Last Sunday, March 1, 2015, the Bradford Group turned 15 years old. We will eventually get around to having a party (email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to be invited, as it is sure to be a humdinger), but for now, I think I’ll just tell the story.
The idea for this company is about 59 years old. That is, I’ve thought about owning a business my entire life. It’s in my blood. My father started and sold three companies. I believe he was in his mid-30s when he started his first one, so he had about a ten-year head start on me, and I don’t think I’ll beat his record. It kind of grieves me to say that, since beating your father is a time-honored American tradition. At least it used to be.
Of course, he also wore out faster than I hope to, dying at age 69 of heart disease, exacerbated by 30+ years of 12-hour days and 6-day weeks. (He never worked on the Lord’s Day.) Though I’m like him in that I’d rather wear out than rust out, I’m a little better than he was at the work/life balance thing. But not much better. My father and I were different in many ways – he was a mathematics and engineering major, I was an English and philosophy major; he was an engineer, I am a writer; he built things, I think things – but we have the same work ethic. And we both hate to fail. I mean really hate it.
So, failure was not an option when Gina Gallup and I started the Bradford Group. And we got off to a fortuitous start – as every one of the 14 clients I served at my previous agency, Bill Hudson & Associates, followed us to this agency. And we did it the right way. I did not talk with any of these clients until I left. We just took a leap of faith and it paid off. (Of course, it was more of a calculated risk than an act of pure faith, as I knew my clients were happy – I worked hard to make sure they were, just as we still do with every client of the Bradford Group.)
Within a few months and many 18-hour days, with just Gina and I and a bunch of freelancers handling all of the work, we hired our first employee. And it was a disaster. And so was the next one and the one after that. We had no idea how to hire people. (We are much more scientific and thoughtful about hiring today, and have a much better track record of hiring rock stars. Which is why we now have the biggest and best team in our 15-year history.)
Our first two excellent employees were Barb Rishaw and Mike Reed – smart, focused, self-starters who knew how to make things happen. Mike wound up being our longest tenured employee. We lost him when his wife got a big job in another part of the state. There is a big chunk of Mike Reed’s DNA in the Bradford Group, as there is also RJ Lyons’, who is one of the most talented and funniest graphic artists I’ve ever known. RJ had a hand in designing most of the printed materials we created in the early days. (Remember print? Marketing is basically a pure digital play now, which is kind of bittersweet for a guy like me who learned how to hand-set type, make paper and print on a hand-fed letterpress when I ran my college’s literary magazine. Fortunately, the design and typography skills have easily transferred to digital media, perhaps to my advantage, in that I know it on a visceral level – like, the space between lines of type is called “leading” because handset type used strips of lead to separate lines of type.)
We spent the first nine years in a suite of offices at the Fall School Business Center at 8th and Chestnut in Nashville– formerly the headquarters of Eric Ericson Advertising and today the home of the Church of Scientology in Nashville. Then we moved downtown for five years in the Nashville Sash and Door building on Second Avenue – where the BB King’s Club occupies the ground floor. A year ago, we moved into our wonderful new offices at the Fifth & Main building and stuck a big Bradford Group logo on the side of the building. This move was a milestone for us.
For the first seven or eight years, we did fine, but grew slowly. It still beat working for somebody else, of course, and we built a strong reputation – but we weren’t blowing the doors off like I knew we could.
This all changed about seven years ago when my then-neighbor, Arnie Malham, who was president that year of the Nashville chapter of The Entrepreneurs’ Organization, asked if the Bradford Group would be the PR sponsor of EO Nashville. Accepting this offer was the best thing we have ever done.
We did a bang-up job of raising awareness of EO Nashville and two wonderful things happened: 1) EO Nashville members, impressed with what we did for EO, started hiring us to do the same thing for their companies, and 2) EO’s international organization started taking notice of what was happening in Nashville and discovered us, which meant that we were discovered by EO companies around the country, which is why we have several clients outside of Nashville today.
Since we began providing PR services to EO Nashville, the chapter has grown from about 50 members to well over 150 members – and the Bradford Group has grown from 4 people to 13, with more on the way. It seems like we are hiring all of the time. We are hitting our stride. It is the best time ever to be part of our agency.
The third wonderful thing that happened from our association with EO was hooking up with business coach Andy Bailey, a former president of EO Nashville and a leader at the international level of the organization. Andy has helped transform our little band of writers and marketers into a real company with goals, organization charts, career paths, hiring and onboarding processes, a measureable sales pipeline, carefully monitored time records – the whole shebang. And I am slowly but surely spending more time working on our business instead of in our business. We recently created a management team that is taking on both long-term strategy and day-to-day administration of the company. The Bradford Group is becoming something that can exist perfectly fine without Bradford – and nothing could make me happier. It looks like we have built something to last.