Mitch Joel is Founder of Six Pixels Group – an advisory, investing and content producing company that is focused on commerce and innovation (although he prefers the title, “Media Hacker”). Prior to Six Pixels Group, Mitch spent close to two decades building, running and (eventually) selling his business. He was President of Twist Image/Mirum – a global marketing agency that still operates in 25 countries with close to 3000 employees. Mirum is owned by WPP. Prior to that Mitch held senior and entrepreneurial roles in the music, publishing, Internet, mobile, media and advertising industries.
Mitch’s first book, Six Pixels of Separation, named after his successful blog and podcast is a business bestseller. His second book, CTRL ALT Delete, was named one of the best business books of 2013 by Amazon. He has written for the Harvard Business Review, Inc. Magazine, The Huffington Post and many other publications. Every Monday am, you can hear him on CHOM FM (I Heart Radio – Bell Media) reporting on the intersection of technology and culture.
Mitch speaks frequently to diverse groups like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Microsoft, Procter and Gamble, Twitter, Unilever and every organization and association in between. Since 2005 he has given anywhere between 40-60 customized keynote presentations a year.
Mitch is also the host of Groove – The No Treble Podcast, where he is slowly trying to build the largest oral history of electric bass players in the world.
“Embrace the squiggle.”
- Drip, drip, drip. It’s not going to be one big hit. You might have a couple of big hits along the way but its people who are consistently doing the work that see success.
- We create our own narratives. Life is a cumulation of small experiences, good and bad that involves some luck and a lot of hard work.
- Don’t let school get in the way of your education. Stay tuned to your surroundings and learn from experience just as much, if not more, from a textbook.
BRYAN WISH: What is your One Away moment?
MITCH JOEL: It’d be hard for me to say it’s just a One Away because it was built up and an ongoing relationship. I had been a fan of this book Survival is Not Enough by Seth Godin when I got involved in the digital world early on. But I only got exposed to business books a little bit later in life. I kind of thought that business books were like textbooks and I swore them off the minute I dropped out of university. In the early days, I got involved in the internet. I was involved in a company called Mamma.com which was a metasearch engine before Google even existed. One of the things we did to sort of build buzz around the business – this is when the first .com rush was happening – is we went down to New York for an event called Internet World.
I ran into the author of that book Survival is Not Enough because he was about to launch what became a very seminal book in the marketing/communications space called Permission Marketing. I met him very briefly and told him I liked Survival is Not Enough. He sort of patted me on my head and said, “Enjoy the new book” and off I went. It sent me down a rabbit hole that fundamentally changed my life.
At the time, I was very big in journalism and publishing. Blogging was brand-new. I started blogging. Seth had just started blogging as well. He was doing it daily and probably much better than I was doing it. That moment of getting that book, following him, and then going down the rabbit hole of all things Seth Godin was a big moment for me. I had read about him and knew that he had sold his business to Yahoo at one point. That led him down a path where he was financially independent or could work on his projects. I became a big fanboy, as we say in the business. Over the years, I would just send him notes of appreciation.
The Power of a Role Model
As I started podcasting, which was very early days of podcasting, he was kind enough to be a guest. I quasi got to know him through our correspondences and 10-12 years ago, I attended my first TED Conference. At the time, this was in Monterey. When I looked at the attendees, I was super excited because I saw he was there, but I was also super nervous because I realized everyone else who is going to this TED seems like they’re much more important and smarter than I am. It was great that he took a moment to meet me.
We met and then other people were sort of coming into the hotel lobby and saying hi. He wound up introducing me to people like Derek Sivers and a couple of other amazing human beings. We developed a friendship over the years. He’s been very kind and generous to me over the years.
It’s less about the fact that I have this very fortuitous ability to reach out to him and connect to him. It’s just more how impactful his work has been on inspiring me and putting me on my path. I looked at him and thought, “I’d love to do that. I’d love to build a business, sell a business, and then just sort of speak, write, and work on my projects.” My life became that differently. I started speaking and doing all that stuff while I was building my business. When I sold my business, I continued on that path.
He continues, to this day, with everything he does from his podcast to his online courses to how he speaks, to how he thinks, to how he operates has been a real role model to me. That was the thing. You don’t have to have physical contact or know someone for them to be a role model for you. He’s been a role model to me more in the output of his work, the quality of it, and how he does it, more than the fact that I have access to him if I need it. I try not to push that button too often because I don’t want to overextend my stay with him.
He would be the person and that moment in New York City, where I met him and held this brand-new, little book in my hands. It’s a small book but a powerful book. It gave me a lifelong – to this moment, almost decades now, of inspiration and motivation.
A Book’s Impact
BRYAN WISH: What was so impactful about the book?
MITCH JOEL: So many things. I was thinking about potentially being an entrepreneur even though I was very much in a startup business where I wasn’t the entrepreneur; I was just early. Seeing the book Permission Marketing which was different from Survival is Not Enough is because it was small and written in a very human voice which was not what we saw typically in business books at the time. Then just really thinking about this path he was on and seeing his path as a professional; like what he was doing and how his game was really to do the work that mattered, not necessarily the job. As I read him and these little sorts of nuggets that he would put out daily, it was nudging me along.
Where was I in my life? I had been a traditional magazine publisher and journalist. I then went to work for two companies before this one. In my brain, I always wanted to go back to being an entrepreneur, but it’s a very scary thing to be on your own. I call it the allowance syndrome. When you’re little, it’s like your parents will give you $10 if you make your bed and do your chores and stuff. Work is pretty similar. It’s like, “I did all this work, boss. Can you pay me this amount of money?” I had this sort of shift in my brain where I realized that if I really wanted to do unlimited things and to really go after and suck the juice out of life, as it were, that was the only path.
By doing that, you’re removing the allowance. It’s like you become very independently responsible for how much income you make as an entrepreneur. It’s on you. Work a little, maybe get a little. Work a lot, maybe get a lot. It’s very risky because you could lose it all. You could be in debt for a while. Just having that constant pursuit of excellence. There’s this sort of kitty-corner between Seth Godin and Tom Peters, who I also respect immensely and is a huge influence on me. I think it was just so many things; I happened to be at the right age and, happened to be on the internet at the right time.
Also, I happened to be working in a business model that would become one of the biggest business models in the world: being search advertising and online advertising. There were so many things that were sort of lucky; right moment, right time. In the world of today, the other word I’d add to it is a tremendous privilege. I can’t deny that I’m a 3rd generation immigrant to Canada, male, white, with all of my limbs and can speak multiple languages. You kind of hit, to a certain degree, that global lottery which I had very little to do with.
When I was growing up in the 80s, first computers, first Atari’s. Being in a middle-class family that could afford to bring that type of tech into the home and spark my imagination. We could spend hours going, “Why that moment?” I think we all want to say it’s because we really saw something that had great skill and acumen. I really do believe luck, moment, geography, privilege has a lot more to do with success than most people are willing to admit. I’m willing to admit I was born on 3rd base a little bit when it comes to that stuff.
How We’re Born Into the World Does Influence Us
BRYAN WISH: How we’re born into the world does influence us. I think it’s interesting how you acknowledge that with where you are.
MITCH JOEL: I used to have a different story which was when I started my business, Twist Image, which became Mirum which is a business that I sold to a very large business called WPP in the digital marketing space. I was close to $20,000 in debt living in a studio apartment with my then-girlfriend who had become my wife. She wasn’t working at that point beyond restaurant work. We barely had two nickels to rub together.
I still look back and go, “Privilege, privilege, privilege. Lucky.” In fact, I was literally driving this morning with my eldest in the car and we were talking about different homes on the drive. He said, “Do you feel lucky, Dad?” I said, “I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world. Not because I have kids and a happy family but because it is a lot of luck.” Do I work hard? I work hard. Do I study? I study hard. Do I try to encourage those who may not have the privilege I have? I work very hard at that while acknowledging that I live in a very specific bubble based on how I was brought up being a 1st or 2nd generation post-war family that came from extreme poverty; refugees to Canada.
It’s all comparable to others. I feel it’s always important to talk about it. “You worked so hard for what you have.” I did but I was extremely lucky and I had the extreme privilege and there’s no doubt about that.
BRYAN WISH: You talked about the book and how it shaped your thinking about becoming an entrepreneur and going down your path. I loved what you said about removing the allowance that you’re granted growing up as a kid or on your job. You have a security blanket over you. Why were you yearning for a little bit more meaning? It might be interesting to share your childhood or where you were in high school. When you came to that moment in time, the effect of the work, you were open to receiving the impact.
Writing Your Own Narrative
MITCH JOEL: I think we create our own narratives. I think there are nature and nurture. I think we kind of want to go to this moment and put a finger on something, “Oh, that was it.” Being someone who has young kids, I think it’s really hard to do that. Why is that person acting that way? Well, it’s because, on January 3, 1986, this happened. I think there are cataclysmic moments, positive and negative, in people’s lives. I don’t necessarily know that I’m able to illustrate why I am like this. If I think back, I’d say I was middle to lower-middle-class in a much more affluent community. I was going to a private elementary and high school that was a very sheltered, bubbled environment and not much diversity at all and had people with much more wealth or richness than my family did.
I remember just a natural young boy instinct of being jealous like, “Oh, that person got a bike for their birthday or a car when they turned 16.” Recognizing that, not in an angry way, but it just wasn’t feasible for how I was being brought up and the lifestyle that we had which was great compared to many but not that. My reaction, at a very young age, was, “I’d love to be a millionaire.” I was kind of driven by that drive of financial freedom equals freedom which I think is somewhat true to this day.
Also, very candidly realizing when you see how did they do this, how do they have these country homes and cars and scooters and things like that? My reaction, at a very young age, was, “I don’t think they’re that much smarter than I am or my parents. I could do that. If you just work hard or choose the right space, you can do that.” That would be path 1. Path 2 was I just wasn’t great in school. It wasn’t my thing.
Don’t let School get in the way of Your Education
I jokingly said something years ago that gets tweeted very often – I don’t know if I created it or it was a quote from someone else that over the years got appropriated by me, but the idea was that I don’t want to let school get in the way of my education. I always had a passion to learn, just not necessarily the stuff that was being taught in school which led me down the path of journalism and when computers came out, early forms of desktop publishing and doing my newsletters and just being very passionate about that sort of publishing/media/marketing/brand space.
Again, just exposure. My dad was a pharmacist and he owned a very small pharmacy. On the weekends, he’d drive around to other pharmacies. I thought he just knew all these pharmacists, when in reality, he was scoping them out. Check out their merchandising. How do they stock stuff? What do they do with the front of the store versus the dispensary? I don’t know how much of that I became a sponge for but that might be the reason I have a passion for businesses and brands and how things look and how they’re positioned.
I could go on and on about countless stories that have in some way been pieces that when you look at it, I’d say a decent looking collage of what it is. Then I also can reflect and go, “How much of that was just nature though? How much of that is just I had it in me that I wanted to do different things or follow things I was passionate about that had some sort of business angle to it?” A lot of people follow their passions but they don’t follow their passions on the business side. From a very young age, I was interested in magic. I didn’t just start doing magic tricks. I was like, “Let me do magic shows.” My demographic was breakdancing. It was like everybody is into breakdancing.
We got a couple of people together and went and we’ll go do kids’ birthday parties and stuff. I’m just happy we’re not in a world where that was all available on YouTube or TikTok because I’d probably be very embarrassed. I just think there are countless ways that I was always thinking about is there a business here? How do I turn this into a business? What would I call this? What would it look like? That puts you on a path to have that interest and that passion and then couple that with some lucky breaks and decent privilege and you find a bit of a path. Then you have to capitalize on it.
Mixing Passion and Profit
BRYAN WISH: The truly lucky ones are the ones who can mix both passion and profit in a way that allows them to fulfill and execute their dreams. It’s hard and scary to remove that security blanket. You said you didn’t want the school to get in the way of your education. It wasn’t that you weren’t willing to educate yourself but you wanted to educate yourself on the things and topics that you cared about. You made that happen.
MITCH JOEL: In my second book Ctrl Alt Delete I talk about squiggly. My career is very squiggly which means it doesn’t sort of go from the bottom left to the top right like I studied this in school and then I did it post-secondary and then I got a job. Mine was more trying different things and this doesn’t work and it looks a lot squiggly.
What I was reflecting on in the book, which was how do you reboot yourself in a digital world and how do you reboot your business for a digital world, is this idea of the people we actually look to like Seth Godin – he’s had a really squiggly career. He’s done a lot of things. He was a book packager. Then he was an author, started to do a podcast, then he built a business, and he sold… It was all over the place but if you look back, it all connects.
I was in the music industry for a long time. When I switched over the years to running an agency, many of my peers, once I had success, the agency came back and were like, “How did that happen? Rock journalist into agency person. I didn’t see that coming. What a massive transition.” For me, it wasn’t. It was just this sort of continuum of media publishing, brand, all that advertising, all that stuff. To me, it makes perfect sense. But it is; it’s a squiggly experience. Anybody who’s biography you read, you will be able to immediately acknowledge that they had these very interesting squiggly careers. That’s what a great story is made up of.
Embrace the Squiggle
I call it, in the book, the ability to embrace the squiggle. You’ve got to embrace the fact that this is going to be really hard. I was listening recently to a podcast with Joe Rogan and Jocko Willink. They were talking about this sort of thing. Like when you finally reach this thing, you realize there’s just no end. It’s always going to be painful and it’s always going to be hard. Never easy. If you can sort of look at it, and as Jocko says, “Just go good.” Good. Yeah, it’s supposed to be hard. Good. Versus, “Oh, my god, when will this end? Or if I just did this, that would happen.” It was another illumination for me where I’ve been saying it a lot in my brain lately when it’s hard, I’m just like, “Yeah, good. It’s supposed to be hard. Good. Go for it.”
BRYAN WISH: What do you say to the young person who maybe has intuition and realizes this a bit earlier in life that what’s not the norm is best suited for them? How do they go about the path forward if they know early on they’re a little bit different?
The Path Forward
MITCH JOEL: I started writing professionally which was my sort of the main career at 17. I started even way earlier when I was just really at the tail end of high school and having success. I was interviewing major rock stars and being invited to places. If anyone’s seen the movie Almost Famous, anybody who knows me is like, “Wow, that’s like your life.” Different decade, similar story. Totally true. The only story that references your question is I did continue on to post-secondary at the college level for one semester which was half a year. I got in as a philosophy major, but I think my minor might have been either music or English. Just barely got in… I wasn’t a good student. At the time, I had started publishing magazines. This was before the internet.
These were print magazines and they had support; meaning if it was 24 pages of ads that I could sell, I’d have a 48-page magazine. It was very stressful for me, at the time. I found it very hard to balance a full load at college along with being a publisher and also, a freelance journalist. It was my parents. I sat down and explained to them, “This is a lot of work.” My parents said, “Look. You can always go back to university. You can always go back to school but if this thing is happening and it seems to have something there, you have to pursue that.” That was a very different way of thinking from very traditional parents.
They were the type of parents that, I thought at least, were, “Get your degree and then figure it out later. There’s always time for work. Just get your degree now so you have it in your back pocket.” They spun it and said, “Go try doing this business thing, and if that doesn’t work, you can go back.” Even though that’s what I was going to do – it probably would have been inevitable, but it almost felt like I had a hall pass from my parents. It helps.
The Journey of Entrepreneurship
The hardest part about entrepreneurship is that there’s no net. If someone, in any part of the journey, whether it’s a parent, whether it’s someone like Seth Godin, through his work or inspiration, can provide you a little bit of netting, it helps push things along. That would be the way I would probably express it if somebody had something that had some legs to it; not just this pipe dream of, “I’m going to go and I’d like to and maybe and who knows.” If they’ve already sort of had something going on and you can see “there’s a there there” as they say, I’d say you could always go back to school and get a degree, but if that’s the moment, then it just happens to be the moment. We can’t time things like that. They sort of just happen based on output.
The other thing I would say is it’s a very different world for young people today now than it was for me. If I wanted to write for a magazine, I needed to submit story ideas. It was just a constant stream of rejection. The primary reason I started publishing my own magazines was so that my stories wouldn’t be rejected. It was a very hard existence. It still is. The difference now is with all of these platforms and text images, audio, video, podcasting, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch, whatever you want; you can see if there’s a market for your ideas.
Even Shopify if you want to sell something. There’s a very low barrier and it’s getting lower and lower in terms of cost, effort, and access for young people to figure out, “Is there something here for this idea?” If there’s not, can I still do what I’m pursuing now and keep testing this? Can I spend my nights – you know, people like David Sedaris, Stephen King, or Elizabeth Gilbert who spent countless nights writing and not being published until it started clicking? There’s something to this. You can now publish online. You can write a medium on LinkedIn or Facebook; wherever it might be, and see, “Do these ideas resonate?” even if it’s with your own social circle. It’s great for it to start there. It has to start there. If people who know you don’t like what you’re doing, that screams louder than people who don’t know you.
Books will Change the way you see the World.
BRYAN WISH: This book changed the way you saw things in the world. What happened after? Give us a highlight of the career path that you ended up taking.
MITCH JOEL: I started reading more books. I started consuming a lot of content. I realized that, as I started building my own business with my business partners at Twist Image, an easy way to show the value proposition would be to take what I’ve learned in journalism and publishing and start a blog that I did in the very early days. Then I started podcasting because I was publishing so much. I thought I’d take a break and just talk into a mic because it was the early days of podcasting. All of that continues to this day. Seth constantly has this idea of drip, drip, drip. It’s not going to be one big hit. You might have a couple of big hits along the way but its people who are consistently doing the work.
I was writing every day in different places, on my blog, other places, and other moments I was doing media appearances. I started my podcast that led to speaking that led to conversations which led to my first book Six Pixels of Separation. Jim Levine was my agent and I got to him through Dan Ariely who was also another huge figure in this by saying, “Hey, you should have a book published.” I was like, “I’d love to write a book.” “Hey, you should meet my agent.” “I’d love to meet your agent.” It happened to be Jim Levine who did tremendous work for me in helping me move things forward.
It was a lot of things at once with a lot of energy. Going back to both privilege and ability, the timing was really good. Here I was, in the early 2000s and late 90s, telling people, “You need a website.” People looked at me like I came from planet Mars. You fast forward to the world, I was telling people about social media in the early days before anyone else was. I was talking about CRM, mobile, and anything in this entire space of commerce. It’s amazing to be in a place where I’m speaking at a HubSpot customer summit in Boston that has 150 people trying to figure out what this technology is several years later walking into their event and there are 40,000 people there.
Right Place, Right Time
I’m not taking credit for any of that other than I’m able to walk the halls, realized I don’t know a single person there, and say, I was right. Really, I was just in this space at the right time, at the right moment, saying the right things, and all the advertising agencies that were still traditional that laughed me out of their office or said, “This is crazy. I don’t want to partner with you,” all that did was fuel me to do the work.
I was in a place where my agency wasn’t the agency of record with any of these big brands, but was actually pushing more revenue into the agency than the actual agency of record was because we were doing the things that they ignored or dismissed. By the time they caught on, we were already embedded, already a name, and already a platform that people wanted to engage with. It created somewhat of a moat until it went from that blue ocean to the bloody red sea.
That was fine. We had a unique voice through Six Pixels of Separation which was our blog and podcast, through my speaking, through my two books. We had created sort of thought leadership around it. That moment is one branch on a tree that if you fast forward over time quickly, you can see how it flourished, how it worked, and how it wasn’t just a tree alone in the desert. It became a garden, a forest and it became part of the world.
Again, I’m not taking credit for any of that other than saying that right place, right time, good idea, and the ability to deliver on it and work with amazing people who helped elevate and helped me along the way. It wasn’t just Seth. There were many amazing people from Ann Handley and countless others who were interested in the same work and became friends, peers, comrades in arms, and it became really experiential in the truest sense of the word.
BRYAN WISH: I think it’s neat how Seth’s book put you down the rabbit hole and I think for those listening, it’s about going down that rabbit hole of content and letting that gateway drug of the books and things that you interest you help. I think that really set you on the path forward. It’s cool to see the chapter you’ve been down and how you followed your thought leaders. What has interested you so much about being able to work with these thought leaders?
MITCH JOEL: On one hand, I’d say you don’t have to become everyone’s BFF. You can just consume their content, build your thing, and off you go. For some reason, I always wanted to know what was under the hood and how these mechanics did it, why they did it, and what made them interested. That led to the podcast but I think the overarching message is some people will read a book and go, “That’s good. I should apply that.” My attitude is I’d love to be friends with that author. It’s just always been my thing. I collect conversations and it’s a weird thing to say. I collect conversations like this one where I’m taking notes myself.
Because I’m collecting conversations, I’m collecting people as creepy as that might sound. I’m collecting and building a network. I think ultimately, where I saw success for me, was to be in a place where if you walked up to somebody like that and said, “Hey, do you know Mitch Joel?” They would say, “Of course, I know him. Great guy. You should connect.” I believe that you can’t not be successful if the most successful people that you admire know you or are at least able to say, “Yeah, I met him once or twice.” Not just high-five, selfie, tweet about them, but they know you.
They know your work. To me, that’s emblematic of the fact that your work is penetrating in the marketplace. Your thinking, your output, the things you’re doing is being acknowledged and recognized. People will dump on things like award shows and things like that. That depends on how they work. I was always like, “No, we should celebrate moments whether we’re a team or an individual.” Do I want my book to be the number one bestseller? You bet I do. For ego, a little bit. For sure. I’m honest about it, but also because it means your idea is working.
With that, people will say, “Well, you could pay to have your book there. You can gain the system.” I never did any of those things because I didn’t want that for the ego only. That wasn’t the main driver. The main driver is I want you to know me. I don’t need to be personal, I need it to be personable. I want you to see the work and go, “He’s a likable person. He’s a helpful person.
He’s a person who will advise and mentor. Even if I’m just looking at his content, I’m learning.” That’s the point of every podcast I do. It’s the point of every media appearance I do. It’s the point of every single character that I type or speak. For me, it was less about how his work impacted me because it did, but that’s constant then. It’s a stream that continues to this day in my consumption of books, articles, and podcasts. I really wanted to be in a place where they know me. To me, that is a success.
BRYAN WISH: It’s getting under the hood and understanding the mechanics behind the why and how. If you do that, you assemble so many frameworks that you can apply and the relationships you build along the way are really special. One minute rapid fire of questions and you answer as fast as you can. I’ve never done this but I think it’d be really cool for you.
MITCH JOEL: I’m very slow at rapid-fire. Let’s go.
BRYAN WISH: Movie you’d recommend.
MITCH JOEL: Shawshank Redemption.
BRYAN WISH: Book you’d give to a stranger.
MITCH JOEL: The War of Art, Steven Pressfield.
BRYAN WISH: Place you’d recommend someone travel to.
MITCH JOEL: Prague.
BRYAN WISH: Your legacy in less than 15 seconds.
MITCH JOEL: His work really helped me.