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Dane: Welcome back to the Econ Dev show. Today we're here with Ben McDaniel. Ben is the director for the Barrow Brazelton Joint Economic Development Authority in Barrow County, Georgia. Ben, welcome to the show.
Ben: Hey, thanks!
Dane: You are my first guest to have recorded inside of your car, so that's pretty exciting.
Ben: You gotta do what you gotta do. I just dropped my kids off inside the house and I'm just working. Put it on the schedule and make the schedule work.
Dane: Oh, I appreciate that. Well, you know, you and I, we've been trying to arrange this interview for a while and there's been some hiccups. But most recently I was sitting here waiting for you half an hour ago because yesterday we came up with a new time and unfortunately you missed it. But I ate an entire package of Lifesavers while I was waiting, so thank you for that!
Ben: I appreciate it and there's a metaphor lost somewhere! But thank you and thank you for your patience. And I'll be honest with you, it's somewhat intimidating because I look at all the economic developers you've had on your show. These are titans of the industry around the country, and I'm just a guy in Barrow County, Georgia, population of about 90,000 people.
Dane: I can understand that. I used to have that same fear myself, just a lowly economic developer in Galveston County, and what could I possibly add to this conversation? But what I can do is I can bring on people with interesting perspectives like yourself and expose them to a wider audience.
And you are a very interesting character. I think I first discovered you when I saw a set of your memes that somebody had reposted on LinkedIn, and you have this knack for making economic development memes. I just find it fascinating how you're able to come up with things that fit in these meme formats. Where does this come from?
Ben: You know, I think since I've been the director, I really just leaned into who I am and I really put myself out there on LinkedIn about six to eight months ago. I asked project managers and others what are you looking at? If I wanted to advertise our sites, what are you looking at? Are you looking at certain magazines or newsletters? And I figured most project managers are anywhere from like 25 to 45. And if I think it's funny, maybe they will too. So I just really leaned into who I am and I'm on TikTok a lot, laughing at memes and sending them to friends. And so I just leaned into that and started posting. Sometimes I pull back and send one to my wife asking, is this too far? Is this gonna get me fired? And she'll tell me if I'm good or not.
Dane: Right, right. It's always good to have someone to bounce that stuff off of. Have any of these memes been successful in that have you been contacted by a project manager or somebody who maybe saw something and reached out because of it?
Ben: Absolutely. What's good on LinkedIn is that on most of my posts, the majority of them, the majority are project managers, city managers and county managers. Because a gentleman named Joseph Turner looks at those occasionally, he'll share them, and he's a big influencer in city and county management. But in general, project managers are looking and more so when I meet with others in Georgia, when I go to our Economic Development Authority meetings, folks will come up to me and mention my LinkedIn.
Dane: Right. Yeah, recently I've seen a bunch from you about the fact that Barrow County has a lot of water.
Ben: Yes, and that's leaning into the idea that the riches are in the niches. The one thing that makes Barrow County unique - we're located in northeast Georgia and the metro Atlanta area - is that we have an abundance of water, like millions of gallons that we pull from the Bear Creek Reservoir. For example, we get about 6 million gallons per day. As a county we may use 1 million, we sell off another half million to another county, and we still have 4-4.5 million gallons available. Upgrades are about to happen. That's so much water and we're located where the state of Georgia has gone all in on the electric vehicle market. We're about 45 minutes from SK Batteries, a big battery provider, and Rivian, another electric vehicle company. They made an announcement about a year ago and they're 45 minutes south of us. So we're right here with land, millions of gallons of water available, a giant metro Atlanta workforce - we're in the middle of this electric vehicle, green economy.
Dane: Right. You said the niches are where the riches are. So that means really focus on what you've got. Niche down as far as you possibly can. It's really interesting to see that playing out in economic development where everybody is a great place to live, work and play.
Ben: I think the older I get and the more experience in this job, I realize every project's not great for us. I'm sure in Galveston, Texas not every project's great for you guys either. We have an industrial park that's right beside our workforce development campus with an elementary school, a soon-to-be middle school, an arts and sciences academy, and a golf club. So if we put something there that adversely affects the campus, that's not a good site or project for us.
Dane: Right, that makes sense. Yeah, lean into who you are - that goes back to your whole thing, which is be your authentic self. Don't change, don't try to be something you're not.
Ben: I really lean into being who I am on LinkedIn. I don't take myself too seriously and there's not a lot of pretentiousness in our county. We have prideful people but we're down to earth, not stuffy or pretentious. I think I'm a good rep and ambassador - I'm from here and came from a tougher background but in one lifetime I've gone from poverty to being successful. I'm a living example and I love being active and carrying that flag for our community.
Dane: Right, good. So how did you get into economic development?
Ben: Probably about 3-4 years ago, I was in Rotary and gave a speech. The economic development director at the time, Lisa, came up to me afterwards and said I should be in economic development. Another gentleman who works for Georgia Power, Trey Leslie, also later told me I should get into it because of how I talk - I care deeply and am regimented. One morning around 4 AM I made a list that I want to get into it and am willing to take steps like classes and certifications. After the pandemic, Barrow County had an economic development coordinator position open up. I applied, got it, worked with Lisa for a year and a half, and then grew into this director position.
Dane: Phenomenal. So where do you see yourself in 5 years - same position, place, way? Or what's your vision?
Ben: I'm just leaning into each day now and trying to make the best of it because I have 3 kids - 10, 7, and 5. The things I'm involved with are to make sure my kids and families around us have a better life. I don't know the next step - I'm doing what I want professionally. I know there'll be a next step eventually but the only way is to keep working hard every day and helping my friends and community professionally get those core beliefs.
Dane: Right. You mentioned in our pre-interview that your favorite book is Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday, and you talked about his canvas strategy which sounds pretty similar - for listeners can you briefly explain the canvas strategy?
Ben: The canvas strategy is largely about holding up the canvas to let others paint on it - deflecting praise, letting them discover. When you help others succeed, they'll take you along for the ride. In my career it's worked out.
Dane: Yeah, it wasn't just about making people look good but really helping them get to their goals. That's what we do as developers - help businesses, workers, everybody towards their goals.
Ben: For me locally, it's being that connector. Connecting people comes naturally and putting that into play. I had lunch today with someone in a similar field and we talked about how when I like his LinkedIn posts, other developers may want to work with him. That's spreading the love directly and indirectly.
Dane: Absolutely. You also mentioned you're a big user of ChatGPT. How are you using it?
Ben: I've been using ChatGPT for 4-5 months now. I trained it to know all my sites and to be my assistant for economic development - to ask questions to do this job better. So it knows my writing style and what I like to put out there. I don't do direct copy/paste because I think ChatGPT works best when you add your own local flair instead of dry cut and paste. Using memes helps too.
It helped with our development authority bylaws - I asked it to be the world's most renowned legal expert and rewrite/tweak them, and it came out great. I use certain plugins - one is a scraper to pull from certain websites, another pulls from the whole internet. That's been good because I can ask what trends I should know and it gives me information. It has helped with RFIs and guessing where the company is from based on the project name and description - it correctly guessed a recent one and I was blown away.
Dane: That's incredible! I was just today at a meeting getting updates on projects and code names. Maybe in Georgia your code names are more obvious than ours here in Houston, but I'm going to have to try that. ChatGPT has been amazing for me too.
Ben: I think we all get fluffy with words in offer letters. Throwing it in there with prompts to make it more succinct has helped tremendously.
Dane: The best thing I did was a few weeks after ChatGPT 4 came out. Someone referred a gentleman to me with a hair-brained idea I didn't know what to do with. I wanted to pass him off nicely so I asked ChatGPT to write an introduction letter to the Chamber and another organization. He was so impressed with the letter - everything was true but it elevated me and our office. It was an amazing way for ChatGPT to craft the words so I could pass him on.
Ben: I think that's the elephant in the room - we're all using it for things like letters of recommendation. It takes ideas and bullet points and makes them succinct with a through line. It does what technology should - takes care of easier things so we can focus on other stuff. It doesn't lessen the work, it allows us to do other things more.
Dane: Absolutely. It makes us better like typing versus writing longhand - it speeds the process up to get that first draft down so you can edit. Sometimes you just have to get something on paper to move on to editing, and it makes that so much easier.
Dane: Well Ben, this has been awesome. Thank you so much for being on the show today. We'll link to all your LinkedIn content in the show notes. Thank you again!
Some of Ben's Memes
Here are 10 key takeaways from the episode: