This article is being shared with the permission of Funeral Service Insider.
Ryan Thogmartin, the 37-year-old owner and CEO of DISRUPT Media, isn’t at all satisfied with his company recently earning a spot on the coveted Inc. 5000 list, which lists the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in the United States.
“Inc. 500 … my scope is locked in on that and has been from the start,” he says, referring to the top 500 companies based on percentage of revenue growth rate, according to Inc. magazine.
Those are bold words from a man who a handful did not take seriously earlier in his career – with some critics pointing out his tendency to wear lots of “bling,” sneakers and designer jeans in a buttoned-up profession.
Thogmartin knows his style doesn’t “fit” the profession, but he remains unfazed.
“For someone to degrade me publicly online for dressing differently then they do, they must have something troubling going on in their own life,” Thogmartin says. “That sucks and I feel for them. I have a pretty thick skin also, so that helps. You can’t dress the way I do and expect everyone to accept it.”
“When your company name is DISRUPT. you’re forced to disrupt,” he says. “My style and energy does just that. It’s uncomfortable for people and I’m good with that – they need to come out of their comfort zone when thinking about marketing their business. The other thing I’ll say isI want to be unbelievably authentic – to be who I am. I dress the same for business as I do in day-to-day life. It’s who I am. I’m not doing this for show – I’m building my brand and that has to be 100% authentic.”
We recently caught up with Thogmartin, who also owns the ConnectingDirectors.com portal, to chat with him about social media, making the Inc. 5000 list and his plans for the future. Edited excerpts follow.
How gratifying was it to be named on the Inc. 5000 list … and when do you think you will make the Inc. 500?
Making the list was gratifying personally, but I was more gratified because this is a huge team win. Everyone in the profession knows who I am, but DISRUPT Media is much, much, more than just me. You don’t make this list as an individual. Everyone on our team played a part.
What did you do before launching DISRUPT Media … and how did you first get interested in social media?
I have always been entrepreneurial. I was the kid that flipped candy and gum out of my locker or ran NCAA March Madness pools. I launched a marketing company the week after graduating high school. I was naturally good at establishing an identity and building a brand. I had a passion for helping small businesses embrace online marketing in 2001, when it was new and unknown. I love story- telling and helping brands create that identity that makes them different.
I ran that company during my freshman year at college, dropped out that summer to focus on the business and sold it three years later. I then went to work for my father-in-law’s Wilbert burial vault franchise doing sales and marketing. A few years later, I launched ConnectingDirectors.com, where I wrote a lot of marketing content. Five years later, I left the vault company and launched DISRUPT Media.
Social media was a natural evolution of early digital marketing, and it’s a natural fit for how we want to engage as humans. Helping brands tap into that makes me happy, because when they follow the plan, the results are serious defining moments for their business.
I have always had a passion for marketing and sales. The skills that you need to be successful in that niche really came natural to me. It makes sense. I’m blessed to be able to live it every day.
Looking back at your career, it seems you pivoted from focusing on ConnectingDirectors.com, a news portal, to managing social media … was that a very cognizant pivot … or did it just happen?
I want to be clear, I am still heavily focused on ConnectingDirectors.com. It’s a platform that reaches more funeral professionals, overnight than anything else on the planet. That said, ConnectingDirectors.com needed to come before DISRUPT. I needed an outlet to build my personal brand and relationships in the profession. If I started talking about social media first, in 2007, without anyone knowing who I was, DISRUPT never would have gotten off the ground. ConnectingDirectors.com and DISRUPT Media operate hand-in- hand. Together they are a powerful machine.
How critical has your family – and the support of your family been – to your success? Do you envision your children someday taking over the business?
The support of my wife (Khali) and daughters (Kihryn, 14, and Kwynce, 12) has been a huge component of success. Having a husband and father that is an entrepreneur requires a lot of sacrifice. I miss events, I miss bedtimes, I miss dinner and the list can go on and on. There is no such thing as a true vacation – it’s a 24/7/365 gig and they didn’t sign up for that. However, as a family, we have a plan for what we want life to be and the four of us are aligned in that plan, kids included. They have a voice and get to share their opinions. My wife is chief operating officer of the company and CEO of our family. That support allows me to be me. It’s also a blessing that the kids love conventions because it’s a joy to be able to have them involved.
I would be equally as happy if my kids wanted to run the business or go explore their own path. Currently, they both have their own passions and life goals (we focus a lot as a family on personal development and mindset so these are conversations we have often) and my wife and I will fully support their decisions. They both have entrepreneurial gifts, and I want them to use those gifts to create their own happiness.
How did you learn so much about social media in the first place … college, self-taught, books … a combination of all the above?
Basically, you can learn anything you want to through a Google search. That said, I don’t believe social media can be taught in a classroom or through a book. By the time the lesson is taught or the book is published, the game has changed. Social media marketing is fluid and the best teacher is doing. Yes, marketing tactics and brand building principals apply but doing the work, testing, failing and succeeding will always be the best teachers. That’s how I learned and am still learning. I’m living it every day with by personal brand and with my business brands. I think it's hard to learn from someone that isn’t practicing what they are preaching. A mentor once said to me, ‘You can’t take money and wealth building advice from someone who has neither,’ and I think marketing is the same. If you’re not doing it and living it and succeeding with it, then you can’t sell it or teach it.
How many employees do you have – and do you use a lot of independent contractors? How big do you think DISRUPT Media can get?
Great question! It’s wild to have conversations with new clients, and they really have no idea just how big our team really is. Most of the profession only sees me. I really don’t have a problem being front and center.
We have a team of 25 full-time employees and two independent contractors (who were in-house employees but moved). Our team consists of communication, content writers, graphic designers, videographers, an animator, analytics, paid media and programmers. Our team is consistently growing, and I really believe the sky is the limit. Marketing is a fluid process, things are changing daily, content that’s hot is changing, the consumer’s interest in content changes, and that requires different pieces to our team to be added. I’ll be honest, when I created that first organizational chart, a full-time animator wasn’t part of it, but that is now a very valuable piece that separates us from other marketing companies.
What would you love to offer that you currently do not offer clients … and can we expect that soon?
I would love to be everything to every funeral home and cemetery, but that’s not what would be best for the profession. When we can be laser focused on one thing and everything we do is centered on doing that one thing the best we possibly can, then that is where we are most valuable to the profession. Everything that we are working on is built over being the best social media resource for the profession. New things that are coming down the pipe are all focused on growing leads through social media and educating the profession. We are working on things that have never been done before – that’s what is expected, right?
What makes working at DISRUPT different than working at other places?
Honestly, I really think it boils down to culture. The dynamic has been really different as our whole team has been working remote since March. Culture is easy when you are together, but it has taken intentionality from our leadership team to keep culture in a Zoom environment. Our Zoom meetings probably aren’t like most. We have two all-hands Zoom meetings each day. Sometimes those meeting are two minutes, other times they last 45 minutes. We start each Monday morning meeting with everyone sharing a ‘win’ from the previous week. It can be a professional or personal win, doesn’t matter, the point is that everyone starts the week celebrating each other. It’s hard to be negative when you are focusing on positive.
How have you, your family and your family at DISRUPT navigated the pandemic … and what has been the biggest challenge for you?
It’s been frustrating or should I say DISRUPTIVE. We are on the go all the time and being stuck at home has been different. However, there are things we can control and things we can’t. We have the choice to make the best of an unfortunate situation. We can choose to be in the dumps or we can choose to find joy. My family and DISRUPT have done the best we can to choose joy – it’s something we discuss often as a family and professional team. The biggest challenge has been adjusting to a new routine. As a family we were fortunate that we already homeschool our two girls, so nothing changed on that front but adjusting to staying still and not having the human interactions we are used too, that has been the biggest challenge. We are joyful in the fact that tools like social media, Facetime, Zoom and other platforms exist to make connections still possible. That said, I am a huge technology and digital person, but virtual interactions can never replace sitting knee to knee with someone.
You are also known for being the co-host with Jeff Harbeson, “The Funeral Commander” – of Funeral Nation. What is the best thing about working with him – and how did you two become friends in the first place?
Jeff and I have been connected and friends since 2012. Jeff was one of DISRUPT’s first clients (that’s how we originally met). We talked about launching a show like Funeral Nation in early 2013 and finally pulled the trigger a few years later. We both have a lot to say and have different delivery styles that blend well together. It made sense, We are now 200+ episodes in and have been disruptive. People love it or hate it – there really isn’t a middle ground!
What is the biggest gripe you have about how funeral homes handle their social media?
Funeral directors believe that automating cheap grief and inspirational content is effective, will grow call volume and is good enough. It just isn’t. Social, specifically Facebook, is the most valuable tool they have for building relationships with their community at scale. Automating that is missing the true value.
Can you point to someone who handles their own social media – in or out of funeral service – who you admire for how they use social media? What makes them special?
You know, this is a the toughest question you have asked. The reason is I am so engrained in social media. I live and breathe it every day and I am connected to so many great brands and individuals, but there is one person that stands out among the thousands – Jamie Meredith of C&J Financial.
A few years ago, Jamie launched a motivational video series called ‘Meredith and Sons.’ I won’t go into details about the show, everyone should search ‘Meredith and Sons’ on Facebook and watch for themselves.
However, I will say this: Jamie stands out to me because of the way he fathers. He is a great leader in the death-care space, but I admire the morals and values he is instilling in his boys. As parents, God calls us to raise his children in the way they should go so when they are old they won’t depart from it (Proverbs 22:6). I respect Jamie as a father, leader and mentor.
Where do you see you and DISRUPT five years from now?
That is the easiest question you have asked. I have so much clarity on the mission of DISRUPT Media. There are seven declarations that I have shared with my team as a roadmap for the vision of where DISRUPT Media will be. One of those declarations is: ‘DISRUPT will be the company that historically has the single greatest impact on progressing the funeral profession.’ That’s it. That will be the story and it could be five years, 10 years maybe 30 years from being written, but that will be the legacy – that’s the mission.
If anyone had told you when you were first starting out that you would one day make the Inc 5000 list, what would you have said to them?
I would have been grateful and humbled but also confident that the Inc. 5000, or 500 won’t be the legacy of my impact. I’m not trying to be arrogant, please don’t think that. I just believe that God has created every single one of us for greatness. It is already built into our DNA to achieve infinitely more than we can envision. We can have an impact on people more than we can even fathom. The impact I will have on the world will be far greater than the recognition that comes from making any list. But I’ll still celebrate those wins with my circle and team.
Do you have any final thoughts?
I’m super grateful that DISRUPT made the Inc 5000 and I’m grateful to you for allowing me to share in this interview. I hope the profession gets a glimpse into what really motivates me and DISRUPT. The impact we can have on people and the death-care profession is more valuable than any list. I’m humbled to get to live my dream.