Interview with the Entrepreneur: Jesse Thomas of JESS3

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jesse Thomas of JESS3 an innovative design firm here in the DC area. He has been working hard to create a business that is not just about design but about transforming the innovation process and working with the startups that will one day change the world.

So let’s get started….

1. Please provide us with a bit of your personal background in business and entrepreneurship.

I was always business-minded as a child. I lived by a swimming pool where they charged 75 cents for a soda. I realized that I could provide sodas at a better price and offer a larger variety. I put together a business plan, took out a loan from my parents, and started selling drinks outside the pool. When the summer ended, I modeled the same business plan around selling gum and candy to my classmates.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Busboys and Poets, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., was one of my first freelance clients. I pitched my ideas to owner Andy Shallal and landed the account. From literally before the restaurant existed, I consulted with Andy and gave him key creative input. I helped come up with the name, designed their logo, mural, signage, and built the website. Partnering with Andy Shallal was another very important experience in my career. We still do lots of work for Busboys and I am their Creative Director.

At that time I was working at Qorvis Communications. I wanted to improve my skill set and breadth of knowledge, so I spent my money on attending workshops and traveling to various conferences all over the country. Through networking and meeting many interesting people during my travels, I received several job offers and ended up taking a position at Ogilvy PR as Art Director for John Bell’s 360 Digital Influence team. Building on my experiences at Qorvis, I further cultivated a keen business sense for what it takes to execute at the agency level while at Ogilvy.

Then I left Ogilvy and worked for AOL in the Experience Prototype Lab team creating new products for AOL. This added another tool in my tool belt in terms of what it takes to conceptualize and develop a product; it was also done so on a less profit-pressure-based system. While at Qorvis and Ogilvy there was a strong emphasis on account billables and profitability, which was an important set of lessons I carry with me now that I run my own company, at AOL there was a broader sense that we needed to think about the future of the Internet and industry as a whole.

When I left AOL in December 2007, I took with me a hybrid vision of always watching my margins (just as an Ogilvy would), but pushing the boundaries of conventional thought in the industry, letting ideas that are not bound by what is possible today, but possible tomorrow lead the way (as AOL would). I believe I have combined the best of both worlds with JESS3.

2. Your current venture is JESS3 – what’s your elevator pitch for it?

JESS3 is a creative interactive agency that specializes in Social Media. We design branding and interactive projects for fortune 50 brands and small businesses. If it is a product that exists online, we are able to build it. If it needs to look extra amazing, we have the ability to craft it from scratch using many old-way methods of typography and illustration often lost on a digital age.

And, if the elevator happens to be in Washington, DC, I would mention my contribution to Busboys and Poets. From its inception, I have been a part of what it takes to build a meaningful, community-minded brand. We are now in the process of providing tools for their vibrant offline community in an online setting.

My team is comprised of project managers, web developers, and super creative people. I really enjoy brainstorming big ideas that can be achieved on cost effective budgets.

Our current clients include Wall Street Journal, Verizon, AARP, AOL, New Media Strategies, Lookery, Heritage Foundation, Blue State Digital,, Userplane, Clearspring, Busboys and Poets, Shopzilla, Social Times, Brian Solis’ PR 2.0, Tech Cocktail, the Interact 2008 Conference, Ellwood Thompson’s, Buzzwire, and the list goes on. We are always looking to partner with creative, talented, go-getters.

3. There’s a ton of competition in the interactive space. What makes JESS3 unique?

We focus on branding, content creation, and social media PR. Many of our competitors focus mainly on the coding aspect, or sometimes view design as turning the crank; our advantage is creativity and drawing from atypical places for inspiration (I went all the way to Paris to come up with the just-right font for a local market down in Richmond, VA ““ Ellwood Thompson’s). JESS3 happily works with large corporations, but we also love to take on very abstract projects. We are active in a lot of communities and events such as Social Media Club, Barcamp, Podcamp, Tech Cocktail, Interact2008, Social Times, Facebook Developers Garage, AIGA, Art Directors Club, Startup Weekend”¦ this list also goes on J Not only are we leaders for these events and in these communities, we are also service providers and sponsors. I feel that it is very important to give back to the ecosystem in which I live and do business in ““ it just feels good and seems right that way.

4. Since your business model seems really aligned with pushing the boundaries using Web 2.0 technologies, what is the general roadmap for your business so readers get a sense of your vision?

My roadmap for the future culminates in a Think Tank/Lab business model. I am inspired by IDEO, Fabrica, and the work I did at the Experience Prototype Lab at AOL. I believe that innovation doesn’t have to happen inside a handful of large companies in room with “œInnovation” written on the door. JESS3 will be expanding into product design as well as IP patents.

I want to cultivate my team and build the ultimate work environment. Generating revenue from select clients and being an incubator for select startups is my passion.

The JESS3 of the future will be heavily focused on Venture Capital. I want a full service, integrated agency that can service the incubated companies and can ultimately provide award-winning work at cost-effective prices. I plan on continuing to work with friends, creating new experiences, and patenting as we move upward and onward. A big part of this expansion will be recruiting talented, young college graduates and developing them into priceless ninja innovators.

5. Could you elaborate a little more on your approach to revenue creation?

My approach to revenue creation is to be profitable on everything I do. If I take on a small project I try and keep my out of pocket expenses below the project fee. As I expand the margins get smaller, but the clients get bigger.

Right now, I’m doing my best to maximize effectiveness and efficiency for our 86 active clients. I’m also traveling the world, hiring, and training new employees. Hiring the right people is a big part of my strategy and I’m a big believer in hiring only the highest quality individuals. Zvi Band, CTO, is a tech genius. James Callahan, Art Director, is an absolute artistic prodigy. Leslie Bradshaw, President, is insanely smart and hard working; she grew up on a farm and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago. I am so inspired by my team and partners.

6. How many employees do you have at JESS3 now? Is it important that they all share your entrepreneurial spirit and drive? How do you find that in new hires and keep that entrepreneurial energy alive?

Currently, I have 4 full-time employees, 15 part-time and 1 intern. Keeping the energy and spark alive is essential, especially because we are growing so rapidly. I highly value people who are hard-workers and I like to think that the harder and smarter we work, the more it pays off. We are beginning to attract some very big brands and I think this brand recognition helps encourage my team to continue their phenomenal work and dedication to the company.

7. What are the most important elements for a successful start-up company?

In the film Wall Street, Gordon Gecko said “œA fool and his money are lucky enough to get together in the first place” and I believe this to be particularly true for start-ups. I think innovative branding, a well-executed website, and a presence in social media are all essentials for a successful start-up. Cash flow and the core team are also very important elements. I believe a successful company is 20% ideas and 80% execution. Start-ups should focus on quality and enforce standards regarding execution and consistency. A start-up should spend their advertising budget on customer service. Microsoft and Google can come in and beat you on size and scale, but one of the few advantages small tech start-ups have is a combination of agility and freedom.

Travel to conferences that make sense for your market and meet new people, broaden your perspective. Always have a nice business card and make sure you always have plenty of them with you. Read blogs that pertain to your industry and always be a part of the conversation. Listen to your heart and be the best start-up you can be! I am a big believer that “œif you shoot for the moon, even if you miss you are still amongst the stars.” It is important to have big dreams and large goals. One thing I do is talk to everyone that will listen to my ideas. When someone says something negative or criticizes the idea, I think of the answer, and sometimes I change part of the idea or the way I explain it, depending on the feedback I get.

8. You are self-funded which is poses a different set of challenges versus those who get money from the likes of Sequoia and Novak Biddle. Can you give us a bit of detail on your approach to managing cash flow while trying to grow?

I am so blessed to have great cash flow and a long list of clients waiting in line to work with us.

9. Is there room in the web development space for more competitors? Have you seen any recently that seem interesting?

Sure, I believe there is a lot of room for competitors. I just completed a tour of Asia (Japan, China, Hong Kong), where I participated in lectures at design schools, took tours of agencies. What blew my mind is that, even in China, with billions of people, there is a labor shortage for Interactive Designers. At the universities that we visited, there was a lack of teachers, and in some cases it was the blind leading the blind. This is such a new concept that the rest of the world hasn’t caught up with and I believe this to be an incredible opportunity. Richard Florida writes about creative classes, and I think we should all read his books to realize that we can cultivate communities that attract smart, innovative people.

As more people get online around the world in different more exotic ways, there will be more web development needed. Brands will always need craftsmen to build beautiful original web services. The cream of the crop will always rise to the top. We are in the middle of something akin to the Industrial Revolution. It is as if I am a car creator and I am trying to explain to someone about the future of the car market. We are at a game changing moment, like the invention of the cotton gin.

10. What approach to marketing plays a significant role in promoting and attracting customers to work with JESS3?

Passion. My own passion and that of my team. My customers are so important to me; we have an amazing set of existing relationships and partnerships. I spend a lot of time in the trenches by attending events and volunteering my time and services to industry groups whenever possible. I talk to a lot of people in this industry. I pass out a lot of schwag and ask even more questions. At JESS3 we practice what we preach with creative and social media PR; we use the products we build and we hyper-actively participate in the online space that we help shape.

11. If you want people to remember one thing when they think about JESS3, what is it?

I want people to know how passionate about design and technology we are. We truly put our blood, sweat, and tears into this business. The second thing I’d like people to know is that JESS3 isn’t just me: my core team is comprised of Leslie Bradshaw, Zvi Band, James Callahan, Nick O’Neill, Jamie Gale, Eric Leach, and Becca Baker.