Randy Wilburn is the founder of Encourage Build Grow, an agency that focuses on leadership development, communication and personal development for design professionals. In Randy’s words, he helps engineers and architects, environmental consultants, and planners “be better leaders, better communicators, and ultimately better people.”
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Randy, who was featured in our first volume of “Black Entrepreneurs Speak Out,” is also a self-professed “serial podcaster” whose latest project has an especially local flavor. I Am Northwest Arkansas covers the intersection of business, culture, entrepreneurship, and life in the Ozarks of—you guessed it—Northwest Arkansas.
“I started that podcast here because I didn't know anything about this area,” Randy says. “When I left the company that I moved here five years ago to work for, I didn't really know anybody. I knew the gate agents at my local airport better than I knew people in town. So I said, let me figure out, let me learn a little bit more about this place.”
While “Northwest Arkansas” might not readily light up the mental map, this region near the borders of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri is the home of retail stalwarts Walmart, Tyson Foods, and J.B. Hunt, as well as the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where Randy lives with his wife, Nicola, and their three kids.
A Family Tree of Entrepreneurship
Randy has always possessed an entrepreneurial spirit that blossomed from a foundation of family go-getters. A number of his relatives have run successful businesses, including his great uncle, who owned the first Black pharmacy in all of Western Pennsylvania.
Randy was also drawn to online business because of a desire for flexibility. Today his three kids are fifteen, thirteen, and ten—but ten years ago, when Randy began having designs on the online world, they were five, three, and a newborn.
“I had my hands full, and I wanted to figure out different ways” of working and making a living, Randy says.
He was also “never a big punch clock puncher. I don't mind putting in the time. But if I had to compare the two, I would love to do it on my terms as opposed to somebody else's.”
And so, in internet time and terms, Randy turned himself into a bit of a pioneer. Late in the first decade of the twenty-first century, he figured out how to put an email list together and offer services online. He and Nicola eventually spun up a number of companies focused on real estate, consulting, design, and even baby food companies out of their home.
Way back in 2008, they were even featured in a Businessweek article called “Mom-and-Pop Multinationals” for how they used virtual assistants—at the time still a cutting-edge practice—to grow their online businesses.
It was around this time that Randy came across Pat Flynn, who was also a member of the Internet Business Mastery group run by Jason Van Orden and Jeremy Frandsen.
“I've been around Robin Hood's barn” when it comes to online business, Randy says. “And I've always tried to figure out, okay, how can I really leverage this and create passive opportunities? And also just to leverage the online space to make life easier when it came to work? And so it’s just been a never-ending conquest to figure that out.”
Podcasting: Off the Ground and Into the Sky
Online entrepreneurship is the airspace in which Randy has been soaring for over a decade—and podcasting is the engine that’s propelled him.
“I've kinda followed that pathway to try to have a better understanding of how to run my business online, how to make my mark.”
He’s helmed more than six hundred episodes of a variety of shows, including a podcast for his old firm, Zweig Group, called the Zweig Letter, which is 173 episodes deep and going strong. He’s also been a guest on many other shows. “And I got trained by the best.”
“The best” is a fellow by the name of Cliff Ravenscraft, who also gave Pat his podcasting wings.
Randy took Cliff’s Podcasting A to Z course way back in 2011. He had done some podcasting before that but “really wasn't certain about it. And Cliff really crystallized some things” for him. Through the course, Randy learned how to build his podcast episodes on a solid foundation “with a clear beginning, a clear middle, and a clear end, and in a way that I can kind of tell a story through whatever information is given to me.”
Randy started I Am Northwest Arkansas about a year and a half ago, and he’s already 83 episodes in. “It’s created an opportunity for me to kind of extend myself and have a better understanding of what the market needs, because I'm communicating with the market on a regular basis, through the podcast, through social media platforms.”
That communication has led to a number of growth opportunities, including partnering with local sponsors to help cover podcast expenses. He credits the niche nature of his audience—the “four-hundred-plus-thousand people that live in the greater Northwest Arkansas area”—a demographic that provides an obvious draw for local businesses that want to work with him.
Some of his sponsors have even been past interviewees. “I came back to them and they were like, ‘Wow, that show was great!’ And I said, well, there are other ways for you to be a part of this. And sponsorship is one of those.”
Beyond this local focus, the built-in economics of podcasting have also been beneficial. “The beauty of podcasting is that typically your podcasting audience tends to be a higher income bracket here in the United States. And that’s something that's never been lost on me.”
What Matters More Than Your Podcast Tech
In his decade-plus at the mic and behind the scenes, Randy has become a podcasting master in his own right. So it’s no surprise that he has a ton of great advice for other podcasters, especially those just getting started.
But maybe his most important piece of podcasting advice isn’t really podcasting advice per se—it’s just good business advice—wisdom he’s carried with him since the beginning of his online journey.
“You’ve got to build a list. You have to offer something that makes a difference for whoever your audience is. You have to find your tribe, and that's the one thing that has always stayed consistent throughout. Whenever I’ve developed a podcast, I've tried to find my tribe for that podcast and speak to them, with the understanding that I can't reach everybody. I can’t be all things to all people.”
Audience first. Find your tribe. Offer something that makes a difference. This is the core, essential stuff of any successful online business or project.
Podcasting is also about technology and process, factors that can be either exciting or overwhelming depending on who you’re talking to.
Speaking of technology, although he’s a self-professed audiophile, Randy swears by the AudioTechnica ATR 2100, which he calls “the gold standard of beginner mics.” He also has a Røde NTG2 (the same shotgun mic Pat uses in his studio) and a Zoom H6 for recording on the go (“The sound is amazing”), but the AudioTechnica is Randy’s podcasting bread and butter.
One thing Randy sees people fret too much about is sound insulation. For the record, when we spoke, Randy was in his insulation-free garage rocking his ATR 2100—and he sounded great.
The bottom line of Randy’s gear-light approach? “The barrier to entry for really good audio is not as high as you think it is. It's not nearly as expensive as it was before to get in the podcasting space, which is why I'm basically telling everyone, ‘You need to start podcasting.’”
Randy emphasizes that getting started and figuring out how the pieces of your podcasting system and process fit together takes time and legwork. But, he says, once you get into a rhythm and get your process down, it can be smooth sailing.
He figures that for each episode of I Am Northwest Arkansas, he spends “all of thirty-five minutes from start to finish editing, putting everything together, and putting it out and throwing it up on Libsyn and pushing it out to the world.”
“If you know what you're doing, once you learn it, the basics of it, the foundation of how to get good sound and how to qualify for your space and know what spaces are good, what acoustics are going to be like in any type of environment that you're going to be in, you develop that over time. That's not something that you're going to learn overnight. Then you stand a much better chance of putting out a good product.”
He’s currently creating an online course for his local public library called Think and Start a Podcast (a play on Think and Grow Rich, the landmark book by Napoleon Hill). Part of the impetus for this course was one way Randy sees many would-be podcasters holding themselves back: focusing too much on—yes—the tech that they forget to create a compelling product.
“If you don't have great content, I don't care. I don't care what device you're using to record your podcast with. I don't care what microphone you use. You can have fifty Heil PR 40s in your office. It’s not gonna matter because nobody’s gonna listen.”
Randy points out how the booming podcast space still has a lot of room to grow for those willing to create great content. The industry only recently hit one million shows, which still pales in comparison to the number of channels on YouTube.
“When people ask me, ‘I want to start a podcast,’ I'm like, ‘Do you have an iPhone? Great. Go record on your iPhone. Let's listen to that, and let's put something out.’”
So, if you want to get into podcasting, worry less about having the best of everything and more about putting in the work to create something great.
“At the end of the day, if you have a ton of shiny new objects but you can't put the work in, it doesn't matter anyway.”
COVID: The Silver Lining for Black Business Owners
When it comes to one of 2020’s most impactful phenomena, Randy doesn’t mince words.
“COVID-19 has just changed everything. I don't care who you are. Black, white, purple. It doesn't matter.”
But he’s equally quick to point out that the pandemic has had an outsize impact on Black business owners. This effect has been borne out in research by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research showing a 41 percent plunge in active Black business owners (440,000) as of May 2020, a larger drop than any other demographic’s in percentage terms.
Nonetheless, Randy sees a chance for struggling African American entrepreneurs to embrace the potential of online business and digital marketing to stay afloat and even prosper in the midst of the pandemic.
“Now is the best time to think about, How could I take my business online and save it?”
He sees “an opportunity for several of those companies that have closed up shop, unless they've just totally gone bankrupt, for them to kind of pivot, to do an online marketplace. I think the online marketplace provides so many more opportunities than you realize, and that just enough people are not on there.”
“As African Americans, we have some knowledge of online marketing and digital marketing, but we have never utilized it to the ability that it's available to us.”
As an example, he references the entrepreneurs that have quickly built online businesses making and selling masks. “They started out from nowhere… and these are all minority Black and Brown entrepreneurs that saw a need and said, ‘We're going to fill it.’”
Adventures in SPI Land
“I can't get enough of Pat,” Randy says.
He’s been an SPI Podcast listener “since day one” and has found himself inspired by more episodes than he can count—”Pat's had a gajillion great people on his show”—although some recent and not-so-recent shows featuring David Siteman Garland, Jacques Hopkins, and Jessica and Cliff Larrew have been especially impactful for him. In fact, the Larrews’ episode inspired Randy’s wife, Nicola, to start her own arbitrage-based business selling items through Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA).
Randy is also a huge fan of a number of SPI courses—and of courses in general.
“Build Your Own Brand is amazing. For anybody that is starting out in the online space, BYOB will give you the foundation that you need. You know what they say, is how if you build a house on solid ground, it won't falter. And Build Your Own Brand is a great example of that.”
“There's a lot of people out there in the online space that keep everything close to the vest. They don't share everything. They don't want to. It's as if it's all a secret, but it's really not. All this information is out there at your disposal. You don't technically ever have to take a course.”
So why take a course, then?
“To save you time, so that you're not going over here, you're not going over there. It's all right there in front of you. And if you’re like me and you have a hard time, because every time you see a squirrel you start looking around, then you need a good course to keep you grounded and to keep you focused.”
He also credits Pat’s commitment to streaming daily on YouTube. “It's just been a testament to who he is. He's just been throwing nuggets over the bow. Every day is something new.”
“I tell people all the time, if you're trying to get started in this space, I couldn't think of a better place” than SPI.
Why You’re Never Too Old to Chase Your Dream
“Our time here on earth is—we don't know how long it is. Some of us can live to a hundred. Some of us can live to fifty. And every day is precious, I guess is my point. So I always tell people, if you still haven't gotten to the place that you want to be, don't give up.”
Randy’s hero is his grandfather, a man named Mal Goode. In 1962, at the age of fifty-four, Goode was a writer for the Courier, a Black newspaper in Pittsburgh.
That same year, ABC News was looking to hire its first Black network newscaster—the first on any network.
Goode was good friends with Jackie Robinson—yes, that Jackie Robinson—who Goode used to cover on his beat for the Courier. The Hall of Famer encouraged ABC’s news director to give Goode a shot. So ABC News invited Goode, along with about forty other African American candidates, to audition for the role.
“My grandfather knocked it out of the park. He beat out a lot of younger people for the job. He was fifty-four years of age, and he got his shot.”
Goode went on to cover the assassinations of John F. Kennedy assassination and Malcolm X, the Poor People's Campaign march, Martin Luther King's funeral, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. According to Randy, he was also a mentor and friend to both Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings and a number of others who came through the ranks at ABC news.
“He wanted to do things at a younger age, and the doors weren't open to him because he was an African American. But he persisted, and kept pushing the envelope and pushing the envelope. And in 1962, he broke through.”
“At a time when people were not used to seeing African Americans on TV period, he was there.”
Learning how his grandfather got his break well into his middle-aged years gave Randy a crisp perspective on what’s possible whatever your age.
“If you feel like, Man, I still haven't met my calling, it's never too late to do that. And I think that doing something online creates leverage and creates an opportunity that you wouldn't necessarily get with a brick and mortar business. And I just think that if you learn to master this space, the sky’s the limit.”
His own experience as a serial podcaster and digital pioneer has only fortified Randy’s belief that “nothing is impossible,” especially online. He also nods to Pat’s own story of creating entrepreneurial lemonade from life’s lemons.
“You know, [Pat] talks about, when he got laid off from his architectural job and he had just been named the job captain and all that stuff. And then he just realized that, You know what, I have to be master of my domain.”
Home & Away
Find a need, then go serve it. “Simple,” maybe, like Randy says, but potentially life-changing, too.
“I think we all come to that place, you know, those of us that choose this path. We all come to that place where we’re like, You know what? I would rather just call the shots. And sometimes the shots are going to come up short, but sometimes I'm going to knock it out of the park, and that's when you can have some real success.”
Perhaps Randy’s most inspiring story of overcoming a seemingly insurmountable barrier came early on in our interview. This Boston sports fan was grilling him for tidbits from the seventeen formative years he spent in Dorchester, a suburb of Boston.
“I always tell people, ‘Never say never.’ I grew up in Northern New Jersey, and I always said I would never go to Boston. Hated the Celtics, hated the Red Sox, Yankees fan growing up, and definitely didn't want to have any part of Boston. But it took my heart and introduced me to my wife. And all three of my boys were born there. So I have nothing but love for Boston.”
Talk about knocking it out of the pahk.