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Ross Simmonds on Life Lessons from Nanna and Building a Content Distribution Engine

Ross Simmonds on Life Lessons from Nanna and Building a Content Distribution Engine

In loving memory of Onita Simmonds.

How do a grandmother’s life lessons apply to business? Ross Simmonds translates the life lessons he learned as a kid into core values that help his business and team members grow. 

As the Founder and CEO of the content marketing agency Foundation, Ross focuses on developing others, staying curious, and driving results for his clients. He talked to us about why it’s important to embrace a mindset of abundance, hire based on values, and stay true to yourself in order to succeed in both life and business.

Show Topics

  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Focus on what you can control
  • Embrace a mindset of abundance
  • Be okay with asking for help
  • Hire based on values
  • Help others unlock their full potential
  • Know when to say no
  • Create the content you want to consume
  • Stay true to who you are
  • Remember to market your content

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Key Takeaways

10:10 – Practice, practice, practice

Taking the time to master the skills you intend to teach helps bake credibility and authenticity into your content marketing.

“I would say the biggest lesson that she taught me was the importance of practice. She particularly practiced baking all of the time. She would bake up the apple pies all the time. I was a special grandkid, I think, because every Christmas I would get a pie that she would make just on the side and nobody was allowed to get it. I would come in and I knew that there would be a pie for me at the end of the day, and I would be able to leave with it. She practiced those pies all the time, and she perfected it. She let us be the taste testers. In my work, I believe, truly, that practice is key. Uh, I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t practice creating content, if I didn’t practice and experiment with different channels. Before I make a recommendation to someone, ‘Hey, you should use Reddit,’ I’m going to practice Reddit myself and try to figure out the code to Reddit, and then I’m going to educate the industry on how they can leverage Reddit to drive results. Before I start to preach about the power of Quora, I’m going to experiment with Quora and try to get a bunch of traffic to my content, and then talk about that. Before I make a recommendation on SlideShare, I’m going to make sure that my decks are generating millions of views, and then I’m going to educate people on it. So I think practice is something that I intentionally leverage, and it came from a lot of those lessons that she instilled in me at a very early age around the importance of working on your craft, staying focused on that and ignoring a lot of the noise.”

11:43 – Focus on what you can control

You can make a larger impact on your community, family, and peers by staying focused on what you can control rather than getting distracted by other pressures around you.

“There’s always drama. There’s always controversy and things you can get caught up on. The news is always spinning things a certain way, and you can get lost in it a different way. And she always said, ‘just focus on what you can control, focus on the things that you can impact, focus on your family, focus on your community, your tribe, the people who you care about. If you do that, the rest will fall into place.’ I think that is also a big lesson. I don’t allow a lot of external forces to fire me up and people get shocked by the fact [that] it takes a lot to stir me up and get me off of keel. I’m pretty much like, ‘Okay, it is what it is. Let’s focus on what matters and stay in that circle of control more than anything.’”

13:27 – Embrace a mindset of abundance 

There is enough space for everyone to thrive within the same industry because every content marketer brings their own experiences, personality, and perspective to their work.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap, to think, ‘If everyone is here in this industry, you’re going to take from me and I’m going to take from you,’ when in reality, if we can all elevate the entire industry, if we can elevate the profession, it increases the size of the pie. And if the pie gets bigger, then that’s a win-win for everyone. That’s a mindset that you really need to embrace long-term if you want to be successful. There’s enough for everyone to eat. There’s enough for everyone to win, not only internally at your company, but also externally when you look at it from a macro perspective. I think that mindset of everyone being competitive, always trying to take from each other can ultimately lead to a situation where people are cutthroat and not winning together, and people are going into a lot of negative spaces mentally and physically because of that mentality and that mindset. So for me, the idea of having that abundance mindset is key.”

17:39 – Be okay with asking for help

When you’re faced with unexpected challenges, asking for help will open the doors to creative solutions and help you go even further in the long game.

“Transparency is the key to winning, in my opinion. We laid it all out and the team showed up in an amazing way. The team said, ‘Okay, let’s go. Let’s start to get creative. Let’s find ways that we can approach the market differently,’ and we started to see interesting trends around how we could get more wins on the board. One of those were in-depth tear-downs surrounding the way in which organizations were succeeding. When we started to press publish on these pieces that we were actually putting off for a while because we didn’t really want to publish all of them, because we were like, ‘What if the industry doesn’t like them? What if the industry isn’t a fan of this approach?’ The industry fell in love with them. The industry was obsessed. When I lost all of my speaking engagements, which was a primary driver for us to go from zero employees to seven, I was like, ‘This is going to be rough.’ And we leaned into, again, the idea [of] let’s think differently. Instead of being able to go on tour and speak at a bunch of conferences and events, maybe we need to do more video content. Maybe we need to do more podcasts. Maybe we need to do a few other things. By doing that and adjusting our strategy, we were able to connect with amazing organizations, with amazing partners, and essentially grow very rapidly as a company and as a team.”

22:31 – Hire based on values

Know your company’s values inside and out so you can use them as a compass when interviewing for new team members.

“When I think about culture and building a culture, it’s a lot of repetition, but more than anything, it’s hiring based off of values. Our values are deeply rooted in the people who we try to hire and recruit. The people who we bring onto the team have to live and breathe our values. Our values are things like bring the guac, which, to the outside world, ‘What does that mean?’ Essentially, the idea is when you go to a Chipotle, you go to a Taco Bell, you go to any of those restaurants, if they give you extra guacamole and they don’t charge you, there’s no better feeling than that. In experiences that we have with people, you can give guac. When you send me an email prior to us jumping on a podcast with a bunch of things that you want us to discuss, that’s guac. You don’t have to do that, but you’ve done it. You’ve helped my life get easier by simply linking to things that that person will want to dive into. That’s guac. It’s going that extra mile. The team has heard and has talked about guac. We practice guac with our clients, etc. By simply having that concept, they started to guac it up and they started to bring a lot of guac to every engagement with every client. They brought guac to every interaction that they had with each other. It accelerated and improved where some of those elements of guac have become now a way of life. Those simple things make the world of a difference.”

24:48 – Help others unlock their full potential

When you spend resources on developing others, either through your content or internally with your team, you help people succeed in their careers and their lives.

“We place a lot of emphasis on developing people. At the end of the day for me, this is going to be morbid, but I think about death a lot. When I think about death, at the end of the day, there’s only so many years that I’m going to have on this earth. When we fast forward 200 years, no one’s going to even remember me. It’s not going to be a memory. But it would be kind of cool to know that at this thing that I have kind of worked on and developed and built, this organization, it helped people unlock their own full potential, even if it’s a stepping stone. I don’t care if somebody’s at Foundation for three months. I don’t care if somebody’s at Foundation for three years. If the time in which you are in our energy world, we’re able to help you unlock something that helps you get closer to being where you want to be, helps you become a better marketer, helps you become a better teacher, helps you become a better parent, a better partner, helps you become a better human, I’m going to die very happy. If I can have that type of an impact on people through content or internally, it’s a win-win. So having a culture where that mindset is also throughout the entire org helps people step up to the plate because they know that, in many ways, I want them to eat. It’s the mantra that Nanna shared. I want everyone to eat. I want everyone to win. So they want to, and they lean into it and they show up in a major way. I think trying to facilitate that type of culture is key.”

28:35 – Know when to say no

Revenue is always a win—unless it comes at the expense of your mental health. 

“We had this great yet horrible idea where we were like, ‘Okay, we need to just get revenue in the door. So, what’s an easy thing we can do to get revenue in the door?’ Give available low-cheap cost access to Ross. Everyone would take that. Why wouldn’t they take that? So we were going to launch a product where people could pay, I think it was a hundred bucks. For a hundred dollars, I would do an hour consult with anyone, and we were going to try to max it out. We were like, all right, how many of those do we need to do? If we did a hundred of them, we would make 10k. I was like, ‘Okay. Yeah, I can do a hundred calls.’ Then I realized that would kill me. That would be absolutely brutal for my mental health. That would have ruined me completely. In that moment I realized maybe we can do it. The team got to a conclusion where it’s like, ‘No, this doesn’t actually make too much sense.’ And I was like, ‘You’re right. It doesn’t.’”

31:38 – Create the content you want to consume

Ross is a big fan of reverse-engineering the success of others. It started as a professional tool, and now he applies it to the content he creates. 

“The process for those starts with an innate deep curiosity. I develop them with a desire to understand what’s going on at some of these orgs. For years, the idea of reverse engineering success and using that to guide success has been something that I’ve used in my career at large. I can remember back when I first graduated from university and studying the LinkedIn accounts of some of the most successful marketers and thinking through, ‘How did they get to this role of CMO?’ and trying to figure out what they did to get there. A lot of them started in the agency world. So I said, ‘I need to get a job in the agency world,’ because when they got into this industry in 1980, they were at an agency. So, that’s the path that I need to follow. Reverse engineering things has been something that I’ve done across so many different channels, whether it’s reverse engineering how to be successful on Reddit or Quora or LinkedIn, etc. All of these things come from reverse engineering. So with this, in the deep dive teardowns, it was applying something that I’d love to do, which is just learn and figure things out, but doing it in public and telling a story across it while pressing publish on these pieces so more people can learn from them.”

35:29 – Stay true to who you are

Embrace your unique personality traits and quirks to set your content marketing apart from the rest of the industry.

“I definitely try to stay true to who I am, which is a black guy who grew up on hip-hop. I embrace that with my content. I can remember some of my blog posts. One of my early ones was How to ensure that your headline will work, work, work, work, work,’ which was a play off of a Rihanna track. The internet was like, ‘What is this? This is different.’ But it was fun for me. I also had a piece, ‘How to take your Instagram account from zero to 100 real quick, real quick,’ which is a reference to Drizzy. I inject that stuff into my content because it’s me staying true to who I am. It’s so easy for our industry to see that so-and-so is doing something a certain way. I need to now sound like so-and-so because so-and-so is getting traction on their content. And then you find out that everyone sounds the same. It’s boring. If I can take your avatar and throw it on everybody else’s tweets and it all sounds the same, then you’re just blurring. Try to figure it out: What is different about you? What’s your different angle? What is unique about you? We all have it. Just own it.”

40:30 – Remember to market your content

Strategically distributing your published content allows your work to go farther and grow your audience faster — it’s the marketing part of content marketing.

“What I would say on the agency front is our biggest differentiator is our focus on distribution. Over the last few years, marketers, gurus, etc., have preached so frequently about content marketing that we’ve forgotten the word ‘marketing’ at the end of content marketing, and we’ve solely started to just create content. We press publish on a blog post. We press publish on a landing page. Our job is done. We’re successful. Congratulations. Everybody pop the bottles of champagne. But what’s being forgotten is the marketing element of our industry. And the marketing element is one, the research that goes into picking the content you create, and two, actually marketing the content that you develop and thinking about how that content can be spread across LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Quora, Tiktok, you name it. That part is so underestimated and so untapped that that’s where we find our value. When someone comes to us, a lot of our clients are saying, ‘We’ve been publishing 20, 10, 15 blog posts a month, and we’re not getting a lot of traction.’ We say, ‘What do you do after you press publish?’ ‘We send out a tweet. We send out a post on LinkedIn,’ but that’s where it ends. In reality, what should be happening is that content then going through a distribution playbook and a distribution engine, which is something that we work with organizations on, but it’s essentially taking those assets and spreading them into the communities and into the channels in which your audience is spending time.”

Listen to more episodes of The Long Game podcast here

David Khim

David is co-founder and CEO of Omniscient Digital. He previously served as head of growth at and Fishtown Analytics, and before that was growth product manager at HubSpot where he worked on new user acquisition initiatives to scale the product-led go-to-market.