Tucked away in Atlanta’s Telephone Factory Lofts is an industrial office space where the biggest brands come to life and creativity is ignited. You won’t find any white fluorescent lights or cubicle walls.
“It’s very open, no desks, no offices,” said Richard Leslie. “I might work in that chair today or at that table the next. It’s nice.”
Leslie is a serial entrepreneur. He’s owned a magazine, a nightclub and an ad agency. His former agency, Trend Influence, grew to a point where overhead was a constant burden, which often had a negative effect on the time and human resources available to create real craftsmanship. After running the agency for more than a decade, Leslie realized that only one part of the ad business sparked his inner flame.
“I wasn’t thrilled with shooting TV commercials or building websites, but I was always very interested in human motivation and brand strategy,” he said.
A new idea – a new business – was born.
Culture is Leslie’s brand intelligence firm. Along with partners Oliver Perrin and Brandon Sutton, he launched it a year ago and they earned their first dollar in January. While the traditional focus of advertising is to tell a story to stimulate a transaction or a purchase response, Culture helps brands align with what their core customers care about and believe.
“We’re a relationship counselor between brands and their constituents,” Leslie said. “We help brands become less subjective, which helps them act in a way that resonates with the core beliefs of their customers.”
So far this year, he’s helped Captain D’s, Arby’s, Coca-Cola and Reebok to improve their connections with their consumers. For example, Culture has helped Reebok understand the core motivation for why people around the world make the decision to be physically fit.
Leslie has a distinct point of view about brands and what motivates people. That’s one reason he works for himself.
“I have control to do what I think is the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s not about financial freedom or making more money because for me that’s secondary. It’s definitely about finding a better way.”
Big, bold ideas can happen anywhere, but there’s something to be said for the right space for ideation. Leslie’s second business, illuminarium, is all about space to think. It’s a collaborative workshop facility he leases to teams to work together to solve problems in a unique environment. Extensive dry erase walls are available in multiple areas of the facility . Unlike when you were a kid, it’s okay to write on the walls there. Culture uses the illuminarium facility extensively because it was purpose-built for exactly the kind of insight and ideation sessions that have become a signature of Leslie’s style, but clients such as Delta Airlines, AKQA, Campbell’s, Coca-Cola, Northstar Research Partners and Atlanta Community Food bank have all taken advantage of the availability of the space. This was a part of Leslie’s original plan. “When we started we intentionally designed Culture and Illuminarium to be mutually-supporting,” he said. “The two businesses reinforce one another and set each other apart. When you’re just getting started it’s important to get the most out of every investment.”
Leslie has the following advice for those thinking about starting a business:
- Keep your overhead low.
- Be ready to not make money. It may take a while so make sure you have support systems in place so the money stress does not drive your business strategy.
- Be flexible and willing to change your strategy as circumstances change.
- Manage your cash flow well, a credit facility can be your best friend.
- Be likable. People usually have to like you to work with you.