Yuriy Boykiv grew up standing in bread lines in the Ukraine, literally "dreaming one day to be an entrepreneur featured in Inc. magazine." Twelve years after Boykiv immigrated to the U.S., and only four years after he co-founded a company, he told the audience at New York City's Techweek last Thursday, he got his wish.
Gravity Media, an ad agency Boykiv co-founded in 2009, landed on the 2013 Inc. 500 list in the #250 slot with a three-year growth rate of 1,724 percent. The company projects ending 2013 with $20 million in revenue.
Going from zero to $20 million in four years is an impressive feat in its own right, but it's especially noteworthy considering 31-year old Boykiv's background--and the fact that he chose to jump into the competitive advertising industry.
In July 2001, Boykiv booked a vacation in New York City with a return ticket for September 13. After the World Trade Center attacks, the airline went out of business and he didn't have enough money to buy another ticket. So Boykiv stayed and worked odd jobs until he landed a decent one at a small advertising firm.
Seven years later, at 24 years old, he became Direct TV's manager of International Business--overseeing 65 TV channels marketed to immigrants living in the U.S. It was his job to find out why these channels weren't selling. He visited the company's call center in Idaho and found out that the sales people couldn't tell the difference between a Chinese customer and a Korean customer. He fired 400 sales people and brought in a new team of 600 culturally diverse and savvy employees. Sales started to skyrocket. This is when he had an idea: "I realized if I can do this for Direct TV I could do this for anyone."
So, in 2009 he and two Ukranian friends he met at his first job set out to build Gravity Media, an ad agency specializing in multiculturalism. Unlike the common strategy of going global by setting up shop in international offices, the whole team of 45 employees is based in the U.S. (in NYC and LA), where they create ad campaigns for clients across the globe--from India to Abu Dhabi to Mexico.
The Secret Sauce
The set-up raises an obvious question: Can you really serve global clients well and understand crucial cultural differences when your team is stationed in the U.S.?
Boykiv says that's precisely Gravity Media's secret sauce. "We are able to create unbiased marketing strategies with layers of details that tap into a particular culture's nuances," he said in an interview after his Techweek keynote.
For example, the U.S. Army hired Gravity to help solve a tough problem: How do you recruit American citizens originally from Iraq and Afghanistan to join the military and act as cultural advisors to help connect with the local communities? Gravity successfully marketed the program through a campaign that required reaching out to influential elders in those communities. The Army hit its recruiting goals two years ahead of schedule.
The Hiring Test
Hiring is important in any business but it's absolutely crucial to making Gravity's model work. "We seek employees who can understand the nuances of culture first. Then, if they identify with a specific culture it's a plus," Boykiv says. Collectively, Gravity's team speaks 42 languages and represents 12 nationalities.
But it took a few months for the company to get its hiring strategy right. In the beginning, Gravity relied on external recruiters, who quickly proved unhelpful. Boykiv fired three recruiters after they described a candidate to him as a "great black guy you'll love." Hiring employees based on their race wasn't the point, Boykiv says. He wanted to know how well they understood other cultures.
As a result, Boykiv developed a few rules and a specific test he gives to every candidate in the hiring process.
The advertising game is all about flipping a product's image, Boykiv says. "If a product is not selling, it's not the product that has to change. It's about creating an ecosystem the customer will understand," he says, explaining a good campaign hones in on cultural subtleties of the particular target demographic. "We ask each candidate to pick a brand they hate the most," he says. "Then we tell them to imagine they were hired by that brand to convert it into something amazing and market it to multicultural communities." After a couple of days, candidates must come back and present their pitch to the team. "We look for people with the ability to turn something negative into a positive," he says.
In addition to passing the test, successful candidates must also possess a number of specific qualities:
They have grit. Boykiv believes leaders are made because of the adversity they are able to overcome. "We look for people with incredible human qualities, people who can overcome hardship and work towards goals," he says.
They're bilingual. "We look for candidates that speak at least two languages," he says, because it shows the person is more immersed in different cultures. Although Boykiv says he will hire people whose foreign language speaking skills are weak, they must have the ability to read and watch news from other countries and understand the nicety of different cultures.
They're team players. "If someone is not performing, that can be fixed," he says. "But if someone is badmouthing other employees or causing us to lose clients, we cut them off immediately." He believes long-term success is the function of a good team, so he only keeps the best employees and fires quickly.
Years ago, when Boyvik dreamed of being an Inc. entrepreneur, he also dreamed of retiring early. But when I asked him if he was close to retiring now, he responded without hesitation. "I am just at the beginning of my career. A $20 million company is still a small company," he said. "We are now going to focus on growth, bring in more clients, and keep driving forward."