Erin Bury is a staple in the Canadian tech and marketing scene. She was one of the first community managers that I had encountered, and always placed in the “cusp-of-something-big” category. Being one of the early thought leaders in the space, she ran community and communications unabashedly for Sprouter (later acquired by Postmedia), and journeyed through startup maturity before many of us really knew what that looked like.
You’ll catch Erin on TV, in the paper, and all over social media. She has a sharpness paired with an approachability that makes you want to ask pointed questions, to see what you’ll uncover.
You’re a Marketing Magazine 30 under 30, with a startup acquisition under your belt. Many entrepreneurs have mixed feelings about what an acquisition experience is really like. What was it like to go through something that people perceive to be fantastic and allegedly successful?
I didn’t know that startups were something you could do. I was working at an agency before I joined Sprouter, and I loved it. Sarah [Prevette] had worked with my mom, and she had approached me about joining her business. She needed a community manager, which was a new role at the time. You look back at those moments and you realize you could make a decision that could change your life, or do nothing. It was during the height of the recession in 2007. I said yes, joined, and I realized it was a catalyst for all the things that happened in my career thus far.
There’s no blueprint. You’re tasked with something like “getting more people to use the product”. It was such a blank slate – do whatever you can do to grow the company, and here are your goals. How do you position the company as a thought leader in the community?
We were three people for two and a half years. Our acquisition wasn’t a straight acquisition, we had run out of money and shut down, then announced that we were being acquired. I had a three month limbo. Things ended up panning out with the acquisition and we grew the team from there.
Long story short, two and a half years after that, a combination of lack of integration and growth caused for the team to move on from the company.
You went to school for journalism, and it was always clear that you had a sharp media-savvy profile to you. How did that lead to where you are now, leading an agency?
My parents were both journalism grads, and I knew that I wanted to start with a journalism degree and move into marketing. Full stop. When I got out of school and got a job in marketing, that’s when I realized I had my whole life planned out, but I didn’t plan what would happen after I got there. I went through my life on torpedo. Then when I got it, I had to figure out…what’s the next 10 years look like?
“I went through my life on torpedo. Then when I got it, I had to figure out…what’s the next 10 years look like?”
You combined all the different interest points into your career. Did you ever question at any point if that was still a passion?
Startups are beautiful because they allow you to work on all these different areas that a “journalist/marketer” wouldn’t typically pick up. But it’s also hard because once you master and grow out of it…there’s nowhere to go. At a startup you realize resourcefulness is your best quality. It was just about remembering that even though the day to day might start to look the same, I was able to organize 500 person events, and travel to places like Paris and LA for conferences.
“At a startup you realize resourcefulness is your best quality.”
You have to recognize when people are restless. People naturally outgrow their roles. The strength of any company is recognizing when people are ready to move up and on. It’s natural.
How did Eighty-Eight come about, after the Postmedia acquisition?
My passion is when not one person in the world knows your brand, and building it from there. It was the case with Sprouter and BetaKit. With all of the changes that were happening with Postmedia and the company that we had started, I came to a point where I had to decide on my direction. Eighty-Eight came about at the right inflection point. Matt, who founded BuzzBuzzHome and owns Eighty-Eight was looking for someone to run it. I knew that my strength is brand building, and I had the opportunity to do that here.
When I joined it was about four people, and now we’re at about 11. We don’t plan on being huge, and my passion is with small teams.
It seems like you step into these roles and take complete ownership in driving them. How do you do something with no roadmap or users, with confidence and understand what the value is to sell to others?
If anyone ever tells you that they aren’t scared about taking on a new role before they do, they’re lying. I thought people would see right through me when starting at Sprouter. It’s not about how smart you are or where you went to school – it’s about resourcefulness. Being willing to find an answer to a problem without involving everyone in the organization, and being creative. Everyone has insecurities. I still compare myself with others, and everyone still has imposter syndrome.
“Everyone has insecurities. I still compare myself with others, and everyone still has imposter syndrome.”
How do you cope with your own doubt when you look in the mirror when you wake up in the morning?
I remember one of the first times I did a speaking engagement, I said immediately after to someone in the audience that I felt nervous, and wondered if they could tell. No one could tell. Those insecurities make you better at what you do. When you’re insecure it makes you want to learn more, it makes you want to improve. If you’re complacent, you won’t push yourself to do better, to do more. Insecurity being translated externally is where you face problems. You have to be confident in meetings, presentations. I’m confident because there’s a reason people trust me to run this agency. There’s a reason my employees don’t quit. We have a good thing going, and I’m confident in that.
You have to remember a lot of it is in your head, and everything is going well. I’ve experienced failure really hard twice. It wasn’t a bad thing, both times. There was an opportunity that always came out of failure.
“When you’re insecure it makes you want to learn more, it makes you want to improve.”
What do you do at challenging / inflection points to decide to be positive? In hard times, our nature is to cuddle up in a fur blanket at home and gorge our feelings away. What keeps you out of that headspace?
I’m a really positive person…I’m not negative or pessimistic. My boyfriend calls me Mary Poppins. It’s not to say that I don’t have bad days or get angry, I just have an inherently positive outlook. Being positive is a choice. The older you get the harder it is. You’re allowed to mope for a day. But what do you do the next day?
One thing I’ve always been curious about you is that you’ve always been very visible. Whether it was written or on camera outlets, people might see being a public figure as unattainable, or nerve-wracking. How do you manage your visibility and talk about subjects that are uncomfortable (financial), or require immediate reaction (tech)?
If you offered me a choice between a million dollars and the being on the nightly news, I would pick the news. I love the idea of being out there and providing commentary. Being in the media is something you get used to. For anything written, you can be a little more thoughtful, whereas on TV there’s a live audience.
One inspiration was Oprah [who has retweeted Erin] – she has so many media that she disseminates her message through. Every great personal brand has a catch phrase, or iconic message. I tried to apply those lessons to my own brand.
I’ve always struggled with whether or not something was my personal passion or my brand. My passions are travel, eating delicious food, and Netflix (it’s an actual passion, I promise). But then when I looked at what I had become known for, it was small business and technology. I had to reconcile this idea that personal vs. professional passions don’t have to be the same. What’s your unique selling proposition? For me, not many own the “women in technology” media profile. People always want women on their panels and in speaking engagements. I see the biggest opportunity there.
“You have to go where the opportunity is.”
What’s the Eighty-Eight experience like now?
We’ve been behind one off campaigns like the Rob Ford Missing Poster on Jimmy Kimmel, and Agency or Porn. Part of the motivation for what we do is to create cool work, have you hear about our cool work, and you hire us because you want someone that can do that for you. I love the idea of creating a reputation for doing interesting things across multiple industries.
It’s my baby now, I’m responsible for its success. It’s this amazing challenge that excites me more than anything. I’m so proud of what we’ve done the last couple of years.
Do you see yourself becoming an entrepreneur and tying it into your personal brand one day?
You mean what do I want to be when I grow up one day? I saw what the drain of being an entrepreneur was like during my startup experience, working 24/7. It’s lonely, it’s hard. I don’t know if I’m ready for that and I don’t want to do something for the sake of it. You should start a business because you’re so passionate about an idea and you can’t believe it doesn’t exist yet.
I feel like people now have so much pressure to succeed early on because of stories like Mark Zuckerberg. Some people don’t find their success until later on, like Martha Stewart at 50. Some people can sit in a room and think of their “Uber for Blank” ideas, but I don’t think that’s how the best ideas get started. I think it’s when you have a problem in your life, and you create a solution. I saw Biz Stone speak once and he said that every great business idea starts with “Wouldn’t it be awesome if…”
“You could have that big idea tomorrow.”