Bottle Rocket’s Calvin Carter – Part 2

[cp_dropcaps]B[/cp_dropcaps]ottle Rocket is a multiple Apple Hall of Fame award winner, was named one of the top 10 BestPlaces to Work by The Dallas Business Journal, and was #61 on the Forbes America’s Most Promising Companies List. They were recently acquired by London-based advertising and marketing company WPP.

Bottle RocketDigital Dallas interviewed Founder and CEO Calvin Carter to learn how Bottle Rocket got started, how they landed their first client, what drives company culture, and what lies ahead with the acquisition. Part 2 of that interview is below. You can find Part 1 here.

Digital Dallas: Do you think that those factors that you leveraged with NPR (having established credibility, having a portfolio of apps that were successful, bringing your customer in the development process) are still integral to your success now for getting other clients like Bravo, NBC and Food Network?

Calvin: Absolutely. I’m a big believer that the best advertising company can ever do is build phenomenal products, and provide the best service and the best products. Period. That’s the best advertising. So we work really hard to provide phenomenal customer experience. We call it “The Bottle Rocket Experience.” It isn’t just the user experience of our apps, but also the experience of our customers working with Bottle Rocket, and the experience of our Rocketeers, our employees, and their careers at Bottle Rocket. Everything is an experience. The Bottle Rocket experience is very strong because we put so much effort and energy into the products we build, how we deliver them and the services that we provide to create them. So our portfolio, the quality of work, the diversity our work.  [cp_quote style=”quote_right_dark”]I’m a big believer in the best advertising company can ever do is build phenomenal products, and provide the best service and the best products. Period. That’s the best advertising.[/cp_quote] We’re very proud of the awards that our products and work win. Awards are great to win  – but it’s really more about the message that is created when you are consistently being recognized in the market place. Anyone can get lucky or get a ball over the fence every once in a while but [clients], meaningful brands that have brand-critical initiatives, need to see extremely high quality work delivered through flawless service consistently. The best thing that Bottle Rocket can do to build its brand is continuing to build the highest quality work, and delivering the absolute best services possible.

Digital Dallas: Actually, that answers the next question I was going to ask.  The list of awards that Bottle Rocket has won goes on and on.  I wanted to know what sets you guys apart, but I think you’ve just answered that.

Calvin: We put awards in 3 categories. One is the awards for our work. That would be like Variety App Entertainment Developer of the Year, the Emmy nomination that we got with Showtime, the multiple Media Vanguard awards that we received, the 4 Apple Hall of Fame awards.  No other company has received 2.  We’ve got 4. We’re very proud of that, it you can’t tell!

[cp_messagebox align=”left” color=”#ffffff” shade=”noshade” border=”#000000″ font_color=”#000000″]Then there’s awards about our business, and how we run our business. It’s not just about the apps, but it’s about building a business that lasts.  And many times entrepreneurs forget about that. We’re building a business that lasts because at the end of the day we are putting food on the table of, at this point, 177 families and growing.  That’s a big obligation.  That’s a big responsibility.  We’re running a clean business, a healthy business, a fast-growing and healthy business.[/cp_messagebox]

We’ve won several awards like Forbe’s Most Promising Companies, and we’ve been on the Inc 500 a couple of years and we’ve got job creation awards, innovation awards – things like that all around our business.

Then there’s a 3rd category. It’s hard to like hand out awards for “great culture.” There are things – there are patterns – that can be found in companies that value the people, value the culture, and value the softer side of an organization. We’re very proud that we’ve been recognized 3 different times for the best 100 places to work in Dallas by a couple of different groups that measure that.

Photo Courtesy Bottle Rocket
Photo Courtesy Bottle Rocket

That doesn’t mean that we’ve got everything figured out. That doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to sit back, relax, and say “Okay, nailed it! Now we don’t have to worry about that as much anymore.” No. When you’re recognized in that way, you now become an example to others.  When you become an example to others, you must continue. It’s like your job is now to raise the bar.  People are looking at your bar to see where it’s set.

It’s phenomenal to be recognized publicly. It’s fun, and it’s rewarding, but it’s rewarding in not the way of getting the award.  [It’s rewarding] in the way of, “What does this now let us do, and what example can we now set, and what impact can we now have on the industry now that we have this recognition?” That’s what gets us excited about awards. Not just putting out the award on the shelf. 

Digital Dallas: That was the other thing I wanted to ask you about. I did notice how many times Bottle Rocket was voted one of the best places to work. Can you talk a little bit more about what culture creation was like for you? What role do you play in dictating the culture, and how the company runs?

Calvin: Culture is an interesting thing. I’m a believer – and I’m not saying I’m right or wrong about this – but I’m a believer that cultures are not created. They already exist and they become elevated.  You are who you are at a person level, at a group level, at a company level, at a state level, a country level, a species level, whatever.

It has to come naturally and cultures are built naturally. The culture of Bottle Rocket ties back to just the way I approach the business which is “What can we do right now?”

[cp_quote style=”quote_left_dark”]I’m a believer that cultures are not created. They already exist and they become elevated.[/cp_quote]Let’s move the ball forward.  Get out of bed and go to Office Depot, get graph paper and pencils. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but I know I need something. I want to make something, so I need raw materials and I need tools. You can’t make something without those things, so let’s go get them, and then we’ll figure the next thing out. Take actions quickly, move quickly. People say, “Gosh, how did you know it was going to work out?” I didn’t. I just embraced it.  

We have a value system at Bottle Rocket, and we went through an exercise to determine our values.  When I say “determine” I should really use the word “uncover” because you, for example, have your own value.

You might not know what they are, but they already exist, they know you. Usually what happens with people is that their values know their owner more than the owner knows their values. It’s a pretty interesting process of going through and uncovering your values. When we started uncovering our values, which are obviously a significant part of the culture, things like serving the user came out, looking through all of the various priorities and complexities of a project and looking to, “What does the user want?”

I was doing that when I was sketching the first apps: What would make people happy? What would provide value? What would make them satisfied? What would surprise and delight them? Being focused on the user was just natural inside of me. I like to make other people excited, happy, engaged, and inspired.  So the company ended up having that kind of a culture.

[cp_messagebox align=”left” color=”#ffffff” shade=”noshade” border=”#000000″ font_color=”#000000″]“Embracing the impossible” is part of one of our values statements as well. I didn’t know if it was going to work out, but I was embracing the possibility that it would. [/cp_messagebox]

Another one is respect.  I’m a big believer in respect. Respect is part of the culture.

I’m not saying that all of these things were born just out of me. It was born out of the journey that I started, but I’m not the only foot prints on the ground. A very big part of the culture is set by Matt Johnson, the first follower.  The guy who said “Wow, this is pretty cool. I wanna be part of it too.”  Like I was the first follower to Steve’s vision, Matt was the follower to mine. Then those first Rocketeers, and then those first fulltime employees. All of that stuff goes in to our culture.

You certainly don’t sit down at a board meeting or whatever and say “Okay. We have a project called ‘Make Culture,’ and the timeline is ‘X.’  We did go through an exercise to uncover and articulate the culture.[cp_quote style=”quote_left_dark”]I’m not saying that all of these things were born just out of me. It was born out of the journey that I started, but I’m not the only foot prints on the ground.[/cp_quote] As we scaled the organization, we needed words, meaningful words, that had great emotion behind them and stories behind them to be able to communicate to a growing base of Rocketeers.  And that’s what we did. But we probably didn’t even go through that official exercise until 2010.  That’s when the company was growing to the point where we needed to be able to articulate what we felt about the business versus just “feel” what we felt about the business.

Digital Dallas: Can you talk about some of the factors that led up to that point? Between 2009 when you landed your first major client, and the point where you’ve made the decision to address culture, what happened?

Calvin: At the end of 2010 we probably had 25 people. At the end of 2011 I think we had 60, and then 2012 we had 107.  In 2013, we should end the year at about 180 or so. You can see that we went from about 25 in 2010 to 60 in 2011.  We grew over 2 times in the number of people.

[cp_messagebox align=”left” color=”#ffffff” shade=”noshade” border=”#000000″ font_color=”#000000″]I feel that entrepreneurial businesses go through these stages, or seasons, where it’s just you.  And you can basically live in your head. Then there’s you and 1 or 2 other people. You live through very informal conversations, and you spend every waking moment together essentially. Then you get to the point where not everyone can go to lunch together in 1 car, even if you have an SUV.  And that right there — I know it sounds silly, but for those who have done it — there’s a “seat of the pants” feel when everyone doesn’t go everywhere together all the time to work, from work, drinks, dinner, lunch, and everything.[/cp_messagebox]

So now, from those 7 people or so people you can fit in an SUV, you make this run to about 20 or so people.

Photo Courtesy OLPC

A lot of companies that we call “lifestyle businesses” tap out right around 20 because it’s pretty straight forward to keep all of that in your head, and you know where everything is all the time.  You don’t need a lot of systems, you don’t need a process or best practices because you’re in a small enough group where you always know everything else that’s going on. But when you go from 20 people to about 60 people, that’s a big difference.  And you’re doing it for over 12 months. Your company has to grow up.  You have to have systems and processes. This doesn’t mean bureaucracy and paperwork.  It means best practices, the Bottle Rocket way of doing things.

Now, the important question is: can your innovation also survive in an environment in which you’re implementing guidelines and best practices?  In our case it did, because we said “Listen, we’re gonna create guidelines, but rules and guidelines are here to serve.” When they hurt us, we break them. When they help us, we honor them. We’ve been doing that ever since.

We break the rules all the time — rules that we’ve set ourselves — when they no longer serve us.

2011 was the year that Bottle Rocket needed to grow up. We re-invested in systems, hardware, software, office space, the infrastructure that you need, and best practices.  It was the year we started our Wiki, so we started documenting the Bottle Rocket way of doing things.  What lead up to that was the opportunity to grow and get to the next level.  We got out of head of it before they got ahead of us.

Digital Dallas: Could you talk more a bit about how the acquisition came about, and what it means for the future Bottle Rocket? Are you concerned about what said earlier about maintaing innovation within in an environment of guidelines?

Calvin: We couldn’t be happier about the acquisition. This is such a phenomenal thing.  We are extremely proud of how we have architected the sale of the business, and the partnership that we’ve created with WPP.

The highlights are that WPP is the largest and most respected network of agencies all the way from traditional “Mad Men”-lore names like Ogilvy and Mather, Gray, Young & Rubicam to some of the world’s most leading innovators in the digital space.  It’s a phenomenal worldwide network of very well respected brands in all sorts of areas. It’s very premium related, which resonates very well with Bottle Rocket.  [cp_messagebox align=”left” color=”#ffffff” shade=”noshade” border=”#000000″ font_color=”#000000″]On top of that, we maintain Bottle Rocket as a separate legal entity.  We maintain Bottle Rocket’s brand, Bottle Rocket’s culture. We have our own offices still, we’re not being pulled into in an existing business and shedding our identity. We continue to work with all of the customers that we were before. All of them. We have all of the same Rocketeers that we had.  All of them. And we have all of the same initiatives — both short term and long term — that we did before. All the plans that we had for the next 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. years.  They’re all still moving forward. [/cp_messagebox]

So it’s an additive thing for us.  On top of all the things that we have, we now have the ability to work with other WPP agencies all over the world, bring them opportunities that we have that would be better served by working with a larger group, especially for international opportunities.   And we have the ability to increase our business by serving the phenomenal brands that the WPP agencies are already serving, unlocking for them a true mobile strategy and mobile component at the best of breed.  There are very few companies that do it at the level that we do it.

Again, all the things we were doing before continue to move forward.  We continue to work with our existing clients, regardless of whether or not they have any relationship with WPP outside of Bottle Rocket, and we have the ability to serve the clients that bring.   We can bring our services to the work that they have, and bring their services to the work that we have.

I could not have asked for a better result than what we have today.  A lot of it has to do with the phenomenal character of the people that we’re working with at WPP.

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