Chris Meroff, owner and CEO of MSB Ventures Private Equity Firm, author of the leadership development book, Align, and an entrepreneur for many trades, has had years of experience working in various industries. We got the chance to interview him to see how marketing has played a role in his success and how others can learn from his success and failures to further their businesses.
- You own and operate a very successful private equity firm for a multitude of different companies. Can you explain how you got into that and how marketing played a part in your journey?
Back in 2011, when I moved to Austin and started my own business, in the K-12 industry, I, you know, had a lot of visions and dreams about the success of that company. I had a lot of hopes built into that, a lot of even like, trying to prove to people who had worked with me in New England that I could make it on my own. And which, you know, I think that fuels a lot of entrepreneurs. But I ended up finding a church in Austin in our second week and we fell in love with the community there. And then very specifically, I got connected with a small group leader in our church and we loved him and his teaching. Then through conversation, I found out that he, at a younger age, worked for IBM for several years and then launched his own company. I immediately started to see some parallels between his journey and hopefully my journey. And then found out that a few years after he started his business, he sold that business for, you know, 10s of millions of dollars. So I immediately tried to learn from him. I mean, I tried to be a real student of his success. And so it was through really being a learner that I also figured out that what I want[ed] to do when I grew up was what he was doing now, which was in the private equity world. And so it really inspired me to figure out how to take, not only, maybe a good idea but then how to pour gasoline on it in a way that ma[kes] that just explode. And not just for the sake of capital, although that’s an important aspect of it, for the sake of employment. So, my biggest push as an entrepreneur is to employ people, as many people as I can. And so, his story and learning from him really pushed me into the private equity world. Specifically in marketing though, I really, you know, thought of myself as a marketer, even as an entrepreneur as I started my own business. That was the thing that I loved the most, I spent so much time as a student of marketing and trying to construct a story that was cohesive. I’m a storyteller by nature. And so marketing was just a way for me to tell stories. I was a big student of Seth Godin and all the books that he wrote around marketing and around telling stories and making sure that marketing is put in place to tell a story in a way that allows people to figure out how they can connect with the products and services on a personal level that you’re offering. And so yeah, that’s how I got into private equity. And that’s how, for me, the love of marketing and the love of storytelling evolved into starting our own marketing firm.
- I know you have an extensive history in various businesses. Have you always valued marketing or was that something that you had to learn along the way?
I started working with my parents at 22 years old, with three of us being the only people in the business. I just had a real desire to create cohesive marketing through storytelling. And so my parents, they were against marketing. They were against the thought. You know, I think there’s a lot of mentalities that you can just bootstrap everything, you can put in enough blood sweat and tears, enough sweat equity, and you don’t need marketing. You just need more hard work. It was kind of the pushback I got from my folks, but I stayed committed to it in the form of marketing the concept of marketing to them. So I kept telling stories to them about the power of marketing and how it could help us when done effectively and not just done for marketing sake. You know that what I think they were fighting was something I would still fight today which is marketing for marketing’s sake. You know, it’s one thing to have a cool website and another thing to have social media but if they don’t, if they’re not producing what you’re looking for, then you’re just marketing for marketing’s sake. You’re in love with marketing and you’re not in love with the product of marketing, which is sales, which is employment and which is growth. And so I’ve always been in love with marketing, but it’s because it’s storytelling.
- You went from having one employee that first week to now employing hundreds of people across multiple departments and ventures ten years later. How important was it for you to set goals for yourself and your team in order to set yourself up for growth?
You know, goals are so incredibly important. I look at them as milestones, and that’s a slight difference between just goals. Goals are a finish line. And there’s no end to this because I’m – I have a growth mentality. And so there’s no point at which I’m going to sit back and think man, I’ve made enough money. I have started enough businesses because my goal is to continually have a growth environment and employ more and more people. And I don’t employ people as a charity. I employ people because I love to see people come alive in what they’re doing. And so, for me, this concept of marketing is about growth. You know, the reality is, when I think back on some decisions that I’ve made in the businesses that I’ve been a part of, it always goes back to never being satisfied. And so goal setting is not just a matter of, hey, let’s hit this goal and we’re done. It’s this concept that I’m only as good as my next goal. And so, therefore, I’ve got to continually reinvent what those goals are. And I don’t want to put in place goals that are too hard, too ridiculous, or too easy. I want to put in place achievable milestones on this journey of growth because growth is vitality and life. Everybody wants to be part of something that’s growing. So for me, my businesses represent ideas. And so we want to set goals that really help us see that idea flourish.
- Building from that, in the foreword of your book, Align, you speak of how leaders aren’t always just born, but many have to learn how to be great leaders. In that same vein, how has your journey been in teaching others how much of a necessity marketing was? Were there challenges there?
Absolutely, in fact, marketing is a learning journey. I mean, it’s about trial and error. Nobody sits one day and sketches out the perfect marketing plan. You have to go through this constant trial and error to which you’re going to fail a lot in marketing. But failing for me is an opportunity for learning. And so, therefore, it’s exciting. It’s not fear-based. It is so exciting to royally screw up marketing. Because what happens from there is you learn amazing methods by which to get your story out because that’s really the goal. The goal here is to find the perfect client and tell them the perfect story so that you can improve their lives. I mean, that’s the goal. And so, I love learning marketing. I guess one of the things that’s the most exciting to me is that it’s never-ending learning, not only in technological change, but you have to learn new marketing techniques. But even more than that, marketing is about people. So you have to be a student of people. And that is the most exciting thing because I’ll never be able to get to a place and say, “Oh, yeah, I know the best way to do marketing in any circumstance.” After all, you have to be a student of people. That never ends.
- Chris, one of the ventures you own as part of your private equity firm, MSB School Services, specializes in Medicaid to Schools and serves educators across the nation (Texas and New Hampshire). Would you mind speaking to how important diversifying your marketing has been to get into otherwise “disconnected” school districts or cities?
Yeah, I love that question because it really is a hallmark of my career, which is to do it face to face and to be able to tell a story in an impassioned way. Because I know that if they get what we’re having, what we’re offering, their lives will be better. And so if I can’t imagine their lives being bettered from a conversation I’m about to have with them, then when I then think about all the time I’m about to spend in a car driving all over the state of Texas, telling them about it, it can feel like a real waste of time. And that goes back to some of the sales philosophy that we’ve talked about in this concept that I’ve got to really, truly believe in this idea that I have for my school districts, is it better serves them. Not all of them though, you’ve got to find those that really would be an ideal client. And you don’t want to tell your story to somebody who they’re dealing with their own situation or their own circumstances in a way that doesn’t allow this to be, you know, beneficial to them. But man, when you’re in front of another human being who has a real need, they may not even know how to articulate it, they may have one of this, or maybe 10 different needs they have, but when you can be in front of them and get the sense of their anxiety around what we’re able to offer them. The energy of that – you just feed off of that. And so for me, reaching people is about doing the hard work. It’s about getting in a car, it’s about going seeing them face to face, which makes obviously our current situation harder, because, you know, there’s not that human-to-human contact, that face-to-face where I can get a sense of someone’s mood by the way they’re sitting, by the way that they’re presenting themselves, and really, truly understand where they’re coming from. Which is really at the root of what marketing is, it’s really understanding what your potential client, what their pain points are and then construct a company first and then a story second, to meet that need.
- What kind of relationship do you see between a company investing money into their marketing and that having an effect on sales? How important it is to market for the sake of revenue?
You know, marketing again, I think a lot of businesses, especially smaller businesses really struggle with the concept of spending money on things that don’t look like sweat equity. In other words, websites. Certainly an advertisement. It’s like well, I could just go do that myself. There’s a lack of control. I liken it to this concept of, you know, when we offer our services to school districts, one of the things that I had to do is go and get software developed. Well, there was a real lack of feeling, a lack of control around that software development. I know that a lot of business owners struggle with the concept of marketing because it feels like a lack of control. It feels like there are eight people on the planet and they know how to do it. And then all the rest of us kind of blunder through this thing called marketing. And so it would seem like the best move is to just go and get in my car and go myself and do it or just do sales. But you’ve got to have a delivery method for your story. Sales at the point of sale. It can seem like you’re just doing it to get a sale. Whereas marketing allows you to tell a truer version of your story that is there to serve your client or your customer. So it detaches from a salesman’s approach. And you can tell the story without having to worry about getting a sale. And so I think the art of storytelling is where most people don’t understand the value of that. And so sales will always look to marketing to tell an amazing story so that when they go in there and have the conversation, there’s already been a pain point identified in a way that allows that salesperson to just be an extension of marketing. Whereas what you don’t want to do is you don’t want to have salespeople selling without being connected to the heart of the story as to why you’re selling.
- With your wide range of business experience across multiple channels, what would you say is the most valuable thing any business can do to market themselves, regardless of their industry?
The best thing is to take the time as an owner, as a business owner, or as an executive, to understand the story. So, build a story, not for story’s sake, but build a story so that when you say it, when you repeat it, when you point people to it, it is an extension of who you are. If you build a feel-good story, and it’s not an extension of who you are, people will see through it. So authenticity is critical. The biggest thing I would say is to build an authentic story, an extension of who you are and what your heart is to solve a problem for somebody.
- You’ve owned one company to now owning 10+ companies, written a book and have spoken at multiple conferences. How has your journey from marketing a company to marketing yourself changed the way you approached social media and advertising?
Oh, wow, Aaron, this is a difficult one because of all the products and services that I’ve ever offered, I often will believe in myself the least. So the concept of constructing a story around the brand of Chris Meroff has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever journeyed on. Because, you know, in my head, I see, I only see my flaws in my isolation. So it’s been the hardest journey for me when people talk about the Chris Meroff brand. I cringe and it’s the last conversation I want to be in, so it’s been the biggest challenge. What I’ve had to do is I’ve had to really claim to my community of people who will be honest with me and tell me who I am. I rarely think of myself in the way that my Creator sees me. I often think of either too grand or too little. So having a community of people around me who can really speak truth into who I am has been invaluable. It continues to be invaluable. But yeah, that whole brand thing, it’s my least favorite conversation. But at the end of the day, I know what the message and where the message came from. And it didn’t come from me. So I’m about His message and about why I’m here on this Earth. And so even though it makes it cringe-worthy, I still dive in and participate and try to serve everyone who’s trying to build that brand for all the right reasons.
- In your book, Align, you talk about how important it is to build out a purpose statement for a company. You also speak to how the leadership of that company should rebuild that purpose statement anytime a new person joins the team. How important is it that when a new person joins your team they learn to align with your brand’s culture?
It’s so critical that through the hiring process, you really recognize the true value of a human being, which is not isolated to hard skills. You really understand that they can be a value add to the culture, your brand’s culture. And so when you’re sitting there and you’re interviewing somebody, or you’re bringing someone new into your organization, it’s really important that you can imagine how your brand and the culture of your brand becomes better because of that person. Yeah, obviously, hard skills have a role to play. It’s not that we don’t value those hard skills. It’s just that we really value the person, the holistic person more than we value just what they can produce or do. So as you’re thinking about your brand, you’ve got to think about, if I’m going to go and send somebody out to do marketing and sales, for instance, for one of my ventures, I imagine what the other person will feel when they’re with this particular individual that I’m interviewing. If I can’t imagine them feeling warm and feeling like they have value because of that interaction, then I’ll steer clear, even if they come to me with 10 degrees and 30 years of experience. My brand, the culture of that brand, is way more valuable to me. And ultimately, getting that person who’s interviewing or joining our team to truly understand what their real value is, is way more important in the long run.
- Also, since becoming a successful multi-venture entrepreneur, you have helped many companies go from idea to reality. For any start-up company reading this, what would you say is the biggest challenge you have overcome with the help of powerful marketing in order for any business to grow?
I think the biggest challenge of a lot of ideas, especially the ones we’ve started, is to just create an audience. You know, you can have the greatest idea on the planet, one that will really help people and solve problems. You have experienced it, but you have a hard time getting people to hear the story. And so marketing to me is a way that you can start to solve this massive puzzle of “how do I get people to listen to me?” You know, it’s one thing to create an idea, but it’s another thing to create a solution in a marketplace. It’s another thing to gain credibility. And then through that credibility, gain an audience of people who will listen to you and understand you, not just hear you. If people are just hearing your marketing, that’s noise, and there’s a lot of noise right now. Whereas I want my audience to listen to me and I want them to process what I’m saying so they can make a good intelligent decision for themselves on whether or not a product or service is going to meet their needs.
BlahBlah Media specializes in getting the right message to the right people so your business will grow. Chris Meroff is a testament to the power of marketing! Do you want to scale your business even in a time of crisis? We would be happy to help. Reach out to us for free resources and to schedule a consultation today! Learn more about Chris’s passions for leadership at his own site, chrismeroff.com.