Most entrepreneurs would hesitate to start a company with their significant other. But Jesse Thomas and Leslie Bradshaw of creative agency Jess3 are showing skeptics how it’s done--and making a pretty penny in the process.
The story began in 2006, in Washington, D.C. Bradshaw, a media consultant, attended a business meeting and was introduced to Thomas, who worked at Ogilvy and was already making a name for himself as a freelance user experience designer. It was love at first sight. Ultimately, Thomas quit his job to devote himself full-time to his freelance business, Jess3. Bradshaw joined him and used her connections to bring in work.
“Partially, it was like, ‘Hey, I want to spend time with this guy, but he’s always busy,” Bradshaw says with a laugh. “So I picked up a title and started integrating myself into the company.”
While Thomas was out on the front lines trend-watching and building relationships, Bradshaw established herself as the manager and executive of the operation. They seized upon the release of APIs by the likes of Facebook and Twitter to land crucial projects like C-SPAN’s website and social media overhaul in 2008. They eventually left their full-time jobs to incorporate Jess3 in 2010, and trolled Flickr and Behance to poach top artists and designers to continue building the firm.
“There’s a great Ogilvy quote that has been a guiding light to us,” Thomas says. “Create a reputation for being a creative genius. Hire people smarter than you. Then get out of their way.”
Jess3 is now packing up and moving to Los Angeles, and has developed a specialty in data visualization. Dipping its toe in the big data pool, the company employs tactics like stop-motion animation, infographics, and puppetry (yes, puppetry) to present large sets of information for clients like Google, Nike, and ESPN.
Simply put, they take topics that many people might not find that interesting--Nielsen ratings, radio waves, the cloud, etc.--and make them fun and engaging.
Company presentations don’t have to suck, Bradshaw contends. “Visual storytelling is a very effective way of communication. How do we learn as children?” she says. “But when we get older, we’re doing a lot of writing, and these 20 page papers for college.”
Thomas says the secret to running a successful company with a significant other is to first have a foundation as best friends. “I had a bunch of weaknesses when I met Leslie, and she fit really nicely into what I was already doing,” he says. “At the end of the day, it should be based on friendship.”
Bradshaw’s approach is a little more straightforward: No business talk on date night.
Jess3 Couple Figures Out the Big Picture
Life and business partners Jesse Thomas and Leslie Bradshaw use stop-motion animation, infographics, and puppetry (yes, puppetry) to make big data pop.
J.J. MCCORVEY is a reporter at Inc. magazine, where he covers a wide range of topics, including technology and business research. He has covered metro news for The Detroit News, and his work has been featured in Men's Fitness. @jmccorvey
2011 Read about Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger of Instagram, Matt Mickiewicz of 99designs, and Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp of Birchbox. Plus the start-up stories of Quora, Onswipe, Dropbox, Foodspotting, and Gemvara.
2010 Meet Alexa von Tobel of Learnvest, Naveen Selvadurai of Foursquare, Jack Abraham of Mint.com, plus the founders of Rent the Runway, Airbnb, Crowdflower, Posterous, LivingSocial, and Urban Escapes (now part of Living Social).
2009 Pete Cashmore of Mashable, Elliott Bisnow of Summit Series, Danielle and Jodie Snyder of Dannijo, Jamail Larkins of Larkins Enterprises were included on our 2009 list, as were the teams behind ModCloth, Thrillist, IdeaPaint, Foodzie, and Justin.TV.