Rusty Shelton gave his first speech on changing world of PR and marketing at Harvard University.
He was only 23.
Today, Shelton’s commentary on the changing world of PR and marketing has been featured in Forbes, Inc. Magazine, Wharton, Huff Post, and many other top media outlets.
Shelton is the Founder & CEO of Zilker Media, the country’s premier agency for authors, thought leaders and brands who want to build a platform and make an impact in the new media landscape.
The entrepreneur and busy father of 4 – including his rowdy black lab – took some time to talk to us about his journey, founding successful businesses and why being giving harsh but constructive criticism is necessary for business.
Can you tell us about your background?
Rusty Shelton: I grew up in Austin, TX and had an awesome childhood. Great family and parents that taught me a ton about the value of balancing hard work with time at home. My mom was a teacher, my Dad was an attorney and law school professor, and my sister was and is just generally a rockstar.
I went to the University of Texas and got my first internship after my Mom guilt-tripped me into looking for one. That internship turned into my first job which turned into my first start-up. Thanks, Mom!
Tell us how you first got into the media business and why you founded Shelton Interactive and then Zilker Media.
RS: My first job out of school was at a book publicity firm. This was back in the stone ages of PR when we would order 3-ring binders from Bacon’s Media with contact information for the media.
We’d thumb through the binders for contact info and cold call producers to try to get them to feature our authors on air.
Back in that previous media environment, there were only two ways to get a message out at scale – you could either rent the media’s platform by buying an ad, or you could earn your way onto their platform by being interviewed or featured in some way.
In that previous environment, there was not really a way to push the media out of the way to go directly to your audience at scale. You could do it one customer at a time but not at scale.
That started to change late in my time at this firm, and I saw an opportunity to start a full-service agency that handled everything an author needed – from branding to a website to social media and PR – under one roof.
After talking myself out of it for a couple of years, I launched my first business, Shelton Interactive, in 2010 and made just about every mistake an entrepreneur could make early in the process.
Thankfully, we were fortunate to build not only a great stable of clients but also the most fantastic team in-house.
We were acquired by Advantage Media Group | ForbesBooks in early 2016 and I’m honored to continue working alongside them to build that business and have also since started a brand new agency, Zilker Media.
What has been the biggest reason for your success?
RS: A combination of good fortune and good people…but mostly good people. I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to benefit from the wisdom of mentors, the trust of clients and the remarkable contributions of awesome team members.
Peter Drucker’s famous line “Culture eats strategy for lunch” is a foundation of everything I have tried to do in my entrepreneurial career. I’ve been the biggest beneficiary of the relationships forged with team members.
I’ve been fortunate to work alongside many talented people throughout my career at Shelton Interactive, Advantage Media Group, and Zilker Media.
What’s been the most significant barrier to your success?
RS: There have been plenty of them (mostly that I have put in my own way), but I would say the most significant barrier is self-doubt.
Early in my career, I wasn’t sure I could start a business and be a leader. I didn’t trust my gut nearly as much as I do now.
As such, I was slower in making decisions, giving feedback to my team and making progress.
Now that I’ve learned from numerous mistakes and been fortunate enough to have a couple of exits, it’s incredible what a little confidence will do for you as a business owner and leader.
I believe the most significant confidence boost for an entrepreneur is the kind fueled by hard-learned lessons and not having things handed to you.
What is the most actionable piece of advice you would give someone starting out in this business or any entrepreneurial endeavor?
RS: Interview an entrepreneur a week for at least 12 weeks. I was encouraged to do this before I started Shelton Interactive. It was one of the smartest ideas ever. Not only did I get great advice from each person but many of them offered ways to help when I started my first business.
As you build your target list, try to include both entrepreneurs that you already know (people in your sphere of influence) and several you want to get to know. A humble request for advice with no ulterior motive is quite a bridge-builder.
What is the biggest mistake that you made that you would warn others about?
RS: Not giving honest and assertive feedback to those looking for leadership and mentorship.
One mistake I made in the early days of the business was carrying the misconception that the best way to build up my team’s confidence was to stay positive at all times and ignore opportunities for improvement. I would focus only on the things going well.
Put simply – I was scared to give harsh feedback. Don’t do this.
It’s selfish – you’re going easy on yourself by avoiding tough conversations, and although you may think you’re going easy on others, you’re actually robbing them of the opportunity to improve.
What is the best tool you’ve found to help you in your day today?
RS: I’ve become a massive consumer of podcasts as a learning tool. We have 3 kids, and I coach every team I can, so I don’t have much time at all for personal and professional development at home.
Instead of listening just to sports radio, I’m now doing most of my development work using podcasts and audiobooks during my commute.
How important have other people in the company – cofounders, S.Os, investors – been to your success?
RS: From mentors to business partners to my team, other people have been the reason for my success. Not only is business more fun with a great team – it’s more fulfilling as well. These relationships have been the greatest joy of my entrepreneurial journey.
How much did luck attribute to your success or possibly being in the right place at the right time?
RS: Right place, right time plays a significant role in business success – but only if you’re ready to seize the moment. I think of these as “domino moments” – something that starts with a seemingly insignificant happening but in the rear view mirror becomes the starting point for an exponential amount of awesomeness.
The biggest one in my career happened when I was 23 at my first job as a book publicist.
I was in the middle of a typical workday when an email hit my inbox from another member of our team, Steve Morse. Steve had been pitching a health journal in the Boston area, and the physician editor on the other end of the line on that particular phone pitch said she was putting on a CME (continuing medical education) conference on publishing for Harvard Medical School and needed a good book publicist to give the PR talk.
She had worked with us a few times and asked if anyone at the firm would be a good fit and, after getting her contact info, Steve sent an email around the office asking if anyone wanted to reach out to her about speaking at the event.
Without thinking about the implications, I picked up the phone and called Dr. Silver. I told her I would be happy to fly to Boston to give the speech and could bring some fresh ideas to the table (left unsaid was that I didn’t have much speaking experience).
“Put simply – I was scared to give harsh feedback. Don’t do this.”
Knowing it would be an issue when I arrived, I also tell her that I was young but knew my stuff. At the time I was 23 and looked like I was 14 years old, and I was praying she didn’t ask me my age because I knew the opportunity would probably be dead in the water.
Thankfully, she didn’t, and we had a great conversation that led to me heading to Boston as a faculty member at the course in 2005.
A few months later I walked in the banquet room at the Fairmont Copley in Boston and, after getting my name tag from the registration table, I walked up to Dr. Silver to introduce myself. She turned from the person she was speaking with, and I said: “Hi, I’m Rusty Shelton – it’s great to meet you.”
She looked like she had seen a ghost – “Wow! You are WAY younger than I expected.” I know she was beyond nervous when I hit the stage the next day for my speech.
It went reasonably well, and I’ve continued to speak at that conference and many others over the past 13 years. That moment started a different path in my career. One that I never expected, but I now enjoy immensely, which is public speaking.
What are you doing today to take Zilker Media to the moon?
RS: I’m focused on three key things to do everything I can to propel Zilker Media to success.
The first is investing in building the best agency team in the country. When you combine terrific talent with an awesome culture, you can call your shots regarding business success, so our leadership team is focused on those two ingredients more than anything else. We’re fortunate to have a fantastic team in place, starting with our leadership team.
The second thing is making decisions with an eye on the medium-to-long term vs. short-term profit. I didn’t have this luxury when I started Shelton Interactive because I was 29, we had two kids at home in diapers (my wife stays home) and $4,000 in the bank, so we had to profit immediately. I couldn’t be as selective with clients or the kind of work we were asked to do.
We’re fortunate to be in a different position today, and that allows us to focus on building a foundation for success that values innovation, culture, and quality over short-term wins.
The third thing is Authority Marketing, which is the title of my newest book. I’m trying to focus on the best and highest use of my time which is speaking, writing and teaching and also position our team to do the same. We want to not only build our clients into thought leaders – but also our team.
How far down the road do you look when thinking about Zilker Media?
RS: I touched on this a bit in the last answer, but I look way down the road when making decisions for Zilker Media.
PR & marketing are changing by the day, and that offers both tremendous opportunity and a huge risk if you don’t stay ahead of the curve, so we have our eye pretty far down the road to ensure our clients are creating brands people want to gather around.
Do you think ANYONE can be successful at being an entrepreneur or does it take a particular “type?”
RS: I think it takes a certain kind of mindset to be a successful entrepreneur. It’s not something that comes naturally to many people, including in some ways me, but it’s honed over time and I think can be learned by those who have the stomach for the whitewater ride that makes it rewarding.
How will you know when you’ve “made it?”
RS: I hope I never have that feeling. It’s way too fun trying to get there!