How It Really Happened: A Scorch Agency Compendium
February 10, 2011
Let’s put the rumors to rest right now. I can tell you without hesitation that Scorch did not just pop out of the “Great Idea Jack-In-The-Box” as a fully fleshed out, up and running, staffed with the right people, in a cool office, well-respected marketing agency. Four Costco-size bottles of Advil and a case of Tums later, I can personally attest to that.
It was a frosty day in January 2009. I had just gotten laid off from my “last” Sr. Art Director position. The economy was tanking and I was joining the ranks of the many talented and creative St Louis folks finding themselves suddenly out of a job. Crap.
It had been a lifelong dream of mine to own an agency and do the work that I love. I wanted to be excited about getting up in the morning and going to work. I wanted to be in control of my creative ship. I decided, “This is it. I am going to put my measly severance check where my mouth is and start my own business… and it’s going to work”. (Also add in some well-timed luck, a refinanced mortgage and two credit cards.)
I made 3 calls. The first was to my wife (@mollydowntown). I said, “Honey, I want you to let me do this”. She said, with a long drawn out sigh “OK, just don’t fuck it up… I believe in you.”
The second call was to a long time friend who I had previously shared an office with when I was greener than green. I said, “Mike, I’m going to start an agency and I need an office”. He offered me a space in his building for free plus some trade, until I could pay rent. I said “thank you”, we shook hands, and within an hour I was moved in, designing business cards, setting up my voicemail and locking up @scorchagency on Twitter. Scorch was born. Flame on!
The third call I made was to a heavy hitter sales guy I worked with at my previous job. He had also been “out-placed”. (I felt like we had been dropped into an episode of Mad Men, you know, the one where all the “good people” leave to start their own firm.) I said, “I’m starting an agency, bring me some clients”.
Well, it doesn’t quite work that way. Clients don’t really get “brought”, no matter who’s golfing with whom. You might think they do. And you can talk a big story, but the bottom line is, clients need to be earned, they are valuable and need constant tending. You need to have the right people and the right solutions in place. One needs more than a dream, you need a plan and you need a “product”.
Hiring a well-connected salesperson first off was the wrong, but oh so right, thing to do. I needed something to force my hand and make me do all of the hard work necessary to be able to effectively handle this “onslaught” of big-spender clients that my sales guru was going to march through the door. Could I do it?
Like Dumbo and his feather, I was determined to fly. I could do it if I was holding my black feather, it was scary, but I had the feather. I had a brand, a sort-of plan, and a portfolio of good work. I had literally four weeks to make it work or I was officially broke and likely sleeping on the couch in the living room.
One of the smartest things I did when I started this business was call Marcia. She was one of my favorite people to work with as I made my way through 10 years of agency life of St. Louis and I wanted to work with her again. She always seemed to know how to stage-manage and get things to run behind the curtain.
I sent her an email that said:
“Marcia, I am starting an agency called SCORCH and I need your help.
I would call my mom… but she doesn’t know anything about advertising”.
“Scorch? I like it. I’m in”.
In February Marcia joined Scorch and we began building a talented pool of web designers, programmers, and other good minds to add to the team, as well as starting the arduous task of putting the infrastructure in place to run the business.
The truth is, the guy with all the connections didn’t actually connect. But what DID happen was a team, a website, self-promotion materials, a presentation style, a mission statement and, most importantly, the fine-tuning of our “products”. Every single day we had to work on our first client, Scorch, because any minute that big dollar client was going to call and we had to be ready. Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of “smaller” opportunities, we were making it drizzle, but we needed a downpour.
One of the first places I turned to build the Scorch brand was Twitter. My Tweets told the story as we built the agency and many of you tuned in. The first piece of business that proved the plan was working turned out to be an open “Twitter RFP” for Jefferson County Library. Long story short… we beat out 23 other agencies, won the business and knocked it out of the park.
The opportunity to speak at the re-launch of #SMCSTL was also a great boost to my confidence and to the success of SCORCH. Truth be told, this was my first speaking engagement as the CEO of an agency and I was nervous as a boy on his first date.
Between the humorous back and forth debate by Brian Cross and Dan Curran about “social media marketing as a channel” and the reoccurring topics of mustaches and bacon I managed to hold my own and add some valuable content to the conversation, or so I’m told.
That speaking engagement led to my being a panelist at the Bloggers Guild St. Louis Interactive Festival, discussing “Social media for small business and non-profits” in October. There I met Mike Tomko (@michaeltomko). I was really impressed by the smart, easy style of the one they call, simply, “Tomko” and I offered him a job. The next week he had a desk and we were working on some new business opportunities that grew out of our relationships on Twitter. We were out to earn business. Over the next two months we grew exponentially. By the time our first year ended, we were four “core” people strong with a fine-tuned network of “scale-able” staff we could bring in as projects demand. We had 20+ clients and the lights were on well into the night.
I was still searching for the ideal place for the agency to call home and I wanted to be in downtown St Louis. After looking at build-out costs, shared office space and some not so great options I finally found what I wanted in the Shell Building. We moved into our suite in The Shell Building on January 22, 2010, almost exactly a year from when I started the agency.
There were many moments throughout the year when I felt satisfaction for a job well done but nothing was more fulfilling than opening the door to my own space, on my own terms for the first time. I felt like I had arrived.
I’ll be the first to tell you that owning a business is not for everybody. You are the first to get there and the last to leave. Your friends and family will chide you for being “way too serious all of a sudden”, and you’ll never have any money. But the value and unbelievable personal and professional potential for success and satisfaction makes it all worth it.
Over the last year we’ve ridden a wicked fast roller coaster of business growth and would not have been able to make it if wasn’t for the help of a lot of amazing people that were there to believe in the dream and willing to help us achieve it.
Each person contributed a little something to help me grow along the way, you know who you are, and I thank you all.
This is a time of commencement for Scorch. There is a lot going on, and things change every day, not the least of which is the fact that I am about to become a father. Everything gets more “real” by the minute. One thing that has changed for good is that I have put my feather down. We didn’t need the black feather any more; Scorch can fly on its own.