Episode 436 - Todd Westra / Ben Johnson

00:46 Hey, welcome back to the show. And today I'm so honored to have with us Ben Johnson. He's bringing with us some really cool stories, really cool experience. Ben, who are you and what do you do?

00:58 Yeah, thanks, Todd. I'm the CEO of Particle41. We do complex digital projects, right? We have four major service areas. So CTO advisory, software development, data science, or just data engineering, and DevOps or cloud engineering. We cover those four major pillars. And we say we have a service that's from the boardroom to the code review.

01:27 I love it. I love it. Honestly though, Ben, I mean, you know this as well as I do. A lot of people listening to this have a really cool company, really cool ideas, but their tech, it kind of sucks. I mean, let's be honest. Who are you trying to serve with what you do? Because those are four killer applications that a lot of people listening could probably utilize. Why do they need you?

01:51 Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, we love to talk like I personally love talking with CEOs that are just concerned that they're falling behind. They're concerned they're not keeping up. They're concerned that they're not getting the most out of their tech stack and their people working on tech. So that's a great entry point. The other thing we say is we fix slow. So if you're a CEO that's Worried about moving, are you moving quickly enough? Or did you just try to hit your own product and had to wait 15 seconds for it to load? Those are the kinds of problems we love to jump into. Slow execution or slow product, either one, we fix slow.

02:28 That's awesome. Is that a tagline anywhere on your site? I didn't see that.

02:33 That's a tagline on my LinkedIn profile.

02:36 Ben, that's awesome. Dude, I love that. You need to hammer that somewhere. You need to have a whole section of We Fix Slow. I think that's a feature video series waiting to happen on your YouTube channel. 

02:47 I appreciate it. But it is something that showed up over and over again. That's a great jumping endpoint for us. Hey, there's this thing, we got to get it done. We got to get it to market in 90 days. We've executed things like that. Or just, hey, man, we've been working on this thing for a long time and it is not scaling well. Those are great entry points for our service.

03:08 Right, right. You know, you are talking to the right audience because a lot of people listening to this are people that have launched a business, they're wondering what to do next. How do I accelerate my growth? How do I put my position of the company in a place where it can grow? And let's be honest, if their tech stack is all over the place and they don't have things, you know, if a client journey, for example, is leading into their company from an opt -in, and then it goes through this CRM and then the marketing goes from the sales CRM to this and this and blah, blah, blah, blah. Most companies I find that are struggling with growth have problems with their tech stack. What kind of things do you do to help them assess what's going on and fix it?

03:55 Yeah, we'll appreciate you asking because we actually in CTO advisory, we have a format for this. We call it the periodic table of business tools. So Particle 41 is kind of a chemistry play. We could talk about that more later. But so what we do is we take we have a chart and it has all the solutions that are up to the right on the Gartner matrix, you know, easy to implement and and fairly affordable. And then we kind of map that out. So are you a Gmail company or are you a Office 365 Microsoft type company? Have you already purchased HubSpot or do you have that Salesforce stuff lurking around? What are those things that you've already decided? And then we do exactly that. We take that and we develop your unique particle, which is how your business tools kind of fit together. And then we start talking about how the customer journeys through those systems. So you have back office, your sales, your like, how does it flow? And what are the inefficiencies? You know, what people are entering data from this system to that system. And the reason why we do that is because things that are custom need to be high value, not high need. When you when you're high need, you go out and partner and you configure. But when you're high value, that's usually where the off the shelf projects fall apart, because you really want to customize those. And so we want people to make the right customization investments. And so we go through that process to make sure that we're talking about the highest value, most customer centric features. And that's where software development really shines.

05:33 I love it, I love it. And I don't want to sound insulting by any stretch of the imagination, but this is what, you just went one layer deeper into nerdiness than I thought you would go with your Particle 41. You have a periodic table, you're telling me you got a periodic table of tech stack recommendations and ways to fix the way your flow goes, is that right?

05:54 That is right. That is right. We have the periodic table of business tools.

05:57 Tell us how you explored this. I mean, where, what's your background? What have, where have you come to be able to offer these, these 41 points of, periodic readiness for their tech stack?

06:09 Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, my partner and I, my partner is an Indian national. He lives in India, but we have always been on the kind of product, product technology split in all the companies. I've done five companies that I built, most from zero to revenue and then on to exit. And so I think we just found these common things as you're going from, okay, how do I get my MVP done so I can start onboarding my first customer? How do I make that first dollar? And then going from how do I take that first dollar and that thing that's working all the way out to something that's an acquirable asset. In my latest venture, as I was building Particle 41, I built Legalink and then sold it to LegalZoom. From the point I joined Legalink to sell was three years almost to the day. And so I have a really recent experience with how to rapidly build tech that immediately plays into an exit strategy. And I think that experience is what we're drawing from. The other thing we're learning is that everything is an SOP. Everything can be documented. Everything is a pattern. So taking some of the pattern, pattern recognition is a big part of software development. And so taking those patterns and figuring out how to pattern business, how to pattern your sales process, how to just, this love for frameworks and patterns has really served me well. And now I just want to pass on those learning to other CEOs.

07:43 I love it. I am a framework heavy guy as well. And I, I truly believe that when people come to me and say, well, we've got this really unique client type with a really unique solution, I immediately think you're just not a systems guy. You just don't get how to systematize your flow. And so, so where do you start? Like looking back on your own businesses, what was a key decision that you made to kind of operationalize even Particle41 as you've gone through your growth journey to where you're at today?

08:13 Yeah, I would say a critical inflection point in any business is when it stops being a brainstorming partnership, like, hey, how are we going to do this? And you turn in to put some real goals on the board. So big, big fan of smart goals or OKRs, whichever one folks prefer or already understand. In EOS, they have the rocks, like, what are our rocks? What are our big pieces? Like, what are those goals? And then how are we going to iteratively manage progress towards those? How are we going to measure success? Anything other than that is like a dream or a wish. And wishes and dreams don't build companies, goals build companies. And so I think that inflection point where you started to formulate a team, they started to agree on a set of goals, how are they how are they going to measure success, and had real clear high level of clarity around those intentions, everything starts going from there. That's where the rocket ship launches and then you're checking each other against that agreed upon set of rules and now the game is scored. Now you know if you're winning or not. Now you know what continuous improvement looks like. And I think that has been the inflection point for all of my businesses.

09:28 captainscouncil.com

11:07 I love it, I love it. You know, that is a huge, that's a huge statement because a lot of people don't recognize the fact that it is once you can actually say, okay, we sold a few of these units, it went well, now let's map out how we get more of those things, right? Is that kind of what you're talking about?

11:25 For sure. You know, at Legalink, probably a year in, we laid out our OKRs. And because of that, then we have these goals. And then we go, OK, well, what kinds of things need to be true in order to hit those goals? And that continuous conversation started a path for us to work on things who are important and not just critical. And as you start working on those important things, then you start doing things by design instead of reacting.

11:58 What mindset shift did you have to make to stop thinking about your business as your baby and thinking about your business as someone else is gonna want this?

12:05 Sure. Yeah, well, you have to decide up front or pretty quickly, is it a lifestyle business? Or is it a lifestyle business, meaning it's just going to afford you a certain income? Or is it an equity play? Is it something that you want to get acquired? Typically, businesses that are tough to start up, like need some investment, SaaS companies, for example, they kind of tilt that because you need other people to participate in them. And yeah, your original investors are not going to be super happy if you decide that you're happy with the income and no thanks, I'm never selling. So you need to kind of know upfront that you're building something as an equitable asset versus a lifestyle business. Services business struggle even more with this. Building a business that is worth selling as a services company is even more so to be totally clear. Like you might not take that much distribution like profit into your own possession and reinvest it so you can acquire more talent faster, train your folks. These are the kinds of things we do because we don't think of ourselves as a lifestyle business. We're building an equitable asset of skills and of people.

13:31 I love it. I love it. And as you're building your company, the advice you might give to other people in, in building their company is probably the same thing, right? Like decide, is this a lifestyle thing or is this something I actually want to exit from? You know, how do you, how do you make that up? How do you, how do you make that decision when all you're thinking about is, I just launched for finally making money. And that's all they can think about.

13:57 I think it goes back to setting those goals appropriately. Even if it's some kind of horizontal goal, if your goal is to sell your company in five years, you make very different decisions, then I'm going to own a services company forever. And a lot of people just don't think about it. They're so busy in that build stage, like you mentioned, that they're just not thinking of, OK, what is the clarity around the outcome? And that's one of the things I just love helping people with. Like, what do you really want to achieve? And clarity is like a key driver for me. If you get clear all of a sudden, and you really know what your intention is, then the mechanisms come. And I just find a lot of people are so interested in the do, then they don't really figure out, well, who do I want to be? Like, what do I really, you know, and it's kind of this be versus do philosophy that we see.

14:53 I love it, I love it. Be versus do. And it's true, when you know what your outcome is going to be, it's a lot easier to work towards that outcome as opposed to, I just wanna launch and now I'm here, I don't really know what I'm doing. You know what I mean? But...

15:09 Yeah, 100%. The mechanism will come as long as you're really clear on what the intention is.

15:15 I love it. Now in your particular brand though, Particle 41, as you come in and you help people kind of understand and ideate what they might need to have in place for an exit, how long does that conversation go and what are the common issues that you see companies have when they say, yeah, I would love to exit at some point, but technically they're just really not even close. What does that conversation look like for you?

15:43 Well, so a lot of that will, so we have marketers we'd love to work with. We'll, and over the years I've had to pick up some, some tips and tricks. Most of that is driven on not knowing who their primary customer is that kind of product marketing. Who is this tool for? What am I building towards? Who's that avatar? what are those essential? Like, do I know that person? Do I know, their demographics? Do I know where they work? What title they have in the company and getting really clear on that tends to shed a lot of light on why we're not acquiring. The other thing I see people do is they love to talk about themselves rather than talk directly to that person. So their website will use a lot of we language and our services or we do this and that will always miss, but rather saying, hey, we solve this problem for you and you may need these other things or you may be experiencing these problems, a problem statement cell is always way more powerful than a, hey, we do this stuff and then you're mapping your problems to that. And so that's been something that's been like a critical pivot to making sure that they see, we do have a solution for these specific types of people. And now we're talking directly to those types of people. Then sales starts to move, measuring lead volume, lead to conversion rate, and starting to systematize the pipeline, then people start to see, okay, now I think I have a business here because I know who I'm reaching, I know how to reach them. And until that really gets dialed in, it feels very unstable as it should.

17:28 I love it. It is unstable because you don't know. I was recently at a workshop where we were talking with a group of business owners and we started nailing down like, who is your avatar? Who's your ideal client persona that you're looking for? And in multiple cases, I felt bad. In multiple cases, these were five to 10 year veteran entrepreneurs. They were missing their avatar. They were literally targeting the wrong people. And then on top of that, then they didn't have the right software to track who it was they were targeting and how they entered their funnel and how they became a part of their business to begin with. They just assumed everything was coming from a few referral partners when in all actuality they were getting different leads from different sources. They didn't even realize it. Do you see that a lot?

18:18 That's right. Yeah, for sure. We see people usually have successful businesses because they have good referral. Even in my business, I wouldn't be here where I am today without just good. I did good work for one client. They told they told that story to another client. Referrals a great way. Partnerships are another good way. And so you figure that out. Then now, OK, now we want to go out and expose our brand to the world. This is a unique set of muscles for folks. And there's tons of marketers out there that talk a good game, will gladly take a check, but don't necessarily know any more than you do, or are going to use a bunch of kind of misguided approaches. I've worked with some top tier marketers that give me the same we our language that doesn't work. So, you know, it is a little bit risky. And so finally, I've narrowed it down to like a handful of great folks that I like to work with. And while we're not the marketers, in our CTO advisory, we point you to people who can start to give you clarity around how you're exposing your product to market.

19:28 I love it. I love it. So as you've grown Particle 41, what's something that, a big challenge that maybe you hit that you didn't, you didn't really realize you'd hit as you were trying to grow and scale this business?

19:42 I think there's, there's two ways to acquire top tier talent, two ways to do, like to have amazing experts on your team. And that's to manufacture and that's to hire, hiring out for the top tier talent is always going to be trouble. So we have really dug into how to manufacture. I mean, we, generally want to be the Navy SEAL team, the special operations, team for software development. We are consultants, not just hands that know how to hit the keyboard, just right to produce good code. We want to really see that holistic picture. And now 10 years in, we've been there, we've seen some stuff, we got the scar tissue, we know how to go in to the critical situation, fix the slow, and if need be, get out without any casualties. And so we really talk internally a lot about that special operations metaphor. And, you know, one, one little anecdote I'll give you there is if you're in the regular army, you know how to pass your PT test, you know, the minimum standard when you're in the special forces, you have no idea what those minimum standards are. You just care about, okay, what is it going to take to accomplish the mission? And so that cultural shift and the manufacturing of talent has been a labor of love for us in how we go from taking folks that are really good technologists but turn them into special operations consultants.

21:23 I love it, I love it. That's awesome. And I would imagine that when you add a CTO into a team who understands those principles and understands the philosophy that you're talking about, about being the special ops team as opposed to being that I'm just gonna do the minimum they're asking for, that is a big mindset shift in and of itself. And when they're training that CEO, this is how we operate and this is how we're coming in to help push growth in your company. It's gotta bring a lot of peace and comfort to them, right?

21:52 It does. And also to not feel like we have to build the perfect system. If it's an MVP that is the mission, it's the MVP that's the mission. So having the right vision for like what stage appropriate for the company, we've recovered a couple of projects where the internal team, the W2 employees inside the company, we're targeting something far beyond what the business was actually asking for. And it was slipping dates, it was moving. And just to say, you're building a spaceship when you're just trying to drive to Oklahoma. And to nail that quickly, that built a lot of trust really quickly.

22:32 No doubt about it, no doubt about it. Well, listen, I know that you, as well as many people listening, try to grow their business and it feels awfully lonely when you're the CEO. Even when you have a partner, sometimes it feels lonely. Like you can't really lean on anybody to get you past some of the growth stages you're dealing with. Is there someone that you find yourself leaning on or a group of people that you lean into that help you kind of recalibrate and move your business forward.

23:05 I am doubled and tripled up on this kind of thing. I feel like if there's any investment I can make for making good decisions and improving me, then I can be not just me, but me and my team. That can be a force multiplier. So, for sure, for myself personally, I'm a member of Rise Up Kings. Rise Up Kings is an event based company with a mastermind component. I also have an amazing CEO coach through Rise Up Kings, guy named Jeremy McWilliams, former Green Beret by the way, so that'll make some sense as to why we talk about special operations culture. That's right. But he is a top tier and that's been really pivotal for our culture and for my own development. Rise Up Kings is aligned with my faith, so faith, family, fitness, finance. And so I've gotten a bunch of support there. They also have Rise Up Queens, which my wife is a part of. So it's just really been a great support system. All business owners, all entrepreneurs, it's just been really awesome to be a part of that group and then also start mentoring in that group and just being a part of that ecosystem. And I told you I was doubled up. So I'm also in one called Collective 54. Greg Alexander is the leader there. And that's all service company CEOs and service company CEOs and those kind of folks. The great thing there is I say, Hey, I want to talk to a service company that's bigger than 120 people within a week. I'm on the phone with a couple of CEOs from 340, 250 people. And I'm asking them, hey, how did you deal with certain things? And they are giving me the playbook. I mean, they're just being very open and sharing. I'm in a forum board with them. So yeah, I'm doubled up when I can talk to like minded folks that are solving similar problems. That to me is a is kind of like a priceless investment. And it just so happens to be that they're very very nicely priced. It's totally worth it. It's a write -off to me. But now I think it's just a cost of doing business to run decisions through that filter. 

25:30 Right off with a huge ROI. Huge ROI on that. I love it. 

25:31 Absolutely.

25:33 Dude, Ben, I can't appreciate you more for saying that because I'm a huge advocate of people finding a peer group, especially on the CEO level, who can help kind of bounce ideas off of you in an active environment with active CEOs. It's just different than a consultant who's a has -been, and maybe they're a great guy or girl, but They haven't operated a business in 15 years. They don't even know what COVID did to our businesses. They don't know a lot of the environmental things that we're dealing with. So I appreciate you saying what you did. That's awesome.

26:07 Yeah, I think the takeaway here is that they're not giving me advice. The folks that I like to talk to are not giving me advice. They're sharing their experience. And there's something very powerful about that. I think it's called the Gestalt Principle. And Gestalt is all about sharing experience. Nobody wants to be should on. And CEOs especially don't want to be should on. I don't like it when people tell me what I should do. I like it when they say, hey, this is what I did and this is what I learned from it. And in that, I get a lot of advice, but it's more of their shared experience. It's just so much more credible to me than I also find when you're instinct is to give advice, you don't ask all the right questions before you give it. And that takes time. To give advice should be the result of lots of research. Lots of research comes in, the advice comes out, and we as humans just typically don't have that patience to take in all the information to give the advice. So I love shared experience. It's how I learn best. And then I've also tried to learn how to communicate in that way as well.

27:17 Fantastic. Ben, I appreciate you so much for being on the show with us today. This has been a really valuable conversation and I know those of you listening, if you want to hear more, you want to learn about these organizations that Ben's talking about, his contact info is in the show notes. Feel free to reach out and understand what he's up to. I highly recommend, I can't emphasize it enough, that if you have a growing business right now and your tech stack is a little squampus, It is so worth it to find someone like Ben, find Ben himself, but reach out and see what they can do to help you analyze, assess, and see what's going on with your tech stack because if the tech stack's broken and clients are getting lost all the way through your portal, your funnel, you're just not converting. You may have a business 10 times the size you are right now and you're just losing it somewhere along the way. So Ben, thank you so much for being here. And for the rest of you, we can't wait to catch up with you on the next one. Thanks so much, Ben.

28:18 Thanks Todd.

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