When Kyle Blakely needs to unwind from his role heading up one of the most successful advertising and public relations firms in the region, he heads to his studio in Old Colorado City.
“I paint,” he says. “I’m horrible, but I love it. It’s mostly for friends and family. They have those First Friday Art Walks, and I don’t participate — I don’t want to lower the quality of work available. I just keep my studio locked up on those days.”
Blakely + Co. celebrated its 15th anniversary last week, and there have been fewer of those stressful days in recent years. Blakely remembers the day he signed for the company’s first Small Business Administration loan — because Sept. 11, 2001, was a mere four days later. He remembers the Great Recession that started in 2007 as well.
“We lost our two biggest clients in a single day,” he said. “That was the low point in 2007. They were developers and they just didn’t have the money to put into marketing. By 2009, we were half what we were before; we’d lost 50 percent.”
In the past six years, not only has Blakely recovered, it’s thrived. The agency now has 14 full-time employees and routinely hires contractors for projects.
“We’ve increased four-fold,” he said. “And that’s exactly where we need to be.”
Recently, he took time to talk to the Business Journal about starting a business, anniversaries and working alongside his wife, Camille, who is president of Blakely + Co.
After 15 years in business, what lessons have you learned?
There are so many different aspects because there are different ways of starting your own company. Some people save money and start when they have enough; some people bootstrap their companies and grow as they can. We couldn’t do without a paycheck, so we decided to take out an SBA (Small Business Administration) loan. We borrowed enough to make the business run for a year — even if we didn’t have a single client. We knew it was going to take a while, so we wanted to be prepared.
In hindsight, I’m not sure we would have done it that way. We might have explored other ways of doing it so we didn’t have to borrow as much money.
On the business side, I learned that it is very different owning your business as opposed to running an agency for someone or working for someone else. You make decisions differently, particularly on the financial side. You look at the ramifications more closely. Before, you would say you needed to spend money to make the business better, but your motivations are different — you don’t think of the cost implications. When you own it, those definitely come into play.
From a client standpoint, I’ve learned that success depends more on client retention than on recruitment. Inevitably — and I’ve done this for 30 years — you lose 30 percent of your clients in any given year, through no fault of your own. Clients stop spending money, projects end — you just lose those clients. The goal is not to lose more than that. You have to provide good solutions and good service, the opportunity to grow with your clients.
Why did you decide to start your own agency?
I was in the process of buying an agency that I was running, and it didn’t work out. At the time, I had two loans approved at the bank: one to buy the business and one to start my own. The day I found out the deal wasn’t going to work out, I called the bank and told them which loan I was going to take. That was at 1 p.m. By 8 a.m. the next morning, I started my own company.
Did you always want to be in advertising and public relations?
My first job out of college, I spent a year in sales with Maytag. They kept sending me places I didn’t want to go. I was in training in Iowa and they asked where I wanted to go next. I said Denver. They sent me to Philadelphia. There, there were two places I could go: Charlottesville, Va., with mountains and a college town. Or, they could send me to Dover, Del. They sent me to Dover. After a year, I left because I was afraid of where they’d send me next.
I’d done some project management work in college with an advertising agency and found it fascinating. So I got a job at a company in Wichita, Kan. They took on a client here and I lived in Colorado Springs for eight months. I always wanted to come back.
Where are you from originally?
I’m from Manhattan, Kan. It’s a small college town, a great place to grow up. I went to community college for two years, and ended up graduating with a degree from Kansas State University. I started in accounting, and it was hard. I was struggling to get a ‘C’ in my second accounting class. I told my adviser I was switching to marketing and he was disgusted. ‘Because it’s easier?’ he asked. I said yes.
How did you decide to move here permanently?
I had a friend in college from here and we vacationed here. I just loved it. So after that first job in Wichita, I moved here to work for Hisey Design and Advertising. I also worked for Vladimir Jones when it was PRACO.
What do you like about Colorado Springs?
I see this city change and all the things I see are good things. The economy is rebounding and I see a lot of really cool projects — like City for Champions, the public market, Catalyst Campus, the cyber center. There’s a group really dedicated to bringing trolleys to downtown. If all these projects take shape and layer on top of each other, we’ll be a very cool city.
We have all these housing options downtown, and as soon as we get a critical mass of housing options downtown, we’ll see downtown really explode with some cool stuff. The Olympic Museum by itself — that is going to bring so much publicity. When it opens, every year when they announce the Hall of Fame, Colorado Springs will be in the news. That will spur more development.
I think we’re at a tipping point and we’re finding all this momentum. Every few years, you hear about the latest cool city — Austin, Portland, Seattle, Charlotte had a turn. We’re going to be the next cool place. It’s our turn. And we have so much natural environment here — so much more than all those other cities — it should have been our turn a long time ago.
Do you have advice for people starting their own business?
Just do it. I didn’t grow up in a family of entrepreneurs, but I’d say just do it. Do a ton of research, find people you know who have done it — and pick their brains. Find out what they did right, what they’d do differently. I went to everyone I knew who had started a business and asked questions, got advice. That was invaluable. I’d tell anyone who’s thinking about it — just do it. I wouldn’t change it, but I might do some things differently.
You own the agency with your wife, Camille. What’s that like?
You know, at work, we really don’t see each other. We each have our own set of clients. Our offices are at opposite ends of the office. We can go whole days without seeing each other. We’re not in the same room on top of each other.
We do talk about work at home, because we don’t see each other at the office. But in the evenings, we put it away.
So it works well for us. It’s pretty easy. We divide up the work for the company. Camille manages the employees and I handle the business side of things.
Any reflections on 15 years in business?
It’s been a great 15 years. We have worked with some great people — we have a great staff now. It’s always been fun. I never thought we had to grow to a certain point at a certain time. My biggest goal was be profitable and do good for the client.
We do good work for clients we love, we work with people we like and we want to make money. It’s that simple. n CSBJ