19 Years of Not F&^#king Up

19 Years of Not F&^#king Up

I started my first agency 19 years ago this month. My wife was seven months pregnant with our first kid and when I walked into the room and told her: “Honey, I’m quitting my job to start an agency!” She responded, without missing a beat, “That’s fine – just don’t F&$k up.” (Whether or not I F&$ked up over the ensuing 19 years is open to interpretation…but what a woman!)

But I’m not here to talk about me or my kid or my wife (that’s for Facebook…where we’re all perfect). I’m here to reflect on starting a business in 1999 vs. starting one today. First, let me set the stage: in 1999 the Patriots had yet to win a Super Bowl, the Red Sox were in their 81st year of World Series futility, nobody had yet heard of a “hanging chad” and the dot.com bubble was fully inflated. (Oh, and airplanes were going to fall out of the sky at midnight Jan. 1 due to the Y2K problem.)

There was a lot of drudgery involved with starting an agency back then – you had to put everything together yourself. First, you needed an office – and there was no such thing as “co-working space” like today, so you had to sign a long-term lease on empty office space based on a best guess of how big you’d be in five years. And, due to the office-space shortage (thank you, dot.com bubble), landlords had the leverage to make you sign a personal guarantee on your lease – so if your business went under, they could come after your house and any other assets they could sink their fangs into (that was a blast when the dot.com bubble imploded in 2001 and half our revenue evaporated in about 48 hours, but I digress).

Having gambled your family’s financial future on a lease with a personal guarantee, the next step was to acquire all the things that make an office an office: furniture, phones (wired, no less), computers, copier, fax, pens, pads, paper towels, toilet paper, coffee, coffee makers, coffee filters, coffee cups, coffee stirrers, and on and on it goes.

And, there was no cloud computing, so you also had to buy and install all your applications (on every blasted PC), subscribe to all your relevant magazines (and there were a LOT of them back then), figure out how to make a local-area-network work and, last but not least, buy the Good Book of the PR industry: the approximately 37-pound paper-based Bacon’s Media Directory (which, come to think of it, also necessitated the purchase of a book case).

Fast forward to today, and starting an agency is about as different from 1999 as Tom Brady is from Drew Bledsoe. Let’s start with office space – instead of signing a Draconian long-term lease for empty space that you may never fill (or fill too fast), today you can just pay month-to-month in a co-working space for a fully outfitted and scalable office where your every need is taken care of…by the landlord! Furniture, IT infrastructure, maintenance, Kleenex, all-you-can-drink coffee and oddly flavored seltzers…all you do is walk into the place and you’ve got everything you need. Likewise, business applications and resources have gotten way easier – all you have to do is subscribe to a few cloud services and you have access to the same infrastructure as the largest agencies in the world, with no need for internal IT personnel or management. And if you do F&$k up and your business goes down the drain, you can just walk away at the end of the month – no leases to break, furniture to sell or lawyers to dodge.

Like the Sox and the Patriots, the agency start-up game looks nothing like it did in 1999. The risk and investment required in today’s pay-as-you-go world is a fraction of what it was back then, and the operational-headache quotient has been virtually eliminated. All in, you can start a fully functioning agency today in about 48 hours with a credit card.

This actually shifts the competitive landscape, because virtually anyone can put the infrastructure in place for an agency – not just the well-heeled or well-financed. This means that, more than ever, differentiation is achieved through things like quality of work, depth and breadth of skills, industry reputation, etc., rather than the ability to set up a fancy office and wine and dine prospective clients.

Best of all, if you’re good at what you do, today’s pay-as-you go economy makes it a lot harder to F&$k up than in 1999. Maybe that’s why when I told the wife about my latest agency venture, she just looked up and said, “Sounds good honey. Have fun.”

What a woman!



Hey College Seniors: A Few Words of Wisdom from the Other Side

It’s approaching that time of the year when college seniors begin to think about their career path after graduation. For some, this is a simple choice—but for others, the thought may be daunting. As someone who’s recently been through this transition, I can testify to the fact that these students, who are about to embark on the next chapter of their lives, will encounter many surprising and exciting turns trying to find their paths.

I remember the pressure I felt applying to college—that feeling that I should already know exactly what I wanted to do when in reality, I had no clue. I must have changed my mind about five times on what I wanted to major in. I went from an interest in TV and film to convincing myself that I should study musical theater and be on Broadway. Needless to say, I was all over the place. I did, however, know what my strengths and passions were. I knew I was creative and so-called “right-brained,” so there was no doubt that my future path was going to lead me in this direction.

I always tell everyone that I have way too many hobbies—not that this is a bad problem to have, but I definitely love to have options and get my feet wet on various projects. I decided to major in Communication Studies for this reason. I knew that I could apply what I learned—public speaking, writing, creating visual content, etc.—to almost any industry. Yet, after my first two years in college, I still didn’t have that breakthrough moment. My friends were studying nursing, Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy—they had their clear path—but the creative field doesn’t always allow for that clarity, which can be intimidating but also extremely exciting.

I should have known that studying abroad in a magical and inspiring city such as London would start giving me that clarity. One of the classes I took involved social media and blogging, learning the ins and outs of navigating this booming industry. Of course, being of generation Z, I had my Instagram and Facebook accounts, but I was really intrigued by the power that all of these networks have on a brand or company. It was then that I decided that I would start my own blog and see what it was all about.

I thought about what type of content I would be most passionate about posting. I’ve always loved fashion and it seemed to be the perfect city for this genre. My roommate was an amazing photographer, so we would go around London and the various countries in which we traveled, find interesting backgrounds, and photograph different outfits. I learned the importance of creating a personal brand through the content that I posted, and how different components such as color, negative space, and over aesthetic, directly affected the response that my accounts would generate. Once I gained more of a following, I started receiving requests from brands to create small campaigns to promote their products. What started as a fun way to share my travel with my friends and family started to turn into a potential business.

I ran my blog until I graduated college, but once it was time to find a job, I wouldn’t be able to give my account as much attention as it needed—it can be extremely tedious and time-consuming, just networking and connecting with followers and users. I started an internship with a startup fashion and lifestyle magazine as a beauty editor. This was a perfect opportunity for me to translate my writing and communication skills that I learned in college as well as my love for fashion and media to run the beauty section of this online publication. I managed a group of writers, edited articles, wrote editorials, and produced photoshoots. I learned a lot about organization and creative directing while also immersing myself into the business side of how to run an online editorial magazine. It was a lot of trial and error, but I found that was when I learned the most.

After about six months, it was time to get my first “big girl job”. The opportunities for fashion media are scarce in Boston and I knew that I wanted to stay local. I started working as a stylist for a fashion company, where I worked with clients both online and in-person. This was a great opportunity for me to adapt my communication skills through various outlets. Aside from working with a large book of business, we were encouraged to produce visuals and content to engage our clients to want to come in and work with us. I loved this aspect of the business because it was similar to how I would approach my blog—create interesting layouts, storylines, etc.

Although I loved working directly with customers and remaining in the fashion industry, I knew that I wanted to be more involved with digital media. I recognized that my enthusiasm for fashion resulted in a development of skills across various outlets including photography, social media, writing, and client services. It wasn’t until I transitioned into a new industry, that I understood just how applicable these skills would be in almost any professional setting. That’s exactly what I’ve come to realize in my time at Three Rings. Of course, when I started college, I never would have imagined that I would end up working for a b2b marketing agency focused on technology—but that’s what keeps life exciting. Those unexpected turns and opportunities are what life is all about and what makes you realize where your true strengths and interests lie.

If I could give any advice to those students who are about to graduate and enter into the “real world,” I would tell them to relax and trust the process. If you follow your passions, curiosities, and intuitions, I guarantee that you will find yourself on the right path, and you will enjoy the ride.



When “I don’t need” becomes “I don’t want”

“I know I need a reliable commuter car…but man, I want that Jaguar!”

Say that to any used car dealer and you’ll be driving off in the Jag. This is the fundamental struggle we humans face – balancing what we want with what we need. What we want is often what we don’t need, but that car dealer is going to put you in the Jag anyway because it’s more dollars and an easier sale. Wants are emotional, needs are rational: We all know who wins that battle.

And this is what’s wrong with the agency business. For too long, agencies have sold to people’s wants rather than their needs. I got my first glimpse of this many years ago after joining my first agency and sitting through a new business pitch. The “aha moment” came when the pitch leader played a Nightline clip featuring one of our clients. The one slight problem was…the client on Nightline made portable defibrillators (which were brand new at the time), and the prospective client made application development tools and was never getting on Nightline (shy of some sort of executive scandal).

I suspect the prospective client knew this at some level, but they saw that clip and said, “I want that!” and signed on the dotted line for a fat retainer. They drove off in the Jag instead of holding out for that sensible commuter car: a boring yet effective program focused on application development outlets. After paying for a predictably fruitless major-media campaign for several months, they terminated. They were sold what they didn’t need, which predictably became something they didn’t want.

The traditional agency model, which dates back to World War I, is built on selling clients what they want (or convincing them that what you’re selling is what they want). They want big splashy ads and high-priced media relations campaigns…but do they really need those things? Some companies do, but many more don’t. And most companies may need them at some point, but then they don’t need them a few months later due to changes in the business. But, the WWI model locks them into long-term retainers for a stove-piped set of services. And if you want another set of services, it’ll cost you more. And if you want to get out of it all together, you’re stuck for another quarter or more due to the contract’s exit clause. (Incidentally, any exit clause that’s more than 60 days is a sign the agency has no confidence in its ability to satisfy clients, but I digress.)

Few companies really need this model of doing business – but with a slick set of Nightline clips, agencies do a great job at making them want it. Today, we see agencies cling to this model, even though the world has changed considerably since World War I. Today’s economy is all about on-demand everything. People expect to be able to throttle services up and down based on their immediate needs – and yet many agencies are still selling those Nightline clips and sticking clients with long-term, static service modules that inevitably fall out of sync with client needs.

It will be interesting to see how agencies evolve in the next five years. I’ll venture a guess that those adapting to the on-demand world will do well, while the Nightline hucksters drive their Jags straight into I-don’t-wantville.

Women Empowering Women: Little Acts Matter

Without question, the past year has been monumental in the quest for women’s equality, as women from all backgrounds and across industries are demanding to be heard, recognized, and valued in the same way as their male colleagues… and the world is taking notice.

Yet, as much awareness as these initiatives have generated, we still have a lot of work to do. A January 29th article in The Boston Globe, “Mass. ranks near bottom for supporting female entrepreneurs, report finds,” reminds us that equality in some fields is still a work in progress. Entrepreneurship is one such category. In Massachusetts, a state where we pride ourselves on innovation, education, and empowerment, support for female entrepreneurs lags significantly behind support for their male counterparts – Massachusetts ranks 46th out of the 50 states in supporting women-owned businesses.

Of course, there are a host of reasons for our state’s lackluster placement on this list, and the article goes on to discuss several of them. But the point of my comments is not to debate the contributing factors – it’s to ask the question, “What can we as individuals do about it?”

As a female entrepreneur myself, there are lots of big and attention-getting things I can do to try and change the tide. I can lobby leadership teams, boards of directors and government officials; I can voice my opinions on social media; I can protest in solidarity with so many other women who want change for themselves, their daughters and their nieces; and so on. And all such activities are important contributions to the cause.

But perhaps the most important thing I can do as a female entrepreneur and business owner is to help give another woman her shot at success. I firmly believe that women supporting women is the fastest path to equality – there are a lot of us on this planet, even just in this city. And if we take the time to give each other a boost, there’s no limit to how high we can fly.

What does this look like? Well, it doesn’t just have to be a grand gesture or a speech to the masses. It could be as simple as frequenting or recommending women-owned businesses. It could be mentoring a young woman trying to establish or change her career. It could be supporting and covering for a female colleague who is struggling with personal issues. It could be welcoming into your organization working moms trying to maintain a career and keep things running smoothly at home – at Three Rings, we’ve built an incredible team that includes rock star part-time working moms who have their PhDs in productivity and efficiency. Or it could be volunteering and donating to an organization that helps women get back on their feet and thrive in the workplace – for example, I support Dress for Success Boston, an organization that’s sole mission is to empower women looking to create a better life for themselves and their families. And it’s an organization that happens to be run by a truly kick-ass team of women. Women supporting women – these ladies embody the concept like no other.

These are just a few examples – there are countless more. But it’s these seemingly small steps that, together, have tremendous impact. Of course, I understand that there are many other things – including the grand gestures and speeches to the masses – that need to happen for true gender equality to become reality. But I also know that it’s the little things we do day to day, sometimes when nobody is watching, that will give all of us the strength we need to keep up the fight.