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A Ten Year Q and A

By: Dick

Even though it is only an official ten year anniversary, it is still close enough to ask one of the original partners his thoughts on the past decade. Bob Volkman was busy with work. David doesn't like attention brought to him. He gets very twitchy. So that leaves Michael Herlehy. Michael only agreed to do this if the questions were designed to help other people who are considering opening their own place or freelancers. Since so many people supported TDH in their beginning and continue to help them, Michael wanted to use this as a sort of pay it forward. So here is a Q and A for those interested parties.


What was the best advice anyone ever gave you about owning a business?

That's an easy one. The three founders were at a wedding of a friend and the next Monday, we were finally going to open our doors. When I was introduced to the bride's dad, who owned a company that made radars for boats, I asked him if he had any advice. Now, before this, we sought and received advice from probably about a hundred people and much of it was very good. Stuff like, learn math and make sure you have a good health insurance plan. Surprisingly, this man completely blew me off. He waved his hand and said, "Just work hard. Everything else falls into place." At first, I thought that was sort of simplistic. But he was absolutely correct. The best advice I ever received and the advice I always give when people ask me is to work hard. Or at least when I imagine people asking me because people don't generally like talking to me. If you work hard, everything falls into place. Things that seem so foreign like how to get a T1 line or what to do about the plumbing, if you think about it, seek help, work at the problem, the answer comes.


Were you afraid or intimidated at the thought of starting a business?

Yes. But only for about a week. The thing that keeps most people from starting their own business is the idea that they will lose their job security. But that is so wrong. Especially in this economy. There is no such thing as job security in advertising and in most professions. People get fired every day and for reasons beyond their control. You never know when it will be your time. On the other hand, when you own your business, you actually have an idea of cash flow and can plan accordingly. So once I realized that, I was fine. Bob, on the other hand, he had his days.


So what about those days. Were they difficult?

Yeah. We started with one very small  but loyal client, who, by the way, still asks us for help. And David wouldn't spend a penny more than he had to. So, the only time we ran the air conditioner was when we'd have a meeting with someone else, which wasn't often. We spent one of the hottest summers ever recorded in Chicago in this one small room with no circulation and a really cheap art director. Many people dread new business meetings. We looked forward to them because we would get air conditioning. Of ccourse, once they left, David turned the air off.


What was it like having partners?

It's like being married, only worse. At least when you're married there are fringe benefits. Not so with David, Bob, Don or Greg, even though Greg was thought of as very sexy by the women we used to work with at our old agency. The thing that people don't realize is just because you share a common creative vision, it doesn't mean you share the same views about everything. You have to make decisions on every single thing. You get to know your partners better than some people know their life partners because you know about what temperature they like the air conditioner, things like that. Plus, you're around them constantly. And for the first two years, we didn't have walls. Do you know what it is like to stare at David and Bob, to hear every phone call from every relative? It was ugly. David got away with talking in Mandarin Chinese. But Io knew he was talking about me because I knew the Chinese words for man with big head. Don't ask me why I knew that.


So you recommend getting an office?

I recommend being as cheap as you can on some things and being willing to spend the cash on others. When we were talking about starting out, we were going to shack up in David's basement. Then we played that scenario out and thought clients wouldn't think too much of our professionalism holding a meeting just around the corner from a washer and dryer. So we learned that with some things, you're better off paying top price. If you plan to have clients, get an office. They'll appreciate it. You'll get more clients.


When do you know to add partners?

Take it case by case. See if that person can grow your business a lot faster and can add something brand new. Still, be careful. We were really lucky and everybody needs luck. We were unbelievably dumb when we started. For some reason, we really believed we could create an agency without an account person, that creatives would answer all the calls and talk to clients directly every hour. That was really stupid. We couldn't get any work done. Plus, we were so busy answering phones, doing assignments, we didn't get to do what we were really good at, which was figuring out a long term plan for clients. So Greg Reifel became available and before someone else got him, we did. He helped a ton. But then we found ourselves just focusing on our clients. Greg belonged to a club that was like this round table for small businesses and they would meet and talk about their problems. Greg brought up a situation we were mulling about for awhile and that was bringing on a new business guru as a partner. We needed one because we found no time ourselves to do it. Well, one member of the round table put it back to Greg quite nicely saying something like, "In your industry, your client roster changes every year, sometimes by the month, and you find no time for new business? Ah, yeah, I'd get him." And we got Don, a man who has been considered by men with very long titles to be the best in any city. 


What about hiring?

We hire slowly. It frustrates people. But TDH is a small place. One person makes a big impression. Bob used to work for Maureen Moore and she had this philosophy I always like to apply to TDH. We look for talent but we always look for high character people first. It's not just about ads. It's about helping businesses grow and prosper by using great creative ideas. Yes, that sounds like something some bureacrat would say in an AdAge interview but it's just bigger. A hire has to be able to listen, adapt, constantly work at your craft, work together, stuff like that. It takes a special personality as well as a special book.


Do I think the market is right to start a new agency in Chicago?

Chicago is really coming around and we think that's great. We want more creative agencies out there. I know that sounds like I'm fibbing because they would be competing with us with some accounts. That's true but we're going to be competing with someone and it might as well be against an agency who's work and philosophy we admire. The more creative agencies out there. the better the city's reputation gets, the more clients in and outside of the area look to Chicago agencies for their accounts. Even besides that, there is a certain kinship with small agencies in the city. We're all rooting for each other because, I think, we've come from one of the big, Death Star-like agencies. Many of us were frustrated with the way they serviced clients and didn't keep up with the latest changes in the industry. And we trust that we're doing work that has more freedom for ourselves and clients.


Anything else?

Yes. I hope I don't sound like a douchebag. These are just things I learned. But it can certainly be wrong. It's obvious but I'll say it any way: things are changing constantly. Follow your instincts. And don't be afraid.

03.14.12   The Biz, The Vault

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