Sean Doughtie's Taproot Creative
Nourishing New Ideas Tallahassee-based communications company Taproot Creative is helping its clients grow stronger
When Sean Doughtie launched Taproot Creative in 2005, he had a singular focus — to “save the universe, one pixel at a time.”
Although Doughtie may not yet have saved the universe, he has been able to grow his one-man show into a thriving company in challenging economic times. Over the past five years, Doughtie has taken Taproot Creative from a website design firm to a full-service public relations and social media/marketing shop. And he has done well enough to be hiring new staff during the recession.
When he contemplated starting his own business, Doughtie was already married with two young children and realized that his “window of bravery was getting smaller each year.” He jumped in with both feet, and Taproot Creative was born.
He says his approach to design is “definitely less is more.” The firm’s philosophy and approach with clients is to connect, motivate and inspire. The combination is a clean, crisp look without clutter and pop-ups or drop-downs that get in the way of the message.
Taproot now has eight employees, two of whom were hired in 2009. The firm also just named Jonathan Edwards a partner and the company’s new vice president. With growth, Doughtie has had to learn to “let go” a little of his baby and allow those he has hired to walk on their own.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is the importance of delegation and the strength of my team,” he says. “I rely on my team daily for the success of my business. I had to learn to let go and trust, and that has been a tough thing but an important thing to do in order for the business to grow and be successful.”
Doughtie, now 34, shares more lessons he has learned along the way:
Why did you decide to start your own company? At the time I founded Taproot, I had worked in the industry for about five years as an art director for a firm. There were a lot of things I liked about the job and some things I didn’t like. I was 29 years old at the time, and I realized my window of bravery was getting smaller with every year. I was married with two kids at the time, a toddler and baby. (He now has three children.) I sat down with my wife, and we decided that it was now or never. So June 3, 2005, on my last day with the firm, I shook hands with my employer and drove across town and signed my first contract. Thus began Taproot Creative.
The primary focus was Web design and development. Our brand was tied to website design because that was the low-hanging fruit. We offered branding and print design, but the bulk of our work was Web design. A couple months in, I had an opportunity to work on the (gubernatorial) campaign for Charlie Crist, then attorney general. That really launched Taproot and started opening other doors. We started doing really well and sort of caught people off guard.
What are your business and creative philosophies? On the creative side, I’m definitely a less-is-more style of designer. Design should be a window, not a wall. It shouldn’t distract from the client’s message. We have the ability to detach our own personal likes and dislikes from the work we are doing and create designs that reflect the needs of our clients, and more importantly, what their audience wants and needs to receive.
Political work can be challenging. We never set out to be a political shop, and we don’t look at ourselves that way, but in our community it is part of the available business.
I take a very conservative approach on my business philosophy. Since I started the company, we have always existed in the black. I had a pretty well-thought-out business plan. We didn’t rely on venture capital, and we have grown as our revenue allows us to. We have to be nimble, strong and vibrant as a company, and we aren’t beholden to debt. That allows us to focus on what we are doing and not reacting based on financial need.
Who inspired you? There have been a few different people, business mentors, who have helped me along the way. My wife has been my pillar. It is a demanding job. I don’t work typical hours, and I’m doing stuff on the weekend. She has been terrifically supportive and loyal and always stood by me. Without her being that way with me, I’m not sure I could have done this.
A friend of mine since we were 19 years old, Jay Colle, has also helped me. During my career, we laugh that he has been my boss twice and I have been his boss once. He is a good confidant. He gets the creative side of me. He can understand the tortured artists.
What was your first entrepreneurial endeavor? Taproot was really the first. The first year especially, I had a really steep learning curve. All I did was work as a designer. The bookkeeping and management aspects of the business were brand-new territory. I read as many books as I could. I met with business mentors and people who were successful.
I made more than one phone call to former bosses to apologize for being an artistic prima donna. When you get to running a business, you have to be more strategic and detach a little emotionally from the artistic aspect of things. You have to become thick-skinned as a creative person. You put your work out there, and people can tear it down. There is a lot of trust involved in both sides. You have to forge really good relationships. If you aren’t sensitive to the needs of clients, you can turn them off.
What was your best and worst business decision? I can answer both with the same case study. When we bought Signeo, a small ad shop here in Tallahassee, we didn’t know the business environment was about to hit a recession. The type of business that came along with the acquisition of that company immediately dissipated. However, with that same transaction I brought on Jonathan Edwards, who is now my new partner. He has helped with the growth of the company.
What client required you to be most creative? That is a really tough one to answer. The needs and final solutions are so different from project to project. It seems like there would be cases where we use a cookie-cutter formula, but that never seems to be the case. Each project is unique just based on the client’s needs. In the end, the projects that stick out in my mind have been the ones that have been really rewarding to be a part of.
How did you come up with the company name? In botany, a taproot is the primary root from a plant or tree which is the main source of nourishment to the plant. That is the approach we try to take with our clients. We are the root source and provide constant nourishment to our clients and let them worry about running their business.
Why did you choose to start your company in Tallahassee? Did you consider any other location? Actually, I did. Most people thought I was insane for starting this type of business in Tallahassee. Some said go to Atlanta or Orlando. I think there are a lot more business opportunities in Tallahassee than people see on the surface. Part of me was just stubborn and competitive, and I wanted to prove those people wrong.
My wife and I came to the agreement that if I had a successful business but lost my family in the process, that would not be a success. My family was too important. I love the Tallahassee community — the people, the landscape — and we wanted this to be the place we raise our family.
What marketing “product” are you most proud of? We recently worked with Myron Rolle, a former football player for Florida State University. He is a Rhodes Scholar and chose not to play football his senior year of college in order to go to England. It was a challenging project. We created a logo, website and brand for him to communicate with his fans and contacts while studying as a Rhodes Scholar. It was really great to come alongside and help someone like that realize their vision.
The biggest thing we’ve been trying to push from the business side is the fact that we can offer a complete integrated marketing package. Having built the company as a Web-centric shop in the beginning is a blessing and curse. We don’t want to be boxed in. We are not just Web guys but integrated marketing guys. We are tackling projects that are more comprehensive versus one-off deliverable.