I had the pleasure of interviewing Atish Doshi, founder and CEO of The Black Sheep — the nation’s fastest growing kickstarter college media and marketing company with team at more than 150 campuses and growing. Atish is filing a unique void in helping brands and businesses connect with college students, and is leading the way in collegiate hiring and culture initiatives at The Black Sheep.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My pleasure! I don’t think I could have ever predicted this specific career path, but what lead me to start my first company is actually a good story. In winter of my senior year in college at Illinois, my buddies and I decided to take a road trip / ski trip out to Colorado. On that trip, my best friend Derek and I started brainstorming fun stuff we wanted to do. We had always thought about launching a magazine, but it seemed far-fetched because of the cost. We randomly started talking about how much we didn’t like our school newspaper, and thought it would be really funny to launch a newspaper that talked about actual college life — going out, dating, observational humor, all that fun stuff you talk to your friends about — and just like that, we decided to start a media company. It’s shifted over the years and we ended up going our own ways, but that trip and that conversation lead me to get into the space, and lots of lessons and experience later, we’re one of the strongest marketing and media company on the collegiate market.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Sure — this one has some highs and lows, but pretty interesting nonetheless. A year or two after starting, we were in talks to be rolled up into a larger media company. For about 6 months we worked out of their offices and were mapping out the integration of both parties, and were a few weeks away from it being a done deal. Then, of course, disaster struck and the other company’s main investors and board members were indicted for some shady business dealings. The other company basically folded overnight, leaving our future a bit murky.
Over the next few weeks we mapped out our plan forward, found new office space (my apartment at the time), brought on a few more people and took control of our own destiny. It was one of those situations where if things would have closed sooner with the other company, we would have been finished right then and there, but luckily the deal taking so long actually saved us and allowed us to have a path forward. At that time we didn’t know exactly what our runway looked like and how things would go, but we were all determined to succeed. Since then we’ve grown the team, and the reach and the revenues to create a pretty great company.
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 like to think that all mistakes are funny mistakes, so there’s definitely a lot to choose from! A few years back, our lease was coming up and I misread it, and though it ended at the of of June but it ended at the end of May. So at the end of May, our landlord called to ask if we were all set with moving out, and I was like “Yep, for sure, we’ll be out within 30 days” and he said something about how the lease ended today, at which point I looked it up, confirmed, and freaked out. We basically went into scramble mode and had someone go rent a truck and the rest of us just started packing. We ended up moving everything into my apartment, which was pretty small, until we could figure out a solution. So reading details is a good thing.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Personally, I just think our culture is different than a lot of companies. The majority of our full-time hires worked for us while they were in college, so for some of them, this is a company they’ve been a part of since their freshman year of college. That creates this really unique tight-knit atmosphere, and also a situation where you have full-timers who have evolved their the personal and professional growth from student who kicked ass so much, that they are now an employee here. I don’t think that level of trust employee-employer trust and exist in a lot of places.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have some fun projects in the works, but the one we’re most excited about is the roll-out of our micro influencer platform. We already provide influencer marketing on the ground — students who are engaging with other students to help promote brands and businesses — but now we’ll have a whole team of social influencers who can help market local and national businesses online. Obviously, large-scale influencers have been around for a while, but with all the follower fraud and difficulty in gauging return, we see micro influencers as great assets, because you’re able to better reach and saturate close-knit circles of clients’ target audiences.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees thrive?
It’s all about trust! I think that’s the most difficult thing for a Founder or CEO to do — to let go and trust that others are probably better, faster, smarter and more detailed than you are if you give them a chance to prove it. Doing this not only lets you focus on running a company and growing it, but lets your employees feel trusted and empowered to take ownership over their work.
What advice would you give to other CEOs about the best way to manage a large team?
You know, we really struggled for a while as we went from 6 to 10 to 20 people, and I think growing pains are always going to happen. It was a reminder that no matter how good the people are that you hire, if you don’t have a system in place, the lines of communication prevent people from succeeding. So over the past year we really dove into different org structures, and ended up reading Traction, which offers the Entrepreneurial Operating System and implementing that process. We now have a leadership team, and each department has very structured departmental meetings and the works, but it’s really helped us hold people accountable, solve issues and ensure communication wasn’t being lost through a larger team. There are hundreds of systems out there that have been proven to work, so it’s more about realizing you need a system and staying dedicated on implementing it. In the end, it’s all about putting your team in the best spot to succeed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?
Oh man, so many people! It’s tough to narrow it down to just one, since there have been a number of student teams we’ve had over the years, investors / advisors, and full-time employees and others, that have helped out a ton. However, if I have to pick one, I’d go with Brendan Bonham who’s our COO. I think most good businesses have a “good guy” and a “bad guy,” and Brendan is the best “bad guy” you can ask for. He does a great job keeping everyone in check, enforcing rules, processes and deadlines, and basically ensuring the company keeps moving in the right direction. He’s an essential asset at The Black Sheep and someone I greatly trust and like working with on a daily basis.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think we’ve done this in a few different ways. First of all, the content we produce is usually pretty funny, and I think everyone needs comedic relief from the craziness of the world. Whether it’s a funny post on social media, an article that pokes fun at a campus trend or a video that makes you laugh, I think we do a good job of making people laugh.
On top of that though, we have so many students who work for us while in college and I think we do a great job of mentoring them, training them and giving them real-world experience that they can carry with them throughout their career. Back in the day, students wanted to have one internship for a few years, but now it’s about getting a portfolio of experiences so they can be well-rounded; and we play a role in that and helping them discover what they like and don’t like. A lot of these students have gone on to start their own companies or have amazing jobs and I think it’s because they were able to find their passion through their experiences here and other places.
That said, our campus teams often get to be close friends with people, who they may have never met if they weren’t a part of The Black Sheep, since we have students from all different majors and backgrounds. This has lead to lifelong friends, marriages, roommates, and beyond; so it’s cool seeing the outside impact that being a part of the company has had in people’s lives.
In fact, I recall once we had one of our writers from VCU was visiting her high school friend at Ole Miss, and when she walked in, the friend’s roommate was reading a Black Sheep newspaper and wrote for us there (we used to do print back in the day), so it was just this small world of connectivity.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO,” and why?
- There isn’t a work-life balance, but there is a blend. Starting out, I always thought I could balance work and life, but over time as I got older, got married, had a kid while also running a company, I realized it’s more of a blend. You can’t turn one off and the other on, you just manage to make things work the best way possible for you.
- Network your butt off. For a few years we were working out of my basement, so the only people we really saw were each other, every single day. We didn’t do a good job of attending events or meeting others, and I think that hurt us a little bit. When we moved into our first office, it was in Catapult Chicago, which is just an amazing ecosystem of Chicago startups. Being there for 18 months helped us network and meet so many incredible companies and attend events that I didn’t even know existed.
- Find other founders and become friends. Being a founder can be a lonely world, especially if you’re a single founder. But in reality, all other founders are going through the same ups and downs as you are, just in whatever space they’re in. When we moved into Catapult, we had thing called” Founder’s Forum,” where one founder would present an issue and the background, and we’d all provide feedback based on shared experience. It was a circle of trust between us and a way for everyone to learn and get better. Even after moving out, I still get together with a group of those founders on a monthly basis to chat about challenges. In the end, it’s like a therapy group.
- Being self-aware is the best skill you can have. I used to get really annoyed seeing companies I thought were good but not great, raising massive amounts of money, and we always struggled to raise capital. Once I was able to be real about our company — where we were going, who the right investors would be — and ask myself did we actually need capital or could be scale and grow on our own, etc. it made life a lot easier. I realized we weren’t a typical VC play, so why should I care about VC capital flowing into other companies? We have the team and model to crush it, but in a different way, and that’s okay.
- Control your emotions. I used to react pretty quickly to things, usually with too much emotion. Over time I’ve gotten better about taking it in, getting more details and responding accordingly. Once, one of our competitors had announced raising $25M in funding while we were basically bootstrapped, so obviously I freaked out since it seemed like we were doomed. Within a few months they had fired half their company and were shifting models for a few different reasons. If I would have just thought about how they were going to use the money and how their model was flawed anyway, I wouldn’t have reacted the way I did since the outcome was inevitable.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Oh man, how do people answer this? If there’s one thing I’d want everyone to think about, it’s to never grow up. We all are buried in work and are motivated to succeed, but you need to take time to still be creative and spontaneous. Sometimes the best ideas come from those moments and it’s a great way to just reset your mind and remember where your passion comes from.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Well it’s not a famous line or quote, but we recently painted rap lyrics on our walls, and right by the front door we have one that says “Go hard, go home, wake up, repeat.” To me, it’s the perfect quote because you want to come to work every day ready to take on the world and do everything you can to keep moving things forward. There’s always ups and downs, but as long as you’re giving it your all, that’s all you can do.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Oh that’s a tough one! I think I’d go with Lorne Michaels. It’s incredible to create such an iconic brand that’s spanned generations and always held true to their values. Additionally, being able to help comedians hone their craft and launch their careers is something that I think is beyond valuable and can go unnoticed.