118. How to Turn Your Passions into a Career

Dave Knox is a leading consultant, speaker, author, and coach in the areas of innovation, marketing, and digital transformation. As Chief Marketing Officer at Rockfish, Dave helped the company become one of the fastest-growing agencies in the country, going from $8 million in revenue in 2010 to more than $70 million in revenue in 2016. At the same time, Dave co-founded The Brandery, one of the top 10 startup accelerators in the US.

In today’s episode, we’re going to discuss Dave’s entrepreneurial journey and how he was able to use his experience to give back to his community.

Dave’s Entrepreneurial Journey

From a young age, Dave had a passion for entrepreneurship. He knew taking a minimum wage job wouldn’t get him to where he wanted to go so, at the age of 15, he decided to become certified as a FIFA referee and took charge of advertising for his high school yearbook. During the first summer, he made $4,500 — $5,000 in commissions from selling the yearbook ads, just enough to buy his first car.

In 1999, Miami University in Ohio had one of the earliest undergraduate entrepreneurship programs so Dave took the opportunity and went there to study marketing and business. During his entrepreneurship program, he worked for a record label. That summer, Dave worked with brand management and marketing, continually increasing his passion for entrepreneurship. However, his mentor told him that while it was great to have passion, we also need to have capability, credibility, and differentiation. What is going to make us stand out?

Even though Dave had the passion, he didn’t have the experience or expertise. Over the course of the next few years, he pursued jobs that would help him build his credentials. He worked at P&G as an assistant brand manager for Secret deodorant and at 26 and became the marketing leader of $900 million worth of business. He ended up spending most of his twenties doing that and in the process, he’d grown as a marketer, business leader, and entrepreneur.

Dave lived by the mantra, “Your twenties are for learning and your thirties are for doing.” Shortly after he turned 30, he decided it was time to start doing. He took the leap to join Rockfish, a marketing and advertising agency, as marketing lead, and by the time he left, he’d helped the company become one of the fastest-growing agencies in the country, going from $8 million of revenue in 2010 to more than $70 million in 2016.

At the same time, Dave, along with co-founders, launched The Brandery. During the day he worked for a high growth-company on one side while he moonlighted to help launch a startup accelerator to help other entrepreneurs.

Turning Our Passion into a Career

Just because we have a passion, doesn’t mean we have the ability to turn it into a career. When Dave first started on his entrepreneurial journey, he had the passion but was lacking other essential skills. His mentor told him that while passion is important, we also need to have the capability, credibility, and something that makes us unique. If we can meet all four of these elements, we have the potential to become successful entrepreneurs and do what we love.

1. Increase Capability

“Don’t chase after success, chase after capability. If you are capable of anything, then success will be chasing you.”

– Unknown

The first thing we need to do once we have a passion we want to pursue is increasing our capability. We need to learn and build our skills. We need to become qualified.

When Dave discovered his passion for entrepreneurship, he pursued knowledge. The first step he took was enrolling in Miami University’s entrepreneurship program. He had the desire and drive to learn more and become better. Since then, he has been on a continual journey of growth.

We have to remember that capability does not come easily. Dave’s mantra was, “Your twenties are for learning and your thirties are for doing.” He spent 10 years of his career simply learning and developing his skills. If we can have that same type of commitment and dedication to our passions, our chances of success will increase. Napoleon Hill, an American self-help author, said, “There is a difference between wishing for a thing and being ready to receive it.” We cannot use our passion as a crutch for laziness. We have to put in the time and work it takes to increase our capability.

2. Build Credibility

“Credibility is a leader’s currency. With it, he or she is solvent; without it he or she is bankrupt.”

– John C. Maxwell

Once we have become capable in whatever we are pursuing, we should start building credibility. Credibility has become essential in today’s digital marketplace. With the internet and new technology, so many people have the tools to build a business. Anyone can become a social media influencer, anyone can write a book, and anyone can build a website. What makes us credible if anyone can become anything? How do we build our trust with our customers?

We can build our credibility by becoming thought leaders and showing the world we are an expert in our industry. We do this by continually producing content and getting our thoughts out there. We can write blogs, attend conferences, write books, host webinars, etc. We can build credibility by networking with the right people and getting our name associated with other experts and big companies. There are a million ways we can build our credibility, but it all comes down to trust. How can we foster trust with our customers? This will take time, but when our customers trust us, we become more credible and more likely to achieve our goals.

3. Differentiate Ourselves

“If you want to be around in 10 years, you’ve got to do something to differentiate yourself from the pack.”

– Chris Evans

Finally, we have to make ourselves unique. Like I mentioned above, the market is saturated with the stuff. There are hundreds of brands selling the same thing, and thousands more selling something better. We need to differentiate ourselves and become unique if we want to stand out. We can start by asking ourselves, “What value do I offer that no one else does? In what ways am I different from the big brands already out there?”

Part of our personal branding should be tied to what makes us unique. We can take this as a selling point and use it to market ourselves. If we are just like everyone else, no one will notice us. If we are odd and unique, they will stop and stare.

Leaving a Legacy through Entrepreneurship

Dave took his passion and turned it into a career by learning, increasing his skill sets, building trust, and making himself stand out. Once he did this, he had a chance to really make a difference.

When I asked Dave to share his greatest home run at The Brandery, he said he defined the entire journey as the home run. Dave explained how The Brandery was sometimes a misunderstood adventure.

When Dave launched The Brandery with his co-founders, it was one of the first 30 startup accelerators at the time. All accelerators had a similar model: to give some cash and receive maybe 5–6% equity.

However, one of the ways The Brandery was different was that it was a nonprofit. For every company it invested in, for which it got that 6% equity in exchange, none of it went to any of the founders. Instead, it went to a nonprofit called Main Street Ventures. Dave believed that their goal and vision for The Brandery was to support entrepreneurs in pursuing their passions. This way, that 6% equity could have a much greater impact for good.

What The Brandery succeeded to do was to fund an endowment that would forever support entrepreneurs. Over those years, they had about 100 companies go through The Brandery. Some of them were very successful which was a double benefit. Dave and his co-founders were doing this because they wanted to support businesses and create jobs in Cincinnati. When those businesses become successful, they’d have good financial outcomes that would be recycled back to Main Street Ventures.

“Today,” Dave said, “Main street Ventures is sitting on an endowment, [so] that we can continue to support entrepreneurs. We’re not doing it necessarily through the model of an accelerator any more. And that was intentional because we knew … models change and evolve. But … we were able to use those funds, for instance, that when we saw all the restaurants struggling so bad, during COVID-19 … we were able to be part of a group that gave pretty large grants to restaurants across the Cincinnati area that were funded, started by entrepreneurs, to keep going and to buy gift cards and support, and do different things like that. We’re able to do grants to new emerging companies that aren’t ready to go raise money, but they’ve got something and they just need that little help to get them to the next phase.”

Dave believes the best part of the overall journey of The Brandery was seeing the vision that they had in 2010 come true in 2020 as they had those successes that built upon themselves over the years.

I love how Dave took one of his top passions, entrepreneurship, and created a way that he could give back and help others within that passion as well.

Key Takeaways

Thank you so much Dave for sharing your stories and knowledge with us today. Here are some of my key takeaways from this episode:

1. We should be passionate about what we do and where we want to go, but we also need capability, credibility, and differentiation.

2. As aspiring and ancient entrepreneurs, we need to increase our capability constantly. We need to learn and build our skills and become qualified.

3. When our customers trust us, we become more credible and more likely to achieve our goals.

4. Part of our personal branding should be tied to what makes us unique. We can take this as a selling point and use it to market ourselves. If we are just like everyone else, no one will notice us. If we are odd and unique, they will stop and stare.

5. An important part of entrepreneurship is giving back to our community once we find success.

Connect with Dave

If you enjoyed this interview and want to learn more about Dave or connect with him, you can find him on LinkedIn. You can also visit his website at PredictingTheTurn.com or his company’s website, NaturesWillowBalm.com.

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Nathan Gwilliam helps entrepreneurs and digital marketers transform into better digital monetizers with revolutionary marketing and monetization strategies.