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Wil Reynolds: The Hidden Danger of Confusing Outputs for Outcomes

About this talk

Reynolds started Seer Interactive—a leading SEO and online marketing agency—in a small apartment back in 2002. Since then, the company has grown to more than 100 people. However, scaling the company was not without its growing pains. In this energetic talk, Reynolds shares how he learned to put a “lid on his hustle” and made sure his values weren’t compromised as his company grew. “Getting things done means giving things up,” he says. “It can’t all fit. You need to have the border.”

Wil Reynolds, Founder & Director of Strategy, Seer Interactive

In 2002, Wil Reynolds founded Seer with a vision to build an agency that puts equal focus on doing great things for its clients, its team, and the community at large. From a one-man shop in his apartment to a team of over 100 on both coasts, his vision has come to life and continues to grow every day.

Reynolds currently holds the role of Director of Strategy, focusing on identifying industry innovations and developing strategies across divisions to help Seer’s clients navigate the challenges their businesses face as a result of those innovations. Prior to his current role, Wil served as Seer’s Director of SEO, guiding the team and driving strategy for all SEO clients.


Full Transcript

I’m gonna not talk about inspiration, I’m gonna talk about constraints. Because you’re gonna be so inspired, but inspiration without getting things done is nothing. So I’m gonna start with the ultimate constraint, 24. You see it, hopefully in New York, we’re not thinking Kobe when we see this. We are thinking 24 hours in the day. And this is one of those things that I remind myself of daily when I’m stressed out. Is that anybody we ‘ve ever looked up to or admired, they were given the same amount of time in a day to do what they did, that I have. And then I explore, how have those people found ways to get things done? And we’re gonna start talking about some of that.

I want to give you guys the metaphor of a puzzle. When you put together a puzzle, how do you start it? What pieces do you look for first? The border, right? Today I am your border. I’m gonna try to help you paint the middle by giving you a frame so you know where the end can begin or start. Ben Franklin, Philly, the original start-up. The whole country was started in the damn city.

So what’s up to my Philly people. Three-hundred years ago, Ben Franklin Realized that he wanted to live his life by a set of virtues. And he wrote them down and he lived his life by those 13 virtues. I have a problem with one of them. I’m a married man. But like, come on, man. Kids only? So there’s 12 virtues that I agree with. And I only have limited time. So we’re only gonna talk about one today, and it’s virtue number three. Let all of your things have their places. And let each part of your business have its time. And the beauty is back then, we weren’t all like, “I’m starting a business.” Business is just life. Okay? Constraints, and this is what his constraints looked like daily. To remind him of virtue number three. Look on the left hand side, what you see there is something I’ll talk about in a bit, is he’s looking for the outcome of what he wants his day to be.

The right hand side are the set of outputs that should lead to that outcome. I’m get into that pretty deep… Arial! Puke now!

So, what happens when each part of your life can’t get the time it deserves. What do you do? See what the interesting thing about me is, I’ve learned the hard way that scale shows fail. Any time something gets to a certain point, you start to watch your ideas and your belief systems crumble. Let me give you an example. Ugly blog, I know. I’m not a designer remember I started off in SEO. Sorry guys somehow they let me in the building.

This is my first blog post on my blog five years ago. And it’s something that I’ve always believed in, and I believe that every CEO every person in the company should answer their phones. So imagine this today if you worked at my company. When the phone would ring, it would ring every single person’s desk in the entire company, because the people that called in where most often clients. They paid for our livelihoods. I’m not going to stick them in a phone tree and make them figure it out. And I learned a lot about my company and my team by answering the phone. People would tell me things. It was really funny cause I’d pick up the phone.

“Wil Reynolds speaking, whom is it you are looking to speak with?”

“Oh, I’m looking for Crystal. Wait, Will? What are you doing answering the phone?”

“Well you pay my check. I think I could pick up the phone when you call, if I got time.”

Because the phone rang all 20 or 30 of us at the same time. I learned so much about my team and my people. However, scale shows fail. So what happens when Sears started getting a little bit more popular and growing a little bit? Sales people started calling us. So when I picked up the phone trying to hope that once in a while I would get connected with a client, I was getting somebody trying to sell me something. I said I work on search, when I want something I type it in. When’s the last time somebody called you with a cold call and you said wow I really needed that, and never thought about ever doing this, type, type, type, enter.

So I did an analysis of the times when I’ve been most stressed out, and I have a blog post about this tool. So I am a data junkie, and I analyzed 10,451 entries over four and a half years in my time tracker on how I spent my time. And I will tell you some ofthe values that came from that. This isn’t very hard to do, it takes some discipline and I am way undisciplined. But I knew that it was worth doing because the value on the back end would teach me things like I’m going to share with you. So when I had a “eh” bookkeeper at SEER, and I fired her in the fourth quarter. Whoops! Tax time, look at who had to do a lot of work, that’s my line right there on finance.

And then I hired a slightly better bookkeeper, and then I got to cut my time per quarter down a little bit, getting me time back to work on things like innovation and inspiration. And then eventually I had my bookkeeper, who was awesome, reporting to my COO. And then look how much time I spent on the finances of my business. None, ‘cause I don’t wake up to count the numbers in the spreadsheets. I like to build stuff. I’ve hired people to help me on business development before, and it’s interesting when you hire. I have the data that shows when I hired this person, actually they never gave me any time back. I end up spending just as much time on business development. As I was before I hired them.

Do you have data on the people and the software and the things that you buy that are supposed to get you time back, that tells you whether or not they actually did what they’re supposed to? When you get stressed, this is how you get distressed. My second biz dev hire killed it and allowed me to work on other things.

Speaking in promotions. I went to school to be a teacher, a high school teacher. I went to school to teach economics to high school kids. I never realized that business development and speaking to a lot of people are the same thing. I’m just talking about shit that I love to do. I never thought about that as business development, so yes, I separate those two things out.

As I spent more time on that I was happy. The thing that scared the crap out of me, and this is where scale can show fail. Is that second line on HR. And for me HR is something that I don’t run from. I love spending time with my team, helping them to craft out their careers, and sometimes hearing them tell me how much I suck. But what I realized is, if I wanted that time and SEER doubled in staff. There was no way I was ever gonna be able to spend the time I wanted to with my team. By tracking these hours, you can run analyses against, well, what would happen if I added five more clients, took on a side hustle, did this, did that, and then it’ll show you, woop, constraint. How are you gonna get all that done with what matters? So I’m here to remind you, you gotta put a lid on your hustle sometimes.

Because while the theme of the conference, one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration. Definitely not a genius, but I am a freaking hustler. If somebody wants to come up and do a pushup contest, I might die trying, but I will try to beat you.

I’m just competitive as all get out. So for me, hustle is one percent inspiration, 99% perspiration. And that’s a problem. If you look at this and you go, “that’s me,” the rest of these slides are really going to be good for you. Because as a reminder, anybody in this room can beat Usain Bolt in a race even though he’s infinitely faster than all of us. How can you beat Usain Bolt in a race? All you need is for him to run in the wrong direction for five seconds.

Now you laugh. Internalize that shit.

If he runs in the wrong direction, for five seconds, everyone could beat Usain Bolt in a race, the world record holder in the 200 meters. So, hustle’s not just about having an idea and running off and doing shit. It’s about taking a second, which I know feels like forever for us, and just saying well, what direction would you like me to run in? Because I’ve been trained to be a fine athletic specimen, but if you put me in the wrong direction for five seconds I will not win the race. Just cuz you’re more talented, doesn’t mean squat if you don’t know where you’re going.

Sometimes planning beats out talent. And then you gotta be okay with delegation, which I’m gonna get to in a little bit? So I ask you, just think, reflect, stop. Where might you be running really fast right now, hustle baby, but you’re going in the wrong direction. Never going to hit the finish line, Usain it’s that way. It doesn’t matter that he’s better than us,it matters that he went in the wrong direction. I’m going to ask you if you are working on outputs, or outcomes. The beauty of having a wife that does something completely different than I do, so she’s a Ph. D. She started at a non-profit in Massawa, Nicaragua to build clean drinking water for people who don’t have access to clean drinking water. And it’s her startup, that’s her hustle, she started it like 12 years ago. I’ll take donations in the back.

These are the pictures that I’ve taken when I’ve gone there. So, my wife says to me one day, “I’ve got this big thing” and I’m talking to her and we’re traveling somewhere and we’re in a hotel room. And I’m like “oh my God babe, bah, bah, bah, bah,” and she’s like still trying to wake up. And she’s like “whats up with you and all your freaking energy calm down. It’s like 6 in the morning” “I’m like, well I already worked out ate my oat meal and im ready to go right? What do you think about this?” And it’s funny, even though she wanted to punch me she said, “what you’re really talking about Will is this theoretical framework.” Which I’m a hustler, right? She’s a PhD, I’m a hustler. “What you gonna talk about theoretical framework?” I’m like “get the freak out of here.” I want to get shit done, you know? And she said well “slow down for a second Will.” She said “in my line of work What you’re talking about is a theoretical framework. And we look at that as outputs versus outcomes.” And I said “well, what are you talking about, sweetie?” She said “well, when we go to Nicaragua and build these clean water systems for people who were typically before going into rivers and taking, like, old anti-freeze jugs and filling them up with water to drink.”

She goes, we end up celebrating, and these are pictures of her employees, two of her employees, that were down there volunteering. This is a water system that they helped to build, but really they only helped in the money side and the procurement of getting the materials there. The people themselves dig the trenches three meters deepthrough the mountains to get their own water for themselves and their families. She said “but the problem is that we take the pictures when we build the water system. That is an output. It’s a big output, but it’s just a checkbox. It’s just on the to do list.” She said “what we need to celebrate is when this young girl is more healthy. And we don’t know that the day we check that thing off of the to do list. We got to come back every year and check her health. We have to see how much time she’s spending at school, because now she doesn’t have to go and fetch water three times a week.” And not go to school.

One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen is I’ve seen people use Wikipedia for the first time in Wislawa, Nicaragua. And just be like, wait, soI can find out all this information? You’re like, yes, it’s all out there. Now the internet down there is about 2g. So thank God for all you folks who have decided to create things in mobile. But, ask yourself where you’re making this mistake too. Where you are working on an output and thinking woohoo, celebrate! Yes! Launch that website. Woohoo! It’s done. You don’t just launch a website, because, eh, let’s just launch it. There’s an outcome that you’re hoping happens when you pour your life’s work into something. Don’t get blinded by the output and celebrate the wrong win.

Was Usain Bolt faster when he ran in the wrong direction? Yes, but did he win the race? No. So one of the ways that I look at my virtues is I have what I call a wall of what matters in my house. And it’s on my way walking up the stairs to my bedroom. I painted this chalkboard wall there seven years ago. There’s not a lot of eraser marks because these are some of my foundational core things that, when I look at, I ask myself, am I doing at least one of these today? So this would have been Ben Franklin’s left hand side. So this was my like, oh my God, if these people like hate me right now slide. I wanted to make sure I gave you my contact information, why? Because if you are yawning right now, and you’re like none of this is actually remotely inspirational to me, one of my values is that every person I have a chance to touch,I wanna help in some way, shape, or form.

Something I want to share with you, that Shawn thought might be interesting, is, I actually stopped running my company for a week, and let someone else run my company. And I went and flew to Seattle, and ran his for a week. Interesting thing about doing that, lot of interesting things, is actually taking a picture in front of my values wall there. And I’m being like, you know, doing my Cam Newton at his company in his video studio. But I did not have access to my inbox for a week. You know what’s interesting about inviting someone else your inbox and letting them see every dirty piece about you? “You’re subscription to porno,it’s expired, oh no.”

My mother emailed Rand on the left hand side because she had forgotten that we were swapping that week. And he asked him for help with something, or she asked me for help with something and got Rand. And he was like, do you need me to come over to New Jersey and help you with it? It was that legit I swear to God. I didn’t have access to my inbox for a week. People quit the week he was there. The day I got to his job people quit, and I had to deal with that. It was insane, can’t talk to you guys about all the things that we learned and did. But what I will tell you is that within three months of that experiment, Rand stepped down as the CEO of running his own company. And three months after that, I did the same.

Because we realized that we didn’t start what we did because we wanted to run companies. We didn’t wanna be CEOs. We like to do stuff! We’re makers! We like to try things and experiment! Like literally, we came up with this idea talking about wife swap at Barcade. Dude, you know that show Wife Swap? Isn’t that crazy? Like maybe we could do that as a two CEOs.

The difference is, is when you get venture funding, for those of you in the room on your venture hustle, you need to ask a whole bunch of people if they could do it. He had to go to his board and say, is it all right if I swap, or as I woke up, looked myself in the mirror and went, that could be pretty cool, I think I could learn some shit that way, and just did it. Had to ask my wife if it was okay, but that was about it. So we knew that that was the only way for us to get to the things that we thought were exciting was to give something up.

What’s crazy is that both of our companies are going faster than they ever have now that we are not running them. I’m gonna ask all of you. Dig deep, figure out what’s on your wall of values and be open to the thought that someone can do your job better than you. Or you will never fit all the things and all the inspiration that you’re gonna have over the next two days into your calendar, into your constraints. That person could be sitting to your left or right. Maybe up front. Psych! I got my own thing going. So, I was talking to my brother-in-law and he was riffing, my brother-in-law riffs on everything, right? And I do to so we get along as long as we’re both agreeing about the same thing. And he was like, you know what? He’s like when I see you, my sister Nora, when I see you guys together, he’s like, I can’t wait to see you guys in ten years.

Nice thing for your brother-in-law to say, especially when he’s a rugby player, and he’s come over our house with like black eyes, and I’m like he’s going to beat my ass. He said you know what? He goes, look how much money and time we spend celebrating the day people get married. And he said did you ever hear of that show called The Bachelor? He’s like, did you ever hear about that show like Married at First Sight, where two people never even met and they get married. He’s like we are celebrating the wrong thing. He’s like how about we start celebrating when people are together for ten years? Why don’t we save all the money and the cake and all that fun stuff when you can actually get through it? Your sister has taught me a thing or two. You’re actually talking about a theoretical framework. It’s called outputs versus outcomes.

And the funny part about though is he’s totally freaking right. Like I could marry you tomorrow. I could marry you the next day. I could marry you and then I could marry you. But if we’re not together for ten years who gives a shit, right? So, find a place for your things and let each part of your blank have its time. Find time for those things. And, if you ever wanna have really deep conversation with your significant other SEER has an office in San Diego. And because knowing my team it’s always mattered so much to me, and spending time with them, one of my biggest fears of opening another office, is that I’d feel disconnected from my team.

I actually drive across country every year. And spend time with my team through like two to three months out there with that team, getting to know them and work with them. And I said to my wife on the way back. We went up to San Francisco, and then over to Salt Lake City, which is a 12 hour drive about San Francisco to Salt Lake. About an hour in, I had a stall, I said to my wife, you know I get asked to speak at all these events, and travel all over the place. I love to say yes, cuz I love to help people. But sometime, I may say yes to, too many things. I said how many days in a month do you think I could be gone? Where we can’t travel together, cuz we usually do. And she said I don’t wanna answer that question. I went girl we got ten more hours of silence if you don’t. So after she sat there folding her hands and being upset, and like I don’t wanna answer that question, I don’t wanna get in the way of your career. I’m like, it’s not about that. I need the border, because as a hustler I’ll just keep saying yes to stuff.

And then one day you wake up and you go, oh my God, I haven’t been at home in 15 days. That’s not the outcome of the life I wanted to live. So as I wrap up with you all today, I just wanna remind you of three things and I hope this helps. If not, call me. Getting things done means giving things up. It can’t all fit. You need to have the border. Today take all the inspiration and then also seek out your borders for whatever it is that matters to you. Plan before your perspire, and please don’t confuse your to do list or your outputs without taking into account what the outcomes of that to do list are there to achieve. Thank you so, so, so much. I appreciate it.

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