You don’t become a commanding force for good in the world overnight. (Unless you’re Spiderman. And that requires a painful bite and far too much spandex.)
For Firespring, it’s taken 25 years—and really, the company is just getting started, with a lot more “peace on earth, good will toward men” to spread, promote and support. Thankfully, we have a talented staff of more than 200 to carry out our mission today.
But in 1992, in the basement of a Lincoln print shop known as AlphaGraphics, this little-company-that-could took root with just a handful of pioneers. It started with a small but scrappy crew, following a leader who had a vision for what could happen if he built a company with a whole lot of heart, soul and love for its employees, clients and community.
These were the OG Firespringers.
To see the full timeline of how AlphaGraphics gave birth to Level100, which became Digital IMS and then rebranded to Firespring, you can visit Firespring HQ in Lincoln and read the writing on the wall (er, window) where the full story is chronicled.
But in this space and in these last few days of 2017, we’ll focus less on dates and statistics and more on that scrappy crew—the people who grew that little basement start-up into a force for good that serves nearly 10,000 clients (and counting) worldwide. These are the ones who have been here from the start and have led the company to where it is today.
Molly Coke is Firespring’s VP of Support Services, but when she started, she was a fresh-faced eager college grad. “I remember sitting in the Student Union a month before graduation, reading The Daily Nebraskan. There was a full-page ad that said ‘Real World Road Trip.’ That was when Real World and Road Rules were popular on MTV, and I thought, hey, that sounds awesome. I get to travel on someone else’s dime, see the U.S. and do a little selling.”
The Real World Road Trip Molly referred to was the gang’s effort to build brand awareness, kick-start sales and get clients on board.
“I had my first interview with Tawnya, and then a second with Tawnya and Jay. I went to Barnes and Noble and scanned through sales books so I’d know what to ask and say. Tawnya and Jay won me over right away, and from the sales books I knew to ask for the close. ‘Hire me, I am a quick learner, love building relationships with people and will help you grow your business.’ And the rest is history.”
The crew’s fearless leader and Firespring’s founder and CEO, Jay Wilkinson, remembers the infamous Road Show this way: “Tawnya was on the road for three months beginning in May 2000, starting in Des Moines. She visited 30 cities and put our company on the map. Later, we took three different crews in three directions and finished 2001 with nearly 500 clients.”
Molly was in the crew that traveled south. “One of our early stops was Shreveport, Louisiana. I decided to spend the entire Saturday at the pool. I was so sunburnt that I didn't even want to show my face to anyone. Tawnya went out and bought Noxema and aloe to nurse me back to non-lobster status. Good thing I didn't have any client meetings early that week. It was so bad!”
Of course, every successful company needs an innovative product to sell. That’s where front-end engineer Jason Morehead comes in. While others were traveling the country, Jason was coding. In the basement. “Or The Catacombs, as I like to call it. There were about six rooms down there, each packed with at least three or four people, as well as a server closet (emphasis on the word closet). My room was stuffed with over a dozen computers, workstations and servers. I’ll never forget when an upstairs sink overflowed and began dripping downstairs. We had to scramble to shut down all the computers before someone got electrocuted.”
“We pulled all-nighters and hacked together crazy solutions to get things up and running. We were all young and moving into this brand new thing called the World Wide Web. At the time, we had no idea what it would become. Google and Amazon were just starting, and Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were still years away. But we sensed we were part of something pretty exciting, even revolutionary.”
Andy Robbins was fresh out of high school when he started. Today, he’s Firespring’s VP of IT. “When we moved into the University Technology Park (from AlphaGraphics) and were still considered a start-up, we had to make our own fun. With limited funding, Culture Club decided that we should have a water fight. There were water balloons and super soakers, and when we had exhausted those, we dumped garbage cans with freezing water on each other. Jason Wilkinson somehow managed to cut his foot deeply on something in the grass. Luckily, his coworker, Shannon, volunteered to take him to Urgent Care. (And we know how that ended.)”
“As a 19-year-old student, I found it incredible that this group of grown-ass people were doing this at their workplace. That’s when I started to realize there was something special about Firespring and that this was a special group of people.”
Shannon (Wilkinson, in case you were wondering “how it ended”) is a Marketing Manager but has served Firespring in a variety of ways throughout the years with her eagle eye for details and a mind for smart content strategy. She arrived in 2001, and can list a stream of Firespring memories like she’s reciting episodes of Friends:
Account Manager Gary Pohlmeier, who’s been faithfully serving Firespring’s clients for over 15 years, remembered moving into the famed Atrium building where Firespring was located before Infinity Court. “Upon our move downtown, we were put into teams for a race competition to get familiar with the Atrium and its winding hallways. We had a list of places to go and some new neighbors to meet. We also got a lot of ‘there goes the neighborhood’ looks.”
And there was Wendy Schuman, our most passionate Husker fan and Salesforce and Database Administrator who’s left the company twice for other opportunities—but has returned shortly thereafter each time. Her heart beats for Firespring’s Culture Club, the team tasked with growing and protecting the company’s unique culture. “You can’t have great culture without a Culture Club. Randy Hawthorne as the leader was what made the Firespring culture what it is today.”
Randy humbly admits, “One of my proudest accomplishments at Firespring was being given the latitude to foster a corporate culture before it was a buzzword. As a result, the culture was pure authenticity. In the early days, we couldn’t afford anything so we made it up. It’s like kids before computers: We have this stick and some wrapping paper, how can we make something that connects people to Firespring? The best things we created were those made with love.”
Wendy was an integral part of creating the culture as well. “Some of my favorite memories are from the actual Culture Club meetings—I laughed so much! Souptacular at Halloween was the best tradition we created. It’s still a favorite event. Oh, and there was FISH! Training,” she added. “We threw real fish at each other! Fish was expensive so we used the same fish for each group, and it was falling apart by the end. It was gross.”
“Then Tawnya threw the fish carcass out in the field behind the building,” Jennie Martin chimed in, “and her dog, Abby, found it and rolled in it. So stinky!” Jennie serves as the Front-End Development Manager and was instrumental in training employees in the FISH! Philosophy back in the day, a technique which aims to improve organizational culture and create happier, more engaged employees. One of her favorite company events: Firespring Thanksgiving. “The Thanksgiving holiday table always brings us back together each season. One table, one family. No matter how big we get.”
One table. One family. One company. One unwavering team committed to one super-sized mission: To be a force for good.
For 25 years, Firespring has been making its mark on the world. Forging new pathways. Caring for clients. Creating opportunity. Serving its community. And it’s poised to do even more and greater things in the next 25. This little company-that-could has become the company that can, and will, change people’s lives in significant ways, with as big of an impact as it can possibly impose.
And where did it begin? In the crowded basement of a print shop. With a small but mighty crew. A strong Midwest work ethic. A boatload of passion and determination. And a vision to create a different kind of company. You could survey a hundred start-ups in Silicon Valley and never uncover this kind of hutzpah.
Peace on Earth. Good will to men. Lofty goals? Perhaps. But if we can learn anything from the OG Firespringers, it’s that doing more good is the best kind of goal. Persistence pays off. Life is about more than your next paycheck. People matter, period. And to never underestimate what can happen when a scrappy crew sets out to change the status quo...and never quits.
Cheers to the next 25.