Hire recruiters sooner. As our agency grew exponentially, I realized how much money we were spending on recruiting agency fees and didn’t think about bringing recruiters in-house until much later than I think we should’ve. Recruiters don’t always jump out as mission-critical hires, but having recruiters in-house who really understand our business has been a game changer.
As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Evan Horowitz, CEO and co-founder, Movers+Shakers.
With over 100 billion views on their TikTok campaigns, Movers+Shakers has become “the go-to agency for brands making moves on TikTok” (Refinery29). Their disruptive social media marketing has earned them over a dozen awards — including being named a Fast Company Most Innovative Company and #78 on Inc.’s list of fastest-growing companies in America.
Evan’s 20+ years as a marketer span in-house roles in the Fortune 500 (Samsung, Macy’s) to coaching leaders on business strategy and emotional intelligence. He serves as an Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Harvard Alumni Entrepreneurs. He earned an MBA from Harvard and a BS Engineering from Stanford.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My first marketing job was being a campus tour guide at Stanford. I was studying electrical engineering. But designing computer chips never got me as excited as fielding tough questions from prospective students and their families. So when I graduated, I got a marketing role at a Silicon Valley tech company.
I realized I loved marketing and business. I went on to spend the first 10 years of my career in the big business world, including working for brands like Macy’s and Samsung, and getting my MBA.
When I was 30, I took a leap and started my first company. That was also the year I met Geoffrey, my business and life partner. He was performing on Broadway at the time, in Mary Poppins.
The inspiration for Movers+Shakers came about 5 years later. Geoffrey was making the shift from on-stage to directing and writing. When he posted a dance video on Facebook that garnered 30k views overnight, I thought, wow, musical storytelling really cuts through the clutter. We saw an opportunity to produce fresh, standout marketing. Despite the fact that I’d never worked at an ad agency, and Geoffrey had never had a desk job — which we do think contributes to our current success — we launched Movers+Shakers in 2016.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
For the first three years we had some noteworthy and award-winning projects (like our Match.com musical love story!), but were not gaining the traction we needed. We hadn’t ever been able to pay ourselves a salary, and in fact we were still sinking money into the business. Our list of failed pitches and rejections was hundreds long.
So, in summer of 2019 we nearly decided to close down. Our personal savings had bottomed out. Instead, in October 2019, we bet big on an obscure social media platform called TikTok — and invested all of our resources in it. We created the most viral TikTok campaign in history, and then we marketed ourselves aggressively as TikTok experts. We caught lightning in a bottle.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
It’s so hard. Someone said to me — and I believe it — that businesses don’t fail, entrepreneurs just give up.
Something that helps me a lot is setting and then focusing my vision. What does success look like for the business? What will my life feel like when I’m there? That will feel amazing! That’s why I’m doing this. That’s why I’m willing to make another call and risk another rejection.
And through it all, if times get really tough, I can always get bubble tea to help comfort me.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
The gratitude I feel for how far we’ve come is indescribable. Just 18 months ago, the whole company was still just Geoffrey and me. We’ve now grown to a team of almost 60. Our revenue jumped over 14x in 2020 as we onboarded clients like Johnson & Johnson and Amazon, and our growth hasn’t stopped!
We’ve developed a reputation for connecting brands to culture, and creating big, buzz-worthy campaigns. If we had closed down in 2019, when we were low on funds and motivation, we would never be where we are today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we first started Movers+Shakers, we had a big vision and a ton of passion for what we could do and become. We wanted to place big bets and win big!
We had a friend in Mexico City that was interested in partnering with us, so we decided to open a branch of Movers+Shakers there. Before our business took off in the US, we decided to expand internationally. We went BIG and got an office in Torre Reforma, the tallest building in CDMX. I was SO excited to become an international businessman and happily hired a few people in Mexico City.
Fast forward 10 months later. While we were having a lot of fun, we still hadn’t landed a single client after a ton of pitches (including a really fun one to an Acapulco resort). So, we closed the office and ended our Mexico adventure.
Lesson learned? Honestly, it was awesome and I wouldn’t do it differently. The only way you can succeed is if you try, so I’m glad we did. I’m proud of our big vision and our guts. Our history is full of failures like this. The key is to learn from those and keep pushing forward.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
After producing the most-viral campaign in TikTok history in 2019, Movers+Shakers became “the go-to agency for brands making moves on TikTok” (Refinery29). By the end of 2020, we accrued 100 billion views on our TikTok campaigns, launched the first-ever TikTok-native reality show, and written original branded music that got clients to the top of Spotify and Billboard charts. We quite literally wrote the TikTok marketing playbook that other brands still follow today.
We’ve built Movers+Shakers’ reputation for bringing innovative ideas to the table and connecting brands to culture. The big, bold, disruptive ideas that end up on the cutting room floor at other agencies are the ones our clients come to us for.
The last thing I’ll add is that our mission to spread joy really does shine through everything, and that’s something that both our employees and our clients notice on a daily basis. Our values are how we approach everything we do — from who we choose to work with, to the work we do, to who we bring onto our team. It’s a message, a way of working and a culture that has gone over well, especially in the last year and a half.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I work really long days (and nights). But pretty much every night, Geoffrey and I have dinner with our daughter. While there will always be more work to be done, family time is important to us and helps us maintain balance.
It’s also important to surround yourself with people who lift you up. One of the most rewarding parts of being a co-founder is the ability to build out your team. We’ve intentionally structure ours around a strong set of values, to ensure that we are surrounded by people who bring out the best in each other, and the best in us too! It really makes all the difference.
Lastly, work on being grateful. I spend a lot of time reminding myself to look at the positive and reflect on it. For example, how great my team is. When I look out to the sea of faces (or in reality, zoom boxes), the feeling is indescribable. Amidst the difficulties of running a fast-growing company, it’s important to cultivate gratitude.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My partner Geoffrey’s creativity and risk-taking inspired the original idea of Movers+Shakers. Although he’s never worked in marketing before, in fact, he’s never even held a desk job before either, he’s embraced it. He’s learned so much so fast, and has successfully translated his incredible creativity and leadership skills into this new forum.
Moving from Broadway to starting a creativity agency is a huge cultural shift, let alone doing so with your spouse. Geoffrey and I are committed to working through all of our relationships challenges. We’ve certainly had a LOT of disagreements and angry fights. So many times, we came close to calling it quits on the whole venture. I’m so grateful he’s chosen to stick with it. We’ve dug into a lot of our behavioral patterns and as a result, we’ve become a lot stronger as a couple — as business partners, as life partners, and as parents.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Our agency’s mission is to spread joy. We think the world needs this, these days more than ever. Things are often stressful and there’s a lot of strife. One thing we do as an agency is make sure our marketing campaigns put more positivity into the world — whether that’s through levity, education, comedy, optimism or something else.
On the personal side, I enjoy spending time with other entrepreneurially-minded people. I hope to inspire them to bring more of their ideas into the world. I dedicate time to the Harvard Alumni Entrepreneurs group and other entrepreneurs’ organizations. I think it’s important to share the real story of how hard it is to build a business. It’s more helpful to be candid about how many failures it takes, rather than just share success stories. It’s important to know and to hear that success isn’t easy. If it’s hard, you are likely on the right path.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Hire recruiters sooner. As our agency grew exponentially, I realized how much money we were spending on recruiting agency fees and didn’t think about bringing recruiters in-house until much later than I think we should’ve. Recruiters don’t always jump out as mission-critical hires, but having recruiters in-house who really understand our business has been a game changer.
- The importance of getting good financial advice. It’s easy to see if your bank account is going up or down. But when we recently brought on accounting advisors, we uncovered a whole new level of insight into our business. Our accountants work with a lot of firms like ours, and so they have great insight into the ratios and performance metrics we can attain. Get expert financial advice asap!
- Embrace systematizing and creating processes. As an entrepreneur, I’ve found that I value flexibility much more than most of my employees. They actually appreciate clear direction into what I want them to do, and how. For too long, I resisted building systems and processes. Inadvertently, I was causing chaos for the team. We had team members sitting in meetings they didn’t need to be in because the swim lanes were unclear. Projects were passed back and forth more times than they needed to be. There’s a balance between having an entrepreneurial spirit and embracing processes for effective work.
- Consistency and accountability are key. As the company grows, more people are asking me for more things. At some point, I realized my time was being entirely managed by my team — slacking me, emailing me, putting meetings on my calendar. I wasn’t doing the strategic work I knew was important for the company. I’ve since rebalanced, gotten a coach, and am starting each week with strategic goals that I track daily. If I as a leader can’t stay focused on strategic priorities, how can I expect my team to?
- It gets harder and harder. You know how they say when you go from one kid to two, it gets more than twice as hard? Being a founder is a similar concept. As the company scales, especially when you are really ambitious to keep going, it only gets harder. More employees, more clients, more curveball situations you never imagined you’d face. Get good help, but also know that it requires a strong stomach.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
I’m always reminding myself that nothing is personal. It can really sting when clients are mad at me, employees resent me, and people talk trash behind my back. But I try to ask myself: “What’s going on for that person?” They are probably feeling scared or hurt or vulnerable. That’s how I feel when I act out at people.
We had a client once that was really mean to our team, to the point of feeling abusive. My first reaction was to fight back at them. But when I met their boss, I realized the boss was the same way. It was clear that our client was probably taking a lot of abuse, and was just doing it back out to our team. It doesn’t make it OK, but it allowed me to feel compassion for them, and not take it personally.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
A key component of our mission to spread joy is to inspire gratitude. I believe that gratitude is a prerequisite for joy. And that, in fact, gratitude is just a recognition of what we all already have… this incredible opportunity to live. The world is so full of beauty and love. Every day, I practice looking for it.
I envision a world where we all walk around with more gratitude. In this world, there will be so much less need for conflict. Why fight when we all already have so much?
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!