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Inner City 100 Preview: A Conversation With Matt Doud and Daren Bascome

On October 7, the 2015 Inner City 100 Conference and Awards will convene CEOs from around the country to reveal the 2015 list of the fastest-growing urban businesses in America.

The Inner City 100 aims not only to celebrate these businesses, but also to spark new connections, catalyze conversations and inspire collaboration among attendees.

Among the finalists for the 2015 list are Proverb and Planit – two creative agencies based in Boston and Baltimore, respectively. In the spirit of the Inner City 100, the leaders of these two firms recently joined ICIC for a conversation about cities, storytelling, and why the two are more powerful together.

ICIC: You both run businesses in which multimedia storytelling is key. Why do you think an urban location is a particularly good environment for storytellers?

Daren Bascome, Founder and Managing Director of Proverb: I didn’t grow up in the city; I grew up on a small island in Bermuda. Since I first came to Boston, the South End, where our office is, has always been my favorite neighborhood. It’s where I live; it’s where I’m raising my daughters. The neighborhood has always represented a certain kind of openness. It’s an area that has welcomed new immigrants; it’s been popular with artists and gay men.

This level of openness really invites creativity. We are able to experiment and hone our model while still being in the flow of ideas from all the universities, research and finance going on around us.

Matt Doud, President and Co-Founder of Planit: I grew up here in Baltimore; I’m a huge fan. It’s a community with a quirky and creative subculture.

We could move to the country and there would be white picket fences and horses, but we wouldn’t get the energy, the fire, the youth of the city. You’ve got to be in the thick of it, warts and all, for the innovative ideas and disruptive energy.

ICIC: What surprised you the most about starting your own business?

Bascome: Initially, when I was starting Proverb in my living room in Jamaica Plain, I was blown away how every day felt like a Sunday night in college. There was never enough time, and you’re confronted by all your limitations. It was about learning to make a pitch, manage the budget. And as we grew, it was learning how to lead, how to anticipate the needs of the group.

Doud: For me, the most eye-opening thing was the human side of it. I’ve got 100 families I feel responsible for now. Especially in 2009, when the economy tanked, it wasn’t just me and my kids and my wife that I had to think about. It was the whole company, and I don’t take that lightly. I’ve ended up spending more time as a ‘people guy’ than as an ‘ad guy.’

ICIC: What was a brand that was particularly influential for you when you were young?

Bascome: When I was 14, my friends and I saw ET, and we were blown away by those scenes with the guys riding BMX bikes. All my friends started to get them for their birthdays, and we started to collect magazines and trade them.

And I found an image of an incredible bike, a Red Line 600a. I had to have it. But since the bike needed to be shipped all the way to Bermuda, it cost a ridiculous amount of money. So I got a job packing groceries to help pay for it. It was a tremendous brand, and really it pushed me to get started as an entrepreneur.

Doud: When I was growing up we had a humble household, but brands were still really important to me. Everybody had polo shirts in the 1980s, and I also worked to be able to buy the brands I liked. There was a personal connection to these brands – they meant something to me.

Brands are all about connections, and people wear them as a badge of honor: “I believe in this and it’s reflective of me.”

And it isn’t just products. These connections can be to a charity or a passion project as well.

Bascome: Sometimes this shows up when you’re looking to reinvigorate the positioning of an organization.

We’ve spent the past two years working on rebranding of a religion. The Unitarian Universalist Church has this history of incredibly progressive values, but their population is getting older, and many young people aren’t really going to church.

So we’ve been looking at brands like Lululemon, initiatives like the RED campaign, to see how young people connect to the idea of taking action. Brand as a connection can sell ideas and really build communities.

ICIC: Now, I’d love to give you two a chance to ask each other a question directly.

Bascome: Matt, I’d like to ask about how you work to get better at what you do.

Doud: For me, it’s all about balance. If I’m in a good place personally, I’ll be better at everything I do: I’m a better father, I’m a better business partner, I’m a better leader.

I’m been working on giving myself permission to take time off. I just took a two week vacation, which I don’t think I’ve done since spring break in high school. But it’s made me better both mentally and physically.

Doud: One thing I want to ask you, Daren: What scares you?

Bascome: At this point, falling short of our promise scares me. We’re in a great place, with a great team that shares a vision and high ambitions. I’m optimistic and feel that we have the opportunity to build something incredibly special.

Doud: It’s true; the vision is not about travel or cars – it’s about knowing that you can always do more. For me, it’s similar to raising kids – you see this unbelievable potential, and have this wide-eyed optimism. “How can we make this great? Not just good. Great.”

This year’s Inner City 100 Conference and Awards will be held October 7 in Boston. For more information on the event or on nominations for next year’s awards, please visit innercity100.org or email elajoie@icic.org.

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