From Corporate to Cone: How Two Corporate Innovators are Breaking Through in the Startup World

After seven years at Vistaprint, Doug Mitchell and Bryan Seastead, Workbar OuterSpaces members and co-founders of Cone Media Group, became energized about a new idea.

cmg_logo_white_300Both started at Vistaprint around the same time when the company was only $70M a year (now its over $1.1B), both worked in the same department, and both had the same mentality that working in a corporate environment had nothing to do with one’s entrepreneurial prowess. Neither was new to innovative risk-taking, so leaving their corporate jobs and starting a company seemed like the natural next step.

And why would they think twice?

So far, both had established successful sub-businesses in previous companies and then again more recently within Vistaprint’s framework.

As Vice President of Partner Development, Doug, who has a background in Internet product development, saw a real opportunity to create partnerships with Vistaprint’s retail competitors. He asked himself, “What if we could turn our competitors into partners?” and he spearheaded a project to develop relationships with retailers, where Vistaprint would be the technology of choice for business cards and other printed materials through outlets such as FedEx, Intuit, and Staples.

Meanwhile, Bryan, then Senior Manager of Partnerships, came up with an innovative opportunity for Vistaprint to develop an advertising business. Though the nature of Vistaprint’s website did not allow for banner advertising (which leads customers away from the site) he thought of a way to incorporate cross-sells, or “transactional advertising” into Vistaprint’s check-out and browsing infrastructure. Bryan set up partnerships with companies to promote products related to Vistaprint’s – thus appealing to customers’ needs and generating incremental revenue for the company, with near zero cost of goods sold.

bryan quoteWhile separately developing and growing their own programs, Bryan and Doug began to talk together about how their skills, backgrounds, and professional networks could work together to scale Bryan’s advertising model. Quickly, the two realized their opportunity spanned much further than Vistaprint’s charter, and they asked themselves, “Can we do it on our own?”

In the spring of 2012 they decided they could.

With big goals and a vision for scaling their advertising model into a full-service agency for multiple clients, Doug and Bryan launched Cone Media Group over the summer of 2012. Fusing Bryan’s knowledge of transactional advertising and the small business market with Doug’s major account selling, product development, and technology background, Cone Media Group is taking their agency model to the next level by adding new digital advertising capabilities that systematize and scale customer acquisition and monetization performance online, offline, and through mobile devices.

Through Workbar’s OuterSpaces program, Cone Media set up shop as a bootstrapped team of two in Communispace’s Downtown Boston headquarters at 290 Congress Street in September.  Since their incorporation, business has been booming.

Starting off with advertising clients such as LogMeIn and Draft Kings, Cone Media

Bryan, Doug, and Alli hold up their first big check.

Bryan, Doug, and Alli hold up their first big check.

made big strides in November when it began working with Care.com to help them develop their own multi-channel advertising program. Then, in December, they started working with Google. “We are proving that we can absolutely deliver to even the largest and most demanding of clients” Bryan says.

Doug and Bryan obviously have the skills to win big clients, but their experience as seasoned entrepreneurs gives them an added advantage. “We feel very at home doing what we’re doing,” says Bryan. “It’s high-risk with scarce resources, which is very similar to starting a business within a big company… A big company offers security, but we want freedom. A big company puts a framework around such freedom. We have complete control now, and there’s nothing more exciting than that.”

Doug in front of the 7-story Communispace host location

Doug in front of the 7-story Communispace host location

Part of their success has also come from their host location. “OuterSpaces has been invaluable to Cone Media Group,” Doug says. “We were able to instantly have access to large company resources, like desks, phones, meeting rooms, reception, and an overall professional environment, which took many operational, non-value-creating tasks, off the table… it has also helped us with recruiting.”

Even with Cone Media’s initial successes, they are still a small team, and like many members of a bootstrapped startup, they wear multiple hats. “I have three names,” Doug jokes – “I’m Douglas when I’m doing HR, D.J. when I’m working with technology, and Doug for everything else.”

Since starting, Doug and Bryan have added three more team members, and they plan to keep growing by investing in people. “We are looking for folks who demonstrate initiative, who are innovative, and who want to change the world – it sounds cliché, but I’m OK with that,” Doug says.

The Cone Media Group Team (from left: Bryan Seastead, Doug Mitchell, Spencer Verney, Alli Henriquez, Kristen O'Brien

The Cone Media Group Team (from left: Bryan Seastead, Doug Mitchell, Spencer Verney, Alli Henriquez, Kristen O’Brien

So far, Doug has earned the right to be cliché. As a thriving startup in the $30 billion-dollar online advertising industry, Cone Media Group has remained self-funded, grown its team, acquired an impressive client base, and continues to set itself up for success – all while remaining humble enough to refer to themselves as just a couple of guys who are pursuing their passions. If Doug and Bryan’s goal is to be in control of their own destiny, they’re doing pretty well so far.

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About the Author: Alexa Lightner is one of the Space & Community Managers at Workbar. Contact her via email alexa@workbar.com or Twitter @alexalightner.
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