From The Trenches: Interview with Erik Huberman, CEO at Hawke Media

From The Trenches: Interview with Erik Huberman, CEO at Hawke Media

Erik Huberman is sick of your bullshit. If you’re one of those guys taking selfies in front of a Bentley, or posing on the beach somewhere, he doesn’t want to hear it. Because, chances are, you’re not going to last. 

What lasts is providing value. Day in and day out. Year after year. Through dips in the market, changes in innovation, even through global pandemics. Because if you provide value, over and over again, you can grow a successful business. Clients will stick with you. 

Meet Erik Huberman, CEO at Hawke Media, a Full-Service Digital Marketing Agency based in LA

When Erik started Hawke Media in 2014, that’s what he focused on: providing real solutions to big marketing problems. Today, with over 150 employees and offices in LA, NY, and Boston, he’s managed to build a company that is recognized as one of the fastest-growing marketing firms in the nation. 

We did a virtual sit-down with him to dig in on the details. 

Erik HubermanLA Startups (LAS): Before we dig into your origin story, what have the last few months been like for you and everyone at Hawke Media?

Erik Huberman (EH): I feel it’s a little bit routine now, working from home, which is never how I work. I like the constant action of doing business and that’s been slowed down a bit.  But I’m also working out more than I ever have. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been.  But I’m ready for life again. I’m ready to be proactive again, getting back to thinking about expanding the business and hiring more people, and ramping up. I’m cautiously optimistic, but less cautious and more optimistic about what the future holds. 

LAS: So at Hawke Media, your tagline is ‘CMO in a box’. Tell us about the inspiration behind that vision for your company.

EH: So my background in e-commerce. I built and sold a couple of eCommerce companies, and then I started advising and consulting for other brands on just how to drive revenue using digital. I saw a lot of pain points, people were having a lot of trouble with the marketing piece. So to solve that, I originally didn’t plan on building anything big. I  just hired a little team of great marketers and got going. 

This team originally just had a great Facebook marketer, an email marketer, and a web designer. And because it wasn’t like some official business plan-driven thing, it was just like, I grabbed some people and started doing it. I just made it super simple. And it worked. 

I was actually working on consulting a tea company, but then I started working with other companies I was advising for. And I told everyone I knew ‘we’ll do whatever you need us to do’.  And almost immediately they took me up on it and we took off. All of a sudden we had a bunch of business coming in. We were getting a bunch of referrals too, and I was like ‘wow, marketing is a bigger pain point for everyone than I realize.”

Fast forward six and a half years, and now we have over 150 employees and offices in LA, New York, and Boston. And we’re continuing to scale this thing in a very proactive way – all on month-to-month contracts with no outside funding.

LAS: Impressive. What is the passion that drives growth for you?

EH: Life’s too short. There’s actually a great line that was said to me back in college. This is a weird story I get inspiration from. My mom’s a super health freak and I grew up eating super healthy. So I’m talking to my friend’s dad and I let him know that I have never eaten beef.  Ever. I was eleven years old. He goes, ‘Wait, what? You’ve never had an In-N-Out Burger?’

I’m like, ‘no, I never have.’

And he said, ‘get the fuck in the car.’ 

That was the first time I ate a hamburger, which was the first beef I ever ate. And what did he say to me? I’m a rescue helicopter pilot. Life’s too short and death’s too long. Let’s take full advantage of everything we have here! I’ve always remembered that. 

A decade later, and In-N-Out is actually catering to our rehearsal dinner for my wedding. 

LAS: How has that line of thought affected your business?

EH: From a work perspective, I’m constantly looking to try new things, learn new things, do new things. And that ends up driving us to growth.  

But here’s the thing: this means the only way to do that is to find people to take over the existing things. And you have to have enough money to hire those people. You have to have enough things going on to be delegating so that you can do new things. Innovation has to be focused on, and delegating allows for that. 

LAS:  What else are you thinking about when you get up in the morning?

EH: Well we’re adapting to Work From Home, which is not too hard for us actually. What’s hard for business with working remotely is getting my new initiatives done, hiring ahead of corporate development, training them up, working with them collaboratively, really diving in with them when I can’t just run over to their office and sit with them for half an hour. That is a little harder. 

But I’m trying to figure out how to do that because I’d love to figure out the working remotely question. I think it’s solvable.

What is sort of funny though, if you want to look at it this way, is I was always thinking about a recession before COVID-19 hit. I was preparing for it and some sort of downturn. I literally thought we’re in a really good place unless some World War or global pandemic just shuts all business down for months and months, and here we are. So yeah, there was some initial fear. 

That first weekend after the quarantine hit, I was very concerned. I didn’t sleep. There was some fear for sure.  But then I realized the world doesn’t just stop. It wasn’t like everyone was going to throw in their cards and give up. And what I realized was the longevity of my business was actually secure. We’re diversified. We were able to triage and adapt. So I actually feel much better about my business now than ever.

LAS: Personal connections are obviously the cornerstone of any good business. How have you regrouped around keeping those connections alive while working remotely?

EH:  Well, for one thing, we were forced to find efficiencies in our business. So we didn’t need to scale new hires at the same speed as before. So we avoided the need to onboard groups of people during the quarantine. 

Right now, using Slack, using email, using text,  I’m able to talk to people so much more efficiently. I can have a lot of five-minute conversations instead of hour-long meetings. I like having  50 tabs open on my browser at all times, that’s how I work, so now I can easily slide in and out of conversations that really need my attention. Because I have established that rapport. 

With new hires, it will be a little different. But I’m working on it. For example, we just hired a new head of media who is awesome, but I’m trying to find the time for us to really get up to speed. Because normally I’d be hanging out around the office, chatting, getting to know each other. Now, it’s about being direct and moving fast. 

LAS: So communication is key during times like these?

EH:  I think most of the world’s problems are caused by poor communication. Not by a disease like COVID. Like the disease is horrible, but I think we could have mitigated the damage on a disease level and economic level if people knew how to communicate. Like the LA Times said a week ago that LA would be extending, stay at home completely until the end of July. It was a bullshit claim. They never retracted it. And here we are opening retail in early June. 

I know people that we’re raising money and their investors pulled out because of that one headline. And now they’ve got a real problem. So a lack of good clear communication has done a  lot of damage. 

LAS: How would you have framed that communication?

EH: I would have been very clear about it to everyone: for two months, you’re not making any money. Then I would have outlined the steps we all needed to take very clearly, plus the results we were looking for to measure whether those steps were working. Then we could have said, hey, to help you get through this we’re going to also send you a check for $1,200 and cover unemployment at over two times what it normally is.  On the federal side, we’re going to be doing this, on the stateside we’re going to be doing this, and then in two months, we’re all going back to work. 

That way, we could have all tracked the progress with the goal in mind of re-opening retail by June 5th, re-opening Vegas, all of that stuff. A real clear bullet-point plan that shored up consumer confidence rather than the confusing response we got instead. 

It’s the same way a company needs to do it. We need to be in ‘over-communication’ mode during a crisis. 80% of our success with clients is because of how we communicate with them. 

On a side note, we’re going to be asking our people whether they want to stay working at home after this or not. And at what level. Like what do they want? Because frankly, I’m open to it at this point. I could go either way.

From The Trenches: Interview with Erik Huberman, CEO at Hawke Media

LAS: Tell us a story about an early struggle you had starting Hawke Media.

EH: There was a lot. But one month into the business, we’ve already doubled our revenue. We’ve got clients doing well and I’ve got a team of five people and the guy that’s managing half of those clients just disappears one day.  It turns out he met a girl and just jetted off to Hawaii. Talk about working remotely, this was seven years ago. 

So I ask him, ‘Are you handling your stuff? Are you on top of all that work you need to be doing?” He’s like ‘oh yeah no problem.”

Well, sure enough, all four of his clients call me the next day in a panic.  “What the hell are we paying you for?” they all asked. 

So I finally get a hold of this guy and he says “I’m gonna stop you right there. It’s the happiest day of my life. I’m getting married. I need you to back off.” And he hangs up. 

I looked over at my director of operations and was like “Hey, what are we going to do here?” He just looked at me and said “Well, I guess I’m going to learn how to do email marketing.” 

That night I called my dad, who’s a successful entrepreneur himself, and tell him this whole story. My dad just listened.  And when I was done with the long story, expecting some great piece of advice, he just said “Yeah, well that shit happens all the time. I got to run.” And he hangs up the phone.

I was pissed. I wanted sympathy. But he was absolutely right. As an entrepreneur, shit happens all the time. It’s always just going to be something else. We figured it out. 

LAS: Did the guy who went to Hawaii get his job back?

EH: Nope. 

LAS: What’s your best advice for the aspiring entrepreneur?

EH: This pandemic has really forced us to really dial down the core business and look at our operational integrity. It forced us to cut everything non-essential. We didn’t lay anyone off, but we cut every piece of extra software and everything that was a ‘nice to have’. So don’t be spending money on things that aren’t actually driving the bottom line. Very important.  

Also, be sure to build a company on your own skillset. If you need to hire people to build your company from the beginning, it’s going to be a tough business to make happen. People succeed, but it’s a lot harder because every time there’s a problem, it costs more money to get others to solve the problem. 

If you’re good at marketing and have a crappy product, you’re not going anywhere. You’ll just let everyone know your product sucks faster. But if you have a great product but aren’t good at marketing, you still actually can be successful. But obviously, having both is optimum. 

LAS: You guys have been around since 2014. That’s a lifetime on the internet. What sort of changes have you seen in the industry?

EH:  Back in 2014, nobody could figure out how to do this digital stuff. Even Google and Verizon and HP hired us to help them figure it out. And, now it’s ubiquitous. It’s just what you do. You can’t resist it anymore. So that’s the big ecosystem change. Other than that, frankly, a lot of what worked seven years ago, it’s still what works. There’s a fundamentally good marketing approach that is timeless. 

From The Trenches: Interview with Erik Huberman, CEO at Hawke Media

LAS: What book changed your life?

EH: It’s a book I read fresh out of college, not very well known. So I always love mentioning it. It’s called Appetite for Self Destruction by a guy named Steve Knopper. It’s about how industries, and the music industry in particular, often ignore the opportunity right in front of them. Like new technologies. Like saying things like ‘No one’s going to listen to CD’s’ or order movies online. It’s really about the resistance to innovation and how people don’t like change. It’s taxi companies getting displaced by Uber. How easy would it have been for them to do on-demand pickup and all these things?  Instead, they just resisted it and rolled their eyes at it. Confirmation bias killed them. We all have to avoid that. 

LAS: Any last words?

EH:  Yeah. Don’t be full of shit  You want to take a selfie in front of a Bentley and talk about how you can make everyone a lot of money? Here’s the funny thing: you will get the dumbest audience ever to believe you. And if that’s what you’re going for, if you want to be the smartest dumb guy, go for it. Fine. But don’t be like Tai Lopez. Be real. 

If you actually want to have a real business, and you want to have something to look back on that you’ve created of value, do something that matters. That you’re good at. That you really care about. Do it for the right reasons and create a positive change. If you’re doing that, not even a pandemic can stop you. 

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