Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Morning all, my name is Darren Magarro and I am the founder and president of DSM. We’re a full-service marketing and PR firm in Mahwah, NJ.
I started the company in 2007 with a laptop and some IKEA furniture on my front porch. Since then, we’ve grown to 18 people and moved into a new 6,600 sq. ft. office in June of 2017.
Our three main digital media (both organic and paid), traditional media and our full-service creative team. DSM has been a passion project that literally started from nothing. When I started, I had no clients or income. Everything that we’ve made has gone back into growing the company to where it is today. To understand the trajectory of our growth, we’ve increased the size of the company by 334% since 2014...and we still have 2 months left in 2019.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My personal journey to get to where I am today with not direct and honestly if I would have said 13 years ago that I’d be where I am today...I WOULD HAVE BEEN LYING TO YOU ALL. After starting at the University of New Hampshire in 1995, I lost my father 6 weeks into my freshman year.
After finishing my freshman year, I came back home to New Jersey to be closer to my mom and went to work for a semester doing construction in NYC. From there, I decided to get back into school with the help of a mentor. The whole community rallied around me and really helped me get into Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Fast forward, 3 ½ years later (and a few rugby injuries) to graduating Lehigh with honors and a history degree (a story for another day).
From there...I assume you’re asking how I went from a history degree to a career in advertising and marketing...bluntly, I couldn’t get a teaching job in a tough market back in 2000. I took an assistant media buyer job at Mediaedge: CIA. From there, I worked my way up the food chain to Zenith Media, FX and back to Zenith over the next 6 years ultimately working my way up to a Buying Director.
In addition, get out there and get involved. Don’t join a networking group or chamber of commerce and expect business to come to you.
I got married in 2005 and the grind of commuting 3 hours a day into the city started to take a toll. I decided to move to an agency in New Jersey and after 6 months of realizing (like most entrepreneurs) that there had to be a better way to do “this marketing gig”, I literally bought my laptop and went to IKEA on a Friday (my wife and mother in law were on vacation in Florida) and set up shop in my front porch...and waited for my wife to call that evening to tell her. I literally pulled a Jerry Maguire sans the goldfish. I had $5K in savings and 0 clients...the journey began to hustle my ass off to find both and as they say “the rest is history”.
We grew the company through relationships in and around my hometown with folks who knew me since I was a kid. They trusted DSM with small projects and once we proved we could be successful, they trusted us with more. We grew from 1 person to 3 to 7 to 15 to 22 through being smart with money and not spending more than we took in. We moved out of our houses into our first office in 2010...grew out of that office in 2017 and have been in our current space since June 2, 2019.
We’re currently at 18 employees and an intern and are having our best year in the history of DSM. A testament to the amazing staff and talent that we have here at the company. The folks at DSM are beyond employees or event peers...they are my second family.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Since we are a service-based business, our initial costs really focused on legal fees of setting up the corporation and figuring out how to best monetize our service offerings. At first, we utilized an hourly cost structure for creative time and a 15% media fee for all traditional media.
We kept it simple and straightforward to garner trust with our clients. As everything evolved, we now use a transparent, amortized retainer structure to keep things easy for our clients and our own internal bookkeeping. We’ve never heard any complaints and it’s fostered tremendous growth over the last 6+ years.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Wow, launching DSM back in 2007 seems like a hundred years ago now...as mentioned above, I literally started with a laptop and some IKEA furniture on the outdoor porch of our old farmhouse. I had $5,000 to my name and started pounding the phones. I don’t have any screenshots of the original website...but I can guarantee that it probably sucked...A LOT.
We grew the business very organically - only putting money that we got from our original clients back into it. We were very frugal and fiscally responsible. We never took on more than we could and it paid off in the early stages of the company. We grew slowly and methodically. If I was going to fail, I felt (and still do) very responsible for those around me who’ve sacrificed for this company.
As we grew, we began to grow our credit through American Express as well as small credit lines through our bank. I think our first line was $15K. As we began to grow the revenues, we increased our lines of credit to where they are today. We’ve had an amazing CFO at DSM for the last 6 years.
Charlene has been integral to DSM’s growth and making sure that we stay financially healthy. She’s a master of ensuring we have enough cash to grow and expand as we need to. This was probably the biggest lesson that I can give anyone starting a new business...DO NOT BITE OFF MORE THAN YOU CAN CHEW. Way easier said than done.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Over the last 13 years, there are too many to count. We were one of the first Platinum Hubspot partners in the state of NJ 6 years ago. We were really ahead of the curve when it came to inbound marketing and content production before it “became cool” to do so. That, without a doubt, was one of the main catalysts to growing the company over 300% since 2014.
In addition, get out there and get involved. Don’t join a networking group or chamber of commerce and expect business to come to you. Get involved, join the board and do sh*t. Cultivate relationships with others in the community at large. You may not ever get business directly from them...but if you are genuine and position yourself as helpful, you’d be surprised as to how much business they’ll forward your way.
Being an entrepreneur is difficult enough and many times, you feel alone. Once you have a great team, do whatever you need to do to keep them surrounding you.
It’s absurd how many calls I get from folks I haven’t spoken to in years that refer someone I’ve never met and said, you've come highly recommended and “so and so” trusts you. What can you do for me? I’d have my own private island if I had a quarter every time someone said that to me.
We’re also super active on social media on both Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. These channels have been wildly successful for our team. We have a resourceful group of dynamic and talented marketers that are astute at staying on-trend and love learning. It’s really cool to see (as I get older) how many of this young talent (that everyone says is entitled and lazy)...ain’t so much like that if you listen to them and what they want to achieve and what is important to them. They’re different, yes. But they are passionate and loyal to companies and brands that listen.
We work hard to do that at our company while also teaching some of the “old school” values that we learned as newbies in the early 2000’s.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Not only are we profitable...but we’re having our best year in the company’s history. YTD, I believe we’re at 128% revenue growth. It’s all about the people that we have. We’re all rowing the boat in the same direction and striving to achieve great things together. This is vital to any company’s success. Our 5-year trajectory has been staggering and now we’re really working on making the company as efficient as possible. This is paramount for us in 2020.
We’re a service-based business and as such, our business model is very straightforward. The majority of our clients are retainer-based (amortized) and we have very specific KPI’s for each client. Our portfolio of clients is extremely diverse (done so on purpose) so if we lose one, we’re not going to implode.
We try to keep things fresh for our teams as well. They love to learn and within a pod, there is diversity in the clientele they work with so they are constantly learning. One thing we (as a team at DSM) feel strongly about is our drive to be the best in our home state of New Jersey. We are VERY PASSIONATE about that and know there is enough business to go around.
Today, DSM is thriving with a group of fantastic folks that work hard and love what they do. Our team is a microcosm of the work we produce. Our relationships speak for themselves and the majority of our clients have been with us for many years. They love the fact that we’re right in their backyard and that we GET STUFF DONE. We’re available to clients and they know that. There is a synergy that we’ve found with those we’ve worked with and it’s based on the integrity of the collective. I’ve got fantastic people and I strive to be the best leader I can for them.
Very simply, our goal is to keep producing great work and results. I’ve learned over 13 years that if you do great work and don’t chase money...somehow, the money always finds you.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
To start, I feel like luck has been on my side since the beginning of DSM. When I started the company, everyone thought I was nuts. The economy was still doing well...but very shortly after...well, you know the rest of the story. We started this venture at a great time and literally built it up running parallel to the economy growing. Trusting your instincts and surrounding yourself with solid human beings is paramount. I didn’t even have a business plan when I started. The quicker you can realize that YOU DON’T KNOW EVERYTHING, the better off you’ll be...and probably more successful.
There is a quote that is near and dear to my heart. I personally sign every letter I write with it in there because I feel so strongly about it. It comes from a very special lady that did a lot of good in this world - Maya Angelou. The quote is “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” My personal opinion is that if you live by this mantra, you are already successful. I don’t care how rich or successful you think you are...be humble, stay hungry and you’ll do very well for yourself, those around you and the human race. God, family, business in that order.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
A large part of what we do is digital marketing and as such, we use a plethora of tools to ensure that our clients have the best marketing stack we can offer. Some of the tools that we recommend as an agency are Hubspot, BuzzSumo, Active Campaign, Facebook Ads and SEMRush.
For myself, as the leader of DSM (my priority is networking and relationships), it’s all about LinkedIn and Sales Navigator. It’s my “go to” and I use it all day, everyday. It’s crucial to my outreach and what I need to get done daily to ensure that DSM is staying “top of mind” in our community and frankly, around the world. I have done a great deal to ensure that my profile is up to date and connected with marketers from around the world.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I have a few that range (insert laughter)...I am a big instinct guy and as mentioned, I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of smart folks that balance me out. Some of the books that have really helped me are: Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Four Seconds by Peter Bregman, Living With a Seal by Jesse Itzler and The Subtle Art of Not Giving an F*ck by Mark Manson.
These resources have been tremendously helpful to me because of their insights and focus on improvement and understanding of being able to laugh at yourself while you’re working your a*s off trying to build something meaningful. Sound wisdom, continuing to learn and being empathetic are keys to success in my humble opinion.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Man...you guys cut right to the chase! I am going to turn this into one rambling “stream of thought” because I love this stuff.
To all those people who are reading this...BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! Don’t freakin’ let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do. Don’t be lazy...hustle your a*s off.
LISTEN...seriously, you don’t know anything. Listen and stop talking. My dad used to say to me “No sense in being stupid unless you show it, son.'' I am an alpha and always thought I knew it all. I’ve learned over the last 13 years that I don’t know 1% of anything. Stay woke...and learn.
You are going to make billions and billions (did I emphasize billions enough) of mistakes, DO NOT DWELL ON THOSE MISTAKES. What you do (and how you handle yourself) once they happen is how history will judge you. In business, YOU MUST SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE THAT ARE NOT ONLY SMART...BUT GOOD HUMANS AS WELL.
Being an entrepreneur is difficult enough and many times, you feel alone. Once you have a great team, do whatever you need to do to keep them surrounding you. IT ABSOLUTELY MEANS THE WORLD TO HAVE THAT. A caring, compassionate team of wonderful humans that are all rowing the boat in the same direction IS A VERY DANGEROUS THING. In my opinion, if you have that...YOU HAVE EVERYTHING.
Another one of my favorite quotes is: “No matter how educated, talented, rich or cool you believe you are, how you treat people ultimately tells all”. Integrity is everything. This, THIS RIGHT HERE is the ultimate advice that I can give anyone in business or life. It’s just the fundamentals of good parenting. You either got it or you didn’t. THERE IS NO GREY AREA.
I also believe in giving back. My mother in law is my beacon in business when it comes to giving back to causes that are near and dear to her heart. She gives so much and asks for nothing in return - other than the knowledge that she is making a positive impact on the community. It’s actually really refreshing to see this, especially in a world where so many of us give and want something in return. At DSM, I am personally involved in three non-profits that are local and impacting MY COMMUNITY. Find what is important to you...and make an impact. After all, if the community is helping you...give it back. You’ll be rewarded in spades.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
At DSM, we’re not currently hiring (to ensure that we do so responsibly). We’re always on the lookout for talent and we get 5-8 inquiries a week through our website from folks looking for jobs at the agency.
We’ve learned over time that hiring strategically is our most effective way of finding the right talent, at the right time. We don’t overextend ourselves but trying to keep a pipeline open with candidates we like. A few of the folks who work at DSM were hired a year after they applied. We look for very specific candidates who fit our culture...as well as the job description. IT’S THAT IMPORTANT.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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