Celebrating 30 Years at Krakoff Communications (and a Phone Call That Changed My Life)
We are a day early because we wanted to get in front of all the April Fools’ Day posts sure to happen tomorrow on social media so that we can talk about how important that day is to us. April 1, 2023 is the 30th anniversary of Krakoff Communications. I know this is a longer blog than usual, but I wanted to share the story of those 30 years and hopefully inspire others to take risks and make decisions that could have a positive impact on their lives.
The Company was born on April 1, 1993. On that day, Bill Clinton was president, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was at the top of the box office, a new technology called the CD began to outpace cassette tapes in music sales, and there was a standoff taking place in Waco, Texas between the FBI and a religious sect called the Branch Davidians.
Opening our doors on April Fools’ Day wasn’t a strategic decision; the timing simply worked out that way.
Before starting my own business, I was working at a Pittsburgh-based marketing communications agency called Westhead Marketing Communications (a privately held family business) with about a dozen employees at the time. The business wasn’t doing well. It had just lost its largest client, Pittsburgh Corning Corporation, which accounted for about 70% of its revenue. That was a lesson I never took lightly and always work to ensure we don’t have one client that is anywhere near that large in relation to total revenue.
The Phone Call
Having formed strong relationships and friendships with several people at Pittsburgh Corning, I had an unexpected phone conversation that changed my life professionally and personally. I was talking to Lee Clair, one of my former client contacts (and a friend) and was asked how things were going since they made the decision to go with another agency. My answer was not well because there were layoffs and pay cuts for those of us that remained. I felt my remaining time there would be short because it was getting to the point that only me and one other co-worker didn’t have the same last name as the company founder and owner. It was obvious who would be the next to go if more layoffs were made. I told Lee that I was thinking about going on my own as a freelancer or would soon be looking for another position.
I asked how the new agency was working out for them. Her response was they were really good at some things but not so good at others. One of the areas in which they were not so strong was copywriting and public relations. She mentioned they had a few small projects that required writing and graphic design that they would like to give me if I decided to go out on my own. The catch was that I needed to provide an answer within a week because they had deadlines and needed to get the work completed.
Keep in mind, my father was an elementary school teacher, and my mom was a stay-at-home mother. Our house wasn’t exactly a cauldron of entrepreneurship and, at that time, I wasn’t typically a big risk taker professionally. Also know that I was married only a year and a half, and my wife Lori and I found out our first-born son Andy was on the way with an October/November delivery date.
I did occasionally think that it might be cool to have my own business someday, but I really didn’t think that much about what being a freelance writer and PR person would be like. I certainly never put a lot of thought into building a real company with employees.
But I had a choice to make and fast! And that was a great thing because if I had more time to think about it, I would have found at least a dozen reasons why it would be a bad and risky decision to make, and I likely would’ve just found another job. It was kind of like when someone is in an airplane with a parachute strapped to them, and the door is open. They sometimes need a slight push, because jumping on their own can be a scary proposition.
So, after a few days of talking to my wife, family and close friends, I thought why not and resigned from my position to embark on a new adventure. I had some projects to start with that could cover a month or so of our income needs. Lori and I had a fairly inexpensive one-bedroom apartment at the time, and the startup-costs were minimal to begin a freelance business. I already had a computer—a Mac Classic. It was the best computer $1,200 could buy, featuring a 9” monochrome screen, and a processor with a speed of 8 MHz and 1 MB of RAM. Cell phones weren’t really a thing yet so that wasn’t a concern.
I saved money by designing my own logo in Word on my mac. I am not a trained graphic designer, and the results showed that! A few months later, thanks to my friend Kelly McKenzie and his team at Group 2 Design, I had a new, professional logo (for which they didn’t charge me). They also designed my business cards and letterhead package. Jim Nellis, a former large-agency executive who operated his own small firm, offered me an empty office in his space on Carson Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side for a low monthly cost. My only expenses were the printing of my letterhead package, installing a phone line, buying a fax machine and my monthly rent. I was officially in business as a sole proprietor.
Being a Paper Boy (Again) in My Late 20s
Knowing the first few projects were no guarantee of ongoing work, I worried about having enough income to pay the bills. At that time, the Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette just ended a labor dispute with the Press going away and the Post-Gazette continuing to operate. They made the decision to replace kids delivering papers door-to-door with adults, who were independent contractors, delivering papers by car. I thought it was sad because I worked as a stringer writing sports articles for the Pittsburgh Press while I was in college. Also, as a kid in elementary and middle school, I delivered that newspaper in my neighborhood. But this sad occurrence also presented an opportunity.
Lori and I took the unusual step of becoming newspaper carriers to provide about $1,000 a month while I could grow the business. That involved waking up seven days a week at about 3:30 a.m., driving to a newspaper distribution facility, placing each paper into a plastic bag, and then throwing newspapers on driveways and sidewalks through an open car window while Lori drove. We would finish around 6:30 a.m., and then our daily “real” jobs would begin. This went on for about five months until my new company generated enough income that allowed us to give up this early-morning ritual.
There’s no other way to say it, but getting up that early to deliver papers really sucked and was a tough way to start the day. It was a grind. But, like everything in life, there was a lot to appreciate and learn from the experience. This work provided much-needed cash flow early on to allow me to start and grow my business. Additionally, I was able to prove to myself how badly I wanted to succeed and what I was willing to do to make it happen. It also gave me a huge appreciation for the many other people we met at the distribution center each morning who also delivered newspapers. Some were working multiple jobs trying to earn enough money to make ends meet. Some were college students trying to work their way through school. Others were retirees working to supplement their social security payments. We met a lot of good and interesting people for sure. This reinforced a lesson my parents taught me as a kid: never look down on anyone because of what they do. Honest work is honest work and should be commended.
Growth and Changes
Very quickly, the business started to take off. I was getting a lot of referrals, and business was booming. I hired my first employee, Jennifer Fry, who was actually ½ of an employee. She worked part-time for me and part-time for another firm until she found the full-time job she wanted. Within a year or two, we had grown to several full-time employees, utilized multiple freelance writers and media relations specialists, and added partner firms for graphic design, ad planning/buying, website development and more. Two years later, the Company was incorporated as Krakoff Communications, Inc.
In the early 2000s, we were honored by the Pittsburgh Business Times as one of the top-20 fastest-growing companies in the region, and the fastest-growing in the category of marketing, advertising and public relations.
We rebranded to our current “K” logo thanks to Scott Bowlin, who at that time was principal and owner of Steelcoast Creative.
In early 2007, I was recruited by Tom Dowling, a friend and lead of the Pittsburgh office of Burson-Marsteller, to roll my business into their firm and become a Director in its Brand Marketing practice. Burson-Marsteller, through a merger, is now Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW Global). I spent almost seven years there and had an opportunity to work with so many amazing colleagues and clients. My work there involved a mix of large global clients as well as some smaller ones where I was leading teams on branding, PR and issues and crisis communications.
But, something was missing. I realized that over the years I became as much of an entrepreneur as I did a marketing communications and PR professional. I missed having my own business and with that the ability to make quick decisions and to have more control over my future.
After many months of planning, I left Burson in August 2013 to reopen Krakoff Communications. I never officially closed the business when I went to Burson; it just became dormant. While honoring my non-compete agreement with Burson, restarting was as simple as contacting the federal and state tax agencies, investing in a new laptop, and printing new businesses cards and letterhead. I started with enough business from new clients to match my salary in the first year. I started working out of my home office, but quickly added even more business to require the addition of a full-time employee. With that came the need for office space, so I leased enough space to allow for projected growth and more employees. As our clients know, Scott Bowlin then rolled his business into ours and has been our Creative Director for several years.
It’s been almost 10 years since I rebooted Krakoff Communications, and it really feels like it’s only been a few. I’m having a lot of fun and plan to keep doing this for many more years. I am also enjoying the challenge of growing and building a sustainable business model that keeps on going long after my career is done someday.
Looking Back and Some Takeaways
Since April 1, 1993, we have worked with extremely large companies including Ameriprise, Owens Corning, PPG, U.S. Steel, Vitro Architectural Glass, WESCO, Westinghouse and many others. We’ve also partnered with smaller local companies like M@C Discount, Fragasso Financial Advisors, HDG Architects, Ferry Electric, as well education institutions and nonprofits such as the University of Pittsburgh, First Night Pittsburgh, P3R/Pittsburgh Marathon, the Arthritis Foundation and more than a dozen western Pennsylvania school districts. Our clients have been predominantly local/regional, but we’ve worked with organizations throughout Pennsylvania as well as in California, Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and Florida.
In particular, I want to thank the many people from Pittsburgh Corning I’ve met since I started working on that account as Director of Public Relations at Westhead Marketing Communications in 1988. There are too many to list, and you all know who you are. That was my first client when I started my business in 1993 and also when I restarted in 2013. Sadly, I lost that work in 2017 when Pittsburgh Corning was acquired by Toledo-based Owens Corning which had another agency handling their work. Interestingly, Owens Corning reached out to me in late 2022 saying they heard great things about our capabilities from some of their people who were formerly with the Company it acquired. Now they are officially back as a client, and we have embarked on some work with them. It is the client that just keeps on going, and I am so thankful for that. For obvious reasons, Pittsburgh Corning/Owens Corning holds a very special place in my heart.
Regarding employees, we’ve had so many great professionals work here and go on to do great things at other organizations. We have also had fantastic partners who help us with printing, mailing services, photography and other services. Since the Company began, we’ve had offices on the South Side, in downtown Pittsburgh, in Carnegie and in the south hills of Pittsburgh.
We may not have seen it all, but we’ve seen a lot. We’ve witnessed the dot.com rise and bust, multiple recessions, the subprime mortgage crisis that began in 2007-2008, the COVID-19 pandemic and all the ups and downs that every business has experienced over the past 30 years. It’s been a heck of a ride, and I look forward to our future.
I want to thank every client, every employee and every strategic partner with whom we have worked. I also want to thank my wife Lori and our three kids Andy, Rachel and Josh for their unwavering support. I also have many close friends and family members who have been so generous with their advice. It is because of all of you that we have such a great story that’s been 30 years in the making.
We will celebrate this year and this milestone with joy and remembrance. We have some things planned, so please stay tuned.