In episode 94, host Eric Dickmann interviews Brian Roland and Travis Gravette. Brian is a social entrepreneur and Founder of Abenity and Travis is its CEO. Abenity is a company that powers corporate perks for top businesses. They have partnered with the world’s top brands to provide member-only access to private discounts and corporate rates on everything from pizza and the zoo, to movie tickets, oil changes, car rentals, and hotels.
Abenity provides millions of subscribers with perks and benefits while pursuing the company’s social mission of fighting extreme poverty. Recently, the company exceeded a million dollars of total giving.
Together, Brian and Travis used their entrepreneurial skills to build a company using remote talent with a strong focus on corporate culture and making a social impact together with their corporate partners.
For more information and access to the resources mentioned in this episode, please visit: https://fiveechelon.com/creating-culture-through-remote-relationships-s6ep13/
A fractional CMO can help build out a comprehensive marketing strategy and execute targeted campaigns designed to increase awareness and generate demand for your business...without the expense of a full-time hire.
The Five Echelon Group - Fractional CMO and strategic marketing advisory services designed for SMBs looking to grow. Learn more at:
Welcome to The Virtual CMO podcast. I'm your host, Eric Dickmann. In this podcast, we have conversations with marketing professionals who share the strategies, tactics, and mindset you can use to improve the effectiveness of your marketing activities and grow your business. This week, I'm excited to welcome Brian Rolan and Travis Gravette to the program. Brian is a social entrepreneur and the founder of Abenity, while Travis, is it CEO. Abenity is a company that's powering corporate perks. They have partnered with the world's top brands to provide member only access to private discounts and corporate rates on everything from pizza and the zoo to movie tickets, oil changes, car rentals and hotels. Abenity provides millions of subscribers with perks and benefits while pursuing the company's social mission of fighting extreme poverty. Recently, the company exceeded a million dollars in total giving. Both Brian and Travis used their entrepreneurial skills and talent to build a company while making a social impact. I think you're going to enjoy this episode. As we dive into social purpose and also discuss creating culture through remote relationships, please help me welcome Brian and Travis to the program. Hey, Brian and Travis. Welcome to The Virtual CMO podcast. I'm so glad you both could join us today.Brian Roland:
Thank you, Eric. Great to see you.Travis Gravette:
Yeah, glad to be here.Eric Dickmann:
We don't often get two guests at the same time, especially you know, two guests from the same company. So I'm really excited about our conversation today, because I know you guys have a great story to tell, especially about the company that you've created, the culture that you've created, and some of the exciting things that you're doing around remote work, which are all topics that I love to talk about. Brian, I know you're the Founder of the company, how did you guys get started?Brian Roland:
Yeah. So I went to Nashville for undergraduate music businesses, my businesses was focus, it wasn't the right fit for me. So I took an outside sales job and my boss basically said, Hey, you know, don't come back until you sold 30 phones. And you got 30 days to do it. And so you know I figured out how to sell 30 phones by talking to businesses about their corporate employee discounts for their cellular service which turned into a platform just for their cell phones to say, Hey, here's where you should send your employees to learn about the discounts they get on their cellular services which led the light bulb moment, which was like, these companies, HR departments should not be having to figure out how to manage all these personal perks for there people. So I went to my brother, this is 2006, and I said, Hey, why don't we build a platform that manages these merchant relationships for these HR folks? And just take that off their plate, take it off its plates, and we'll work with the merchants and we'll manage the perks and discounts, and that's what we did. We launched with our first customers is Disney, Oracle and the US army back in 2006, which was a great start. It's who I was already working with the cellular phone stuff. And we've been doing it ever since.Eric Dickmann:
That's my background. I'm from Oracle. So yeah, we were on your first customer. Is that.Brian Roland:
Nice. Yeah. We're, we're probably a bullet point in there for you. Way back in the day.Eric Dickmann:
Interesting. And when did Travis, Travis, when did you come into the picture?Travis Gravette:
I joined back in 2018. So it's been just over three years.Eric Dickmann:
nice. And was that a challenge to come into a company that had been founded by two people in a family?Travis Gravette:
You know, there's always benefits and drawbacks to things I would say overall, I think it was a strength, how small, how tight the team was, and we'll talk more about it. But you know, the team was remote since day one, so I think there was like a cultural aspect that promotes good communication, that promotes good. Uh, organization as a remote team that I think helps somebody come in and join the team. You know on the other side of that, it's a little harder to build those relational, personal dynamics when you're remote, sometimes you have to be intentional. I had a previous relationship with Brian. So I had been in a CEO group with Brian, so I had known Brian for probably close to 10 years. So he and I had a really strong dynamic personally, which really helped. Uh, and then got to know his brother. You know, there's always relational dynamics, especially the two brothers. It's fun, they interesting.Eric Dickmann:
Oh, yeah, I bet they do. Well, this is interesting too, because it sounds like you guys from the very beginning have really wanted to have a company that had a remote culture, that didn't have a bunch of people sitting in an office, and obviously because of the pandemic, many companies have been forced to go remote and some have been successful with it, some have really struggled with it. I'm very interested to know when you, when you created a remote only company, how did it go for you? Did you run into some of the same pitfalls that companies have had during the pandemic or because you kind of slowly moved into it, was it a little bit more intentional and thoughtful that way?Brian Roland:
Yeah. You know, we stumbled into remoteEric Dickmann:
just because it made the most sense. So in 2006, you know, there was there a lot more hurdles in the way back then too, for remote work to be super practical. And in fact, I remember it was probably 2014 before we started being very verbal about the fact that we are a remote team, just because of stigma that we were afraid. I mean we serve Fortune 100 companies, so we didn't want them assuming that we're all remote means that somehow we're somehow second class service. So we were just very cautious with that. But You know, it's just like the way I made the cell phone sales work was a disruptive move. My boss said, you know, don't come back. so I was like, well, what do I need to sell phones? And he's like, you need a contract. I was like, okay, can they fax in the contract? And so like, I don't care what they do. Just get the contract. So I was like, okay, so instead of knocking on doors and talking to businesses, and getting one contract on 30 phones, the exact opposite and I just called big companies and I said, Hey, you have thousands of people that get the sprint discount. None of them know about of it, if I send you a flyer, will you email it out to everybody with my phone number? And so I started getting hundreds of individual contracts. boss was like, I've got a contract. He's like this contract is from Nebraska, this contract is from California, and I'm in Tennessee. I was like, yeah, is that okay? He's like, I guess so, but we don't sell in those states. And I was like, well, you do now. You didn't tell me not to. So when it came to remote work and we started Abenity, know, I was in Nashville and love the city, and my brother was getting his master's degree in Southern California. And you know, I was kind of the everything guy, the idea guy, and doing everything. And Mark was the software engineer and the architect and the designer. And so we just always worked separately over the internet. And when it came time to hire our first person. I had somebody in mind that I used to work with in the Nashville area. she's a part of a military family and her husband, you know, they move every two years. And so when they moved to Virginia, she's like, well, is there any reason that she can't do what we need her to do from Virginia? And the answer was no. And so for us, the talent pool drove the development of a remote team is because we went to where the people were that we knew and we trusted and really has become the kind of foundation for a healthy remote team. We very strategically Take a really hard first look at people who are just two or three degrees of separation from our existing team members. And that interestingly, really doesn't dilute diversity at all, what it does is it just brings in people that kind of already know who you are that have accountability to some other people on your team, and so it just lays this initial foundation of trust and respect that has taken us really far and helped us build a really healthy, tight knit culture when 90% of us had probably never met each other before.Eric Dickmann:
Interesting. One of the questions that I would have, you know, I've been a remote worker for many, many years, too during that time at Oracle, I was remote worker. So it's 25 years plus that I've done remote work. But even though we've had the capability, web conferencing has really only seemed to come into its own within the last year or two. Definitely during the pandemic, it went crazy, right? With Zoom calls and things like that. But prior to that, people seem to really prefer to jump on a telephone conference versus a web conference. It seemed like the only time video was in play was when there was a formal webinar. Did you see the same kinds of trends with your business or how has sort of video conferencing and being able to sort of see people over the web really change that whole dynamic of remote work?Brian Roland:
Yeah. You know, I think it's interesting. We did our best to do video when we could in the early days And, Generally had a learning curve to it or disrupted curve to it where it didn't work right away. and again, think that's where the, you know, having more to your relationship than just your to-do list is important because um, you know, we were able to navigate those kinds of ups downs. We have never built our remote team on video, and in fact, I personally feel that too much video is a bad thing. You know, part of that is my personality. I don't want to be tethered to something. I walk and talk and think a lot better than, Sitting still. But you know, I wrote an article which is on my brianroland.com site, but it really breaks down the rules of engagement that we've always done for a remote team, and the article is called Stop Sending Internal Emails. And Really the whole idea, especially with the remote team is if you're just communicating in any which way with each other then you're essentially setting yourself up for failure. And so you have to become pretty disciplined about how and when you communicate with one another, And really when you break down the technology, that's there to support your interactions and help you do well together, email doesn't have a place. In fact, email is like that drawer in your kitchen that you throw everything in and you can't find anything. That's really your email inbox, and there's no place for that within your team. And so we say, Hey, look, if there's a to do, put it in your task management system, we use Asana and we like it a lot. If you have a quick question, don't call me because it takes 10 times as long for the phone call. Just pop me a quick message in our chat system. you have a big question, save it for our next huddle when we're scheduled to talk to each other or just give me a quick call right away.We try to get folks face to face with each other once a month as an entire team. And once a month within their individual teams so marketing with marketing, operations with operations. Um, But outside of that, we try to avoid needless meetings and we try to stay on point. There's a lot of things to do to build a healthy remote team. We look at personality profiles a lot to make sure people stay happy and have what they need. But those rules of engagement are something that really helped us and so video was always a nice to have, but never a must have in our situation.Eric Dickmann:
I like that because you know, we're certainly almost overwhelmed with the kinds of tools that we have at our disposal, whether it's chat tools or video tools. And instead of using them all, I like the fact that you guys have really put down some rules about how each one of the tools can be used, because yeah, I've been on far too many Zoom calls where you're looking at a screen full of zombies, because people are just glued to their chairs. And you know, one of the things that I thought was interesting as you talk about building a team and a couple of degrees of separation amongst team members is I know one of the things that's been important to your company is also having a culture, a mission, something beyond just what you're doing. And Travis, maybe you could talk to about a little bit more about what has that culture meant and how does that bond people within the company together?Travis Gravette:
for sure. I think you know, having a bigger purpose. You know obviously we're all here for our families and to drive a profitable and grow a profitable company to support our families and our lifestyles. But I think when you have something bigger than the company, bigger than what you're selling, it just as a great common place for people to come together to also mark their progress. So World Vision is a a big strategic partner for us. I actually have a background working in Africa, I did a lot of community development Africa before this, This how I met Brian. I was, you know running a nonprofit and leading that. and so I personally had a big connection to that. Love that that's a big part of what we support, but a lot of our team members as well, they tie various aspects of what of the work that they're doing to those results and those outcomes. So sponsoring a child, we try to partner that up with clients subscriptions that we do. So there's kind of some nice metrics there. But Beyond just the numbers, it's the stories. and It's been a really cool to see our team members as well on their own, dive even deeper in and partner with World Vision and even greater ways outside of what we're doing corporately. And the cool part too is a lot of people, sort of the flavor of the month, if you will. And so you know, one month he might be doing a little project here at the nonprofit or here with a nonprofit, which is great, and everybody has their different strategies. One of the things I admire and always liked about Brian and Mark is they've been committed to World Vision since day one. And so I think the benefit you get when you commit to one organization, one cause over the long term as you get to see you know that long-term impact versus just the short term projects. I mean you know, they've given well over a million dollars. We, you know crossed that threshold, Uh, not too long ago. And it's just been really cool to see that longterm impact and have the team rally around that. So I think it's one of those things that just gives everybody additional purpose, and definitely helps with a relational aspect as well.Eric Dickmann:
Hey, it's Eric here and we'll be right back to the podcast. But first, are you ready to grow, scale, and take your marketing to the next level? If so, The Five Echelon Group's Virtual CMO consulting service may be a great fit for you. We can help build a strategic marketing plan for your business and manage its execution, step-by-step. We'll focus on areas like how to attract more leads. How to create compelling messaging that resonates with your ideal customers. How to strategically package and position your products and services. How to increase lead conversion, improve your margins, and scale your business. To find out more about our consulting offerings and schedule a consultation, go to fiveechelon.com and click on Services. Now back to the podcast. I really love that. Companies that have a solid foundation, something above and beyond themselves I think is such an important thing. And I'm curious, how have your corporate partners, your customers responded to that? Do they gravitate to the mission or even if they don't is that okay for the company? Because you know this is something that you want to do. I'm just curious as to how that comes into play as you talk with your various corporate customers.Brian Roland:
Yeah, I like that question a lot. The thing we didn't necessarily introduce in the beginning. We got to the point where I felt like I was no longer the CEO leader that our company needed, and that led to where we felt like Travis was the best fit for that role. And. That was a month before. March 2020.Eric Dickmann:
were like, Hey, you're your first initiative as CEO is Navigate a global pandemic. And over that time, you know going through the learning curve. It's good to know that it's about a six to nine month learning curve in our case to get Travis up to the speed where he can be very effective in that top seat leadership role. but along the way, I really began debriefing, like you know what what's worked for us? What helped us cross the million dollars of giving threshold? What allowed us to stay remote over the last 13 years? What us on the Inc 5000 list six times in a And really, a big part of it is an answer to your question. And so I really broke down the unexpected perks of a social mission. And so for me back to the selling those phones, right out of school, I was doing really well, I was making six figures, making more than my dad, pretty much right away. um, And it wasn't where the financial success was not a goal. It was an output of serving people well, and so really started Abenity with my brother. I said, look, I hope we do really well. I expect we'll do very well. Um, Money is not I it's not gonna help me keep going. so we, created this social mission so that there was an output to a cause for every input to the business, and we really created a formula around that. We kept it to ourselves for a number of years, but in 2014 we started sharing it more openly with our team, and then we expanded it to our customers. So we started telling our customers, it became slides in our sales presentations. It became the last 30 seconds of our promotional videos. And as we were doing these big pitches with these companies, and we went through that last slide, we found we got a lot of connection points with that. And really at the end, we started giving our customers a gift from the world. World vision has a catalog where they have local artisans that make things, bracelets, necklaces, your earrings. we started paying for the gift of the choice from the catalog for clients and direct shipping it to the clients as a thank you for supporting our mission as a connection point, and that really went a long way. And we found that, that the inclusion of our clients in our social mission. set us apart in our industry. And then a lot of ways provided us with a competitive advantage that we didn't have before. And so that was really great. And that's on top of the strength that it gave our team and the shared purpose that it brought for our team. on top of the meaningful work that it gave me and Mark as founders for, Building a SaaS company over 13 years is not an easy lift, Right.Eric Dickmann:
not at all.Brian Roland:
there's plenty of times privacy law is now saying this, compliance laws now saying this, tax law is now saying this. There's plenty of times that you know, the why we get into this business is you know, overshadowed by the what we have to do to make it work. And so that foundational, why it's like you know, look we're sponsoring these kids. These kids are sponsored because of the success we're doing. That's a fantastic why.Eric Dickmann:
One final point with that we have several hundred kids that we sponsor at this point now with World Vision. We got a letter last Friday that said, Hey, I don't know if you're going to think this is good news or if this is going to be sad for you, But we have listed an entire community out of poverty, which is our one goal. They are now self-sustainable. And so World Vision is leaving their community. You know? We've dug the wells they've needed, we've them how to farm, we provided them with the micro finance loans they need to keep going. and look, when we're talking about extreme poverty, we're talking about serving the people whose kids are still walking five miles a day to get dirty water for the family to drink. So we're not talking about American poverty, which is very important. So we lifted this community out, so 116 of the kids you've sponsored have graduated, they're no longer a part of our program and we're going to replace them with 116 more in another region, and in Africa that we're supporting. And that was the first time that that's happened. And on that note, the United Nations' goal, their number one sustainability goal is to eradicate extreme poverty by the year 2030. There's about 500 million people left in the world in extreme poverty. And that to me, when we got that note was a clear indicator that we're in the home stretch of this for people around the world. And what we're doing is adding tremendous value, especially for those 116 kids in that community that just graduated.Eric Dickmann:
I love that because while there are two things there that you said that I loved. And one of them was giving your corporate partners, your customers, something that somebody had made, you know, a way to really tie in the mission of what you're doing, who you're serving with something very tangible. I bet that went over really well. And then how nice to see that the gifts that you've been providing are actually making such a meaningful difference in at least one community. So that's really exciting to hear. And I'm curious, you know, you've obviously grown this business as business has gotten bigger, and we live in an era where the whole idea of perks and benefits is changing a little bit, right? You have out on the West Coast and Silicon Valley, you've got the Googles and the Facebooks who built these campuses and have cafeterias full of food. And you know, these tremendous offices where people would work. Well, now all of a sudden, people are talking about hybrid offices where they don't want to go into work, where things that were of value before are not of value today. So when you look at your business and the kinds of things that you offer in terms of the savings and the discounts, are you seeing this world of benefits and perks that companies are offering, changing or the kinds of things that they want to offer to their ultimate customers? How are you seeing the marketplace change? Travis, you want to take a stab at it?Travis Gravette:
Yeah. Brian can probably speak more to the arc over time. And I've only kind of been in this industry about three years, but I would say what we hear a lot of is local. So They want things that people are interacting with on a day-to-day basis in their community. And so that's something we've really been working on, shifting to, because the best prices on Disney, Universal, the big ticket items, those big impacts with your family, those big memorable experiences. And so corporations have always, you know, hey, we have tickets to the opera and orchestra or you know our local football team. And so we obviously once I'll tie the brand to those big life experiences. but I think what we've seen as far as a shift a little bit more is that local piece of like Hey, people are buying a smoothie on the street, you know right around the corner from their house. Uh, And I think that's even becoming a bigger thing now that remote work has grown, that teams are more dispersed and you're not as centralized. And so I think there's definitely been a lot of growth as far as wanting to provide that benefit with where they're at in their community. Anything you'll add Brian?Brian Roland:
Well, no, I think that's right on. And when it comes to, when it comes to our product, you know we've got free chips and a drink with every order at Quiznos. And so there's thousands of Quiznos locations nearby and so you subscribe your company to our service, your people, wherever they are can that perk any day. Same thing goes for you know, We've got offers from every Jiffy Lube and Firestone, and movie theater, and hundreds of theme parks. US bank is one of our long-term clients. They have 70,000 employees spread out across the country, many of them in rural places, And that's one of the reasons that they've always been very excited about the perks we offer is most perks are centralized around the corporate office. Our platform provides a single way to reach all their employees, no matter where they are. And a common trend that's very valuable for alumni associations and national membership associations, and those kinds of things as well. Perks are always going to fall under this ability to give an advantage to your people in some way that they don't have on their own. In the spectrum of advantages are always going to fall under. convenience, you're giving them more conveniences, you're making things easier from them like working from home savings. You're allowing them take something farther than they could on their own, whether that's a dollar value with your payroll, you're stretching your payroll dollars further. companies are always doing that. A lot of the advantages previously provided or these, you know, glamorous corporate offices, where you come in and have no reason to leave. And those are really selfish perks that are given because these companies are to give their employees no reason to leave. That works for a little bit, but people do see through that at a certain point. And so, it's just across the spectrum of convenience and savings, and companies will continue to do that and alter that there will always be a place for perks and extras. it's just how they're being deliberate and you know, as, the economy Kind of recedes, it becomes more and more important to give people ways to stretch their money farther so they can do a lot of the same things with less money. And you know as the economy is growing, then everybody loosens up and it becomes more about giving people access to special things and advantages in different places and flexibility, And, those are good things as well.Eric Dickmann:
Yeah I think one of the things with the pandemic, you know, it's been such a seismic shift in many ways, but we still haven't seen how everything is going to settle out and perks, and what the new working environment is going to be like, what people are truly going to value as an enhancement within their job. You know it used to be just benefits or a pension plan. And then, like you said, it was the fancy offices and the meals, and there've been perks and things like that have changed over time. But clearly with the labor shortages that we're seeing and some of people kind of looking at their job and saying that's no longer the right kind of a job for me, it's going to be interesting to see where this all settles out because I do think that people are looking at work a little differently and what they want from their employers.Brian Roland:
And I'd like to touch on that for a second, because everyone's been given a false positive on remote work. Well, remote work, it worked great for us in 2020. We sent everybody home and we were very productive and we kept going, and the team was closed, and we all had this common, like I couldn't believe it. It's like, okay, well it worked because you all had shared purpose. And shared purpose is the hidden secret to a remote team being effective. In our case over time, our shared purpose has been fighting for these kids living in extreme poverty, no matter what happens to the brand, to the business, we're going to navigate that because we're fighting for those kids. last year, the falser positive was given, everybody was fighting against COVID, everybody was rallied together. This invisible enemy is attacking us, we have to come together, we have to make it work. And as that threat dissipates, the challenge is for companies to maintain a tight knit team and a shared purpose going to be very, very difficult if they haven't built some kind of mission around their organization that everybody's fighting for, because essentially the bridges that were connecting all these islands of remote workers are. receding it's going to leave people just alone on their own islands and culture will not become healthy and you'll try to throw money and things. And you'll try to give people door dash gift cards and get them excited about, oh, I got a free lunch. Those are not the things that are going to build, get people fighting for you, and fighting for your cause. And I put together an impact plan, kind of breaking down. Hey, these are the five things that go into our social mission, that any company that wants to build a social mission around their brand can put together their own social mission around these five things. It's a free worksheet that I can give you a code so everybody can download here in a so they can think through. You know we've sent our employees home, how do we get people connecting? And really anybody right now that is doing some kind of a year-end giving with their business has a social mission, like layup right in front of them. The challenge is when you cut a check at the end of the year and you give to your local boys and girls club. one year and then the next year you get to the local food kitchen or United Way, or your church or whatever. You're not building a story that your brand can talk about. And so when you come up with a consistent plan, this is what we're going to do, this is what we were working towards. you begin to build a story, you can include your team in, that you can then expand to include your customers and your industry in, and that's what a social mission is all about, it becomes predictable, it builds trust, it builds confidence, and then it turns out it's a fantastic marketing initiative that never intended to be one.Eric Dickmann:
Yeah, I couldn't agree more. You know I've worked in companies inside an office that had a toxic corporate culture, and I've worked in remote environments where that's been a real challenge as well. Culture, whether it's remote or whether it's inside an office, takes a lot of work to sort of build something that's healthy, to have that shared purpose, so I couldn't agree more with your statements. It's not going to be a walk in the park for a lot of these hybrid environments, it's going to take a lot of active planning to make these work. You know, as we sort of wrap up the podcast here, I would love it if you could just share with people where they can find out more about the company and what you guys do, and also where they can get ahold of some of those resources that you just mentioned.Brian Roland:
Yep. Absolutely. And thanks Travis for being on this today,and having you share your part in the story. It's been awesome having you lead abenity.com is where you can find us if you're looking for perks and discounts for your people, you can get the same offers that we provide to big companies like MasterCard and US Bank, and Chick-Fil-A employees. we have a small business plan that's$150 a month for 150 employees and less. And it's kind of next day, turn on kind of thing. You can get a free month service with Code Founder 150, so go ahead and do firstname.lastname@example.org. To get my one page impact plan and my one page rules of engagement for remote teams. Um, that's a free resource that you can download. I have a phone number and a code to give you so text either Impact or Rules to my phone number here,(615) 802-6853, you'll get an auto response where you do a quick form and you'll automatically get the PDF that you can personalize for your business and start taking those steps to build a more connected remote team.Eric Dickmann:
Hey guys, that's great. I really do appreciate that. We will make sure to have all of that linked up in the show notes so that people can get access to those resources. I love what you guys are doing there with the company, I love your mission, and always enjoy talking corporate culture and what it takes to really make a good one. So it sounds like you've done some fantastic things with managing a remote team and growing your company. So thanks so much for taking the time to join us today,Travis Gravette:
Absolutely. Thank you so much.Brian Roland:
Yeah, thanks Eric. Appreciate it.Eric Dickmann:
Thank you for joining us on this episode of The Virtual CMO podcast. For more episodes, go to fiveechelon.com/podcast to subscribe through your podcast player of choice. And if you'd like to develop consistent lead flow and a highly effective marketing strategy, visit fiveechelon.com to learn more about our Virtual CMO consulting services.