A Behind-the-Scenes Chat About the Merger
On the heels of merging her creative agency, Creative Suitcase, with TradeMark Media, Rachel Clemens (CMO) sat down with Nick Weynand (President & Founder) for an instant message chat about the implications, surprises, and lessons learned when two long-standing design firms join forces.
Rachel Clemens: So Nick, did you have anyone reach out wanting to learn more about the merger—because they might want to do it themselves?
Nick: Nothing direct. Did anyone ask how you pulled off this power deal for yourself? :)
Rachel: Ha! I think it's something most business owners think about at some point. I imagine many of us get to a certain size and think, “Okay, am I going to grow this or something else?”
Nick: Yeah, it's a struggle at times for small agencies to try and get larger. I've been there.
Rachel: You started a big growth campaign a few years ago. Did you just decide to grow or was that always the plan and it finally took off?
Nick: I always wanted to grow. I did get frustrated that it was taking so long. I had to remind myself to be patient.
Rachel: What do you think was the catalyst for the growth?
Nick: Eventually, you learn how to be a better manager—and then the reputation, staff, and systems you’ve built all start to work together.
Rachel: Were there big decisions that drove it? New hires, key investments, training, etc?
Nick: I always said that with the next big account, we're not going to just focus on that. We're going to use it as a catalyst for growth. We got a big account a few years ago—our first six figure project—then we made a couple hires based on that.
Rachel: It sounds like maybe you were willing to forgo a bit of extra profit to put the money into new hires
Nick: Yeah, for sure. It definitely affects the bottom line, but I’ve always wanted to invest back into the company—at least for now, while we’re trying to accomplish something special.
Rachel: That's smart. It can be a hard thing to do when you're small. Every move seems very big. I feel like TradeMark is at a great size now—big enough to impact our marketplace and small enough to be more nimble than our agency counterparts.
Rachel: We can experiment and learn.
Nick: Yeah, I think we're at a great size—and that's a selling point for us. I always say "Big enough to take on challenging projects, but small enough to provide a really great client experience."
Nick: I have a question for you.
Rachel: Hit me.
Nick: When did you first start thinking about your exit plan?
Rachel: Oh boy, not until about 10 years in.
Nick: So when I approached you that day in the coffee shop [five years ago], had you already thought about it?
Rachel: Not really. I remember that I had thought that if one day someone bought us, it might be you!
Nick: I remember you mentioned that early on.
Rachel: Things were still really fun back then. And it was never not fun, but it maybe got a little stale for someone who's an entrepreneur at heart. I needed to make big changes, but I now had a five-year-old son and life was moving quickly.
Nick: I understand that.
Rachel: I realized I could keep playing it safe running the business as I was or I could make some changes that might be risky. I made the choice to shake things up a bit and narrow our [Creative Suitcase’s] focus to nonprofit branding and creative strategy.
Nick: So this—the merger—felt like a safe enough risk?
Rachel: When I narrowed the focus [of Creative Suitcase], that felt risky. So at the same time I thought, why not explore other "risky" options? And I approached you again. Honestly, I didn't approach anyone else. I knew we'd be a good fit for each other.
Nick: I guess the risk is what might have happened had you stayed your own boss? How many times will you think about that over the years?
Rachel: Think about what? What would have happened if I'd kept it?
Nick: Yeah. Do you think you’ll think about that in the future?
Rachel: Hasn’t happened yet.
Nick: What you gave up to come here?
Rachel: Maybe. I struggled with that decision a lot. I had it pretty good. I was making a decent living, I got to travel basically when I wanted, I had a good team.
Nick: You definitely had a great team.
Rachel: But I was tired. Tired of carrying it all.
Nick: Yeah, I remember you telling me that you didn't love the business management part of it.
Rachel: I'm a people person. I started the Creative Business Owners Group mostly to have other biz owners to chat with. But that wasn’t quite enough. I hate admin. I wanted focus.
Nick: Did you ever think about taking on a partner?
Rachel: I thought maybe an employee would grow into that one day. But we didn't get there. They had their own life plans—spouses, babies, travel, never wanted to be a boss, etc.
Nick: There are issues that come with bringing on a partner as well.
Rachel: My dad, who's run a business for 40 years, told me never to partner.
Nick: Did he try it?
Rachel: No. (HA!)
Nick: I think it works well with some and not with others. Depends on how it's structured and the personality of both. I would never be a good partner!
Rachel: I agree.
Nick: Thanks :)
Rachel: I meant about “depends on how it's structured and the personality of both.” But that made me LOL.
Nick: Oh, right.
Rachel: I think we're good together because we're really different, but we have a lot of respect for that.
Nick: Agreed. I still think of this as a partnership.
Rachel: If we were to acquire another company, what services/expertise might you look for?
Nick: Well, first would be the personality and culture fit. Just like this merger, it would have to work at that level. Also, I would look for a company that had a strong leader who could join our executive team and complement the others on there. I really don't think the specific service would matter as long as it is something of value to our clients, there's demand for it, and it augments what we already do.
Rachel: Have you had any big surprises along this journey?
Nick: I was surprised you didn't take my first offer! Just kidding.
Rachel: I honestly can't even remember what it was :) We had a lot of back and forth.
Nick: Me neither.
Rachel: Two strong-willed people.
Nick: No need to look back.
Nick: I’m actually surprised at how smooth it has all gone so far.
Rachel: Me too. Why do you think?
Nick: I think applying our good project management approach to this process has really helped.
Rachel: I think we both brought process so that helped, yep.
Nick: And aligning the cultures early on, before the deal was even solidified, helped.
Rachel: Yes, that strategic meeting we had in October [1-2 months before the merger was official] where we talked about the future of TradeMark was helpful for my team. Seeing that everyone got to weigh in and wouldn't miss out on that part of the [Creative Suitcase] culture.
Nick: I am surprised at the overwhelming support we've received from our networks.
Rachel: Lots of people see this as a good arrangement. It feels like you often hear of partners splitting or key employees starting their own thing, versus agencies coming together.
Nick: Yeah, you hear more horror stories than positive ones. I think when you are bigger it's probably harder. Or if there is a ton of overlap.
Rachel: OK, last question. What do you think is the biggest challenge in the next year for us?
Nick: I think becoming relevant in a crowded marketplace.
Nick: As we redefine who we are, what we do, and who we do it for, we're going to be "new" and will have to fight to be relevant.
Rachel: We need to clearly define our story in a way that people care about—and that serves their needs.
Nick: Agreed. Do you think that's the biggest challenge or would you choose something else?
Rachel: Yes. I think bringing two company brands together and better sharing our story is key.
Nick: 2017 is going to be an exciting year.
Rachel: Yes, indeed. ;)