Home Automation Podcast Episode #156: An Industry Q&A With Ron Callis
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Ron Callis, CEO at One Firefly shares ways the structure and process of EOS helped One Firefly prepare for the challenges that came with COVID-19.
This week's home automation podcast features our host Chris Smith interviewing Ron Callis. Recorded live on Wednesday, February 3rd at 12:30 p.m. EST.
About Ron Callis
Ron got his start in the Custom Integration industry back in 2000, after graduating from VA Tech with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and starting his career with Lutron Electronics. He also spent time at Crestron Electronics before he started Firefly Design Group in 2007.
In 2012 the company rebranded and became the company everyone knows today as One Firefly. One Firefly is an Inc. 5000 company and award-winning marketing agency serving residential and commercial technology professionals.
- How Ron found his way into the custom integration industry
- Ron’s unique experience being part of a human-powered submarine team while a student at Virginia Tech
- The One Firefly company culture and how they were able to shift to a fully remote company in 2016
- Ways the structure and process of EOS helped One Firefly prepare for the challenges that came with COVID-19
Chris: Welcome, everybody, to episode 156 of Automation Unplugged. I am Chris Smith. I'll be your host today. If you see me and expect to see Ron Callis, you've come to the wrong show now. Just kidding. You'll see Ron Callis as a guest rather than the host today. And we're excited to have Ron as a guest joining us. For those that don't know me, I'm Chris Smith with The CoTeam. We help businesses with coaching, consulting, and collaboration, help them solve problems and achieve operational excellence. Ron and I have known each other for a number of years. I don't know that everyone knows Ron deeply beyond his professional presence with One Firefly. Still, there's a lot that he does that I think is valuable to business owners as a whole and business owners in our industry. And it was my pleasure to ask him about his history, his activities at One Firefly, and how he brings technology, people, and culture to the forefront. I'd like to welcome Ron Callis to the stage. Ron.
Ron: Hey, Chris, how are you, buddy?
Chris: I'm doing really well. Thanks for joining me today. Hey, man, thanks for, I guess, trying out this fun experiment. And I couldn't think of a better person than you. So thanks for coming on and hosting. I'm really excited about it. We'll be taking your comments live from Facebook. If there's something you like to ask, feel free along the way. If there are questions you'd like to pepper Ron with, let me know. I also asked Ron's employees to send me their list of questions. One Firefly's employees, if you are on Facebook, go ahead and let us know what your questions are. If you're not, you have no reciprocity issues or retribution issues. This should be interesting. Allison Rosa, an employee, says, "Our fearless leader, pumped for the show." Thanks, Allison. I really appreciate it.
We're going to dive right in. I mentioned in the lead-in here that I have immense respect for Ron. You may know about his business may be a single portion of what you know about him today, but his history in this industry is quite long and very multifaceted. The other aspect that most people may not know about Ron is how passionate he is about his business culture at One Firefly, using how he has technology and people blended to help facilitate that culture. And I hope we pull that out of today's show. If you have questions along the way on those topics, please let us know, and we'll be happy to read them and throw them up onto the show. Ron, you ready to get started?
Ron: Man, I am at your disposal, and I'm excited to be here. And let's have some fun.
Chris: Excellent. Well, the first thing I need to tell you is you didn't make me rich, but you definitely made me some money. I made a 50 percent return on investing in Coinbase, which is a crypto app. First, I have to say thank you. But I wanted to ask, how did you really get started in crypto, and what do you think is going on these days?
Ron: Yeah, no, I appreciate that. Yeah, you're going right at one of my favorite hobbies, and back in the mania of 2017, and if there's anyone here that follows cryptocurrencies or Bitcoin and Ethereum and all that jazz, they'll know that there was a bit of hysteria in 2017. I had many friends in my orbit who had been telling me about it since maybe 2012 or 2013, and oh my goodness, I wish I had listened to them, then I would be a very wealthy individual. But I didn't. I resisted, and I thought it was a bunch of hocus pocus and weird stuff. But I finally bit into the apple around Thanksgiving of 2017. Of course, it went up big, and then it flopped. But I was hooked on its science, the economics, the macroeconomics, the economic theory of what Bitcoin stood for. And so I just picked it up as a hobby.
I listen to a bunch of podcasts, and I read a bunch of content. By the way, I never figured out really what Twitter would mean for me in my life until I figured that there's this whole crypto universe on Twitter of thought leaders that share ideas. I'm an active Twitter user, a voyeur, I guess you could say, but I only really follow Twitter crypto stuff. And I just I believe that there's something to it. And I know a bunch of people look at me funny and sideways, and they think I'm a wacko because of it. I'm not a trader. I don't trade stocks. I don't trade crypto. I just dollar cost average in really meager amounts. I tell you what; those meager amounts have done pretty well. And for the few folks who have listened not to my advice, because I don't give any financial advice ever, they have listened maybe to some of the passion I have around it. There's plenty of folks that have made some dollars along the way, including some of my staff on occasion who asked me about it. I'm very mindful not to push my hobbies on anyone. But I think it's interesting, and I think anyone listening owes it to themselves to pay attention to blockchain technology, to particular bitcoin, to a theory.
I think that it's going to become more and more a part of our life and our economy. It's really the digitization of money and currencies, the digitization and tokenization of assets globally. Everything I believe will be on the blockchain. Yeah, it's neat. It's a bit science fiction, but it seems to be more and more true every day. I'm glad you made a little money.
Chris: It is very real, and it was more than a little money. Thank you. And by the way, it didn't start as making money. It actually dipped way down. I think it might have dropped something like 70 percent when I threw some cash into it. So I rode that wave in as you did. I bought it down as it happened. And I thought it was just a fantastic thing to sit down and say, if you believe in it, give it a shot, it happened to be a little bit of play money, and away you go. It was really fun. I really like the app. It's great. Moving on from here, when you were a little kid, where did you grow up? What was your hometown USA for you?
Ron: Yeah, sure, I am from Southeast Virginia, often called Hampton Roads. I grew up there. I went to college in Virginia. And my whole universe before I graduated was in Virginia. I did very little traveling out of the state. It's funny. As a kid, I always thought I'm going to go to Disney World one day, and here I am. I live in Florida now. And I got Disney World down the street, and I really have no desire to go. Some of my staff are big Disney fans, and they're like, no, he didn't just say that. The idea of it might be better than the reality. I think the idea as a child was a little better than some of the reality, although the Star Wars park.
Chris: Universal Studios?
Ron: Now I'm trying to think. Goodness, someone help me out, someone that's watching. Where's the Star Wars stuff? That's pretty cool stuff. I love the Star Wars Park, but yeah, I grew up in southeast Virginia. I went to Virginia Tech, studied mechanical engineering, and interviewed out of college with Halliburton. That was an interview that I had, and when I was interviewing with Boeing and Lockheed for aerospace jobs, and I was interviewing, I had a buddy who was from Taiwan and wanted to go back to Taiwan. We drove to Washington, D.C. for a college fair, and he heard of a company called Lutron that was hiring for positions in Taiwan. And so he said, "Will you go to this D.C. fair with me to interview?" And I was like, "Yeah, let's go party in D.C. Sure, let's go. That'll be fun. And we'll stop by the fair." I went to the career fair and stood in line with him at lunch. I had no idea who or what Lutron was zero ideas. But I stood in line with him to keep him company. And I got interviewed, and I went right after him. And I was so fascinated by the interview process and the in-depth ness of the interview process that funny enough, I got the offer to work at Lutron, and he didn't. And it's that random chance of fate that I landed in the custom integration industry.
Chris: You might not have known who Lutron was at the time. And they're obviously a very technically oriented company. But you were technical long before that interview. I use this in a supportive and loving way. You were a nerd growing up. You were a nerd in high school, and you were a nerd in college about some of the stuff you were doing as a nerd in high school.
Ron: Yeah, I was a mean nerd. I was the nerd no one messed with. I was the science fair kid. Middle school through high school I grew up and I just loved science and engineering. I think that way anyone that knows me knows that I'm very methodical and or precise, that I just love science—passion for science and learning. But when I was a youth, I want to say in ninth grade; my science teacher selected me. He had heard of a NASA internship for high school students, and they could make a nomination for one student to go to the science program at NASA, which in southeast Virginia is in the city of Hampton. It was about 20 miles from where I went to school, and I applied for the internship and got accepted. And so, all four years of high school, I actually interned at NASA, and I and I went from NASA into college and actually worked for an aerospace R&D company. Eight years of aerospace experience. But along the way, I loved to compete in high school at science fairs. And because of my internship and knowing some influential people I was able to meet along the way.
I used to cut the grass and pull the weeds for a leading what I did not know, but was the head of Army Research at NASA Langley. This individual, his name was Wolf Elver, if you look him up, he's actually a very well known research scientist in the Army and at NASA, and he pointed me in some directions. He helped me meet at NASA, the Head of Research, the lead research scientist for NASA. His name is Dennis Bushnell. You guys can Google that. Dennis Bushnell used to invite me, the ninth grade and tenth grade and eleventh-grade science kid, into his office, and he's like a total NASA guy from the 60s polyester shirt and pants, pocket protector, slide rule pens, horn-rimmed glasses, and no, I am not that old. This would have been in the early 90s, and he and I would talk about science, and he taught me that you have to make science sexy if you're going to sell it. He's like, "Ron. Good science isn't enough." You have to sell it to the people who buy it or fund you. And he was teaching me from his role of trying to sell Earth and space science to legislators and in politics of how to get people to fund it. He helped teach me how to sell my science projects to my judges to not all I think my science was pretty good. It was neat. My ability to explain my science to the judges was the best in class.
Chris: One of my favorite statements I ever heard about marketing was from a CEO at a software company. He said, "Marketing isn't about telling people who you are or what you do. It's about telling them who you want them to think you are." Effectively, your first marketing lesson was about your science project from a NASA engineer, and then you ended up with a marketing company and coincidental.
Ron: And you know what? I never would have seen it coming. When I was a high school student, I joined DECA. I didn't even know DECA was. I sound rather uninformed, but I had a teacher, a coach, mentor take me under his wing. And he said, "You need to go into this class." And so I did the class and ended up competing against that competition element. And we went to the state competition in Virginia for me as a junior. And I was partnered with a senior student. Her name was Karen Hardman. And she and I went, and we won the state marketing competition. We had to design a marketing plan for a new restaurant concept. And that was my first exposure to true marketing, and what it was, I still didn't know what I didn't know. I still went down that path of engineering, went to college, and I just had this hunger, this burning desire to compete. My ability to compete and problem solve is far stronger than my pure academic capabilities. I'm an OK student. But I can compete with the best of them.
Chris: I'm going to talk to you about that competition in just a minute. I want to take a moment to say thanks, everybody, for all the flowing comments. Just a quick read through. I mean, you got Seth Benedictus over at Savant. Sean Schitz over at Audio Quest. Paul Bochner, a buddy and integrator friend over in New Jersey from Electronic Concepts. We got many people from One Firefly chiming in, you know, Wes, Makenzie, and others. Right. Just great people showing up to say hello and appreciative that you're here on the other side of this seat. You deserve that opportunity to get some kudos for that. Let's go back to your competition conversation. You told me this story about being in college and competing in this project for a self-powered submarine. And the irony of you went to school in Virginia, which for those that don't know where his college was, it is landlocked. There is not an ocean in the mountains. He's got this submarine in a pool. Why don't you tell us about what this was like and how that process when I thought it was just great from a nerd perspective?
Ron: Yeah, I appreciate that. Engineering school. A characteristic of an engineering university is often they'll be competitive teams. They'll be your Baha race car, dune buggy team. They'll be your airplane team designing an airplane to carry some payload, or you'll be the autonomous helicopter team where a helicopter has to go and do stuff autonomously. And I came across, and this would have been in maybe 1996. When I went into my freshman year, I would have come across the human-powered submarine team. And I thought what a curious idea that this school in the mountains would have a submarine team. And I went to the meeting, and I'm this young, gung ho kid coming out of college thinking I was hot, coming out of high school, thinking I was hot stuff, very quickly learning.
In high school, I was a big fish in a small pond. Well, you go to engineering school. I was a speck of a fish in a very big pond of sharks, so fantastically intelligent people with a fantastically better level of education than I had received that were now my peers. And I found the submarine team and never actually made a boat that moved. They had never moved in a competition, much less tried to compete and win, and I was like, well, that's my team because I think I can join that team, and I think I can. I know nothing about submarines, and I know a little about fluid mechanics. I know a little bit about doing what it takes to win. And I said I think I could have an influence.
Chris: By the way, I think it's great that you actually want to build a boat that's sinking. I think it's fantastic that that was your challenge, was it doesn't need to stay afloat. We got to get underneath.
Ron: Doesn't need to stay afloat. It can sink to the bottom. But as long as it moves like we're making progress. A very long story, very short, is that we made the boat move my freshman year. I was the engine, the human engine inside of the boat. I didn't design it. The upperclassmen designed it before me. But I wanted to win. I also learned of the best team in the world, a Canadian team out of an engineering school in Canada. I studied them. I learned everything that I could learn about them. I interviewed people around the country who knew them and observed them in competition. I took a six-month hiatus from classes, and I went into the process of designing what I thought would be the world championship boat. And I did all the fluid, mechanical design, fluid mechanics, design and designed the team structure that I think I would need to design and build. I went and designed the fundraising because we had no money. We had never built the boat that moved.
But I needed money and needed supplies, so I contacted I came up with a list of Fiberglass supplies and resin supplies, money, mechanical donations, propellor, and I assembled this list. And then I spent the next two years assembling a team. In my junior and senior year, I became the team captain of the effort, and our senior year, we went to the world championship and won. I think I wanted to share a picture of that. You see if I can find it. And we won, and so this is actually a picture of me. This is the submarine. This was me jumping in the boat, the kid that was actually the engine because I was not of the mind to where I needed to be the team captain and in the boat. I wanted to empower the younger, stronger kids on the team to do that, which were better empowered. But that water behind me was at the Carderock Naval Submarine Warfare Center. That water was like fifty-five degrees. Our engine in the submarine had been in the water so long, he had gotten hypothermia, and they pulled him out. And we only had one minute left of race time and had to put in a winning time or defaulted out of the competition. And so this is me throwing on the harness to tie myself in, this was afterward, but I jumped in the pool, climbed in the boat.
Underwater I mounted the oxygen race, and we put in the winning time for the event, and the team ended up winning. Virginia Tech won, but what was more impressive than winning was that we ended up with our team, our presentations, our safety officer. We won every award available at the competition.
Chris: Fantastic story. It's so cool.
"Winning is a habit. You have to learn to think like a winner."
Ron: It was fun, and you know what? We started a tradition of winning. Virginia Tech became known for winning submarine competitions thereafter. And I went in 2012. My son was four years old, and my wife and I watched a Virginia Tech football game, and I took them by the submarine lab. And all of this hardware you see there is up on the wall with pictures of the 2000 race. And the wall is full of winning hardware, and they've won competition after competition because winning is a habit. You have to learn to think like a winner. And they thought they think like winners, and now they're known for putting up really solid teams, which is pretty cool.
Chris: Quote Sean Schitz from the comments here, "Nerds will rule the world, at least from underwater in a submarine powered by humans.".
Ron: Amen, I couldn't agree more.
Chris: You didn't always have One Firefly as a business. You told us when you sat down to interview Lutron and obviously went far with that process. Engineering was always in your blood. Talk to us about kind of your trajectory arc in the professional world of Lutron and Crestron and the other places you've been and how you ended up to where you are today.
Ron: Yeah, a little bit of ground to cover there. 20 years, I'll try to make it really brief and succinct that I'll let you jump in.
Chris: As my father said. How about the two-minute version?
Ron: I like that. I joined Lutron. I was super impressed with their hiring process and their focus on people. I would say that a lot of what I learned at One Firefly took me a little while. But to focus on talent and people, I got a really nice immediate observation of that in my joining the Lutron team and the head of H.R. I want to say she's a senior executive there now, Cathy Leslie. And the process she took me through just blew me away. I was offered to join them in their engineering department or sales. I said, which one makes more money? She said, sales ultimately, but engineering short term. I said, well, I want the long term, so I'll go down the sales route. And I did that for a year. I left, I went to Crestron, I wanted a little bit more of in my mind, I wanted to eat more of what I killed. And this is sales speak for those nonsales people. Maybe I don't know what I'm saying, but if I put wins on the board, I wanted to know that I would reap the benefits of that. And Crestron, at that time, I have no idea any of their plans now. But 17 years ago, Crestron gave me a better opportunity to do that. And I grew through the ranks there. Ultimately, in '07, I had this fire in my belly around entrepreneurship, which we could go more into. But that led to me leaving Crestron and starting what was called Firefly Design Group. And that has evolved into today what is known as One Firefly in the marketing agency the industry knows.
Chris: Before that evolution, what was Firefly Design Group's purpose?
Ron: Yeah, I observed, and when I was at Lutron, I lived in Minneapolis, and I covered nine states in the Midwest, and at Crestron, I lived in South Florida, I lived in Orlando, and then South Florida. And I covered Florida, the Caribbean, and a few other roles, but primarily I worked with all of these integrators. My entire 20-year career has been with integrators. I observed that they were winning these really neat projects, doing these very complicated integrated systems. But so many of them had poor little to poor documentation.
Chris: Many still do, by the way.
Ron: I know, and I theorized that there was an opportunity in the marketplace to open up an engineering business, to provide proposal design or project documentation to help them better present their science, their projects to their clients, and or to perform those projects in a more profitable, efficient manner. I knew that they needed that, but I've joked with you in the past when we've talked about this. I did not do any research to actually determine whether they would pay for that and if they would pay what they would pay. And it's better that I didn't do that research. Perhaps I never would have started Firefly Design Group because I cashed out my retirement, I quit my job. I got an office. I hired two employees. Before I ever asked any integrator if they were willing to pay for the stuff I was about to start producing.
Chris: But let's go through all the analogs. You burned the boats, you jumped the parachute, and you sat down, and you said, we're going to win no matter what. And you came up with a solution to a problem no one asked for.
Ron: Yes. Pure genius, clearly. I know. Yeah. It was not my brightest moment for sure.
Chris: But it wasn't the only thing you were doing on the positive side. Your business was multifaceted. You had mentioned all of the things that were happening as a function. And so you started to diversify, whether it was the right move or not, you had started to diversify your business at that time.
Ron: In my youth, in addition to science, being that science nerd, I was a wrestler, and I was a runner. So I ran cross-country. If you run cross-country or run, you know what it is to take the pain. And if you're a wrestler, you know what it is to stand in solidarity on that map facing your enemy and know that one of you is going down. And no one can help you. When I entered into business, I was of the opinion that I was definitely not the smartest, definitely not the most knowledgeable, definitely not the most experienced. But I would challenge that I could be the toughest. I could persevere and pivot as necessary to find success. There were many occasions over the last 13, 14 years now where I could have quit, and I don't think anyone would have judged me any worse because business is fantastically hard. Particularly to scale a business profitably, fantastically hard. It's one of the harder things I think people could try to do. And I very quickly learned in that engineering business that I needed to help my customer better present themselves in the eyes of the consumer or the architect or the designer in the guise that they would be perceived as more of a designer and a systems architect than purely the the the technology contractor plumber that puts in technology and pulls wires through attics. I needed to help to change their image.
I hired a graphic designer. I reached out to an old high school buddy, John Baskerville, who I learned was building websites, and he had his own marketing company. I said, "John, we need to build websites for integrators." I got the graphic designer, and I said we need to start actually helping our integrators have business cards and brochures, and presentation books. They can go to the meetings all to justify this line item. I needed them to charge on their proposals called engineering, because if they could not charge that line item called engineering, my business, called Firefly Design Group, could not exist. And I backed into marketing one of them, and I did a friend and family round when I started as well, and I remember the guys very vividly at Think Simple. They're a fantastic integrator out of the Bahamas and Florida. They gave me five thousand dollars when I started the business. Later on, after I had paid them back, they had told me, "Ron, we thought you were starting a marketing company. We would never have given you money for an engineering company. Marketing is what you're good at."
This was years later, and they told me this. And it took us a while, but marketing was the little engine that could. It was popular, and it was in demand. It was fun to hire. It was fun to do. It was scalable. We did it better than most other people. Rarely would my customer ever tell me they would do it better than us? By the way, all of those things were the clear opposite for our engineering business.
Chris: It's interesting on the marketing side, we always called it the blink test and this idea that you could look at two things, this website versus that website, and you knew which one was easily more acceptable and for you and I think it wouldn't be shocking for most integrators to acknowledge that they know that their marketing baby is ugly, that they need that help, that they need some assistance in that way. I think you ended up in the right place. I'll take a quick break and just acknowledge everybody else who's popped in and chimed in with additional comments. Ben Rozner over at E-Home saying hello, you've got some other folks, Tina and Brandi and others. They put up some good questions, and we actually get to those in a little bit. I want to shift gears and talk about some of your One Firefly people, specifically your business's culture. I want to hit on it in a couple of different ways. Your business was set up to be remote pre-COVID. It was by design how it was engineered to be working and functioning before COVID was ever a concern. Some of those tools you use today to maintain your connections and culture effectively are things like Slack. How did you get involved in wanting to have a decentralized business, and how did you come to your toolkit to be able to do that?
Ron: Yeah. In 2015, it was a pivotal year for us because and maybe we'll do that on a future show to kind of talk about some of the decision makings that led to ultimately closing the engineering business, closing the programming business, closing all the distractions, and squarely focusing on marketing. But that decision happened in the fall, late summer, and fall of 2015. At that time, we decided to close the office because I had an office in South Florida, close the office in terms of people being hired to work and go to the office every day. I had gone to the office every day from November 2007 through September 2015. I had physically left my house, and I'd go to the office and sit in that office. My people and I think about Kendall, who's been with us for six years. She would drive from Palm Beach an hour to sit in that office, be behind the keyboard, and then get in her car and drive an hour home. And meanwhile, none of our customers would go to the office, our customers are all over the country, so it just started feeling not right.
Ultimately, we made that pivot. Over the last five years, we had the very nice fortune of building out a robust software environment software stack that enables us to operate virtually from a robust project management software and a solution called Workfront. Previously, it was At Task. They changed their name after they were purchased in 2011, finding a software called BaseCamp and using that for client communication. You, Chris, get the credit through Azione. You and I were on the board together. You mentioned this thing called Slack. Which was entirely foreign to me, but, my God, I can't imagine I'm over here looking at my dashboard. I can imagine my business. I've got fifty-two employees.
I can't imagine the number of emails that would be happening inefficiently if we didn't have Slack channels for every client and individual communication and every combination of people there. Our company sends around between ten to fifteen thousand Slack messages a week. Ten to fifteen thousand that would be happening through email or not at all if it weren't for Slack.
Chris: I tell people today after having been on that platform for a while, at first when I tried it at a previous company, I was not a fan. I didn't get it. I didn't really understand it. And then, when I really delve deep into it, when I was at Cloud9 Smart, I became so accustomed to it and understood the value that I went. I could never be a part of a company that didn't run on this platform. It's that good. It is fascinating.
Ron: I can't imagine. I don't want to imagine One Firefly without Slack or something as good or better. It makes us a better company. We did something, and you talked about culture, and I'll go deeper into that if you like. I'll let you direct. But there's a plugin to Slack we use called Motivosity. Earlier in 2020, we focused on redefining and really promoting our core values. And we've defined those core values, and I desired a way to incentivize our team to think around our core values and acknowledge each other for our core values. That led to discovering a piece of software called Motivosity, which plugs directly into Slack, so our team all day long, we have a back channel, I'm looking at it. It's called "Core Value Kudos," and our team acknowledges each other for demonstrating core values, and they can give each other a core value kudo. We fund it as a company. We give every employee a whopping three dollars a month in a Core Value Kudos bucket, and they can give a Core Value Kudo worth one dollar to any member of the team if they demonstrate any of our five core values.
Chris: Who has the most kudos?
Ron: You know what? We just announced the Firefly of the Month. We're starting that here in 2021, and we just awarded our first in January, and we had a four-way tie. I don't want to say who they were because I may miss someone. Someone from my team helped me drop it into the comment channel. I don't want to miss I remember three, but I think there's a fourth, and I don't want to mention it.
Chris: But while they're busy doing that, Tina Baker chimed in from your team and said, "Remember that day in January when Slack was down for an hour or two, and we were all lost? It was terrible." I felt the same way. Slack went down, and I'm clacking at my keyboard like a neanderthal going, how do I work?
Ron: Oh, it's so crazy. But I can tell you this. We were very fortunate at One Firefly when COVID hit, and we were all scared. Everyone in the world was scared, particularly business owners or operators or employees or whatever because we didn't know what would happen. We did not have to be fearful of at One Firefly was what it would be like and how we would function as a virtual workforce. We were already there primarily doing it for five years.
Chris: Tina chimed in. By the way, Jordan L, Sarah, Tim, and Cameron were the four-way tie. Congrats to those four. I think that's fantastic. That's almost a ten percent of your employee tie in terms of core value kudos, so I can't wait to see what happens in month two. Your world isn't just around software, though. Your world is also around the process, and you're a process junkie. I've known that. I love that about you for many years. And one of the conversations that you and I share a passion for is around EOS, the entrepreneurial operating system originally a book by Gina Wickman called Traction. A bunch of my clients know it and know that I push it hard. Talk to me about what traction has meant to your business and your team.
Ron: Yeah, sure. I appreciate that. After we made that pivot in '15, '16 was our first full year of operating purely as a marketing agency. The power of that focus resulted in a nice year over year growth. And so '16, '17, '18, '19, we were growing 30 percent plus year over year. It felt easy is the wrong word. It was anything but easy. But we felt like we knew where we were going and how we would get there. But as those numbers start to stack both in revenue and in employees, I started to look forward and where I wanted to go. I felt a need for more structure, more structure in how to manage and work with my leadership team, more structure in how to conduct effective meetings, not just meetings for the sake of meetings, but effective meetings, how to gain alignment around where we were going and how to get my leadership and every single member of my team on board and how to have every single member of my team understand where we're going and what their contribution could be towards that goal. That was lacking. I had been in enough different seminars or groups to know that that was possible, but I lacked the knowledge and experience of knowing how to achieve it. And I'm always big on asking for help. I think asking people for help is a superpower that so often people forget their pride gets in the way, or I don't know, and the things get in the way, and they just don't ask for help. I love asking for help because there is so much genius out in the world. It's exponentially greater than anything that I could hold on to.
I went and asked a member of my board of advisers for help, and he pointed me back to EOS Traction. I had been hearing rumblings of EOS for years. I want to say Mike Beam of SES Design Group out of Houston. They got absorbed into the Bravas group. But Mike, I want to say, four years ago had handed me a version of Traction and said, "Ron, you should read this. This probably would be good for you." And it sat on my shelf, and it didn't read. I was like, well, that looks really hard. I'm going to sit this on my shelf, and I'm going to get back to it later. When I finally dug into it and bought in hook, line, and sinker in the Q3 of 2019. And I went and found what's called an implementor, and it was an implementor, someone that I had known 10 years prior in an entrepreneurship group that I was a part of and brought it to my leadership team. They said, "This looks exciting. Let's do it." We onboarded into the process in Q3 and W4. And I can just tell you, thank God we did. Because of that nine months of preparation, I felt that we were exponentially more prepared for COVID in March of 2020 than I would have been, or we would have been otherwise if we didn't have a lot of that structure and process in place.
Chris: That makes great sense. You mentioned the implementor for those listening who don't know implementors help you execute traction within your business and get it started. Those people are trained specifically in how to do that. The success rate's only about 20 percent for people who don't use implementors. Four out of five businesses fail to implement without a dedicated implementor. Do you want to give a shout-out to your implementor and that person just so that they can be tagged later?
Ron: Absolutely. Our and our implementor, his name is Cesar. He's out of South Florida. He does not come from the integrator world, but he has successfully grown a business. It was a food business, and he successfully sold it because of the put in place. And he's now growing a full agency. I'll ask a team member to drop the website link for Cesar and his group into the comments. I've also had Cesar on Automation Unplugged. I want to say maybe sometime, and I don't remember everything blurs together, but sometime in the last year I had him on, you could look for that show. But I'm a strong advocate that if you can afford it or even if you can't find a way to afford a coach or an implementer, there's a tremendous amount of value sitting in those sessions, those planning sessions, and having an independent third party counsel.
You and your leaders take them through a consensus and alignment process and definition of rocks and objectives. It's very powerful. Suppose you can do it on your own, more power to you. I didn't feel ready to do it on my own. My integrator, an EOS term I'm not talking about an AV integrator, is Taylor Whipple. We read the books, plural. And we're like, "This seems really cool. We need a coach."
"The CEO is the visionary typically in most businesses. The idea is that not everyone is the person to execute, and some people are the idea."
Chris: It's a challenging process. And Ron mentioned the integrator is a role. You can kind of think of it like the CFO in a business. The CEO is kind of the visionary typically in most businesses. The idea is that not everyone is the person to execute, and some people are the idea. You need those two parts put together to really make it go even to really good teams. It becomes really challenging to do that without having outside help. The team at One Firefly has posted up that Cesar Quintero was on Automation Unplugged #99, and you can find him at theprofitrecipe.com. And if you have other questions regarding EOS and other things, I'm also happy to help you in the future. It has completely evolved as a business in terms of thinking about your business. It happens to do marketing. But when you think about the people and the processes and the software and the tools that you use, the output of that is the underlying rock of it, our culture. And you made a really fantastic trip with your team where you brought them to New York. This was pre-COVID, and you brought the whole team in when you were coming to New York. You set up multiple days of activities for them, learning, diving deep into the account culture. You actually asked me to come and present to your group on a topic. Tell me about that trip, what caused it to happen, and tell me about what you did while you were here in New York?
Ron: Yeah, and I'm just dropping some of the pictures from that trip. I don't know if there's a limit here. It looks like I'll put those, and I'll pull that off. When we went virtual, this really happened in 2016. When we went virtual, we did not want to miss the benefits. I was mindful of missing the human interaction component, right, so we're cameras on team. We've been a camera on team since 2016, when we went fully virtual.
Chris: I can guess what that phrase means, but it's not part of my lexicon every day. Talk to me about what that means in practice.
"So much of human communication happens nonverbally. It happens in the way you raise your eyebrows, the facial expression, the way you hold your shoulders or your hands. So much of the ability to deliver a message happens through your eyes. The visual senses. So much more than happens through auditory what you hear."
Ron: So much of human communication happens nonverbally. It happens in the way you raise your eyebrows, the facial expression, the way you hold your shoulders or your hands. So much of the ability to deliver a message happens through your eyes—the visual senses. So much more than happens through auditory what you hear. For example, I've been putting my sales hat on when I've been selling. I've been selling with the camera on for my entire career. If I have an opportunity to interact with a client in another location, my camera's always on, even if theirs would be off. Because I know that I can emote and communicate more effectively if they're watching me and watching the signals that I'm sending. Well, the same goes through for all of your people. And so for so much of us in the world that have them now required to have our teams work remotely or see each other less often when we do interact, you still want to have that face to face interaction. And so we were Zooming before Zoom was cool. We were a camera on before the camera on was cool. Knowing the power that happens in that communication, so if I have people on my team that was, "Well, I'm not ready for the camera," or any sort of nonsense, none of it is allowed. I'm having a bad hair day. I don't give a shit camera on. Yeah, and the only excuse is if I'm sick. If you're sick, alright, leave the camera off, and we've certainly had some of that in the last year. But other than that, I just want you to receive what is being delivered visually, and I want you to be able to deliver through visual sensory what who and what you are, what message you're trying to emote. It was initially a little controversial, and now it's a habit. Everyone knows your camera goes on. If you're talking to each other, if you're talking to a customer, the camera's on regardless of whether the customer turns theirs on.
Chris: You go from this camera on culture to make sure that we're still connected. People first, not just the voice or words on a screen, but then you still have the human element of actually connecting physically as a team. What caused that shift into making sure that it happened in a large scale event like New York?
Ron: Yeah. There was a combination of people analysis and financial analysis to determine, and we made this call starting at '16 that we still wanted our people to get together. We started a bi-annual team all-staff event. We were fewer people in 2016, much fewer people. Even in these pictures on the screen here, there are about 40 people there. We're now 52 people. We've continued to grow, but we would get our staff together, all staff flies them from the USA and Mexico into a destination originally just in Florida. But then we started spreading out and having events around the country. And we make those events 50/50, 50 percent work, 50 percent play. Because the play part of it, well, we're a team, which means you're leaning on each other, you're in battle. I love war and war strategy. A lot of this stuff that I give analogies to are based on that. But you've got to rely on the soldier to your left and the soldier to your right. And the fact is you protect your brothers and sisters, which means there needs to be a relationship.
It's stronger if there's a relationship. Well, it is stronger to build relationships. If you can actually be in the same time and space as each other, go through some work stuff together and go through some fun stuff together. And so we've done that. We've done that since '16. And so what you witnessed, Chris, I did call you in. I called you in the fall of '19, and I said, hey, I'm putting together a team event. I'm going to bring them to New York. Our team's going to hit up the Crestron facility. We're going to hit up the Savant facility. We're going to hit the Sonos flagship store, which I think has since closed. That's the work part of it. And the and the play part of it is going to be fun. You see in the picture on the left, our teams all dressed in '20s type outfits as we were entering 2020. Little did we know what also came with 2020 was a plague. But we were dressed for the '20s. We had a great, fantastic dinner at a wonderful restaurant in New York and the Savant facility. You came in and gave them counsel from an integrator's perspective. You led a number of sessions that helped them really understand how an integrator thinks about the challenges and trials and tribulations an integrator goes through in trying to grow their business.
Because I need my team to understand the customer if we're going to help the customer, we spend the time and money to do that. We do it in other ways. Now we do it virtually. I do these Automation Unplugged interviews because I want my team to hear our customers and our industry's stories. We have manufacturers, and different folks come and speak to our team, all staff events where they're listening and they're able to pose questions because the more intimate we can understand the customer, the better we are prepared to understand where it hurts and to offer solutions that will help them grow.
Chris: I remember the caliber of questions that were asked of me during that session that I gave, and they were quite thoughtful and introspective. You could tell that they were coming from a place of how do you game the system or "sell somebody" air quotes intended. But really, how do you truly understand it? What you face felt truly empathetic, and I really appreciated it. It's a testament to how you hire and the types of people you empower within your organization. If you didn't hire right, that would be impossible to do.
Ron: People are everything. There's nothing that I do at One Firefly more important than helping with the way we hire, the interview processes, the coaching, and our people's cultivation. We hire top talent. It doesn't mean the most expensive talent. Within the band and the bands are built around us maintaining consistent profitability as a company within the bands of our willingness to pay for job positions, we hire in the best. And those best of the best come in, hungry for growth, hungry to do their job, hungry to help each other, hungry to succeed. And when you bring in those types of people, I know there's a book that I love. I am actually book clubbing it with my leadership team called Multipliers. The more we as leaders bring in amazing people and then empower them to do their thing, which means not micromanaging, but getting out of the way, which is really hard, by the way.
It takes consistent coaching, why we're around tabling this as a leadership team because we realize that we're full of flaws, and we need to identify them so that we could be better. But the more you do that, an organization can exponentially produce more and achieve more than an organization that doesn't understand the team's power. I fully acknowledge that we brought in a Director or a Manager of People Operations, Tina. She chatted here to further invest in the management hiring, the recruiting, and our team's ongoing growth. Because when they grow, everyone wins. The customer wins because we deliver better products and services. The company wins because the company can succeed and grow. They win because they're able to grow their careers. It's this wonderful positive feedback loop. It's really awesome when you do that like employee retention isn't the issue. People want to be in an environment where they're taken care of and succeed and grow. As a leader, you have to give them that because if you don't, they will leave. Right, because top talent. Once they want to grow, and if you don't give them the environment for growth, they'll go try to find it somewhere else.
"The conversation around what happens when you hire poorly and the opportunity cost truly involved in that, both at a team level and a personal level, each individual, but then at a managerial level, the costs are extravagantly high for it to be done wrong."
Chris: The conversation around what happens when you hire poorly and the opportunity cost truly involved in that, both at a team level and a personal level, each individual, but then at a managerial level, the costs are extravagantly high for it to be done wrong. There's a real impetus to do it well and be thoughtful about it. I want to take a couple of questions here that had been posted from the group. Allison, who's an employee at One Firefly. "What has been your all-time favorite memory of One Firefly?"
Ron: Oh, my goodness, Allison, I'm going to get you later. That is that's funny. The all-time favorite memory I can.
Chris: Is it you and your plant?
Ron: I was going to bring my plant. I did have a picture of that.
Chris: Employee one right there.
Ron: This is my plant right there. I was joking with Chris that before we went live, I still have this plant. This is called a ponytail palm. I bought that at IKEA when I bought all my furniture in 2007. And I still have that plant. It's actually downstairs because I just picked it up from my office. It wasn't looking too good. I'm nursing it back to health. Yeah, it's whenever I get my whole team together. You mentioned January. I had my whole team together in New York and that night where we were celebrating. We had just come off a successful 2019, another year of growth and just the laughs and the pure joy of people being with other people they enjoy in a work environment. They enjoy it. It's definitely up there for me. Any time that I can celebrate my team's growth, whether they achieve a new certification or get a promotion, we're big on hiring from within, promoting from within. There's a whole machine operating here that's not me directing it. When people move up in the organization and take on more responsibility, or maybe it's not the responsibility, maybe they move in a direction that's more in alignment with what their superpower is. That's very fulfilling when I see my team buy their first house. Get their first car or that first car they purchased on their own. Or start investing in their retirement for the first time, and no one had ever talked to them about investing and putting the money away for retirement.
Chris: Watching babies be born is an interesting one, watching people kind of take those big evolutionary steps in their lives. Yes, pretty fascinating, right?
Ron: It's empowering because you realize that you're going to serve a role. You have an opportunity to be memorable. Fantastic responsibility.
Chris: You're their facilitator in a way to being able to do most of those things. Bekah Nunn also asked a question, "Is there anything you wish you got to do more of in your day today?"
Ron: I love my job.
Chris: I'm guessing she means work instead of more golf or something.
Ron: Yeah. I don't want to mean this in a derogatory manner because I think different things are right for different people. But I hear about people always and on some occasions talking about needing to build their business to sell their business. I've been approached to sell this business probably every six months for the last five years. I've been approached by somebody, "Hey, I want to buy One Firefly." I love what I do. I love helping businesses. I'm a problem solver by birthright. I just can't help it. It may be to a fault. Some of the folks listening and watching probably know that I try to solve problems that I'm not even invited to help solve the camera and culture. There must be a lot of nodding happening. There's a lot of nodding happening. And so I love solving problems. The idea that I get to help customers, I still interact with my clients every day. Not a day goes by that I'm not working with someone around the world on something. And I get to work with all the individuals and the leaders and not even leaders at every level. Everyone on my team has access to me for anything. They all know they can. There's a very flat. There's no particular hierarchy, and hopefully, there never will be. I get to work with an account manager on an editorial calendaring issue that maybe they're stuck on, and they want my opinion, or I get to work with John in product development and some new cool stuff that we're cooking up that the world will know about 12 months from now. Or I get to work with Taylor on financial modeling and cash flow forecasting and trying to make our predictive models better 18 months out. Or I get to network with Sony on a successful marketing program that would help move the needle for them and move the needle for their members. I'm doing what I love, and so I definitely believe in the concept of lifestyle by design. If you are bold enough and brave enough, it is very hard to think critically about what you want, what you want your job to be, what you want your family life to be, what you want your friendships to be, what you want your economic situation to be.
If you're bold enough and brave enough to do that, then you can set a course for it. And I feel that I've set a course for it. This is very much by design. I'm 20 years in and I love coming to work every day. I love interacting with my team every day. It's a lot of fun. I love interacting with my customers every day. I don't remember what the question was, but that's my answer.
Chris: No problem. And by the way, if anybody else has any other questions that they'd like to pose to Ron, obviously, we are actually asking them and answering them. Feel free to throw those up there. Ron, in terms of looking at what's next for One Firefly, you came out with this really interesting website product in Mercury that launched. Are you in a position to be able to share either categorically or specifically some things that you would like to bring to the marketplace that gets you even more excited to wake up every day and work with your team to talk about that?
Ron: Yeah, I appreciate that. This was a decision, and I've decided that I want to be a growth company. Not only do I want to help my customers grow, but I want to grow. And by the way, that's not right or wrong. It's not right for everybody. Some people can say, I've got this business. We're doing this much revenue. I'm perfectly fine staying there and maintaining that. This is a zero judgment zone, but I've decided that I want to grow. When you decide that you want to grow, then you have to do the things to help you grow. And most importantly, that means keeping our current customers very, very happy. By the way, we are human, and we fail. And when we fail, we work very diligently to make it right. We've invested heavily in training and staffing and in ratios like our account manager to client ratios to get it to a point where we can offer very high touch and level of interaction with our clients so that, in essence, the metaphors we're holding them by the hand with marketing and helping them understand what's possible, what we're doing and what the stuff we're doing is achieving or what it's not achieving, just open, honest communication. We want to get better at that. And we know that there's room for us to grow and improve there.
That's currently an internal focus. Additionally, Google advertising we're like the anti-marketing company in that almost every marketing company on the planet starts with Google Ads. And then they add the other stuff. We're the last ones to the Google ads party, so we figured out how to be a content agency. We figured out how to provide marketing to small businesses called integrators or even most of the other marketing firms in our space. They serve the manufacturers, not the integrators. It's not that I don't want to serve the manufacturer. Of course, I do. But I love serving the small business operator. Small business is hard, and I like thinking of that team we build and helping make them a little stronger. In making them stronger, we realized 24 months plus back that we realized there was a hole in our product mix: Google Ads. There was R&D testing we did around why, if we did it, if we implemented it, how would it help benefit the overall marketing strategy for these businesses that rely heavily on referrals? We know that going in. What role does a Google ad have? And we tested it measured enough to where we felt it had a valid role.
We launched it last March 2020, and we've been on a steady incline of adding new customers every month since then. We're exactly on target for that growth. And we're going to continue on that trajectory. And that's significant because that's often and at least so far, that's simply adding that type of service to our existing customer.
Chris: Would you like fries with that?
Ron: Exactly. Because we're not even having to go out and find strangers. We just get to go to the customers we know and love today and say there's this capability we now have, which we feel very confident we can practice it well, and it can benefit you. And would you like to learn more? We're growing nicely in that fashion. And then there will be a point where further we'll actually tell the world, hey, we're open for business, and we could do these things that every other marketing agency does. We think we do it better. We have some special sauce, but that's a big deal for us. That's going to continue to be a bigger and bigger component of our revenue. Lastly, it would be a growth in the commercial space. I was born in the business's residential integration side, and I was birthed at Lutron on the RIS Division, Residential Integrated Systems Division. I went to CEDIA in 2000 up until this virtual one. I've been to everyone since, and we, as an entity, as an agency, have never been at the PSNI event or the InfoCom event, or an NSCA event.
In the future, we're going to be at those events. We're going to position One Firefly to be what the residential marketplace knows us as, a marketing solutions provider. We will do our homework and cut our teeth so that we can be of service to that space. We know that many in that space are hurting because COVID has been particularly hard on the commercial environment, certainly in different verticals. We feel confident that what we can bring to bear will help them. They don't know about us yet. Yes, we're going to do our homework to help them know about us. We're going to do teaching and webinars and as many educational offerings to them as we can as they'll have us. I'm confident we can help. And when you add those things together, I'm very confident about our future. It's a blue ocean. There are really no limits to our ability to continue growing scale-added innovative solutions to help our customers grow.
Chris: It is a fantastic testament to the platform you've built and its ability to be scaled. I think it's really fantastic. We're getting up at the end of about seventy-five minutes or so lest we make people run too long here, and I think that's pretty smooth sailing for most of that conversation. Why don't we have you tell everybody, Ron, where they can find you? Contact info, website, socials, your street address so they can visit you.
Ron: That's funny. I'm active personally on Instagram. If you want to see the behind the scenes, my Instagram is open. You can follow me. It's really all family life. It's personal. It's no business. I'm also the same way on Facebook. I'm no business. I believe in the separation of church and state. When you follow me on a social platform, it is not my soapbox for One Firefly; it's me. I'm on LinkedIn. I'm on Instagram. I'm on Facebook, LinkedIn. You are going to see some work stuff. Obviously, because I'm a CEO of a company in the space and then on Twitter, although I'm not very I'm not an active tweeter, I'm not very good at tweeting, I'm not very good at saying whatever random thought is on the top of my head. I don't believe that any of you care, so I don't bother doing that. Like I mentioned initially, I generally use Twitter to follow some different hobbies, such as crypto.
Chris: What's the website?
Ron: I'll even put artwork here for you. Let me do this. If anyone wants to visit One Firefly, you can go to onefirefly.com. We'd love to have you poke around and reach out. You'll notice the live chat on that website. You can ask any questions that you might have. Here's a phone number and the phone number to One Firefly, which is (954) 921-2393. Definitely give us a call. Bear with us; we have a few issues with our phone system. Our office manager is out actually with COVID related stuff. We're playing with our phone system to make sure all phone calls get immediately answered by a team member, not big on robots or machines answering. We try to have people answer. But due to some of the stresses of COVID, that is not always happening. And we're working on that.
Ron: I'm sure everyone's understanding of the circumstances. It's definitely not news to anybody in that way. Well, I want to say thank you so much for joining the show today on your own show. I don't know if I'm supposed to be thanking you for doing. Yeah, no, it's been a pleasure, Chris. You rocked it. I'm going to bug out here, but I think you killed it, and I'll let you sign off.
Chris: Thank you so much, Ron. Thanks, everyone, for attending. I want to thank everybody for joining in the conversation. Many people from the industry, friends for many, many years showing up to say hello to Ron. I wanted to invite you to follow One Firefly on Instagram and to make sure to check out Automation Unplugged on any podcast platform. You choose whatever works best for you. Ron has thrown that up there so everyone can see it. I wanted to say thank you very much. Again, I'm Chris Smith with The CoTeam. You can visit us at thecoteam.com. I'm happy to talk to you about anything you need to help the business. Until then, please enjoy further episodes of Automation Unplugged.
After graduating from VA Tech with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, Ron started his career with Lutron Electronics. He also spent time at Crestron Electronics before starting Firefly Design Group in 2007. In 2012 the company rebranded and became the company everyone knows today as One Firefly.
Ron Callis is the CEO of One Firefly, LLC, a digital marketing agency based out of South Florida and creator of Automation Unplugged. Founded in 2007, One Firefly has quickly become the leading marketing firm specializing in integrated technology and security space. The One Firefly team work hard to create innovative solutions to help Integrators boost their online presence, such as the elite website solution, Mercury Pro.
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