From the Start
Many people have a dream they want to achieve, but very few actually do. Either the dream is too hard, they take the first step toward it and fail so they never attempt it again, or they assume their dreams are too big to even try to reach.
None of this is the case for Staeven.
Like most of us he started at the bottom making coffee at Starbucks in Nashville, dreaming of working in the music business. Unlike most, he didn’t narrow in his focus on just that one thing and realized he really loved brand design. He was going to school and made a 5-year plan to go get his Masters in Branding.
He did everything he could to work his way toward it, eventually taking a job at a luxury agency as a Senior Account Executive. At this point in time he was 21 and very naïve to the working world. He was unprepared for the job and didn’t know how to negotiate salary so he ended up doing a job he was unprepared for that didn’t require the creativity he craved and the quality wasn’t there.
Eventually he realized the job wasn’t for him so he took a leap of bravery and left that job to work for a much smaller studio as an unpaid intern, but got to do what he loved. He was finally able to do graphic design specifically. From then on he fell in love with it and ran with the opportunity. In his research for his new found love, he ended up getting a book called: Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler. It became the number one influencer in his career moving forward and inspired him to get to where he is today.
However the book wasn’t the only important aspect of the studio job that changed the course of his career. Working in such a small environment allowed him to see the value in working with small teams where everyone had a voice, finally witness high quality creativity, and really understand what it was to collaborate and contribute in the field. Staeven was able to thrive and grow in his new environment, something he could not have done if he wasn’t willing to take the risk of switching jobs. But as he thrived it soon became abundantly clear that there was a significant difference in his conceptual thinking, brainstorming and creative abilities comparative to the current designer, who was more like a production artist, on a good day. He was beginning to outgrow that stepping stone.
From there he took a job as a temporary designer which developed into a Creative Director role at a 7-person studio, which ended up being an even better fit for him. He very much enjoyed his job. He was able to work with the others or independently as the projects demanded. He managed art direction over the print, web and video. He had control and was finally getting paid for it. He was finally living his dream.
That was until the economy took a nose dive in 2008 and was let go.
Dealing with Bad News
This would have destroyed almost anyone, but not Staeven. He took the bad and turned it into something amazing. Instead of giving up he went on to rebrand two agencies, successfully worked with clients, managed multiple campaigns, and developed his skills with pitching to the client and creativity as a whole. He went and started his career on his own, working on projects he wanted to work on because he had a passion for it. All because after being let go and applying for multiple jobs he began to look at what he really wanted to do. He knew it was branding he wanted to pursue, but it was then that it really struck him: he wanted to do it but he wanted to do it his way. He wanted to open his own shop. He realized that there wasn’t a branding agency in Nashville that he was truly interested in, so he went back to school and in 2009, he opened the doors of his first Branding agency.
He started his business with a rough model. It wasn’t iron clad but it worked for him and was truly unique. Everything went to the company account and based on the profit-first model, money doesn’t leave it without first meeting the right criteria or budget. 30% goes to direct cost, 15% runs the admin of the project, 35% goes to the company, 10% goes to some good in the community, and 10% goes to sales or commission. If something went over budget, which was highly unlikely as they pivoted into a sole offer for web/ digital agencies.
By having one offer, he would know the margins over and over, but they offer two different membership models. The first is simply an agency partner, the second as a white label partner, which means the only thing that’s changing is the client’s relationship and the boundaries of performance or expectations with them. By utilizing very little technology, his agency delivers files, archives clients when they are finished with the project, uses DropBox and Google Docs to file and send links, they can move fairly quickly from one project to the next with ease.
In a very short amount of time he was able to start and develop his own successful business, all despite and because of the unfortunate layoff.
He says that “it’s all about creating the right type of marketing for your product/service.” Word of mouth is good, but it is considered “Hope marketing”. You hope people tell others about your service or product. You hope people find you, but there is no control in it. It is a horrible model to follow.
So instead, he focused on podcasts and publishing. He found that every web and digital agency leaves money on the table not offering branding as part of their services. In fact, doing so dramatically changes the quality and level of output of their final product. Staeven creates a higher value for his clients and themselves while reducing the amount of time it takes to get things off the ground and get to their client. While it is important to understand the science of how branding works, knowing people and being understanding of the human nature will work wonders. He found that empathy, understanding the pain of potential agency partners and their clients, and other basic human skills were very important in growing and maintaining his business.
Another thing that helped him build traction was when he got a couple of champions. They were a major key in achieving market success. He offered discounted rates in exchange for introductions, sweetheart deals, or simply because they were the first to receive the offer. The champions drew others in and helped get more validation in the market. By giving these champions a break, he was able to develop a long lasting relationship with them.
Planning for the Future
From there he was able to set a quarterly goal. Ideally, there would be six new agencies and 24 new brand identities which breaks down to 2 new agencies and 6 brand identities a month. On average, a brand identity is $5k, which would become $30k a month, following the quarterly goal. Because what he offers is such higher quality than competitors and he has that connection with clients, shows them the empathy that is needed for good communication, he is able to meet his quarterly goals, which over the course of the year, proves to be a great profit.
Though Staeven is successful in his business, like any decent working person in their field, he has plans for growth. He wants to add more people who are like him; multidisciplinary creatives who work hard and have passion for what they do. It is easier to grow and get along with like-minded people and in an agency that is so heavily dependent on building trust and relationships with the team and with clients, he realizes that the best way to grow is to expand with sense.
Facing the Hard Parts
That’s not to say that his business is without challenges. Learning about the pivot was one of the biggest challenges he had to face. He worked the market for a whole year going to conferences, scheduling meetings, digging through LinkedIn, developed conversations with people only to find that people in the market had a scarcity mentality. They had need but were unwilling to go for it, saying that they weren’t ready or they couldn’t afford it. They were willing to wait. One of the biggest lessons to come from this struggle for Staeven was that he realized there was value in his innate ability to hustle and develop customers. At the time he didn’t realize that he could have, and probably should have, identified a time limit or a plan as to how long was going to be too long. He realizes now that he should have tacked sooner.
A Little Help
The best advice Staeven has is to be realistic. As he developed his agency he stuck to what he knew as fact. What he wanted to do, what the market looked like, the steps needed to get there. He knew he wanted to grow into his own company so he went to school and strove for that. It’s about making the little steps, reevaluating and then adjusting to what can further be changed.
He says “stop trying to prefect your offers and instead you can get valued traction sooner.” Get out there. Do the foot work and shake hands. Develop what you can control and you won’t have to worry about what you can’t control. He literally started from the bottom, pouring coffee at Starbucks and now he had his own agency, run the way he wants it run and is in a position to give advice to others about starting their own businesses, whatever they may be. He turned a layoff into something amazing; created his own agency from scratch in his own image, playing off his strengths and what he could learn.