Sitting At The Precipice Of Digital Transformation With Bryan Kramer
Change can be scary, but it also marks great transformation. Bryan Kramer has sat in the precipice of the changes that happened all around us and that is continuing to make a difference in our lives. Growing up in Silicon Valley before anyone knew it existed, Bryan has seen the exciting and revolutionary changes brought by technology. In this episode, he joins Tony Martignetti to tell us about his journey alongside the changes not only happening in the world but also in his life. Now, Bryan is a renowned business strategist, the CEO of H2H Companies, and the “Zen Master to Digital Marketers” as called by Forbes. He takes us through his life’s flashpoints, reflecting on the endless possibilities back then which, profoundly, remain true today. Tune in and gain insights on leadership, marketing, quality of life, and more as you navigate this ever-evolving landscape of digital transformation.
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Sitting At The Precipice Of Digital Transformation With Bryan Kramer
It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Bryan Kramer, called the Zen Master to Digital Marketers by Forbes. Bryan is a renowned business strategist, global keynote speaker, executive trainer, investor, and two-time bestselling author, including a top 150 USA bestselling book and Forbes contributor. Bryan also created a global movement and is known for his keynotes, books, and talks on There Is No B2B or B2C: It's Human to Human #H2H. I love that.
He is the CEO of H2H™ Companies, an executive coaching company, and co-owner of PureMatter, a Silicon Valley marketing agency founded in 2001, which earned a spot as one of the fastest-growing companies three years in a row by Silicon Valley Business Journal. He lives in San Jose with his dog, Jesse, and two kids. One of his kids is heading off to college shortly. He's soon to be moving to Portugal. Bryan, it is truly an honor to welcome you to the show.
That is a wonderful introduction. Thank you. I would be remiss if I didn't also include that I've been married to the love of my life for many years. In case she's reading, you're included too.
That's brilliant. I'm so thrilled to have you on. I love your energy, the way you show up in the world, and the impact you have, but most of all, I want to explore the journey that got you to this place in your life where you are making an impact on so many lives. What we're going to do in the show is sit by the virtual campfire and explore the flashpoints in your life or the points in your journey that have ignited your gifts. You can start wherever you would like and share what you're called to share. What I want you to do is pause along the way as you're sharing, and we will see what themes are showing up. With that, are you ready?
We have been dancing so much around a friendship for so long online. This is incredible to sit here and do this with you. Thank you. I am ready.
Take it away, my friend.
I can start back as early as you want to go. I was born and raised in San Jose. You said that I was moving to Portugal, which is true. My biggest flashpoint is being here when no one knew this place existed, which is now called Silicon Valley. When I was a kid, I remember riding the orchards with my bike in little dirt paths with my friends across the street who raised chickens on their chicken farm that was as far as the eye could see. Now, it's a McDonald's. This place has been an incredible place to grow up. It changed over time as everyone in the world knows with all the technology companies.
Not every one of them but most of the big ones have landed here in one way or another and created a whole new dynamic for what this place now has become, which is both good and challenging at the same time. It's made some positive impacts. In my life, it was a place where you rode your bike to your friend's house, and there was no issue. We said goodbye to our parents in the morning and saw them at night. It was like living in a small town in the Midwest almost. That's no longer the case. It's not like that, but it has its incredible points in life.
I had such an amazing upbringing here, going to elementary school through high school and then finally taking off to go to school in Arizona. I came back because it was the heart of the dot-com. It was the very beginning, and that's where my life took off. I owe San Jose not only my upbringing but also the start of my career and everything that happened. It's nostalgic. You hit me right at the moment of this interview when I'm taking off not just to go to school but to live out of a place that I have such a tie to in my life and has seen so many changes.
You said the word right there. Change has been something that you've been seeing throughout your life at this point even though it seems like you haven't gone very far geographically, but you have sat here on the precipice of the change that's happened all around you. You've had to deal with it, but it's also not letting it take a place where this is a bad thing. It's neither good nor bad. It just is. You're allowing it to be part of your life.
It's one of those things where the change was exciting. The speed at which this place changed was exciting. It was exciting for everybody to watch. VCs and technology companies swooped in. Everyone got excited, including myself, about the first computer being born here. I was right there with one of my first bulletin board systems with the first Mac computer my dad bought. I was sitting there and waiting for one person to dial up into my bulletin board system, and they did. I jumped for joy to hear not only that ringtone that sounded like a screeching happened but also for them to say, "Hello, is anyone there?"
Now, that's table stakes to tweet people, but back then, it was like, "Somebody dialed into my personal internet, and now we're talking." I had three features in this thing. That to me was the most exciting thing that happened in my technological career, which is ironic because I went on to do transformation as my career, but it set me on a path. Things were changing. Technology was at the precipice of what was coming. The computer is changing everything. The computer is table stakes. The internet and AI are where it's at, but back then, that was such a joy to see and to be there alongside it.
I remember showing my grandpa my Speak & Spell. It was Texas Instruments. He was an accountant. He took me into his office and showed me his calculator. It was Texas Instruments, but then he was so overwhelmed with the fact that the Speak & Spell talked back to you. It mirrored what would become AI. You look at it, and that's online chat. That's a bot. This place has so much nostalgia for me in all those ways.
I can imagine that we're going to be in this place a few years from now thinking, "Do you remember when ChatGPT first started and how far we have come from there?" It's these moments where we're in awe initially, "This happened," and the possibilities that come from here, realizing that we're touching the surface, and there's so much more to be had. That's an amazing thing when you think about those moments. I remember having a Speak & Spell when I was a kid too and this sense of, "This is neat." Now, I think of that as, "I know how that works, and I could probably build one myself."
That little computer probably had one megabyte of space. I know for a fact that my Mac had four megabytes. You think about how now memory is endless. It's profound when you think about that. We get caught up now with thinking, "Where is it going to go?" We thought those same things then. We had those same fears, "The computers are going to take over one day." Here we are still thinking the same thing in a different way. It was as profound back then with the endless possibilities as it is now.
I want to ask you some more questions about your journey. You reminded me of this obscure movie, which no one probably remembers. It was when AC/DC did this song, Who Made Who. It was based on a movie called Maximum Overdrive, which was from the '80s. It was about computers taking over the world. You're going to have to check out that movie.
How ironic. It's a good band at that. That's a nice callback.
Let's go back into your journey because we have to take you from this place. Here you are enamored with these amazing technological advances, but we have to put the human back in this. That's where you end up. Tell me what happens next along your journey as you move back to San Jose. You're working in the tech world. Tell me what happened next.
When I moved back to San Jose, I moved back knowing that I had a job. It's ironic because when I got back to San Jose, I was starting an ad agency. I worked most of my career in marketing and advertising. My degree is in marketing, communications, and public relations with a minor in Japanese because I thought I was going to go into international studies, which didn't work out, but I still loved it.
In college, there was this little moment that defined how my entire career was going to go. It happened to me on a jazz test on the history of jazz. I was writing a paper on Dizzy Gillespie. This was when the internet was starting, which tells you how old I am. I started to use sources on the internet as my way of showing where I got the information. When I went back to get my paper from the professor, it said that I had received an F on the paper. I wasn't a straight-A student but I wasn't an F student.
I asked him why, and he said it was because my source was not there. As long as I delivered a new source or a source that showed where I got the information, he would reverse the grade. I went back to my dorm room. He's right. The source was gone, which tells you how often webpages were up at that point. They were fleeting. People put stuff up that was random to put it up.
I ended up going to the bookstore. I bought books on HTML that day at the bookstore, went back, figured out how to program my webpage, rewrote the page, and submitted the link. He reversed my grade. Looking back, I don't know if it was legal, or how you might look at that, but it was enough that I got a good grade. I was happy with that. I was like, "This HTML stuff is neat. It's not what I went to school for, but this could open up the world."
I started telling people what I had done in building the webpage. I could do one for them, and they started paying me for it. I got enamored with how we could communicate digitally through words. That's what I got hired to do outside of college. My job was to help traditional agencies to transform digitally. I would work with their graphic designers and all the account executives to figure out how to make webpages at what would have been a traditional company.
It's weird because I went to school for marketing communications and speech. I completely got to the point where I was overwhelmed. I was like, "Who am I? I'm this kid teaching these agencies to do this thing that has never happened yet." I faked my way through it at the time in terms of helping people to understand this thing that nobody understood, but I had fun doing it.
At that age, I was much better at faking it and seeing the excitement and the joy of it, and I would figure it out, "Give something. I'll figure it out." It worked. I loved what I did. I loved what I was teaching the agencies to do. I ended up starting an agency within a company when I was 25. That only happened here. My previous boss gave me a job to start building websites within the company. It grew from 3 people to 77 people and became one of the biggest digital agencies in Silicon Valley under somebody else's P&L, which was the best part. I didn't have to run any of it.
I had no clue what I was doing. I had no idea how to be a manager and how to lead. If there was something to have done wrong, I did it wrong. I failed fast, and I failed a lot. It was a wonderful time to learn on somebody else's dime. I have such gratitude for that time. At the same time, I look back, and I'm like, "You did not know what you were doing."
I want to pause there because what you shared is gold. It's hard to leap out, do something completely on your own, and expect to be an expert at it. It's nice to be able to be in the comfort inside of an organization to have the chance to play around with stuff and not feel like you're going to go broke in the process of trying to experiment on new things.
That's one aspect of what you shared, but there's another thing about what you shared that is interesting. Even in this day and age, where is the puck going? How can you find the thing that excites you about where the puck is going and become good at that? Even though a new person who's coming into these fields may think, "It's all been said and done," there might be something there where you could get good at it, and someone says, "We need an expert in X, Y, and Z," and you're that person.
Part of what made that possible was being good at selling. I've always been good at sales. That was the critical skill needed. It wasn't seeing the puck. The internet was the internet. It was going to happen whether I did it or not be excited about the fact that it was happening, but the thing that I'm still good at is believing in the possibility that this thing is going to explode, whatever the thing is that we're talking about, seeing where the opportunity is in what we're talking about or doing, and then being confident that I can be the one to deliver that thing, "I will make that happen, and you can trust me."
I've been always excited about tinkering and making things happen. Whatever you're doing, be good at not just sales. Believe in the fact that in some fashion, this thing can happen. If you can believe it, they will believe it. That's what got me through to building things. I didn't necessarily know where the puck was going, but I knew that if it could be possible, then I was going to be the one to deliver it. Anybody can do that in any place. Believe that you are the one to deliver it.
Whatever you're doing, be good at sales because if you can, others will believe it too.
One of the things that I'm building off of here is not sales. It's more that inner confidence or the ability to say, "I believe in myself. I believe that I can do this. Even though this is new, and maybe not everyone is on board yet, I have this sense that if it's going to be possible, I'm going to be the one who's going to be able to deliver it. If I fail, I'm going to fail, not by holding myself back and saying I'll wait for someone else to go first."
Somebody is going to always beat you to it. I've noticed that if you're waiting to write that book, two years from now, somebody is going to come out with it, but there's always a chance because while everything you think has been written, you haven't written your book. Your book is your view of the world, and your view of the world will always be different than what their view is.
There is somebody who is going to always beat you to it if you wait.
The other thing is being the first person to say it, release it, or come up with that technology. It's proven that you don't want to be. Apple is notorious for not being the first to invent anything. When you look at everything that they have done minus Newton, which didn't work, they aren't the first to invent a computer or a tablet. The iPhone is a PalmPilot with cell coverage. Everything has been escalated from something that someone else has done. They perfected it better. Our job is to perfect it better.
It's a great insight. I love that you shared that because it's not about necessarily being first. Maybe it's about continuing to stay in tune with what's going on and then having the confidence to be the fast follower or the person who can say, "I had the confidence to move this forward." It's cool. Tell me what happens next. You moved into this world of digital marketing and stayed in this space. Where did your career morph from there? You've done so many interesting things in your path.
The entire company got acquired, not my piece. I met my girlfriend then in Washington, DC at an advertising conference in the bar after the conference. I could say I met her at a bar, but it was at a conference. That's a whole other story. We ended up hitting it off notoriously over movies. We talked about all the comedy movies. She was in advertising. I was in advertising. We were both incoming. She was the incoming President. I was the incoming Vice President of our club. We dated for two years.
That was at the time when I was still running that company. When they sold it, she ended up moving to San Jose. We got engaged. The company had been sold. I didn't want to stay at the company I was at. The mystique was gone. In 2001, we started our marketing branding agency, got married, and then had a child all within two years. It was either a bad decision or a good decision. I can tell you now it's a good decision, but that was a lottery ticket, or at least it was a lot to throw at a two-year period.
We went through starting the agency using every skill that we both had learned, mine from learning on somebody else's P&L and having all these great experiences before then, and her having run her graphic design company. We hit it off. We did it well. We both had these unique skills that we brought to the table that were the perfect match for building and running a company and a life together. We never fought at work. At home, it's a different story. In picking up the kids or life stuff, that was not the case, but at work, we got along. We had our place in terms of understanding what we were both good at and leaving it up to the other person to do what the other person was good at.
Locally, we started with construction companies and accounting firms. You name it. Local companies were what we focused on and then insurance. We got a big break with a technology company that was equal to what Google Analytics called Coremetrics. Another company too is Tealeaf. All these companies were on the precipice of what's now business analytics.
We got hired to do massive global marketing for these companies. It's this small graphic design digital agency of 5 to 10 people doing this big, great work. We hit it off with people and built relationships. That started to build our presence. Before we knew it, we were at 30 people running for Netflix, MasterCard, Cisco, and IBM. It was the who's who. It was the most stressful thing I've ever encountered because I was still 30 to 35 doing all this stuff.
I haven't even learned the traits of leadership yet or how to build an HR system or operations and all these little nuances, but here I was telling people, "We are going to do this. Here's where we're going to go." They believed. We did it. We went through some high highs and some low lows. I learned even more there doing that. It was an incredible ride.
My brain is exploding from all the things you shared because it's powerful. First of all, building a company together with your spouse is insane in terms of the potential challenges that you might face. It worked well. That's amazing that you did that because oftentimes, it's not an easy trip. You're not getting into the nitty-gritty, but what you built is incredible, and also this sense of learning to be a leader by going through the experience, trying to figure out what works, and getting to know the people for who they are.
It was neat. The thing that made a difference for me was the focus on systems, processes, and structures. Early on, that was important to me that we built something that we didn't have to rely on and that the system built itself, especially as a marketing firm because everything lives outside of the box when you're a creative agency. I felt like we needed to have an in-the-box structure to play well out of the box.
If anybody is starting a company, and you don't bring in operations as your number one upfront thing, how are you going to organize yourself? I always used to say, "If we get on the highway, and we need to move lanes quickly, in the marketing space now, it's almost going to happen every two years." We went from being a brand agency to a web digital agency, an influencer agency, a social agency, a social influencer digital marketing communications agency, and a demand gen agency.
Every two years, we had to reinvent who we were, but the system or the structure stayed the same. It was the offering that changed. How we got the work done was the same. We had to keep hiring and coming up with better processes for how we were going to hire and hire the right people and get them in. We have made some mistakes and hired the wrong people too.
For me, the key to the whole thing was investing in operations and creating that constant and never-ending structure that was going to support us and deal with people and bad days. Life happens. We had a kid in the middle of all of it. I lost Courtney for almost 6 to 12 months or somewhere in there. How you move through it all and still be human is the key to the whole thing on top of operations.
What you're queuing in on, and this is something that I believe strongly in, is the sense that operations and systems allow us to create space to be more human, do the things that we need to do, and react to change because change will happen all the time, but if we don't have a system in place, then we have nothing to build from. It becomes chaotic without that. What you're sharing is brilliant. When you started to talk about the shifts that your company went through in the different types of marketing, it made me think about your book, Human to Human. I would love to get your thoughts about what is the key message of your book, particularly around how have the interactions that we have in terms of marketing to people changed.
We have been talking about Human to Human for years inside our agency and designing for the human experience or the human on the other end. The thing that changed and the reason why I now believe that it resonated so loudly was that when social media came on the scene, it changed the way that we communicate globally with each other and allowed people to have a voice. We never had that before. That was the first time that companies had to deal with a customer's voice. It used to be radio, TV, and newspaper. It was a one-way communication piece.
All of a sudden, somebody says their pizza was cold or didn't arrive on time. They're going to take to social media and say, "You did a bad job," and the company has to deal with it. That was not that long ago. That was years ago when people had this new way of speaking it. That's why Human to Human became so important because now, we have to communicate in new ways publicly and understand what that governance looks like for not just a company but also our personal brands. It's this new thing that we had to pay attention to. Our kids have to pay attention to it even more so.
That's why it rang so loudly. It was in 2014 that I gave a keynote at Bloomberg. I was standing on stage, and I had a mix of CMOs and marketing executives. The keynote wasn't directly focused on it, but it was a slide in the deck, and it had almost what became the cover of the book. People took a picture of it. The emcee asked me to go back a slide. They took a picture on this slide of me doing this weird stance that I did in front of the slide. That became a shareable piece on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook at the time. It went viral. It got over 24 million impressions in 24 hours. People gravitated toward the concept.
I had been speaking for a while, but it helped. It was also the right time and right place. I believe that it happened for me, not to me because at that point, I was working hard to try and create more resonance on the topic. That changed my trajectory. I started speaking more. We wrote the literal book four days later after that. I had been writing about it for two years, but we took all my blog posts. Courtney helped me edit it together into a book. We self-published it, got it out, and became an international bestseller almost immediately because of the need for it.
We rode the train. The book that I had been working on, which became my second book, Shareology, got put on the back burner for a year and a half. I rode that train. I started traveling 200 days a year speaking. It was another transformation in my life that was both good and bad. The bad part is traveling 200 days a year. The good part is being on hundreds of stages.
I love that you shared that because there's a sense that sometimes we become a prisoner to our success in a way. It feels good, but then at some point, we have to be careful to make sure that we're taking care of ourselves in the process of doing the things that we enjoy doing, but don't overdo it.
I overdid it so badly. There's nothing glorious about being in X-ray lines at airports and hotels alone. I put on massive amounts of weight. I became clinically and morbidly obese, as the doctors like to state it. It's okay because I love the food so much. The food is so good around the world. I ate and drank my way around the world. I knew every bar at every hotel and every airport. It was the calming effect of having to deal with all of it. One day, my doctor told me I got Type 2 diabetes because of it.
One day, my son who was eleven sat me down and said, "We haven't seen you. You're never at our school functions. You're missing my sister and my stuff. You're not going to get to meet your grandchildren. You're going to die before you get to meet them because you have diabetes, and you're not doing well." Here's this little eleven-year-old telling me this stuff. I'm like, "What did I do? I'm missing my kids and my family life." I came back from another trip and said to my wife, "That's it. We're done, not us, we're good. I need to exit everything."
We took six months, and I exited the agency. I stopped speaking for a year. I took a year off. I ended up correcting most of it, not the alcohol unfortunately but everything else. I lost diabetes. I lost 85 pounds. I picked my kids up from school and dropped them off every day. I got most of my life back, and it became a much better place. That was years ago.
This is an amazing story. I'm so grateful that you were able to get on the right path. This is the path that so many of us go on. We think, "This is where success is leading me. I should continue to harness that," but the reality is we need to be careful of aligning with what our true values are, including health because if we're not healthy or we're not taking care of our health, we won't be around to enjoy this success. You're a living testament to that.
You nailed it. We're nothing without our quality of life. That's super important. I proved to myself that being the hardest worker in the room isn't going to get you the thing that you think you need. It's going to get you more money, informal fame, and more of all the material stuff, but it's not going to get you the thing that you're chasing, which is time. You lose time. It's what I learned.
I don't remember a lot of days in that period of my life. I missed out on a lot. The good news is I got it back. I got it in time so that I could get some time back with my family. It's a choice that we make. You look at people like Elon Musk and the obscene hours. It's a choice that he makes. It's a choice that all those people make. It's not to say that it's not achievable. It's a choice of whether we want to do it. I know plenty of executives and have coached plenty of executives now. You can have both. You can have everything. You can have work and your quality of life. We don't have to work that hard to get it all.
I love that you share this because that's a message that I share with a lot of people as well. It's a sense of prioritizing what's important but also making sure you do it in a way you can balance it out and figure it out. I hate to overdo the whole work-life balance because I know people hate that word, but you figure out how to make it work for you on your terms. I have so many questions to ask you. I'm going to ask you one quick question that I'm dying to ask. What is a lesson you've learned about yourself that you haven't already shared about your journey?
The biggest thing that I learned, and this came through sobriety, is that we have to let go of the things that we think are going to drive us or the clutches of our lives. As we get older, I believe that there are things that we start to believe determine our success or failures into success. We start to believe our bullcrap. It creates such a whirlwind or a swell of something that doesn't serve us. We make it up that it's true, but it's not true. We can create things in our lives that take us in a much better direction simply by letting go. To do that, we have to focus on three different areas.
We can create things in our lives that really take us in a much better direction simply by letting go.
One is simplifying our life. We have to simplify, not make it more complex, and not fill it with more but fill it with less. Number two is empathy. We have to create more empathy for ourselves and others. We're going into a world where empathy is starting to lose its legs. Creating more empathy allows us to let go more of how we want to be in the world for ourselves and others.
The third one is imperfection. You look at and scroll through Instagram or Facebook, and everyone's got these perfect lives. It's so not true. It's going to get worse. This idea of perfection creates such a disassociated feeling for us because we feel like we're not being perfect, but everyone else is. That's not true. We have to embrace imperfection. When we celebrate those three things, we're able to let go and enjoy our lives way more.
I love what you shared. It's a masterclass right here. Thank you. I have one last question. The last question I have for you is a question I ask every guest. What are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you? Why? I can't wait to hear what you have to say.
First and foremost, here's the top book. Run out, get it, listen to it, and make it your Bible or your absolute. I know I'm playing it up. Get The Untethered Soul. It is the absolute best book. If you listen to it once, I would be surprised. Listen to the first chapter, and you're off and running. It's that good. I love the audio because I love walking and listening to it. It's that book. Every time you read it or listen to it, you hear something new. I don't know how they channeled the book and came up with the words. It will speak to you from a psychological perspective on how to be in this world and a company.
The second one is The Gap and The Gain. That one is much simpler in concept, but we all tend to sometimes move to the gap instead of the gain. If we could live in the gain and understand that this is happening for us, not to us, this is an important piece. Here's why, and here's what we're going to do with it. Everything happens for a reason. It sounds simple, but it's not because our brains tend to go to the saboteur and say, "You're not good enough. You're not doing enough. You're not doing this." What I love about this book is it moves you to the gain. What did happen that made this worth it? How are you going to move forward so that you can create more of that? It's a great book.
I love both of those books. The Untethered Soul should be the unofficial book of my show because it has been recommended more times than I can count. It's a brilliant book. The concept of The Gap and The Gain is so brilliant. I'm a big believer in it. I'm grateful for everything you shared. This has been a powerful episode. I want to thank you so much for spending some time with me on this show.
Thank you. I appreciate it, Tony. It's always nice to have a human conversation with another person rather than a scripted one. Thank you so much.
Before I can let you go, I have to share with everyone else where they can find out more about you. They have to buy your books because your books are brilliant. Tell me where's the best place to find you.
It's super easy. Go to BryanKramer.com. All my stuff is there like my newsletter, my books, and my weekly article or blog. All my social accounts are @BryanKramer. Anywhere you hit me up, I will reply human to human because that would be not good if I didn't hit reply, and here is the H2H guy. Anytime somebody wants to reach out, I'm more than honored to hit that reply button.
I can't thank you enough. Thank you so much for coming on the journey. You're leaving feeling so connected to the idea of how to be more human in the world and also how to connect with your brilliance of how to show up in the world. Thank you, everyone. That's a wrap.
- There Is No B2B or B2C: It's Human to Human #H2H
- H2H™ Companies
- The Untethered Soul
- The Gap and The Gain
- @BryanKramer - Twitter
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