There’s nothing like the excitement of starting your own business. Most entrepreneurs have a certain nostalgia about the early days when their companies were only a few steps beyond those initial notes on a legal pad — or a cocktail napkin.
When I launched my first ad agency, we really did start with a cocktail napkin. My business partner and I were teaching classes one evening a week at an ad school, and afterwards we’d meet up the street for a glass of wine. We would plot and plan and scribble thoughts on paper napkins, as we discussed our vision for the agency we would eventually call Match. Before we decided on a name, we practiced at the same bar with their cloth napkin rolls, wrapped around knifes and forks. We’d pick up that napkin roll and hold it to our ear saying, “Hello, thanks for calling Albert & Baskin.” No, that sounds like an ice cream store. “Hello, thanks for calling Magnet.” Okay, maybe. Until we finally tried, “Hello, thanks for calling Match,” and decided that was the one.
Our first office was two rooms in a renovated plow factory. We would spend the days pitching business and going to see clients, and then about 5 or 6 the phones would simmer down and we’d start doing the creative work for whatever deadlines we were trying to meet. I’ll never forget how it felt to be there working late, with the glow of lamplight on the dusty red brick walls and the rumble of trains moving past our open windows, almost close enough to reach out and touch. We’d have good music on the stereo and our dogs at our feet and after awhile we’d start to have some good ideas. It was heady stuff.
At first, we couldn’t afford much furniture and most of what we had was hand-me-down. Our desk was a borrowed dining room table we shared, facing each other across our laptops. We splurged on a pair of new swiveling desk chairs at the Office Depot, but hadn’t yet sprung for any rugs, so the chairs would slowly roll away on the warped old hardwood floors if you didn’t keep a good grip with your feet. One late night I was sitting cross-legged in my chair, writing on a pad of paper in my lap. I heard my partner B.A. talking to me, but she sounded far away. When I looked up, I realized I had rolled downhill all the way across the room. After that, we got some rugs, and they also helped with the noise of the trains which was so loud it was beginning to make our teeth rattle around in our heads.
Eventually, our little startup was employing ten or 12 people and working with an impressive list of clients. We grew out of our two rooms and knocked down walls to expand into three connected studio spaces. We bought furniture and returned the desks and tables and other pieces we’d begged and borrowed in the beginning. We put in a sophisticated phone system. We started a 401(k) plan. In short, we became a real business. Our startup worked.
But I wouldn’t trade anything for those early days. There’s nothing like the feeling of making something out of thin air. One day, Match was a stack of cocktail napkins covered in Sharpie. Then suddenly, there was a company that didn’t exist before, doing good work for clients, supporting a number of people in doing work they love, and giving other would-be entrepreneurs the confidence that they could do it too.
Several years later, a woman I’d worked with a decade before asked me to lunch to discuss the company she was about to launch. Over our Caesar salads she said, “I told my business partner, how hard could it be? If Elizabeth and B.A. can do it, anyone can!”