5 Quick Questions with Kenny Tomlin, Founder of RockfishRachel Herskovitz | July 11th, 2011
1) What led you to start this company? What was the whitespace you recognized?
I have always been an entrepreneur and since 13 have been primarily self-employed. After college, I founded a software company and an eCommerce business. Both were sold in the late 90′s. After which I was recruited by Walmart and spent 4.5 years before I got the itch to go out on my own again. I wanted to start a company that combined emerging technology and marketing acumen. I knew that this type of company would have relevance in the marketplace serving clients as well as be a great platform that we could use to launch other successful businesses. I believed that digital wasn’t just a marketing opportunity but that entire organizations were going to be transformed by digital innovations. We positioned Rockfish, not as a digital agency, but as a digital innovation partner that could provide value to the entire organization.
2) What’s your advice to others trying to start a company?
Startups that become successful companies are a combination of the right idea at the right time by the right team. As we are thinking about new businesses to start through Rockfish Labs or looking at investments through Rockfish Brand Ventures I ask myself three questions;
A) What makes this idea unique and why will it succeed? There are a number of possible answers to that question and many startups have two or three good answers. If you can’t clearly articulate an answer to this question then your startup will likely fail.
B) What conditions or innovations in the marketplace make this the right time for this idea? Timing is often undervalued in what determines the ultimate success or failure of a company. There’s a reason that pioneers die young and it’s rare that the first person with a good idea is the one who ultimately is able to capitalize on it. I love startups that are taking advantage of market timing.
C) Why does the team have the right to win with this idea? Rockfish is great at incubating companies but we rarely have the right leadership in place to commercialize our own ideas since all of our executives are focused on serving our clients. Today when we are considering new companies to develop at Rockfish we find leadership to move them forward. Lots of entrepreneurs have a skill or talent but struggle to grow their business for lack of having someone on the team that can commercialize and grow the company.
3) What can you identify as the major differences btw small and large agencies?
I actually don’t think that there are that many differences once an agency has 75 people or so. Even large agencies are typically organized based on client teams or geography so in practice operate very much like smaller or mid-sized teams. When your agency is very small (50 people or less) I think that you need to focus on doing one thing very well. That can be your competitive advantage. Too many small agencies try to say that they are full service which I believe dilutes their brand and opportunities. Clients know better. And, frankly, there is so much innovation happening today and marketing is being so radically changed that even the very large agencies are exaggerating to say that they are full-service. Today’s AOR’s don’t need to be an “Agency of Record” but an “Agency of Relationships.” There’s a lot of value that Rockfish brings to our clients from within our company. But we also have great relationships with other agencies, technology companies, and startups. We’re serve our clients best when we bring the best of Rockfish along with partners who compliment us.
4) How do you convince a brand to use Rockfish’s services vs the larger agencies?
Today Rockfish has 150 people in four locations so we are very capable of serving very large clients, and do. Honestly, once we passed about 75 people I don’t think that our size has been either an advantage or disadvantage. Top of mind, I don’t even recall a time that a potential client has asked me how large we are. Maybe they already have an idea but more likely they don’t really care.
5) Rockfish Brand Ventures helps incubate entrepreneurial ventures within the company. Was this part of the original vision of Rockfish? Is this the new agency model? What kind of companies do you look for?
Rockfish Brand Ventures is an investment arm of Rockfish that invests in startups that we believe have relevance to our clients or industries we serve. Our first investment was Tap.me. Rockfish Labs is our incubator and was a part of the vision for Rockfish since day one. During our first year in business we launched Fourthbook.com and have launched nine other businesses since then, the most recent being CouponFactory.com.
I don’t know if it’s the new agency model or not but I do believe agencies have a unique position to recognize opportunities in the marketplace. We work at the intersection of both brand and consumer engagement which should provide a steady stream of ideas where innovation is needed.
6) Of all the awards that Rockfish has won, which one has still eluded you?
We are in business to make our clients famous, not Rockfish. While we sincerely appreciate the awards and recognition that Rockfish has received, we are much more satisfied when we have made a difference in our clients business. I honestly can’t think of any awards that I would say have eluded us. We are really focused on Rockfish offering a great work environment and culture so I think the most satisfying future awards will include being recognized for that.
Kenny Tomlin has led Rockfish from a one-man start-up in 2006 to become one of the most recognized and fastest growing digital innovation companies in the industry. As founder and CEO he actively participates in the management and growth of many client relationships and leads our emerging technologies and product development group, Rockfish Labs, which has launched numerous companies and proprietary technologies. It’s this hands-on involvement and entrepreneurial spirit that gives him the insight to successfully grow a business known for changing the model of what it means to be an agency partner. Rockfish has received numerous awards and recognition including Advertising Age’s Agency A-List, OMMA’s Agency of the Year, and one of the Inc. 500 Fastest Growing Companies.
A serial entrepreneur, Kenny also founded I-Soft in 1997, a company that created digital training and commerce solutions. He built I-Soft into an award winning and rapidly growing firm in Dallas, TX before selling it in 1999. In addition to leading Rockfish, Kenny serves as a mentor and investor in numerous startups and is a frequent speaker on marketing, technology, and entrepreneurialism.
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