An Underdawg Story
I’m expecting a surreal feeling. Ten years ago, I graduated from The University of Georgia with a Bachelors in Science, Family and Consumer Sciences. Barely. On Saturday, our company will be recognized by the UGA Alumni Association as one of the top 100 fastest growing bulldog-owned businesses in the country.
This will be the first time I’ve received any type of on-stage recognition from my alma mater, considering the fact that I didn’t even go to my own graduation. I regret that. Not just because I consistently have that “no-closure” type dream where I’m back in school and can’t graduate because I forgot to take a class. I regret it because I’ve learned how important it is to slow down and celebrate your accomplishments. I’m still not great at it. Ask anyone I work with. Once we’ve achieved a goal, I typically down-play it and move on to the next one. It’s equal parts ambitious and annoying.
Here’s where the surreal part comes in. I was a borderline bum for the majority of college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do — didn’t care, really. Couldn’t get into the business school and was horrible at math. I wanted to maximize fun and minimize effort. It showed (on my transcript and physical appearance). It wasn’t until halfway through my junior year at UGA when I finally settled on a major and started trying. I credit that to a couple of things. One, I got a serious girlfriend that I wanted to marry. Two, Dr. Anne Sweaney at the College of Family and Consumer Science took an above average interest in me for some reason and gave me the direction I needed to succeed. I was a Housing major (think multi-family real estate or property management). What does that have to do with running a business or marketing? Not much.
Funny thing is, the Bulldog 100 is based purely on gross revenue. It’s a business award. It’s not subjective like most advertising industry awards. There are no judges. No votes. Simply, who has grown their business by the most percentage over the past three years. Then, they are ranked 1–100.
Saturday won’t be the first time I’ve been proud of us. We’ve been published in a bunch of industry magazines. We’ve won advertising awards on the local, regional and national level. We’ve worked with some great clients from all over the country. We have the best team in the business. And, we just launched our own city’s University rebrand last week. But, Saturday will mark the first time Alex and I will be recognized for our accomplishments in business. I don’t think any of my frat bros would have seen that coming.
The extra-funny thing is, we don’t pay that much attention to the money. It’s never been the primary focus for us as a company. It’s not what motivates us. We want to create work that is seen and appreciated. Remember the feeling you’d get when your mom would put your finger painting under a magnet on the refrigerator? Proud, right? Well imagine getting a photo texted to you of a billboard you designed in Times Square. That’s why we do it. We believe that great work plus a great team will attract great clients, produce happiness and beget success. It’s the formula we’ve been working with for the past 7 years. We had to believe it. We’re not business majors. We didn’t break out of larger agencies to form ours. Honestly, we don’t even know what the agency model is. We had to create our own model. Find happiness in your work. It’s more than a motto. It’s our motivation.
I guess I’ll feel a little relief on Saturday, too. This award is proof that our model works. So, what’s the lesson here?
You don’t have to be good at business to be good at business.
My top five tips for the not-so-savvy entrepreneur:
- Easy does it.
You’re not good at business. Don’t make it complicated. What’s the lemonade stand version of what you do? Do that — certainly at first. As a two-man shop, I found myself doing invoices in between branding projects. As I stated before, math ain’t really my thing. So, we eliminated the hourly rate and simplified proposals to nice, tidy, round numbers. We productized our services. Essentially, you could pick a “logo design” scope off the shelf and take it to the register. And, we NEVER made change orders. Otherwise, billing would have been a beast. Sure, we got our asses kicked on a few projects, but we came out on top by not over-complicating the proposal or sales cycle. We could start projects rather quickly. Plus, we didn’t turn off our clientele by saying a project would cost one thing and then billing them another. The simplest way for us to handle billing was a 50/50 model. We were paid half to start a project and half when we finished. We still do many projects on this model.
- Don’t confuse passion with profit.
Do what you love… blah, blah, blah. Yes. This is true. Attempt this. However, don’t confuse passion with profit. Here’s what I mean: Let’s say you love baking cupcakes. You’re super good at it. So, you decide to sell your cupcakes online to customers all over the country. You are no longer in the cupcake business. You’re in the email list cultivating, order fulfillment, customer service, digital advertising, merchant services, SEO and PR, and perishables business. Are you just as passionate about those things? You better be.
- Be generous.
Spend your money. Do not keep it for yourself. Self-promote. Get a cool office. Buy drinks. Offer benefits. Take clients to dinner. Take employees to dinner. Hook your team up whenever possible. Send them to conferences. Buy them the best equipment to work on. Provide them with healthcare that doesn’t suck. Have you ever had a boss that made you buy your own lunch in front of a client? Do you still work for that asshole? Listen, I’m not telling you to be reckless. We will not be offering unlimited spray tans as a company perk (sorry, ladies). But, a round of drinks here and there goes a long way.
- Be forthcoming.
Share information with your team. Don’t hoard it. Don’t keep secrets. The more they understand about how the business works, the more they understand how THEY can help the business. Ask for your team’s opinion. Don’t leave them in the dark.
- Ask for help.
It could be from colleagues, peers, employees or clients. Do this every day.
Above all, don’t forget why you started in the first place and don’t be afraid of the grind.
Gotta say, the University of Georgia Alumni Association knows how to throw a classy shindig. Plus, the format is awesome. The countdown from 100 to the number one fastest growing business gets pretty intense. Honestly, I was beginning to think they forgot about us. We gave ourselves an over/under at 73. So, needless to say we were stoked to get all the way to 26. But, it’s just out of the top 25. Trying not to let that bother me. Maybe next year.
And, my college rolled out the red and black carpet for all 7 FACS alumnus. The best moment of the night was when Dr. Anne Sweaney (who I didn’t know would be there and was sitting at my table) passed me a sheet of paper after I gave her a hug and sat down.
Holy shit, she still had my original resumé. Don’t worry, my english major business partner has already pointed out all of the typos and grammatical errors. Thing is, I’m positive I wasn’t special to Anne Sweaney. She treated all of her students with this much care and compassion. What an awesome lady. I’m fortunate the graduation gods placed me in front of her.
PS — That last sentence is as cringe-worthingly corny as it was true, somehow. I’m happy about that.