By Thomas A. Parmalee
Welton Hong, the founder and CEO of Ring Ring Marketing, started his company as a side hustle when he was a staff engineer at Oracle.
If you sit down to enjoy a meal with Welton, as some funeral professionals have been known to do, he’ll tell you the whole story.
“When I started what would become RRM, my goal was to fulfill my dream of three objectives: time freedom, location freedom, and financial freedom. That’s all I really wanted,” he said.
Now that he’s been serving the profession full time for almost 10 years, his goals have changed.
“As we’ve gone along, I’ve realized that what really fulfills me is running this business,” he said. “Every time we help a funeral home or cemetery grow to the next level, that’s truly fulfilling. As RRM grows and we can provide more jobs to more people, I’m incredibly excited to watch our family grow.”
In fact, despite brisk consolidation throughout funeral service, Hong said he’s excited to continue running RRM – “and that won’t be changing anytime soon,” he said. “I’m familiar with all the serial entrepreneurs who love to create a business, pump up the value and then flip it, but that’s not me. I’ve never operated RRM with any concern about its potential sale value. We’d be doing things very differently if that were the case!”
Welton remains squarely focused on continuing to help grow RRM by helping more small business owners succeed. “I truly believe we’re providing a vital service by providing honest, cost-effective, profit-generating services to our clients.”
So, how did Welton grow such a thriving business, what makes RRM different and what are some of his tips to enjoy life and build a thriving business? We reached out to him to hear some of his wisdom. Edited excerpts follow.
How many years did you operate RRM while still working full time as an engineer – and what gave you the confidence to take the leap to being a full-time business owner?
It was about four years, from 2010 to 2014. My wife wouldn’t let me quit Oracle until our startup marketing business (which would become RRM) was on stable ground and our income was substantial enough to replace the high salary I was receiving in Silicon Valley.
And honestly, if I were to do it all again, I wouldn’t change a thing. We did it right. A few too many entrepreneurs put their eggs all in one basket and aren’t prepared to handle the growing pains — and everyone has some — of the early years.
That philosophy carries over to how we advise our business clients. We help them grow through the least risky processes. It’s all about getting the best value for your money, which is especially important in this economy.
Does your wife, Susan, play any role in the business? How important has her support been to your success?
Oh, Susan’s role is enormous. She’s the chief financial officer. I’m the one appearing in the social feeds and speaking at the events, but she’s running much of the show behind the scenes.
We started the business together. She used to do everything along with me when the business was small, from stuffing envelopes to working on Google listings to administering payroll — and dozens of other things.
We learned everything about digital marketing and did everything together. Susan has also helped a lot in defending my time. Now that we have a much larger team (over 125 full-time employees), she mainly focuses on her CFO duties. She’s still involved on a day-to-day basis, but there’s no more stuffing envelopes — now we work together on big-picture strategic planning.
Who have been your most important mentors? What have you learned from them?
I’m happy to acknowledge that I’ve leaned on the advice and inspiration of many brilliant business and marketing minds as we’ve built RRM. And as that journey has continued and the challenges we face evolve, I look to different people for guidance.
I think it’s incredibly important to continually look for inspiration and new ideas from both mentors and peers who have specific expertise in areas where you need help. Your mentors should change depending on what you need at that time.
In the startup stage, Victor Cheng (a former McKinsey consultant) was invaluable in helping me learn how to create a strong foundation for RRM.
Later, marketing experts Ed Dale and Dennis Yu have each provided critical guidance on growing and scaling the business. They have very different approaches — one’s more conventional, the other more cutting-edge — but the one thing they have in common is excellent advice.
What should funeral homes be doing right now to prepare for the impact that artificial intelligence will have on professional and personal life?
I think there’s only one smart way to approach artificial intelligence, which is to learn it and embrace it, not be afraid of it.
We’ve seen this story before; it’s just being told much more often and more rapidly now. Technology is currently evolving at an incredibly rapid pace. A lot of the strategies and techniques we use at RRM today are completely different than the ones we used just two years ago. And we’ll very likely be doing different things a year from now. That’s how fast things change.
I and everyone at RRM have been learning more about the benefits of AI in recent months, and we will be continuing to hone those skills and achieve expertise in AI’s various uses. It’s simply a reality of our world today, and it’s incumbent on us to understand it fully and use it to help our clients grow and become more successful.
I do understand why the very idea of AI might be unnerving to some. However, I’m certain that when it’s employed thoughtfully and professionally, there’s no downside. Ultimately, AI is just a tool, and a tool is only as good as the people operating it. No one’s handing over the reins to mindless robots, I promise you.
At RRM, we marry the efficiency of AI with the skills and talents of our very human marketing experts, and they remain indispensable. The key is not to think of AI as a replacement for skilled human productivity but as a way of boosting and enhancing it.
What is RRM the best at – and what can you do better?
I think we’re unparalleled in helping funeral homes generate more at-need calls — and improve their potential revenue per call— at a very reasonable value. We do a lot of things well, but that’s our bread and butter in death care.
We want you to get more (and better) at-need calls without wasting your time and money on strategies that provide a low return on investment. We’re all about high ROI, which is why we’ve mastered search engine marketing and, relatedly, the best deployment of ad spends on Google Ads.
As for what we could do better, you know I’d love to say that everything we do is perfect! Well, that’s certainly what we’re constantly striving toward. In reality, I’d say the biggest challenge is to keep up with Google’s ever-changing algorithm.
For those who don’t know, there’s something like a “friendly war” going on between Google and certain types of marketers. Google is constantly evolving to keep “black hat” marketers from figuring out loopholes and unfair advantages or other ways to game the system.
I don’t worry about that from Google, because RRM is a purely “white hat” business: We exclusively play within the rules — while always maximizing what we can get for our clients inside those rules. We’re even a Google Premier Partner.
So, it’s actually really good that Google constantly evolves to fight off the black hats. But it does require us to do the same on our end so we can get the most for our clients out of Google.
If a funeral home owner approached you and asked for a marketing check-up, what are the top three things you would suggest to them to help them get their marketing in order?
Funeral homes comprise the vast majority of our client base, and I anticipate that to be the case in perpetuity, because we remain 100% committed to death care. Effectively all the strategies we employ today were crafted in service of funeral home clients, so we know our processes have been tried and tested hundreds of times over.
As I noted before, for the generation of more and better at-need calls, it really all starts with the funeral home’s Google presence, followed by its website and its quantity and quality of reviews (especially on Google).
“Googling” is by far the number-one way people research and decide on local service providers today, so establishing and expanding your Google presence through both SEM and SEO is critical.
The next step is to ensure you have a high-converting website, because it doesn’t matter whether someone visits your site if they don’t become a client. Improving your website massively increases the likelihood of getting the call over a comparable competitor.
Finally, having excellent reviews has become more imperative every year. The difference between having a 4.8 overall rating and a 4.4 can be the difference in getting 10%, 15%, or even 20% more calls per year. And review quantity keeps getting more important—it’s no longer acceptable to only have a handful of reviews. You really need to grow those numbers.
You recently launched a new unit of RRM … can you tell us about it?
Everything starts with death care. Understanding how important it was for funeral home owners and directors to help local families in their most challenging time has become a core part of our identity at RRM. Working with funeral homes really makes us feel special, which is why we’re devoted to expanding our work in that space going forward.
That’s why I wanted our new division to be focused on helping hospice organizations grow. It’s called Hospice Haven Marketing. I see it as a natural extension of everything we’re doing in death care, and we’re looking for ways to leverage that synergy to help more funeral homes even as we expand to hospice services.
There’s an obvious connection there, so as I explored new ways to help funeral homes grow, it just made sense to welcome hospice services into our mission. It’s still very new, and we’re learning a lot as we go, but I know for sure that the processes and passion we’ve mastered with death care will translate very well to Hospice Haven Marketing.
Funeral directors do a lot of traveling, including to Las Vegas, where you live. What are three restaurants you’d recommend they eat at when they visit?
The top one might not surprise you: It’s Joël Robuchon, a restaurant with three Michelin stars, located in the MGM Grand. After that, I’d recommend Bazaar Meat by José Andrés, which is in the Sahara. Finally, I also love Restaurant Guy Savoy at Caesars Palace. They’re all amazing, and each one gives you more than a meal: It’s a captivating, elevated experience.
Susan and I love these places not just for the food and wine — although we certainly do love those — but because they deliver unforgettable experiences.
We enjoy spending hours over dinner reflecting on life, and we also learn a lot from the professionalism and detail shown by the chefs, the sommelier, the service staff, and everyone involved. You learn a lot about teamwork, customer service, commitment to perfection, and so on. It’s so much for than just “having dinner.” It really educates you about life and passion.
You are a world traveler. What is one place you’ve visited in the past year that you would recommend others visit – and name a place on your list that you haven’t visited yet but want to see.
Hands down, my favorite international destination is Barcelona. The food, art, and culture are all stunning. And the special quality is that it’s much more economical than many other popular vacation spots. I think the value you get out of visiting Barcelona is unparalleled.
I’ve not yet been to either Alaska or Norway, which I mention together because they’re two top destinations to view the northern lights. So, visiting one or the other is definitely on the wish list for a trip in the near future.
What are three books that funeral directors should put on their must-read list?
Three books I’ve been inspired by a lot lately are:
Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman
Come Up for Air by Nick Sonnenberg
The New Good Standard (Ritz-Carlton principles) by Joseph A. Michelli
The commonality of these books is that they’re not about marketing; they’re about running your business more thoughtfully and efficiently. Sometimes people forget that running a business isn’t just about doing “what you do” (e.g., marketing) very well — you still need to understand good management to run the business itself as well as possible.
I’ve learned a lot from these books about how great business principles apply to pretty much everything you do, and funeral homes are no exception. I promise anyone reading this that you will learn many great ways to run your funeral home better by digging into these books.
Learn more about Ring Ring Marketing.