RMI CEO & Founder Ken Robbins got his start in business when he dropped out of Georgia Tech and earned his real estate license. He began knocking on doors—sometimes 150/day— and became the youngest board-certified multi-million dollar producer at age 24. The man behind one of those doors was a veteran ad agency owner who recruited Ken out of real estate to start a new initiative at his then agency, BKV, and eventually backed him, founding RMI in 2001.
In 2009, Ken realized that the agency was suffering a mid-life crisis. RMI lost a major account, some valuable talent was leaving for greener pastures, internal politics were increasing, and quality was decreasing. Something had to change. That’s when Ken found a group of CEOs called The Brain Trust and mentors- Tom Cramer and Bill Schwarz. Through their advice and counsel and using the concepts of Systems Thinking, Ken and his team transformed RMI to focus on competitive advantage, leverage points, self-disclosure, employee self-management, and deep Trusted Advisor client service.
Ken has been featured in articles in Inventor’s Digest, Atlanta Business Chronicle, Strategic Healthcare Marketing. Ken has also been a featured contributor to the best-selling books, Socialnomics and The Digital Leader and is an avid Keynote Speaker and business podcast guest.
What You’ll Learn In This Episode
- Biggest issues with transitioning to a remote workforce
- Big mistake in business
- Marketing the next 24-36 months out
This transcript is machine transcribed by Sonix
Intro: [00:00:04] Broadcasting live from the Business RadioX Studios in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s time for Atlanta Business Radio brought to you by onpay Atlanta’s new standard in payroll. Now here’s your host
Lee Kantor: [00:00:24] Lee Kantor here another episode of Atlanta Business Radio, and this is going to be a fun one. But before we get started, it’s important to recognize our sponsor onpay. Without them, we couldn’t be sharing these important stories today on the Atlanta Business Radio. We have an old friend, Ken Robbins, with Response Mine Interactive. Welcome, Ken.
Ken Robbins: [00:00:43] Thank you. Thanks. Glad to be
Lee Kantor: [00:00:45] Here. Well, I’m excited to catch up with you. For those who don’t know, tell us a little bit about response. Mind interactive. How are you serving, folks?
Ken Robbins: [00:00:53] Well, we’re a digital agency, we’re based here in Atlanta, but we have a lot of national clients and we do many of the things you’d recognize search SEO and some of the things that maybe aren’t aren’t as common, which are more complex data analytics. And we launched a call center since the last time you and I spoke and have over 100 employees now taken doing telesales.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:19] So now how has it been? You’ve kind of been along for the ride for this whole technology wave. Probably the beginning of the internet, right? Your firm started at the beginning of the internet.
Ken Robbins: [00:01:34] Just about 2001, so we’ve been in business 20 years.
Lee Kantor: [00:01:38] So how has how have you seen it kind of evolve in the Atlanta area? Have we been pretty good or have we been ahead? Have we been kind of fast followers? How do you kind of see the trends in digital marketing coming out of Atlanta?
Ken Robbins: [00:01:53] Well, I’m afraid the word is out that Atlanta is and has been a hotbed of technology of internet innovation and execution of marketing since the beginning, I mean, you know, there’s lots of venture capital here. There is lots of M&A occurring here and there’s lots of incubators here. So it’s we’re on the cutting edge. I think that, you know, it used to be like, we’d like to have a little Silicon Valley here in Atlanta. I think Silicon Valley would like to have a little bit of Atlanta in it.
Lee Kantor: [00:02:30] Now what? Why do you think that Atlanta was able to blossom into this kind of tech hub that we are now and attract the venture capital, attract kind of these mega companies? What what was unique about Atlanta that allowed it to kind of really blossom?
Ken Robbins: [00:02:47] You know, I I don’t if I were going to surmise, I mean, I’m sure there’s a panoply of reasons. But it certainly the the fact that Atlanta is a transportation hub. The fact that there is a low cost of living generally compared to other parts of the country, you know, probably half the cost of living that it is in California and a 20 or 30 percent discount from New York and Chicago and other sort of. Major metros the whole south has been on fire with growth for the last 30 years. We have no natural boundaries, so there’s great housing environment and I think all those are attractants. And then as much as I, I, I I try to discount this, I think that it’s a very friendly business environment, tax environment, and those things have all conspired to form a recipe of let’s take a look at Atlanta for building Verizon’s headquarters. Let’s take a look at Atlanta for building these headquarters. And that’s been a huge attraction. You only need a few in terms of technology. You only a few companies that are technology leaders, and they bring in engineers that attract more talent and b and that sort of lays a fertile ground. The fact that Georgia Tech is here in Atlanta is certainly an artesian well of talent and thinking and forethought. So all those things together.
Lee Kantor: [00:04:28] Now, how does that come into play when you’re talking about employees now that it seems like employees aren’t really tied to a physical office as much as they were in the past? So all those things are great. But now, if a person can live anywhere in the world, how do you kind of take advantage of the fact that you can now be looking at talent from everywhere in the world? But on the flip side, it’s hard to have everybody in the world kind of absorb your culture and absorb kind of the the secret sauce that makes your firm, you know, different and unique from others.
Ken Robbins: [00:05:05] I’m going to tell you right now this is the thing that keeps me up at night. It’s absolutely the thing that keeps me up at night. We now have employees in 20 states. And since the beginning of the pandemic, we, you know, we exited in March of 2020, like a lot of people did on what we thought was a temporary basis. We had 85 employees and now we have over two hundred in just two years. And but while while for us, the advantage is we can recruit in other other states, other parts of the country. So can everyone else. And this year, since the beginning of the year, I’ve lost three employees to companies in California. And the reason is because in California, they’re accustomed to paying a higher base salary. Now they’re familiar with remote and more comfortable with it. And so, you know, I’m subject to the same poaching now at a greater scale across the country. But I think your question was, how do you how do you how do you continue the culture? And that is really the thing. The recruiting is we’re all we all are, are sort of live under the same forces of recruiting in our industries. But the culture is really a hard thing, and I’ve spent a lot of time, a lot of time trying to figure this out and try to get it right, and I recognized probably a few months into going fully remote that it’s there are there are certain environmental impact benefits to being inside of an office that you literally can’t duplicate the the organic coaching and consulting that happens before a meeting and after a meeting doesn’t really occur.
Ken Robbins: [00:06:58] Now the water cooler talk the Hey, let’s go get lunch together. Those things are really dampened or eliminated altogether when you’ve got employees spread out across the nation. So you have to compensate for that and you’ve got to be more intentional about employee recognition, employee outreach. For example, you know, on my task list, I am have set a goal for myself, and many of my executives have done the same, something similar. I call 50 employees that are not on the executive team every single quarter. I just go down the phone list and like, Who do I need to talk to? Who haven’t I spoken to in a while and I call them out of the blue and ask, How how’s it going? What’s going on with the family? How’s the house? And what are you working on these days? What’s what are the things that you would like to see? And have you had a chance to go meet with anybody that’s near you if you’re down in Florida, we’ve got several employees in Florida, go get lunch with them. We’ve tried to expand a lot of outreach like that. So I think you can have a great remote working culture. Many people do it, but there has to be a plan and a design around it. Does that make sense?
Lee Kantor: [00:08:14] Yeah, I think it has to be intentional, like you’re saying, and it’s funny because I know that you personally are an experience junkie. I know you like to do stuff that’s maybe a little unusual to other people, but you really like to kind of wring life out, you know, the joy out of life. And I think that that’s part of the culture that cultural advantage that you might have is that you like that to permeate your your business as well, like you’re saying to to schedule and block time to connect as human beings with your employees, that it sounds like common sense, but not everybody is willing to do that. A lot of people, a lot of leaders kind of sit back in this ivory tower and then, you know, have this great vision of how things should be and then send the minions to work. But it sounds like you’re really putting an effort to be intentional and to connect and to really create that human to human bond, that human to human experience that elevates you and your firm. And that’s probably helped you over the years. You know, keep clients because I know you have clients that have been around forever and that you have employees that have been around forever. So I think that that’s what separates kind of the top performing firms, the ones that, you know, take the time to put in an effort like that.
Ken Robbins: [00:09:33] Well, I I I agree, you know, it’s easy to make money, it’s easy to have a job. What’s harder is to is to commit to no one, especially in a remote environment, continuing the interpersonal relationships with people which often develop an office environment. And the second thing is, you know, for years, there’s been a lot of talk about Work-Life Balance. Since the dawn of the BlackBerry, at least in my personal experience, that’s what I observed. There’s been this overlap and often interference between work life balance because you could get emails at home and now you get everything at home because you’re working remote, the whole office just pours into your life or can 24-7. So I think one of the things we’re really trying to think about and we’re struggling to get right because employees, you know, they have a sense of duty. We’re struggling to get right, which is getting people disconnected. Get offline, take some time away, go on vacation, put an out of office notice up. I think that’s probably the forefront of one of the issues we’re trying to address right now because we don’t want to overwork employees and we don’t want to burn people out. That just makes them harder to retain, and it’s not fun for anyone.
Lee Kantor: [00:11:05] Now, can you talk a little bit about you’re an independent digital agency and you’ve been recognized as one of the top ones for a long time? Why was it important to kind of stay independent?
Ken Robbins: [00:11:20] I think that, you know, anybody in the digital ad agency business over a couple of million in revenues, and certainly we have a lot more than that. We’re probably this year we’re probably trending for $20 million in revenues. Any anybody of any size, there’s been role up after roll up. They come in waves. It happened in the mid-2000s and it happened around 10 in 2012. And then it’s been sort of a steady drip of of M&A activity and roll ups of digital agencies. And why? Because the internet’s been growing. I mean, the last two years has been another booster shot. It’s like lighter fluid on the plane of digital activity, digital delivery, digital marketing. So certainly the pull has been there. But for me, I’m 58, and I got to be honest with you, I am still having an incredible amount of fun. I love the people I work with, have a fantastic executive team and I mean, I don’t want to come across, you know, sounding pollyannaish, but I get up in the morning with. I, you know, 10 new ideas. The problem for me is not calling everyone saying, Hey, let’s try this. What about this? Have you thought about that and sort of letting people get the work done and not interfering with them with with too much volatility in new ideas? Let me give you an example. So we started out as. As a digital ad agency serving clients, and we still do that, we have fantastic national level clients, many of them publicly traded. But a few years ago we added a call center and that call center has exploded with growth. That’s a whole new business unto itself. And so that that newness is exciting and it’s it’s, you know, I don’t I don’t want to liquidate. I’m not really looking for an equity event and none of my my investors are and you know, I’m still having a lot of fun now.
Lee Kantor: [00:13:31] How do you see kind of the the landscape in the next year or so now that we’re coming out of the pandemic? Now you have. I mean, every day is a new adventure. Now you have, you know, a war in the Russia, Ukraine. I mean, there’s so much chaos in the world. How do you see kind of American marketing? Are you seeing that? Are you still bullish on that despite the chaos?
Ken Robbins: [00:13:58] Um, certainly I am, I’m unfortunately, I’m an optimist. Any downturns, I always have a sense they’re going to turn around, they’re going to turn around pretty quickly. I mean, you know, in terms of the entire economy, I wouldn’t ever be so presumptuous as to predict what’s going to happen. It seems like we had a really good run from the stock market standpoint, from economic activity standpoint. We’ve got a number of headwinds right now. We’re probably due for some, for some type of recession coming up. The headwinds of staffing that many, many and probably most companies are facing. I mean, I have friends that own restaurants and all of them used to be open seven days a week, and all of them have some type of limit in hours now because they can’t find the staff so that that staffing constraint probably is a bigger headwind than what’s going on over in, you know, on the other side of the world. Not that we shouldn’t pay attention and be mindful of what’s happening in the world. I just don’t think it has that great of an impact, right? This moment on economic activity and business activity. Here’s what I do think this is probably a more seminal event in the recent recent years. There are millions of people who didn’t realize how how flip and easy it is to get your groceries delivered, aisle flip and how easy it is to work from home. We as a company had no idea that it would be easy to attract, retain, train, equip and work and collaborate on a remote basis. None of my executive team wants to go back to full time in the office.
Ken Robbins: [00:15:50] They want it to be completely optional on a per meeting basis. I think the work from home and the delivery economy are going to be massive drivers of change over the next five years and probably the next decade. So what does that mean? More Home Office, more more investment in a person’s home and their environment? I never really had an office at home, but right now I’m speaking to you from a fully equipped bedroom that’s now set up as as as a home office with lights, camera, action screens and even a whiteboard attached to the wall. There’s going to be more investment in maybe outdoor living and things like that. I’d like to spend a lot of time out outside, so that’s my retreat, leaving the office inside and going outside and getting on phone calls. But I think the. The work from home environment will will is naturally automatically already changing the nature of the labor force and then the delivery economy is has exploded on the scene. Even though a lot of the major firms aren’t necessarily turning a profit yet, it is the consumers who realize, holy cow, it’s so easy. I I don’t have to go battle the grocery store after work. I can have stuff delivered at 10 a.m. because I’m at home and I can have somebody deliver, deliver my groceries at home. So I think we’re moving into a greater level of convenience and home life and home centric living. Then we we had ever, probably in the history of the country.
Lee Kantor: [00:17:38] Now how about share a little advice since you are expert in digital marketing? Any digital marketing advice for that entrepreneur that’s out there listening that just, you know, wants to kind of do it themselves? And maybe they’re not ready for an agency like yours, but they want some low hanging fruit that any entrepreneur or solopreneur somebody out there that’s kind of going out on their own that maybe they can take advantage of that. Maybe they’re not.
Ken Robbins: [00:18:09] Well, I think the easy the absolute easiest thing is to. Focus on customer experience and customer service. So your marketing will get done organically without any effort. It will get done on Google reviews and on Yelp reviews and and each of the major review platforms and on Facebook and and such so that marketing occurs based upon the customer’s experience. I’ve got to write up a review for a restaurant I went to. I went to one of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen restaurants this past weekend in Nevada and my experience was different than what I expected. That’s all I’ll say. I don’t want to don’t want to know spoilers. Yeah, yeah, that’s right. No spoilers, but it was different than what I expected for a celebrity chef. And so, you know, I’m personally committed to writing up a review. I kept the receipt of everything that we ate, so I could remember all the different entrees. And that’ll cue into what people said about about what they thought about their entree and the service that we got. So that in itself is some of the most powerful marketing that’s going on. It literally is it is broadcast word of mouth. That’s what these review elements are on Google, Yelp and Facebook and such. So that’s probably the first thing if you don’t get that right. It doesn’t matter if you have a $10000 a month or one hundred thousand a month marketing budget, it’s going to be hard to overcome getting that wrong. So that’s the first thing I would say give good service.
Lee Kantor: [00:19:52] Yeah, and that’s something that a lot of people, they’re not they don’t take enough time kind of investing in. They think that it’s easier to invest in ads than it is to invest in their own people and just kind of jazz hands up their own experience in their own store, restaurant, whatever it might be. And I think that’s a missed opportunity. I think you’re exactly right.
Ken Robbins: [00:20:15] Yeah. Leigh, I think there’s a second thing that people can do, and that is. Every single one of us can become a journalist for our own business. Got an iPhone, you got a camera, you’ve got a video recorder in your pocket and you can post to the internet. So setting up an Instagram account, setting up a Facebook account. Shooting videos and and taking pictures of customers. User experience your employees. Your process. So if you own a restaurant, don’t just put up pictures of the menu items that are your you know or shot professionally. Put up pictures of people eating in a restaurant, put up pictures of conversations that are having those. Shoot some video footage of your staff making drinks and and cooking food back in the kitchen or taking deliveries. That then becomes an interesting story, and it draws in your user base that that type of content development is so easy it doesn’t require any money. All these things are free, and most entrepreneurs just miss that. I don’t even care if you if you own an insurance agency, think about that an insurance agency can be boring. That’s not true at all. It’s it can be made exciting. What if you’re on the phone and you’re trying to give a quote on on some commercial building that’s in a hurricane zone? There’s a story there that’s actually quite fascinating about the fact that it costs so much more and it’s more difficult to insure something in down in Florida. Does that make sense? So, so there’s a whole world of organic opportunity and marketing that I think that many businesses miss.
Lee Kantor: [00:22:00] Yeah, I think they take for granted what they know and what they’re doing, and they think because they do it every day. It’s not anything interesting to anybody else, but I think that people are hungry for that kind of behind the scenes, what what it’s really like experience. Yeah. Yeah. Now, can you share a story of maybe somebody one of your clients or somebody you don’t have to name the name, but somebody that maybe was struggling, maybe they plateaued and then you got involved, your firm got involved and you helped take them to a new level. Maybe they didn’t even imagine they could get to.
Ken Robbins: [00:22:37] Oh, sure, I mean, you know, there’s there’s there are lots of specialists in the world of marketing advertising, there are people who specialize in just PR and and people who specialize in just branding or maybe TV agencies, et cetera. Obviously, we’re we’re primarily a digital marketing firm. But I think that the best type of client that comes to us is one that’s struggling with a math problem. And that math problem always revolves around my cost per sale or my cost per new customer is getting excessive. Maybe I was buying keywords at 30 cents a click, and now they’re three dollars a click. And so it’s too expensive for me to do my marketing now or I can’t seem to grow. You know, I spent a million dollars in marketing and now I try to spend $2 million and I just don’t get the same bang for the buck. So those are typically the types of clients that come to us and the types of problems that that that we solve. So an example of this is a few years ago we took on a we took on a medical practice called Laser Spine Institute based out of Florida.
Ken Robbins: [00:23:51] Now, Laser Spine Institute had a math problem. It was costing them seven or $8000 to acquire a new patient, and they were only getting a couple of thousand of them a month. That is the perfect type of client for us. So because we can always find ways to make that more efficient. Two years after we happened as a client, they were getting six and 7000 patients a month at a cost per new patient under $3000. So the marketing cost of acquiring a new patient was half of what it was, and they were getting more than double the amount of new patients per month, which is a great, great, great story for us. You know, it’s a lot of kudos to the staff, a lot of hard work trying to figure out how to better track, how to find the pockets of new patient opportunities, how to test ad copy and things like that. And you know, I’m doing a little bit of bragging now on the teams. But you know, it’s their hard work that really and problem solving and tracking tracking the heck out of everything that leads to that type of success.
Lee Kantor: [00:25:01] Good stuff. Well, if somebody wants to learn more about the firm and maybe get on your calendar or somebody on the team’s calendar, what’s the best way to do that? What’s the website?
Ken Robbins: [00:25:12] Well, they can come to response or response mine digital. Either those two good sites will get you to get you to us and get you to me and, you know, be happy to have a conversation.
Lee Kantor: [00:25:25] All right. Well, Ken, thank you so much for sharing your story today. You’re doing important work and we appreciate you.
Ken Robbins: [00:25:31] Leon, thank you. Have a great day, man.
Lee Kantor: [00:25:32] All right, this is Lee Kantor, we’ll see you next time on Atlanta Business Radio.
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