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Scott Omelianuk on Navigating Your Career and Finding Your Brand Purpose

Being at the tip of the spear for millions of thriving — and struggling — business professionals, navigating their way across the rough seas of running a business and entrepreneurship is a huge responsibility. This is just a glimpse into a day in the life with Inc. Magazine’s Editor in Chief, Scott Omelianuk.

Omelianuk might make the job look effortless–and of course credits his talented team– but the truth is his EIC role is not a career he ever thought he wanted. At the time that he was approached by Inc., Omelianuk had been working in media for twenty years. He’d been working in TV and sold a brand to private equity (This Old House Ventures) and was ready to start a new chapter in life. He went on to teach at a business school and wanted to be a consultant despite the reality of realizing that the companies he most wanted to consult for couldn’t pay enough for it to be a viable full-time career.

At the same time, he had written a piece about brand purpose for Fast Company (Inc.’s sister publication) and the CEO of Inc. read the story, did a bit of research on Scott’s background and thought he’d be a perfect fit for the Editor in Chief vacancy they had.

While Omelianuk thought he was done working in media, he says that learning about the audience he’d be creating content for was a game changer for him.

“For me, the thing that changed my mind about returning to media was who the Inc. audience ends up being. A remarkable group of people, really tribal… and when you have an audience that’s a tribe of people, and there’s a passion behind them and you connect with them really well, that’s special. You don’t get that every day.”

As a young boy Omelianuk says he wasn’t really focused on career aspirations or dreams early on. He knew he enjoyed art and was inspired by his grandfather who was an illustrator for Walt Disney and so he went to art school. While there, Omelianuk was studying painting, but his skills didn’t seem to be at the level of some of his peers. He had a history teacher, who seemed to see another more prominent gift of his and pointed him in the right direction.  

“I had a professor–a very kind history professor come up to me and say, ‘Scott, you do well when you write your papers, I think you’re a better writer than you are a painter. So maybe you just want to think about that.’ Some people think that was a terrible thing she said to me, I actually thought it was a gift because she was right. I realized there was this facility I had with writing.”

That conversation–while it was the first clue as to his gifts–didn’t exactly send Omelianuk immediately down the path toward working in journalism. It did propel him through several college majors until he landed on political science, which enabled him to graduate the quickest. Even after graduating college, Omelianuk wasn’t sure where he was headed. He tried several different jobs, including working as a carpenter and even garbage man in New York City’s Garment District, before going to graduate school on a whim to study Journalism. This choice eventually landed him a job as a fact checker at GQ which led him to creating an internet presence for Esquire. The gig at Esquire led to more of a career on camera in TV and then in a total full circle moment, his background in carpentry led him to working with This Old House.

Explore and Stay Positive

The part of the story that sticks out to me is that while Omelianuk didn’t have dreams of working in media or journalism, he still found his path to a job that he’s really passionate about and really good at. And it reminds me that sometimes we don’t always know what our passions are while going into adult life; we find them by trying a bunch of different things first.

“I can look back and there’s a logic to my career,” he says. “But at the time, in any given moment, it never really seemed like it. I was sort of floundering. I just floundered in the right way I suppose.”

While Omelianuk uses the term floundering I see it more as a form of exploration, and all of that time spent exploring has given him a lot of wisdom and insight to share especially with businesspeople, and entrepreneurs. When it comes to entrepreneurship, no one knows better than Omelianuk that nothing is guaranteed. Some businesses get exceedingly lucky, but that doesn’t mean that luck can’t come later and that there’s something to be said for grit and hard work.

“Seeing people have an idea, deciding that nothing is going to get in the way of that idea and pursuing it is amazing and it’s inspiring,” he says. “I think we overlook how much luck plays a part of business success. That doesn’t mean that people still aren’t working hard. There are a lot of hard-working people who it doesn’t click for…and we see that too. But you can talk to those people and the other lesson that they’ll offer you is that sure luck didn’t happen this time, but I’m going to keep working hard because it will happen next time.”

Know Your Brand Purpose and Your Innate Personality Gifts

One of the elements that can determine how lucky an entrepreneur gets is knowing their brand purpose. This is something that Omelianuk is very passionate about. The piece he wrote for Fast Company that landed him the job at Inc. was after all, about this very subject.

“I think we get very confused about what brand purpose is,” he says. “Brand purpose is not corporate social responsibility. When you realize what your real brand purpose is suddenly all these unnecessary things fall away. And all of these useful guardrails pop up… [You learn] what to say no to and what to accept and say yes to. So, I think that’s incredibly valuable.”

I’m always curious to ask my guests if they think that entrepreneurs are born or made and when I ask Scott this, his answer strikes a chord in me.

“I think there’s a quality that all entrepreneurs have,” he says. “And I think it might be a little bit moving toward a mental disorder almost where you have to have such an indefatigable belief if yourself where you have to understand that you are going to create the world that you inhabit, not live in a world that’s been created and I don’t think that that’s an easy thing to teach yourself. Maybe some really enlightened people can get there. But I think there’s something innate about that.”

It begs the question of what something being innate really means. Is it something we’re born with or is it something that we learn to embody organically due to life experience? I agree with him that there is a certain type of personality that is well suited for entrepreneurship, but is that a trait that’s innate in childhood? Early adulthood? Or do these qualities become innate the longer you explore? I’ll get back to you when I figure it out.

I talk with Scott about the process through which many entrepreneurs get their start, and we agree that sometimes it’s a life that’s born out of necessity, or life circumstance.

Find Your Through Line

“I think you can have a more normal career and then get to a place in your life–often a forced place–where suddenly the only alternative is entrepreneurship. And so, your plan B and the plan A now are the same thing. There are a lot of people [who have gone] that way especially because they’ve had a corporate career or something like that. The circumstances that come to us in life sometimes force situations… and when you finally find your purpose as an individual, lots of other considerations that used to be important [aren’t].

“In my own career, I can look at how I’ve been a teacher, I’ve been a journalist, which is sort of teaching in its way. I have consulted [with] businesses, I advise businesses in the Inc. 5000 now. So, there is this thread through my career that’s about education, and when I look back on it, I’ve always made that choice, knowing it or not, that I was going to tilt that way and not go to work on Wall Street.”

It sounds like what Scott is saying is that everything in life ultimately can add up to your greater purpose if you’re open to it. Everything we experience in life teaches us something and if we can take all the lessons and save them in our hip pocket for later, we never know how they might come in handy.

“A collaborative exercise would be looking at each step of your career and seeing where the commonalities were and where they weren’t, and if they overlap with the joy then that’s bonus time. But you’ll find a path for yourself, I think.”

It’s unsurprising that, given Omelianuk’s passion to educate, that the brand of Inc. itself is so geared toward being educational and supportive to entrepreneurs. There are tons of glitzy, or scandalous stories about billionaire CEOs out there, but that’s not what interests Inc. or Omelianuk. He wants to tell the story that will help the average American entrepreneur achieve their business goals. He’s aware of how educational the publication can be for people working in business and he also knows that a mention in the magazine itself can be just the boost that some businesses need to thrive in their chosen marketplace.

“For me, Inc. exists to support the American entrepreneur and it’s that simple,” he says. “That started out as a print magazine forty-three years ago that wrote stories about entrepreneurs…that provided advice, that people could see and use to guide their own careers. Over time that understanding of what support means has and will continue to change. And to me that’s exciting. It’s one of the reasons that I’m here. So, you know at a certain point fifteen years ago, twenty years ago, that meant adding a website to the Inc. brand. It meant creating the Inc. 500, out of which the Inc. 5000 grew and lots of other recognition programs we do. Because that recognition is so profoundly important to businesses and the people we’ve talked about. Being recognized by Inc. can change the trajectory of their businesses.”

While the magazine has done profiles on prolific businesspeople in the past, Omelianuk is passionate about the educational through line. “We’re about talking to that fifty percent of American business who’s the SMB and the founder and the entrepreneur and helping them get to the goal line.”

Choose Your Partners Wisely

After working as Inc.’s Editor in Chief, Omelianuk has not only written about hundreds of businesses, but he’s even coached some that have made the Inc. 5000 list. He’s seen a lot of businesses succeed and a lot of them fail and one of the dealbreakers he’s seen most frequently is business partners who are ill-suited for each other.

“I think businesses are generally more successful when there is a front person–someone in front of the microphone and [then] the technologist or person who understands the back office,” he says. “It’s really hard for people to have a coherent understanding of the entire universe of a business, especially when it gets complicated, or if it’s a certain size. So, we all can look at Bill Gates and Paul Allen; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak; Sergey Brin and Larry Page… One of them has always been a front person, and then one of them has been some sort of person who understands the technology better. (Just talking about technology businesses right now.) Those partnerships are incredibly rare and incredibly valuable, and they make a profound difference. So, I think finding the right co-founder is something we don’t pay nearly enough attention to and is really like magic in a bottle.”

 I ask Scott to share his best piece of advice with aspiring business founders and entrepreneurs and he reminds me that not only is knowing your brand purpose paramount, but also remembering that you can’t get to where you’re going alone.

“Your idea might be entirely new, and you own it, but it’s really important to remember that you don’t get there by yourself,” he says. “Whether it’s the team you hire and put together, whether it’s how you engage with your customer, your vendors… and how you think about your relationships in totality [that] really make the difference. Especially in today’s world… It’s really important to realize you’ll ultimately have better success by asking people to help you along the way, and you’ll also be able to shed some of those burdens–where you’re not the only one pulling the cart. If you can accept that, [then] still maintain your vision and be as passionate about it as you always have been but acknowledge that there is room to learn; that there are other people to help you get there, and that by asking you can achieve so much more.”

More of my chat with Scott here:

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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