The History of Creed Interactive
As Creed Interactive celebrates our 10th anniversary and with a recent feature in the Pioneer Press, I thought it would be a great time to expand on our story from the very beginning and share our hopes for the next ten years as a top development agency in the Twin Cities.
A Bootstrapped Startup, a Dream, and a Creed
The story of Creed Interactive goes back farther than day one of the agency ten years ago. It starts with the first application I ever wrote, a database for my baseball cards when I was in 5th grade. It was on a Texas Instrument computer that you hooked up to your TV, but it only had RAM so every time I turned off my computer I would have to rewrite the entire application. I later found out that there was a way to save your progress – cue my fist in the air – but it did teach me determination.
Fast forward to 1998. My fascination with tech stuck with me and I was doing a marketing project during high school that I called JAWS (short for Jonathan Anderstrom Web Services). I thought it was a really clever name. Hey, the 90’s were a different time. Back then, it was a pretty innovative idea to have an internet marketing firm. No one was really making websites for other businesses, so it made a lot of sense. I entered my project into a high school DECA competition and won the retail competition with a prize trip down to Florida, ranking nationally with my business plan. I also entered my project into a business plan competition for high school students. The winner of the competition would win $2,000 for their school. I was headed off to college that fall, so I went to the principal and asked if I could have the money if I won the competition – he said yes. I ended up winning that one too, so on the last day of my high school career the principal opened up the checkbook from the school district and wrote me a check for two big ones. Pretty much the best last hoorah I could have asked for.
Feeling and seeing the success of my projects so far, I decided that I wanted to do this for a career. I realized that it was possible to create an internet marketing firm for other businesses, and those businesses would work with me. For my first attempt at making this plan a reality, I went and pitched my idea to the local Century21 real estate office. I told him that someday people would start looking at and buying real estate online and that I could help him make a website. He agreed, but laughed and shrugged me off, saying that he would go to the professionals instead of hiring a high school kid to make his website. I knew in the end he was probably right, but it didn’t stop me from feeling crushed. I understood then that I needed to get an education and some experience under my belt before I could be taken seriously.
So that’s what I did. I got my MIS degree from Northwestern College and went on to work at several large ad agencies and interactive shops. The best lesson I took out of those experiences was committing to an excellence of work. Seeing the process of how these creative and high-end marketing pieces were released was tremendously helpful for me at the start of my career. Most importantly, I learned how to interact with clients and how to place their needs before my own.
After a number of years, in 2007, the desire to start something new took shape. It came mostly as result of broken promises and the dream of a better way, which planted the seeds for Creed. The primary catalyst was an event in where an agency I had worked at had guaranteed a client a series of things, even though it was blatantly obvious that those things were not going to occur. I know that’s vague, but details aren’t the point here. I was forced to play a part in that horrible incident and witness the fallout. It was not a good situation. I vowed to myself that I would never be in a mess like that again.
And when I shared my intention with my wife, Stacy – that’s when Creed Interactive really began. Together we decided to create an agency with a solid promise, mission and business model based on honesty and morality. Our promise is passionate team members and clients. Our mission is to have a great team, great clients, and do even greater work. Our business model was developed around the desire to build a tight-knit, talented team and long-term client partnerships. All of that came from aspiring to create a business that stood for something, and the ambition to draw a line in the sand for what we believe.
Creed – meaning a set of beliefs – was named after the core values Stacy and I wanted to commit to. Those four values are: All in, resourcefulness, excellence, and serving. And to help label us as a digital agency, we added Interactive, which defines the types of applications we write. You’re able to interact with them – they’re far from static or plain marketing material.
During this time, I was under a non-compete with a previous agency. I was told by a handful of clients, “Jonathan we love you, but we hate the firm you’re with.” I thought, “Well, that’s interesting. I’m not going to be with that firm anymore.” I had to very carefully navigate my non-compete and remain extremely above-board with my former employer about what my plans were and how I was going to do them. Those clients eventually left my former agency, and I was given the blessing to pursue them. Consequently, I was fortunate enough to land them as clients during the early years of Creed.
Forging a New Path
When we first began Creed, we decided to start off as a virtual agency. We didn’t have any sort of startup capital, which meant we had to bootstrap everything. Right off the bat, I landed a six-month contract working part-time for an ad agency. We used that money to fund the startup of our company and were able to land other clients while still working on contract. I was lucky enough to be able to terminate the contract a month early because I had completed all of the requested work, and at this point we had enough revenue to keep going on our own. That contract was super beneficial because I knew that no matter what, my mortgage would be paid for six months and I wouldn’t lose my home. It was a pretty ideal start.
In the beginning we worked solely as a virtual agency, hiring out the work to our “best of breed” contractors. After the first nine months of working out of my basement, I decided we needed actual workspace. Stacy and I found a space for rent in St. Paul’s historic Northwestern building, complete with vintage elevators that worked only fifty percent of the time. It wasn’t much, but it was 350 square feet of tangible work environment. We painted the walls and added a couple desks, chairs, and knick-knacks to furnish the space. It was a nice, quiet spot to work in.
In 2009, we were running with six or seven different contractors and it was getting increasingly difficult to keep track of who was doing what. So on May 1st, 2009, we decided we had enough volume to hire one of our best contractors as our first full-time employee. It was a big decision to hire, as he would go from contractor to being our first overhead employee. The only other cost we had at the time was renting out the small office space.
During the recession of ‘08-’09, a lot of companies were pulling back their spending. This was actually a great thing for us as a startup because it disrupted existing relationships. We were able to reach clients that needed the same amount of work done but had less money to accomplish their goals. We were able to prove that we could do the work in a much more efficient way. This approach was able to land us numerous accounts at the time, and has continued to be a big part of our success to this day.
Later that year, we were able to bring on our second full-time employee. We were so packed in that small space we would back into each other every time we moved our chairs. Stacy was running the books remotely, occasionally coming into the office to work with me. In the beginning, we would get a ton of work done early in the day, then were able go out to a coffeeshop for the rest. But by the time both of our new hires joined us, we were so busy that we didn’t have time for coffee anymore.
In 2010, we reached an emotional period where due to both internal and external factors, we had to retool our team and client list. Two of our four employees ended up leaving, while at that same time we had just landed two new contracts. Our workload doubled while our workforce was cut in half. On top of everything, we had just been blessed with our third child. To counteract the two employees leaving, I had to go down the list of our clients and transition our least profitable clients to other agencies. It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, as I spent a lot of time, energy, and money to acquire them in the first place. However, we were able to transition those clients with minimal headache and make sure that everyone was taken care of. In the end it was the best thing we could have done because it removed our non-profitable work and gave us more bandwidth as we reconfigured our team to add more profitable clients. Since that point, Creed has only seen uphill growth.
I had attended a Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association topic in the early years of Creed and heard a theory about work that I hadn’t considered before. Jason Fried was talking about how he ran 37 Signals – at the time, a $20 million company – and how he ran the company with only eight people. They were able to run their company efficiently by having dedicated work times and dedicated collaboration times. He called it “deep work.” Over time, I’ve played around with different work schedules, and have found the most effective work environment is to have our employees only come into the office two days a week and work remotely for the other three. Unconventional, I know. How is this possible? I’ve found that allowing employees more freedom in how they get their work done greatly improves overall satisfaction. On top of that, it allows for extremely quality work to get done in a manner that doesn’t impact on their personal lives.
When Creed grew from three to eight employees, we added more work space by moving our office from the 3rd floor to the 6th floor. And our team didn’t stop growing. We nearly doubled our workforce in a few short years and needed even more space, so we moved all the way up to the top – Suite 802.
In 2014, we hit the dozen person mark. This ties back to the goals I set in the beginning, with a five-year plan to build the company into a dozen employee shop. It ended up taking seven years instead, but with a nationwide recession in the middle of it all I think that’s pretty good. Smart growth has alway been my goal, rather than growth for growth’s sake. I felt twelve employees was the workforce we needed if we were to do $1 million and higher projects. Our initial growth model was to build up enough manpower to do impactful projects and it was very gratifying to achieve that mark. During that time, Grant Hultgren was promoted to COO of the group to manage operations. We kept on right on growing until we had twenty employees and were overflowing the 8th floor office. Possibly the biggest challenge was having only a single conference room to share between all of us. And that was before the ceiling started leaking. It was a sign to move on.
A Place of Our Own
I had been on the lookout for new office spaces for quite some time. One night, Stacy and I were out on a date in Saint Paul and were walking by CHS field. We saw a building with foreclosed space and a bunch of construction debris from the rest of the building. As we walked by the window, Stacy did a quick heel-spin, looked through and said, “Wow, what is that?” We went into the building and fortunately the restaurant owner next door happened to see us. We ended up getting a tour of the empty space right then and immediately fell in love with the potential of the location, along with the raw hardwood, exposed timber and brick. We ended up purchasing it soon after and hired Stacy on a six month half-time contract (turned nine month contract, because nothing ever goes exactly to plan with these old spaces) to manage the architect and the builders. Stacy spent countless hours collaborating with the architects on every single detail and it shows. We had our big open house event in October of 2016 to celebrate the opening of the space with a ribbon cutting ceremony and the Mayor of Saint Paul.
Over time, our core values have been tested constantly. But the least tested of the four has been our All in value. It’s really more internal, and our team members truly are All in. Although over time we have had to let people go who we felt were not being All in on their work, which is always difficult, it’s a testament to how important this value is to us.
Serving others means we always take care of our clients. At one point we had a project for a non-profit that grew out of control, while on top of that we had initially misquoted the project. We ended up donating a significantly higher amount of time than we had originally anticipated, but we chose to do so in order to serve them.
We were – and are – able to remain lean and resourceful by having very little overhead cost by having most of our employees communicate directly with clients. To add to our excellence of work most recently, we hired a veteran Creative Director, as well as creating a QA lab to make sure all of our work is at the highest quality.
An Eye to the Future
As we celebrate our 10th anniversary, a great deal of energy has gone into building our tight-knit team and long-term client partnerships, and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved so far. We’ve built an amazing infrastructure and set of processes to build technology that works beautifully. We’re poised to use this framework as a launchpad to continue to grow our team, project capacity, client satisfaction, quality, creative product, and platform expertise. Historically, we have averaged over 33% top-line growth annually. For the next four years, we want to ratchet that back to 15-20% annual growth targets to ensure we are also growing our quality and creative product.
Our vision is to be the best web development shop in the Twin Cities. The Business Journal already ranks us as one of the best, but we can continue to improve. We will do this by:
- Continuing to be All in in our efforts
- Continuing to build our tight-knit and talented team
- Continuing to invest in our long-term client partnerships
- Focusing on growing our portal, CRM, and custom web application work
- Incorporating a more visible component of giving back with our non-profit work, volunteerism, and philanthropy gifts
- Offsetting project work with retainer work and investments
As we move forward, we will continue to be a lean interactive shop that passionately designs and delivers highly developed interactive solutions for equally passionate clients. Thank you to everyone who has played a role in this journey by helping us get to where we are today. Here’s to another 10 years!