely have to work weekends when I could be with my family. So, I’ll get up early sometimes and work on the weekends, but I think I do a pretty good job of being home and present. It’s something that I continue to try to work on. But I’m pretty good at delegating. So, I’m able to really say, “What are the things that I need to focus on?” and then put all my time there.
Rob Kischuk: Right. I think there’s some good thoughts there. What made you realize that 48in48 needed to have its own life and wings rather than being an extension of Dragon Army? Because it seems like there are adjacencies and there are some overlaps and probably some learnings you even bring back into Dragon Army. But what they do say needs to kind of be its own thing?
Jeff Hilimire: You know, that’s a good question. 48in48 was something that had been in my mind, probably for ten years. I tried a few things in the past when I had Engauge. And what kept resonating with me was, “Okay, I’ve got employees with these great digital skills. Whenever I bring a charity nonprofit opportunity to them—to wrap presents during the holidays, to work in a soup kitchen, stuff like that—they loved it. They really loved helping. And then I’d be in these nonprofit board meetings and they need so much digital help. I just kept going, “Nobody’s bringing these two worlds together.” I knew my team members would love to use their web skills, their email skills, their social skills to help the nonprofits.
So, I tried different things along the way and it really came together when I just said, “You know, the way to help these nonprofits is to give them a thing.” You can’t just say, “Hey, I’ll help you with social. We’ll meet once a month and stuff.” It doesn’t work that way for these small nonprofits.
So, it was really coming from a place far before Dragon Army was even in my mind. I had been trying to solve this problem. When it came to be, I did think for a minute, “You know, could this be a mobile thing?”—because then, Dragon Army could be even more involved. But, it just didn’t make sense for nonprofits to have some sort of mobile app. So, there’s really not a lot. It’s interesting because we don’t work with small nonprofits. Dragon Army, we don’t do small WordPress sites, it really just its own thing and I’m super happy about that.
Rob Kischuk: It’s quite a thing. I mean, six cities is a big deal. You have, if I’m not mistaken, you have actual full-time staff, who their job is 48in48; is that right?
Jeff Hilimire: We have four full-time employees.
Rob Kischuk: That’s amazing. Again, I mean, it’s a positive impact, even in their own lives, to be able to work on that and I think that’s a cool thing and hopefully Dragon Army is that as well for your team there.
Jeff Hilimire: I can say that. Thanks, yeah.
Rob Kischuk: From someone’s job, I think that’s something that anybody who’s listening, who is operating an agency, feels that burden that you’re actually putting food on someone’s table and you’re accountable for that. And to do that in something that’s also not your main job seems a little bit even more intimidating.
Jeff Hilimire: Yeah. No, I appreciate that and I think you are right.
Rob Kischuk: So, what are things, let’s say in the next six months to a year at Dragon Army that you’re excited about?
Jeff Hilimire: Yeah. I’m excited about a couple of different things at Dragon Army. One, I think we’re getting closer and closer to fully spinning up the studio side; which would be like the next phase of our evolution—to have a thriving agency side of Dragon Army and then a thriving studio side where we’re building our own products. And I think that’s just going to create a very interesting culture and an environment of creativity. So, very excited about that. We’re studying—because ‘Inspire Happiness’ is our mantra and our purpose—we are studying literally, what making a human being happy. We’ve got a lot of ideas and plans for that. I think over the next six months, by the time 2019 starts, we’ll have a really good formula for Dragon Happiness and really able to identify that. I want to know, on a day-by-day basis, how happy are our team members? And what can we do to make them happier?
I think we’re just starting this journey with Dragon Army, I’m really excited about the growth we’ve had over the last year; we’ve tripled in the last year. I hope that that growth continues. I think we’re just getting started. So, I’m really pleased with where we’re at now, but I have a lot of plans for the future.
Rob Kischuk: That’s very exciting and I think that tripling; it’s got to feel almost like a relief, if you will, like you know you’ve still got it. You feel like you still got it; like if you didn’t, you would have just walked away; right? But when you triple in a year, it’s got to feel like you’ve got problems to solve though, but you know you still got it.
Jeff Hilimire: Yeah. I appreciate that. Yes, I do and it is nice. I just think I’ve not had a team like this. I’m certainly not had a leadership team like this—where we’re on the same page, rowing in the same direction, everybody believes in what we’re doing. We run something called The Great Game Of Business at Dragon Army and what it does is it aligns the company’s goals with everybody in the company, so we all are trying to hit our revenue and profit goal for the year, everybody understands what that is, everybody knows where we’re at today against that goal, we discuss it on a weekly basis, we talk about the things that we can do, everybody knows their role in that; how they specifically can help us hit that goal and then we’re all rewarded the exact same way; we get the bonus if we hit it and if we don’t, nobody gets the bonus.
So, that has created a culture of people who really want this company to succeed and want to help each other out and build this camaraderie. So, I’m so thrilled with the team that we have now and I think our biggest challenge will be continuing to bring awesome people in that buy into our culture; growing fast, that’s hard to do. So, we’re really working on the process for how do we identify awesome people who are going to be great fits and continue to add to our culture and not detract from it.
Rob Kischuk: And that Great Game Of Business sounds–I mean, it sounds tremendous from–I mean, it forces transparency, it encourages accountability; how challenging was the transition to starting that? Was it kind of scary and did you worry when someone sees like a top-line revenue number that–I don’t know–what they’re going to think from that?
Jeff Hilimire: We had all those discussions when we were going through this; “How much do we share?” “Do we share?” Everything came second to, “How do I build a company where everybody is on the same team and we all get it and the politics go out the door and we support each other?” I had never had that. At Spunlogic, we had a really good culture, but we didn’t have this and we didn’t even have really defined values which we have it at Dragon Army.
So, I could think of it and still cannot think of any other way to make this happen. Even if everyone has equity in the company, you’re still not incented the same way; day-to-day, week-to-week month-to-month. So, we sort of said, “All right, it’s worth the risk. Let’s start sharing and open everything up.”
Rob Kischuk: I think it’s probably even better than equity, because a lot of people have learned that their equity, somewhere else was or wasn’t worth what they thought it would be. Not to say the people should be super short-term thinking, but to actually have a real—it seems like a better reinforcement mechanism to have. You know, if you’re doing well, there’s a steady bonus structure and a steady encouragement that you’re doing well and doing the right thing.
Jeff Hilimire: Yeah. Exactly, that’s completely the mentality.
Rob Kischuk: Right. So, Jeff, when someone wants to get in touch with you and Dragon Army, how can they find you?
Jeff Hilimire: I mean, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org or people can tweet at me or at @DragonArmy. But, yeah, I know, I’m happy for people to reach out and I certainly… you brought up earlier, but I blog, on a daily basis, what we’re doing at Dragon Army, what’s different about us and then how I see the world and things that I’m thinking about. So, a lot of what I want to say is out there for anybody to pick up.
Rob Kischuk: Folks should definitely check out jeffhilimire.com. Additionally, 48in48 is at 48in48.org?
Jeff Hilimire: You’ve got it.
Rob Kischuk: 48in48.org. So, that’s great. And I don’t know, is anything else coming up that you want to share or talk about?
Jeff Hilimire: I don’t think so. I think we hit all my hot buttons. My main thing right now, I would encourage people to try to find a job or start a company that fulfills them. I continue to believe—look, anybody that listens to this podcast has the means to be able to take chances and try to make sure that what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis brings them joy and happiness. There are people who—there are absolutely millions of people who have to take a job and it’s the only job—and that’s the thing —that brings a paycheck.
Anyone listening this podcast, I would argue, is not in that category. You should either challenge the place you work to allow you to do the things you want to do or just figure out what that is and go after it. Too many—you know—you have friends, I have friends, we’re entrepreneurs, so it’s different for us. But so many people are just burned out from Monday morning till Friday afternoon; it’s just so depressing. So, I think I just would have people aspire to find the thing that fulfills them and go after it.
Rob Kischuk: I love it. Thank you Jeff. Thank you for your time. Thank you for your wisdom and I hope people who listen get some good takeaways from this.
Jeff Hilimire: Thanks for having me, Rob. I appreciate it.
Rob Kischuk: Thanks you so much, Jeff. Take care.
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