Lessons Learned: Project Advertising Meets the Real World

Three students started an advertising business upon graduation. What they got was a lesson in the real world.
Writer and Public Speaker, Freelance
April 23, 2013

Project Advertising began as a project of another sort. Founders John Phan, Sun Trinh and Dylan Crouch met as undergraduate marketing students at the University of New Mexico. During their junior year, they entered a petroleum ad campaign, beating out legacy powerhouse schools including Syracuse University to win the 2010 national title at an event in San Francisco.

The team graduated in spring 2011 and formed the advertising firm Project Advertising. They focused on traditional media, taking their first job doing AIDS awareness billboards and bus boards for the local health bureau. The campaign received regional attention for its risque yet informative approach—leading to a trickle of orders for print, video and sign campaigns. Though not enough to support three families, it was enough to feed and house three men accustomed to living like college students.

The Big Gamble

In 2012, the same University of New Mexico professor who led them to their earlier victory told them about a new opportunity. Honda was holding a new technology in advertising contest that would culminate in a major advertising contract for the winner. Project Advertising went all-in.

"We were excited about the new technology," Phan says. The work was based on an interactive technology similar to the Xbox Kinect, which let shoppers change color, style and customize a virtual car in real time, using simple gestures. The team put all its energy, and the last of its startup funds, into chasing the prize, doing all the programming and creative work on spec.

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They didn't win. Honda awarded the prize to students from a different college. Project Advertising had not only gone through all its financial resources, but the trio had spent months putting their mental energy into the contest instead of pursuing new clients. Although they looked for local businesses to use the program they'd created, they had no luck. "Albuquerque lags behind the rest of the country when it comes to adopting new technologies," Phan notes. "It's the Wild West, not the Silicon Valley."

Out of money and with little income, the three partners realized their accomplishments hadn't created a thriving business, but did give them all impressive resumes. When the job offers started coming in, they agreed to dissolve the corporation.

Lesson One: Planning

"If I had it to do over, I would have had a business plan," Phan says, "but we were all bright-eyed and bushy tailed, riding on a college career of constant success." The team rode the momentum and excitement of their college success with no real plan for growing that success into a company that worked. When a shiny new prospect appeared, they chased it without a full understanding of how it might affect the future. 

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Basic strategic and financial planning might not have prevented them from sinking their business chasing the Honda prize, but they would have gone after it knowing the scope of the gamble.

Lesson Two: Preparation

Phan also points out that college did not prepare him for the realities of business ownership. "We learned basic theory, like how to create a campaign, but what's expected of you in school is completely different from what you do in real life. We were unprepared for the ground-level reality and it cost us a lot of money and a lot of avoidable mistakes."

The team also came out of school unprepared for dealing with personality conflicts within the business. "Just because you get along with someone in college doesn't mean you'll be great partners in the real world," Phan says. Though the team parted amicably, differences in style and value compounded the fiscal problems Project Advertising suffered. 

In the end, all three partners consider Project Advertising their first term in graduate school. They found out how what they learned applies in the real world, and learned about how suited they each were for business ownership. 

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Jason has contributed over 2,000 blog and magazine articles to publications local, regional and national. He speaks regularly at writing and business conferences.