Impact is King: Creatively Driving Change David Billson, Co-founder of rTraction

Over his 20 years in the tech space, David has grown a comprehensive understanding of how technology can aid communication, performance and profitability. A software developer by trade, David was initially brought into the marketing side reluctantly; however, his love of storytelling and technology easily blended to create rTraction in 2001. David is quick to understand both technical concepts and human behaviour, and has brought this aptitude to client-first relationship management, broad-scale technical consulting, and strengths-oriented leadership.

What initially inspired you to make a difference and what career path did you follow?

For me, my business started out of a company that I worked for going bankrupt. It was during the tech recession of 2001. I had a team of 6 in a satellite office. At the time, there were limited technology jobs and I felt that my team was stronger together than it was as individuals. I was their manager and I felt I could get a job, but these people had sacrificed a lot to help me with my career and to help the clients we had grown in London. I didn’t feel good about walking away and just leaving them to fend for themselves.

So, we incorporated a company with a lead investor. Our company was founded on the belief that we were truly better as a team. We didn’t have a core problem to solve (something I encourage new startups to have).  Instead, it was ‘these people that I care about need employment’ and together I thought we could make that happen. It wasn’t until later that I understood the importance of having a problem to solve as a business.

Impact is a Secret to Success

One of the things that kept me focused on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and ultimately the B Corp movement is that belief that doing good and doing well can co-exist. Giving back to a community and giving back to people, treating people around you with respect, and taking care of your stakeholders will eventually allow you to grow a better business. Also, you can sleep better at night.

I don’t feel like I have to deliberately take advantage of others in order to achieve success. My intention has always been on building something with our clients, which in my book is so much better than just focusing on the money.

For me, in London, Ontario, we have a very conservative city. However, there is a vibrant social innovation counter culture. In the last year or so, I’ve been working to shine the light on the fact that you can do well and do good to build that awareness. We’re one of the better known companies in the city; we won business of the year in 2014. However, what we have struggled to communicate is that CSR or B Corporation isn’t an offshoot of what we do – it is who we are and why we exist.

There is a myth in the business world that you have to look at profitability first and then everything else, second. You can do just as good, if not better than an organization that cares about its bottom line as a primary measurement of its success. I still hear every day that “Oh, a B Corporation will have less money to spend.” We still fight the perception that sustainability means less profitability. It does not have to mean that result at all – many B Corporations are highly profitable. The difference is how we choose to use those profits are only part of the story. We can use all facets of our organization to be directed at positive impact.

That’s why I love the B Impact Assessment score. I consider that to be just as important as our balance sheet score. Obviously you have to have a viable business that returns value in the capitalistic ecosystem that we are in. Cash flow and profitability are critical to organization. No matter how important your social mission is to accomplish it’s impossible to achieve without capital. However, it’s easy to lose the plotline in the financial narrative – you can’t be assured of your impact if you don’t play by those rules. We have the essence of a B Corp regardless of our certification. The measurement means that we actually measure what  matters to our company: impact..

A journey that I’m on to get people to look at a sustainable or socially responsible business. We have a group here in London that looks at the living wage and is working to inspire companies to adopt the living wage standard. In our city, it’s $15.29. When you pay people a living wage, then you know they don’t have to sacrifice safety, a home or diet in order to work for your company.  It’s so counterintuitive to hire someone to work for you in the most productive hours a day knowing that they are unable to make ends meet.

There is a lot of broken thinking around the idea that companies have to pay less than a living wage to succeed – largely due to “competitive pressure”. There are persistent anomalies that disprove this theory, though, as long as you’re willing to look. Costco is my favorite retail example – they pay their employees well. If you look at the track record of Costco, it may have took them longer to build their company depending on who you contrast them against, but they are on a more sustainable path when compared to their competition.

Tell me a bit about your work at rTraction and how it is uniquely helping make a positive impact?  

There a couple of different things we’re doing. The core work we do is focused on serving nonprofits, social impact organizations, charities, and businesses with a strong CSR component. We help them achieve their marketing objectives. We see ourselves as strategic problem solvers. We’re comfortable with both technology and branding problems – more and more we’re finding those challenges interlinked. The key difference we see is that we’re really focused on the community impact as well as the relationship with the client.  We’re not afraid to take tension in a relationship. We find people are often unable to achieve their goals due to their own biases, oversteps from a lack of information, or lack of ability to get all the stakeholders on the same page.

Outcome over Income

A lot of agencies will gloss over the issues at hand and not point out the problems that exist. We would rather lose a client than spend their money on a solution that we know isn’t going to have the impact that they want. We want to make sure the work that we’re doing achieves the impact they want to achieve. If we don’t think we can create positive change, then we don’t want to take their money.  

We’re not about taking money for money’s sake, we are all about outcomes.

People hire us as an agency because they’re not able to get something done with their existing team. In many cases the decision is based purely on the skillsets of their internal team – they need extra hands to get the work done. We have been told, however, that the value that we provide is in our role as outsiders looking in and seeing problems that are buried so far deep that no one else can see them anymore. We help them identify the problem in an organization and get it addressed in order to execute a proper solution. The most effective tool we have for this is attempting to get all the stakeholders for a project on one page – often times this exercise exposes the underlying problems fairly effectively.

For example, if we’re doing a website stakeholder alignment we make sure all of the goals on the leadership team are in alignment. This simple task helps ensure that the website meets all of their collective objectives. I would guess 95% of the time we find some misalignment of goals, either subtle nuance differences or completely different directions. In many cases this misalignment is serious enough that it causes challenges in the project. We’ve learned this is an opportunity for us to go in and try to get some better alignment, or at least get everyone to agree on the goals and really focus on the outcome. Because we care about the impact, we’re going to challenge them to make sure their budget is going towards activities that maximize their goals and, by proxy, their impact.

The second thing we’re doing is a relatively new initiative spawned from a mid-life crisis I had, turning 40.

We’re trying to figure out ways to share information on how to be an agency and B Corp. We’re hoping to get other organizations in sharing data to help accelerate the movement.  Giving people resources and toolkits to test assumptions and adopt policies more quickly and help them understand how we operate as a sustainable business. If we start making that data and information available, it makes it easier for new B Corps to launch. It also helps other agencies to adopt a more sustainable model. We’re still figuring out how to do that in a financially sustainable way.

We believe we can use data sharing to help solve a few core problems in the business world. The first is the gender pay gap. We match our salaries to market data collected in aggregate. We find instances where there are some job titles called different names linked to gender, where the function is the same, but there is a significant pay gap. We have trouble testing that assumption due to lack of raw data. Most salary bands have a logical progression – if you jump a band, it goes up $10k/ year. In account management – junior went to middle management, then it was $10k jump… and then Senior role jumped $50k. After a little bit of research, we saw that typically it is males being awarded this position. It could be there’s an inherent gender pay gap issue at work – or just an anomaly due to other causes – without the raw data there’s no way to be able to tell.

If we have data in the ecosystem, can we share this type of data to be able to make better decisions on how to better pay people?  We’re working on model to figure out how to pay people to share to the public so then we can chip away at some fairly significant issues with gender pay and equity.  We think that by sharing info into the ecosystem, more people will be encouraged to share. Once we have a critical mass of information, we can start to pick up trends. In the B Corp movement, with a large enough data set, I suspect there will be an analyst willing to identify those patterns and trends. Really, it’s just recognizing as an agency, the information and data that we have is not the protective asset we think it is.

98% of a businesses success is execution. If I can share information that can help another organization become better, faster, and more efficient, then why wouldn’t I do that?

Are there any others?

We’re starting with the focus on the gender pay gap. I’m also working on a dashboard/ free panel kind of concept in its early stages. Envision the left side as your traditional scorecard (balance sheet, profit/loss), the middle panel is our B Corp assessment score, and then we want to demonstrate all the good we do with our clients. It’s going to be a qualitative set of statements.

Last month we had $108k of revenue and I think we can demonstrate $200k in impact in the community. As a B Corp, if every dollar you put into the rTraction machine, we get $1.25 back out into the community. We want to be able to take this ability to generate impact and amplify it. We have 2 different ways: our Corporate Social Responsibility activities and getting other people to join into those activities.

One example is we took underprivileged kids to see Star Wars. The story of Star Wars was an important part of my childhood. When the Force Awakens came out, we read about a bunch of employers that took their employees to go see it. I saw those posts and thought “what someone really needs to do is to take kids that can’t afford to see it to see this movie.” That’s when I realized what I needed to do. We booked a local theatre for 100 tickets. We posted Facebook & twitter announcing the 100 tickets we were going to give away. The word got out and several other organizations and individual donors stepped up. We ended up filling 5 theaters and even had people help fund popcorn & treats for the kids. We partnered with organizations that specialize in disadvantaged or at-risk you to make sure that the community was properly served by the offering. .

We did it again with the Last Jedi and were able to take 600 kids. Our contribution was $2k of a $7,000 project – the rest of the funds came from the community.

Another example is a play being exhibited in our local theater about a gay man’s fight to take his partner to the prom. This play is a high school project based on a real story in 2002. They brought in a professional director and it costs $250k for the full production. Kids do the acting and stage management but it’s a formal part of the Grand Theatre’s season with a full production budget. Each year for the past 20 years our two local school boards have sponsored this play series. The funding $15k from each. Due to the subject matter, and in particular the young man’s treatment by the school board, the school boards withdrew their funding in protest.

We found out about it and I said “I wonder if we can raise money for these kids.” It was really important that we send messages of love and support for our LGBTQ2+ community. The move by the schoolboards ran afoul of how we want our community to think and act. Withdrawing the funds also put the production in serious jeopardy.

I tweeted and said we (rTraction) would put in the first $1k to replace the funding. By 10:00am the next morning, we’d raised $50,000 for the production, ultimately ending up just shy of $60,000 – doubling the amount lost by the school boards. We had donations ranging from $5 to $2,000 with over 700 people participating.

Ultimately one of the two school boards reversed their decision, issued a public apology, and gave the production the $15,000. They have decided to use some of the excess funds create a curriculum around the material and run additional matinees that are free to youth. We helped leverage a $1,000 investment into $75,000+ for this program just from our initial investment of $1k by rallying the community. That kind of impact doesn’t show up on a balance sheet.

Impact is hard to measure, at present, in a quantitative way. So we’re starting with qualitative. We call the initiative “Change the Score” and hope to launch it in early 2019.

What obstacles have you had to overcome to change the world?

I started the business when I was 24 because my previous employer went bankrupt. I have 8 children in a blended family. I have really had to bootstrap and grind through. I have never had the benefit of personal wealth to be able to help the organization grow. The operations of the company have had to support me financially as I’ve grown.

Another potential obstacle is that I only have a high school education. I got caught up in the dotcom bubble in the late 90’s. Being 24 and trying to start a business, manage a growing family, and figuring out both along the way has been a struggle. I’ve been lucky to have some great mentors and a supportive community around me that has lead to my success.

Most recently, we had a large client engagement over the last 4 years that we are no longer working with. They were 70% of our revenue at one point. Really figuring out how to survive the loss of that amount of revenue is extremely complicated. It’s hard once you grow to a certain size to unpack that. We built up an agency that had a single source client and now we have to re-imagine the whole corporation. You can read about the transition on our blog — the series is called “Big Fish, Little Pond”.

Happy, Healthy, Sustainable

The good news is because we had so much going on in our organization we were able to look into what the essence, the core purpose, that we needed to focus on to continue in our work. For me, the agency world is littered with narratives that companies died after losing their one big client. Overall, the proces involved with losing 70% of your revenue almost overnight is not a fun one. However, one morning I woke up at 4 AM with a panic in my heart. My biggest concern was not that my firm could fail; it happens. What I was concerned with is the sustainability movement in our city. As the only B Corp in the city and our corporation being well known for our sustainability I was concerned that people would use our failure as an example (incorrectly) of why sustainable practices are a bad idea.I don’t want to set the movement backwards in our city.

It’s likely a bit egotistical to think that we could have that type of impact as there are several other great organizations pushing forward on sustainability initiatives. However, it did give us a lot of insight to what we felt was important and key to our business. We were able to focus in our ability to deliver purpose and impact and re-build our company around that core. If you look to what’s rises to the top in crisis it can really help you focus on the most important things first.

I think a lot of people’s relationship with work with large corporations can cause them a lot of harm. I think the chronic health issues that exist in society are partially to blame on people’s toxic relationship with work. I think if we can start to solve this as B Corps, then I actually think that starts to solve many other linked issues in the community. In Canada we have an overburdened healthcare system, which eventually hurts the taxpayer. How do we stop treating our employees like shit and pay them a living wage? Make sure they can show up as their whole selves to work? Having a better relationship with work helps reduce cases of chronic illness such as, mental health, diabetes, etc. A lot of these chronic conditions can pop up because of stress at work.

Obviously we cannot completely eliminate stress at work, but we can make the stress about the issues the company is facing, NOT about the value and worth of the employee. That’s the core driver for me. I want humans to thrive in their jobs.

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world or pursue their passion?

If you want to make a positive impact in the world I think that starts with you and making sure you’re healthy. This sounds easy but in practice I’ve found it to be very challenging.  For me, I need some place in my schedule to have 4 hours where I can read and reflect and then I need at least 1 social event per week with friends or family. If I don’t get this time, I’m not going to be mentally healthy for the week.  Running a business and having a family often collide with these “recharge” times – keeping the times open to recharge is a constant struggle.

I hate wasting resources – I tend to be fiscally conservative when approaching problem solving. Where we can be more productive with less resources, we put less strain on the system and less stress on the employers. We carry a lot of the risk on whether someone is going to be healthy or not healthy and how productive they are going to be. If you have people that are healthy, happy, and engaged, you’re going to get so much more from people who are panicked, stressed, and unhappy. I think you should care for your people as it’s the right thing to do. People who say that they can’t afford to do so are possibly missing the broader financial narrative about what their harmful practices and policies actually cost them.

I recommend that people use the 5 Why’s model. It usually takes asking someone 5 ‘whys’ to get to the core problem that they’re trying to solve. I once heard someone say that many entrepreneurs started a company to solve a problem they had 5 years ago when nobody was able to help them. If we think of our businesses as being positioned to solve a problem it’s a logical extension to realize that solving other people’s problems helps them to be better-less stressed, more efficient, or better able to perform.

Occasionally we can lose the plot line of what’s the problem that we’re trying to solve as we get caught up in other people’s narratives – by focusing on what we’re trying to do and, more importantly, why we’re trying to do it we can position our organization to have positive impact throughout all its business activities.

We typically get caught into what the world perceives us as- you’re a writer, developer, photographer, neurosurgeon. That’s at the top level of how you’re expressing your why, but when you can get down into what you truly want to do, it opens up unlimited possibilities. It explores the best way to maximize your purpose.

Once you have your why, the rest comes down to tactics. For years I said ‘rTraction is a website company’ which implied all we do is build websites. However, why I own a business is to actually help other organizations discover, refine and communicate their purpose because I believe purpose matters.  An extension of this is what we do: building websites, applications, digital marketing, etc.

I typically do a diagram – picture a rear windshield wiper of a minivan… the windshield wiper can go back and forth… if you know what the anchor is, you can pivot more quickly and you can fail faster by figuring out what’s not working. If you hang your shingle on the end of the windshield wiper and the market moves then you’re moving along with it, like it or not.

A practical example of this is we used to generate a lot of revenue using content management systems like Drupal (an open source CMS). A new breed of commercial CMS’ (Squarespace, Shopify) have disrupted that marketplace. If we’re only building websites then that change is massively disruptive. If websites and the related CMS’ are tools we use to deliver on our purpose then we can easily adopt the best tool for the solution.

For us, this living our purpose – focusing on why we exist vs. what we do – the what we do will evolve over time.

Companies get stuck on WHAT they do, not WHY they do it.  If they focused on the why, and their market gets disrupted, it doesn’t affect them as severely.

Failure isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. It’s a tool. What matters in failure is that it advances you towards being able to achieve the thing that you want to achieve. As long as you know the problem you’re trying to solve, then failure is simply a step along the journey to solve that problem as it tells you what didn’t work. Focus on the problem you want to solve, the impact you want to make, and start trying things. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.