I had the pleasure of interviewing Zach Clayton. As Founder & CEO of Three Ships a digital marketing holding company that works with leading brands as a performance marketing agency; Three Ships has launched a set of media businesses such as MattressAdvisor.com, HouseMethod.com, and RemedyReview.com. Zach is a Harvard Business School grad and he’s successfully exited two businesses already.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was in college, I thought I wanted to work at a newspaper. But between 2007 (when I graduated UNC) and 2009 (when I graduated Harvard Business School), all the newspaper businesses completely collapsed. I started Three Ships as a digital marketing company, because it was a way to be in an industry I liked and a business model I could cash flow.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Maybe the most interesting experience was our client International Culinary Center was restructuring and asked me to be interim Chief Marketing Officer for five or six months. That experience changed my perspective because in a sense, I became my customer. I think every entrepreneur should try to have that experience of “becoming your customer.” It gives you empathy and ultimately sharpens and refines your value proposition.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We did too much stuff at the outset. There is a saying that more businesses die of indigestion than starvation. Our first year, we were buying Facebook ads, writing blogs, serving b2c companies and b2b companies and publishing research. It was too much. We had to learn to focus. And that meant we had to stop doing certain things. There is a natural cycle of flare and focus, but it’s harder for most entrepreneurs to say “no” than “yes.”

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We always start by understanding our customers’ economics and actually turn down more than ⅔ of the client opportunities we vet. We basically don’t want to work with someone unless we’re confident we can earn a great return on investment for them.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

The best recipe to avoid burnout is to focus your work on the types of activities that fascinate you and give you endless energy. If you like working with clients, don’t spend your time on accounting. It will wear you out.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I’ve been really fortunate to have Bill George as a mentor. Bill was CEO of Medtronic and is now a professor at Harvard Business School. He’s one of the most insightful people I’ve ever met, and I always learn something each time we’re together.

Bill asked me to help him with writing and editing his newest book, Discover Your True North. We did more than a hundred interviews of leaders to understand how they developed. I remember sitting in Bill’s office and just marveling at his uncanny ability to cut to the heart of a leadership issue. He could just see inside people’s heads and understand what motivated them and how they were thinking. That level of perceptiveness is something all entrepreneurs should work to grow and develop.

Are you working on any exciting projects now?

Yes, we are fired up about three projects right now:

  • MattressAdvisor.com is doing ratings and reviews to help people find the best mattress for them. We have literally had about 100 mattresses in our office. We built a mattress lab, and have been putting these mattresses through Navy SEAL camp to see which is the best.
  • House Method is creating awesome original content on how to create a better home and a better life. It’s also doing home warranty reviews and vacuum reviews and rating products in these types of home categories where consumers want real guidance rather than sorting through 10,000 Amazon user comments.
  • Remedy Review is our effort to advance natural health. We are tired of reading about opioid addiction and the problems of synthetic drugs, and we want to inform readers about better and more natural ways to promote health such as essential oils, CBD, and other natural remedies.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our mission is to unlock the full potential of our team and clients. We want to create an environment where people can learn, grow, and flourish. When we do that, our team members grow in their careers and our clients grow their business. In the community, last year, we donated more than $50,000 to charitable organizations. We are looking at becoming a B-Corp as well.

Can you share 5 examples of how retail companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to shop?

  1. More retailers are starting direct-to-consumer products. For example, WalMart has a fantastic group of people in New York City incubating new products and selling them DtC.
  2. More retailers or consumer product holding companies will buy the upstart brands with strong direct-to-consumer distribution. Unilever recently bought Dollar Shave Club. In my hometown of Raleigh, FilterEasy is growing rapidly. They ship you new air filters when your current ones need to be replaced.
  3. You’ll see the “sharing economy” in more categories that you can imagine. I talked to an entrepreneur who wanted to create a WeWork for barbershops. A stylist could rent a chair by the week. This type of business we allow service providers, like stylists, to become entrepreneurs vs. employees.
  4. As Google and Facebook advertising inventory gets more expensive, brands will work to build more direct relationships with consumers and partner to cross-sell. If it costs $500 in marketing costs to sell a mattress via Google, maybe mattress companies will decide to start doing referral deals with furniture companies that are selling bed frames or moving companies.
  5. The next wave of categories, such as mortgage brokers and insurance agents, will be disrupted. You used to need a travel agent and now everyone uses Kayak or Expedia. That same thing is going to happen in financial services. It will even start happening in consumer healthcare. Instead of waiting an hour at the pediatrician’s office, you’ll use Pacify.com to facetime a nurse.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would create a free online university taught by the greatest minds of our generation, that anyone could attend. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush would teach political science. Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg would teach tech entrepreneurship. The Pope and Dalai Lama would teach world religions. You could essentially democratize the experience of attending one of the world’s great universities … and provide a pathway where anyone in the United States could learn from the best and not incur debt to do it.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I have been hibernating on social media to spend more time with my wife and 2 young boys!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Originally published at medium.com