Decoding Digital

Reframing Failure and How Eric Siu Reached Multi-Million Dollar Success

By Ideas @ AppDirect / August 3, 2021

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Eric Siu is a legend and respected thought leader in the growth marketing space. He hosts two podcasts—”Leveling Up” and “Marketing School” with co-host Neil Patel—and is CEO of two companies, including ClickFlow, a content intelligence platform helping companies improve their SEO, which he co-founded.

Eric is also the Chairman of Single Grain, a company he bought for just two dollars when it was on the brink of collapse. Today, that company is worth millions. He shared how he nurtured the failing agency into a multi-million-dollar digital marketing agency.

In this episode of “Decoding Digital,” Eric talks openly about failure, success, and transforming a company from nothing into a thriving business. He also shares his thoughts on the most powerful “power-ups”—a concept from his book, “Leveling Up: How To Master The Game of Life”—that people can use to be more successful.

Hit play to hear the podcast episode or read on to find out more.

Reframing, reprogramming, and gaming

In his book, Eric isn’t afraid to be vulnerable and share how people have put him down for perceived failures in the past. But, he also explained how he’s shifted his mindset to reframe these negative comments. He calls it reprogramming.

“Whatever I'm getting from people, that's fuel because long-term, it's going to make me stronger.”

His lightbulb moment came through gaming. He realized there were parallels to sports—both in the drawbacks and benefits—that could teach you how to navigate life. By reframing gaming in this way, Eric reprogrammed how he tackled challenges in his day-to-day life, seeing them more as puzzles to solve.

“Games started to teach me how to reframe everything. I realized oh, all the stuff I'm learning, teamwork, camaraderie, perseverance, finding the best team […] you gain all those benefits too.”

Now Eric says he views life as “the ultimate game”—and business comes a close second.

How to improve your performance with “power-ups”

In his book, Eric leans into this “life as a game” approach, detailing 15 “power-ups” that you can use to improve your performance throughout all areas of your life. These could be positive habits, mental models, or “life hacks.” When asked what his most powerful power-up was, Eric said thievery.

“We all like to think that we're original, and we hold that to be very sacred. But in reality […] we're all just learning from each other.”

Eric shared a story about how observing a competitor in a gaming championship when he was just 12 years old helped him improve his performance. From then on, he looked to others, even his competitors, as people he could learn from.

“Ethically stealing,” as Eric puts it, is how we iterate and build on what already exists. For example, we see the SpaceX rockets as a huge innovation. However, they have a fundamentally similar base design to those launched in the 60s.

Other power-ups Eric noted as particularly powerful for him are the “apprentice mentality” and “endurance.” The apprentice mentality is where you take a beginner’s approach to learn from the ground up. It can help you get a deeper understanding and make you more open to changing your views. Endurance is a quality that can help you get through life much easier, especially if you’re an entrepreneur, says Eric.

The 15 power-ups detailed in the book are just a starting point. According to Eric, there could be thousands which you could “unlock” to help you progress faster, reach your goals, and make your life easier.

How to move forward when you get stuck

There’s often an impression that leaders like Eric bounce from success to success, but Eric says he’s constantly making tweaks and iterations to keep himself from getting stuck. When he does hit a roadblock, Eric takes two approaches. The first is research. Eric will turn to Google or ask people for their advice. If that fails, his next approach is to “brute force it.”

Similar to his endurance power-up, Eric believes that persistence is key to getting what you want. His podcast is a perfect example of how his long-term persistence paid off. After the first year, Eric’s podcast was getting nine downloads a day. After the second year, that number increased to 30. Now, it’s at 1.6 million downloads a month.

“It just takes time to compound, two to three years. And it’s the same with business. I find it usually takes three years to get something going unless you hit lightning in a bottle the first year. And usually, if it's lightning in a bottle, the majority of the time, it's easy come easy go.”

Unfortunately, people focus on those big numbers and then worry that their business isn’t performing as it should. Growing a podcast from just nine downloads a month to a whopping 1.6 million is a great headline, says Eric, but it’s not representative of the journey. His advice is to only worry about your progress and not compare yourself to others.

“I think it's really easy to compare your chapter one to someone else's chapter 25. I think there's a comparison game. We all play […] it's just human psychology. It's human programming, right? It becomes overwhelming when you compare yourself to someone else. So it's just easier to do you versus you one percent better every single day.”

Transforming a failing company into a multi-million-dollar agency

Eric says that the best headlines are those that show remarkable results, for example, “How I bought a company for two dollars and turned it into a successful agency.” That’s Eric’s self-proclaimed most remarkable result: the story of how he transformed Single Grain.

When his “Marketing School” podcast co-host Neil Patel first approached Eric about “saving” a failing SEO agency, Eric initially scoffed at the idea. However, his reframing mentality kicked in and helped him see the benefits of the new revenue stream. But there was one catch: He would have to make the agency a success first.

Six months into the venture, the other partners wanted out and encouraged Eric to abandon the “sinking ship” too. He decided to go it alone. He bought out the other partners for a total of two dollars with the view that the company was already at rock bottom, so the potential could be limitless.

After Eric took over the company, things went from bad to worse. They dropped down to just one employee and Eric’s accounting advisors told him to shut it down. This was the lowest point, Eric says. Then, things started to change when the website’s SEO began to work.

“We were getting a lot of leads coming in, but we had nobody to fulfill them. So I'd refer all the leads out to another agency, and we found out that they would do a good job with closing but they couldn't retain. So I thought, okay, what's the next level above that?”

Eric continued to “level up” the business. He progressed to hiring contractors, then with the increased resources, brought back full-time employees, and finally converted the SEO agency into a paid media agency specializing in technology companies.

“Then we were getting all the leads, the Ubers, the Amazons of the world, and we were actually closing them. The company just kept snowballing from there and then the whole thesis played out.”

Today, Single Grain is a thriving business and Eric remains the CEO. But given the chance to do it all again, he says he wouldn’t. He’d rather use the power-ups he’s learned and level up a successful business from scratch.

To hear more from Eric on cognitive psychology, leadership, and brand strategies, listen to his interview with Daniel Saks on the “Decoding Digital” podcast.

Check out the “Decoding Digital” podcast series for more insights from inspirational thought leaders and digital innovators. You can listen to the podcast on your favorite podcast app, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.