So We Started An Agency

Stumbling, winning, learning and laughing our way through 2014


Last year, John Ounpuu, Nathan Paziuk and I started an agency.

At the start of 2014, the idea wasn’t even a remote consideration in our minds. We each had ten to fourteen-year careers at a fairly large (12 offices, 600 employees) digital agency — a rarity in an industry that churns through people.

We started on the ground floor, in the trenches. And over the years we watched the agency grow up, grow big, get bought, and — as all things must, especially in the digital world — change and change and change again before our eyes.

But when those changes became misaligned (to put it mildly) with our own values, the three of us decided to embrace a different kind of change. In April 2014, we started Modern Craft.

Looking back over the past 8 months, here are 10 things I’ve learned from the experience so far:


1. Change is less scary with great partners

The agency business is not for everyone. It can certainly be rewarding and the variety is a clear plus. But it’s also super competitive. Clients typically work with several agencies (which always keeps you on your toes). And the work you put in can be thankless. In general, the career isn’t as stable as other marketing or technology professions.

When I first considered leaving my job, I listed a variety of possibilities: joining another shop, consulting independently or maybe trying my hand at a tech start-up.

You’ll notice that starting an agency wasn’t on the list.

When that idea eventually came up, I remember actually Googling “how to start an agency” and reading a few articles like this. The typical conclusion — the business is not for the faint of heart.

However, despite all this, it turns out that all three of us truly enjoy the challenges that come with solving big problems for interesting brands on constantly shifting ground. We hadn’t planned on starting an agency, but the idea of doing something together excited us far beyond any other options. Individually, we would be alright wherever we landed. But together, we could collaborate and utilize our collective strengths. We could lean on each other. We could spread the risk and share in a (hopefully) greater success.

Finding good partners is generally really hard and we’ve been told countless times how lucky we are. Personally, I couldn’t agree more. Not only are John and Nathan extremely skilled and sought-after experts at their craft, they’re also good human beings whom I trust completely. There are no egos here. Everyone works hard, is transparent and supports each other.

These guys are pretty rad.

2. There is never a perfect time to quit your job

I know someone who quit their job to do a content advertising tech start-up. They banked 2 years worth of income to survive the famine. Interviewing another agency founder, he told me that he and his co-founders worked on the side at night for a year until they had enough steady client work to confidently quit their day jobs. Conventional wisdom says: quit when you already have a paying job in hand.

We did not heed conventional wisdom.

My partners and I all had busy roles at our agency, and at home we each have young kids. So trying to moonlight a new business just wasn’t an option.

Maybe it was impatience. Maybe it was stupidity. But for me the simple act of planting a seed — the very idea of starting something new and exciting — put things in motion. I could have waited to see if my bonus would come through. I could have tried to do it a bit later, after the kids got a little older. I could have waited until my wife went back to work.

But I didn’t.

It just felt like the right time to take the blue pill.

Hands belong to Laurence Fishburne in the Matrix.

3. Starting your own thing is a lot like the day after you graduate from high school

It’s hard to leave anything after 10+ years. I had left the agency once before, for a stint at another firm in LA, so I knew I could land on my feet without the mothership behind me. And having worked in 5 different cities, I was comfortable with change. But I had never before left everything I had worked so long to build up so definitively.

It turns out some things are hard to part with, especially when you’ve worked hard to earn them: the big salary, the nice title, the extra vacation time, the prime space in the office, and the freedom to carve out your own path at work with very little supervision.

I have found that leaving a company after all that time to pursue your own business is a lot like graduating from high school — everything you’ve built up is gone in an instant. Your reputation in the organization. The respect you’ve garnered. The rate you command. Your seat at the executive table.

All gone.

Essentially, the world you’ve built up (regardless of how real and fixed in stone it felt yesterday) suddenly evaporates as soon as you walk out the door.

And the next day is . . . whitespace.


4. It’s really, really hard to find the perfect company name

When it comes to company names, you’ll need a long list of back-up choices.

Seriously.

One of the most fun and most frustrating experiences we had at the beginning was picking a name. We wanted one that:

  1. represented the type of work we did — a combination of marketing, digital and technology,
  2. would be hip yet would stand the test of time,
  3. would be uniquely us,
  4. and (hardest of all), was not already taken.

This was a harder exercise than we anticipated. The very long candidate list we created included names like:

  • Father — we all had fatherhood in common, but it seemed too much like a rip off of the famous agency Mother.
  • Monogram — a personal favourite. Not only taken but taken twice — most notably by a branding agency out of Chicago once featured on the Pitch TV show.
  • Prototype  taken.
  • Kosoku — Japanese for the word “accelerate” which is taken by a consultancy out of Germany, oddly enough.
  • Deckard — No one else voted for this name despite my argument that you can’t really go wrong with Blade Runner references.

Our list was over 80 names long. And as we whittled it down, we unfortunately didn’t have the benefits of this useful site which launched in November and is doing the world a great service.

We eventually settled on Modern Craft.

Both words had appeared on our list in different forms. But it was John’s musical mind that lead us to David Bowie’s classic 80’s tune Modern Love.

Modern Love walks beside me
Modern Love walks on by
Modern Love gets me to the Church on Time

Applied to an agency, it felt like something. Maybe. But we were all on the fence about the “love” part.

A word we liked much better was “craft”, with its evocations of loving care, mastery, creativity and usefulness.

Once that was done, the easier part was coming up with a quick “beta” version of our brand identity. John slapped something together in PowerPoint in mere minutes, using a font he had just downloaded and an image of a butterfly courtesy of Google Images.

Voila, we were in business!

Our first business card.

Soon after we started, we hired one of the best designers we knew to come up with a new and improved logo. It features what I like to describe as a geodesic butterfly from the future. On our website, the future butterfly is backed by a shifting sea of colour that’s reminiscent a lava lamp. We kind of dig it.

5. It’s pretty neat to have a blank canvas to work from

When you work for someone else, it’s natural to complain about the way things are done. Culture, colleagues, systems, processes, services, tools, rules, furniture, decor, the working environment — these are all things you might have some influence in changing. Maybe. But if you’re not in the actual drivers’ seat, that ability is likely very limited.

When we started Modern Craft, however, we had the opportunity to custom-build a company from the ground up to fit to our personal preferences, values and beliefs.

From the beginning we definitely knew we didn’t just want to be “another agency”. And we certainly had no interest in trying to compete directly with our old employer. Nor did we want to jump into trying to compete with all the many other “digital” agencies in Vancouver. (According to my tally, there are no less than 58 of these — a surprising number given the limited number of potential clients here. And those 58 don’t include any ad agencies, PR firm, branding shops, media agencies, systems integrators, etc.)

We all believed that choosing a specific focus was a must. And we also felt like the sands were really shifting in the industry. All companies, not just market leaders or those in specific industries, are thinking and talking about the idea of digital transformation.

But in an era of increased specialization, we saw a gap forming — one that we believed we were uniquely well-placed to fill. Specifically, we saw an emerging need for a strategic partner, grounded in both brand and technology, that could help modern marketing leaders connect the dots across a growing array of channels, methods and tools.

John recently wrote a pretty thorough post laying out our perspective on this. To be honest, reading it is quite possibly a better use of your time than reading the rest of this post.

An elegant explanation of why Modern Craft exists.

After many years of working with big clients such as Starbucks, Nike, Microsoft, Bacardi, lululemon, P&G etc., we had learned a thing or two about how successful companies have adapted and transformed themselves for the age of digital disruption. The three of us had built our careers helping these organizations do the right things (and not do the wrong things) in digital. Together — with our overlapping expertise across brand, business and technology — we believed we could bring unique value to marketers who are hungry and intent on change. This, we decided, was the work we want to be doing.

As a result, the approach we have taken at Modern Craft is different than the norm. We’re building a core team of senior T-shaped experts who are focused on delivering at the strategic level, while relying on a known set of trusted partners and freelancers to execute on tactics.

We were inspired by agencies such as 123West, who have proven that new agency models can be successful. And that an agency can deliver great work without an expensive office, a large bench of young people sweating it out, and all the chest thumping that comes with agency politics.


6. You can keep it lean, as long as you keep it real

Taking out a big lease in this expensive city, right off the bat, wasn’t an option. But we knew we needed to be in a space where we could focus entirely on building our business.

Most of the entrepreneurs I have met tell me they spent their first year working out of someone’s home or car. Or with everyone working remotely. But with kids and limited space at home for all three of us, these options weren’t going to work for us.

We wanted a space where we could collaborate, take conference calls in private and even — gasp! — host meetings and working sessions with clients.

So we decided that an energetic environment which combined private and shared spaces was necessary.

And because our business model requires working closely with partners, we concluded that a shared space alongside a like-minded partner would be the best option.

A couple days into our first week, we met up with some ex-colleagues who run a web development shop named Aequilibrium. The space was ample, it was in a great neighbourhood and it had the added bonus of being right above a sword-fighting store which we thought could be beneficial. That was our first home.

Photo courtesy of THNK Vancouver’s blog here

This past December, we jumped at the opportunity to move in with THNK Vancouver, an international school of creative leadership currently being launched locally by two old friends, Blast Radius co-founder Lee Feldman and our good pal and mentor Sarah Dickinson. THNK were just about to open a beautiful space in a great location. One that had been custom-designed to engender creativity, collaboration, and inspired thinking. As if that wasn’t enough, the team driving the venture is an amazing, energetic collection of super-smart folks obsessed with solving big thorny challenges through applied creativity.

Perfect!

We’re pretty thrilled and fortunate to call this space our home.


7. Good karma matters as you’ll need people to take a chance on you

For most new businesses, your network is the place you look for your first customers. It’s a chance to test whether you’ve earned good karma from how you’ve treated others in your career.

In our line of work, we’ve met a lot of people over the years. And thankfully, since we started Modern Craft many of them have been happy to hear our story and offer encouragement and promises of support.

Our first client was Islands, a restaurant chain headquartered outside of San Diego. The CMO was incredibly supportive and excited to give us our first break. She needed some strategic help. And she loved knowing that she’d be working with us directly, not a bait-and-switch team of juniors. She was also pretty happy to get senior agency talent at start-up agency rates.

It was one of the best pieces of work I’ve ever been a part of, not just because of the passion and care that went into it. Or the thrill of truly collaborating without large agency constraints. It was also early proof that we were selling something that people really needed.

Our Islands case study can be read in detail here.

Our first local client was Glentel, a Canadian telecom provider. Most digital agencies focus on creating things for a brand — a website, content, marketing tools. They could have hired any number of agencies to build a website. But instead Glentel hired us to help them create the actual business, since christened Airtel, from scratch. We found out quickly that we really love working with “intrepreneurs” at established firms who have the ambition to challenge convention and zig while others are zagging.

Our Airtel case study can be read in detail here.

By the way, BCE and Rogers bought Glentel a few weeks back. We’re pretty sure this was all because of us. =)

All in all, in our first 8 months, we’ve won 5 clients and have collaborated with partners on a half-dozen other projects. And we’ve also managed to convince two talented ex-colleagues to join the Modern Craft team.

So it would seem that karma has, in fact, been good to us.

Whew!


8. You’ll have ample opportunities to ask yourself: pivot or not pivot?

We met a lot of people last year — prospects, freelancers, consultants, agencies, candidate employees, technology companies, start-ups, “money people” . . . the list goes on.

Client-wise, we’ve learned that not all companies are ready to invest time or budgets in strategic planning. Nor are all companies, despite the threat of digital disruption, interested in changing the way they do business or go to market. And that’s just fine with us. We know we’re not for everyone. In fact, we like it that way.

Partners have been another huge priority. In an era of specialization, a wide network is key. So we were happy to meet with many potential partners. It gave us a chance to hone our elevator pitch and potentially collaborate with old friends or new faces.

The thing we didn’t expect were all the opportunities we came across to pivot. We were asked to help accelerate a start-up, to train staff at an agency, to bodyshop ourselves, to white-label our offering, and even to buy a company.

Every entrepreneur is confronted with opportunities that, however enticing, represent a departure from their original vision. Your commitment to your original plans and vision is constantly tested. Our approach is to consider all possibilities but always decide through the filter of our values.

I believe that with any business, old or new, you need to keep your mind open to taking risks and to taking a few shots. Only by trying can you learn, and ultimately sharpen, why you exist in this world.


9. Be prepared to obsess

I have always been pretty detail-oriented. And having come from a client management role, I had always treated my job like I was the one running the agency. Like I had the authority and responsibility to make the whole ship sail along smoothly and harmoniously for my clients, my teams, and my bosses.

But being an owner is whole other thing.

My mind is always on our business. I obsess about being the best agency, best employer, best partner we can possibly be. If I walk by you on the street and have a blank look, it’s probably because I’m pondering questions like:

  • What could we have done differently in that meeting?
  • Are we missing out on something by not going to an event?
  • Are others onto something we’re not aware of?
  • Is there a tactic or approach we haven’t considered that could really transform a client’s business?

When the family goes to bed, I Flipboard for at least an hour every night to stay up-to-date on what’s happening in marketing, business, technology and beyond. I jot stuff down on my Evernote constantly. And my colleagues are the unfortunate recipients of a steady parade of random articles and inspired thoughts dropped into their inboxes in the middle of the night.

To the annoyance of my colleagues, Flipboard is the most important app on my phone.

On another note, when you run a small business, there are countless details that fall on you to figure out. There is no infrastructure in place to write your invoices, take out your garbage, approve your expenses, coordinate your meetings or trouble-shoot your computer.

These things have to be done.

By you.

Regardless of whether you’re good at them or not.

For example, I’m embarrassed to admit that we were late paying our federal remittance tax in our first month because I had no clue it was due on the 15th. I felt horrible for my rookie mistake.


10. Your time is your own so just go with it

We subscribe to the policy that everyone is an adult and since they all care deeply about the business, there is no doubt that things will get done. Every day at the agency is different and no one punches the clock. There have been long days, half days, and many days spent outside the office in Portland, Seattle, LA, Hong Kong, Copenhagen, Washington, Hawaii, San Diego and Regina.

One afternoon, John and I were stuck on how to tackle a particularly frustrating brief. So we checked out of the office, hopped across the street and watched a matinee of John Wick, a film in which Keanu Reeves singlehandedly takes down an army of bad guys to avenge the murder of his beloved dog. Although it seems to work for Don Draper, I felt a little guilty about sitting in a theatre on a work day.

But it worked!

When we got back to the office we laid out two ideas that won the day. The mindless action flick must have triggered something.

From time to time, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask yourself “what would Don Draper do”?

In Closing

It’s rewarding looking back at 2014 and trace the path from where we started to where we are today. Sure, it’s been hard at times. And we’ve had our ups and downs. But I never think twice about what I gave up by leaving my job. And every day I wake up excited about going to work.

It has been a pretty amazing ride so far. And we’ve only gotten started.

If you’re feeling stuck at your job and considering going out on your own, I wish you all the fulfillment we’ve enjoyed in the act of challenging yourself to take the leap and truly embrace change.

Happy 2015!