In 2007, I founded iStrategyLabs in my apartment in Washington DC after getting laid off from an ad agency. I had always been entrepreneurial, so with about 3 months of living expenses in the bank I figured I’d try my hand at not having a job as long as I could. I filed for unemployment benefits to get a little more runway and started out doing $500 logo projects and $2,500 web designs where I was the project manager, designer and developer all in one. It was hard — the Great-Recession-financial-crisis-getting-screwed-by-bankers was just beginning and I almost quit in the first year to go back and get a job.
I’m glad I didn’t.
Over time, things started to click, and I was able to hire people much more talented than me so I could focus on managing and growing the business (many of my tactics for success I teach about here in my Creative Live class) — and our work got better and better, eventually landing us a couple Small Agency of the Year awards and 20 Cannes Lions. We rode the wave of amazing work produced by an amazing team for great clients — for 8 years we just grew and grew and grew, and in one 3 year stretch saw revenue grow 500% and headcount go from 30 to 70. At the point where we were about 90 people and my executive team was running the show day to day, and I decided we were ready to explore a possible sale, because we were operationalized to the point of being able to handle greater scale — and a sale to the right acquirer would give us access to new markets/clients we couldn’t reach on our own.
We were ready for the majors — and with a client roster including 25 of the Fortune 500 we’d proven we were among the best in the world at what we do.
So, in 2016, we sold to WPP (the largest publicly traded agency holding company in the world) — turning down acquisition offers from 6 other suitors. In late 2017, I was able to promote my long time right hand, DJ Saul, to became our CEO.
You can never shed the Founder title — nor can you promote someone into that role. Instead, I get to keep this distinction, which I’m more proud of than any accomplishment in my life to date, even though today I’m announcing my resignation from ISL and retirement from the agency world. I’ll be repping ISL at Cannes this week, and then my last day will be June 30th.
From the very beginning a founder has to make room for other leaders. I did that time and time and time again ; relinquishing responsibilities, trusting my team, and ultimately letting go of the mystique, prestige and compensation that goes along with being the CEO. Doing this requires suppressing egotistical impulses — not a trivial endeavor when your industry is showering you with awards, your clients are lavishing you with cash and you’re a globe trotting as a keynote speaker at conferences around the world. Deflating and/or ensuring your ego doesn’t inflate further takes huge amounts of mindfulness, introspection and empathy for others to pull off.
If you ask my wife Nicole — who’s also the CEO of her own agency Worn— she’ll tell you that my journey of letting go of the role of CEO wasn’t easy. It took years to do. And deflating an ego can be painful. I’m so grateful Nicole was by my side these past few years as a sounding board while I struggled to shed this part of my persona, making way for DJ to further self actualize by ascending into a role he was born to assume, and earned many times over through eight years of working at ISL.
So — as Founder, I can’t relinquish this title nor promote someone to it, but I can retire. I think it’s important sometimes for a founder to move on so that new leaders can pursue their vision for the company. I think it’s important for founders to strip back all of their ego and get back to who they are outside of the context of the company they’ve founded at some point. Perhaps once this peeling back of the identity onion is complete, I’ll find a new dream inside to pursue. Or perhaps that dream is merely to help others pursue theirs. So for now there is no fixed answer to “What will you do next?” which is the first thing everyone asks me these days. What I’m doing now is peeling that onion and enjoying the process of coming off the high of this incredible journey with ISL… and I’ll be working on a humanitarian effort to use ionospheric earthquake precursors to detect earthquakes a couple weeks earlier than is possible now. Wild I know. 🚀🌎🌊🌋[Update: I didn’t get the IP rights to do this work :(]
I always felt that our mission at ISL was to help people pursue their dreams. Mine came true over the past decade and I’m immensely grateful to everyone who supported me and ISL during that time. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart. I hope you’ll reach out over the decades to let me know what you’re up to, and to ask for insight you think I can provide. My inbox is always open.
P.S. If you need to reach me please hit me up at http://corbett.vc