The Necessity Entrepreneur

Lancaster Creative Nathan Frohm Among Those Who Forge Ahead on Their Own.

When the recession forced longtime creative services guru Nathan Frohm to leave his job with an ad agency in Lancaster in January, the Central PA native got a lot of advice when he decided to start his own business.

“Stay away from startups,” he heard. “Eighty percent of small businesses fail. And they might not be able to pay regularly and their budgets will be smaller.”

Not exactly terrible advice, but it just didn’t resonate with Frohm.

“I’m that guy,” he remembers thinking. “I’m that small business. If I could help other people succeed, that will help me succeed.”

That strategy has paid off handsomely for Frohm, whose one-person, one-stop shopping creative services firm, Nathan Frohm Design, is growing rapidly thanks to a commitment to other small and early-stage companies and a strong belief in his own abilities to express his clients’ vision. In fact, Frohm still does work with the company that let him go eight months ago, Parker Advertising–perhaps the best endorsement of his work.

Frohm, 34, is a shining example of an entrepreneurial story that has played out more and more over the last three years: Bright, successful employees get laid off, forcing them to start their own company, and the result is often better than the formerly “secure and content” situation in which they had been working. In the first half of 2010, more than 25 percent of unemployed workers across the country considered starting their own business, according to CareerBuilder, and last year business start-ups in the U.S. reached their highest levels in 14 years, reported the Kauffman Foundation. In Pennsylvania, there is a trend of increased demand for advice and training at Small Business Development Centers statewide.

While “necessity” entrepreneurship is outpacing “opportunity” entrepreneurship, Frohm’s story is also about how young companies–and those calling their shots–are able to work together to help each other grow.

“I feel like I’m providing them a better service and helping other people do what I’m trying to do,” Frohm says. “That’s really been one of my biggest driving forces.

“I just think I connect better with those types of people. They understand where I’m coming from”

At 34, Frohm is old enough to remember the term “commercial arts,” the pre-computer era terminology for the design and production of marketing and related materials. But Frohm was also young enough to enroll in the graphic design program at Kutztown University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. For the last 10 years, Frohm has worked at sign shops and advertising firms in Southern PA and Tennessee as a graphic designer before becoming the creative services director with Parker in Lancaster.

Frohm very much enjoyed the challenges and rewards of his job and Parker was holding steady through much of the global recession. Prior to the Christmas season, however, it became evident that business–much of it centered around employee communication and recruitment advertising–was slowing to a point that the agency would have to get leaner.

“Everyone knew it was coming,” Frohm says. “We were doing our best. We were kept pretty well in the loop.”

Frohm, who had always shied away from taking on extra freelance work while employed full-time, first looked at other creative agencies around Central PA, but most were in the same boat as mid- to large-sized companies were continuing to slash marketing and advertising budgets.  That forced Frohm’s hand, and when he put feelers out to see he could pick up some contract work on his own, the feedback was surprisingly positive. He sought some entrepreneurial mentoring from the local branch of non-profit SCORE Associates.  By this time, though, Frohm’s confidence was sky-high again, and his next move became abundantly evident.

His vision started to take shape–on design, the creative process, service, SEO, social media and sustainability. Rather than try to act big, Frohm started pitching himself as a lean, creative machine, handing consultations, web and content development, graphic design and branding almost entirely on his own. Frohm focused on listening in an effort to fulfill clients’ visions. He started sourcing printers who used environmentally responsible products and kept his own waste and energy use at a minimum.

“The biggest thing is I’m one guy. I have one desk, one computer, and that’s really all I need,” Frohm says. “A big, fancy office building just doesn’t do anything. When I came to the realization of what I truly wanted to do, the encouragement came.”

That’s also when the money started coming in. He is now juggling up to 10 projects for at least eight clients, a pretty significant growth rate in just eight months. He has done work for a variety of clients in a wide range of industries like non-profits, civil engineers, restaurants, construction, and medical care. Perhaps his biggest success story has come with JoBoys Brew Pub, a Lancaster County establishment that opened in April, serving authentic Southern BB and its own beer.

Jeff Harless and his wife already had a picture in his mind of what he wanted the restaurant’s logo, menu and beer labels to look like. The North Carolina natives felt they were filling a big void in Manheim and wanted to make a big splash. When Harless met Frohm through a mutual acquaintance, he knew he had the right person for the job.

“After we told him what we were looking for, he came in with all these ideas,” remembers Harless. “He pretty much hit it spot-on every single time. I think when we finalized the logo and got some of the colors and flames in it, that represented exactly what I had in mind and that was probably our biggest thrill.”

While other factors have also been instrumental in JoBoys ‘ early success, Harless counts Frohm’s contributions among them. The brewpub took in twice as much in sales as they anticipated through the first several months and in August, they tripled their initial sales projections.

“We’ve had a lot of complements on our branding and a lot of people who’ve asked who does our graphics work,” says Harless, who also pointed out that Frohm was flexible when it come to invoicing, accepting a few hundred dollars at a time as the restaurant got off the ground.

He could use an office manager and he has run out of room on his dry-erase board, but Frohm says he has never been happier. From his home office, he can play music whenever he likes, stop working to walk the dog if he feels like it, and actually eat his lunch if he’s that hungry.

Success for Frohm looks much like it does today. If he can stay busy, help other businesses succeed and keep his skills sharp, he feels like he’ll have achieved his dream. The only growth Frohm envisions is visible in a scene that keeps flashing in his head. When he imagines the future, he pictures himself through a storefront window, by himself, sitting at a lone desk, working on a lone computer.

“I’m not sure if I’m a 100-percent success story yet, but I feel like I’m well on my way,” says Frohm. “It’s encouraging enough to absolutely stick with it for the long haul.”

Joe Petrucci is managing editor of Keystone Edge. Send feedback here.

To receive Keystone Edge free every week, click here.