Nick Powills, CFE, founded No Limit Agency in 2008 and its sister companies, 1851 Franchise and Estate Envy, in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Today, he serves as CEO for the Chicago-based firm as well as publisher of both publications.
Prior to starting No Limit at the age of 27, Nick spent four years working at a franchise PR agency where he mastered the art of building rapport with media outlets and creating newsworthy pitches for earned media placements. Prior to jumping into PR, Powills worked as a writer at the Northwest Herald, a daily newspaper in Chicago; started Lumino, an online music magazine; and had internships at Rolling Stone and Details Magazine. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies from Drake University in Iowa.
Powills is a member of the Forbes Agency Council and in 2016, No Limit Agency was named to the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing companies.
Tell me about your early career.
Where to begin. I thought I was going to be a professional baseball player. The challenge with that is that you have to actually be good at baseball for that to happen. Thus, I decided to be a professional sports reporter. In high school, I had an opportunity to do some work with a Chicago Tribune sports columnist where I would go to the Chicago Bears locker room and grab quotes after the game. This really sparked my interest in the field.
I went to college hoping to pursue this career. In fact, the summer after my freshman year, I had summer press passes to the Chicago Cubs and White Sox through an internship at a local Chicago newspaper. Throughout the summer, I worked on a story about remembering your childhood. I interviewed all the greats of 2000 – Derek Jeter, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., and Will Clark. After getting screamed at when trying to interview Will Clark, another reporter walked with me to the press box, talked with me the entire game, and eventually offered me an internship at Rolling Stone magazine. Now, I was going to be a music journalist.
My Rolling Stone adventure also included an adventure at Details Magazine, in which I pitched a story about the Beach Boys and was eventually sent on the road with Paul Simon and Brian Wilson for the summer. I was only 20. This changed my career course.
I returned from New York, started an online music magazine (Lumino Magazine, which was quite innovative for the time), and took a job as a music/entertainment columnist for the Northwest Herald in the Chicago suburbs. Eventually, I learned that reporters don’t make much, so decided to fine tune my marketing craft and took a job at Fishman PR. But, there was an entrepreneur locked inside of me, and in 2008, I quit my job, broke up with a girlfriend, and moved to Atlanta to start what was, at that time, called No Limit Media Consulting.
How did the concept for No Limit Agency come about?
While at my previous job, I pitched two business ideas with the hope of being partners with the owner. The first was a magazine concept, which was rejected (now is a growing business publication we call 1851 Franchise). The second was this business idea called Social Media, to which the owner said the idea didn’t have legs. The good news was I had an idea, the motivation to create greatness (ideally, at that point it was with him), and a desire to do it.
Rather than staying in the very competitive market of Chicago, I evaluated the markets that had the greatest opportunity to connect with franchise brands, and ended up moving to Atlanta. I felt that if I was going to do this right, I needed to take a giant leap.
How was the first year in business?
The first year of business was very interesting. I started off with an investment partner that didn’t work out. I had clients not pay their bills. I was absolutely in over my head, but fearless enough to make it work. I signed a client very quickly upon moving to Atlanta. It was a pool/spa and service company. Every Friday, I would grill hot dogs outside of their retail location in Suwanee, GA, and would handle their PR and marketing. It was amazing. It paid me more than my salary at the last job. I hired an intern and our first employee in year one, and I opened our first office in Decatur, GA. The cool thing about that space was it was Obama’s Georgia office, so, they left all of their furniture. The bad thing was it was right next to a strip club and not in the friendliest part of Decatur, but it worked. It ended up being an incredible year and still profitable.
What was your marketing strategy?
I didn’t quite understand it at the time, but there is a lot of truth to 84 percent of B2B deals coming from referrals. I worked my network hard. I took a ton of lunches and tried to befriend as many people as possible. I knew we had something different with Social, too, since there were literally no other agencies offering this service. We could get a meeting with any brand. The problem was that when 2009 started it was as if every marketing/ad agency that was struggling instantly offered Social. We were in the middle of a pitch with Chick-fil-A and they said their marketing agency could suddenly put tens of people on their account, what could we do? I said, “I have an intern and one employee. Would that work?” We had more practice at that point and our message of being a true consultant to the media was working to book larger earned media placements. So, ultimately, our marketing was people, timing, and doing kick-ass work.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Fast. In April 2012 (started the company in March 2008, moved to Atlanta in May 2008), we opened up our Chicago office. That move wouldn’t have been possible without the growth we experienced.
How do you define success?
Money is a great measurement of success, but today, it only has value for getting people paid. Happiness is a great definition of success, but happiness needs to be in moments, not in an overall growth business, because you want to grow next year. Success, for me, is winning for our clients. When we walk into a boardroom and the CEO talks with us like a partner, knowing we can help grow their brand, that gives me a great feeling of success.
What is the key to success?
My belief is that you need a strong foundation. You need momentum (when you start turning no’s into yes’s), and you need velocity (the ability to break through any brick wall you face). Those three give you the opportunity to great awesomeness.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Trust everyone, but cut the cards. My wife would tease me that I would come back from a client launch and rave about how good of people they were and how we would be friends for life. Then, something wouldn’t work out (either financially or misaligned expectations or wrong fit), we would lose them, and I would have some personal disappointment.
Secondly, keep the door open. I was recently working out at our gym in Chicago and the first person I ever fired in my business walked by. She worked for us in Decatur. I had no idea she lived in Chicago. It’s a small world. Don’t burn bridges.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“It is what it is.” – Meaning, you can only control certain things. Do your best and don’t worry so much about the things you can’t control.
“Life is short.” – I don’t think any of us understand the shortness of life until it’s too late. Twenty years from now you will only regret the things you didn’t do today. Embrace the moment. Try to be happy.
What are some of your favorite books?
Good to Great is by far the best business book I have ever read. I want to be great. It is a perfect guide for giving me ideas to get there.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
The first person I was going to fire was one of the toughest days. I care deeply about people, and have felt that I can create a business that keeps people forever. In that case, I talked with a ton of mentors to help me overcome the idea of firing someone.
Finally, on the day, I got to our Decatur office nice and early and prepared for the firing. She arrived. I called her up. She asked if she could talk first, gave her resignation, and also gave me a gift as a thank you. She decided she was not passionate about PR. Some days that are tough can have a wonderful silver lining. Other days have been tough, like clients not paying and clients giving notice, but we have built a great culture, team, and business model that helps protect us from those tough moments.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The vision to create greatness. When I created the business, it was as if everyone in the franchise industry immediately hated me. I had a target on my back because I went against my former company. The good news was that wasn’t the first time I faced an uphill battle. It is amazing how much your past prepares you for the future. Leveraging my fuel from my past experiences leads me through those moments.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
1) Don’t wait for everything to be perfect to start a business – it will never be.
2) Don’t ever think you won’t need to hustle. I think shows about million dollar listings and reality shows about celebrities who found wealth are needle moments. 99 percent of us have to hustle and never stop. If you want to be an entrepreneur, do it.
3) Lastly, you are worth nothing to your business. Learn that fast. The value of your business is people. Brands don’t sell brands, people do. Embrace those around you. Leverage them. Support them. Befriend them. People will make you a great entrepreneur, not just you.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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