In today’s terms, our humble beginnings would have labeled us a “start-up.” This year marked our 15th birthday as a company and now we're a multi-million dollar agency who has been recognized by Inc. magazine for the 188 percent growth we’ve had in the past three years. Unlike many with the start-up mantle who haven't endured, we’ve made smart business decisions, while still holding on to our artists’ sense of discovery.
Tracey, my wife of 17 years and our chief visionary officer, and I came to Baltimore in 1996 for Tracey’s MFA in painting at Maryland Institute College of Art. We had met in undergrad at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where I was majoring in photography, and Tracey in painting.
While Tracey was in grad school, I was the working stiff. I restored photographs for a lab in town for three long years. Not glamorous work—one guy in the family picture had his fly down, so we had to fix it. That sort of thing.
Tracey became obsessed with a new medium—the Internet—while at MICA. For the first time, it was possible to make a movie on a home computer and send it around the world. This was exhilarating to us. For fun, we started making stop-motion animations, which we could finish in one night, and learned web design skills to create a site where we could publish the movies. People were intimidated by the personal computer, but we just saw it as another skill to learn in which we could apply our creative thinking. I was in an hourly job and Tracey was a grad student, and we recognized the business opportunity computers presented. We started freelancing and found our newly-minted skills were very much in demand. From 1997-2001, we freelanced and worked for agencies which were breaking into the digital space.
Tracey and I dreamed up Fastspot at Peter’s Inn in Baltimore, over the course of several months. We would go down for beer specials and brainstorm in the back room. We couldn’t afford to eat there, but there was a room in the back of the bar, with couches and coffee tables, and we’d take our dog and make notes on what kind of work we wanted to do. We thought about how to run a tech business, and an agency, differently than what we’d experienced.
Fastspot would be built on one principle: Karma. We’d tell various people we were starting an agency and right away, they wanted to see a copy of the business plan. So we wrote a one-word business plan: Karma. We took the best of what we thought a creative business could be and consciously avoided the worst of what we’d seen in the agency world; the toxic bosses, the abuse of clients and staff, and boiled it down to that one word, karma. The vision of Fastspot was to build a successful company, with great people, who do awesome work together. This is still the case.
We set up an office on the first floor of our little 11 foot wide row house in Fells Point, Baltimore. To make a work space, and to accommodate our first hire, we dumped out the furniture from the living room and put it on the street with a sign saying, “Free to a good home.” We knew a lot of people in town through our freelance work and we became the “secret sauce” for a number of larger agencies. One early project I remember well was a CD-ROM for McCormick & Co., which an agency hired us to do. Another was to create interactive maps for Maryland Institute College of Art, which another agency hired us to do. We did tons of work like that, behind the scenes, getting experience, and slowly building our portfolio and name.
Tracey handled sales and I did the back office stuff. We both did the work. We taught ourselves Flash, Director, Perl and whatever we needed to learn to get the work done. We answered every ad we found about companies wanting web work. Not many people were doing it, so we did pretty well. Especially for two art school grads in their mid-twenties. We came up with the name Fastspot based on the idea of how communications was changing at the time. The traditional 30 second TV spot, which used to be such an expensive marketing tool, was suddenly attainable. The name referenced the new reality; that the Internet was empowering a radical increase in accessibility to both create, and consume, previously inaccessible media.
There were very few women in tech in 2000 - there are still too few - and Lynda Weinman of lynda.com fame, was a beacon for us. We attended her 2000 Flash Forward Conference because we were working in Flash, and following it. Tracey reached out to inquire about why, when over half the audience was female, there were so few female panelists or presenters. Weinman explained that too few women submitted proposals to be speakers and presenters, and she challenged us to be the next ones. I’ll never forget that moment—it was like a gauntlet being thrown down. So we made a proposal for the 2001 Flash Forward Conference in NYC, which was accepted. The piece we created as a key part of that presentation, Memoire, went on to win an award at the Flash Film Festival in Amsterdam. Giving our presentation, entitled Creativity Charged Action-Script, in the ballroom at the New Yorker Hotel, still stands out as a major highlight and accomplishment in our early careers.
Our success as a tech company is underpinned in four areas. First, we understand that the creative side needs to be highly collaborative with the code-writing side; that the company culture overall needs to be positive. People who are attracted to digital thrive in an environment that promotes the unity of that creativity and craft. Second, fiscal responsibility is essential. My parents had almost no money when I was growing up and it made me a saver. Habits of discipline die hard with us, regardless of the fact Fastspot has always had good growth numbers. We’ve never had to lay anyone off for poor numbers and we’ve never taken a business loan. Third and fourth, excellent client service and the beautiful work we produce. Many shops have come and gone, but Tracey and I believe it’s the combination of these elements which has made the difference.
Our people work really hard—we all pride ourselves on doing excellent work—but we balance that drive with the need, and our desire, for people to have a fulfilling life outside the office. People need to have other things that fuel them besides the work they do in their job. We want to get the best out of people, not the most.
We’ve managed to build a company where everyone is not only talented, but pursues an extremely high level of perfection, and we feel equipped to handle any challenge. If the Internet were to disappear tomorrow, we could likely become the best boat building company around!
Karma isn’t the most complete way to explain what has made us successful. But I do think our foundation in this golden rule has led us to work with clients like Yale University, Amherst College and the cultural gem, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. We are extremely proud of our agency and the work we and our clients do, together.