Zak Dabbas – Co-Founder & CEO, Punchkick Interactive

Zak is the co-founder of Punchkick Interactive and has overseen growth strategy for the agency since its founding in 2006. A bonafide veteran of mobile, Zak has played a key role in the launch of award-winning integrated mobile and digital initiatives for global brands including Harley-Davidson, Microsoft, Allstate Insurance, UPS, and Marriott International. Zak received his J.D. from the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, and today serves as a judge for the American Advertising Federation’s ADDY Awards, Web Marketing Association’s WebAward, and MobileWebAward competitions.

Tell me about your early career.
When I started college, I was a pre-med student who was going to follow in my dad’s footsteps and become a doctor. But in my last year of college, I got testicular cancer, and after undergoing chemotherapy and surgery, I realized that spending my adult life in hospitals was the absolute last thing I wanted. I pivoted to law school, believing that to be the next best and most practical option—but it was clear that the legal field was an industry I would never be happy and thrive in. I had been doing freelance digital work with my now-business partner, and that was always the highlight of my week. Midway through law school, I told my business partner that the work we did for fun on the side was my real passion—and from there Punchkick was born. We put a website up with a ton of spec work we’d created, and I spent the rest of my law school experience wrapping up classes and using every spare moment I had to fire off new business emails. By the time I graduated, we’d landed two enormous clients. I kept at it until leading Punchkick was my sole focus and it was a growing, profitable agency.

How did the concept for Punchkick Interactive come about?
I’d loved the digital space and had been doing freelance work within it for years. I was (and am) a huge design fan as well, so I knew I wanted to do something that was tech-focused but with a strong design influence. Punchkick was founded in 2006 in a pre-iPhone era, but we saw that mobile was going to be a massive game-changer and took full advantage of the tsunami headed towards us. And to that end, when Punchkick first launched, we positioned ourselves as a design/development agency focused exclusively on mobile. It was an incredible decision in retrospect, and it gave us access to a tiny niche that we could grow within.

How was the first year in business?
Our first year in business was incredibly intense but also really fun. I was racing a clock—to either get the company off the ground with a solid client base and a healthy future or to concede that it wouldn’t be a success and dedicate myself to following through on a career in law. I actually felt an intense drive to avoid working as an attorney, so I dedicated myself to Punchkick every single night, weekend, and holiday—and I felt enormously fulfilled doing so.

What was your marketing strategy?
Content and outreach were the primary tactics at our disposal when the company was first founded. We’d put out content about mobile and I’d send outreach emails and LinkedIn messages to potential clients for a big part of each day. Classic networking to get the word out helped too, but nothing came close to the impact that client referrals made. We learned very quickly that doing exceptional work would result in clients passing our name along to other folks in their industry and beyond, and to this day, that fuels the agency growth more than any other factor.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
The company grew fast. Almost too fast when I think back on it. I was so green and figuring out a ton of things along the way, and at times, I couldn’t keep up. But you learn from fast growth and you begin to appreciate things that make a solid business, solid. Things like process and future planning. We’re one of a few companies that can say it’s privately-held with no outside funding of any sort and landed on the Inc. 5000’s list of fastest-growing private companies in America five years in a row.

How do you define success?
I define success on company culture. The reason for that is simple: it’s been my experience that when the culture is strong, when Punchkickers feel connected, and when there’s a transparent flow of information, the company performs at its best and grows. And I’ve found the inverse to be true as well. So while revenue is important, it doesn’t give me the same long-term insight into the future of the company as well as culture does. It’s my north star.

What is the key to success?
The key to success is different for everyone. It’s really important to acknowledge that. What works for me won’t work for others. But for me, nothing comes as close to delivering success as running the business flat does. We don’t have a single manager, and nobody reports to anyone else. As the founder of the agency, I prioritize relationship-building and make sure there are opportunities for all team members to interact with each other individually—from a daily company-wide huddle to self-organized project teams for clients. We’re totally transparent about the company successes and failures, metrics throughout the organization, client relationships, and project health. We share almost everything in the company openly, and as a result of that, I feel like I’m surrounded by talented and trustworthy leaders that support each other and the company, rather than just being the single CEO hovering over my colleagues. It’s made a huge difference in the quality of work we produce, and more importantly, the decision-making skills of our teams.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
If it’s not working, change something. Don’t be afraid to try something and fail—the only mistake is holding on to that failure when it’s time to pivot.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“The details are not the details. They make the design.” – Charles Eames

“Every pizza is a personal pizza if you try hard and believe in yourself.” – Bill Murray

What are some of your favorite books?
I don’t read a ton of business books but one of my favorites is Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. It’s all about flat organizations around the world, and it provides a really solid blueprint for how to bring the concept to your own company regardless of size or industry.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
In our twelve or thirteen years, I’ve had to twice cut a group of team members because we were too big to support our projected revenue. Both times were deeply painful and I felt like I’d let down some excellent people. This is part of agency life, but it doesn’t make it any easier to manage.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Nothing pushes me more than a feeling that Punchkick deserves help to realize its potential. These days, I feel a lot less like an owner of the agency and much more like a steward of the company. It’s my job to protect it and help it grow because Punchkick provides so much happiness to myself and the Punchkickers and their families. I haven’t for one second stopped loving this place, and I get so much joy out of helping it grow and working with this fantastic team of people.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Whatever it is you want, you need to want it more than the next person or you don’t stand a chance. Figure out what drives you and connect with it deeply—because only when you do that can you become unstoppable. Equally as important is to believe that people are inherently good. The more I trust and appreciate those around me, the more I’m constantly amazed by the mountains they move.