Fighting Back with Purpose

Jay Wilkinson, Firespring

November 27, 2017

It took getting removed as the CEO of my own company for me to truly comprehend what my team and I needed to thrive. With more than a little grit and humility, I was able to Persevere through that difficult period and eventually return to grow my marketing communications firm, Firespring, into the Evergreen company it is today.

Before I founded Firespring, I launched an AlphaGraphics franchise in 1992 in Lincoln, Nebraska. I encouraged the franchisor to embrace the early promise of website design, making ours the first franchise to open a dedicated commercial website division. When one of my team members had a lucky encounter with the Backstreet Boys at the running of the bulls in Spain in the mid-1990s, we landed the boy band’s website design. Suddenly our website business was flourishing.

Building upon our success, in 2001 I bought out our franchise agreement with AlphaGraphics and launched Firespring (then named Digital IMS) as a website design and software-as-a-service company. I raised about $5 million in venture capital and expanded into 10 cities. We experienced explosive growth, closing one out of every three demos — and then everything fell apart.

After 9/11, everyone began cutting back, and suddenly we couldn’t get face time with prospects. Our close rate changed to one in 10. I made a lot of mistakes before and after that period. One was taking in capital without protecting myself and my employees. I had given too many of our board seats to institutional investors who now wanted immediate change. They wanted us to do more one-off custom work that would bring in fast money — business I’d always rejected because it’s not sustainable. They wanted us to stop serving nonprofits — a slice of our business that wasn’t incredibly profitable but gave us a strong sense of Purpose.

And in 2002, they ousted me as CEO of my own company. I remained on the board as one of seven directors and was assigned to a leadership committee of three people tasked with making decisions on behalf of the company. While I was still the majority owner, investors were essentially controlling every decision.

I had a brief moment where I thought about giving up. But after hitting that low, I gained clarity on what I believed the company should become.

I wanted a company that prioritized meaningful impact and sustainable profitability over chasing revenues for growth’s sake. And I believed we could become that company. I met with my team and apologized for letting them down. I told them I was going to fight for this new vision. We would have a greater focus on nonprofits. The switch would mean less revenue but a leaner, healthier company with a clear Purpose. Given our struggles, employees could have easily left the company and doubled their income. But they were moved by our new vision and stuck by me, even when I wasn’t sure yet how a plan would unfold.

Over the next five months, I swallowed my pride and pleaded to my family and a few friends for loans to buy out our investors. What made it feel worse was my asking them to help fix my mistakes. But it was worth the humility. Taking six months, I was able to regain control of my board and step back in as CEO of our nearly financially devastated company.

Of the 35 employees who were at Digital IMS when I was removed as CEO, 31 remained and stuck by me. Each of these employees took a 50 percent pay cut, and some deferred even more. I launched an open-book system, and together we worked to focus on securing consistent, steady clients and more nonprofits. These nonprofits paid less than companies looking for big creative projects but they gave us consistent monthly revenues supporting our move to Paced Growth. In 2004, we had not only turned the tide — we actually generated a net profit of more than $1 million. And in 2007, we changed our name to Firespring to better promote a national brand.

Today we are a company of nearly 250 people and have more than 9,000 clients in 12 countries and in all 50 states. Inc. magazine named Firespring one of the top 50 places to work in 2016. And we’ve donated millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations. In 2014, we became a B corporation to strengthen our mission to “leverage our people, products and profit as a force for good.”

My path has been one of Perseverance, but it’s also been about the importance of Purpose to our people, and just how loyal and amazing they are if you do the right thing. Nearly every employee who stayed with me during that troubled time in 2002 is still with Firespring today. Together we’re building a strong Evergreen company that makes us all proud.

Jay Wilkinson is the founder & CEO of Firespring.

If you enjoyed this article or talk, please share with your friends, colleagues and family.