Risk, Mental Toughness, and Dressing Up Like the Black Jon Snow: Having Fun with Success
Donald Thompson talks to guest host Meghan Hockaday about what it takes to succeed in business, who his mentors are and what they taught him, why he doesn’t like the term work-life balance, some of the strategic partnerships at Walk West, and the craziest thing he’s done for a client.
Hustle Unlimited is (usually) hosted by Walk West CEO, mentor, investor, and hustler himself, Donald Thompson.
Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.
Jason Gillikin: Welcome to the Hustle Unlimited Podcast with serial entrepreneur Donald Thompson! You are listening to episode 10 of season 2. I’m Jason Gillikin, CEO of Earfluence and producer of Hustle Unlimited. Today’s episode is going to be a little bit different as we have Donald Thompson as the guest, which we’ve done before, but this time we have a different host, Meghan Hockaday, Content Strategist at Walk West where Don is the CEO. Meghan asked Don some great questions, some fun questions – about who his mentors are and what they taught him, why he doesn’t like the term work-life balance, some of the strategic partnerships at Walk West, and the craziest thing he’s done for a client.
So let’s get right to it today. Here’s Walk West CEO, investor, speaker, mentor, advisor, and all around hustler himself, usual host of the Hustle Unlimited Podcast, Donald Thompson, with today’s host, Meghan Hockaday.
Meghan Hockaday: So, Hey Don, how are you doing?
Donald Thompson: I’m doing amazing.
Meghan Hockaday: you have a history of helping companies win and excel. What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done for a client?
Donald Thompson: The craziest thing I’ve ever done for a client or in a client meeting about a year and a half ago, we were, very fortunate to be in a pitch with a hundred million dollar company and for us as a small growing firm was a big deal. It so happened to coincide with our company Halloween party. And, I went to this meeting, uh, with, uh, who’s now a customer. We did win the business as the black John Snow.
And I mean the full get-out I mean, the hair, the sword, the boots. the big jacket. And, it was priceless, to see the client’s face at the start of the meeting. But, uh, it went well and we ended up winning the business.
Meghan Hockaday: That’s amazing. So is Game of Thrones is your favorite TV show?
Donald Thompson: Game of Thrones is my favorite TV show, of all time. No. Close second.
Meghan Hockaday: What’s your favorite thing favorite thing about it?
Donald Thompson: The thing about Game of Thrones is really the strategy around it. Right? There’s a lot of shows and movies and really life, but really we’re all chasing something that we want, and in any environment, we’re trying to figure out how to win.
There’s politics, there’s potholes, there’s people that say they’re for you, but they’re not There’s danger if you make the right decision and there’s life or death if you make the wrong one. And so Game of Thrones was both interesting. It was very well written and all of that good stuff, but it really was a microcosm of, unfortunately what real life is about.
And there’s some treachery out there and you can have good intentions, but if you don’t keep your eyes open and your ears open to people who don’t have good intentions, you can lose in the end.
Meghan Hockaday: So what has been, speaking of those potholes, those challenges, what has been some of the top things you’ve needed to succeed in business so far?
Donald Thompson: So a couple of things in terms of succeeding in business that I hold dear. Number one is being able to be coachable. At this point in my career, I mentor and coach others. But really the question was about. How I grew in business and achieve some level of success. It’s been able to make knowledge, education, and experience that I did not have attainable through relationships with others. So I could still win in the battle that I faced, even though I had to lean on the experience and wisdom of others.
Meghan Hockaday: And speaking of being coachable, how did your time growing up as an athlete, being a college athlete, affect your mentality toward business?
Donald Thompson: So being a college athlete effected my mentality and a couple of ways. Number one, if you’re playing anything at a high level, And that’s football, that’s basketball, that’s a, if you are in the theater, if you’re a musician, if you’re doing anything at a high level, there is a lot of competition.
Which means you’re not always going to be the best, which means you’re going to fail, which means the practice is going to be hard, which means you’re gonna have to push through when you don’t want to, because the goal you want to attain is so much greater than the work you have to put in. You’re willing to put in the pain because the promise of that fruit at the end of the day is so much bigger.
So what I learned from sports is to be able to get knocked down and get back up. That you can’t do anything significant as an individual performer, that you have to be willing to be coached Your best coaches are going to be the ones that you like the least. On many days, but you’re going to look back over the years and say, wait a minute, that 5:00 AM winter conditioning.
Those drills again and again. Even though I was tired, that weight lifting after hours and then I still had to go to school and study, it was all worth it because I was a part of a team of champions that did something great.
Meghan Hockaday: Yeah. That work ethic is a huge deal in this industry. What do you think is the truth behind the idea of work life balance?
Donald Thompson: I love when people talk about work life balance and, and I, and I have this like CEO thought bubble, right? So people sit with me in an interview and it looks like Don, tell me about work life balance at your company. And then I’m thinking of my mind, I was like, you know what? Most people want the balance and the fun part, they actually forget the work part.
Work life balance means that you’re given everything that you have within the constraints of that job, whether it’s 40 hours a week, 50 hours a week, et cetera. I don’t really believe in work life balance as much as I do work life integration. So what I mean is if you have kids and you’ve got a tea party with your daughter in the second grade, you should go do that.
You should create an environment, you should work for people that think that 10:00 AM appointment at the elementary school with your second grader is as critical as anything we’re doing at work. But then when your kids are down, you might need to get on that laptop and finish up that two hours of work.
That’s work life integration. Some people from time to time think that the company is the only stakeholder that has to give in that relationship, That I’ve got to go do something for my family. My car’s in the shop. I’ve got to go do that. I don’t feel good cause I was out drinking last night, so I’m going to show up two hours late.
I think the integration makes it a two way street and I’m all for that, I’m all for people incorporating family and life and friends and faith into what they do in a work situation. But you got to remember, in order to succeed wildly, you’ve got to produce results. So you can’t let that balance keep you from producing at a high level.
If you have big goals and dreams professionally.
Meghan Hockaday: How do you think Walk West as the fastest growing agency in North Carolina displays that work-life integration?
Donald Thompson: The work life integration. I think one example is we had, three ladies in the same department go on maternity leave all at the same time.
For us, that was a big challenge because these ladies were all high performers, not just good performers, I mean top performers. And we created a program both in the maternity leaves that they needed to deserve to take with their time and family, but more important the ability for them to come back into the organization at a time that worked for them and their family, and then when they came back in the organization, knowing that over the first three, six, eight months of being a new parent, they were going to need some flexibility as they re-emerged into the workplace. Our ability to give them that space, their ability to keep their standard high was a great partnership. And that’s something that I think Walk West really stands for, is we want to partnership with our employees. And employee situations that didn’t work out quite right. people thought vacation was something that was to be taken, but the work they left behind didn’t need to get done. In partnership means you’re going to make sure that your work is done ready to be handed off to the team that’s going to do it while you’re on vacation, so you can enjoy your well-deserved rest, but the company and the client don’t suffer because you need to take a break.
That’s the kind of partnership we’re looking for and that we have with our employees now. We’re very excited about that.
Meghan Hockaday: Yeah. And speaking of partnerships, what are some strategic partnerships you have that you’re really excited about right now?
Donald Thompson: good question. So I’ll talk about one that’s, that’s coming.
Some of them we can’t really like publicly, just jump out and, and talk about, but there’s a company called LCI technology and run by a good friend of mine, his name is John Samuel, and it just so happens that John Samuel is legally blind. And he’s built one of the most powerful technology companies in the Research Triangle Park.
And what his team does is they do accessibility testing for websites and mobile devices. They’re partnering with Walk West so that the websites that we build have digital equity. And so that means those that do not hear, those that do not see as well can still leverage these technologies in a powerful way.
Just like those of us that are blessed with, with all of our eyesight. And our ability to hear and all of those different things. And so that partnership with LCI tech, I think is pretty powerful for us.
Meghan Hockaday: That’s amazing. And what would be your dream client for Walk West? If you had to describe their dream client?
Donald Thompson: let me give you a type of client, right? Because there’s more than one client that would be a dream client. Let me give you a type of client. Challenger brands. So we’re working with a company called Wasabi. They have a cloud based storage system that’s six times faster and six times cheaper than Amazon web services or what Google is bringing to market.
We’re super excited about working wasabi because they’re a startup. The David going after the Goliath. That’s the perfect client for us because we’re super excited about that. We’re super excited about the work that we’re doing with Republic Wireless. $100 million wireless company that’s going after the AT&T’s of the world, is going after the Verizon’s.
They’re a great company that more people need to know about, and our job is to create that awareness that turns into action, that turns into income for them to grow their business. But they fit that challenger brand because they’re the David. Going after the Goliath in their industry. We love clients that are doing well in the marketplace, but our marketing services, our digital services, our communication services can help them go after the big guys in the space that they play.
Meghan Hockaday: What is a little known fact about you?
Donald Thompson: A little known fact about me that I’m a total introvert. That, people would not believe the fact that, you know, I have an outgoing personality. I portray a strength and enjoy people very much. But I’m okay being by myself. get recharged and refueled by reading a good book, by going on a, I would say a jog, but like a walk, like a walk, jog, walk.
but I do have a dominant introvert personality, and I think that it’s helped me in that being a CEO, being a business leader. Pretty much every day. somebody is not happy with me about something. And I mean, it’s like every day for like 20 years, Because somebody that that you’re working with, you’ve got to critique or coach a work product that they’ve put a lot into and you’ve got to give them some guidance.
at some point you’re having conversations with, clients or partners that you need to work on and tweak some things a little bit. It is a lonely place as a business leader, but it’s a fulfilling place. As you help other people become better, but you can’t coach people to greatness being the life of the party all the time. Sometimes you’ve got to really sit with people and let them know the gap between where they are and where they need to be and where excellence lives. And that’s not always the easiest situation. And so a lot of times as a leader. You have to spend time alone because you’re the only one that can really understand all of the different things you’re processing about an organization.
Meghan Hockaday: What does it look like for you being introverted, having to be a public figure and doing all these speaking engagements and conferences and things like that?
Donald Thompson: Being introverted doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot to say.
Meghan Hockaday: True. Very, very true.
Donald Thompson: I have lots of opinions. Uh, but it is work because I don’t crave the limelight. I have to have a. Focused motivation as to why I’m going to do the speaking engagement. So usually I don’t speak about things just for fee.
I speak about things that matter. I speak about things that are going to help people move to the next level. And so it has to be about a topic like diversity inclusion that I feel passionately about, like entrepreneurship, that I want other people to be willing to take that risk to chase their dreams and goals.
And so when I tie that mission to the act of needing to be a more public individual, then I will suppress the fact that I’d rather be by myself sometimes because I have a duty. So my cause, motivation or my duty and responsibility, motivation are stronger than that introverted kind of personality for a few hours. But after doing it, I like to go find a book. I like to watch something on Netflix and wach some Game of Thrones and just hang out.
Meghan Hockaday: Totally. So you mentioned about being a CEO. You were having to tell people things they don’t want to hear. You’re having to give constructive feedback and criticism.
What is the best advice or constructive criticism you’ve ever received?
Donald Thompson: Oh man. That’s great. What is the best advice or constructive criticism that I’ve ever received. Your business career will be long. Make sure you do things with a high level of integrity all the time because you are never going to be able to outrun your network and people that know you, that know each other.
And what you put out there in the ecosystem will come back. So if you put good seed in the ground, you’re honorable, you’re focused on delivering on the commitments that you promise. When you don’t make a commitment, which sometimes happen, you do everything that you can to fix it and make it right.
That kind of integrity in business allows you to build a brand that’s lasting. Versus kind of being a one hit wonder, so to speak, in business. And so that biggest coaching point from Grant Willard, my mentor, was very important. I’ll give you the situation when it occurred. We had a client in the technology space that was under some significant duress, and we had the technology they needed to overcome an obstacle.
As a young salesperson, I had the ability to charge them double or triple what the market was because they were in distress. And they needed our services. And I remember Grant pulling me aside and saying, Don, do you want to win this customer or do you want to win hundreds over your career? We don’t need to overcharge this client at that level because we can. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something. It’s a small business environment that we’re living in, in the technology space. What do we want our brand to be like? And then he just paused and he said, I’ll leave it to you with what you need to do.
What? That’s terrible. Right? Like I just, like you just told me what I was gonna do was radically stupid. And then you gave me permission to be radically stupid if I wanted to be. And so I reflect on it and obviously I knew that the right thing was to charge the client a premium because they wanted us to work faster.
But not to overcharge them because I could. And that was a very, very powerful lesson in terms of what you do when no one’s looking. And that stuck with me all the time because I’ll, I’ll tell you, when you’re a CEO and the decisions, and it’s not just a CEO, it’s a leader, it’s a parent, it’s a, it’s a pastor.
It’s anybody in a level of leadership. In order for me 25 years in to be able to lay on the pillow every single night and sleep well. I have to make sure I’ve done things to the best of my ability every day. It doesn’t mean people will like it all the time. It doesn’t mean people are appreciated and respected all the time.
If I feel like I operated with a level of integrity that my mom and dad would be proud of, if I do that every day, I can always sleep well. And so those are the kinds of things that I learned from Grant, that I learned from my parents that underpinned the way that I grow my business and that I tried to lead.
Meghan Hockaday: Yeah. Was that a learning curve for you to become less concerned with what everyone else was saying and become more concerned
Donald Thompson: I don’t know if there’s a learning curve, but something that was cemented. I’m the son of a football coach. I moved around a lot.
I learned very early on that people would cheer for you when you win and when you lose, you get a UHaul van and you have to move. And so I learned that winning mattered very early on in my, in my life. The other thing I started to understand is that people telling you good things didn’t mean they were always for you.
And so early on in my life I became very good at understanding that I had to perform at a high level based on the goals that I had, the dreams that I wanted to achieve, and not focus on simply pleasing others. If my goals when achieved, made other people happy, then good stuff. But I learned that I had to make sure that I was doing things that align with what I wanted to be when I grew up.
And that I learned from an early age watching my mom and dad’s profession watching some of the different things that they worked through. And that has been a real strength for me because many people are very, very moved by the peer pressure of the moment. And I’m very thankful that I have not been.
Because otherwise I would not have taken as many risks as I have in my career. I would not have tried as many new things in my career if I was always wondering or thinking what people would think of me. And then what happens is when people don’t understand, people always understand the win. People are always there to cheer for the win.
And, uh, I just learned early age that I had to chase my dreams, my destiny, and not be so concerned with what others thought.
Meghan Hockaday: We talked a little bit earlier about not being afraid to fail. A lot of entrepreneurs and people who are launching specifically small businesses, there’s definitely a high risk factor. How would you encourage them to move past that fear of failure?
Donald Thompson: Yeah, moving past that fear or failure is difficult, right? Because we all have it. I still have it. I just overcome it. Does that make sense? Like it, it doesn’t mean the fear is not there. Just don’t let the fear define you. Walk, crawl, run. A lot of people think to start a business, they got to quit their job and they got to spend all their savings and go start a business.
There’s nothing wrong with side hustles. There’s nothing wrong with building up a little consulting practice and then deciding after you’ve got five, seven, eight, nine customers, then you want to transition out of a full time career. There’s nothing wrong with building a small team of interns.
It’s working on a side project for you on nights and weekends, and then when you’ve got five, 10 customers, then deciding that it’s time to go full time. Try fail and adjust means let’s just get started. Let’s not try to make the whole entrepreneurial decision all at once, Let’s flesh out the idea.
Let’s do some research. Let’s talk to some people in the business community and see if we’ve got something that’s powerful. Let’s talk to some customers and then along that kind of path, you’re going to find out the right time to take bigger and bigger risks for you and for your family.
Meghan Hockaday: What do you feel like is the biggest risk you’ve taken that ended up being a success?
Donald Thompson: Quitting school. when I was, you know, looking at what I wanted to do for my career, and I was a finance major at East Carolina university. And you know, I had a defining conversation with my coach and me and my coach agreed. He agreed first and then I finally did that I probably wasn’t going to the NFL. when I finally kind of realized not only was it not going to NFL, I wasn’t going to be a starter on a division one team. So this is like bad. I’m not going to get paid. Then even worse, I’m not going to play in front of 50, 60,000 people. I literally was going to be a special teams All American, like that was gonna be my cap. Does that make sense? Like, like I was going to be amazing on special teams, right? And anytime your coach is like, Hey man, don’t let this get you down. You’re going to be like, you are going to be a major part of our program on like kickoff return, like blocking for people and like as the gunner, on punt team and all these other things that have a high degree of injury and no accolades.
Does that make sense? Like “Hard work, No press.” That was my future. I was like, yeah, nah, I can’t, this shit’s too hard. Like I was like this winter conditioning, lifting hit like hitting dudes, 270 pounds on the run. Concussions, they ain’t even call it that before. I was like, yeah, nah, knees hurting.
I was like. For, wait, what? Special team superstar. I was like, yeah, nah, coach, I’m not going to be able to do that. Here’s what I’m going to do for you, coach. He’s like, what’s that Thompson? I was like, I’m going to create an environment where you have this open scholarship for somebody else because I can’t do it, man.
This is too much pain, and so anyway. I stopped playing and playing football, which was the right decision for me because like it was too much work for the reward at that point. I had gone as far as my talent could take me, and I wasn’t mad about it. I wasn’t upset at the coach. There was just too many guys that were better than me, and there wasn’t a way to overcome that in a period of time to change that up.
And so I had to come to that realization and that was painful. Like that really hurt, like it still makes me mad now. Like, I mean it’s, it hurt, but then I was like, huh. I don’t really like school, I’m trying to get paid, If I’m in school and I don’t have a scholarship, that means I gotta pay them money.
If I go out and get a job, that means I get money. So how about I go get a job till I figure out what business I want to start so I can work on the get-money part of my life. And that to me was a simple rationale. And I knew I wanted to do something in sales. I knew I wanted to do something entrepreneurship.
And none of that required a four year degree. It required an opportunity, required some hustle. And that was a big risk though 25 years ago. Now, it’s not such a stigma not to have a college degree. 25 years ago, I had a lot of people that would not even take my resume because I didn’t have a four year degree.
It didn’t matter if I could do the job or not. It didn’t matter that academically I got accepted to Wake Forest University. That academically I was top 10 in my high school class. That academically, I was very smart. I could pick up or learn anything. No one cared about any of that because I didn’t have a piece of paper like everybody else.
So I had to go through 50 interviews to get the three offers that I got when someone else might’ve had to go through five or 10 or 15. That’s fine. It’s a path I chose, but it was a big risk. And I’m glad that I took it because it removed any level of entitlement that I had. I knew based on the cards that I was dealt and some cards, I chose myself that I was going to have to work twice as hard three times or four times as hard to get those opportunities. And so when somebody gave me an opportunity, work ethic, hustle, learning, they didn’t have to worry about that. I got you. I was willing to put in the work.
Meghan Hockaday: What was that first job you got?
Donald Thompson: Uh, yeah. Well that, that’s a good story. I was a security guard, right out of school. I was in charge of the keys. I was a Dollar General store manager and thankful for that. Because that company did give me an opportunity to be in management, even though I just had like a lot of keys and I was like the head cashier for real, but like I was a manager and they gave me responsibility for a multimillion dollar store after I went through the training.
And they did see past that pedigree and they gave me a chance. And so I worked at Dollar General for about two years and learned how to deal with people from a leadership standpoint, inventory, profit, loss, all of those little things as a store manager. I said, wait a minute, this is like owning my own little business.
It’s not my store, but I treated it like it was my store. Right. And I said, what if I had my own company, I could really do something special. And so I took a lot of the learnings of responsibility, even though I knew I didn’t want to be in retail. So that was one of my first early jobs outside of the security guard thing.
We’ll talk about that another time.
Meghan Hockaday: Yeah. You’ve mentored a lot of people in your career. Which mentor in your life has affected you the most?
Donald Thompson: Certainly I mentioned Grant Willard my mentor and good friend Grant hired me as employee number seven, uh, at the software technology company. And the reason that uh, I took the job as he promised me,
I’ll help you be more than just a sales guy. I’ll teach you the technology, I’ll teach you the business. And so I’m forever grateful for that. Uh, another powerful mentor is my mom and dad, and they just would not allow me to have small goals. I’ll give you a quick story about my dad. I’m 48 years old now.
Okay? I play competitive racketball and so this recent tournament, me and my partner were playing doubles. We won the elite division. Were super excited about it. Right after that match. After an hour and a half match, I had to go back and play another division in the finals seven minutes later.
So I’m talking to my dad about it and I said, dad, the other guy beat me. I was tired from the first match and my dad goes, so wait, you’re making an excuse that you weren’t in shape enough to play back to back, and I’m supposed to be good with that. And there’s silence on the phone. I’m 48.
This slide, this shit happened last week. This is not, and so I’m listening to him and I go, yeah, you right, man. I’m going in 20 pounds lighter the next one. My parents just didn’t deal in excuses. Yes, my parents are African-American. Yes. They had to deal with discrimination.
My parents taught me to win with the cards you’re dealt that there’s no reason you can’t succeed as long as you can get on that field. And it doesn’t matter if people are trying to hold you back, then that just means you gotta be stronger. And that was something that I’ve internalized in everything I do, which makes most of what I’m trying to achieve, not that big a deal, Because I look at it from the frame of mind that I can versus I can’t, and I look at obstacles that people put in front of me is an opportunity for me to demonstrate that I’m excellent. And, and I just embrace it. It doesn’t mean I win all the time. It means I try really hard. It means I work really hard.
It doesn’t mean that you went all the time. It means that if I fall down, if I get knocked down, lick my wounds, cry a little bit, little bottle of wine, whatever, and go back the next day and hit it. And that’s the only thing that makes me different. Not smarter than most people would probably mentally tougher.
I don’t look at what I don’t have. I’m so thankful for what I do have. I get up every day thankful about what I’ve got.
Jason Gillikin: That was Donald Thompson, CEO of Walk West, with guest host Meghan Hockaday. For more on Walk West, visit WalkWest.com or find them on social media – and if you look back far enough, you can find where Don was in fact the black Jon Snow.
This episode was edited and produced by me, Jason Gillikin, for Earfluence. For more on the Earflucence Podcast Network, visit Earfluence.com or check us out on social media, we’re AT EarfluenceMedia.
Intro and outro music for this episode is “You Can’t Stop Me” from Jensen Reed. You can find more of his music at JensenReed.com.
Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time on Hustle Unlimited.