In 2016 I left a comfortable job to start my own business. After working in the advertising industry for two decades I had a clear vision of what the perfect advertising agency was like. I used that vision as a blueprint to create a new agency called The Weaponry. At the same time, I began writing The Perfect Agency Project blog to share my experience and learnings along the way. And in case you didn’t notice, I just created a link to this blog, in this blog. Which may technically be the silliest thing I’ve done in 219 posts.
The Perfect Agency
I have thought about every aspect of the perfect advertising agency. From the dress code (which is only 9 words long), to the way we respond to client requests (always explore them), to the way we deliver invoices (singing telegram*), we are creating both the agency I would want to hire to create my advertising, and the place I want to work.
But one thing I haven’t done since launching The Weaponry is think about our competitors. In fact, I don’t even know who our competitors are. We are not trying to win a geographical area. We are not trying to win a singular discipline, or serve a niche industry. So it’s hard to find another agency to throw in a cage match with us.
We are focused on building a machine for developing great creative ideas, delivering excellent customer service and providing a fun experience for everyone involved. That’s it. Oh, we’re also drinking a lot of chocolate milk.
Occasionally in an RFP (Request For Proposal) we are asked who we compete against in various services. I always respond by saying we compete against everyone who offers those services.
But I don’t pay any attention to those supposed competitors. I don’t worry about what other agencies look like. Or what their websites say. I don’t go to awards shows to see their work. There is not a thing I can do about how they conduct their business. I am not trying to hurt them or steal their business. I am solely focused on us handling our business and delivering against our client requests.
In fact, there are only two agencies I think about at all.
The Weaponry in its current state.
The fully formed version of The Weaponry.
I am focused on closing the gap between the two, and making the business we work in today look more and more like the ideal.
Mind your own business. Don’t become distracted by what everyone else is doing. Understand what your customers and your employees want, and work diligently on delivering that at the highest level. It’s the shortest path to success.
This same principle hold true for us as individuals. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing, or how they are doing it. Focus on what you believe in. You can never go wrong doing what you know is right.
(*Okay, so we haven’t fully implemented the singing telegram invoice delivery system yet. But let me know if you would like to be part of the beta test.)
One of my favorite games to play is Connect The Dots. Not the game we played when we were kids, where you drew lines between numbered dots to form an image of a kitty or Jack-In-A-Box. The version I like to play is with humans.
It’s pretty simple. When you meet someone new, you try to discover their dots and connect them to your own. This helps build a bridge or a common bond between two people. Note, I use the term ‘dots’ symbolically to represent someone’s key facts, personal history, experiences and friendships. I don’t usually draw lines connecting someones moles and freckles. Although I am not above it.
Two weeks ago, after watching our local high school win a state championship at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin, my daughter Ava and I attended a UW Madison track and cross-country reunion hosted by The National W Club. There were over 200 alumni gathered on the eve of the NCAA Cross Country National Championships in Madison. I saw dozens of former teammates and friends. But I also met new people. And we played Connect The Dots.
A Young Couple Walks Into A Bar…
Ava and I were standing near the entrance to the bar, when a nice looking young couple walked in. I recognized the woman immediately as Taylor Amann, a recent UW graduate and an All-American pole vaulter from Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wisconsin.
I had connected with Taylor in the spring, after I saw her LinkedIn profile and recognized that I may be able to assist her with some career connections based on her interest in fashion and retail.
We had exchanged a few emails, but had never met in person. So I approached her and introduced myself. Taylor was very nice, and acted as if she totally remembered our email exchange. She talked about her great new job as a buyer at the UW Bookstore. We talked about the interesting challenges of transitioning from college to the real world, and discovering our new identities after the end of our athletic careers.
Then I started talking to her boyfriend. And that’s where things got really interesting. His name was Clay. And since we had never emailed each other before, I started playing Connect The Dots.
I asked him where he was from. He said Ohio. This was a very good start. Because Ohio is dot-rich territory for me. I asked Clay where he went to college. I learned that he was a recent graduated from Ohio State, where he also played football.
I asked, ‘Where in Ohio did you grow up? He said, ‘Dublin.’ Boom! I said, ‘We lived in Dublin for seven years.’ I asked, ‘Where did you go to high school?’ He said, ‘Coffman.’
At this point I knew we would have at least 2 connections. Because my friend Mike Ulring is the principal at Coffman High School. And I figured that Ava’s former babysitter, Rachel Weber, would have been in high school with Clay.
But I kept asking questions.
I asked, ‘Where did you go to Middle School.’ He said. ‘Karrer.’ That was the school our neighborhood went to, not far from where we lived in Dublin. So I told Clay that we lived across from Avery Park, in Hawks Nest subdivision. His eyes got wide and he said, ‘The stone that says Hawks Nest on it was in my yard!’ I asked, ‘Did you live on Jacana Drive.’ He said, ‘Yes!’ I said, ‘I have been on your roof!’
It turns out Clay Raterman and I lived 3 houses apart. And as soon as we connected the dots I knew exactly who he was. Not only did he remember me, he remembered Ava as a little girl who was always playing outside. We talked about our neighbors the Philbins, Sherbuns, McGoverns and Ashs. We recounted a legendary neighborhood story about Clay and his brother who ding-dong-ditched our next door neighbors, who found little humor in the prank. (The boys had painted a marshmallow to look like dog poop and left it in an unlit bag on the porch).
We also talked about the time when hurricane Ike hit Columbus and took part of the roof off of Clay’s family’s home. Mike Sherbun and I climbed on the roof to nail down a large corner section that had been blown off by the wind. We scrambled to cover the section with a tarp donated by my neighbor, Phil Turner, before nightfall came, and rain wreaked havoc on the exposed home.
Two ships in the night.
Clay and I may have spent the evening within feet of each other and never talked. Or we could have said a pleasant hello and left it at that. We would have had no idea just how much we had in common, and how many people and places we both knew. We talked about Donatos Pizza and Jeni’s Ice Cream and other favorites Columbus originals.
There is something wonderful about discovering our common bonds. It makes us feel connected. It makes us feel like someone else knows us and understands us. Networking is nothing more than building your own safety net. When I play connect the dots, I am trying to make each of our nets a little bigger, and a little stronger.
Get to know as many people as you can. Discover your common ground. We all have it. It’s just a matter of whether or not we find it. Turn strangers into friend. Make the world feel smaller and friendlier. You never know who you may be able to help along the way. Or who may be able to help you when you need it most. Like when a hurricane hits central Ohio, and dark is closing in. Or when you are a Buckeye, and you walk into a bar full of Badgers.
I read as much as I can. I am always searching for knowledge, wisdom, inspiration, perspective and a good laugh. Because I am always searching, I often find what I am looking for.
This morning I was reading Walter Isaacson’s biography on Leonardo DaVinci. On page 59, Isaacson describes the flaws in DaVinci’s painting, The Annunciation. The painting depicts the moment when the angel Gabriel breaks the news to the Virgin Mary that she is going to become the mother of Christ. And Mary is all like ‘WTF!?!’
The painting isn’t perfect. Because Leo was trying out some interesting new moves. The magic of this painting is revealed when you look at it from the angle he wanted you to see it from. But I think the real magic comes from Isaacson’s commentary:
‘In the process, he made some mistakes. But even the mistakes, which came from innovating and experimenting, heralded his genius.’ – Walter Isaacson from Leonardo DaVinci
Way To Grow!
I love that. I like to think that my mistakes are evidence that I am trying. That I am pushing beyond what I know how to do well, into areas of growth, improvement and innovation. I am more afraid of not growing that I am of messing things up.
Don’t be afraid to try. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You, your skills, and your abilities are iterative. Don’t stop at You 1.0. Try more. Learn more. Innovate and experiment more. Push yourself as far as you can. Discover what You 100.0 is capable of. And if you do, someone may write a book about you too.
Today is the day that we eat Turkey and give thanks. Those two things seem like strange pairings don’t they? I am going to be thankful for all I have, AND, eat a bird. It’s like celebrating Dads and Grads. They have nothing to do with each other, except they both happen in June, and they rhyme. But hey, sometimes that is all it takes.
As I prepare to ingest birds, cranberries and Grammy Beans, I am taking stock of all that I am thankful for this year. It’s quite a list. So in a particular order, here it goes.
Some Things I Am Thankful For in 2018
My Wife: I have always been thankful for my wife, Dawn. But when she fully supported my plan to leave a salaried job to bet on my ability to create a business that will support our family of 5, that made me crazy thankful. This lady is the best!
My kids: One of the greatest experiences for a busy business person is to go home and spend time with people who don’t care at all about what you do at work.
My Health: I feel great. And according to the medical screening I just had, all of my numbers are right at the norm. Either that or I accidentally got some guy named Norm’s test results.
My Fellow Weapons We have hired more great people at The Weaponry this year. We now have employees in Milwaukee, Columbus and Atlanta. And we all work together, cross office, like one team based in Milumbta.
My Office The Weaponry has now been in our office space for a year. And we have made it feel like home. Next week we expect to sign a new lease. But we have to build in some flexibility clauses into our lease because we fully expect to outgrow our current space in the next few months. Which is a great problem to have.
Business Travel. 22 years ago I returned from my very first business trip the night before Thanksgiving. I had flown to El Centro, California with Dan Koel to photograph new tractors for Case IH in the irrigated California farmland just north of the Mexican border. I couldn’t believe how exciting it all was. Today I am thankful that I am just as excited about my career and the travel it offers. My trip to India in September was the pinnacle of work travel for the year.
Retainer Clients At the beginning of 2018 we didn’t have any retainer-based clients. So while we were growing at a healthy pace, we didn’t have much visibility into what was coming next. So our number one goal for this year was to establish retainer-based clients that would help build predictability into our machine.
Today we have 6 clients who pay us a monthly retainer. That has made it easier for us to commit to hiring more great people, and invest in other resources that allow us to deliver even better work for our clients. (Did you think retainer clients were the clients you get after your braces clients are removed?)
Heat The first time it got cold outside after we moved into our offices it was freezing in our space. Our building people sent specialist to seal our windows. Which helped some. But the biggest help was when we talked to our neighbors next door at DanceWorks, and simply asked them to turn up the thermostat. That worked like a charm. Go figure.
Hermann Miller No one has supported me over the course of the last year like Herman Miller. That’s because we have his really great Aeron desk chairs in our office. It makes a difference. Thanks Herman for building these. And thanks to Office Furniture Resources for helping us find these chairs lightly used, and at a good discount.
Technology Thanks to technology, it has never been easier to launch a business. I am extremely thankful to a handful of resources that together create the central nervous system of our business. They are:
Insurance I am thankful that The Weaponry is able to offer our full-time employees both health and dental insurance. In 2018, our first year of offering such benefits, we were able to pay the full premiums on behalf of our individual employees. And it looks like we will be able to do the same in 2019. #Boom
My Commute My drive to work is 17 miles. And it generally takes under 30 minutes. That is half the time I spent driving too and from work in Atlanta. I’m thankful for that every day. The only downside is that it now takes me twice as many days to finish an audiobook. That’s a sacrifice I am willing to make.
My Car My Acura MDX turned 10 years old this year. And I still love driving it. As my Grampy once told me, ‘A man with miles on his car has money in the bank.’ I am thankful to not have a monthly car payment. It is one less thing to worry about on my entrepreneurial adventure.
Ideas My business and my career are based on new ideas. I guess this blog is too. I am extremely thankful that the ideas keep coming. Because truth be told, I have no idea where they come from. And like a drunk at bar time, I am afraid of being cut off, because God knows I have been over-served.
New Friends I love meeting new people. I am a collector. I think you can never have too many friends. Unless you are trying to hide in the witness protection program. Then too many friends could totally blow your cover and get you killed. But because I am not in that program, yet, I like having as many people on my team as I can. In the past 10 days I have met, and had significant conversations with the following new people:
My Blog Readers I am extremely thankful for all of you who read, like, comment or subscribe to this blog. I know you have a millions other things you could read, and an endless number of other ways to invest your time. I am appreciative and humbled every time someone tells me they read something I wrote. So thank you for reading all the way to the end of this post. You are so much better people than those who bailed after that Dad’s & Grads observation in the first paragraph.
There is so much to be thankful for that I can’t capture it all here. As you count your blessing, I hope you count really high. I hope you get tired, and lose your voice from all your counting. There are so many things for us all to be thankful for that there really ought to be a day for us to just stop and be thankful. And eat a bird. Yep, that still sounds weird to me.
Last week I was riding an escalator at the rental car center at the airport in Atlanta. The man in front of me turned to me and asked, ‘Did you go to the University of Wisconsin?’ I proudly replied, ‘Yes!’, and realized I was wearing a Wisconsin hat that had likely invited the question. Either that or I still smelled like brats, cheese and Mickies Dairy Bar.
The man continued:
My daughter goes to school there right now and absolutely loves it. She looked at Michigan State, which is where I went, and Ohio State, because we live in Canton, Ohio. But when she visited Madison she said, “Dad, I found my people.” -Escalator Dad
I could relate. That is exactly how I felt when I went on my recruiting trip to Wisconsin.
Two days later I was visiting my neighbor Christy Sheahan in Atlanta. She told me she and her son Christopher, who is a high school senior, had just visited Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana (home of my Mom and Dad). Christy and her husband Kevin’s oldest daughter Sydney is currently a freshman at the University of Georgia in Athens. Christy told Christopher, ‘I want you to keep looking at schools until you find a college environment that you love as much as Sydney loves UGA.’ Christopher, listen to your Mom.
The Fit Makes It.
These two comments are great reminders of how important it is to find your people and your places. Whether you are a student looking for the right college, or you are in the workforce, looking for the right job, you should search for that place that fits you just right. That place that is full of your kind of people. Finding the right fit makes all the difference in your happiness, your self-esteem, your memories, your relationships and your probability of success.
If you haven’t found the school that fits you, keep looking. If you haven’t found the workplace that fits you, keep searching. It is out there, and there are people who want to work with you as much as you want to work with them. Life, school and careers are all too short to spend in the wrong place, with the wrong people. There are 5300 colleges and universities in the United States. There is one that is just right for you, Goldilocks. And if you don’t think that the place you want to work exists in the place you really want to live, make it yourself. That’s what I did when I launched The Weaponry. And I couldn’t be happier. Not even if I was a student again back in Madison.
I like to make the most of my business travel. After my work obligations are Sharpied into my calendar, I always fill the open spaces in my schedule with personal activites. That might include eating at an interesting restaurant, exploring, museuming or exercising. But my favorite activity to add to a work trip, by far, is socializing. Sometimes I meet new people. Sometimes I reconnecting with old friends. And sometimes I do both at the same time.
I had to travel to Atlanta this week for a film shoot. Since I had to fly in on Monday I began filling my afternoon with interesting activities. Here is what I did between 12:30 and 6:30pm:
Had lunch with a former client
Had back-to-back-to-back meetings with 3 different freelancers who are currently working with my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry.
Met with a college senior to talk to him about his career options after he graduates.
Guest lectured to a college marketing class about creativity and the creative process.
Stuck around 20 minutes after the lecture to talk to a group of 5 students who had more questions.
Drove to my Atlanta neighborhood in East Cobb and talked to my neighbor, Dr. Betty Garrot about my recent trip to India (Betty’s family is from India, and they contacted me when I was in Bangalore).
It was a fun and interesting day. But what I had planned for Monday evening was really special. Last Friday I texted my college teammate Jabari Pride, who lives in Atlanta, and asked him if he would like to get together Monday night. He said yes. So I reached out to another, former University of Wisconsin track athlete, Lenton Herring, who lives in Atlanta, and invited him too. Then I reached out to Stephanie Herbst-Lucke, who was not only up for getting together, she invited us to gather at her home. So we decided to contact a couple more former Badger track athletes to tell them what we were doing.
Just three days later, on a rainy Monday night in Atlanta, these are the Badger track alum who showed up:
Adam Abrecht: Discus and hammer thrower from Norwich Vermont, now living in Milwaukee (but still a proud Atlanta home owner).
Jabari Pride: Sprinter and all-around athlete from Los Angeles, now living in Atlanta.
Lenton Herring: Jumper and sprinter from Gainesville Florida, now living in Atlanta.
Stephanie Herbst-Lucke: Distance runner from Chaska, Minnesota, now living in Atlanta.
Tina Erps-McGee: Sprinter and jumper from Bettendorf Iowa, now living in Atlanta.
Terry Reese: Hurdler from Fort Wayne Indiana, now living in Atlanta.
Scott Jenkins: Distance runner from Kenosha, Wisconsin, now living in Atlanta.
Stephanie (Bassett) Orman: Distance runner from Bloomington, Indiana now living in Atlanta.
Mark Euler: Jumper from Madison, Wisconsin, now living in Atlanta.
Reed Connor: Distance Runner from The Woodlands, Texas, now living in Atlanta.
Socializing not Social Networking
It was an amazing night. I got to see friends and teammates I have known for decades, some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades. I also got to meet three new Badgers. We talked about our families and careers. We shared stories about our days competing for the University of Wisconsin. We talked about our coaches and the things we learned from Ed Nuttycombe, Peter Tegen, Martin Smith, Mark Napier, Scott Bennett, Mick Byrne, Mary Grinaker, Robert Hackett and others.
We talked about how there is no other experience quite like spending your college career in Madison. We talked about the unique people, the unique setting and the unique educational environment. Because of our shared history, the group instantly felt like a community. We traded contact information and made plans to gather again. Just like that, the W Club-Atlanta was born.
Connect In Person
This was a great reminder to make sure you see your people in real life. It is great to keep in touch with each other on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. But people are better in person. We all need to experience real human connections. Those connections are strongest, and most impactful, when we are in a room, talking to each other, face to face.
I encourage you to reach out to your people. Get together with friends from home, from college or camp. Organize a gathering of former co-workers, teammates or roommates. Get together with your neighbors. Or create your own social or professional groups.
At the end of our days, the only thing that will really matter is the relationships we build, and the impact we have on each other. Don’t be afraid to make the first move. I did. And because of it, ten former Badger track athletes are now part of another special community 803 miles from Madison.
*Special thanks to fellow Badger, James Lucke for hosting us and joining us Monday evening! On Wisconsin!
In your career you will have the opportunity to work with a broad range of clients. Some will help you make a lot of money. Some will help you make a little money. Some will help you grow old friendships. Some will help you make new friendships. Some will be strictly business. And some will be a party. Some will enable you to do great work. Some will help you make a difference. Some will build your confidence. Some will test your limits. Some will cost you money. Some you will love. And some, you will wish you never met. But if you pay attention, they will all help you grow smarter, stronger and more capable. So on the toughest days with the toughest clients, and the best days with the best clients, don’t forget to learn.