How an “Affront to Capitalism” Plans for The Future
May 25th | 2016

It’s now been ten years since the founders of Zeus Jones got together and planted the first seeds of the company.

At the time we had no clients in mind, no clear business model, and certainly no financial plan. What we did have were three ingredients far more important than any of these details: optimism, alchemy and a shared vision.

Despite the looming economic crash of 2008, we had a shared belief that the flux in the business world was creating opportunities for innovators, that marketing needed to be reinvented for the modern age, and that we could make our mark in this reinvention. Optimism was our first ingredient. Good to have if you’re putting your savings on the line to start a business, even at the best of times.

The second ingredient, alchemy, might be the most important in my opinion – though all are inextricably linked. We believed in each other, and still do. We trusted each other, implicitly. We did so both as individuals and as partners. We complemented each other in personality and experience. We intuitively knew that each person added something different to the mix and that together we were stronger and better. When you’re starting a business, if your partners don’t mesh you’re not going to get anywhere – regardless of the strength of each individual’s track record.

The third ingredient was a shared vision. Not for the type of work we would be doing (which is constantly evolving), but rather for the kind of company we wanted to create. That’s the real subject of this post. And I believe it is this ingredient that it is the key to creating a company that can thrive as an independent through multiple generations of leadership.

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For many start-ups – especially in the media, marketing, and consulting worlds – the goal is to build a company as fast as possible so that the founders can sell and the business gets rolled into a larger holding company. When it works, the founders exit with mucho cash. But it’s not so great for the employees, who end up in a post-acquisition world that’s rarely as fun, fulfilling, or rewarding as the place they started.

For a smaller collection of start-ups, the goal is to build a company for the long haul, but they often have no plan in place for how to transition leadership and ownership. In this scenario, the founders inevitably have to sell in order to extract a return from their entrepreneurial investment. That’s because tight control and a desire to maintain as much ownership as possible is in conflict with the long-term needs of the organization; top performers can’t afford to buy in as owners, get frustrated by the lack of meaningful leadership opportunities, and have to leave to satisfy their own personal ambitions. And, once again, the employees who believed in the company and gave their all for it are left in the dust of a post-acquisition environment.

But for a very few start-ups, there’s both a vision to create a sustainable, independent company and a plan to achieve that goal. We had that vision from the start – to be a thriving, independent company across multiple generations of leadership – and made a commitment to work together over time to create a plan that would make that vision a reality. This March, we took a huge step forward in realizing that plan. 

Before I get to that, though, let me pause to say that people, especially those in the world of finance, are often surprised by the way Zeus Jones follows through on its vision for the long-term future of the company, because in many cases it’s at odds with making the highest return on investment for its founders. On one occasion, a good friend and one of our trusted advisors from the inception of the company, confided that he thought we were “an affront to capitalism.”

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That is actually a badge of honor the founders wear proudly. We are trying to do something truly unusual: create a company that can thrive successfully for generations. That may mean sacrificing personal reward to some extent, but the long-term fulfillment of seeing our company succeed beyond the founders is immeasurable.

So what happened in March that moved us forward on this path?

The first part of the plan concerned stock ownership. From day one, we established a discounted valuation formula that would make it easier for minority owners to buy into the company. We have also executed deliberate dilution of majority owners to make it easier for the next generation of leaders to participate in the success of the company.

The second part of the plan was inspired by the management philosophy of one of our important early clients, Nordstrom. Their inverted pyramid model has the most senior people in the company at the bottom of their corporate hierarchy, supporting and empowering those above them. We decided to adapt aspects of this philosophy for our company.

To that end, this March, as the most senior person at Zeus Jones by a decade or more (with the grey hair to prove it), I stepped aside as CEO, and will now play that supporting and empowering role for the people and teams at Zeus Jones. For the record, I am not retiring! I’m repositioning myself as a resource who can help guide new leaders as they take on greater responsibility.

I passed the CEO role and executive responsibility for our company toAdrian Ho. He has remarkable vision, and in my opinion is the most disruptive thinker in the business today. He is a friend, colleague, and partner, and has the capability to take Zeus Jones to levels I can’t even begin to imagine. Our future is in great hands.

My creative partners – Christian Erickson and Eric Frost – are, like me, also moving into supportive roles, but since they’re still ridiculously young, they’ll also maintain significant responsibilities for how we work, the quality of our work, and major client relationships. 

Together, we have conceived a plan to transition both ownership and leadership to the generation beyond the founders. We have extracted ourselves from operational management and will instead hold ourselves responsible for setting vision, goals, and standards. Everything else has been passed on to the next generation, under the core leadership of existing partners Dave Annis, now Managing Director of Zeus Jones, as well as Brad Surcey and Peter Petrulo.

Their first action was to build a more diverse leadership team around themselves. One that reflects our larger organization and provides a clearer path to partnership for those who seek it.

Collectively this team, which includes great people from every discipline, will put their stamp on who we are and what we do, guiding us into the future. In the weeks to come, Dave will share more on this group of people and how this plan will come to life.

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Not long ago, I found some scrawled handwritten thoughts from 2006 about the kind of company we wanted to build. These notes talked about the other founders and why this was the right group to go into business together. They talked about the kind of company we wanted to create – one that centered on values rather than size, structure, or even product. They mentioned the gradual dilution of ownership. And, eerily, they said that after ten years I should step aside as CEO to create space for the next generation to lead us forward. 

I could never have foreseen that ten years later we would have more than fifty awesome people at Zeus Jones working on the coolest projects of my entire career, doing all kinds of innovative work for companies large and small. I love what we are doing right now, yet I realize those early scribblings were right, and that now is the time to shift roles for the long-term good of the company.

I am truly excited to see where Adrian and Dave (and the other talented young people they’ve identified for leadership roles) will take Zeus Jones in the next ten years. I’ll see it first hand. I plan to be along for the ride. 

And if we keep doing what we’ve been doing so far – making plans for the future and acting on them – we’ll continue to be “an affront to capitalism.” And proud of it.

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