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Season 01, Episode 04

Founder & President at DSM, Darren Magarro

With Founder & President at DSM, Darren Magarro

About the Episode

Today on The Fastest Growing Companies podcast, we’re talking to the Founder & President at DSM, Darren Magarro.

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Full Transcript

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26:14

Chris:
Hey everyone. Welcome back. I’m Chris Ronzio. Today. I’m talking with Darren Magarro. He is the president and founder of DSM. Hey Darren. Thanks for being here. So really quick, uh, tell us quickly what DSM is. What are you guys all about?

Darren:
Uh, DSM, we just turned 14 years old on February 7th. We’re a full-service marketing agency located in New Jersey. Um, about 25 minutes outside of Manhattan. So, um, we are soup to nuts, started as a traditional agency. That’s where my background is. Uh, I was a television buyer in Manhattan and, um, really just have grown it. And it’s turned into more of a, instead of a marketing agency. It’s really a results agency. That’s really what we focus on.

Chris:
Got it. Okay. I like that. A results agency. So right before we jumped on, I had to Google where, where you were. You’re at the tip-top of New Jersey for anyone that’s not really good with geography. It’s right at the top, right?

Darren:
We are literally a Stone’s throw from New York state. We located in the last town before, um, New York state.

Chris:
Okay. So now we all know where you are. Um, you said you started in, uh, in TV as a media buyer. Why, why this business? 14 years ago,

Darren:
I couldn’t get a job coming out of. I graduated from Lehigh University in 2000. Uh, I was probably, well, the only, uh, for lack of total transparency, the only way I can get there, Levi was being a history major. Um, it’s a total engineering and business school. Um, math was never my forte and, um, six weeks at Wala. It, the story of college is pretty crazy. Um, my dad passed away. I was up at the University of New Hampshire. My dad passed away six weeks into college and stayed up there for the year. My mom forced me to go back and finish. My freshman year came back down and I decided when I got home that summer, I was like, I’m not going back to college. And I had a mentor who, um, just passed away this past year was a big, big shot, basically built out all of Viacom over the last 30 years, all their studios and 15, 15 Broadway.

Darren:
And, um, he’s like, yeah, all right, I’ll get you a construction job in the city. What he didn’t tell me was, I was going to be hanging 16 feet in the air or putting fire. It’s hard enough for 12 hours a day is like going back to school. I’m like Mr. Sullivan, I got you loud and clear. And the journey started. And I had a friend when I graduated, Leah, who couldn’t get a job as a teacher in 2000. And she’s like, why don’t you come interview in Manhattan to be a media buyer? And I’m like, I don’t even know what that is. And the rest is history.

Chris:
What a cool thing to get thrown into though. Buying media in Manhattan from anywhere else in the world. Probably sounds like one of the ritziest things that you could get into in business.

Darren:
It is I, I, my, my starting salary in 2000 was $26,000 a year. And immediate buying, um, taught me a ton, but it is a very difficult business. It’s basically, you’re a, full-time negotiate it. And I worked for some of the best clients in the world. Uh, Toyota Lexus Scion, Jim beam, Boston beer, Puma, Verizon wireless, really, really cool clients learned a ton. Um, a lot. It was, it was a lot of fun, but it was some really hard, hard work,

Chris:
I bet. All right, well, let’s get into this business with DSM because right before we jumped on the call, you told me you went from five to 22 people and two and a half years crazy growth. And then since then have trimmed down, cut back and had a lot of rebuilding. And so let’s talk, let’s split that into two stories. Then, the growth, the fast, super growth, five to 22. What were you doing that required you to scale up so quickly? So,

Darren:
Like I said, we started as a traditional agency. I literally, joke that we’re the Jerry McGuire story. Like I left an agency instead of where the goldfish, I left with a laptop and went to Ikea. I started on the front porch, my wife and mother-in-law were down in Florida on vacation. We didn’t have any kids at the time. And, uh, I just thought there was a better way to do it. Uh, really wanted to figure out a better way to do it. I didn’t want to travel when I left Manhattan. I had come out to an agency here that I worked at for about six months here in New Jersey, that it just, it didn’t feel right. There was a lot of back and forth of, you know, creative guys, not getting what they needed from the account guys. And I was like, there’s gotta be a better way to do this.

Darren:
And so I literally went to the two brothers that owned it and I said, can I buy my laptop? I went to Ikea, came home, my wife and mother-in-law were down in Florida on vacation. I wait, I, I went and bought a rotisserie chicken and a six-pack of beer and waited for them to call. And that was the, I started a front porch and my, you know, my wife was like, oh, great. You’re going to start an agency. I’m like, she’s like nine months a year. I’m like Monday. And that was the beginning of DSM.

Chris:
So what was the spark that got you the work or started to produce the demand where you just needed to start hiring people?

Darren:
Um, it was really a lot of hustle. Um, just, we’ve really focused over the last 14 years on building the company up within a hundred-mile radius of where we are in Northern New Jersey, um, and not going into Manhattan. So that was really important, one of the big things for me when I started, this was not wanting to travel. When I worked on Toyota, I was going to California every year, and while it was cool and it was awesome as like a 25 year old to be able to be present. It’s actually one of the first guys that I presented to Onsi on is now the CEO of Ford, uh, Jim Farley. Um, I, and I’ll never forget it. He, he was the guy who started the Saigon brand. Basically. He was their first brand manager and now he’s running forward. And it’s, it’s one of the highlights in my career because I was so scared.

Darren:
I was ridiculously nervous. Um, but yeah, it was really, um, we, we hustled our butt off. We did good work. Um, my former partner and I, and we really built it from the ground up. And we just asked people, I think a lot of people, a lot of the first clients of the agency were like local people that we knew. And it was as friends and family. And I honestly, I like, I think they felt bad for us. I think they were just kinda like, like these two, because I was, we were 30, in 26 at the time. Um, I literally think they were like these pity customers. Yeah. Like, I, I don’t think these two know what they’re doing and we ended up doing good work and then we ended up getting repeat customers and year one, I think the first year we started in February of oh seven, we did about 80 grand that, that first year, and by year two, we were, we were, you know, top-line was like a half a million. And then it was, you know, we, we, I think we did our first million in like a year three or four. And that’s awesome. So a lot of sweat equity though, it was hard.

Chris:
I bet. One thing I want to call out that you said is something that a lot of people don’t focus on, which is your geographic focus. So that a hundred-mile radius, a lot of people just want to, you know, get clients, wherever clients will pay them. And as the inquiries start coming in, they take people everywhere and it makes it really hard to refer. And so it sounds like you built a really good referral network in your a hundred-mile radius there in New Jersey, right?

Darren:
Yeah, we did. And one of the things that we learned very early on was it was more important to understand what we didn’t want to be than what we did want to be. Um, because when you understand what you don’t want to be, you can really hone in on that. Like the things that you do want to be, they fall into place because you’re, you’re already not doing the things that you don’t want to be. So we really focused in, on the, on like what we didn’t want to be, and things just kind of fell into place from there.

Chris:
That’s great. So you said you had a partner. What were you who were your first couple hires? How did you know what to take off your plate at the beginning? Uh,

Darren:
At the beginning, it was literally, I was an account guy looking for a creative and my former partner was a creative looking for an account guy. Uh, we were both working out of our bedrooms, so it was, um, you know, we started in February. I think we got incorporated in March. I met him in October ish that year. And by January of oh eight, we had enough work that he pretty much came on as a freelancer, like full-time, and that’s kind of where it was at the beginning. It was a lot of traditional work. Um, digital was not even a thing. Like it wasn’t even in our vocabulary at that point. So we were doing a lot of television print radio out of home, things like that.

Chris:
Then, from just the couple of you to 22, it sounds like you were taking on a lot of customers, a lot of types of projects. Um, but, but, but after that, you paired it down. So what went wrong between the two and 22? Or what, what were some of the pitfalls?

Darren:
Yeah, for us, it really, it went really quick. So when we added the digital side of the agency, um, my, my other partner, my other ex-partner, um, we, he was early really early on with HubSpot and they, so when we brought them in and I went to high school with this kid, I hadn’t seen him in like 15 years, like this whole company, DSM. I always joke with people who asked her, like, how’d you build this? There was a lot of serendipity involved. There was a lot of, you know, Christine who is our head of traditional. She w her and I met through being on the board of an animal charity. Um, my former partner, Jason, who started the digital side of the agency, we went to high school together and he was working at a nursery and was a very early on, you know, um, proponent of HubSpot and brought that in.

Darren:
And that was right where I could see the writing on the wall. Like, this is where it was going. Yeah. Straight digital. So from there, we were probably five people. We added that digital part of the agency in like 2013. And it just exploded. Like, there’s no other way to explain how it happened. It was account after account, people were seeing results. They were, you know, hearing about us, and then it got to 22 and it was like, okay, this too much. And again, I go back to, you know, I’m a big kind of gut feeling guy and it just, it, it was, you know, when I first started doing this, you might’ve been the same way about the way, you know, you’re building what you guys have going on, but it’s like, we want it to be 50 and we wanted it to be 20 million. And it was, you know, like the sky was the limit and then you get there and you’re like, oh my gosh, there are so many problems. And so many issues. And so many things going on that like, I don’t want to deal with. There is a right

Chris:
Size for every business, the right size for every entrepreneur is not the same size for everybody. There’s no one size fits all. And so what was it about the, I w w you know, you got to 22, did it just feel like it was getting a red tape, your crack, did you not have relationships with people? What was it about that?

Darren:
There was, it’s two things, and this is very, you know, honest and, and just, there were two things that were happening. I was getting further away like the name, and I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back. I just didn’t have enough creativity to name the agency other than my initials, when we first started, because I had zero creativity, I was getting further away from the people that trusted me with a lot of what was going on with the relationships that we had. And it was B, there were too many personalities, um, that were involved in it. Uh, it became really difficult. Um, there were other people that were coming on as well, as our COO Zinka. She came from Conde, not so we, we love to coin ourselves, uh, like an enclave for New York City. Ex-pats like, we’re all about work-life balance.

Darren:
So she, you know, Zinka came from like the devil wears Prada. [inaudible] she was like living that life. She didn’t want to make it. And she lives like, you know, 10 minutes from me here, and our CFO, Charlene, who is talking about serendipity, my wife and I graduated high school with her younger brother. And we used to park our cars, our junior and senior year of high school in their inner parents’ driveway. And then like walk through the woods to get to school. And she worked at JP Morgan for years. She took time off to have a family and her husband, one of the big reasons I started DSM was so I could coach youth football in my hometown and with my brother-in-law and her husband, our CFO, his husband was my, one of my high school football coaches. And he was the rec director. So I had to do a concussion protocol test for like Rutgers university to coach.

Darren:
And I walked in there one day with, my concussion thing. And I’m like, Andy, like, do you know any part-time CFOs? And he was like, Sarah’s in kindergarten. Charlene is ready to go. And that’s how our CFO came on. And it was, it was personalities that were coming in and understanding the dynamic of what works and what doesn’t, you know, with my former partners. Again, it wasn’t always easy, but what I’ve learned is that having two females on my right and left helping me run the company work, there’s a lot less friction, I guess, is lack of a better word. It’s understanding over time. And only through experience what works and what doesn’t. And a lot of times you have to go through really hard times in order to get to understand what works and what doesn’t.

Chris:
I love that you mentioned the coaching. I actually coached my son’s basketball team as well. So that work-life balance is important. And you, you mentioned serendipity a few times, but it sounds like it wasn’t just happenstance. Like you were out there asking people, telling, sharing what you needed. And so talk to us a little bit about how you put out into the world, what you’re looking for in order to find these relationships or these, these, you know, the creative half to your account management half and the right people at the right time.

Darren:
Um, a lot of it, a lot of it happened. I will answer your question with regards to the people that have kind of come on it’s, it’s kind of come a cold following with DSM. And a lot of it happened through having great people in front of me. So when I started the business, my mother-in-law, who is an example, my, my wife’s family business there, I think 117 years old, they’re in the quarry business here in New Jersey. And there are multiple siblings in the business. And my mother-in-law is the CEO. And she gives back so much. So part of starting this and why I wanted a coach and why I got involved in the board of an animal charity, and that was very important. She was like, if you’re going to do this, you need to give back to, and that’s something that they’ve done for years with their business.

Darren:
And it was very important. I felt it was very important. I felt it was something that, um, I dunno, as you can tell my wife and me, she jokes with me. She’s like, do you talk way too much? But it’s what I love to do. Like, that’s, that’s the part of me that I can give to DSM, like, zinc is really good with the operations, like understanding how all the pieces fit into place. I’m not really good at that. Like, and it’s not the cliche, like, oh, you’re a big picture guy. Like, no, I, I focus on the details but having somebody who’s really good at numbers and doing it really well, that’s why we’ve grown and why we’ve become so efficient. And, you know, all the good things that come along with it.

Chris:
So balancing yourself out with other skill sets, but it also sounds like you have probably a core set of values that you share with, especially your, the new leaders that you’ve brought in. How much have you put some intentional work into values and how do you, what do you do there? Yeah,

Darren:
I actually, it’s funny, you said that I just took this out of my bag today. Um, I was reading it on the way home. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this book, uh, because I said to him,

Chris:
No, it’s a whole

Darren:
Bunch of stories. This guy wrote it in 2008 for his dad who was, who was dying. And it’s just a whole bunch of stories of people being accountable to one another. Um, and it’s something that for us, the only way I can explain it when Zika came from Conde Nast like I am adamant like we’re a family, we are a family. And she came from corporate America and she’s like, dude, please stop saying this. We’re not a family. We work together. And over the course of the last four years, she’s, there are a few times moments, sorry, zinc. I’m telling the role of this. Um, but she’s like, I get it now. Like I get why, you know, you know, we’ve had folks with medical issues, like we’re there for them. Like, that’s what the culture is. It’s not about creating culture is not about, you know, DSM is awesome. We have a pool table, we have darks, we have a Nintendo, we have a kegerator. Like, that’s all cool, but what are you doing for the people in your family? When they’re going through a hardship that’s culture, that’s getting four husbands together of people that are in your office to hang up, holiday lights for somebody right around Christmas, who’s going through a medical issue.

Chris:
Like, yeah. That’s what care just being there for each other. Yeah.

Darren:
Like that, that to me is everything.

Chris:
Hello? So you, you got to this point in the business where it felt like this just isn’t right. And something needs to change. Walk us through that decision because a lot of people struggle to just, you know, put their ego aside and make those hard changes in the business. So what was the change you had to make

Darren:
Putting my ego aside and not doing everything. Um, it’s really hard when you build something up from nothing like literally nothing like $5,000 in a laptop and a front porch, and like not a clue at what I was going to do. Like I was like, yeah, I’m starting a marketing agency. Or I was like, do you have a business plan? I’m like, I’m just going to go out and hustle and see where it goes. Um, putting yourself last, I think being self-aware and being empathetic to other people’s needs and putting them first has an intentional and deliberate GRA gravitational pole that people want to follow what you’re doing. I feel like if you’re doing it the right way, and you’re doing it in a way that respects the people around you and understanding that you’re not the smartest in the room, like my ego is such.

Darren:
And I had, you know, as I said, my dad died when I was 18. Like my dad was blue-collar. Like my mom was a second marriage old-school guy. I’m old enough to play the Vince Lombardi when he was a high school football coach in New Jersey. That’s how old my dad was. My dad would have been like 94, 93 this year. Um, he, he just said like, he would, he would drill into me like son. There’s no sense in being stupid, unless you show her, like, if you are going to persist with doing the things that you want to do and not take the knowledge that I’m trying to give you, because I’ve been through it already, can’t help you, man. I can’t help you. And I try to apply that, you know, like we were talking before, like with, with young kids, it’s hard. It’s, it’s hard to always pass that along. It’s hard to always put yourself last, but I think in the grand scheme of profession or family, like personal life or professional life, I think if you can figure out a way to put yourself second people gravitate towards you. I think that has always been, I would hope that if you ask my staff that that’s, they know that if they get into, if they get an accolade, have the accolade, if something goes pear shape like I got the grenade, I will jump on it for you. Yeah.

Chris:
Yeah. I think this conversation has been as much about leadership as anything else, you know, culture and leadership. And, and that’s the kind of thing you only get after, you know, grinding for 14 years. Like you said, that you have, so, you know, uh, amazing job with that. Uh, I appreciate you sharing your story. I’m curious. Uh, w what’s one thing you’re working on now or what’s next for you that you’re excited about?

Darren:
Um, just continue building relationships one. Uh, great. I don’t agree with everything Gary V says, but one of the great quotes that I think he’s had, or one of the things that his beliefs I’ve never built the company to like sell it. That’s never been kind of like what, w w we’ve always just been like very focused on doing good work. Um, it’s really about building relationships. Like if someday we get to a point, I feel like we’ve got all the pieces in place with people with the right skill sets to help the company get to where we need to go. We have a great, you know, a great, C-suite a great account team, a great digital team, a great traditional person. That’s been with me forever. Um, a great design team at the agency. Like all the pieces are in place. And I feel like if we, for fear of getting cliche, if we trust the process and continue to do what we do well, good things will follow. Um, you know, like 2019 with, you know, in 2018 with, with buying, buying on my partners, like it taught me, you can control what you can, but everything else is going to take its course the way it’s going to take its course. And some things you can’t control. That’s, that’s been a huge lesson for me as an entrepreneur and a leader. Yeah. I try to control it

Chris:
All. You can control how you show up, how you build relationships, how you put people first and, and you know, the things that you’ve been doing. So if people want to connect with you and learn more from you, where can they find you?

Darren:
Uh, our website is thedsmgroup.com. Um, we are Ron social we’re on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn. Um, one of the big things for me is, uh, I’ve launched a series of series called an homage to pay tribute to, you know, my dad and this other mentor that passed away this year. Um, you know, check that out. It’s just a passion. It’s just a trait, a passion project. It’s just something that I’m doing to honor them. Um, that’s something that’s really important to me. And, um, you know, you find us on, on all the usual suspects out thereon, on the inner Googles as I like to call it.

Chris:
Awesome. Well, if you’ve enjoyed this, go connect with Darren, check out the DSM group, checkout, homage, learn all the lessons that have taken part in building his story, and, uh, and take a page from his playbook as you’re building yours. Darren grew DSM from just a couple of people, humble beginnings, up to 20 to right-size to 15, and spoke a lot in this episode about work-life balance and building relationships, and working with people that you want to work with. Long-term, not just a business you want to sell and get away from. So a lot of great lessons in here, Darren, thanks so much for being here,

Darren:
Chris. Thank you very much for having me. It was a pleasure.

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