When Start Up Means Start Over: Chucking the Cushy for the Cramped

An Ad Vet Bolts the Career Ladder to Again Do the Work He Loves

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The office I share with my partners, Matt and Nick, is no bigger than your typical county jail cell. To make up for the fact that the office has no window to the outside world, its walls have been painted bright orange. Not surprisingly, Sherwin-Williams #6893 is not a suitable substitute for the sun.

In accordance with feng shui, we've turned our desks to face out toward center, allowing us to stare at each other all day long. Our knees bump up against the bottom of the collapsible metal IKEA desks we occupy. Random pages spit out of the copier onto the floor, where they remain unclaimed. Diet Coke cans and orange rinds pile up in wastebaskets, waiting for the Garbage Fairy (who apparently comes only on Saturdays) to remove them. And it's always too hot in here.

Ten weeks ago, I possessed a corner office that had a built-in closet with a refrigerator inside. I flew first class everywhere and had a pocket full of privileged credit and club cards that flashed in platinum finishes like European sports cars. I presided over meetings, sent out observations and points of view -- and was finding myself becoming increasingly miserable. I hadn't written a real ad in years.

For me there's been a lot of "start over" in start-up. To recapture what you love about what you do, sometimes you have to reset to when you started loving it. I had wanted to be a copywriter and make funny ads -- and it was a pretty simple drill for a long time, because nobody let me do anything else, anyway. But inevitably, being somewhat good at what you do moves you up and then away. It doesn't happen overnight, but each step up the ladder takes you a little farther from the real thing, or, as my friend Jon Flannery puts it, "more about the working than the work". Then one day you find yourself excited because your new Admiral's Club card arrived.

So it's time to reset and go back to work; to become excited again about simply getting paid (or in this case, paying yourself) to come up with ideas and building something. It's not as easy as it sounds; this start-up thing is hard work. The hours are ridiculous and I don't have the reckless ambition I had 20 years ago. I won't pull all-nighters and no longer consider beer an energy drink when coming up with ideas. But what I don't have in wildcat status, I make up for in wisdom. Somehow, through all the years, meetings, campaigns that were and campaigns that weren't, I took away an ability to know what matters, and maybe more importantly, what doesn't. My prioritization skills are at peak levels, and I believe I can be right at least 51% of the time.

Which takes me to the point of why we're doing this thing in the first place. For me, Matt and Nick the idea of this agency is our way of being able to reset. To focus more on what's creative, less on what's not; more on the client's business, less on the business of us. We get to answer that old question of what would you do differently if you could do it again, knowing what you know now. We all go through periods of cluelessness, frustration, whatever -- then the idea comes like it was there all along. Our agency is like that for us, a good idea that just happened to take us 20 years to come up with. Regardless of how it turns out, we feel lucky to have this chance.

The office copier is out of paper or jammed or inkless. Lights are flashing all over the place. In a matter of seconds, we've dismantled the whole thing. Trays are on the floor and the entire back end has been opened. Matt, Nick and I have as much experience fixing copiers as we do tuning up Ferrari Testarossas -- zero -- but like a lot of things since this venture began, we look at it as another opportunity to tackle something new. We got this.

Tom O'Keefe is a founding partner of O'Keefe Reinhard & Paul.
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