In 2016 I left a salaried position with a large, stable advertising agency. I had amassed almost 20 years of experience as an advertising creative. Over the course of my career I had developed a clear vision of what the perfect ad agency looked like. And like Bob The Builder, I believed I could build it.
1 Year Later
A year later my startup ad agency was buzzing with activity. So I joined a CEO roundtable to surround myself with people who knew things I didn’t know. My Council Of Small Business Executives (COSBE) group meets once a month to compare notes, discuss issues and serve as a thought-provoking sounding board.
At the first meeting I attended back in August, the group asked me to take a couple of minutes to talk about me and my business. It was like the introductions you make at an addiction recovery group. You know, ‘My name is Adam, and I am an Ideaholic.’ Welcome brother Adam.
I told the group that my business, an advertising and idea agency called The Weaponry, had attracted ten clients in the first year. Those clients stretched from Florida to Atlanta, Boston, Montreal, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City and San Francisco.
Then I dropped this fun, and almost unbelievable footnote:
We did this despite the fact that we were a brand new business with:
no business cards
After I finished my quick overview on my business, the guest speaker that day said something that I will never forget.
‘There is only one way you could build a business like that. People really trust you.’
This guy was a total stranger. We had been in a room together for 15 minutes. Yet he gave me an amazing insight as to why my perfect agency project was working.
I knew I had clients that liked me. I knew they had good experiences with me. I knew that some of them thought I was funny or smart or creative, or perhaps a non-alchoholic cocktail of all three. But the only reason my business stood a chance of succeeding is that people I have worked with in the past, and those I meet today, trust me.
It’s a matter of trust. (Like Billy Joel said)
Trust is the key ingredient of a successful entrepreneur. It is the most valuable product that you will ever deliver to your clients.
My clients trust me with their money.
They trust me with their confidential information.
They trust me with their valuable time.
They trust me to reflect positively on their personal reputations.
If you want to increase your value to other people, increase your trustworthiness. Do what you say you will do. Deliver what you say you will deliver. Meet the timeline you said you would meet at the price you quoted. Always demonstrate that you’ve heard and care about the concerns of others. You’ll find the rewards far exceed the cost of doing business.
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I recently found this post in my rough drafts folder. It was originally written in June of 2016, but never published. At the time, my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, was a startup in the first months of life. The swirling uncertainty of startup-ness surrounded us. And that can mess with you…
From June 10th, 2016
Today I had a long talk with a co-worker who was having a hard time at work. Which is understandable. Because startups are kinda hard. Launching a startup is like walking in a blizzard. Wind and snow are all up in your grill. It’s cold. Visibility goes into the toilet. It’s difficult to navigate in these conditions.
In the middle of a blizzard your survival instincts tell you to seek shelter. It’s natural to want to escape the relentless wind, disorienting snow and mounting drifts. Sitting by a crackling fire, drinking hot chocolate is far more appealing to most people.
But I like walking in blizzards. I like being out when no one else is. I like doing things that build my character, my will and my personal legend. In the same way a callus rises as the result of repeated friction, strength grows from pushing against resistance.
You have to keep walking. You must have faith that you know where you are heading. You have to take steps forward, even when it is hard. Blizzards of the wintry, professional and personal kind are temporary. Eventually the snow will stop falling. The wind will chill the eff out. And the sun will come out again. When that happens, where will you be? It’s a matter of what you did during the blizzard. If you keep pushing, you will find yourself far ahead of where you started, far ahead of those who sought shelter, and closer to your ultimate goal. You’ll find the ultimate rewards far outweigh the hot chocolate you sacrificed along the way.
*To learn what has happened to The Weaponry over the past year and a half, check out some other posts. To see what happens next, consider subscribing to this blog.
One of the great traditions of networking is grabbing coffee. When you meet someone for the first time you suggest grabbing coffee. When you see someone you haven’t seen in a long time, you talk about grabbing coffee. Coffee gets grabbed more than an aspiring actress at a Harvey Weinstein pool party. #timesup
I don’t drink coffee. Ok, that’s not fully true. I have now had 4 cups of coffee in my life. That’s about one per decade. But the coffee meeting is one of the most valuable elements of professional development. It is a useful tool for developing and maintaining relationships. It can be used for research, informal mentoring and for stay at home moms to have sanity-preserving conversations with full-sized rational humans.
Despite the fact that coffee tastes like burnt bark juice, I love using coffee meetings to catch up with old friends or get to know new people better. I just do it differently.
Barista, The Usual.
My go to beverage at the coffee shop is chocolate milk. I love that stuff. It reminds me of Fridays in elementary school. Which was the only day chocolate milk was served at school when I was a kid. Today, drinking chocolate milk still feels like a party.
One of the people I regularly grab chocolate milk with is my friend Andy Salamone. Andy is an amazing guy. He started a business called CarSpot right out of college. He developed a way of aggregating used car inventory from dealerships into a centralized, customer-friendly online shopping experience. Andy and his team developed innovative technology to transform and grow the business until AutoTrader made Andy an offer he didn’t refuse. He sold the business several years ago, and now enjoys the fruits of his exit.
It is fascinating to talk to Andy as he scans the landscape looking for the next great entrepreneurial opportunity. He sees businesses the way an engineer sees a machine. He can talk you through the mechanics of creating an efficient device to deliver a great idea. He has been a great influence on me and the way I think about my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry.
Andy texted me last week and said he wanted to swing by and see The Weaponry’s new office. I was thrilled to have him see our space. He arrived with some really fun surprises. He had a gallon of Oberwies chocolate milk. Which is the chocolate milk equivalent to a Goody McGood bottle of Scotch. That alone would have been a great office warming gesture. Then Andy reached into the bag that contained the milk and pulled out four glasses with the five Great Lakes printed on them. On each glass there’s a heart printed right where Milwaukee sits on the shores of Lake Michigan.
A Moment To Absorb.
Now picture this. As I poured my glass full of that chocolatey nectar of the Guernsey’s, I was sitting on a couch at the adverting agency that I always dreamed of creating. I toasted my good fortune with a friend and fellow entrepreneur. Then I set my new Great Lakes glass down on my custom-made The Weaponry surfboard coffee table.
My life was coming together just the way I had always imagined it would. Even my fellow Wisconsin Badger, Abraham Maslow would have grabbed one of my new glasses, raised it towards me and said, ‘Kid, it doesn’t get any better than this.’ #selfactualization.
Make the time to grab a drink of your own choice with the people of your own choice. May you find your own version of The Weaponry, and chocolate milk and custom surfboard coffee tables. I hope that you look forward to going to work every day. I hope you get to design your life, your work and your tribe. May your days be full of great moments that are uniquely you. Here’s to feeling as if you are winning at life.
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Starting your own business brings on a parade of exciting firsts. Each one marks an important milestone in the realization of your dream. There is your first client. Your first employee. Your first office. And your first lawsuit (I assume).
When I first launched my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, I created a human-like set of life stages that I expected the business to go through. I listed key developments that would happen at Rolling Over, Crawling and Running. That way I would have some sense of where the business I birthed was on its maturing process from newborn to Olympic athlete.
An Especially Special Day.
On February 7th I had a uniquely proud first. My parents came to see my office for the first time. As an entrepreneur, your business is like a child. So that day I got to introduce my parents to their Grandbusiness.
My Parents’ Influence
My parents were responsible for planting the seeds that led to The Weaponry. Since I was a small child they taught me how to develop meaningful relationships. They taught me to think about the needs of others. They built my confidence to believe I could do whatever I set my mind to. They taught me how to be financially responsible. My mom taught me writing and public speaking. My dad taught me how to work hard.
They made several important decisions that put me into great schools in my childhood. Their Big 10 educations at the University of Minnesota influenced my Big 10 education at the University of Wisconsin. They helped support me through college. After graduation, when I was offered my first job as an advertising copywriter at Cramer Krasselt, they gave me the $500 I needed to move to Milwaukee, put a security deposit on my first apartment, and stock my pantry with ramen noodles. If it weren’t for my parents I probably wouldn’t be here.
Showing off the office was really fun. Kind of like the first time I brought my wife, Dawn, home to meet my parents. I gave Bob and Jill the grandest tour our space would allow. I pointed out all the changes we had made. I shared plans for what’s next. And I got to introduced my Mom and Dad to my team.
My parents brought an office warming gift. It was my favorite celebratory beverage: a bottle of nonalcoholic sparking cider (I still haven’t matured to the hard stuff). It was a meaningful gesture from the people who have helped shape me through meaningful gestures.
Business and Family
This week more of The Weaponry’s broader family have visited the office. We’ve had one Weapon’s husband and another Weapon’s brother spend time with us. It’s important to me to have siblings, parents, children and spouses come to our office. I want them to understand our culture. And I want them to feel part of it too. The more we can integrate our at-work family with our at-home family the more we are able to understand and support each other.
Thanks Mom and Dad for taking time to come see The Weaponry. Thanks for taking the time to meet my teammates. Thanks for the little boy bottle of bubbly. But most importantly, thanks for giving this little birdie a great nest to grow up in. And thanks for teaching me how to fly.
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Starting your own business requires a special mindset. You have to have both a tolerance for risk, and a confidence that you will succeed despite the odds stacked against you. But how do you know if you have the right kind of entrepreneurial wiring? Before I launched my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry I didn’t have a predictive test to evaluate my risk tolerance. But now I do.
I recenly had a very interesting conversation about risk with my friend Tom O’Hara. Tom is EVP & Enterprise Risk Management Director at Huntington National Bank. Evaluating risk is a challenging task. You must find a way to assess risk tolerance in a way that people can easily articulate.
One question Tom poses in his risk evaluation is this little diagnostic gem:
If you have a meeting with the CEO of your company at 7am, and your commute usually takes 15 minutes, what time would you leave for the meeting?
The answer to this hypothetical question reveals a lot about your risk tolerance. If you say 5:30am you have a very low tolerance for risk. If you say 6:45am you have a very high tolerance for risk. If you say 7am you have trouble understanding the time and space continuum.
My big aha!
As Tom talked through this simple predictive test, a fake lightbulb went off in my real head. I applied the same evaluative criteria to my approach to catching airplanes. When planning my departure for the airport I don’t work off the standard ‘Be at the airport 1-hour ahead of time’ rule of thumb. I know that the check-in period for domestic flights ends 30 minutes prior to scheduled departure. But I don’t use the 30-minute rule either, because I always check in online.
Instead, I use the ‘What time will they close the door?‘ rule of thumb. I have always thought this was the only indicator that really mattered. As a result I am often the last person on the plane. Which has freaked out many of my more conservative coworkers. Yet, I can only remember missing a plane one time in my entire business career. And that was because I had the wrong departure time in my head. Stupid departure time memory malfunction!
What this says about entrepreneurship
Clearly I have a high tolerance for risk. Because those airplanes, they don’t wait (I heard that in a country song). That being typed, I am never unprepared for my travel too and through an airport. I have timed my airport route to the minute, and I allow for a degree of error in traffic, difficulty finding parking, and for crowds at security. On the other hand, my drive to the airport makes me feel alive. So does owing my own business.
Know thyself (but don’t call thyself ‘thyself’). If you have to be at the airport two hours before a domestic flight you may struggle with the coo-coo crazy of entrepreneurship. But if you like rolling onto the plane just as it prepares to roll away from the gate, you likely have what it takes to stomach a couple of years of unpredictability. But there is no right or wrong answer to risk tolerance. There are just different types of rewards. So whether you are traveling for work or pleasure, always consider the rewards that make you happy when you file your flight plan.
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I haven’t read Andy Grove’s book Only The Paranoid Survive. I don’t need to. I get everything I need to know from the title alone. If you want to survive in business you have to be paranoid.
Why I bring this up.
I am part of a CEO roundtable known as the Council of Small Business Executives (COSBE) in Milwaukee. We had our monthly meeting yesterday at my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry. The theme of the meeting was clear. The CEOs in my group are all feeling paranoid.
But here’s the funny thing: none of us are in imminent danger. There is no grim reaper at the door preparing to cut our internet connections and leave our businesses for dead. Quite the opposite. Our futures all look bright. We continue to grow and add new clients. We are hitting exciting milestones that indicate our businesses are moving in the right direction.
Yet we all seem concerned that we are not doing enough. That we are not as productive as we could be. Or as aggressive as we should be. Or as focused. Or as successful. To a therapist we may all appear to have odd self-image issues. Or a lack of confidence. But that is not the case.
The Real Issue
We are doing exactly what you need to do to survive as an entrepreneur. You have to worry about issues before they become issues. You have to invest in relationships you don’t need today. You have to develop plans and infrastructure that aren’t critical right now.
You need to do the little things that are important but not urgent before they become urgent. Because if you wait until they are urgent it will probably be too late. Self-inflicted paranoia keeps you a step or two ahead of the real danger. It activates your fight or flight responses when there is no imminent fight. That’s how you prevent complacency. And that’s how your thrive.
Your personal life.
The same power of paranoia can also help your personal relationships, fitness and finances. If you are paranoid that you are not doing enough, you will invest action in each of these three critical areas before they become real problems.
Embrace your self-inflicted paranoia. It’s a great survival tool. By pulling the fire alarm in your head you’ll be prepared before any actual fire has a chance to block your escape route. Better yet, there is a good chance that fire will never come.
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In the spring of 2016 I left my job as EVP, Executive Creative Director of a large advertising agency. It was owned by a publicly held advertising agency holding company that employed 80,000 people in over 100 countries. One of the great benefits of working for a company that size was the benefits themselves. Because when you have that many people in your organization, you have Bezos-level buying clout.
On My Own.
I love a good adventure. So I left the cushy benefits behind and started my own advertising and idea agency called The Weaponry. I love what we have built. The Weaponry is quick and nimble. Strategic and creative. It is a really fun place to work and offers a great culture of collaboration. We have a lot going for us. But one thing we do not have is benefit-buying clout.
The Hard Part
When I launched The Weaponry I asked a lot of questions of my entrepreneurial network about a broad range of subjects. In return I got a lot of great advice. But when it came to insurance I got absolutely nothing. Unless those crickets I heard were trying to tell me something (chirp chirp… run while you can… chirp chirp).
I could tell by the lack of insights that insurance was the toughest nut for entrepreneurs to crack. Those who did comment said things like, ‘Yeah, that’s hard. I don’t know what to tell you.’ And, ‘It Sucks.’ And, ‘I would love to help you, but I would rather set the world record for most paper cuts received over a 24-hour period than talk about health insurance.’
Me vs Goliath
However, I am very proud to say that as of January 1st, 2018, The Weaponry offers insurance benefits. I wanted to share my experience with anyone thinking of starting their own business, or wondering how Obamacare impacts a small business and its ability to grow and compete.
Starting The Search
Over the second half of last year I began planning our employee benefits for 2018. I wanted to offer health and dental insurance. But I also considered a couple of other benefits, including life insurance for full-time employees. But as with so many other aspects of this startup adventure, I decided to simplify to make sure we completed the critical mission.
I began with research. I learned right away that you need at least two non-related employees in your business to be able to offer insurance as an employer. We qualified. I found my way to the health insurance marketplace and started poking around and modeling various products and prices. But in a vacuum it was pretty hard to evaluate what was good, what was necessary, and what was not. From this initial poking I learned my first lesson:
Key Insight: You will not feel empowered to make a good health insurance purchasing decision if you try to do it on your own.
My business finance advisor encouraged me to talk to an insurance broker, and preferably more than one. He encouraged me to have them model a variety of options so that I could get a feel for the landscape available to me. By talking to more than one broker, he said, you can compare and contrast styles to know that you are getting the right option for you. This was all good advice. But I still didn’t know how to find a reputable broker, let alone multiple brokers.
My Wife To The Rescue
My wife Dawn is a smart woman, and an important part of The Weaponry brain trust. She was the one that finally got us moving in a positive direction on health insurance. How? She talked to our neighbor Sally.
Sally’s husband, Bruce is the President at EBSO, a third party administrator (TPA) benefits solutions company. However, because of our size and our specific needs EBSO couldn’t help us, yet. But Sally said that Bruce frequently partners with Jon Rauser at The Rauser Agency for clients of our size. Dawn got Jon’s contact info. And within a few days Dawn and I were sitting in Jon’s office.
Key Insight: A good wife is the best business asset in the world. This may also be true of good husbands, but I’ve never had one of those.
Dawn and I met with Jon, and it couldn’t have gone much smoother. He started by offering us a range of three or four different insurance providers. Based on our preference, and the providers prevalence in our healthcare market, we quickly narrowed in on one health insurance provider. Then it was a matter of comparing deductibles to get to the final premium options. We simply had to share the ages and family status of our employees. With that we were able to see projected costs, broken down by employee.
Once we provided the names and ages of our employees who would be opting in for our insurance we had to sign a couple of forms to initiate coverage. We also needed forms signed by the full-time employees who were opting out, acknowledging that they had been offered coverage. Next, we had to decide how much of the premium we would pay for our employees. Then we had to send in a check for the first month’s premium.
Then we were done. Seriously.
We Did It!
We had an employer health insurance plan! We have dental insurance too, which was easy to get. We were all grown up! And we were becoming an even more attractive place for smart creative people to work! We had climbed the most daunting mountain on the Entrepreneurial Range. And we planted The Weaponry’s flag at its peak.
Why was the process so easy? Obamacare. I should insert here that I am a staunchly independent voter. I grew up in Vermont where independent thinking flows like maple syrup. I think the two parties are antiquated and don’t allow for my complex vision of the world. But Obamacare made it really easy for this startup to insure our employees. There are no pre-existing conditions. We didn’t need medical exams. We didn’t need to take a lie detector test. I didn’t have to tell anyone that my Great-Great Uncle Nels choked on a peach pit when he was eight years old. (RIP Little Uncle Nellie…)
Is Obamacare perfect? No. It has driven insurance costs up by 30%. But you know what? My baseline is today. So I simply look at the price today and ask, ‘Can we afford to pay this?’ And the answer is yes.
I can’t change the costs. But what should it really cost? I have no idea. All I know is that we were able to get it fairly easily, and all we had to do was pay for it. Our premiums are not much more expensive than the COBRA prices I had been paying since I started The Weaponry.
I may hate Obamacare in the future. And I certainly don’t want to ever pay more than I have to. But today I am happy to have easy access to health insurance for my team. I want to make sure they are protected. So as you follow the political fight over Obamacare, know that this independent voter, who owns a small business said it was easy to protect his team because of Obamacare. And the small price to pay is simply a larger price to pay. And today, we’ll take it.
*If you know someone thinking of starting their own business that could benefit from this story, please share it with them. If you would like to learn more from my entrepreneurial journey consider subscribing to this blog. If you have more specific questions about my health insurance experience please contact me directly. I am happy to share what I know.