Case Study: Barnum

Disrupting the agency model, investing in entrepreneurship.

  • Grew freelance design business into a thriving brand and digital agency twenty people strong.
  • Started a venture studio partnering with pre-seed endeavors.
  • Initiated 3 of 5 merger/acquisition opportunities, leading to a successful merger.
 
 
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01

Intro

 

We were a mission to help the pioneers of business challenge convention and create a more sustainable 21st century economy. We partnered with entrepreneurs and business leaders of all stripes to refine and realize business strategy through the lens of brand — the primary perspective every stakeholder views, understands, and engages an organization.

 
 

Client service does not scale. How can we participate in the upside of the value our team creates? How can we take on more risk?

 
 


02

Strategy
Highlights

 

Broaden Service Offering

When I joined, Barnum was a lucrative and elaborate freelance operation. The goal was simple — grow. The first point of focus was expanding the core service offering to include higher value brand, digital, and content solutions. As net revenue increased, team growth followed. Rinse and repeat without losing focus.


Stake Your Claim

When the recession hit in 2008 we lost half our business in what seemed overnight. While access to capital precipitously dropped off a cliff, the number of entrepreneurial endeavors increased. For those suffering in pursuit of their passion, a little more pain or additional challenges have little impact. We staked our claim — then and there. We focused our entire business on entrepreneurship; from pre-product ideas to mature privately-held businesses that had plateaued.


Transition the Agency Model

The goal was simple — increase risk as much as possible. Mitigate that risk through strategic partnership. It was a slow turn, and we never abandoned client service, but we did start the process of developing a venture studio that partnered with entrepreneurs at the idea stage. We brought our team to bear, in support of the founders’ vision, and helped shape the brand, go-to-market, and digital presence (and/or mvp product).

After eight years leading the firm, I initiated three of five acquisition opportunities and the company successfully merged with a managed-services agency — our catalytic innovation and their marketing savvy was a recipe for success.

 
 

There is no doubt that Neil fundamentally changed the course of the business, and shouldered much of our growth.

David Barnum

Founder & CEO of Barnum

 
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03

Outcomes

 

Key Outcomes Delivered

Endeavors

Over those eight years, I collaborated more than 75 entrepreneurial endeavors across multiple domains and stages, as well as in a variety of roles: partner, advisor, consultant, vendor, etc.

Growth

Grew the agency up from a freelance operation, diversified offerings, expanded into more domains and verticals, drove business development, scoped projects, negotiated contracts, and significantly increased net revenue.

Exit

Eight years of measured growth led to a successful acquisition and merger. Initiated three of five merger/acquisition opportunities, and helped prepare the team transition ahead of the merger.


Launched

Through our venture studio model, we partnered directly with five entrepreneurs at the pre-seed stage to bring six ideas to market.

 
 


04

Supporting
Elements

Transforming inspiration into enterprise.

The pace of new challenges and disruption is creating unprecedented opportunities for businesses large and small to engage and delight their customers. In order to help our clients and partners realize their vision, Barnum built an ecosystem of entrepreneurial minded people and a systematic approach that accelerates the creation of evocative brands and the tools that drive their growth.

 
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05

Areas of
Responsibility

Areas of Responsibility

From day one, I wore many hats — strategist, designer, business development, project manager, contract negotiator, photographer, developer, copywriter, and more.

As Managing Director, I grew, led and managed a team of 20; served as strategic lead on brand, creative, and digital; owned account management for a significant portion of clients; helped manage P&L responsibilities and more general administration than I care to admit — including janitorial services.

Led much of the business development and sales, contract negotiation, project scoping and budget planning, etc.

Built the firm’s brand strategy and position, messaging, case studies, content, event series, conference speaking engagements, and more to establish thought leadership at the intersection of creativity and entrepreneurship.

Co-Founded our venture studio; identified entrepreneurs and partnership opportunities, scoped relationship and terms; and lead all project work.

Responsible for recruitment, hiring, onboarding, leading and managing the team.

 
 
 

The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.

Dr. Suess

Author

 
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06

Learnings

 

Key Learnings

Calculated Risk

Structure life, business, goals, and ambition in a manner that allows for as much risk tolerance as possible. At Barnum, we chose to put the entire organization at risk almost daily — we had to drive toward a transition in our business model. In many ways we assumed more risk than likely advisable, yet our team thrived and grew their capacity. We collaborated on innovative opportunities and learned countless, valuable lessons.

People > Ideas

Over the years I’ve met with thousands of entrepreneurs and those aspiring. Talented individuals are empathic, vulnerable, and agile — constantly tuning into what the market truly needs while holding their core idea loosely. This iterative mindset embraces ambiguity, drives toward clarity and ultimately mitigates risk.

Capital is Fuel

Money follows activity. It does not create action. Capital constraints require ingenuity, creative problem solving, and near-term focus balanced with vision — more money can create more (unnecessary) problems. Capital is an accelerant for validated ideas and prepared teams. Stewardship of that capital is not being spend-thrift, but rather driving value creation that leads to sustainable growth.

 
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07

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