VOLTAGE is celebrating a decade of service, and in honor of the occasion, we’re introducing an interview series with industry insiders (think fashion & apparel, investing, food brands and more!). We hope these candid discussions will provide new insights and fresh perspectives on the issues and challenges that shape our businesses and our lives. As the 19th century journalist and early advocate for women’s rights, Margaret Fuller, succinctly expressed, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.”
We’re kicking this series off by sharing insights from our very own VOLTAGE founder Eric Fowles and our Chief Operating Officer Steven Cook. They turned what was a basement office endeavor into a thriving digital “concept-to-code” agency in Louisville, Colorado.
Gentlemen, thanks for sharing your time. I know it took a lot of hard work to bring your vision to life, but let’s reach back for a moment to talk about inception. What inspired you to create VOLTAGE, and when did you realize it could be a viable business?
Eric: 2008 was a challenging year for many people, and I was no exception. The economy had crashed, my wife was pregnant with twins, and I could tell the firm I worked for was circling the drain. I had two choices: find another job, maybe outside of the industry, or take a leap of faith and chase a dream. I am fortunate to have a wife who shared that vision.
Steven: I strongly believed in what we were doing from the start, but we also had to pay the rent. I realized we were on to something when we landed our first client. That got us out of the blocks, and from there we were off and running.
Of all the lessons you’ve learned in the past decade, which have been most central to your success?
Steven: The first thing is that there is no magic sauce. It’s all about putting in the hard work. The other major takeaway for me has been the realization that there is often no single right answer; that’s tough for an analytical person to accept, but it’s true. You have to evaluate your options, pick the one that represents the best solution, and execute it with conviction. Paralysis by analysis is real and must be avoided.
Eric: Do the right thing. By that, I mean don’t be greedy, and never put your priorities above the client’s. People are less transactional than you think; character still matters in business. If you are fair with people—whether clients, coworkers or contractors—they will generally reciprocate. And, second, “do your best.” I remember learning that as kid in Cub Scouts… “On my honor, I will do my best.” That’s still true. Do your best. All the time.
It’s a crowded marketplace, yet some big-time companies—Reebok, Chipotle, adidas, Crocs, who basically have their pick of any agency on the planet, have chosen to work with you. What do you think makes VOLTAGE stand out?
Eric: I know how quaint this might seem, but we are a force for good and our clients can see it.
Sorry to interrupt, “force for good?” Can you elaborate?
Eric: Of course. We aren’t traditional ad executives; we are creators who love helping clients share their vision. VOLTAGE is about positivity and balance, and everything from our client relationships to our approach to HR recruiting reflects those values. I mean, our mission statement is literally, “Be a Force for Good.” We hold internal competitions to explore questions like, “How can we use digital tech to solve a worldwide issue?” Every quarter, we donate 4 percent of profits toward a cause of our clients’ choice; it may seem a little odd, but it’s fulfilling for everyone involved. Our clients tell us they feel like they have a partner rather than an agency.
Steven: I agree with Eric but would add that you have to deliver a great product. Not just acceptable, but outstanding. Clients need to know that they’re getting top-shelf work and that we’re going to deliver as promised. Especially with technical elements, the product has to work. To accomplish that, we have a skilled, in-house development team and we stay at the forefront of technology. We were an early adopter of the Laravel framework and have expertise in an array of eCommerce platforms like WooCommerce, Shopify Plus, Magento and the latest analytics tools. This is a rapidly moving industry from a technological standpoint. You can’t tread water. If you’re not swimming, you’re drowning.
You two seem less like business executives and more like a symbiotic organism. How important is good chemistry to VOLTAGE’s success?
Eric: The reality is that I have a limited skill set. I’m not being self-deprecating; I like to think I’m good at some things, but I know I’m not good at everything. I think Steven would say the same thing. He is extraordinarily gifted, but there’s only one of him. We have to share the load and we all grow in our capabilities. I’ve always wanted VOLTAGE to be bigger than just me.
Steven: Yeah, I agree. It isn’t just a matter of workload management. If we want to be the best at what we do, everyone in the building—and there are now about 30 of us—need to constantly expand our horizons. Creative people aren’t inspired by paychecks, they’re inspired by impact. At VOLTAGE, we do a lot of stuff to keep the juices flowing. For example, during Development Demo Day, we play show-and-tell, but we let everyone see behind the curtain so they understand where and how we’re pushing the envelope. We use Slack to do peer review without boundaries in addition to our ongoing QA/QC process. Another thing—and this may freak out some ad agency traditionalists—is that we exchange and rotate projects. This helps people grow and expands the knowledge reservoir so our ability to meet a client’s needs isn’t contingent upon one person not getting the flu.
So where do you go from here?
Eric: Where do we go from here? Lunch. Oh, you mean in the broader sense. It’s a balancing act. We’re not a “grow-at-all-costs” kind of agency. While we want to keep our team busy and engaged, complications scale with a company’s size. If we ever see our attention to detail or product quality begin to suffer, that would be a red flag. The same with staff burnout; work-life balance is important to everyone here, and a happy staff is a productive staff. Our ongoing goal—maybe ‘dream’ is a better word—is to find that equilibrium where we’re busy but not overwhelmed, and where our clients say, “VOLTAGE is our favorite agency.” That, and not some random financial target, is the goal.