10 years ago, I was a 24-year-old recent college graduate with a few years of industry experience under my belt. I was fortunate to be around the right people at the right time. One of those characters in this drama has been Laurie Onorio, then known as Laurie Julian. Aside from being a steady rock at home, she’s been a partner in this profession during its entire existence. In many ways, Walk West wouldn’t be what it is today if it even existed at all.
It was through her work as a young up-and-comer at a Raleigh-based political consulting firm that introduced me to the right people. In 2007 I met Dee Stewart and Jason Deans, then young entrepreneurs, now seasoned political professionals who hired me to help consult on digital projects with candidates running for state and federal offices. It was through these first few gigs that I built a portfolio, saved some money, and officially launched O3 Strategies on September 21. What was a side hustle then officially became a full time job on August 1, 2008. Don’t get me wrong, it was always a full-time job, but I quit my well-paying full-time job that day with a plan and the will to make something of it.
Looking back, my earliest fear was that it wouldn’t work, although there’s no shame in trying. Many entrepreneurs try to make it work and circumstances are what they become. But I was literally scared of the prospect of telling my friends and family that the money ran out (I never borrowed, always bootstrapped), I had no more clients, and the road had ended. It was an irrational fear, but one that kept me up at night. Sometimes, I’d take those worries in a heartbeat next to the ones that I have now with employing a cast of humans and being responsible for that twice-monthly payroll. But those worries are what I had. I lacked the scope and scars of experience.
Those fears magnified when in mid-September, 2008, the world awoke to a new normal with markets failing, houses foreclosing, businesses shutting the doors, and banks surrendering under the stress of a fragile system. Now, the fear wasn’t not making it work, it was not making it work and not finding a job with unemployment soaring to 60-year highs. All the chips were in. I was pot committed and there literally was no backing out. As much as “failure is not an option” has become corporate speak during faux inspirational team huddles, failure, this time, was not an option.
I won’t pretend that I had it all figured out and that I was a genius entrepreneur. There were days where I dusted off the resume and updated it. That wasn’t as much of an exercise of necessity (I never applied for a job), but it was a plan-B – one I didn’t want. It was almost cathartic, that exercise, because it made me face the fear, look it square in the eyes, put it down, and keep moving.
I never considered myself an entrepreneur. Entrepreneur always felt small. Entrepreneur was what you called yourself when you were between jobs. There was always the joke that entrepreneur was French for unemployed. I never diminished the title nor all the entrepreneurs out there, but I never considered myself an entrepreneur because that word was rightly given to people that had made it. I hadn’t made anything yet. I didn’t feel I was worthy of the word. During those early years, I was simply a hustler unwilling to take second place.
The Great Recession
The recession years were hard. Usually, the first thing to go in a recession are the marketing budgets. Businesses everywhere go into a shell and try to ride out the storm. It’s actually counter-intuitive if you think about it. A case study I would always remind myself of during these years was the great cereal wars of the 1930s.
Pre-depression, the de-facto standard for breakfast was hot cereal. Post had a commanding market share at the time whose primary products were American standards in breakfast. While many companies reduced or eliminated marketing and advertising budgets, Kellogg doubled it’s advertising and began marketing most notably to children on radio and in print. Although the kid-friendly household names like Tony the Tiger wouldn’t debut until the 1950s, it was this tumultuous time that honed and shaped the company’s marketing culture. It was the 1930s that shaped Kellogg and where it battled effectively for the hearts and mouths of Americans everywhere. It gained the title as the country’s top cereal maker and has not relinquished it since.
Recessions are good at one thing: resetting markets and getting rid of the chaff. I was in survival mode – and survive was all I could do.
The Tween Years – 2011 – 2014
O3 hit its stride during these years. I hired Sean Baker to handle the art side of the business while I handled quite literally everything else. Sean was a fantastic talent and an all-around great guy. Sean helped put O3 on the map with stunning creative that won the agency award after award after award. He and I were a great duo, and when you have a two-person company, each side has to hit its stride. O3 was comfortably profitable and our ability to gain clients was notable. We’d often win against agencies all over the place. No doubt a large portion of that was price – we were able to produce high quality work with very little overhead. But I also don’t discount the contributions of those around me that created the environment where we were taken seriously with sizable budgets.
Sean is now Founder and CEO of Superboss in Milwaukee, Wisconsin creating an agency not much different than the one he departed. In “coaching tree” terms, mine is short, but I have a lot of pride seeing someone like Sean take “the big job” and apply everything that we learned together for his company.
The Growth Years – 2015 and on
On January 1, 2015, I signed a deal with seasoned entrepreneur Donald Thompson. Remember that word from before? It applies here. Donald’s illustrious career includes multiple exits to large corporations. A blue-collar kid much like myself, I saw Donald as a prototype of what I’d become in 10-years time.
Donald joined O3 with a steady co-hand on the wheel. For the past 2 and half years, I’ve learned an MBA’s worth of knowledge in understanding how to build, grow, and sustain a successful service company.
A big part of that growth was the result of taking shared risks. Believe it or not, I’m naturally a risk averse person. Where making money was hard, keeping it was easy for me. I placed few bets and would wait for pocket aces to make even the modest ones. There’s a lot of reasons I attribute to being risk averse that I won’t go into, but breaking that required another hand to guide me in taking reasonable bets for big success.
Two of those bets were managing two merges in 2016. The first was formally folding Laurie’s company into Walk West and creating a robust public affairs practice. The second merge was with Greenroom Communications which nearly doubled the size of our agency while providing our team with sensational talent around video production and social media. As if 2016 wasn’t action packed enough, we also completely rebranded the agency from O3 to Walk West.
Together, we’ve grown revenue ten-fold since 2015, hired 30 amazing people, and have seen our collective success solidify itself on the business development front. We’ve got some pretty exciting projects on the horizon we can’t yet talk about, but will be able to soon. It’s hard to believe that we only hit our stride 2 years ago and these past 2 years have exceeded my wildest expectations.
Walking The Road Ahead
Looking back helps me think about where we’re going. What’s next for Walk West is something I ponder often. We have a thriving agency culture and a rock solid leadership corps that I would bet on any day. We’ve got some exciting client work to be sure, but we’re also investing heavily in research and development with a concept product set to hit the first of 2018. I’ve not lost scope on what makes our agency tick – and that’s simply world class capabilities across a wide spectrum of services that promise to grow businesses everywhere. But we’re expanding on our core to continue to be a force for our clients while creating stellar careers for our employees.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 10 years. What is for certain is that we set a standard during this past decade. A strong standard. A foundation that will inevitably grow to heights that I’m already planning. I hope to look back at this article on September 21, 2028 with the same feeling of accomplishment than I am right now.
It’s been the pleasure of my professional life paying my dues to create something amazing. And we’ve only just begun. Here’s to the next 10 years.