One common regret among entrepreneurs, especially successful ones, is that they didn’t start their businesses earlier.
The partners behind the Republican firm Convergence Media, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, aren’t burdened by that feeling.
In fact, Rob Simms and Mike Shields told C&E their timing couldn’t have been better despite hatching the plan for their firm over games of pool some two decades earlier as roommates in a group house attending George Mason University.
“Because Rob and I had worked in this industry for so long, we were bringing years of relationships with us,” said Shields. “When we first started talking about starting a firm, we hadn’t even actually incorporated anything yet and we had a client.”
That dream start came about serendipitously. Simms had been gone from DC for about 11 years when around 2014-15 the college buddies suddenly found themselves not just back in the Beltway at the same time, but both working out of the same building: 310 First Street SE. Simms was then the political director of the NRCC and Shields was working upstairs as the RNC’s chief of staff.
“That’s when we really started to go, ‘Hey, we’re now in a position where we could launch the company we always talked about,’” Shields recalled.
Over about a year during meet ups at Mason Social, a bar in Alexandria, Va., the would-be partners hashed out a business plan before launching in early 2017. “Timing is everything and that was the perfect time for us,” Shields said.
In some ways, the partners were running against the grain of a trend that had started in the industry post-2008: younger operatives launching their own shops with only one or two cycles of campaign experience.
“Everyone’s always talking about whether they’re going to make that break away from those in-house jobs and go hang their shingle and be a consultant,” Shields said. “We just kept going down, and doubling down, but what that meant was by the time we did [launch a firm], we had built up relationships and sweat equity in our profession to the point where that was the capital we were bringing to starting a company.”
He added: “Had we started this firm when we were first talking about starting a firm in our 20s, we would have had to go and gotten a loan.”
The other competitive edge the firm had was deep market research. To wit, the partners had hired or worked with “everybody” on the Republican side of the consulting business, said Simms: “We just thought we could start our firm from scratch and take a lot of the good things that we were seeing in the marketplace, identified some things that we thought we could do a little bit better or a little bit differently, and really bring them all together and named the firm Convergence for that reason.”
But even with nearly 50 years of combined political experience, the partners knew that they couldn’t just sell their expertise.
“What we had learned is that you have to have deliverables and a product,” said Shields. “And so that’s how we approached the marketplace: We’re going to bring strategy, we’re going to bring a combined 50 years of political experience of people that had run party committees … that’s all well and good, but you also need to have a product that you’re going to sell, that is your marquee deliverable and something that you can hang your hat on.
“That’s what also brought us to bring in Tom [Newhouse] and Ben [Miller] immediately.”
Newhouse had been the NRCC’s digital director, and was tasked with building up the firm’s online advertising and fundraising business while Miller’s production experience gave the firm the capacity to start quickly producing creative for clients.
“What we’d seen in the marketplace that we thought was missing was a data-based marketing firm,” said Shields. “Having worked with a lot of our friends, we hadn’t seen anyone successfully doing that.”