John Geletka: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started Leading My Company

An Interview With Doug Noll

Doug Noll
Authority Magazine

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Take risks on people — We make the mistake so many times on hiring for just experience in a particular craft or field. And while that can matter, past performance is never indicative of future performance, so we look for a mix of curiosity and interest. Those two attributes often lead to better problem solvers and more interesting people. We love people who have changed paths mid-career.

As a part of our series called “My Life as a TwentySomething Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Geletka.

John Geletka is a multi-discipline marketing executive with a track record of delivering business growth and transformation for over 20 years. He’s held leadership roles in agencies, designed and built web technologies and has served as an advisor to a variety of businesses across the country.

John grew up on the south side of Chicago, studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and got his master’s in business IT from DePaul University.

Currently John is running Geletka+, a full-service agency located in Chicago’s West Loop. John and his team of over 20 creatives, strategists, marketers and makers are focused on new and emerging methods of delivering experiences across channels to build brands, empower consumers, and create art that doesn’t waste people’s time.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

AAbsolutely. I’ll keep it simple. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be in this agency world. In fact, I had no idea what it even was until I was well out of college. Let me explain. As a high school kid, I really enjoyed making art. Not so much because of the craft, but because painting and drawing were a great way to get out of taking more math and chemistry classes. In fact, most days in high school, I was done with the mundane by noon. At the same time, I happened to be just good enough to get into the early college program at the Art Institute, which is where my interest in fine art became something real. I really enjoyed painting, even though I was still behind most of the kids in class who had been training since birth. After a few summers here I had enough of a body of work to apply to go to college. I applied to The School of the Art Institute and got in; the acceptance rate was pretty low, and at the time, nobody from my school had ever gotten in, so it was a big deal and I had to go. That said, it was quite a financial burden. But we figured it out. My parents helped, some scholarships helped, but I had to live at home and get a job to really make this happen. So, what’s a kid do to pay for school? Well…he pretends he knows how to code and teaches himself on the job. Then he gets a call from IT asking to join their team. Four years in IT, the development of the corporate intranet, extranet, and more, and the rollout across the organization led to a call from marketing. School was done and I needed a job to keep paying for it, so jumping to the website team was the logical thing to do. It was there I met, managed, and started working with my first agency. They were expensive, slow, and terribly inefficient at getting things done, but the people were brilliant, charming, and some of the most interesting humans I’ve ever come across. After years of working with them and working my way up in the corporation, I left corporate and joined them in this brave new world. For my first act, it was all tech. I was running a small office in Chicago in the early 2000s, working on some of the biggest sites in the world. After that, I moved to the Big’s (DDB and Deutsch LA) and then back to Chicago for the Indies. Add in a few tech startups, a partnership at a world-renowned design agency, a Chicago independent agency, and you have everything you need to start your own.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

I think some of the hardest times I had were early on in my career. That time between work and school where they both merged. Almost every day I was up around 4:30 a.m., out the door, to the gym, to the office or school then home and repeat. And during this time, the workdays started at 6:30 a.m. and the school days started at 4 p.m. I never realized it at the time, but looking back it was brutal. But it was that time that made me so much stronger and ready for the agency world.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I love the pace, and the drive is more of a muscle to me. I know that I can get through anything.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

I run a 20-person agency that took me 20 years to build. We’re growing year over year without sales, marketing, outside investment and debt. We do the work it takes to win in the market and clients appreciate that.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve made so many mistakes, it’s funny. One that comes to mind happened the first day I left corporate and started in the agency world. I wrote the owner, what I thought was a list of standard requests for software, budgets, computers, meals, wants and more…. something I’d normally would ask when I was a client. My email response was, “I’m not your fucking admin, figure it out.” While dirt simple the response set the foundation of my career which pushed me to always figure out how to get what I needed. I just had to do a bit more work.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I started a business to help more people. Candidly I could care less about the money I make personally. I’m much more interested in the impact a business can have on the community. Put simply, the more we make, the more I can give. And it’s been hard. I’ve held back on the normal work I used to do at the drop-in shelters, and the small giving. I went all in for the past 4 years. But it’s given me a superpower in what I can donate, and it’s been awesome. It’s still not enough, but as an example, my little 20-person shop was able to give at the same level as the major holding companies this year to off the street club, and as we grow, I hope to give me, and free up some of my time to get back to a few days helping on the individual levels. What if all small businesses did this?

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We’re a lot like every other agency in the world in most ways. And I think that’s a good thing. But we operate in some non-traditional ways. A good example, but I can’t say the name of the company, is how we approached a web3 branding project in 4 weeks. Week one, we delivered the brand platform. After intense customer interviews and client work sessions. Week two, we delivered the identity. Same process. Week three, we designed a site and week four, we built and launched. Now this may seem normal for a lot of small shops with three people in a room, but for an agency of our size and a sizable client, we could not have delivered this in a traditional fashion.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

This is a tough industry. I try to get my colleagues to simply realize how lucky we are to be here. Very few people in this world get to create things for a living (or be a part of creation), let alone create things that have the power to influence millions of people every day. We get to do just that. Getting here takes work. But staying here takes much, much more.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I wish I had one person, but honestly there are hundreds. I have lifelong friends from my time at Navistar, Ratchet, DDB, Deutsch, Avenue, F92, Centup, and Duffy… people who are more than just colleagues that I still see and work with. For this venture, I’m very thankful for my dear friend, the late Josh Hurley, who really believed in me as a creative, pushed me to grow, write more, and put my silly last name on the door of my company, and Jeff Walker who’s been with me on this venture since day one. Right now, my team and the clients who trusted me are why we’re successful. They are a wild and weird bunch, but I’m beyond thankful for them as humans and beyond proud of the work.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

The best part about owning a company is the ability to give back at a larger, more impactful level. One thing I realized early on is that I love helping people. I was a drop-in shelter volunteer for years and a soup kitchen server, but the individual impact was not enough. As a business we give back all year through real dollars and real work. As an example, we partnered with one of the most admired independent agencies in Chicago, OKRP to build blackshopfriday.com — a pro bono effort to help people in Chicago shop at more black-owned businesses. We also support storied Chicago organizations like Off the Street Club and Make a Wish each year.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Take risks on people — We make the mistake so many times on hiring for just experience in a particular craft or field. And while that can matter, past performance is never indicative of future performance, so we look for a mix of curiosity and interest. Those two attributes often lead to better problem-solvers and more interesting people. We love people who have changed paths mid-career.
  2. Build a strong middle — Hiring the best of the best of the best is great and what I used to do, but it often comes at the cost of culture, commitment and core work that really moves the needle. Having a strong middle is key to a good basketball game and a good company. People who deliver above-market work, every day is much more interesting than 1 or two awards a year.
  3. Small things matter — I need to remind myself of this every day. Agencies lose business, not because they deliver bad work, but because they are a pain to work with. Lack of comms, small misses and generally being hard to work with. You can be the best creative in the world, but if you miss out on the little things, the fundamentals, you’re out.
  4. Stand for something good — We make art that doesn’t make time. That means we care about the craft, the work the commitment and we understand the purpose of what we’re doing. Ads, marketing and advertising don’t have to waste time. They can make things a little better, and the business of it can make things better for art, artists and makers overall.
  5. Do the work — There is so much work to be done each day to get great creative to market and it goes well beyond the work itself. In fact, I’d say great work, ideas and thinking are relatively a commodity. But getting that work to market, through a complex organization, through boards, influencers, CEO’s wife’s etc takes more work than people think.

Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

The best way to look at the emotional highs and lows is to expect turbulence and build your business to support some. All planes, big or small are going to feel it, but if you build it right financially, have the right people and do the work, as uncomfortable as it may seem at the time, you will move forward into smoother air.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I started a business to help more people. Candidly I could care less about the money I make personally. I’m much more interested in the impact a business can have on the community. Put simply, the more we make, the more I can give. And it’s been hard. I’ve held back on the normal work I used to do at the drop in shelters, and the small giving. I went all in for the past 4 years. But it’s given me a superpower in what I can donate, and it’s been awesome. It’s still not enough, but as an example, my little 20-person shop was able to give at the same level as the major holding companies this year to off the street club, and as we grow, I hope to give me, and free up some of my time to get back to a few days helping on the individual levels. What if all small businesses did this?

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I’d say hit up the agency website, geletkaplus.com, but you’ve heard of that cobbler’s kids story. I’d say linkedin has more up-to-date content.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

About the Interviewer: Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA was born nearly blind, crippled with club feet, partially deaf, and left-handed. He overcame all of these obstacles to become a successful civil trial lawyer. In 2000, he abandoned his law practice to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. Doug teaches his innovative de-escalation skill that calms any angry person in 90 seconds or less. With Laurel Kaufer, Doug founded Prison of Peace in 2009. The Prison of Peace project trains life and long terms incarcerated people to be powerful peacemakers and mediators. He has been deeply moved by inmates who have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. Their dedication to learning, improving, and serving their communities motivates him to expand the principles of Prison of Peace so that every human wanting to learn the skills of peace may do so. Doug’s awards include California Lawyer Magazine Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers in America Lawyer of the Year, Purpose Prize Fellow, International Academy of Mediators Syd Leezak Award of Excellence, National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals Neutral of the Year. His four books have won a number of awards and commendations. Doug’s podcast, Listen With Leaders, is now accepting guests. Click on this link to learn more and apply.

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Doug Noll
Authority Magazine

Award-winning author, teacher, trainer, and now podcaster.