How Two Friends Started a Creative Agency in College and Turned It Into a Thriving Business

Updated on December 21, 2021
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Oftentimes, entrepreneurs will start their own business after working in the industry for years, gaining experience and a network of contacts and potential clients to help launch their new venture.

That wasn’t the case for Suits & Sandals

This creative agency was started on the campus of SUNY Purchase by two friends with a few web design classes under their belt and a ton of ambition. Today the 10-person team at Suits & Sandals works with businesses across a broad spectrum of industries, providing services as varied as website and app design to market research and brand development.

And they started it all without any money in the bank. Here’s how.

Suits & Sandals CEO Nick Dank. Image credit: Nick Dank.

Developing a Holistic Approach

Suits & Sandals started when Nick Dank responded to a Facebook post from his friend Miles Rohas, who was looking for help with some freelance web design projects he was doing for small businesses. 

The duo, both of whom majored in new media, worked on a handful of projects together throughout their junior year of college. They caught their first big break over the summer before their senior year when they received an opportunity to pitch a large HVAC company. 

“We were a little concerned we would come across as inexperienced, so we decided to make up a company for the pitch, which we named Suits & Sandals,” says Dank, who felt the name conveyed what they wanted the company to represent.

“It’s like a built-in mission statement,” Dank explains. “We want to put out good work but with a relaxed attitude. As we’ve grown, we’ve developed a more nuanced understanding of what that means—we treat our people right and have a holistic approach to how we deal with clients.”

Their holistic approach is what allowed Suits & Sandals to start seeing real growth. After a few years of building websites for clients, they began to notice that a better website wasn’t always what their clients needed. Instead, they required better content or a stronger brand identity.

“A bad brand identity is an issue with the business model and can’t be fixed with a new website,” Dank says. “So we transitioned from creators to problem solvers.”

What does that process look like in action? Dank describes it like this:

  • A company comes to Suits & Sandals wanting to fix a specific problem, such as generating more leads or improving brand visibility.
  • Suits & Sandals goes through what they call a discovery process, during which they interview staff, perform competitor and market research, and survey customers. 
  • They then create customer persona groups, broken down by each group’s goals, challenges, frustrations, and motivations.
  • The agency packages their findings into an executive summary, which they present to the company. The executive summary includes suggestions on what the company’s positioning should be and how they can address their customer’s challenges in a way that’s authentic.
  • Next, Suits & Sandals develops a project plan, detailing the work they can perform in order to help the company meet their goals based on the agency’s findings. “We make recommendations on how to improve their site, brand voice, or visual brand based on a deep understanding of who the company is and how they can connect with their audience,” Dank says.

Today, Dank describes Suits & Sandals as a consulting firm for branding and communications that also does creative web design and app development. This is an important distinction, as Dank says it’s what differentiates Suits & Sandals from their competitors.

“A consulting firm will come in and make recommendations, then leave it to the client to find an agency to follow through on those recommendations,” Dank says. “Similarly, creative firms come in and make changes based on market trends, but don’t perform the discovery exercises we do. We fit in the middle because we can consult and take action, allowing us to almost become an extension of our client’s company.”

Suits & Sandals’ team of marketers, designers, and engineers work together out of an office in Brooklyn, New York. Dank, who now serves as CEO, says the company owes a lot of its success to organic marketing.

“When we signed a big piece of work, we’d hire people to help us work it, then we’d bank on getting more projects,” Dank says. “When we did, we’d be able to keep that person on full-time.”

But recently, after nine years of growth, mostly through bootstrapping, the company was confronted with an unforeseen circumstance. This required Dank to seek outside help.

Suits & SandalsDesign work from Suits & Sandals. Image source: Nick Dank.

Covering a Payroll Crunch

Hiring a new executive team member can be expensive. The cost only compounds when you need to keep the outgoing executive on staff to train the new hire in their duties.

That was the challenge faced by Suits & Sandals in 2019 when their CTO announced he’d be stepping away from day-to-day operations.

“Offboarding [our CTO] and onboarding someone creates a payroll strain,” Dank explains. “So we wanted to make sure we were able to put someone new on payroll that we weren’t prepared to.”

Dank originally found Fundera through an online search for small business loans. He provided some basic business information through Fundera’s online portal and was quickly connected with Senior Loan Specialist Ashley Margraf. 

Per Margraf’s request, Dank sent over a handful of business documents, including his bank statements and credit report. Margraf then took Dank’s information to Fundera’s network of lenders and came back to Dank with several loan offers.

“Rather than having to research a bunch of individual lenders and fill out the applications one by one, I just sent everything to Ashley, and she took care of the rest,” Dank says.

Dank ended up having three loan options to choose from. He then worked with Margraf to determine which loan option was best for his business.

“I was able to ask her questions, get clarification on the terms of each loan, and she made it really easy to understand,” says Dank. “As a super busy business owner, I don’t have time to do all that research, so it was awesome to just get my options and talk them through with the rep.”

In the end, Dank took a $75,000 term loan from Funding Circle.

“Working with Fundera was a no-brainer,” Dank says. 

Suits & Sandals

Design work from Suits & Sandals. Image source: Nick Dank.

Staying Perpetually Curious

With this financial hurdle overcome, Dank is optimistic about the future of his agency.

One area of business Dank is particularly excited to delve deeper into is his agency’s work with mission-driven organizations.

“We really like businesses that are out to help other people’s lives,” Dank says. “It makes us feel more passionate and we end up doing better work. We’re fortunate to be in the position that we don’t have to take on every client—only the ones we really believe in.”

Still, Dank is not shy about the challenges that come with operating a small agency—particularly when it’s the only job you’ve ever had in your life.

“We didn’t start this thing with a large Rolodex of clients, we had to create those relationships from the ground up,” Dank explains. “We work in a very crowded space, and while there’s plenty of work out there, our challenge is finding it before others do.”

In order to survive in this environment, Dank says it’s key to find a way to offer something your competitors cannot. Lots of agencies can build a site or design a logo, but not every company provides the same in-depth discovery process that Suits & Sandals has perfected. 

The takeaway for others looking to start their own agency?

“You need to constantly find new ways to innovate,” Dank says. “It’s not just about executing on a project, it’s about solving your client’s problem. You need to be top-of-mind whenever a business is looking to solve a problem.”

The desire to work with mission-driven companies doing innovative work keeps Dank motivated. But he attributes his success to his constant desire to learn new things.

“I have a personal motto that I internalize and put out into the world: Stay perpetually curious,” Dank says. “What’s great about what I do is I get to work with lots of different companies, and I get to learn their challenges and people and technology, so I’m always in a constant state of learning. Because of that, I never get bored.”