As DTC reaches its fifth anniversary, and my reign as ‘Newest Employee of DTC’ ends (we hired a new SEO Analyst we’ll be introducing soon!), I sat down with co-founders George Zlatin & Taylor Cimala to look back on their biggest challenges and greatest successes.
L: Looking back on the past five years, what have been the most significant developments at DTC?
G: Actually just hitting the 5-year mark is an accomplishment on its own, since so few start-ups get that far. And when we reached one million in revenue, it felt like “Wow, we made it.” Getting our office back in May of 2010 was one of the best developments we’ve had to date—it sure beats working out of our first “office.”
T: I think the most significant thing to happen to our company is its consistent growth. We’ve been able to effectively scale and grow our team without sacrificing anything along the way.
L: Why did you decide to start this business?
G: We met each other working together at another local search agency that got bought out by a big Yellow Page company, and neither of us liked the direction it was heading. We saw the ship was sinking, so we decided to leave and do our own thing. L: How did this conversation happen? Was it over a drink after work? G: It was over multiple drinks.
T: I think part of the reason we decided to leave was also our desire for quality over quantity. At the previous company, we were really just cogs in a machine that weren’t producing satisfying results or creating innovative solutions. At DTC, we’re doing things our own way to make sure we have a tangible impact on the companies we work with.
L: What has been the biggest challenge in starting and running your own business?
G: I think the biggest challenge in starting this business was just taking the leap. Leaving your salary and job—especially after my wife had just gotten pregnant—is never an easy thing to do. Taylor was not going to be on insurance for a couple weeks, so he was freaking out about that. As far as running DTC goes, keeping the environment collaborative and positive while growing has been a bit of a challenge, but our team has always handled it.
T: When we first started, we knew what needed to be done, and if somebody didn’t do what he was supposed to, we could literally just reach across the table and slap him. Now, there are thousands of hours a month that we have to manage, and lots of systems have to run simultaneously. Making that transition was the biggest challenge for me.
L: Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently at the beginning?
G: To quote from a book I recently read—Good to Great—one of the crucial things you need to do when starting a business is making sure you have the right people on the bus, and then make sure the right people are in the right seats. If you don’t hire the right people for the right roles, it can be both agitating and expensive. The team we have at DTC now is filled with specialized and skilled individuals. I just wish I had known what types of people to look for earlier.
T: We learned a lot about what not do at our previous positions, so I’m actually pretty happy with how we’ve managed a lot of things. Particularly, I think we made a good call holding off on buying the office until we were financially stable.
L: What has kept your partnership strong? What’s kept you from not wanting to punch one another in the face? -Or have you?
G: I’m sure we have wanted to, but we haven’t done it. That’s one of the keys to success: don’t punch your partner in the face. I think knowing each others’ strengths and weaknesses is an important part of the balancing acts. And knowing when to stay out of each others’ way when necessary can keep faces intact.
T: We bicker like any happy couple would. But you just have to find your strengths and let others focus on theirs. We’re opposites in a lot of ways, which is actually a good thing.
L: What has been your greatest accomplishment/ what are you most proud of?
T: I can’t think of a single point that would be the proudest. But something I’ve always been proud of is our ability to grow without compromising our ethics. We continue to evolve in a constantly changing industry without changing the character of our company. We want to work with like-minded companies, we want to give tangible results and our primary concern is not making money. I’m proud that—through all the changes in the algorithm and all the change to the economy—this hasn’t changed.
G: I don’t think I’d point to one specific example either. There have been many cases where a client of ours will go from a local shop to national sales, or increase profits exponentially with our help, but I’m not more proud of one versus another. I’m just proud to make a measurable difference for all of our clients.
L: Who or what have been your greatest assets and best advisors to grow Digital Third Coast?
G: I’d definitely say Andy from Orbit has been a big influence on us. He’s one of those people who just likes helping other people, and he’s been there for us from the beginning. Orbit created our first website in exchange for SEO services, which given our unknown reputation at the time was extremely generous of him. Steve Fretzin was a great resource too, because I didn’t have a plan when I went into sales meetings, and taking his class was a big help and helped me improve my sales pretty much right away. Brad Farris has also been a big help in coming up with the budgets and helping us see things from a broader perspective business-wise, and then actually implementing them.
T: I agree with all of those. But, as cheesy as it sounds, I’d have to say our team around us has been our greatest asset. George and I couldn’t have gotten where we are today without them. Especially Nathan, who has been with us since the beginning, and really helped develop the culture of DTC.
G&T: And Jen and Kim [our significant others] – we couldn’t have done any of this without their support.
L: What has surprised you the most while at DTC?
T: The fact that the real meaning of SEO is so clouded and warped still surprises me. Too many people have misconceptions about SEO and good, transparent SEO processes.
G: I was actually surprised how hard it was to find the great analysts we have today. Our industry doesn’t really have a lot of experienced veterans, so it was harder forming our team than I would’ve thought.
L: For the past several years, DTC has consistently been one of the leaders in Chicago internet marketing. What do you think makes DTC different from its competitors?
T: Our specialization of services. We stick to what we know best. Sure, we turn down potential revenue by not offering certain services, but our mantra is if we’re not the best at it, we don’t want to do it.
G: We also invest in our clients too – by not working with their competitors. And we don’t outsource our work.
L: What do you see on the horizon in search marketing?
G: I definitely see it becoming more content-focused. The latest algorithm change was all about encouraging sites to get better content. Also, I think social media will play a bigger role. I don’t know how much it affects the rankings quite yet, but I know at some point it probably will.
T: I agree, I was actually going to say that shareable content is going to be key. Regardless of the site you have, you need to be able to present your information in a creative way that will make people want to share it. It’s not just about getting a high quantity of links.
L: Sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day, five days a week can be tiresome, to say the least. What have you done to keep the office a fun place to be in and work?
T: I think making it a loose, casual environment is important. Having stuff like a shuffleboard table and beer Fridays helps to take the edge off sometimes. Also, getting the right people in your team is vital. If we had bunch of people here that were boring, I don’t know what I’d do.
G: Definitely having the right people in the right roles makes everything easier. Because when it comes down to it, when we make a measurable difference for our clients, everybody’s happy. Seeing positive results keeps everybody fresh and excited.
T: I think an added bonus of this work is also how much extra stuff you get to learn when working with clients in different industries. I know way more about maternity clothing and hair extensions than I ever thought I would.
L: What advice do you have for someone starting his or her own new business?
G: Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Focus on one thing and be really good at it. Also, most people are obsessed with growth and think they need to grow as fast as possible, but this ends up killing a lot of companies. Pace yourself.
T: I’d say plan effectively and be realistic. I think a lot of start-ups go into it with an idea and immediately look for an investor, and then they sacrifice a big portion of the company for some money. Instead, put all of your ideas on the table, map out all of your plans and you might end up realizing “I probably don’t need as much investment as I thought I did.” Keep ownership of your company. You also need to budget and set realistic expectations. Don’t build a pipe dream and lose the passion for what you want to accomplish.