Welcome to our first post in many years. A do-over of sorts. A chance to make this space about more than just Catapult news and events. For our first article, I thought it would be interesting to revisit our first blog post ever, a post that keeps the spirit of what we want our blog to be. That was “The Top 5 Mistakes We Made Starting A Creative Agency.”
The original blog post was something of a hit. For our first three years that article was the most visited page on our website, and culminated in several hundred thousand views in total. We ended up writing more than 20 posts, but none of them generated even a fraction of the interest that that first blog post did. After two years of writing them semi-regularly, and another three years of stagnation, we decided to kill the blog entirely. No one had the time to write for it. We were so busy with work that was making us money, it seemed to no longer make sense to maintain a now atrophied limb of our website, just because that’s what a business is supposed to do. So it died… and none of us wept.
So much has changed for us (and for the world really) in these past years, that I began to wonder how these Top 5 Mistakes would resonate with me in hindsight. Our staff is larger, our office is bigger, the relationships we’ve made are more valuable, and the projects we take on are 5-10x the scope and cost that they once were. We still make mistakes, but we know how to navigate the consequences far more efficiently. Plus, wouldn’t it be great if our first post for this new blog could do as well as our first post did nine years ago? Absolutely. So let’s do this. Here are my current reflections on our original “Top 5 Mistakes We Made Starting A Creative Agency.”
1. Jumping At Every Opportunity
“We honestly could not believe some of the opportunities we were given in our first few months. And in many cases we really shouldn’t have been given them. Huge requests for proposal started walking in our door for much larger projects than any of us anticipated landing at that stage. Writing proposals takes a long time. The bigger the proposal the more research it takes. In some cases it was taking us several weeks to hash out all of the details needed to generate accurate information and pricing that reflected the scope of the work desired for a single proposal…”
This mistake still applies as a worthy lesson for us to remember in 2022, but for very different reasons. While RFPs are still something of a long-shot for any agency choosing to engage with them, we now have someone dedicated to proposal writing on our staff, which makes a huge difference in terms of time investment. Those huge projects we knew we were not fit for early on are now what we seek out and prefer. Today, it is less about not being able to “jump at every opportunity” than it is about “not being able to help everyone we’d like.”
We built Catapult on our ability to offer small businesses excellent work at a rate they could afford. These days, however, when we work with start-ups or mom-and-pop shops we have to be more selective. Is the project going to be exciting and give us the ability to produce great creative? Is the client fun, and easy to get along with? Do we have the time, right now, to take on a project we may not break even on, let alone make a small amount of profit with? These are all things we consider when the work starts chasing you and not the other way around. I am not going to lie, working with a corporate client’s marketing department can be a lot easier than working with a new CEO whose life is entirely wrapped up in their new business. You don’t want to turn clients away, but we have to find the right balance that keeps the lights on and keeps us fulfilled. We still love working with small businesses; they just have to be the right fit for us.
2. Our Brand Began To Fall Out Of Focus
“Around 6 months ago we partnered up with a local reputation management and SEO company called Pure Web Results. In reality we are now one in the same. It was a great business move as we have doubled our available services and we are backed by the clout the Pure Web Results brand carries with it. Brand-wise it’s become something of a disaster though. We went from being a simple, easy-to-get creative brand to something much more complicated, and we’ve struggled ever since to rectify it. What we did do was basically ignore the problem and now the Catapult brand has suffered as we try to roll out an expanded services menu and series of packages that seem disconnected from our original brand…”
That first year of navigating who we were and who we wanted to be went through many tricky transitions. We had clients and we were executing work weeks before we selected our first business name, Thumbprint Creative. That lasted three days. Thumbs down. Next was Catapult Creative Collective, thinking that everyone we employed would have some sort of partner-like stake in the business, since four of us already did. We all really liked it. It gave a strong impression of what our business is about with just our name. And who doesn’t love alliteration? Thankfully we abandoned the “collectivist” idea fairly quickly. Four co-founders were already too many cooks in the kitchen. We shortened it to just Catapult Creative by mid-year.
In hindsight, our concerns over brand focus had little to do with our association with Pure Web Results or expanded service offerings, and everything to do with having so many things shift and change so quickly and in such a short amount of time. It was hard to see straight, let alone focus. Who we were was changing by the day. By 2014, we had moved our office downtown, doubled our staff, let a business partner go, gained another, and won some of the key projects that would put us on the map. Today, we are no longer associated with Pure Web Results, and in the past 5 to 6 years the primary components of our brand identity have really not changed much. It would seem that our brand focus was achieved simply by letting it develop more organically and by not “focusing” so much on boxing it in.
3. We Stopped Building A Professional Network
“One of our original goals when we started Catapult was to partner up with agencies that are better at certain things than we are with the hope they would use us for the things we’re great at. Instead our mouths were soured from a couple bad experiences early on and we decided to try and do it all ourselves. This left us over extended and in over our heads in a few circumstances. It also meant that those precious contacts and networking opportunities weren’t being stitched together.
… Because of working with Dragonfly Editorial we’ve begun to build a network of new clients and references in the Washington D.C. area we otherwise would have never had access to. It’s been a great reminder as to why we thought it was so important to build that network of agencies in the first place.”
Today, I would retitle this mistake to “We Stopped Building A Network of Specialists,” based on the subject matter. But whether we are talking about “professional networking” or a “network of specialists,” the idea of building relationships to build your business still resonates. I would estimate that more than 50% of our new business comes through referrals from either clients, or just professionals who’ve gotten to know us over the past nine years. While we have become far less reliant on that “network of specialists,” our reliance on “professional networking” remains paramount to our success. We started engaging with some of Dayton’s top business leaders through our volunteer organization, Dayton Inspires, and our CEO, Matthew, sits on numerous boards of directors in the region. Heck, I’ve even sat on a couple of boards myself.
Of course, with the sudden onset of the Covid pandemic two years ago, nearly all of these opportunities came crashing to a halt. And boy did we feel it; as I am sure nearly every business has. All of our plans to start hitting trade shows and building our professional network out beyond southwest Ohio were vanquished. We suddenly became entirely reliant on Zoom call related word of mouth, and our website to help us bring in new business.
These relationships are really just so important to our success it cannot be overstated in any way. As Covid wanes once again and begins to become more endemic than pandemic, we are ecstatic to begin once again getting out there and being amongst our peers, meeting new folks and reminding old friends we are still here and going strong. A simple handshake can lead to so much more. But you have to get out there.
4. We Did Work Without A Contract
“You know how it goes. You get a reference from a friend or client and they seem really cool, you love the brand and you want to do great work for them. They’re really excited and start sending over files to get started… yet they never seem to send that signed contract. They say, “oh yeah, I forgot, I’ll get it to you next week.” You say “Ok, they’re really nice and they couldn’t possibly screw us over because of our mutual friends,” so let’s keep working because this project is a lot of fun.
We’re here to say never ever ever ever work without a contract in place. That is if you care about getting paid anyway.” Over the past 9 months we did 4 projects without a contract in place and every single time we got burned in the end… There’s nothing worse than a client refusing payment because they want a whole bunch of additional services for free at the end of the project.”
Now here is one mistake we never made again. There really is not much to reflect on here aside from just how naive and eager we were at the time to do something we all already knew was a bad idea to begin with. So I will say once again: Never Do Work Without A Contract.
5. We Stopped Having Fun
“… There wasn’t a lot of love in the month of August, however, which happened to be our slowest month on record. The stress was accumulating, there was disappointment after disappointment and our fingernails were down to the quick. We knew we would pull through but we were also watching our bank account vanish quickly. Instead of letting the worry eat away at us we should have broken out the Nintendo 64 and a six pack and started trying to relax, keeping our atmosphere light and making sure the work we were doing was the best work we could possibly do.
If you’re in the creative industry and you’re not having fun then you’re doing it wrong. For a month there we were doing it really wrong. This industry, maybe more than any other, is like whatever newest badass roller coaster they’ve launched at Cedar Point. The ups are a total rush and the lows can leave your stomach in your throat…”
This mistake feels more personal to me than any of the others do. It also feels like less of a mistake and more of a reality that I would eventually have to come to grips with. I still am not always having fun helping to run Catapult. And that’s ok. I am having a lot more fun now than I was at the beginning.
Generating creative concepts and designs really requires a relaxed mind in a playful state, and in our first two years of business we were overextended, underpaid, and stressed out to the max. We were barely scraping by and little did I know that three months after this post things would get even more dire, and we would come inches away from having to close Catapult forever. We all were wearing too many hats. I personally was trying to do everything I could to keep our expenses down such as managing our books and taxes, helping out with sales and proposal writing, playing HR representative, and taking out the trash. Little of my mental space was focused on doing what I was supposed to be there to do. Lead a team of creatives and execute great work. Was it even possible to do solid creative work under those conditions?
In the end we got through it. And now, I actually get to be a Creative Director, instead of a jack of all trades trying to plug holes all around me in what felt like a sinking ship. Our team is incredible and our efficiency in both landing work and getting it done to our standards has never been higher. Yes, Covid definitely took a toll on the fun. We are still not back at our office full time yet, if we ever really go back full time, and I miss playing ping pong and just hanging out and shooting the breeze with our staff. But, even through the most stressful parts of navigating our way through the pandemic, we never once felt as overwhelmed as we did during those first two years. It always felt like we’d get through this. We are surrounded by great people, talented people, people we can rely on, people who can make an hour long Zoom meeting fun and entertaining. Even during the lowest lows of the pandemic, we always kept our spirits up because we knew we would turn that next corner. We had already experienced the worst. And the worst was far behind us.
By Daniel Rizer