Origin Story: How We Built Column Five

Column Five was an accident. At least at first. Initially Jason, Ross, and I were just trying to figure out how to survive—not build an agency. But somehow it happened, and we’re glad it did.

Back in 2007, Ross and Jason were working on an apparel line, and I had recently opened an apparel store. To say we were all struggling to get traction with these businesses is an understatement. The reality is that we had no idea what we were doing, and were trying everything.

Luckily, one day we stumbled into the world of streetwear and apparel blogs, and this changed everything. I was eventually able to scrounge together some cash ($100?) to advertise my store via a banner ad, which somehow the publisher offered along with free, unlimited-within-reason write ups. While it didn’t turn any of us into overnight millionaires, we were hooked—the idea that an online publication could drive traffic to our businesses and help us convert people into customers was too good to be true.

Motivated by trying to save on advertising costs, we had an idea: Why not cut out the middleman and start our own blog? No longer would we have to worry about convincing (or paying) other blogs to write about us. Instead, we could promote our brands whenever we wanted.

It was a great idea, except for one catch: We’d have to write about more than our brands; we’d have to write content that could actually build an audience. This seemed like an interesting creative endeavor, but also something that would require a lot of time. (Luckily, we had a lot of it.) Little did we know this work would uncover an enormous opportunity.

Because of our work schedules and other obligations at the time, our game plan was as follows: Ross and I would create the content (5-7 pieces per day) during the day, while Jason would promote it, mostly in the evenings. This worked out well. It wasn’t long before Ross and I found our groove creating the content, and Jason quickly climbed the ranks and became a Digg power user. (He ranked 2nd in terms of posts that hit the front page, before their ill-fated redesign and algorithm change that marked the beginning of their decline.)

In our minds, we were on our way to having the next big blog. We also assumed we’d be rolling in money within a few months—instead, something else happened: the recession.  

Our “main” businesses began to suffer just as they started going. But there was a silver lining. Although our businesses were fizzling, we were still creating content, and the content itself was performing better and better.

And while the ad dollars never really materialized the way we had hoped and planned for, we’d begun to develop a reputation for creating and promoting content that people actually wanted to read. So much so that brands were starting to ask us to create and promote content for them.

For example, we created 100 Must-Read Books for the The Art of Manliness—one of our first pieces. We were paid $75 for it. That’s right, $25 for each of us (and it took us about a week to write). But it was real money for writing content. Realizing we were onto something, we decided to turn our attention from apparel to creating more content, marketing ourselves, and finding more clients.

Becoming Column Five

As our reputation grew, we began to attract larger and larger clients looking for promotional content. Mint.com was one of the earliest we began working with—back in 2008, before we formally became Column Five.

What was really interesting about the work we were doing with Mint was that—at least to my knowledge—we were the first brand-agency combo using infographics as a form of content marketing. Back in those days, our infographics could drive hundreds of thousands, and even millions of unique visitors to a blog if we nailed the concept, execution, and online promotion. This helped get Mint.com a ton of momentum, press, and ultimately users in their early days.

With the success of that work, we started getting introduced to other folks, mostly startups in the SF-Bay area that wanted us to do what we were doing with Mint. This gave us a unique opportunity to work with a ton of new brands that were doing really interesting things, and the founders of those companies gave us a ton of creative license. Not bad for a few guys who were totally winging it.

Then, out of nowhere (at least to us), Mint.com was acquired by Intuit in Sept 2009. And two big things happened:

  1. All the Intuit brands wanted to work with us. This was our first foray into working with real-deal, grown-up brands.
  2. Word got out that we were a big part of the creative, production, and promotion muscle behind Mint’s content marketing efforts, and suddenly lots of other startups wanted to work with us as well.

That’s when we knew we were really onto something.  

Growing and Finding Our Niche

As our expertise and reputation grew, we found ourselves at the forefront of the growing industry of content marketing. We hired our first employees, who came on board with a ton of talent and passion.

Soon, we found ourselves doing a lot more than infographics. As our business and expertise grew, we pursued a few more ventures.

  • We published our first book, Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling (Wiley, 2012). I never imagined we’d become authors, but the book was a success—and even published in many different languages.
  • We were asked to teach a course at Columbia University. It was thrilling to teach Visual Communication at such an esteemed university.
  • We launched Visual News. The site was our first publication and had an impressive reach, attracting 1 million+ unique viewers per month at its height. 
  • We grew and grew. In 5 years, we went from a 3-man operation to a 50-person team on two coasts. We moved our California HQ from a cramped converted apartment, to a building on the verge of being bulldozed, to a roomier warehouse, to the nicest office any of us have ever had. We also opened a second office in Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • We expanded our capabilities. In the last few years we’ve diversified our offerings, and now operate as a full-service creative agency.
  • We built our first software product in Visage. We raised venture capital and launched a software company aimed at empowering non-designers to create beautiful visual content.

Our unexpected business has been a huge blessing, but after the last few years of trying to do so many things, we were managing so much stuff that we just weren’t enjoying it as much as we were in the early days. That’s when we decided to reassess and simplify.

Shifting Our Focus

With more to manage, and a few kids born and on the way, we decided to pare down and get back to basics, which meant:

  • Not writing more books. While writing is something that we’ll always be proud of, the process is both grueling and took away from our ability to do what we love.
  • Hanging up our professor caps. It was a huge honor to teach at Columbia, and we’re proud of what we did, but we want to focus on Column Five for now.
  • Winding down Visual News. While we loved having our own publication, we decided to shift our editorial focus from being spread across multiple sites to just our agency blog.
  • Combining our efforts. With our investors’ blessing we were able to completely buy back Visage, which has enabled us to focus on running one company rather than two.

The Lessons We’ve Learned

Our first decade has been a wild ride of self discovery: an education in building a business, wins, losses, and everything in between, plus more La Croix than a human can consume. Naturally, we’ve all grown tremendously.

Jason, Ross, and I, along with our awesome of team, have *sort of* grown up. Many of us have started families in the last several years, and we’ve learned more and more about what it means to live a creative life and do creative work.

Above all, we’ve learned two things that guide what we do and how we do it, every day. They’re the foundation of what we’ve built. What we know for sure:

1) Best Story Wins

After 10 years of creating, experimenting, winning, and failing, we know that there is no great content without a great story. That’s why we made it our tagline, “Best story wins.”

2) People Matter

We didn’t set out to build Column Five, but we’re so happy we did. We’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing people. We take these relationships seriously, and we always strive to be the best partners in every way, to our clients, to our team, and to our community. This philosophy is encapsulated in our core values:

  1. Do Good Work: We care about the quality of our work—and what the work we make does for our partners and the world. We have no problem saying no to brands whose beliefs or work hurt the world, the environment, or the people we love.
  2. Value Our Partners: Since we only work with people we’re proud to do business with, we believe they deserve our best—the best ideas, the best solutions, and the best creative work.
  3. Be Good to Each Other: Creativity dies in a hostile, jealous, or stifling environment. We have built our team with intention, bringing in people from all over the world and all walks of life to collaborate and create together. We push each other and support each other in every way, whether it’s lending an extra brain to a client project, hosting a friendly competition at the company picnic, or celebrating the success of someone’s side hustle.  
  4. Be Humble: It’s exciting to get awards and acknowledgement, but you’re always back to square one on Monday. We like to push ourselves but keep a level head. (That’s also why Jason, Ross, and I will never barricade ourselves in a corner office.)
  5. Experiment Often: It’s scary to fail, but you can’t grow unless you’re willing to risk it. We encourage each other to try new things, expand our skills, go outside our comfort zone, and—even when we fail or make mistakes—share the lessons we’ve learned so we can all grow.

Growing C5 is an ever-evolving process, and now, in our 10th year, we’re eager and excited to enter the next decade with a strong foundation and the knowledge of who we are and why we’re here.

What the Future Holds

The world is a crazy place, but we’re excited to be a part of it and continue to push our industry and ourselves to do more and be better. For us, that means:

  • Helping brands tell their best stories. We want to help brands connect with people in a way that means something.
  • Pushing ourselves in every way. We plan to learn new things, try new stuff, and challenge ourselves to grow, especially when it’s uncomfortable and messy.

  • Having fun along the way. We only have here and now. We love that we’ve built a place full of great people who make us happy to show up each day.

  • Creating a company that allows for people to have their ideal life-work balance. This is something that we take seriously, and having fewer things to focus on these days means we can be more intentional about figuring it out.

  • Staying true to ourselves. We feel strongly that we’re seeing an exciting shift in how companies, big and small, act in the world. We’re determined to grow our business in ways that encourage more compassion and accountability in the world—not sacrifice people for profit.

Most importantly, we want to make sure that anyone who comes across our path has a great experience. For us, every day is a chance to realize our vision of helping to promote the concept of living a healthy and fulfilled life.

<3 Josh