The short story of a founding and a lawsuit

TL:DR; Knock Twice has a new name. From now on, call us Codeword.

Looking back, the founding story of Knock Twice isn’t that unusual at all: like many of the startups we work with, we started out as a few friends who were winging almost every single thing. We learned as we went, and ended up in a pretty great place in spite of ourselves.

Indulge me for just a cathartic minute.

Mike and I were sitting on the roofdeck of Speakeasy during SXSW a few years ago. He was my favorite PR guy from my journo days, and I’d dipped my toe in the advertising agency pool just deep enough to know that I’d probably have more fun working with startups.

What if we created our own agency? We envisioned a bi-coastal agency that stays small, networks like crazy, and helps startups do what they need to do. It seemed like a good idea—the marketing industry was moving in the direction of content and smarter PR, and we were already there.

So it was settled. We brought in my friend Jeff, a former Goldman Sachs guy, to run the business side. We also brought in a fourth partner to launch the NYC office and run it until I could join full time.

What to call this new company? We were obsessed with the idea of a services business that was completely behind the scenes. You either knew us or you didn’t. We wouldn’t have a website, we wouldn’t win awards, we wouldn’t RFP — but we’d be name-dropped in startup incubators and VC boardrooms, and our client work would be our calling card and our marketing plan. We just needed the right name.

“What about secret handshake?”

“Nah, too culty.”

“What about knock twice?”

“That’s cool! Is it taken?”

“Sorta; there’s some art group in Canada but — ”

“That’s fine, let’s do it.”

And that’s how we named our company. We paid a designer friend $500 to design our logo, we signed up for Microsoft Office Live Small Business to handle our email, and we were ready to go.

We quickly learned we’d done pretty much everything wrong. Our fourth partner backed out. We had to migrate the company infrastructure to Google Apps. Clients were demanding that we put up a website. And while our SF office was busy signing some great startups, our first two clients in NYC ended up being Google and News Corp. #pivot

It was a rocky start. We were doing things we didn’t think we’d be doing, growing bigger than we thought we’d be growing, and doing it all much more quickly than we anticipated. It was messy, but our brand started to have value.

And then we got sued.

It wasn’t the Canadians knocking down our door, it was another agency in another town, hitting us for trademark infringement. It wasn’t a clear-cut case, and we initially decided to fight it. But after nearly a year of back and forth, including a judge who was friendly to us and a mediator who definitely wasn’t, egos and options were spent.

A marketing agency that didn’t do a trademark check — the irony stings. As does giving up a name that has served us well.

But we’re a different company now than we were then. We’re 60 friends instead of four. We have an amazingly supportive network, a talented team, a great mix of clients, and big plans for the future.

So as we close the book on our first five years of successes, mistakes, growth, and becoming a real “thing,” we look to the future, and introduce a new name for ourselves: Codeword.

The name is a nod to our technology, editorial, and behind-the-scenes roots. We think it retains the subversive spirit upon which we built Knock Twice, and tbh, it’s actually a stronger name for our agency. And not just because this time we actually own it.

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