In 2002 the dot-com revolution was in full swing — and Ryan Buchanan wanted a piece of it. Still fresh out of college and with a job at Intel as a financial analyst, Buchanan decided to start his own company.
At the time, Buchanan was watching his Intel friends go to the Bay Area and get hired by different dot-coms. “There was a certain excitement and creative energy that was changing the world, and I felt like I was in this big stodgy establishment,” says Buchanan.” I would have the Pink Floyd song ‘Welcome to the Machine’ playing in my head going into work.”
His new company built a software collaboration platform like Basecamp, but for the commercial construction industry. However, the idea of going digital didn’t take hold with contractors, and Buchanan spent two years beating his head against the wall. Meanwhile, across town, a few of his friends had an email marketing software company called Cooler Email, inspiring Buchanan to pivot his company to join them in pioneering the email marketing movement.
“There was a kind of magic in being able to track who’s reading the email, who’s clicking on it, where they go on the website,” says Buchanan. “Companies that didn’t have the budgets of Amazon were like, ‘We want to get into this but don’t have anyone in our company to do it. Can you help us?’” But within the first two months of starting eROI, Buchanan had twelve clients, four of which were of Amazon’s caliber — Walmart, Sega, Microsoft, and Cingular Wireless.
Heading up a digital marketing agency in Portland is a far cry from Buchanan’s east coast roots and schooling in finance and environmental science. But on closer inspection, there’s a sure and series of events bridging the gaps between the leaps.
The first: both of Buchanan’s parents are entrepreneurs — his mom an art consultant, his father a third-generation real estate developer. Entrepreneurism was in the blood from the first.
The second: at fifteen he travelled to Kenya and Tanzania. Up until that point, Buchanan’s life had revolved around sports — his childhood dream was to be a point guard in the NBA. But in Africa, Buchanan made two discoveries: he loved the outdoors, and he wanted to go to the west coast. His hometown near Washington D.C., he realized, lacked the scale and grandeur of Africa.
The third: at eighteen, Buchanan drove a wood-paneled station wagon 2,500 miles to Glacier National Park to work as a night janitor. Over the course of the summer, he took eight backpacking trips, met members of the Blackfoot tribe, and experienced complete independence for the first time.
“There was definitely a ton of conformity in how I lived my life,” says Buchanan. He went from being a stereotypical frat boy at the University of Virginia to finding his way to Montana as an eighteen-year-old, camping and cooking ramen noodles on the side of the road in Chicago along the way. “I didn’t know a soul. I made a bunch of friends there and it was a very different crowd,” he says.
The solo expedition left him with a singular and enduring realization: “If I can do this, I can travel anywhere around the world, and I don’t have to be on anyone else’s schedule. That independence put me on a path where it wasn’t surprising that I’d leave a safe thing to do this entrepreneurial venture. Because it’s an adventure. That’s how I see it all.”
In 2010, Buchanan’s adventure was in dire straits. eROI had rocketed to success but was now crashing back down to earth faster than Buchanan could pull the parachute. Buchanan’s bid to transform eROI from an email marketing software reseller into a software company in its own right didn’t pan out, and he was a million and a half in debt.
Employees and clients were walking out every day, and Buchanan was tasting iron in the back of his throat. Later, he learned that this is the final warning sign before the body shuts down or has a heart attack from extreme stress.
“If I had to pick one thing, having a family that is my bedrock and that I could share my struggles with — that’s how I was able to power through that time,” says Buchanan.
Ever the optimist, instead of folding, Buchanan dug in, returned to eROI’s roots, and bet on himself. “The fastest way for me to dig myself out of that hole was to lean more into my company,” he says. “It took twelve years to build that positive reputation, and the business model was still strong. It was just a matter of perseverance.”
It was also a matter of networking. Buchanan discovered a key connection who worked at Nike — and got himself in front of the sportswear giant just weeks before they made their decision as to who would be their email agency of record. He won the account, and with a steady stream of revenue from Nike, Buchanan began to right the ship.
Fast forward to 2019 — eROI is now Thesis, a full-service digital marketing agency 120 strong. The recent rebrand was long overdue — the agency having outgrown itself in capabilities and numbers since its early days of email marketing.
“When we’re all together in one room, I have this big swelling of pride,” says Buchanan. “There’s so many different perspectives, and it just feels good to be in a space where everybody can be themselves, as opposed to super formal environments with lots of code-switching.”
Growth and change are back up to a blistering pace, but this time it’s all coming from a much more substantial base and experienced leadership team.
“Leadership is everything,” says Buchanan, who credits his executive team with the agency’s success. “They’re a big reason why we’re stable and healthy while growing 50 percent year over year.”
Buchanan’s own growth as a leader since eROI’s early days has played no small part in the growth of his company. “I can share openly with my leadership team about where my weaknesses are,” he says. “It’s really hard to be self-aware of how you’re holding back the company.”
In addition to his team at Thesis, Buchanan also sees that the same intentionality for self-improvement, inside and outside of work, runs deep in EO.
“Everything in your life is connected to your business — it’s like an appendage,” says Buchanan. “Our forum and EO as a whole has been incredibly helpful to process through tougher times. It’s like having a trusted counselor in all areas of life, where you can be super vulnerable and messy and in return gain clarity of thought and insight on how to approach things.”
Buchanan’s got several irons in the fire at the moment — including workplace equity organization Emerging Leaders, an innovation lab called The Shed, and a “big, hairy, audacious goal” of being named one of the world’s most innovative companies by Fast Company by 2025.
“It’s going to be an exciting five years,” says Buchanan, in what is destined to be an understatement.
[Written by Hannah Dugan]