Jeff Snyder – Founder & Chief Inspiration Officer, Inspira Marketing Group

Jeff Snyder is the founder and chief inspiration officer of Inspira Marketing Group, an experiential marketing agency headquartered in Norwalk, Connecticut, with offices in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Jeff is a 25-year industry veteran, having started in experiential marketing with GMR and RedPeg prior to founding Inspira. As a thought leader in the space, Jeff focuses his efforts on developing strategic solutions for clients such as Constellation, Diageo, General Mills, Microsoft, and Nestle, among others.

As many agencies were consolidating and closing in 2008, Jeff launched Inspira Marketing with the intention of disrupting the category. Knowing that experiential marketing allows brands to get closest to the customer, he saw an opportunity to garner valuable insights. From there emerged an agency committed to taking those real-time insights and bringing them to life through meaningful consumer experiences that drove tangible business results.

Today, Inspira is rapidly becoming one of the most recognized agencies in its space for its creative acumen, dedication to measurement and analytics, and award-winning culture. That success stems from creating a place where everyone feels happy to come to work every day — a place where a group with shared values feels empowered to make a difference, both for their clients and for the community at large.

Inspira continues to make a difference in its support of the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer, with a portion of profits donated to fund progressive research and Jeff holding a seat on the Board of Directors for ALSF. Jeff’s daughter, Kennedy, was diagnosed with spinal cord cancer at the age of two, and has been battling the disease ever since. It is through her unwavering optimism that Jeff was inspired to create his own agency.

Tell me about your early career.
Through internships during my time at Ithaca College, you might say that I took a non-traditional “test-drive” approach through a few different careers in order to find out what I did and didn’t like. Whereas, my friends were all targeting careers in accounting or finance, I was just trying to get out there and try several paths to find out what I did and didn’t like. It really wasn’t until after graduation – when I became a nightlife promoter down in Washington, D.C. – that I found my calling. I felt a ton of satisfaction from bringing people together and curating those special experiences. Dollars and cents aside, I really fed off of their energy and found it emotionally-fulfilling. Soon after, I learned that there was a whole career path for that: experiential marketing.

How did the concept for Inspira Marketing Group come about?
From a business perspective, I had started my career in experiential at GMR Marketing, and RedPeg directly after that. As I ascended through the ranks, I began to notice two things that I felt I could do differently. First, from a culture perspective, and taking the lead in opening the Connecticut branch of RedPeg, I couldn’t help but think that things could be done differently under my watch. I really wanted to build an agency culture into a place where everyone at the office felt excited about coming to work every day – creating the same feeling of excitement I got when I found my own calling while being a promoter. After all, when everyone comes to work feeling empowered and part of something bigger, it ends up translating into better work.

And, that was the second thing; I wanted to treat clients and the work differently. At the time, experiential was being treated as an after-thought — a marketing tactic used for leftover budgets. But, I knew it could be so much more than that. Experiential provided an opportunity to garner consumer insights that couldn’t be found from your standard advertisements. That two-way communication would not only serve as a way for brands to interact with the consumer, but also as a way to adapt their marketing strategy. These learnings would ultimately help us design better, more meaningful experiences – ones that led to an emotional connection between brand and consumer, and began to think about blazing my own path and starting my own company.

Business matters aside, I had never felt the motivation to start my own company. At the same time that this was happening, my wife, Kristy, and I got dealt some terrible news. Our daughter, Kennedy, had been diagnosed with spinal cord cancer, and the outlook was initially pretty bleak. As she was battling for her life, she kept an upbeat attitude and showcased a perseverance that challenged me to evaluate my own life. How was she able to find the motivation, despite the adversity? It is Kennedy who fueled my fire. She was the catalyst, longing to just be a normal kid, that pushed me to create the very company I had been dreaming of, and the inspiration for the name Inspira. Because of her, I would also use a portion of the profits to help find the cure for pediatric cancer.

How was the first year in business?
Launching a business in 2008 meant taking on a difficult new endeavor in the height of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Businesses across the country were closing their doors right as we were opening up shop. As you might imagine, that first year was really tough. In an agency world filled with conglomerates, we were an independent, self-funded group trying to establish ourselves. I ended up cashing out my entire savings and 401(k), and took out a second mortgage just to keep things afloat. Still, as tough as that first year was, it made our team that much more resilient, and that much more appreciative of the good times that have followed.

What was your marketing strategy?
One of the biggest initial challenges was the separation agreement I had with my former company. I had been heading up business development at RedPeg, and with that role comes came a boatload of contacts. The problem? I had to hand over the Rolodex, including past and current clients, as well as any prospects in the pipeline. We were essentially back at ground zero.

Knowing that I couldn’t leverage all of my personal contacts, I decided to target other marketing agencies (advertising, PR, promotional). Many of their campaigns involved an experiential extension, so we would offer ourselves up as partners until Inspira’s name became a household one amongst brand teams. Even more so than other branches of marketing, experiential is a relationship business. By forming those relationships early on, we were able to build something big from the ground up.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
There’s no other way to say it — the first year was pretty tough. Truth be told, we were in the negative after year one. All that struggle paid off in year two, though. We began to hit our stride, picking up one client after another, and that continued to manifest itself in 20-30% year-over-year growth in the years that followed. In 2013, we were lucky enough to be named #44 on the Inc. 500 list, and we’ve been steadily growing ever since.

How do you define success?
In our business, the definition of success will inevitably vary from one person to the next. Experiential marketing agencies are often viewed as executional in nature, but we see ourselves as a group that offers solutions. Each client’s business is our business, so we work to understand their goals and key metrics, and use our resources to make it happen. Our mission is to go above and beyond for them every single day. Honestly, there’s no feeling quite like exceeding expectations.

What happens internally at Inspira, though, is equally important to us. Success at HQ and our satellite offices means creating a place where everyone feels happy to come to work every day — a place where a group with shared values feels empowered to make a difference, both for their clients and for the community at large.

What is the key to success?
In a business world that is constantly changing, there’s no singular recipe for success. More than anything, I’ve learned that the key to success is to never be satisfied. It sounds trite, but it’s true: you either evolve or die. That means we need to be continually evolving our offerings and services in order to meet the changing demands of our clients.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Do not underestimate the impact that toxic employees can have on your business, no matter how high-achieving they might be perceived to be. Those people can undermine your core values and everything that you hold to be true. Though every entrepreneur makes mistakes along the way, the great ones are able to admit when they’re wrong and learn from it.

What are some quotes that you live by? 
“Find something you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
“It’s easier to pull back a stallion than it is to kickstart a mule.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie, and Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
We’ve had plenty of great days along the way, but one of the toughest ones came early on. Our business was beginning to hit its stride, with an expanding team to meet the needs of our growing client portfolio. Still, we were far from perfect, and we got stuck in a situation with some really unfavorable payment terms from our clients. Only two days away from payroll, we realized just how dire the situation was. The well was dry, our American Express cards were maxed out, and we were about endure the ultimate nightmare — checks were going to bounce and we were going to be unable to pay our team. I’m not kidding when I say that we had to liquidate anything and everything in order to make sure it didn’t happen. At a company where everyone feels like family, there’s nothing more frightening than the idea of letting everyone down.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
At the beginning of this year, we handed out bracelets to our entire team, each engraved with one word: persevere. These intention bracelets, the brainchild of my daughter, Kennedy, serve as a constant reminder that no matter how bad things might seem, they sure could be a lot worse. When things get hectic around the office — and there’s no avoiding that in our world — it’s nice to look down at the bracelet and keep things in perspective.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
You’ve probably heard this one before, but it rings true: pursue your passions. Be willing to put all of the chips to the center of the table and bet on yourself. That’s what I did, and it’s the greatest investment I’ve ever made.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.