On Discovering the Urge to Surge into Entrepreneurship
“He came back a couple of hours later and told me, “they picked yours,” said Tom Cox as he told the story of landing the “Always Coke” campaign back when he was 23. Jonathan Chambers, Community and Entrepreneurship Manager at Cherokee Office of Economic Development (COED) interviewed the brand identity expert in front of a full house- or gym rather, for the July gathering of the Lunch Circuit- a monthly lunch for local entrepreneurs to hear from the visionary behind successful, local startups. Chambers had asked Cox to walk the audience through the origin story of Tom Cox Design. With clients spanning locally and globally such as Coke, Path & Post, Holiday Inn, Fresh Start Cherokee, National Science Foundation, and Surge, it is nearly impossible to walk down Woodstock’s Main Street or the grocery aisle without seeing his brand reach.
With several local brand identities in his portfolio such as Downtown Woodstock and Reformation Brewery, it could be easily assumed that Tom Cox Design is an overnight success. However, this moment has been twenty-five years in the making. With his UGA diploma in hand, Tom thought his walk across stage would easily translate into a corner office at a top Atlanta design firm. As the months passed by and the dreams of a corner office, and Tom found a position at a local trade magazine publisher in the advertisement sales department for magazines such as Container News. It was there he learned how to use graphic design software.
“I was hired at Coke because I knew the computer,” continued Cox. “This was when they were transitioning all of their files from the actual artwork on a board to computer files, and so I got the job because I knew how to do that, not because I was a great designer. A couple of months in and I hated it; I wasn’t being creative, I was recreating other people’s artwork. I took the initiative to get to know the art and brand directors on the floor and through that realized that outside design firms were doing all of the design. When I heard about the “Always Coca-Cola” campaign and the project for the logo, I thought I could do that. I stayed late one night, did a couple of options, matted them on a blackboard, and snuck into the guy’s office who was in charge of the project. He had a stack of blackboards on his desk, and I slid mine in the middle. The logo was only supposed to be for the soda can, but soon it was on other pieces of packaging, and then it took off and went all over the world. That experience showed me the power of initiative.”
So you leave Coke, where do you go?
I was at Coke for eight years; there were good and bad days just like at any corporation. I felt like it was time for a change and put my name out to recruiters. I landed a job at the web development company March FIRST, and ten months later the company shut its doors, and I was out of a job. I kicked my freelancing into gear after that.
Brigade Quartermasters offered me a position there, and I told them I would only accept if I had the freedom to rebrand the company. I did an internal interview with the employees, and my first question was, “what is the logo?” Out of 100 employees, the owner was the only one who knew the logo was a medieval archer. I changed the logo, the tagline, the catalog design, everything. Profits tripled a year after the brand launch. This was the first brand identity campaign I did entirely on my own. It taught me that the process worked and if I could do it for them, I could do it for anyone. I knew that if I was going to start a company, I had to do it then, so I began Tom Cox Design in 2005 and was able to retain Brigade Quartermasters as a client.
So after being an entrepreneur now for 13 years, tell us about a big win.
I think that was when I got the job to redesign the Hub at Holiday Inn. I got that project because I had just finished a rebranding campaign for Dave Poe’s Barbecue in Marietta. They didn’t have a ton of money to spend, but they allowed me creative freedom, which is a big deal for any designer, the more you trust them, the better they will do. I went hog wild with his identity and shortly after the launch, the Global Brand Director for Holiday Inn was there having dinner with his family. When he asked Dave who did the brand identity, Dave replied, “Tom.”
Just Tom. He then called me and brought me in to interview for a project to combine Holiday Inn’s bar and cafe into one cohesive, open body concept. The project was a big win for me because while they were interviewing me, they were also talking to other design firms that specialized in restaurant redesign, and out of everyone else, I was chosen. That was a massive win for me.
What about a loss?
About four years ago, I met Brian Stockton of Woodstock Office of Economic Development through my work with Reformation Brewery. He called me to talk to his team about the Greenprints Alliance identity. It didn’t work out, and they went with someone else. I was bummed because at that point Reformation was my only local client, and before then I never thought of having local businesses as clients. About six months later, Brian called me to do the Downtown Woodstock identity.
Having a home office, how have your wife and kids shaped you as an entrepreneur?
I couldn’t do this without my wife because she takes care of everything else. I also have more flexibility because I am not tied down to a corporate schedule. When I was at Coke I wasn’t as involved with my family as I should have been, I was in the office, commuting, and working on deadlines.
Balancing the business side and the creative side looks like getting up at 5 am some days and staying up until midnight others. I initially thought I was going to hire employees and create a firm. I almost hired an employee about a year into Tom Cox Design and then stayed up all night thinking about how I just added another family to support. I backed out of going down that road. I could make more money if I added employees but would be less fulfilled because I then I would be a manager of people and a salesman and I would have less flexibility because of that.
How did you determine your target customer?
My target market is food and beverage, but I tell people that even though your target is narrow doesn’t mean that it will close you off to others. Here’s the thing, I suck at marketing myself. The majority of my stuff is word of mouth. The only client I have ever cold called was Reformation Brewery. Because of my work with Reformation Brewery, I got to work on the brand identities for Downtown Woodstock and The Circuit.
Photography courtesy of Glenn Whittington Photography
Powered by Fresh Start Cherokee, located at The Circuit, and hosted by the Cherokee Office of Economic Development.
Monthly ticket only event. To join us for our next Lunch Circuit featuring Ashley Holcomb on August 8th, 11:30 am – 1 pm, visit the following link: Lunch Circuit with Ashley Holcomb