Are we crazy enough?

When you consider how many businesses fail every year, it’s easy to think that someone who’d actually want to start one is out of their mind. But maybe that’s what it takes. Steve Jobs said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

This is the story of why I started a business anyway.

What I Thought I Wanted

Now, I don’t know about changing the world, at least not yet. But after more than a decade working creative in-house, I accumulated a list of what I didn’t want:

  1. I didn’t want to spend my career bouncing from cubicle to cubicle. I like doors and walls. Preferably at home.

  2. I didn’t want to hear another manager tell me what good or bad design is while cutting my budgets.

  3. And I certainly didn’t want to get laid off one more time. SPOILER ALERT: I got laid off one more time before this story is over.

I also knew what I DID want to do: use my skills and passions to create meaningful results for businesses I believed in. Much easier said than done. 

When I left my last office job in 2014, I "knew" that it would be the last time I’d fill a banker’s box with my cubicle toys and sulk out the door. I dove headfirst into my freelance business, committed to pursuing my passion and providing for my family on my own terms.

But the struggle was real. Some months had me working 60-hour work weeks, while others would leave my home office quiet and dark for days. Uncertainty loomed over every project. Would the client be happy? Would endless rounds of revisions push me well past the original quote for the project? And would it take three months to get paid for something once it was billed?

Trust me when I tell you that while some clients might feel like they have plenty of time to get back to you, the mortgage company doesn’t share that sense of flexibility.

I quickly matched and then surpassed my W-2 income in my first year alone. I hired an accountant when I realized that QuickBooks and creatives aren’t quite meant to co-exist. I clearly had the entrepreneurial spark, but my fear of failure was paralyzing.

Even once the cash flow stabilized, I faced a decision: continue as I was and stop growing my output—there are only 24 hours in the day and I was a shop of one—or take the plunge and become a “legitimate” business. This meant hiring some employees, probably getting an office, and stepping way out of my comfort zone to prospect past the fly-by referrals I received every few weeks.

For some reason, staying small felt safe, at least in my head. I’d already been doing it for a few years, so there was no “unknown” to be had. The hard times had passed and I was comfortable.

Change is scary and I’ve read enough Entrepreneur to know business success isn’t as simple as having a great idea. Those are a dime a dozen. In fact, the American economy is littered with good ideas.

I wanted a real agency to build a legacy of growth that could accommodate many different types of companies.

To do that, I had to be able to compete with other large agencies. For six-figure contracts. I wasn’t going to achieve that with one or two employees from my home office in between elementary school drop off and pick up.

Plan C

Unexpectedly, a Plan C opened in front of me. Astronomer, a tech startup, hired me as a brand designer. The product was promising. The team was top-notch. The compensation package was, excuse the pun, but out of this world. I had made it!

However, when that venture pivoted a mere months after my arrival and investors forced layoffs of the entire marketing staff, the final straw broke. I’d just endured watching my husband, a successful journalist, spend 54 weeks looking for work. Then I had to see him suffer through yet another year in misery working a job he hated in a completely new field he didn’t quite understand. If I did the same, our family might not make it.

Once again, my mortgage lender was top-of-mind with their pesky impatience for that next housing payment. Unemployment didn’t even cover keeping a roof over our heads, and while I’m an elder millennial, going back to my parents’ basement was not an option. My very millennial brother was on the premises anyway. The basement is OCUPADO.

Finding the Right Angle

That’s when it hit me. Fear of failure isn’t just an obstacle. It can be one hell of a motivator. I found that I was much more afraid of not starting my own business than failing at it. I was going to start this damn agency even if it killed me.

Agencies are a dime a dozen. My agency needed to be special. I needed the best possible team money could buy. I also needed to address an actual need in the market. It’s easy to come to market with any product. Whether you choose correctly and are savvy enough to solve an actual need for your target audience is a completely different question.

But, I still had the same issue I had before. I needed more than one human to get this thing started. The spark of genius came when I realized I didn’t need employees. I needed partners. People to share the burden and the successes. Someone who would take a risk with me for more than just a biweekly paycheck and an unlimited supply of Slim Jims. People who shared my passion and who saw themselves building something to take us through the next decade. Together. Jack and Rose style.

It didn’t take long to realize my Plan C had presented me with the perfect crew. The Astronomer marketing team not only knew what they were doing but were damn good at it—and they also needed jobs right now. If we banded together, not only could we make a business work, we could fill a need that simply wasn’t being tackled in the market. Maybe we could change the world after all.

Building Out the Crew

Laurel was easy to convince. Married to a serial entrepreneur, she knew deep down in her heart that it was a no-brainer. She might disagree, but she likes the adrenaline boost. And I think secretly it was exciting to be the one with the great idea this time around. Between the four of us, we’d be able to build something great. So, once we talked and found ourselves on the same page, we sought out Steve.

Steve is a wonderful asset. Constantly courted by the best in real estate and tech, we’d have to move quickly. By the time we reached out, he already had an offer in hand from a previous employer. But he was willing to listen. And he was excited! We easily convinced him that owning his own shop was a clear extension of the career he spent the last decade building. Honestly, he didn’t need much convincing. He is by nature curious and a go-getter, and he liked us as much as we liked him.

Dave was the wildcard to me. He and I didn’t really work together much at Astronomer. But I understood we needed someone with upper management experience to give us credibility and push us past the “group of freelancers” branding. His resume alone would be able to open doors for us. Steve and Laurel really trust him as a leader, and to me, this is an important feeling to instill in your peers. Dave didn’t hold out, but this was definitely not where his mind was going when he found himself unemployed. With a kid and a wife at home (and a lot going on personally), taking a risk like this was not a natural progression. Tl;dr: he agreed with our vision and jumped on board. And in our time together, he’s discovered a whole new side of his professional self. I’m so proud of him for following us into this insanity.

We’ve surpassed the 100-day mark and are nearing half-a-year in this adventure we called Growth Guild. Turns out Steve Jobs was right. We are changing the world. Not the planet. But definitely Cincinnati (and now Kansas City, and soon Denver). Each one of us gets to do what we do best every single day. This time, on our own terms. We’ve never worked harder. This is our sink-or-swim moment. We might be certifiable, but there’s not a place I’d rather be than with this group of crazies.

 

Astrid Storey