COEUR D’ALENE – Child psychologists say it’s not unusual for 3-year-olds to confuse what’s real and make-believe, and for 5-year-olds to consider themselves experts on everything.
Eventually, though, most youngsters develop empathy and discover that others have opinions worth considering.
Jamie Birch recalls going through those stages … as an adult.
His make-believe stage manifested itself during one of his first job interviews after college, when Birch boldly claimed internet skills he didn’t possess.
His know-it-all phase peaked soon after launching his own company in 2004, when Birch’s enthusiasm disguised his inability to comprehend profit-and-loss statements.
And empathy? That came years later, once Birch acknowledged he had much to learn and sought advice.
One upside of that decision was having his internet marketing agency – JEBCommerce – cited by Entrepreneur magazine as having among the best small-company cultures in America, based on collaboration, innovation, communication and work environment.
During a recent interview, Birch discussed his professional coming of age, along with foosball and his favorite self-help book for business owners.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Birch: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
S-R: What were your interests?
Birch: I wanted to be an architect. The only merit badge I remember from Boy Scouts was my architecture badge.
S-R: What did you do to earn that?
Birch: Not as much as you’d think. (laugh) I had to create a blueprint for my family’s house, interview an architect, and draw a building I admired.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?
Birch: I was the layout editor of our school paper. I don’t know if it was because of the journalism or because I got a hall pass to be anywhere, anytime.
S-R: What was your first job?
Birch: I had a paper route when I was 10 or 11. Then I worked on a tree farm, which was awesome. They gave me so much freedom. I got to drive trucks and tractors when I was 12. They’d tell me to go mow some pasture, and I’d be gone for eight hours.
S-R: Any other careers?
Birch: Before starting college, I framed houses, was a DJ, and worked for my dad at Nalley’s. Eventually he said, “You’re either enlisting in the Army or going to school, but you’re getting the hell out.” So I went to college.
Birch: Central Washington. After changing majors a couple of times – first biology, then kinesiology – I earned a degree in finance.
S-R: Was there a moment that changed the direction of your life?
Birch: Yes. In 1999, my dad sent me an article about the dot-com explosion, and it included a photo of some 20-year-old kid driving a fancy Bugatti. That’s when I decided to focus on a dot-com career. My parents had moved to Sandpoint, so I looked for jobs in North Idaho and came across one for something called a “search-engine guru.” I didn’t know what a search engine was, but I was a cocky 24-year-old, so I applied. When I got to Post Falls, they asked me two questions: how was the drive, and whether I thought I could do the job. I said the drive was fine, and, yeah, I could do the job. They hired me, sat me in a room with a card table and a PC, and said, “OK, get us search engine rankings.”
S-R: And you had no qualification?
Birch: Absolutely none. But back then nobody knew what the internet was. I figured if I had aptitude I could write my own career.
S-R: How long did it take for you to gain traction?
Birch: Months. But by then the dot-com bubble had begun to burst.
S-R: Where to next?
Birch: After a brief detour to Seattle, I went to work for Coldwater Creek in Sandpoint, and was there four years.
S-R: Doing what?
Birch: Affiliate marketing, email marketing, paid search – anything to do with digital sales. Eventually, I realized I could do the same thing for a bunch of companies, so I started freelancing on the side and networking. I spoke at conferences, wrote for magazines and online publications – anything to gain clients. A year later, I left Coldwater Creek to launch JEBCommerce.
S-R: How has the company evolved since 2004?
Birch: In the beginning, it was very much about sales. Now it’s about people.
Birch: Early on, I tended to go through employees very quickly. My whole focus was survival and gaining clients. Eventually I realized the people here were more important. Now, almost all my time is spent on employee development, mentoring and coaching. We still do amazing work for our clients. But everyone here can also use their job as a means to improve their professional and personal lives.
S-R: Let’s go back to the early phase. Describe that.
Birch: I was a disaster – hyper-reactive … always in emergency mode. I tried to force my will on people, which was ruining their lives. When they quit, I figured they just couldn’t hack it. Another problem was poor financial stewardship. I have a degree in finance, yet I couldn’t read a P and L. Ours was so awful that one potential suitor looked at it and said, “This doesn’t mean anything.”
S-R: What turned the company around?
Birch: I read a book called “The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It.” The basic message is that you need processes and systems. We relied strictly on talent back then. Every time a new client came on board, we had to start from scratch. Today we have a 300-page playbook of how we do business.
S-R: How about the financial stuff?
Birch: Four years ago, I finally admitted I didn’t know what I was doing, and started working with a financial coach. My leadership team and I meet with him by video every two weeks, and our entire staff meets with him once a week online to talk about employment development.
S-R: What services does JEBCommerce offer clients?
Birch: We acquire customers, analyzing their behavior, suggest ways to optimize our clients’ websites, and make those changes.
S-R: Describe your biggest division – affiliate marketing.
Birch: We help arrange relationships that attract customers to our clients’ websites. For instance, if you’re into home remodeling, there’s a set of websites you go to for information. We identify which customers our clients want to get, where they go online, and then we approach those properties and say, “We have a product your audience would love. Let’s negotiate a way to get exposure.” Instead of paying for advertising up front, our clients pay a commission after they receive product orders.
S-R: What’s an example?
Birch: We connected an Idaho-based fitness and supplement company with a YouTube blogger – alpha m. – who reviews fitness products. After about three days, alpha m. became our client’s top affiliate, outperforming other partners that had been running our ads for a month or more. That generated significant revenue for our client, and commissions for alpha m.
S-R: As e-commerce evolves, what challenges lie ahead?
Birch: Fifty-four percent of incremental sales online last quarter happened on Amazon. A huge swath of online shopping is moving from direct sales to Amazon, Walmart and eBay, which impacts the number of people who shop directly on our clients’ sites.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Birch: I love helping people grow and change their lives.
S-R: What do you like least?
Birch: Finances. (laugh)
S-R: What are you most proud of?
Birch: The (Entrepreneur magazine) culture award.
S-R: What are examples of good and bad office culture?
Birch: Accountability is good. Gossip is bad.
S-R: Your website mentions your employees enjoying foosball and Nerf wars. Are those examples of good office culture?
Birch: Five years ago, people were playing ping-pong and foosball all day long. Today we realize that good culture is about providing an environment where employees find fulfillment. We like our people to come in, kick butt, learn and grow, and then get out. I don’t want them playing foosball for an hour and then having to work until 7 o’clock.
S-R: What has this job taught you about yourself?
Birch: That there are many things I thought were true that weren’t.
S-R: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Birch: Sure. But I really like where we are, and I don’t know how we would have gotten here any other way.
S-R: Your website says eight languages are spoken in your office. What are they?
Birch: Hungarian, Spanish, English … um … eight languages? (laugh) We had a ringer who spoke like six different languages, but they’re not here anymore. We probably need to update our website.
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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