How business failure led Ryan Buchanan to reconsider privilege and racial justice

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Today I’d like to introduce you to Ryan Buchanan, the CEO of digital marketing agency eROI. Ryan was working as an analyst at Intel when he decided to join the .com revolution by starting a company that offered project management software for commercial construction. Within two years, Ryan saw the writing on the wall and formed (then named) emailROI, a digital marketing agency. From there, Ryan will tell you he discovered that emails needed to do more than just show up in someone’s inbox, so they expanded again to gain expertise in social media.

I sat down with Ryan to discuss his entrepreneurial journey and the lessons that inherently follow.

Q: So, you formed emailROI, and everything was smooth sailing, right? No hiccups, no big obstacles?

A: Ha! I wish that had been the case, but no … in the early years we landed large clients like Microsoft Singular, SEGA, etc. They weren’t huge accounts, but the logos helped us land other business. But along the way I tried to change the creative agency into more of a software company. I tried for three years and ultimately failed at that. I had to pay off a $538,000 loan to the bank. I lost $1.5 million in the process. Employees had started leaving. It’s what I would call a near-business-death experience. I was so stressed out, I started tasting rusty nails in the back of my throat, which is a sign that you’re about to have a heart attack because of extreme stress. 

Q: I hope you caught the sarcasm in my question … that sounds intense, a lot like rock bottom. What did you do to rebound? 

A: Well, we leveled out at about 15 to 16 employees, down from 41 employees just a few months before. And we baselined for a couple years. It was a long slog back to being a healthy company.

Q: What did you discover during that time?

A: Well, you learn the biggest lessons from massive failure, for sure. That failure at the end of 2010 caused me to go back to the core of being a creative agency. I discovered that my personal “why” had been pretty false all along. I claimed to want to make marketers’ lives better, but in reality, there was ego and greed—and my heroes were entrepreneurs who were making it big. It was as if being a service-based agency was a negative thing: where’s the big exit for a software CEO in that? My No. 1 lesson I learned was: Be careful who your heroes are. During that time, I realized that my real heroes are people like my dad who have integrity, who are involved in the community, and people who share my values.

Q: What made you pivot back to being a service-based agency?

A: Well, I realized that I actually real love it. I’m into people, businesses, and I love being in the digital space and marketing. We’re always around the new, new thing. Each client has a new problem to solve, and it’s really satisfying to dig into strategic problems.

Q: During this time of moving back to the heart of being a creative agency, you also co-founded the Emerging Leaders Internship (ELI) program. Can you tell me what inspired that?

A: I find the most fulfillment in my life is around relationships. I think I have a unique ability to connect with people. I grew up in the suburbs of DC, and when I moved out to Oregon, I didn’t realize it, but I kind of got sucked in through inertia into being surrounded by people who all already look like me. A big part of my journey has involved racial justice and diversity in the workforce. I had to come to grips with the extent of my privilege. I grew up well off; my parents are successful entrepreneurs. I’m really, really lucky. So, ELI was one of the ways I tried to use my privilege for good. ELI exists to pair talented students with local businesses. I think there’s so much value in the relationship where a CEO is paired with an intern. Through this process, we find it opens their eyes to reconsider what a truly inclusive culture looks like. So, ELI is about connecting people who don’t normally connect.

Q: How did your discoveries around racial justice impact how you lead eROI?

A: I believe we aren’t reaching our full potential if we’re in these homogenous groups. I want to be intentional about reaching out to communities of color because I know how it inadvertently stunts both personal growth and professional growth. And the data backs that up—McKinsey studies all point toward diversity being good for business, you’re more adaptable to change, more profitable and have healthier team dynamics. It’s really important to me that our agency isn’t just 10 white guys in a room. That’s not good enough to equate to a true, diverse perspective. Every summer eROI hosts ELI interns and our staff is representative of the audiences our clients are trying to reach.  

Q: What is the current state of eROI now?

A: After the leveling out period, we were eventually fortunate enough through some relationship building on the Nike campus to land an account with them. Any email that goes out from Nike.com, we touch it in some way—design, strategy, performance monitoring, and project management. From there, we landed Taco Bell, Adobe and others. This year we’ve grown from 60 to 85 employees in 12 months. And over half of our management team is new to the company in the last 12 months as well. Right now, we’re growing 45% year over year.

Q: As CEO, has this changed how you spend your days?

A: Absolutely. My time is focused in leading my senior leadership team and making sure everyone at the operational level is getting the support they need. I’m navigating a lot of growth and change and finding the right balance of high expectations, hard conversations so you’re addressing conflict, but also being super nurturing. In some cases, my role has shifted to become the chief apology officer and saying, whenever necessary, “I could’ve supported you better here.”

Q: I understand you recently launched a new program called Emerging Leaders (EL). Why don’t you share a bit about where you see EL heading in the future?

A: It’s part of the ELI umbrella, and it’s a pathway for college students of color. We want to explore what it looks like to be intentionally nurturing young persons from the moment they graduate college all the way to the C-suite. Companies can get involved through internships and a formalized mentor program where they meet monthly with a young professional. In a few years we’ll have other programs, immersive leadership development for mid-level managers of color. We also hope to create a power network for executives of color and white allies who can open those doors that are really hard to open form VP to CEO level. It’s another way of trying to use entrepreneurism to connect people.