Origins of self and our company
It has been an incredible nine years since we started the company in a scrappy basement of suburban Bensenville. Queue up turbine noise from landing airplanes at O’Hare International, yellowing drywall, a musty smell from the neighboring dentists office and you have a pretty good picture of the place. Over these nine intense trips around the sun we have attracted the most passionate, engaged, and creative group of individuals that I have the honor of sharing our values with. Individuals that have made the company what it is today — a group of 300 across four global offices, much like the Spartans, taking no hostages nor making compromises in our pursuit of mastery and discipline leadership.
We continue our responsible growth beyond the iconic number. The question I get asked most during our interviews is one of the founding story, or rather, the reasons why we decided to take on the world while the landscape was saturated with players that ranged from agencies stepping into digital, to consulting companies with employee counts in the tens of thousands…The best way I can tell this story is to tell it from my point of view, even thought there were five of us when the business was founded — all very much influential in the definition of our DNA.
I was raised by two very different parents. My father, a professor at the Kaunas Technology University, introduced me to playing Snake on the labs mainframe when I was five. My mother, an art and sculpture teacher, brought me along to art classes where I scribbled around while kids twice my age were studying pencil renderings, watercolor, and oils. As I grew older, technology and design kept resurfacing as hobbies first and side jobs later.
Our first personal computer was a ZX Spectrum, home made by a chain-smoking, handlebar mustache wearing colleague of my dad’s who operated the university computer center with rows of whirling magnetic tapes. Why home made? Well, Lithuania was still under the iron curtain of the Soviet Union, on a strict intellectual diet which frowned upon rock and roll, Hollywood, religion, and pesky free speech. Not that I discriminated against this early day hackintosh, quite the opposite. I would invite a flock of kids to our small apartment and, chewing on our nails in anticipation, listen to the electronic chirps of a loading computer game. Data storage was tape-based on the early versions of the ZX Spectrum, using cassettes to load and save programs from memory.
I was absolutely enamored with computer games. Building on top of my newfound obsession, dad brought home a couple of programming books for Sinclair BASIC — the default programming language for the ZX. Without necessarily understanding all the commands, I used to type blindly for hours to transfer the sample code to operating memory. While the result was often less thrilling than anticipated (oh boy, I drew a circle within a circle after typing for an hour), it did introduce me to what in the future would become my career and a way of thinking about problem solving. I now realize that my father had to simply expose the possibilities of what software could do, computer games being one artifact, and leave the rest to curiosity.
My parents divorced when I was six, so I moved around two households every week — weekends with my grandmother and dad, week days with mom. In addition to being the creative influencer, my mother has always been a stern, industrious lady. School teachers didn’t make much money (correction, no one made much money in Soviet times, but school teachers won awards for unfair compensation), but my mom managed to supplement our income by first making, and selling, knockoff winter coats, and later by smuggling cigarettes across the border to a market in Poland. I remember a coat she used to have that was customized with hundreds of hidden pockets for storing contraband — fully loaded she may have had trouble fitting through a door. I suspect her combative attitude towards surviving and making a living taught me a thing or two.
I emigrated to the United States after graduating high school and applied to College of DuPage — a community college in the suburbs of Chicago. The idea was to save some money on general courses and then transfer out to a four year school to get my Bachelors. I found a data entry job at a life insurance company to pay for college, which, and this was around 1999, paid twenty five thousand dollars annually. Clarification — the job primary paid for custom gaming PCs and big subwoofers in my Civic SI, but also helped me chip away at the tuition. Without much knowledge of school rankings, I transferred to Roosevelt University, a private school that had a campus in Schaumburg and offered evening classes — allowing me to work full time during the day.
I feel bittersweet about those times. I remember having crystal focus while working full time, talking a full-time course load in the evenings, and still finding the time to play games, hit the gym, and have a relationship with my girlfriend. One thing I’ll say is that there’s an incredible amount of energy at your disposal when you’re in your 20’s — how you use it and what investments you make is up to you.
Over the course of five years I graduated with my bachelors degree in computer science and started experiencing what I would later recognize as the corporate indifference syndrome. I moved up through multiple roles at the insurance company, constantly finding that the acquired role took up at most thirty percent of my day. Asking for additional work or responsibilities usually fell on deaf ears, so I was left fudging around with Photoshop, making simple webpages, or goofing off on gaming forums.
These patterns kept repeating through other jobs in the corporate world and I kept getting more and more disillusioned, feeling like I wasn’t really moving at the pace or energy level I desired. Left with plenty of spare time, I started doing side projects for small businesses — from design work, to brochure websites, flyers, to building a custom PC here and there. Complacency and mediocrity were driving me insane during my day job, but I could always make more money and engage my brain through these freelance gigs.
The rest is history. The group of founders were experiencing similar symptoms in their full-time jobs, so we started collaborating on larger projects than ones we could handle individually. All of a sudden we’ve found ourselves in a position where we had to make a choice — quit our comfortable, well paying full time jobs and invest into the seedling of a business or continue trudging through the corporate world of indifference. You know the choice we made.
The people we attract today identify with our core six values. People who are frustrated with mediocrity, indifference, status quo, and want to foster change and progress find a welcome, engaging place to grow as professionals. The job we do is not an easy or comfortable one, however the rewards tell their own story. In fact, the saturation of thought leadership and our iron work ethic has allowed an underdog like us to serve clients on the Fortune 1000 list while displacing global consultancies and eating their breakfast. We may also have a bit of an attitude and have fun while doing it…
That wraps up our story. We’re hosting an event later this year for the rebels, pioneers, and pirates of the professional world interested in joining our team.