Risk-taking and Starting a ...


The Agency celebrates its 30th anniversary later this year.

Drawing attention to this milestone, I plan to periodically write about the adventure — journey is such a calm noun — starting with the launch of the Agency.

Most people tend to think of those who start a company as risk-takers. So what does it mean to be a risk-taker? It’s an individual who is pursuing something that he or she hopes will be better than the current situation. The risk comes in the form of the individual giving up something to pursue something else, with no guarantee of success.

But what if the individual is not giving up something of meaning? What if the individual’s current situation is not so good?

That was the case for me back in 1987. After working for a boutique PR company for four years, I wasn’t happy in the gig. It was time to move on. Furthermore, I didn’t have a mortgage. I didn’t have kids. My trusty Honda Accord was paid off. My extravagant indulgence at the time was purchasing two New York steaks from an actual butcher and barbecuing for my then girlfriend and now wife, Heather.

When I started the Agency, I wasn’t risking anything. If it didn’t work out, I was confident that putting my resume on the open market would find at least one taker. And I figured I could always dial down the barbecuing to teriyaki chicken until things picked up.

That was my mindset.

As for why did Silicon Valley need yet another PR agency focused on the tech sector, I believed there was a better way. At my old agency, I bristled at the monthly pressure to hit billability targets. In talking to friends at other agencies, they were experiencing the same thing. It struck me as a major disconnect. These same agencies espoused a client-centric mentality. Yet, I could never figure out how billability targets improved the product going to clients. If anything, it eroded value as desperate account people took “liberties” to make their monthly numbers.

In forming the Agency, the idea was to establish client service, not financial performance, as the lead pin. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted the Agency to perform financially too. I just believed that if we won good clients — defined as having a good story to tell, budget aligning with expectations and reasonable client contacts — and we hired great people — defined as smart and collaborative individuals who cared about the work going out the door — and directed our account folks that their No. 1 mission was to do great work, then the financial performance should come along for the ride.

It sounds like a simple concept, but this was (is) the talk of a heretic in the PR agency world.As you would expect of any company still breathing after 30 years, we’ve evolved the business model. Still, this client-centric mentality remains part of our DNA today.

Back to our walk down nostalgia lane, we needed to launch the Agency. Rather than go the conventional route, I worked with my then brother-in-law and today’s chief designer for the Agency, Chauncey Hill, to create the launch announcement which you can see below:

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was already applying storytelling techniques to the Agency’s communications.

  • Conversational language
  • Riff on a cliché
  • Levity
  • Shamelessly playing the mom card to humanize the story.

I think the announcement set the tone for a PR agency willing to deviate from the status quo.

And after 30 year, my mom has come to terms that her oldest son isn’t going to be a doctor or a lawyer.



  • Frank Strong

    I wonder if we forget our state of mind as we age. In other words, can we really remember what we felt at 20, or 30, when we are many years further along? I had a chance to start a firm a long time ago but backed away because of the (percieved) risk. All these years, later, with so much more to lose, I took the plunge. Every now and then I catch myself wishing I could write a note to my younger self and send it back through time. But only for a moment. Then I take a big, slow sip of coffee and get back to hustling.

    • Lou Hoffman

      To your question, I suppose what we remember from an event in our 20’s or 30’s largely depends on the impact that the event had on our lives. I couldn’t tell you what I had for breakfast on Nov. 1, 1987. But the hoopla of starting a company tends to stay in the memory bank. You’re an exception to the rule, truly taking a risk to start a company. Enjoy that cup of joe!


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