Behind The Title…
NAME: Ryan Vanni
COMPANY: BKWLD (www.bkwld.com) is an independent digital agency founded in 2001. We begin with the user first – before ourselves, before our own creative ambitions, our lust for awards, or industry accolades. Our charge is to find what users value, then the best use of concept and medium to deliver it. Whether it is creative digital strategy and execution, branded content, or live-action production and post, our team is dedicated to doing great work for great clients, and we have a hell of a time doing it. @shitBKWLDsays
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START YOUR OWN COMPANY?
My family. I grew up watching my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, all of whom were self-employed. I am not sure I assumed it was a foregone conclusion necessarily; it’s hard to remember to tell you the truth. When I was 15, I started putting on concerts in my hometown, renting venues, hiring artists, planning the marketing, etc. I got a real kick out of it. I remember vividly being in Spanish class in high school doing a budget and forecast for my “Summerfest at the Crest” in 1996 that was coming up that summer. Sadly, I was a bit optimistic. I think I forecasted making $4,000, but lost $700. So at the ripe age of 15, I was learning the best lesson for an entrepreneur: what to do with the lack of capital.
DID YOU HAVE TO FIND INVESTORS TO START?
Kind of. When I had the idea of starting BKWLD with my then-band mate, he was too cautious (and rightly so) to quit his job and start a Web design agency at the end of the dot-com crash and with a new baby at home. I was sharing my dismay with my brother-in-law and he offered to fund a salary for him, offering him the security he needed to make the leap. From there we lived project to project. We were 22, no contacts, no experience, but a whole bunch of youthful hope. I am very thankful we did not get too deep with investors as we had a lot to figure out, and I doubt many investors would have had the patience for it.
WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU FACED IN THE BEGINNING?
Easy – no money. Again, we lived project to project. And they were not easy to get in the beginning. As we were nearing the end of our third project, and the bottom of our reserves, I was able to secure a project for us from an Architectural firm in Laguna Beach, California…right in the knick of time. The budget was $15,000 and was the largest we had won at that time. So needless to say we were relieved and excited. To celebrate I decided to leave three days early to Laguna Beach for the project kick-off, bring my wife and new son, drive 350 miles, and enjoy a long weekend on the beach before getting to work.
In doing so, I rationalized spending what my wife and I had left at the time to enjoy our time down there. That Monday morning I met the client for breakfast where he told me he had changed his mind, and did not think it was time for a new Website. I remained calm, bought his breakfast, and spent the rest of the day driving with him from job to job where I proceeded to try and change his mind, but to no avail. I went back to the hotel with my tail between my legs, embarrassed and broke. I ended up driving home, sold my drum-set, and lived off of that until we found the next project…good news is we did find it, and we have survived 13 years in business, and many wins and losses since that weekend.
WHAT IS THE BEST PART OF RUNNING YOUR OWN COMPANY
The freedom to get it wrong, and the satisfaction when you get it right. The “it” being our creative approach as a team, company culture, new business strategies, what clients to take, which to not, all of it. I have enjoyed running the company with transparency and an open invitation to any staff member to speak into and affect how we do things. Do not get me wrong; there are days, and especially sleepless nights where I wonder “to what end,” why live with all of the fear of the unknown. But I am usually and quickly reminded in the morning that the unknown is really an opportunity to be creative, a canvas on which to write the next chapter. And that is reinvigorating.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF RUNNING YOUR OWN COMPANY?
Without wishing to sound brutishly competitive: losing. Losing good people and losing good clients. I would love to say I am a business man through and through, and do not personalize losses. But would not be remotely true. It is hard when you participate and steward a vision that for one reason or another people do not choose. “You cannot win them all” is something I have said to myself more then once.
HOW DO YOU MAKE YOUR STAFF HAPPY?
That is a good question perhaps one better for them. I feel slightly uncomfortable presuming I do all of the time. One way or another I am very clear about what I value and build a company culture around that. Not because it is about me, but because I want our culture to be an honest one. I am a father of four boys, and value family and balance tremendously. Additionally, I am a big fan of transparency and authenticity. So we have developed an approach and general process that fosters and supports those as tenants of our business.
HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE CLIENTS ARE HAPPY?
Be 100% honest about our opinion, humbly. Attempt to do exactly what we say we will do. Minimize surprises through a transparent process.
IF YOU HAD TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?
Truthfully, I do not spend much time thinking about things like this. I cannot go back. No use drumming up regrets. But I supposed I would have stopped trying to please others sooner.
ANY TIPS FOR OTHERS THINKING OF STARTING OFF ON THEIR OWN?
There will be a million reasons why it is not rational. Whatever “it” is. The fears, the “what-ifs,” the unknown, existed just as much with all of those who came before you. So let those drive you.
Stay as independent as long as you can. The learning you get from organic growth, and the trials and tribulations delivered by real life are invaluable. They will make you stronger, savvier, and more strategic.
Do not pander to your clients, or your staff like children. Expect mutual accountability from both sides of both relationships.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT HOW THE INDUSTRY DOES BUSINESS, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I love the direction marketing is going. Years ago I would have said, “I wished digital was respected more,” but that seemed to take care of itself. I also would have said, “I wish we weren’t always proliferating such bullshit messages people don’t care about.” But authenticity is being forced out of brands, and out of us creatives, who concept for them by way of the wide open forum of the Internet. Because the people have more of a voice then ever in human history, they are changing the way we talk to them, and forcing us to tell the truth. So in true capitalist form, the market is shaping the direction, and fast. And I like it.