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Gene Powell of Spoke

Meet Gene Powell, founder of Spoke, a web and emerging media strategy, development, management and online branding firm.
What is Spoke?
Spoke is a digital agency located in Toledo. We provide online branding, web design and development services to a range of B2B and B2C clients, including several in the healthcare sector. Recently, we’ve expanded into naming and search engine optimization and marketing.

How did you come up with the idea?
Agency life is part of my DNA. I had the opportunity to work for the very best graphic and digital firms in Northwest Ohio and grew my career within their ranks. After many years of working for others, I decided I wanted a closer relationship with clients and their customers. The only way I was going to achieve that was to start my own firm. So, in March 2009 I launched Spoke. The name began as a joke, a mistake made while texting something about Spock from Star Trek with my then partner, and it stuck. People seem to enjoy the dual meaning of the word.

What was the biggest surprise in starting your business?
The biggest surprise was how quickly success came. Our first client was and remains the nation’s largest independent pharmaceutical wholesaler, and we landed that account five days after we opened our doors. It was a pinch-yourself moment, and a story I love to share. We’ve hit rough patches like all businesses do, but the trend has always been upward with new and exciting opportunities revealing themselves often. We’ve been very fortunate.
What does a typical day in your business look like?

I spend each day making sure everyone gets what they need to make sure we’re delivering on our promises. I rely heavily on email and Basecamp project management to stay in touch with clients and staff. I’m a data junkie, so everything is documented. I rarely throw anything away.

Being a sole proprietor means that I juggle multiple roles throughout the day. I like being able to switch between design work, strategy, sales and then back again. But it’s unsustainable as the business grows. I’ve recently brought in a Vice President of Strategy to help take some of the load off. He’s a close friend and confidante, so he’s well-versed in the challenges of the business.

Our team collaborates at Seed Coworking in downtown Toledo. Seed was founded by me and two partners who also own web development companies. It’s the first of its kind in Toledo.

What are some of the advantages to doing business in Toledo?
One advantage is that the talent here possesses that hardcore, Midwestern work ethic I love. We have the hardest working people in the country. There’s a self-determination and innate need to prove ourselves to other markets and that’s reflected in the work.

Another advantage is our central location to larger markets. Within half a day I can do business in Detroit, or Cincinnati, or Chicago, or Springfield, Illinois. We’re cross-pollinating ideas, talent and dollars by working with clients in other cities.

What resources or organizations in Toledo did you take advantage of and how did they help?
Our CPA, our bank and our attorney have been three of the best resources to have in our corner. They’ve empowered us to grow faster than if we didn’t have their help.

Personally, I wasn’t finding the mentorship I wanted, so I co-founded StartUp Toledo with a couple local entrepreneurs. StartUp Toledo is a monthly networking event for local innovators and entrepreneurs to gather in a casual atmosphere to exchange business cards, ideas, referrals, advice – you name it. In short, we couldn’t find a networking event that suited us, so we made our own. It’s grown considerably since we started it a year ago, and we now have sponsorship support to defray our costs. Each month I gain a few great ideas to take back and apply to Spoke and Seed.

Can you share a funny or amazing entrepreneurial experience with our readers?
Amazing things happen all the time. I’m constantly amazed by the wonderful people who find us and ask us to perform. That’s not just B.S. you say for the benefit of an interview like this. We’ve been genuinely fortunate to work with smart, savvy, inspiring people who get what we do. For example, we’re now working with a great “mompreneur” from Tampa who’s creating a beauty and skincare line for the Latina market. Of all the people she could have chosen to work with, she selected a group of Caucasian kids from Northwest Ohio. It’s amazing that she found us and even more amazing that we’ve been given this opportunity to work with her and bring her dream to life.

What inspires you?

I’m a designer by trade and training, so I’m always seeking inspiration from great design. I’m also inspired by transformative and disruptive business models that completely turn an industry or sector upside down, such as Amazon, Facebook or Apple. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t deny the impact they’ve had on our lives, work and society. I’m especially inspired by those people who combine superb design with a transformative business. Steve Jobs did this, and in turn created a brand that transcends everything to the cultural level.

On a scale closer to home, I’m inspired by the people who get up every day to grow their businesses, their talent and their influence a little bit more. I have the privilege to work with and for many of them.

What founders do you admire and why?
Locally, people like Stephen Nose, Justin Blanchard, Jamie Wright (my partner in Seed), Don Miller (my other partner in Seed), Will Lucas, Matt Braun, and so many others. These names may mean little to people outside this market, but in Toledo these folks are legends and they’re creating products, businesses and cultures that I’d pit against the best from Silicon Valley any day.

What’s next for you?
Spoke is expanding its services, and now I have Seed Coworking to help grow. On top of those two “day jobs,” I’m involved with StartUp Toledo and the local chapter of the AIGA professional design organization. It can be exhausting sometimes to take on so much, but I’m content, for now, to let things unfold and see where it takes me. Thankfully, I’m surrounded by good people who keep me grounded.

Interview by Joe Baur

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