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The Start-Up Rodeo

Two years ago, James Rice and I started a digital marketing agency called The Fiction Tribe in Portland, Oregon. It’s been an amazing ride – filled with ups and downs, uncertainty and anxiety, close calls and long days and nights.
We have also had our fair share of exhilarating victories and successes, too.

We’ve all read articles and books by people who have ‘made it’. They followed their dreams and pursued their passions. They ignored distractions and the naysayers. They gave up short-term financial security for the opportunity to do something they love every day. And to do things ‘their way’.

They told us that the best time to get started is today – and that there will never be a ‘perfect time’. They said that sacrificing the safety and security of our ‘regular’ jobs to pursue our passion would be well worth it. They told us that we had to have faith – in ourselves, in our abilities and in our ideas. And they told us that there was nothing more rewarding and liberating than being our own boss.

For almost 18 years, I dreamed about it. I talked about it with James more often than either of us would like to admit. We could even see it. But it was never a good time. For either of us. And I know you know exactly what I mean.
Then, at the end of 2011, we were both involved in what I will loosely call ‘great adversity’.

Looking back, it was the opportunity we needed. Just enough adversity within our current situation that allowed us to free ourselves emotionally and take the leap. We both refer to it now as our “moment” – that point in time where we promised each other (and ourselves) that we would never again allow our future, the results of our hard work or our reputations to be in the hands of ‘others’.

So, a few months later, we steeled our resolve and filed our letter of incorporation. And The Fiction Tribe was born. We did not have any clients. We did not have any employees. And we did not have any funding. But what we did have was a vision – a vision for a digital marketing agency that filled, what we believed, was a gap in the marketplace. And we believed in ourselves. We had successfully started and grown Portland office locations for a few large agencies over the last ten years. Now, we set out do the same thing for ourselves. Free from the encumbrances of working for agency owners or a management team 200 miles away.

And then we won our first big project – beating out the agency we just left. (And yes, that did make it that much sweeter.)

We hired three employees. We moved into our first office – a small, one room, dark and dreary place on MLK in the NE of town. And, man oh man, did we loved that office – and always will. It was ours. It was humble. To us, it was perfect.

But we worried about cash flow. We worried about the sales pipeline. And we did what was needed to keep the dream alive – taking on small projects and some very unreasonable deadlines. We worked nights and weekends. We lived and breathed it. And sure enough, every month, something seemed to fall into place. A new client. A new project. A great new hire. Some of this happened because of our smarts. Some of it because of our hard work. And some because of luck. And by the end of our first year, we had obtained official vendor status at several large corporations and we were working with amazing brands like USA Pears, Cisco, FireEye, Intel, Microsoft, Xerox, Outrigger Hotels, Parallels and Esri.

And while these Brands are amazing – what was truly special were the clients we were fortunate enough to work with on a daily basis. They are remarkable people – and that is where we believe we were the most fortunate and lucky. Our clients are smart and passionate; they know what they want; and they embrace new strategies and solutions to drive business results in the ever-changing marketing and media landscape.

The success of any business, including ours, also hinges on the people hired. James has a keen eye for creative talent – talent that is not measured by pedigree – but by skill, talent and work ethic. The guys we hired are incredible – and we are very fortunate that we found them and somehow convinced them to join the Tribe. Any success The Fiction Tribe has achieved – or will enjoy in the future – is a testament to each of them.

In Year 2, we moved into a new office on the corner of NE 21st Avenue/Alberta in NE Portland. Not a day goes by where we don’t appreciate all of the space, the view and coolness of the newly constructed building. We even have a garage door that opens up onto a balcony for those warm summer days. We added a few more employees. We added some more clients. And we doubled in size.

The future looks bright. But we’re not there yet. We understand that we’re only as good as our last project – so we will always remain hungry. We never take anything we do for granted. Every client and every project is our most important client and our most important project. And we will do whatever it takes to earn our client’s trust and to make them look like rock stars. That ethos has served us well in the past – and it will serve us well in the future, too.

The journey for The Fiction Tribe has just begun.

We have a vision for where we want to go and a plan to get there. It isn’t going to be easy – nothing worthwhile ever is – but I know it’s going to be one hell of ride. Every day I get to work with my best friend, a group of guys that I love and respect and clients that view us as partners, not vendors.

When people ask me how I’m doing, I like to respond – most of the time with heavy sarcasm – that “I’m living the dream”. Except when I say it now, I actually mean it.

Consider this story a nudge or an elbow for those of you contemplating branching out, taking a risk and doing your own thing. Don’t wait any longer. You will be successful if you tie your work to your passion. And not your passion to someone else’s idea of work.

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