Episode 161

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For entrepreneurs, business decisions always are a blend of the head and heart. You need data and research in hand to make smart, informed decisions. But it also needs to feel right.

Episode #161 is about those head-and-heart decisions. It’s about making mistakes and starting over. It’s about not settling for only one side of the equation.

Some learn these lessons sooner than others. We all know college kids who started their own thing and made it work brilliantly. Back when I was in college, that didn’t even cross my mind. But today, it’s becoming more of the norm.

Today’s young adults have a different script and a different sense of what’s possible. And they are far from crazy. Exciting things are happening, big problems are getting solved, and a larger purpose is being fulfilled. And people like Jonathan Grzybowski are just jumping in and doing it.

For 29-year-old Jonathan, part of the problem was his own dissatisfaction. Running a full-service agency was not fulfilling. Money as the sole motivator was not working for him. That led him to set out to solve a business problem along with his own dissatisfaction. His agency excelled at design. Why not take that design excellence and use the platform they were developing to manage their internal projects to provide design as a on demand service? Jonathan Grzybowski is now co-founder of Penji, a subscription-based design service for agencies and other businesses.

Beyond the business problem, Grzybowski also wanted a business that made a difference in the community where he lived and worked – Camden, New Jersey. One of the things I love most about the agency owners I work with is their generosity. They have a pay it forward mentality. Jonathan is finding the ethos of Penji to be extremely fulfilling. And he’s finding that when you love Camden, Camden loves you back!

This is a great conversation about finding the right fit, starting over, serving clients and the community, and following your head and your heart – really, everything you could hope for in an episode of Build a Better Agency!

 

 

What You Will Learn About in This Episode:

  • The potential downside of being a full-service agency
  • How people just starting out in the world of work are viewing entrepreneurship as a viable path
  • Why the hard work of entrepreneurship should not be glossed over
  • Why offering a suite of services sometimes is not enough differentiation
  • The freedom that comes from specialization
  • How to build a business model and platform that serves both agencies, individual companies, and your community
  • How vision and purpose beats trying to be the next Tai Lopez or Gary Vaynerchuk
  • Why an agency might hire out a core function like design
  • The power of connecting with your local community
  • The importance of research in finding your niche

The Golden Nuggets:

“Ask your employees or team members, ‘What is your dream?’ And by helping them achieve their dream, they will help you achieve yours.” – @grzybowski Click To Tweet “I didn't even know what entrepreneurship was. I just did it.” – @grzybowski Click To Tweet “If you are wanting to start a marketing agency, be data-driven and check your ego at the door.” – @grzybowski Click To Tweet “As we transitioned from a full-service agency to penji.co, it was all about research. What do people love about what you do? What are they willing to pay for? Find out and do more of that.” – @grzybowski Click To Tweet “If you are thinking about starting your own agency, I recommend that submerge yourself in the culture, study entrepreneurs that started their own, and ask questions so you can create a blueprint.” – @grzybowski Click To Tweet

 

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Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McClellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. This is going to be fascinating conversation and very different actually from a lot of our episodes. I’m hoping that it’s insightful for you. So, today’s guest is a 29-year-old entrepreneur, who has already started and shut down an agency, because he realized it was not the model for him, and then has opened up a different kind of business that now serves agencies. So, there’s a couple things that I want you to really listen for in this episode and a couple things that I’m going to be trying to dive deeper into.

So, Johnathan Grzybowski owns a company today called Penji. What they are is they are a design subscription model, where you pay them a flat fee and they do all the designs that you can request in the course of that month for the subscription fee. But what’s interesting about Johnathan is that at the ripe old age of 24, he started an agency. Here’s what I want you to get out of the conversation. So, if you are 40+, I think it’s going to be really insightful in terms of how the millennial generation, how the younger generation thinks about work and how they think differently about owning a business, because for a lot of you, you struggle with attracting and recruiting and retaining young talent.

I think it’s helpful for you to understand the way they see the world, their worldview, which is very different from how us, middle-aged folks, sorry, think about it. I think they’re much more willing to take risks. I think we’re seeing a lot of younger people start businesses either while they’re in high school or college or certainly right out of college. I don’t know about you, but when I was starting out, it didn’t occur to me that I should start my own business. I assumed that I had to work for someone else and I had to learn from someone else. I’m grateful for that learning, don’t get me wrong, but I think the mindset has changed. So, I want to dig into that.

I want to hear from Johnathan about, “What was his motivation for starting the agency and what went wrong? Why did he decide that it really wasn’t the right model for him? How did he pivot to do Penji? Now, how is that different for him as an entrepreneur, but also how does it serve agencies?” So, buckle in. I think this is going to be a fascinating conversation. For those of you that are my age and have kids Johnathan’s age, which I really hate saying out loud, it’s also insightful in terms of our own families and how we coach and guide our kids through the decision making of looking for a job or starting a business. So, hopefully, this is useful for you on a plethora of levels. I’m excited to dig into the interview and pick Johnathan’s brain.

All right. So, without further ado, Johnathan, welcome to the podcast.

Johnathan Grzybowski:

Drew, it’s an honor to be here. Thank you for having me.

Drew McLellan:

You bet. So, before we get started, give everybody a sense of your background and how you came to be where you’re at. I know, we’re going to dig a lot deeper into your agency background and all of that, but just give everybody a quick overview.

Johnathan Grzybowski:

Yeah. So, I am a Northeast Philadelphia, born and raised. I’m not going to finish the rest for Fresh Prince of Bel Air ’90 folks that are listening right now.

Drew McLellan:

Nice.

Johnathan Grzybowski:

Even though he’s at West Philadelphia, but that’s another story neither here nor there. So, yeah. So, I’m from Northeast Philadelphia and I grew up there. Moved my way to New Jersey. Now, I’m located in a city called Camden, New Jersey, which is right over the bridge of Philadelphia. It is a city that’s near and dear to my heart and something that I advocate for. I’m sure the questions will come up at a later time in this conversation about why Camden, but I started a business five years or so ago, almost six years now that revolves around marketing.

The reason why we started the agency was because of outside reasonings that didn’t necessarily call for a real business. We had outside influence from major entrepreneurs, because that was the cool thing to do six years ago, was to watch an entrepreneur, to believe in the entrepreneur and do very similar to that entrepreneur. This was coming from a young mind and a young heart. We realized six years later that the agency lifestyle just simply isn’t for our personalities. When we ran the agency, it was a very one-dimensional side of the business. We would work with organizations, but when we worked with organizations, it would just be a one-sided conversation.

It wouldn’t be a relationship, which is ultimately at the end of the day, the most important thing when it comes to a business, especially an agency. You’re a service-based business. We were a service-based business. In order to provide a service, you have to care wholeheartedly about what the other person is doing and the customer on the other side. I can say that we did care. We did care a lot about the customer, but we more said it more so than we believed it, if that makes sense.

So, after realizing this and going down this path of what I thought was the right way, it wasn’t fulfilling, because it didn’t necessarily bring that fulfillment in my life that allowed me to expand my mind, allowed me to be creative, allowed me to just continue pushing forward. And then we stumbled across the idea of Penji about a year ago to the date almost of this unlimited graphic design service. In October of 21st of 2017, we were asked a question and the question was, “What are you doing for the City of Camden, New Jersey?” The short answer to the question was, “Well, we’re doing absolutely nothing for the city.”

So, a combination of the experiences that we had from the agency, the plateau of just not being fulfilled, delivering a quality service, of course, but just not having that fulfillment and then also living in the city and being a part of the city and trying to grow this ecosystem within the city led us to the path of what Penji is, which is an unlimited graphic design service that delivers unlimited graphic design to agencies, to marketing teams, to entrepreneurs at a flat monthly rate. We also hire and provide jobs to the City of Camden.

If you know anything about the City of Camden or if you don’t know anything about the City of Camden, again, it’s right across the street from Philadelphia practically, but it’s a city that’s relatively ridden by crime, by drugs, by violence. There’s so much opportunity here that we see. We want to be able to try to do what we can to be socially conscious. I think that’s the overarching theme as to what we wanted to do when we wanted to create Penji was to solve a big enough problem and to give back to our local community. Within the agency for us, our way that we did business, our business model, we weren’t solving a problem. We were just delivering a service and we were just delivering a one-dimensional service at that.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. So, when you say we, who is we?

Johnathan Grzybowski:

We as in an entire team. So, at the time when we “shut down” the agency, we had 12, 13 people. We didn’t necessarily shut it down. We just transferred over to the new service offering and to the new product and brand. So, now, we’re at a much higher. We’re about 27, 28 now. Yeah, so that’s we.

Drew McLellan:

So, do you own it solely or do you have co-owners?

Johnathan Grzybowski:

I was the sole founder of what was Waterfront Media, which was the agency. Now, I’m a co-founder of Penji.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. You and I are looking at each other on video, but other folks are just going to be listening to us. So, I think there’s context here that matters. So, tell everybody how old you are.

Johnathan Grzybowski:

Twenty-nine.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. So, when you started the media company, what were the primary offerings at that time? What made you decide that that was a business model you wanted to launch?

Johnathan Grzybowski:

Yeah, the agency or Penji?

Drew McLellan:

The agency.

Johnathan Grzybowski:

The agency. So, the question was, “Why did we want to do the agency?”

Drew McLellan:

What did you guys sell? What did you do? Were you creating logos? Were you buying just digital media? What are the offerings of the shop?

Johnathan Grzybowski:

So, we were a full service marketing and development agency. So, we did web design. We did app design. We did web and app development, personal branding, company branding, SEO, social media marketing. I mean, you can just hear just from the service offerings of what we were offering, we weren’t specialized, but the one key thing that I could say with the five years of our business was, five, six years of being in the agency world, there’s one thing that everybody always told us that we were really good at and that was design. They always love the design.

Regardless of the customer service aspect, regardless of the development aspect, everybody said that our design was awesome. So, it led us to that spark. We’re like, “Okay, what’s the consistent theme here?” The theme is, “Well, they like our design.” Okay, well, what can we do with design? Okay, well, we’re pretty smart when it comes to design. We’re pretty smart when it comes to development. Instead of doing it for other people, why don’t we just do it all for ourselves? So, we actually created a tool within the agency to help us scale design.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. So, if my math is right, you’re 24 years old, right?

Johnathan Grzybowski:

Yes, yeah.

Drew McLellan:

At that point, had you worked for anyone else or was this your first foray into post-school professional life?

Johnathan Grzybowski:

It wasn’t my first venture into entrepreneurship. I’d say my entrepreneurship career started very similarly to most young adults, which was mowing lawns.

Drew McLellan:

Sure.

Johnathan Grzybowski:

For mowing lawns for two years, I just worked my butt off and made a lot of money. My mom was like, “You need to go get a real job, because you need to work out and go to college and have a good resume.” I was like, “Mom, what are you talking about? I have a lot of money. I’m doing what I love. I’m having fun.” I spent all the money on Pokémon cards and Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers at Wendy’s and stuff like that. So, I was feeling pretty good. I actually had a career at Apple as well, where I worked for Apple. I learned so much at that company.

Working for yourself at 16 to 18 taught me the work ethic of just constantly mowing lawns and going out there and sweating my butt off and not having a care. And then the career at Apple led me to this path of, “What does a company culture look like? What does a real business look like? How does it operate?” And then fast forward, I just got really upset. I got really depressed for about a year and ended up quitting my job at Apple.

I started this social media business, because I saw other people doing it, right? I saw other people doing it on YouTube. I was like, “You know what? If this guy could do it, I could do it, too.” I had no clue what the hell I was doing. I have literally no idea. Looking back now, social media is such a widespread thing, but I was just like, “You know what? I can make graphics and I could sell.” I personally did social media management for a year and I was terrible at it, absolutely terrible at it. So, that led me down to that path.

Drew McLellan:

Now, I’m thinking about my listeners all over the globe and I’m thinking about my own age, which I’m 55. One of the things I think is fascinating and it’s insightful in terms of the generational differences, because when you’re my age, A, I have a daughter your age, but B, I have employees your age. So, I’m curious, at what point did you dismiss the idea of actually… Because other than your gig at Apple, you’ve really never worked inside an agency or professional services firm. So, I was talking to a colleague the other day, who’s about my age. We were marveling at the difference between generations.

One of the things that makes your generation very different is I think you’re much more likely to start off on your own without the decades of experience that some of us had before we had the courage or the boot on our butt to start our own shops. So, what do you think it was about either your upbringing or your generation? What makes 24-year-olds who have very little world experience at this point? What’s happening in your brain that makes you go, “You know what? I’m just going to start a business”? Because I wish I had had that when I was your age. I would have been much further along, much faster. It didn’t even occur to me until I was about 30, right?

Johnathan Grzybowski:

Yeah. So, there’s two parts to that. Looking at it now, I think people are doing it too much because of that outside influence of… I’ll take it this way. My personal journey has been to try and solve a problem, to be able to help people, right? So, I always wanted to be able to help people. Just every aspect of my life, I wanted to give back. I wanted to do something for others. That was why I started the agency was to help people, was to help people with their marketing, to help people with their social media. That transpired through and through.

Now, I think a lot of people are doing it for more fame and fortune. They’re seeing the Gary Vaynerchuk’s. They’re seeing the Grant Cardone’s and the Tai Lopez’s of the world. They’re like, “This guy’s driving an awesome car. This guy’s saying the word hustle 24/7. I want to hustle too.” So, I think now it’s much different. A lot of people are going after it for the money. I can’t speak for the entire generation, but I can speak for myself and say that personally, I feel like I’m an anomaly in my family. I also believe that my dad in particular was probably the one who had the most entrepreneurial spirit but didn’t necessarily go out there and do it. I don’t know why.

Maybe it was because he was growing a family and he was trying to raise a family. I don’t give a F. Maybe that’s the entire generation, but I just simply don’t have that mental filter of being, “Well, what’s going to happen? How am I going to do this?” I literally quit my job. Actually, I didn’t quit my job. I put my two weeks in, right? I put my two weeks in. I’ve been preparing for this thing for six months or so. This is what I need to do. This is how I need to do it. In order to make what I made at Apple, I need to have 10, 15 customers or something like that. I just did the math. Well, if I meet 100 people, the percentage is pretty high. If I can get 15%, it’s not bad out of 100.

So, I was just calculating and doing the math internally. It just led me to, “Okay, this is possible.” I put my two weeks in and my manager was like, “You know what? How about you just leave today?” I was like, “Well, crap, man. I guess this two-week thing is going to be now.” So, I just went out and did it. I failed and I didn’t make any money. I think a millennial in particular, we have the luxury of depending at least a little bit on our parents. So, I literally lived with my parents for two years to get my butt off the ground. I was very grateful for that opportunity, but yeah. I mean, I don’t know. I think now it’s a little bit different, but before, I didn’t even know what entrepreneurship was. I just did it.

Drew McLellan:

I do think you’re right. That is interesting. There are all of these internet famous people who make it look really easy. They talk about the upside of it. They don’t really talk about the worry and the difficulty and-

Johnathan Grzybowski:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

… the challenges when you’re not making your clients happy. So, I love the entrepreneurial spirit part of it. I think it’s good for people to get out on their own and try things, but I do think that right now, we live in a world where it’s been whitewashed a little bit.

Johnathan Grzybowski:

Absolutely, yeah.

Drew McLellan:

I think if all of the people that are not Gary Vaynerchuk, which is 99% of the people who have tried to do what he’s done, would also get on the internet and talk about their life and their reality in a really transparent way, then I think people would probably give a little more pause before they just chopped it all and hung up a shingle somewhere.

Johnathan Grzybowski:

Yeah, I mean if there’s a young professional that’s listening right now or even somebody who’s thinking about just starting their own thing, I highly recommend don’t be as stupid as I was, just quitting my job. I think that was the smartest and the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. It led me to who I am today and I couldn’t be more grateful for that. I would recommend that you want to submerse yourself in a culture first, study from the entrepreneur that started it or the CEO, whatever it may be, and just ask questions to be curious as often as you can, and really just create the blueprint.

And then if you feel like marketing agency or design, whatever it is that you want to get into, is the right thing, you at least had the background first. I had no background. I relied on reading Forbes articles and all that stuff in order to piecemeal what it is that I need to get together. That’s good and bad, because then you’re getting outside influence from