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Starting an agency with an MBA in hand (featuring Paul Benson)

The impact of a formal business education on entrepreneurship and management
Paul Benson

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Most agency owners don’t bring prior business experience to the role — let alone formal business education. Paul Benson is an exception to that rule of thumb. He earned his MBA before he took the leap into agency ownership.

In this episode, Paul shares his experience running a digital marketing agency and how the business training he received at Babson College has impacted his success.


About Paul Benson

Paul Benson is the co-founder of Synapse SEM and a digital marketing expert with over 13 years’​ experience managing integrated direct response online marketing programs for startups, high growth businesses and Fortune 500 companies. He has deep expertise in B2B technology, e-commerce, retail, lead generation and non-profit. Paul earned his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Rhode Island, and earned his MBA, cum laude, from Babson College.


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

CHIP: Hello and welcome. I am your host, Chip Griffin and my guest today is Paul Benson. He is the co founder of Synapse SEM in Massachusetts. Welcome to the show, Paul.

PAUL: Thanks Chip

CHIP: is great to have you and before we jump in and start our conversation, why don’t you share a little bit with the audience about yourself and synapse sem so that they understand who it is that they’re listening to?

PAUL: Yeah, sure. So yeah, I’ve been doing digital marketing for a little over 13 years now started off in the agency space that I prospect there, one of the big digital firms out there, decided to go back to school, get my MBA from Babson finish that up in 2009. And you know, we were just looking for business opportunities myself and one of my close friends during my time at Babson and we just kept in touch and a couple years later we started synapse so that that’s that kicked off in 2011. And the agency is really just a direct response. performance marketing agency specializing in paid search advertising, search engine optimization and paid social. We work with a lot of different clients, but we have a pretty strong foundation and b2b technology. We also work with a lot of retail e commerce, nonprofit companies as well. We’ve grown every year since we started the agency to really well. And that’s pretty much us in a nutshell.

CHIP: That’s great. And one of the things that I noticed there is that you are unlike a lot of agency owners, you didn’t come to it accidentally you actually set out to build a business, you got an MBA, so you’re coming into this with business knowledge and a desire to build a business. So you know, that sort of sets you apart, I think probably from a lot of listeners who perhaps started as freelancers and grew into something. What What drew you to this particular space, was it just that previous background or you see an opportunity with your partner that you wanted to jump into it’s kind

PAUL: of interesting path because out of school I you know, I majored in marketing and my undergrad And people that I spoke to said, you know, get some sales experience, it’s great, you know, if you want to get into marketing, you really should do the sales side as well. So my first job out of college was actually in sales. And, you know, I felt like I, I got a pretty good foundation of how kind of marketing sales work together. I didn’t really know much about digital marketing at the time. And actually, at that time, I kind of fell into it at iProspect. I found a job posting, it looked interesting, didn’t really know anything about it, interviewed, got the job and just kind of fell in love with digital marketing, the transparency, the measurability, and all of those dynamics. And then going back to school and meeting Marcus Holly, my business partner, he actually went off became a CPA. And so we were both sort of like general business and finance minded individuals, and came together about two years after because he again, went off and was a CPA for a couple of years. And we just kind of came back and said, hey, let’s let’s start a business and we looked at a lot of different things and we’re actually pursuing different business models at the time, but because my background is digital marketing, that’s those are the contacts that I had established. Inevitably, every time our phone rang, it was someone looking for digital marketing help. And so, you know, we kind of just followed the opportunity. And that’s really how how synapse was born. We just, it looked like really a natural continuation of what I had done and marks background in accounting and business. We just thought we could bring something unique to the table. And again, that’s where the demand was. So that’s, that’s what we went after.

CHIP: You know, sometimes it’s said of entrepreneurs that, you know, one of the benefits first time entrepreneurs have is that they, they don’t know what works and what doesn’t, so they’re willing to jump in and take more risks and experiment. Do you do you feel that that having the foundation with the MBA has has generally helped you or has it caused you to say, Well, you know, maybe I’ve been more cautious because I know from my from my education that this is not how you’re supposed to do it? Yeah,

PAUL: it’s weird because I, you know, as I got older, I can Got more mature and I got more career focused. And one of the things I was trying to do at Babson is really just trying to differentiate myself in the in the business market I didn’t know are in the workforce and I didn’t know if it was going to be my business or somewhere else. But at Babson because they’re so entrepreneurship focused, it got me thinking much more along those lines. And you meet a lot of people that are also entrepreneurial minded as well. And I think just that whole experience, I’ve always been kind of a risk taker. And I think I just felt more confident with that level of risk, having gone through the MBA program, having a strong business partner, who’s willing to go through it with you. So I think it probably made me more comfortable with the risk, but probably a little bit more aware of exactly what those risks were to try to figure out how to overcome them or not get held up by them. So I think it was it helped me become a little bit more comfortable with the idea.

CHIP: Yeah, and for those who are not familiar with apps, and perhaps you can explain all that because the battery Really is known for its entrepreneurship angle. And so it’s different than a lot of what I would call more typical or traditional MBA programs at schools where they’re typically sending someone off into finance or fortune 500 management. And I’m sure folks do go from Babson to that as well. But it really has a reputation for turning out entrepreneurs.

PAUL: Yeah. And I think on the undergraduate and the graduate level at the school, it’s just very well known for entrepreneurship. They’re considered, you know, US News and World. They’re always number one and entrepreneurship beating out, you know, really, you know, really strong schools like Stanford and others. And I think that that foundation is just president, all the courses that you take the mindsets of the professors, they’ve tried to kind of broaden that understanding of entrepreneurship to not just starting your own business, but just being creative in coming up with solutions and being results oriented. But at the core, it’s, it’s, they’re still very, you know, starting a business, that sort of traditional definition of entrepreneurship, they’re still very much focused on Yeah, I think that was, again, just the people, the professors, the faculty, the the other students, just, you know, all very entrepreneurship minded, I guess so.

CHIP: Yeah. And it’s, you know, I think more and more schools are recognizing the value in training both undergraduate and graduate students in entrepreneurship. And that’s, that’s really a trend that’s just picked up over the last, I don’t know, 15 or 20 years or so. You know, I know University of New Hampshire has a an entrepreneurship program that I’ve been a mentor in the American University where I went to school in DC does a lot of things with entrepreneurs. Now, it’s, but that that’s not something that was common, you know, back when, when I was in school, you know, few a few more years before you here. But, you know, but I think that’s very valuable. And I think for folks, particularly in the agency space, you know, hopefully as we have more younger people coming in and becoming agency owners, you know, they’re starting to have some of that background that that I think will will make their businesses better for Yeah,

PAUL: yeah, definitely. It’s a It’s interesting because different industries value different backgrounds differently as pretty obvious statement. But from my background in digital marketing, there aren’t a lot of people with advanced degrees. And it’s just there’s not a lot of emphasis placed on it, because it’s a kind of a specialty area where you kind of have to get trained up in it and get familiar with it. And sometimes advanced degrees can be to your detriment because they have to pay more. Right. So digital marketing agencies don’t really put a lot of value on that we do. Because I think we just, you know, we feel more confident. We feel more well rounded. But yeah, it’s definitely, definitely an evolving area. I think within programs, a lot of schools are starting up both entrepreneurship classes, even if they don’t have majors and they’re also starting up a lot of digital marketing courses. We actually work with Babs and doing some of that as well. So I think both both areas are definitely growing areas, the entrepreneurship side and the digital marketing side.

CHIP: Yeah, and I don’t have any particular data on how many agency owners Have MBAs and that sort of thing, but I, you know, but anecdotally I can tell you it’s a very small percentage. And but I, but I think that that having that kind of background, you know, certainly can be very beneficial. I mean, are you specifically, do you have other MBAs who are working for you? Are you, you know, where are you? are you targeting that? Or, you know, what’s your, you know, what’s your thought on hiring MBAs, and I think,

PAUL: you know, whether it’s MBA or another advanced degree or some other just specialty area that they have. It’s definitely an area of interest of ours. I think right now our current team, there aren’t folks with advanced degrees, but we would certainly like support them in that some have expressed interest in going back to school and doing that. And again, whether it’s the NBA or mark, my business partner ended up doing masters of accounting. You know, we definitely seen direct valuable not even necessarily just in the curriculum, but more probably Mark probably benefits more in our field than I do with our advanced degree is because the guys are, you know, very accounting, finance oriented that provides trouble are the guys doing all our books? Right? So it’s, it’s super valuable to have that specific background and what we do. But yeah, we would certainly support anybody on the team looking to, you know, looking to do that and kind of expand their horizons and, and grow. So, but yeah, today it’s just myself and mark and yeah, that’s that’s it.

CHIP: Yeah. And so as you look at the journey that you’ve had over the what, you guys have been in business, what, eight or nine years I think with with synapse, you know, what, as you as you followed your trajectory, are there specific things that you’ve leaned on from your education to help at various inflection points, I mean, any growing business tends to have, you know, various plateaus that reaches and trying to break through them, you know, is where you sort of make or break the success of the firm. Are there either things that you learned in the MBA program that have helped you solve particular challenges? And if so, can Can you maybe share an example for

PAUL: us and I think the two biggest benefits I got from specifically from the MBA program is number one, just the people I met. Including mark and the professors and other students. So I think that was probably the most valuable part of the experience. But in terms of what I what I also learned while I was there, I think it’s just like being, you know, it’s like kind of a cliche now to say it, but being comfortable being uncomfortable feeling uncomfortable. And that was kind of drilled into our minds very early on with a lot of the projects, they give you very ambiguous projects on purpose they’d have you do pretty odd things like we had some very, we have like music classes, which kind of sounds strange in an MBA program, but it’s really just to put you in a, an unfamiliar environment or give you a specific project or task that didn’t have a defined outcome. So I think that was super valuable because I feel like every day that’s what we’re facing, there’s no script. There’s no specific client that is going to knock on our door tomorrow or new employee that we’re going to hire tomorrow. It’s all it all just kind of evolves. And so we just have to be very comfortable, being comfortable every single day. I think that going through the MBA program. was super helpful for me in that regard.

CHIP: And that’s a great way of putting it. That’s it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put exactly that way. But as a longtime entrepreneur myself, I think that’s a, it’s a great mindset to have. Because, you know, it allows you to solve a lot of problems. If you’re, if you’re comfortable with being uncomfortable, you can sit there and say, okay, you know, I’m listening to music, or I’ve got this challenge with a client or whatever. And you can sort of figure out how to move forward. Because you’re, you’re able to step back and look at it a little bit more analytically, perhaps, as opposed to

PAUL: think until you’ve lived this. I mean, it’s a, it’s a great feeling to be a problem solver. You know, that’s kind of what we are. So it’s great to be able to solve unique problems where they’re created because of the unique environment that you’re in within your specific business. You know, we all have unique challenges and obstacles and dynamics within our companies and those create unique opportunities to problem solve. And so I love to problem solve, I want to work with the team to problem solve. And so that’s ultimately what we do at the end of the day. And it’s it’s a rewarding experience to be able to do that in such a, you know, we’re facing such, you know, unique or kind of like unforeseen circumstances that we never thought we would. And it could be the smallest little thing of do I send a client an email, or do I call them? And if I email them, what should the contents be? And what do I learn from that? It can be little minor, things like that. But it’s like, every day, there’s multiple learning opportunities. So it’s, it’s been really fun.

CHIP: And if you if you have the mindset mindset to be solving problems, then, you know, you can confront a lot of things that, you know, that might otherwise be too challenging. I mean, anybody can learn to program in a new programming language or learn new ad platform, or figure out the latest social network, but it’s, it’s that it’s the process that you go through to get from A to B, that it really takes, you know, I think something a little bit more internalized within the individual and so to the extent that You’re training get you there. That’s really how Yeah,

PAUL: definitely, definitely. I think it’s also, you know, additional problem solving. Its its uniqueness, you know, like, what can we do that’s unique? And I think that’s, that’s been one of the biggest challenges that we face when we first started the agency, which is, okay, you know, the biggest problem we need to solve is, how are we going to be different? Because at that point in time, you know, 2011, there was a digital agency on every corner, and there still is today. So how do we differentiate from a, you know, an industry experience perspective in terms of the services we’re able to provide? And we’re constantly changing that, but yeah, I think that’s probably the number one thing we had to focus on at a very early stage, which is, how do we solve that that problem or that challenge of being different from the other more, you know, the more established agencies that were already out there?

CHIP: Yeah. And this is a challenge that just about every agency has, you know, you need to find that identity you need to figure out you know, what, your niches whether that’s by serving particular verticals or by, you know, a unique Problem Solving solution or set of services or whatever it is, because you’re right there, I mean, no matter, you know, where you are in the agency space, whether you’re doing digital marketing or traditional PR, advertising, whatever, there’s, you know that there are many, many businesses out there that do something similar. So how do you stand out? And I guess, you know, one of the things that I picked up on that you just said was that, you know, that’s something that you’ve changed periodically over the course of the business. I mean, how do you, how do you think of your identity today? And how has that changed from when you got started? I mean, are you are you more specialized today? Or have you become, you know, a little bit wider? Because you’ve, you know, grown over time? Or, you know, how has that changed?

PAUL: Yeah, I mean, some things we’ve, we’ve, some things have definitely evolved and some things we sort of double down on, I think our original identity was differentiate through data analysis and, and and stronger strategies for the client. Because in my prior role, that I prospect, we got a lot of client feedback. And it was Always around the need for better analysis and driving strategy from that analysis. So with my background with marks background that was really the foundation for synapses, we felt that we could be highly analytical and highly strategic. And make sure those two things are tied together. But then it sort of evolved from there were to your point Chip, like the industry experience became really important. We sort of just being in the Boston area evolved into working with a lot of technology companies, and the b2b space is very different from the b2c space, we established or developed a lot of expertise in that b2b space. And that has really helped us sort of carve out a niche for ourselves. But I think where we sort of double down is the specialization. We started off as a digital agency, but really as a search engine marketing firm, and we only did paid search and SEO. We’ve evolved a little bit we’re now we also focus on paid social, but really just those three channels we don’t position ourselves as a general digital marketing agency. It’s really a specialized within those three trends. panels, and you know, will seek opportunities if there’s a natural fit from a channel perspective, potentially bring it in. But in eight years, you know, we’ve really only, we’ve only really grown into paid social. And so we really stuck to our guns, I think, to be more specialized, because it’s, it’s hard to say specialized in these channels, and then try to go do a bunch of other things. So we chosen to stay specialized.

CHIP: When and staying specialized is the it’s the more difficult decision. candidly, right, because it’s always easier to say, well, I’ll keep expanding, because I’ll look, I see, I see a money opportunity here and there and everywhere. And so, you know, remaining committed to your mission, I think is it takes some resolve to do it. But I think ultimately, the agencies that do that tend to be the ones that that are able to succeed over time because they maintain a unique identity.

PAUL: I think so Chip. And I also think that the types of clients that you get when you’re specialized, I think, have certain expectations about what your capabilities are because you’re specialized. So I think you’re almost self selecting a question. That is either themselves more specialized or know that these channels are really critical to the success of their overall marketing plan. So you tend to get savvier more demanding clients. But at the end of the day, that’s that’s what we want. I think that’s how we differentiate and that that those are the client relationships in which we Excel most. So I think it has worked out I think they are it creates those challenges. But I think those are the challenges that that we can really overcome. As an agency. We’re kind of built overcome as agency. So it’s worked out really well.

CHIP: If 2019 Paul could go back and talk to 2011. Paul, before you get started, what advice would you give him?

PAUL: Ooh, that’s a good 120 11. Paul, exercise more of

CHIP: a Grecian formula.

PAUL: probably say, just have more deliver action on Industry Focus, because that ended up being a real key for us. I probably would have focused on that earlier, just to establish that differentiation a little bit earlier, I probably would talk through how we could become because we’re so specialized over the years, we’ve become more I guess, like vertically integrated within those channels, meaning we can do pretty much anything within paid search. But it took us years of finding those partners of those resources to help us do that. So for example, like, you know, building out landing pages or creative, we don’t have those resources in house, we’ve had to sort of build partnerships and and find consultants that can help us because it’s b2b. That’s kind of our one of our focuses from an industry perspective. Marketing automation systems and CRM systems come into play there. I probably would have had Paul focus a little bit more on those systems and building our expertise around them because it’s taken us a while. So I think Getting there faster would have would have helped the agency but, you know, a lot of it is just kind of stumbling as we go. So,

CHIP: right, much better change. That that’s that’s how any businesses, but I think I think particularly in the agency space, because, you know, it is it is so service driven to the client, and particularly when you’re on the digital side of things, everything’s changing so frequently, that, that it, you know, there’s almost no way around it. And you and you have to have that, you know, nimble approach in order to to succeed, definitely, definitely, you know, if you started to, you know, we’ve looked back but now if you if you started to look ahead, you tried to look around the corner and see, you know, what’s coming next for your agency or the performance marketing industry? I mean, you know, what, obviously, we’re everybody’s awash in in data. These days, everybody’s talking about big data and AI and machine learning and all that kind of stuff. I mean, do you see that impacting on what you’re doing? Do you see other trends up ahead that you know, that you’re, you’re either trying to figure out how to take advantage of or concerned about?

PAUL: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think there’s definitely a lot of automation on the reporting side. So whether it’s Google, I mean, Google’s the beast that kind of move the industry forward. So they really dictate a lot of what happens within this ecosystem. I think they are driving a lot of automation around, like bid management and things like that. There’s some other platforms out there. So I think a lot of automation, different aspects of it, but all pertaining to a lot of it around paid search is definitely coming. And I think, tying back in data, so again, if your lead gen client and you’re using, you need the back end data to really help drive better decisions, you can’t rely on just oh, we have we got a lead. It’s, you know, what’s the quality of that lead that be turned into a qualified opportunity, that opportunity turned into pipeline. And so there are systems in place, the automation of pulling that data from the backend into our front end dashboards, Google ads, Google Analytics, LinkedIn, and other paid social channels, I think is going to become really critical where we can make those optimization on the fly, as if it were ecommerce client where revenue is there as soon as the transaction occurs. So I think that’s one of the big trends. I think, from a challenge perspective, I think, you know, as a smaller agency, it’s it’s always the same challenge, which is, you know, we’ve purposely grown at a very specific rate we’ve grown every year, but it’s been very organic, you know, we haven’t brought on investment or anything like that. So I think it’s steady, stable, healthy growth, and how do we stop? How do we do that? Part of that, obviously, is client acquisition component. So how do we get our name out there more in a time effective way? You know, we’re not going to start doing TV ads or radio, I don’t think that’s necessarily a good fit for what we do. So what are the ways in which that synapse can amplify the message and get it out to more people? That’s my I think my core challenge for 2020. So if you have any advice, but yeah, that’s, that’s, you know,

CHIP: yeah, look that mean that’s what a lot of folks are focusing on. Well, you know, trying to figure out, you know how to, to, to continue to get it in front of the right people at the right time so that they can continue to grow their businesses. So it’s, you know that that is not a unique challenge that you have there. But you know, frankly, it’s a good one. Because, you know, what it shows is that, you know, you, you’ve managed to build up a sustainable business. And so now it’s figuring out how to just continue moving it to the next level, you know, steadily and surely over time,

PAUL: definitely, I think our ability to grow over years more of a testament to the team, our team does a great job just on the client server side and the quality of the deliverables for the client. So the team does a great job. And so I’m very happy with kind of how we progress over the last eight years. But just kind of looking into the future. It’s critical mass question, I think we’ve hit the critical mass Chip where we were not worried about any given client leaving and that was like early stage, always a concern. You know, one big client we use, what does that mean? So I think we’ve hidden critical mass and that has allowed us to kind of focus On more accelerated growth moving forward, but so that that’s definitely the focus.

CHIP: Well, that’s great. And this has been a really enlightening conversation that I’m sure listeners have gotten a lot out of. If someone wants to learn more about you and synapse, you know, where should they go?

PAUL: Yeah, so our site is just synapse sem dot com.

And certainly, if anyone wants to reach out directly, they can just reach me at Paul at synapse sem dot com. But, yeah, that’s probably the best ways to do it.

CHIP: Excellent. Well, I’ll include that link in the show notes so that if you happen to be on the treadmill or something, you don’t have to hop off and write it down. It will instead be right there in the show notes that agency leadership.com. So, Paul, I really appreciate you taking the time to to speak with me and my listeners today. Again, my guest has been Paul Benson, co founder of Synapse SEM.

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