Before Kit Hughes was the co-founder and managing partner of one of the fastest-growing companies in America--which landed at No. 408 on the 2015 Inc. 5000--he was one of those kids who played guitar in a punk band and went to art school. He thought advertising was evil. Then he realized that it can pay the bills--a not unimportant consideration for creative people. Today, Hughes's Atlanta-based firm Look-Listen develops apps, websites, and digital ads for a rapidly expanding slate of businesses including Wendy's, General Electric, and the New York Yankees. He spoke to Inc. about his journey from punk rocker to proprietor.
--As told to Saki Knafo
During art school, I worked on a project where I bought every product advertised in 24 hours of network television. I learned volumes. Among other things, most advertising and marketing is simply a bunch of levers and knobs that are pulled and turned to make emotional connections. I wanted to show the power in manipulating those emotional connections. It was kind of like playing with people in a gallery, trying to come up with ways to get them to engage with each other and make them happy.
That was the spark for Look-Listen. After I graduated, I reached out to my childhood best friend, Paul Sternberg. We had played in rock bands in Kentucky as teenagers, and we were good collaborators. We decided to start an ad agency, of all things, but one that would do things differently. We felt that too many ad agencies were focused on the idea, but not on how to measure its effectiveness. No offense to Don Draper, but we wanted more. We decided that we would focus on analytics. We wanted to move the needle for our clients.
I guess I'm weird, because you don't meet many kids in art school who have a deep interest in numbers. But that's who I am, and I've put that into my business. I wasn't always that way. When I was young, I had dyscalculia, a learning disability that affects arithmetic comprehension. You could tell me a four-digit number and three seconds later I couldn't repeat it back to you. For a time I was embarrassed by it, but I intensely worked at finances, and now I catch things that our controller doesn't catch.
In our band, I was the front man and the guy that came with the ideas, and my partner played all these instruments--he could lay out a drum track or play bass or guitar. When we started the business, in 2007, we decided that we would have similar roles. I was going to be the guy who looked like an adult and who handled the money, and he would be in a cave just cranking on design work.
At the time, I had a full-time job working in the design division of a global electronics company. On weekends and all of my vacation time I would fly up to New York from Atlanta and go through nonstop days of meetings. I would stay on couches in Brooklyn, where my partner lived. We were able to use all the money we made to pay him enough just to scrape by. There was a little bit of tension: He really wanted me to come on full time. We had our string of angry emails back and forth to each other, naturally. But we're like brothers, so we can totally do that and be cool. I think it made us stronger as business partners.
I finally joined the company full time in 2011. We hired our first employees in 2012. We started 2014 with 15 employees. We started this year with 35. I think punk brought me a sense of boldness and a sense of ambition, and that carries over to how we run our business.