Are You Built For This?
Devin MillerThe Inventive Journey Podcast for Entrepreneurs
Are You Built For This?
The Inventive Journey
Starting and growing a business is a journey. On The Inventive Journey, your host, Devin Miller walks with startups along their different journeys startups take to success (or failure). You also get to hear from featured guests, such as venture firms and angel investors, that provide insight on the paths to a successful inventive journey.
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um number one you're either built for this you aren't either have it in the belly or you don't nobody will push you harder nobody will make you kind of deal with and overcome adversity harder than you um don't look to anybody else look to clients look to partners don't employees deal with the vendors it's either you know you're committing to this and you have the fire in your belly or you don't [Music] hey everyone this is devin miller here with another episode of the inventive journey i'm your host devin miller the serial entrepreneur that's grown several startups into seven and eight figure businesses as well as the founder and ceo of miller ip lab where he helps startups and small businesses with their patents and trademarks if you ever need help with yours just go to strategymeeting.com we're always here to help now today we have another great guest on the podcast scott markman and scott was originally from uh baltimore who uh got a bachelor's degree in college in design and uh moved back to baltimore uh worked for a couple firms in baltimore uh got a or got a bit crazy quit his job and went traveled for a year and then came back and wanted to live somewhere else and so decided to go and work for chicago for a bit for a firm didn't end up liking the their work environment or the the management there is quite as much and so i've decided to go do something else his parents loaned him some money to start his own graphic design firm um pivoted the agency and brought on a college roommate some other people he know pivoted again and two more of a branding agency and worked a lot with the b2b or business to business and non-profit organizations and others um did a lot of work for private equity firms as well and that's a bit where they found their sweet spot and uh we continued to quickly grow in size and they're doing great there ever since so with that much as a introduction of the podcast welcome on to the podcast scott thank you so much for having me really appreciate it absolutely so i just took a much longer journey condensed into 30 seconds so let's unpack it a bit and tell us a little bit about how your journey got started in baltimore and then going into uh design in college sure so um first of all my parents under small business uh they found that the year was born so i kind of grew up with entrepreneurial whatever as a part of all i knew my sister and i always referred to my parents business as the third child and so i worked there as a kid and summers and so understood some of the foundational aspects of entrepreneurship um how to um set standards how to do great work how to treat people well how to deal with customers and how to research and solve problems and all of that stuff and and sort of build a reputation and so i kind of grew up with that and so i think at some point i knew maybe as a teenager that i would always own my own business and where when how why i didn't know um so that's uh maybe background fact one fact two was that i always loved logos go to the airport uh you know go to a sporting event and to see the logos on on swag and uh you know on the signage all around was just kind of cool and it was kind of like i would love to create those things so i think that the idea of design is something i had a passion for uh was there from early on i mean was i good at it what would it take to become successful but i had no idea and so in high school it was sort of uh well what do you want to do you want to be a lawyer doctor account or you know take over des business or you know what just other kind of career paths and the answer for me was sort of none of the above my parents wanted me to go into their business for a long time and uh probably spent ten years persuading me to do that anyway you know in all earnestness and i you know i thought about it off and on for a period of time and actually well when i was going to hang my shingle was monogram group um before you know they loaned me the money to do this they made one last run at me because they were selling their business and we're going to retire but now before we dive into that too much is because i jumped a bit over some of your journey definitely don't want to exclude that so you in the intern between uh getting the loan with your parents and them um you know trying to take one last run and persuading you to work with them you went off to college and got your degree in design and moved back to baltimore and worked for a firm for a period of time as i a couple for a couple firms yeah the i spent most of my time the work for one firm one of the top firms in baltimore and it's been a year prior to that working at the biggest firm uh in town this is from 1982 and until 87. um and so cut my teeth we're working under and with some incredibly talented people um and even today one of the partners in that second firm is still is is a good friend and an ongoing colleague in monogram group um but uh you know i i learned at the feet of of uh incredibly talented business people and designers and communicators and all of that stuff and so cut my teeth you know apprenticed frankly um at some of the top tier firms in town um and so when i left you know i had five years in my belt um doing things the right way and having a sense of how to um do great work now when you left and it was something we chat just for a bit or before the podcast is you decided that you were going to do something a bit more crazy you quit your job and took and traveled for a year so kind of was that hey i've been working really hard i'm burnt out i want to relax or hey i'm trying to find myself or hey this just sounds fun and i had the opportunity it came up or kind of what made you transition from working for some of those larger firms saying i want to take a year off and travel um ollie bob devon you know i was a little burned out um i've always had a travel bug i started traveling when i was 13. um and a piece of it was i was single i really had no obligations um this was the time of life to do it and i sort of felt like i didn't do it now i would probably never do it that's probably correct and for most people that we know um that dream of this and sort of wistfully talk about this kind of stuff and never do it unfortunately life life you know comes at you hard and you just don't have a chance to do it there's a huge difference between traveling and vacation and we all take vacations and do go to exotic places and create hotels and all of that good stuff but traveling is wildly different and traveling is sort of a job and i don't mean to say it's work i i'm just saying it's a full-time endeavor and you have to dedicate yourself to it and the ebb and flow and the blocks of time and the mindset of what you experience when you go overseas and be on your own and just kind of do this stuff it was life-changing and so um i was gone for one whole year and absolutely changed me um it made me in general more adventurous more open more holistic am i thinking about kind of uh you know my place in the world and uh america's standing in the world and and all of those things that were influential in starting an agency and where i've come over the last 30 years or so now no and i think that they're that is a good distinction vacation you take for a short period of time usually with your family or with others and you know after that short period of time you go back to work whereas travel it sounds like it makes sense as more of that full-time endeavor and a bit of a different uh focus so now you say okay went and traveled for a year all the above reasons and now i'm coming back and say you know i guess one question that will dive into when you got back after travel is what made you decide to bring the travel to an end in other words was it hey i'm going i have a set and defined a period of time i'm going to do it for a year or is it hey kind of got to the end of the year and said okay that's out of my system now i want to get back to working or i need more money or what was the genesis for kind of concluding that travel and getting back into the work field so this was 1987 88 back in the day when there was things called paper tickets and i had an airplanes ticket that had 17 parts and it had an expiration date of one year and i came back on the last possible day so i literally mapped from baltimore to perth australia and back in 17 segments there were other pieces to it that ended up evolving but i did have a time limit um in addition i was running out of money and i think candidly the third piece was i was ready to move on with life i mean i had squeezed every ounce out of what travel and being on my own and spending most of my time halfway around the world in australia new zealand could opt for me but at some point it just i wanted to not live out of a suitcase and not constantly be under the a little bit the pressure of kind of meeting new people and sort of getting you know sort of finding your way every couple of weeks it's it's brilliant and awesome but it's also takes work and i you know like anything you do too much of any thing you can listen to your favorite song a hundred times at some point you burn out it was a little bit like that i just i needed to to move on to the next stage of life i definitely get that and you know any even too much of a good thing as the saying goes it's still too much of a good thing or in other words you know you have them for a period of time and then you're saying okay ready for the next phase so now as you're coming back into taking that you know your travel you're coming back and saying okay i'd like to pick up get employment get a job and you know i think you're saying you wanted to go somewhere else or outside of baltimore and so you went to chicago but how did that transition go i mean that's that sounds in one one sense ideal of hey i've got a year off i'm relax you know i'm i've taken a break and i'm ready to reinvigorate a type of a thing but now you got to figure out what are you going to do or what's your next step so kind of how did you make that transition to figure out what you're going to do next sure so um i thought about do i want to stay in baltimore get out of the job the answer quickly was no um then it became well where do you go what are you looking for and so i wanted to go to a bigger market and i also decided i wanted to be in a place where i knew some people because i spent a year of my life not knowing anybody and so um i went to college in st louis at washington and st louis and so a lot of my best buddies uh from college had moved to chicago and started their career so i already had a pretty tight circle about a dozen people that from day one i could sort of just you know kind of hang out with and establish you know relations and figure things out so i interviewed a bunch of cities looked at boston i lived in toronto i lived in chicago i looked at l.a i looked at cincinnati and then got uh an offer in cincinnati an opera in chicago and so since then i knew no one and that's a fine place but this is not where i wanted to be and so it became the answer was to come to chicago and uh and give it a go so i picked up the car and here it is 33 years later no i think that hey sometimes it's it's those decisions that you say no they're both nice places and it's interesting always what the tips is the tips and skills of it is to decide what you wanted to do so now you move you say okay chicago's a place get a job there and i think it was a relatively short initial job in the sense he didn't like the management of the boss or the work environment or something of that nature is that right that's correct um i moved here to work for a very prestigious successful design firm um i was offered you know nice nice salary and work on great work and all of it and so you know i i took a job and moved within four or five days and started after i moved to chicago it was actually right around now right around thanksgiving of eight 1988 um and i quickly learned that there were some things about the the the owner and the culture and the the reason i was hired and whatnot that um we're not great so i lasted close to a year um but it was it was it was not a great fit for me and so you know we agreed to part ways um september of 89 and then you know again crossroads of life what's the next move um move back to baltimore get a job try an interview for a job in chicago buy my parents business or the last option hang my shingle and so again i had about a month to think about it and i talked my parents and i said look i just i don't want to buy the business but i'd like to you know hang my shingle and so you know my parents said uh okay here you go they loaned me 20 000 bucks of which 5 000 went to one thing a mac um again max back then the screens were this big and it had the entire hard drive is 40 megabytes you know one photo today is 60 megabytes and um um i got a shared office of michigan avenue and i took about a month to figure out the name of the firm and what my logo was going to be and i filed papers and jan 1 1990 i hung my shingle and my parents um god blessed them they they lost just passed away um they gave me the greatest gift they could ever give me which was the freedom to fail they basically said to me if it blow the money you blow the money we'll all get over it and let's you know give it a go but and i and you to this day as you here appreciate it but i had about 90 days to make it and as you might imagine nobody pushes you harder than you me and i the pressure to succeed was immense and i worked my brains out um and i scheduled 40 presentations in six weeks and again i was only lived here for a year i didn't really have a network i didn't really know that many people but i just you know who do you know who do you know you know and just network my brains out got 40 presentations and from that got a couple of clients and it saved the day couple a couple of substantial projects to just to last the first year it was just survivable was job oh i think that that makes sense and you know sometimes it's that pressure and some people react well and some people don't in the sense that you use time to either sink or swim you're going out on your own and some people are saying oh this is too stressful i'm just going to work somewhere you know go work for someone else and you find out that that's not what you want to do another time you're saying hey this is what i love and what i want to do and i'm going to figure out a main way to make it work and it's going to um you know make a go of it now i think that as we talked a little bit um you know before the podcast again but you know so you have the loan you get you know the business up and running you kind of figure out what you're going to do but you did also pivot a couple times along the way if i remember right and since you know you pivoted to an agency he brought on some college roommates and he also pivoted to do branding for different types of businesses and be a bit more niched down so tell us a little bit about how did you know along that journey how did you kind of what what prompted the pivots what was were they good pivots bad pivots and kind of how did you make your way to kind of where you're at today as far as kind of figuring out where you're going to focus or niche down on and also you know how you're going to to make it there so the first several years i'm a graphic designer i knew graphic design i could do graphic design things now you have to understand that this was before you know the internet it was kind of before email it was just email as just getting started and you know all the things that we all take for granted today about how business is done how things are done and cell phones and all of that did not exist so i could sort of sell what i know how to do which was design projects and so that's what i did for a number of years um but about four years into it um we started to get some swings at advertising campaign work and uh was through some contacts that was developing and we started to win a couple now the way i was able to do that was my college buddies who ended up becoming partners um one was a creative director at a big agency my best friend from college and where i took a left-hand one to the graphic design he took a right turn away into big time advertising so he had those skills and he introduced me so he was very uh connected to the chicago advertising committee started to connect me to writers and other people i needed to do to kind of piece together um a broader set of skills and deliverables and so uh opportunistically i'm always always looking for what you know what's the next wave of opportunity or trend or whatever that i can sort of uh identify and be qualified at and um it became going after ad advertising kind of stuff and so we started to do that and about seven years into it i just sort of said you know i think the long-term opportunity here is to be an agency and not to be a graphic design firm and in the chicago market that's different they're they're all related they're all marketing services creative services but agencies or agencies design firms or design firms package design firms or package design firms and around this time something came up called web firms websites and that was its own niche and you know public relations and all of it and it's it's very much a siloified uh you know um industry in in chicago it's enormous marketing services creative services is one of the cornerstone you know industries of the market um so i was kind of switching from one silo to another on the surface and so from that by 1997 or raid until about 2006 we were in an ad agency because there was more opportunity uh to expand the arsenal of things we could sell to people and that we were qualified for so we actually picked up in 1999 um even to date our largest piece of business i was it was a three million dollar account to develop a comprehensive uh public education campaign um about local but phone service options it was a managed by the illinois commerce commission um as outgrowth of a merger between sbc and ameritech which now is at t um and we got the gig and i pieced together lots of different folks and small firms and whatever and we ran a three million dollar engagement and guess what it launched 9 10 2001. that would be the day before 9 11. the years were at the work when we had to put a pause on this thing and we ended up sort of executing it but it really catapulted us into a whole of the stratosphere it was a three million dollar gig and incredibly complicated and well done and and we managed a lot of complexity and breadth and depth of uh deliverables and degree work and all of it so it's sort of just painted a different picture of the game we're applying the hell of this agency was after 11 years so we kind of pursued that for a while my partner harold woodridge um my college roommate um partner in 2002 and then the third partner jackie short another college friend um who was a corporate market researcher and had both by the way had moonlit for the agency starting in about 1992. so they they were on the scene behind the scenes for a long time um so when jackie joins a part in 2006 it became okay what is the kind of you know the what's the venn diagram the overlapping circles of corporate design big agency creative director and a corporate market researcher what's what's the middle and the answer was brand and so we pivoted again in 2006 to kind of focus our attention for the most part on brand engagements and that's where we've been for the last 15 years no and i think that it's always interesting because i think a lot of times people have a kind of idealized in their mind hey you do a startup you haven't figured out from day one you go down the path and there's nothing that needs to change because you've already got it all figured out and you're raving success because you watch the tv show you read the book and you kind of get that sense that they always knew where they were heading i think maybe to a degree that there's you know some direction and things that you're utilizing skills but on the other hand there's always those pivots and that just figuring out exactly what you should be what you want to be where your skill sets lie where your passions lie and also where the opportunity lies and it takes a bit of time or you know years and a lot of times to really figure that out and sometimes it's stressful along the way and you have to figure out how to make ends meet and how to bring on clients and how to keep the bills paid and keep the you know revenue going but it's always interesting to hear that and it sounds like that was a bit of you guys in the sense that you started over a period of time you continue to pivot until you finally find that kind of that sweet spot and now as we talked a little bit before now as you kind of niche down and you you find something that you're doing more of the you know the private equity firms are you doing investment firms and you're doing some of those other type of b to b work but that's really found your sweet spot and allowed you guys to to grow to where you're at today is that right well let me yes but let me let me back up a little bit sure um in 1996 kind of randomly uh we picked up her first client in private equity i had no idea private equity was i'm not a finance major um my next-door neighbor one day we were like watching the cars in the front of the house and kind of hey here um 10 guys are like leaving this big finance uh company that i i work in i knew she worked at some called private equity but i didn't really know much about it and she said they're gonna be starting their own you know uh company could be a client for you so she gave me the contact information i reached out we won the assignment and that was 25 years ago they ended up becoming a titan in private equity credit so in private equity transactions there's the equity side and the credit side and they became it for middle market uh credit and then we built the brand from scratch they were declined for 13 years they were eventually bought out by ge capital and then although second in house and we didn't have them as a client for a number of years and then we worked with them again in 2015 and 16 but it gave us instant credibility because the work that we did was very high profile in their business and it was very edgy because they wanted to make some noise and so quickly we were catapulted into this category oh who did your work who did you work with your work so we've been in this category for 26 years and today the amount of clients we've had as close to 65. it is an absolutely insane concentration in one category for any agency of any strength and and typically in any category you're prohibited from doing this because of competitive conflicts you work for those guys you can't work for these guys non-private equity it's quite the opposite it's kind of like it's a badge of honor oh who are you who are your clients who do you know i'm i'm not a name dropper by nature but i can name i can walk in any private equity firm in america name drop in 30 seconds that you know it's like old boys club and so we we are incredibly well known today in private equity and get a swing at almost everything now there was a period of time by the way devon where we kind of walked away from this about 2012 we had a little bit burned out on this and sort of paused we kept a couple of clients and some folks we had good relationships with but i just the biz dev i i just turned it off but in 2016 uh we went through a really really bad period we just revenue was hard to come by we lost a ton of proposals in a row and we had to sort of find a way to you know bring revenue back in quickly and the answer was let's just double back down on private equity so we've done that we did some things that have enabled like a spike the last five years or so and it's become a cornerstone of our uh agency and the revenue and the client base and all of it ever since and uh and and really really enjoy the work um it's it's really been a fantastic sort of reawakening or you know re um revisiting uh all of this and and really enjoy the work um it's also open a second block of opportunity which the companies that these guys don't uh portfolio companies and that's like our second biz dev bucket is so pe firms is a portfolio companies b and anybody else's we call the rest of the world let's see the largest area of our opportunity by 150 miles is portfolio companies because there's probably 35 000 of them in america probably 33 000 even the the sheer volume of opportunity is unending and it's a lot more focused on going forward no and i think that that definitely makes sense and um and it seems like you know interesting on the portfolio companies because then you get the work both of the investment a lot of times you have those companies that they are investing in themselves that also come along for the ride so it kind of gives that the multiplying effect so well as we kind of now bring that brings us a bit up to you know your journey where you've been and now where you're at today great time to transition to the two questions i always ask at the end of each podcast so we'll go ahead and jump to those now so the first question i always ask is along your journey what was the worst business decision you ever made what'd you learn from it here's what i would tell you um i always assumed from day one that in order to be successful owning an agency you needed fancy fancy big offices and so over time the arc of you know all the offices we had was bigger fancier culminating in nine years in willis tower the largest building in chicago and north america custom built out of um big space we could accommodate up to 25 people and eventually became a financial albatross and we moved out in 2017 to where we are now and to some degrees that i have necessity because i need to get out from kind of a like a stronghold lease and a financial burden but my wife had said hey why don't you look up you know near where we live which is a rugby field um because there's a whole sort of industrial area that was renovated within office spaces and whatever and it took me a long time to kind of decouple from the belief that that that was requirement to be downtown to have beautiful office space you entertain you want enzyme people and all of that good stuff and i did it for 27 years um and it was quite the opposite so i look back and say if i could do one thing differently by far it would have been to not sign at least at will's tower and to go on for you know warehouse space kind of cheap pocket all the money be able to survive the ups and downs of you know kind of cash flow and biz dev until certain things are in place and and uh it would have been a life-changing thing no and i think that that to that definitely makes sense and i'm in agreement you know it's interesting because the legal industry is a lot the same way hey you have to have the big high rise i got to have the wood adorned offices and everything else and then i look and say one is you're putting a lot of money into office spaces that you can do enough to do it for business development or clutter or client development or talent management and then two most of the clients don't care especially did you look at where we're at today where people are doing it remotely and they are doing it to where i don't need to go in the office and all those things a lot of times those they do become the albatross are on you around your neck to say this isn't providing any real return and yet we're spending a lot of money to be on that prime location that nobody cares about for a lot for a lot of times of purposes so i think that that definitely you know mistake that a lot of industries and a lot of people make and yet as you as you take the leap say we don't need this and it definitely has an impact a lot of times has that positive impact second question i always ask is if you're talking to somebody that's just getting into a startup or a small business would be the one piece of advice you give them um a couple things um number one you're either built for this you aren't either have it in the belly or you don't nobody will push you harder nobody will make you kind of deal with and overcome adversity harder than you um don't look to anybody else and look to clients and look to partners don't employees don't defenders it's either you know you're committing to this and you they have the fire in your belly or you don't that's number one number two um i am a huge believer in you know the the ethos uh you know championed by simon sinek what is the why um you either have a purpose you're mission driven whatever the heck it is or you aren't there has to be some underlying why the hell am i doing this what what am i striving for for us i love i'm intellectually curious i love what i do i love working with really talented people and love having shared high standards to do great work you have to enjoy the journey as well as the outcome regardless of what you're doing and the third thing i would say is that your greatest friend is perseverance and resilience um that's sort of been the only thing that kept me through some you know the tough times and and now that i look back on 30 you know two years i say you know darn it um i survived and i'm and i'm we're killing it now we're we're just killing it we just came over the best year ever and next year was probably already booked to be much higher this year we're finally bearing fruit of the long-term potential of this thing and it took a very long time and there's something unbelievably gratifying about saying i didn't give up um i made it i took some risks i made some good choices made some bad choices but here i am i'm still standing i have a great bunch of folks with me and and before me and after me and all of that stuff and it is so gratifying it is unbelievably gratifying um you know i totally refer to entrepreneurship as a dark side you know welcome to the dark side uh corporate refugees and or any anybody else and again you if you love it there's nothing better in the world than running your own show um it's not because i you know i can take all the vacations i want to take less vacation than 98 of the world but the gratification and the challenge of running a thing and making something your life's work i i couldn't replace for anything no i think that there's definitely a ton of truth to that and they're definitely great great words of advice well as we wrap up if people want to reach out to they want to be a customer they want to be a client they want to be an employee they want to be an investor they want to be your next best friend any or all of the above what's the best way to reach out to you contact you find out more sure um i'm you know happy to share my contact information my email is s markman at monogram group.com it's on on the footer of our website or our number which frankly is my cell number i'll give it to you it's 312-286-4219 and you know last year during cove we killed the office number you know like mind-blowing we don't have an office number but we don't and again it hasn't hurt anything in fact we're killing it so you know i own my cell phone i feel phone numbers and you know scam scam scam but there's a lead i i'm right there with you and you know interesting that our office number link right to my cell phone i want to make sure you know the owner that i'm available to any of the uh of the people that are any of their clients or potential clients or anything else and everybody always said well you need to do a google phone or i need to do an office i'm like you know i'd i'd rather than just be able to direct or connect with me directly so i'm right there with you well thank you let me go ahead i want to add one more thing to answer your question two two ago um one of the beautiful things about running around in the show is people buy you and they buy your passion they love your energy they buy your energy they love your effort they love that by your enthusiasm and they love then they buy your uniqueness and and again you embrace that you don't but you have to put forth the effort you have to let people know this is how i am this is important to me it's valuable to you it's central to our culture and you know one of my old bosses on day one said basically the one thing you can always control is service just f and try harder that's it just try harder and people will notice some people will value it and i've never forgotten that oh yeah i think that's the a great uh final takeaway and definitely great piece of advice and appreciate you coming on the podcast it's been fun it's been a pleasure now for all of you that are listeners if you have your own journey to tell and you'd like to tell we'd love to have you on the podcast so just go to inventiveguest.com and apply to be on the show also make sure to leave us leave us a review click subscribe share with your friends because we want to make sure everyone finds out about all these awesome journeys and last but not least if you ever need help with patents trademarks or anything else through business just go to strategymeeting.com and we're always here to help thank you again scott for coming on the podcast and wish the next leg of your journey even better than the last devon thanks for that i really enjoyed this absolutely you