Connecticut Creatives | Making the Leap
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Making the Leap

Perhaps every creative’s dream is to make the leap and start their own agency or one-man shop. We asked a bunch of Connecticut creatives: What was the defining moment in starting your own agency?

Ali Parmalee
Think Creative Group

One email.

I had always really enjoyed one of my adjunct professors at Quinnipiac [back when it was a College, not a University]. He was one of those great professors who I actually learned something from. I emailed him to let him know I did it, I started my own solo-preneur career. I thought there was a slight chance he would remember me, and in fact, he did and still had my business plan from his class on his shelf. So we met for [a 4 hour] coffee and ended our meeting with him setting up a lunch for me with another former student he kept in touch with, Dawn.

Dawn and I hit it off. She introduced me to a few people, including a great graphic designer. We started pulling each other in on most of our projects since she had the online know-how and I had the branding background. After about a year of this, we decided to make it official and merge. Now if we only had a great graphic designer… Oh yeah, Dawn had introduced me to a great one who we quickly invited to join our team. We found the perfect spot in downtown New Haven, started going after new clients and celebrated our seventh anniversary this year.
Of course I always wanted what most agency owners want — to create meaningful, powerful brands that are memorable, beautiful and really deliver. But don’t we all want that? I actually think about that one email I sent almost a decade ago all the time. If I hadn’t ever sent it, things would be so different.

[And by the way, Dawn was right, that graphic designer was pretty cool. I married him and we have two pretty amazing daughters.]

Dan Taylor
Taylor Design

I had moved from New York City to Stamford, CT and started commuting to work by train. After years of living in the city and walking to work, this was a major lifestyle adjustment. I remember seeing these older guys going through their robotic daily routines with their coffees, newspapers, umbrellas, and card-playing pals. I finally said to myself: “That’s not going to be me. I’m not going to grow old on Metro North.” So I saved some money, quit my job, rented a desk from an architect in Stamford, bought a Mac II, and Taylor Design was born. Every time I see the train pull into Springdale station I’m thankful I’m not on it.

Brian Miller
MillerSmith

For me, the moment came a few years before actually taking the plunge. I was speaking with a great copywriter I used to work with named Tony Leighton. I was apprehensive about leaving the comfort of a full-time position for the seeming uncertainty of freelance consulting and he put it things in perspective for me. He said that when you’re employed by an organization or agency, you have exactly one client — that organization or agency that employs you. And if they decide to make a change you have no clients. Whereas if you’re a freelancer, you might have 4 or 5 clients or more. One or two might make a change and you still have two or three to fall back on.

In essence Tony was telling me that we’re all freelancers whether we know it or not. And while it was a couple years later that I started the Brian Miller Design Group, that was the prevailing thought that pushed me over the edge.

John Visgilio
Outthink

An interesting question that leads to a variety of answers for me. First and foremost, I always knew I would own my own business. I guess that came from growing up in the family printing business; it’s in my blood – or ink, maybe.
My wife has also been a huge motivating factor for many aspects my life and on this subject, her sparse amount of patience spurred me onward. I was a business owner before I even knew it.

I also began to realize that controlling one’s fate was far more appealing than being tied to someone else’s. This became painfully clear to me through a number of interactions with a former employer. I remember, on one occasion, having a large-format, graphically impactful piece circulated around the company with the intention of demonstrating how gratuitous this sales collateral was and how wasteful their sales strategy must be.

Did the executive that circulated the piece realize this was what our team did every day? Did he understand that this was how we drove profit to the bottom line? Did he know that generating this kind of marketing collateral was my passion and our team’s passion? Or was he just clueless about what we did, how we did it and what our clients were asking us to do every day?

I never sought out the answer. I just decided to not follow anymore. From that day forward, it was about controlling my own destiny and moving in a direction I was committed to. Enter Outthink.

I could no longer handle the commute from the home I just bought in Hamden to Exit 2 in Greenwich. I spent most of the previous three years in the car and had learned French at the wheel and was onto Italian when I knew it was time for a change.

Brent Robertson
Fathom

What did these people I was working for have that I didn’t? I could clearly see another, better way to do things. A deeper impact I could have on the world, and a more meaningful connection I could have to my work and those I work with.

When I found the answer was the day I quit and started my own firm in literally 24 hours. What was the answer? Courage. The courage to take direct responsibility for my work and its impact in the world.

Marcella Kovac
The Bananaland

A large comet dropped from outer space and knocked me out. Luckily, I awoke unscathed and thought “Better get rockin.” Pun intended. Haha, well not totally accurate, but pretty much.

Opening up my own shop was always the dream, but I wasn’t quite ready as a college grad. I was hungry, but naive. I thought it best to get my ass kicked by amazingly talented professionals, first. I worked for a few awesome small CT / NYC agencies — I learned, lived, loved. And by learn, I mean beyond perfecting my layout skills.

Fast forward six years. 20,000 websites completed. (As you probably noticed by now, I like to exaggerate for the drama) Title: art director. Speed: cranking. Design Skills: pretty nasty. Relationships: relationed with many. Then I made a subconscious strategic move. As in literal move, from my hometown of Danbury to the Park City of potential. AKA Bridgeport.

The city and I had many things in common, but one thing underlying: just weird enough to succeed. I left my job, pasted a banana decal on my downtown apartment window, fired up my Mac, and peed my pants.

Amy Graver
Elements

The year was 1999. It was July. It was hot. I was alone in my house. Thinking hard.

I had just left my position at Congdon & Company – a tough decision. I loved my job at Congdon, respected Arthur who I learned so much from, but I could no longer handle the commute from the home I just bought in Hamden to Exit 2 in Greenwich. I spent most of the previous three years in the car and had learned French at the wheel and was onto Italian when I knew it was time for a change.

I started freelancing while trying to figure out my next step. I sometimes worked from home while at Congdon and had continued to work with a few freelance clients over the years, so I had a studio already set-up in my home. I also had experienced how to build up an agency first hand working for Arthur as his first hire up until I left – it had become a thriving, growing agency. With that knowledge, my plan was to put out some feelers and see if I could make a go at starting my own studio. I decided to give it six months – from July to January – but still keep my options open if the right opportunity presented itself. Thankfully, it did not.

I wrote a letter to ten companies in the New Haven county with whom I had always I wished to work with and introduced myself and my services.

The following week, I had eight of the companies respond requesting meetings. The week following that, six of them had signed contracts and I began long-term working relationships with each: The Yale Repertory Theatre, Visiting Nurse Association of South Central Connecticut, The New Haven Museum and Historical Society, Yale Organizational and Development Center, Yale Alumni Magazine, Silver Petrucelli + Associates (architects) and Department of Cultural Affairs for the City of New Haven — in addition to my previously established freelance clientele. It’s funny to think about this list because I still work with all of these people – although some have changed positions and we work with a different company – and some are the same organization but with a new contact person. But, I digress.

On January 4th, {I purposely picked that date as it was the birthday of my beloved, deceased brother, David, in his memory and honor}, Elements was born.

I printed up four color stationery after locking myself for a weekend in my house and thereby forcing me to settle on the name and design of Elements {certainly the hardest task I’ve ever faced}.

Within the first month of being in business, I convinced my best friend, Ana, to leave her cushy job at Yale and work for me to handle what I could not – the finances and admin. She told me not to buy her a desk because she wasn’t staying and worked from my dining room table for three years before we moved Elements out of my home to our first studio on Canner Street in New Haven.

It was a long road with many sleepless nights, and growing pains for the first few years as I’m sure anyone who has started a business will tell you and if it was a choice I was facing today, I may not have done it. But, back nearly 13 years ago now {wow, time flies}, I was the only risk. It was the right time and I was in the right place. Now, I can only look ahead – happy that I made the sacrifice then for what I have built and enjoy now.

Julia Balfour
Julia Balfour LLC

Well my father likes to say that he raised two daughters who are completely unemployable (and yes that’s meant as a compliment.) It’s impossible for me to pinpoint one instance that was the defining moment for me starting my own agency. I’ve really always just known that it was what I wanted. I had the great fortune to be a five year old with a 75-year plan. So instead of “inventing” a defining moment for you, I’ll tell you about the moments that define our studio.

They’re when the studio is humming with work, after coffee, before lunch. They’re when the dirty joke doesn’t even have to be said and everyone is crying laughing. They’re when the perfect solution gets thrown on the table and we all just look at each other and smile. They’re when a lunch gets shared because we’d rather sit and eat together than have an odd man out. They’re when the client comes in with a present (read bribe) because they love the work we’ve done and want to do a half dozen more projects. They’re when the proof comes back and we’ve nailed it. They’re when the code works perfectly the first time.

Those are the moments that define what I’m in this for. They are what I couldn’t have planned for at five but somehow knew I wanted.

Larry Miclette
ZAG Interactive

I left corporate America in 2002 to become a freelance developer because I wanted a sense of fulfillment in my life that was missing. I was a one-man shop and then brought on contract developers in 2005. In 2007, I worked with a very talented friend of mine who really helped me develop process and a foundation for future growth. That is when we made the switch from a group of contractors to bringing in the first full-time employees. As the company grew, I realized I couldn’t continue to develop websites while also running the business; I hired additional talented people in 2010 so I could focus on growing the business.

Chris Hyde
Cipher Creative Group

I had always wanted to run my own firm, following in the footsteps of mentors of mine, Peter Good and Ted Bertz. Early in my career I thought there was a need to better understand the “business” side of design. I received my MBA in marketing and added experience at small and medium size agencies to round out my experience at design firms. The birth of Cipher Creative coincided with the birth of my younger son. It just felt like the right time to get out there and pursue my dream and begin to build a design firm that attempted to ask different questions when approaching clients’ projects.

Carol Cheney
Cheney & Company

I was working at Choate Rosemary Hall, a boarding school in Wallingford, CT, as director of communications at a time when public relations was run out of a box of 3 x 5 cards, and we made mechanicals with a mat knife, Rapidograph pens and waxer. After four years on the job, the shop was running fine. I saw there were lots of other schools and nonprofits without internal PR capabilities, so I decided to start Cheney & Company to help them become more professional. That was 1983.