The Begin Anyway Series focuses on people who have taken this journey and found success. Most of these people are nowhere near their ultimate destinations. What they have in common is that they have each made a conscious effort to improve their lives by starting over and pursuing a totally different path. We each have a unique journey, vision, and destination; but we all share the desire for a more fulfilling life.
Today we chat with Nick Powills, the founder and CEO of No Limit Agency, a biography agency that uses PR, Social, Advertising, Digital and Marketing to tell their client’s stories. Nick’s journey is proof that it’s never too late to Begin Anyway- and to innovate something amazing.
How do you start each day? Do you have a daily mantra or intention, perhaps a routine, that helps you focus your energy and prepare for what’s ahead?
I am an early person, always have been. I was the kid who was first to fall asleep at sleepovers and first to wake up with the parents and have breakfast.
Now I have two small children (Jagger, 5; Lennon, 2), I want to make sure that I am home for dinner as much as possible (when not traveling), thus, being first to work is important so that I can balance their lives, too.
I like to quietly think in the mornings. When traveling, I like to sit outside and think/work in the early mornings. I need that alone time to clear my head and get my energy focused on making the most of a day. I don’t know if it’s because I am so reflective, but, I truly understand the shortness of life. If our life is limited, then I want to make sure I get the most out of every day. By starting off fresh without distractions, I can create a positive energy so that at the end of the day (even if it’s a turbulent day), I feel as if it was a good day.
Tell us a bit about your journey immediately post-college and how you transitioned away from a more traditional career trajectory. You had some remarkable experiences in your early professional career.
I have never been someone who was given opportunities easily. I have always had to fight for them. Despite earning tremendous experiences in college, when I graduated, I was back at the bottom. I had to build up my personal foundation, momentum, and velocity.
When I graduated college, I wanted to be a journalist. Problem was, no one wanted to hire me (despite having Rolling Stone, Details, and Editor-in-Chief of a college newspaper on my resume). I did everything right on paper, but something was preventing newspapers from hiring me. Finally, I found one — The Northwest Herald — in the Chicago suburbs that was willing to give me a chance at $29,500/year, and not as a journalist; rather, as a copy editor who had to design the religion section of the newspaper.
The fighter in me was not satisfied. I told the editor that I wanted to be published, so, I would write on nights and weekends. I even went so far as to create a food recipe, photograph my creation, and submit a story. They laughed and didn’t publish my piece.
Eventually, I pitched an idea called “Say What?!?!” — a Howard Stern-type ‘Q&A’ where I would try to get celebrities to hang up the phone on me. My first interview was Cindy Lauper. With question one I said, “You used to be as big as Madonna, what happened?” She lost it on me. I got shredded, but, the result was an awesome column.
I built up a name, but not the salary I desired. Money is important to the entrepreneur, and $29,500 would not cut it. So I started an online music magazine in Chicago called Lumino Magazine, with the hopes of creating my own publication. We had some awesome moments, like a launch with an acoustic set by Joan Jett, but we struggled to get that going.
Eventually, I took a job in PR, to better learn business with the hopes of applying my learnings to Lumino. What ultimately happened, though, is I saw a bigger opportunity with PR and eventually digital. After four years at that agency, I quit my job, broke up with a girlfriend, and moved to Atlanta, GA to start No Limit Media Consulting (eventually turned No Limit Agency), the first Social Media agency of its kind. This was 2008, so, while others were scaling backward, I was taking risks. It ultimately worked. I eventually created 1851 Franchise, a digital franchise magazine, and Estatenvy, a digital home magazine. The collective of my career pains and successes culminated with the success of the businesses we are creating today.
I think your path is similar to many successful entrepreneurs. You took the knowledge, experience, and network that you had accumulated and found a way to turn those experiences into your own businesses.
Something that stands out to me about your early journey is how many doors were opened because you put yourself out there — you took a risk or spoke up even if some may have said you were out-of-place, too young, etc.
Doors have never opened for me. I have had to bust through them to get an opportunity. Some are born with opportunity; I was born with a motivation to create them. When I was cut from a high school travel baseball team, I pleaded with the coach to let me ride the end of the bench if I ran 5 miles before every practice. I told him that I would out hustle everyone. He gave me a chance, and I was the starting catcher by the end of the season. My high school newspaper said I wasn’t a good enough writer to be on staff. I offered to attend journalism camp (yes, that’s a thing) over the summer in order to earn a bench spot. He said ‘Ok’, and by the end of the year, I was an award-winning writer. Closed doors are bullshit. If you are motivated, you create your own path. You are in control of your decisions. It’s simply a matter of whether you decide to do it or not.
In your late-20’s, you left your life as a reporter in Chicago and moved to Atlanta to start your No Limit Media business. Tell us about what motivated that decision and how you prepared to take the leap into entrepreneurship.
Talk about closed doors. The owner of the company I worked for didn’t recognize the opportunities I was presenting. I pitched him two business ideas (a digital franchise magazine and a social media service offering). He said ‘no’ to both.
He didn’t see me as a potential partner and, eventually, my entrepreneurial spirit forced me to open my own door. Being told ‘no’ one too many times motivated me to do something about it. And that final ‘no’ motivates me to be great every day. I will out hustle because of that ‘no’.
For other business owners, be careful with your ‘no’s’ — especially with motivated staff. Motivated people are hard to find; when you have them, embrace their potential. They may even have a greater impact as a partner. Partnering with big idea creators can propel your business to new heights.
Using failures and ‘no’s’ as fuel really resonates with me. I like to talk about Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech where he focused on all the times he was told he ‘couldn’t’ and how he used those experiences as ‘logs on the fire’ to propel him to become the greatest of all time.
I’ve read where you’ve used similar metaphors; specifically, moving from the fuel stage to the velocity stage. Tell us more about using failure as a motivator and how you see the ‘fuel’ and ‘velocity’ stages of a career.
Yes. I believe that everyone who accomplishes something great has rejection as fuel in their foundation. With all of your built-up fuel, eventually you will get an opportunity. This is momentum.
When in momentum, you decide if you are going to hustle to greatness and create velocity. For me, it started with being the fat kid. Rejections in sports, writing, girls telling me ‘no,’ were all fuel for me.
I was a big dreamer, though, and wanted to create the life I wanted, not the one that was set out for me. My motivator, in the end, was myself. Finding myself and building confidence leads me today. Everyone has failure in their life. It could be a death, a ‘no’, an injury, a failed attempt at something. When you perceive those as fuel and not as a failure, that’s the moment you have a shot at doing something great.
What did you learn from your first year in business, on your own? A lot of people speak to the importance of creating systems and building a company culture. How did you approach this foundational period?
In retrospect, I knew nothing my first year of business. I didn’t understand many fundamentals of business. I got my MBA in the school of hard knocks that first year — especially since it was 2008. Hustle propelled me through that first year and set the tone for the way I run my life today. I approached that foundational period with naivety; but also with hustle. I learned a lot about myself and leaned on the ‘no’s’ to push me through uncomfortable situations. I listened a lot and craved as much advice as possible. Taking the leap is scary, but if you have true hustle and some form of fuel that motivates you, you can overcome the unknowns.
Were there any major challenges or roadblocks that you recall from your early years — any advice you wish someone had given you or something you wish you had discovered sooner?
There were a ton of roadblocks. The first client stiffed us $10,000; the second client ended up getting arrested by the FBI for mob connections. We had a prospective client say they would sign if I flew out to Vegas (I didn’t have a ton of money saved up for travel at the time). I spent two days with them; and, after all of that, they said ‘thanks for the brainstorm but we signed with another agency’ (I did go gambling that night and won the costs of my flight back in blackjack). Nothing will be perfect. Trust everyone, but cut the cards. The belief that brick walls are just perceptions will help propel you forward.
So, eventually, you came back to Chicago and continued to grow your businesses. You moved the No Limit Agency offices and expanded your operations with publications 1851 Franchise and Estate Envy. What types of service are you offering through No Limit Agency and how have you tied in your experience in journalism and publishing?
No Limit Agency is now a complete storytelling agency. We believe in the connection of communication silos — marketing, advertising, digital, social, PR. A great social media contest should be marketed in store, advertised to a new community, reflected on your website, told through earned and owned media. Most brands miss this.
I have also really embraced a “like me” mindset. Brands don’t sell brands, people do. People want to do what other people do. Humanization of stories is what really motivates buyers — of anything. Human interest, mixed with hustle, mixed with big ideas — under an umbrella of storytelling is what we are offering today. One part journalist, one part PR, one part magazine. The combination of my life’s moments has helped create our vision as a shop, today.
What type of growth do you envision for No Limit Agency and how are you focused on accomplishing those ambitions? Any other professional goals outside of those directly tied to your existing enterprises?
People grow brands. I have learned that I will not be able to create greatness alone. It is impossible. Even Jordan had great teammates who completed the puzzle.
For No Limit Agency, I hope we can continue to recruit great talent. We recently hired a President who will help operationalize our business more — make it comparable in offerings to the biggest, best agencies in the world. We have a Chief Development Strategist who only hired agencies, never worked at one. We have a CFO who is awesome at content and can operationalize the storytelling model.
Our growth will be based on our people — people who have grit, who want to hustle, who may have been told no in the past. The collective of our great talent will help propel our growth. If I am right, then in the next few years, No Limit Agency will go from being an under the radar agency to the agency everyone desires to be a part of. Our growth can then change the lives of those who are a part of it.
My professional goals outside of No Limit will be continuing to apply our models to other businesses. We will continue to launch more influencer driven publications where our voice will ultimately turn into the “like me” for whatever widget we are promoting.
With that in mind, how do you define success and what are the keys to realizing that success?
Success is a relative term. To me, success = happiness. Life is short, so finding happiness is absolutely essential. Happiness means something different for everyone. For me, it’s giving my children, wife, and co-workers the best days possible. No Limit Agency can be a part of that happiness recipe. I don’t know what success will ultimately look like for me. I think I have found success already — and feel that way every time my kids’ smile. Now, I am on a mission to create more success for others. Our clients, employees, partners.
What do you find to be most rewarding about your career? What pushes you through the professional challenges you face and inspires you to continue as an entrepreneur?
A pat on the back still feels better than anything else. Being told I am great at something feels awesome. When you battle through so many ‘no’s’, hearing positives feels really good. We have a client who awarded us vendor of the year two years straight. That moment — being called on stage to say you really impacted our brand — feels amazing. I also feel greatly rewarded when a co-worker shows happiness — could be in a thank you note, could be a smile, could be a laugh. I am motivated by the happiness of others.
Talk to us about the importance of mentorship for your personal and professional growth. You certainly had your share of successful and interesting characters along the way. Did any of these people have a significant impact or did you rely more on your own intuitions?
Mentors, to me, are not only the good — but the bad people in my life. I have written about my Will Clark story (check it out here: https://1851franchise.com/details/588/When-smacked-in-the-face-with-an-f-bomb-make-lemonade).
Will Clark ended up being a mentor and an impact on my life, not for the advice he gave me; but, more so, for teaching me how not to treat people. As a result, Rich Cohen, the journalist who watched the Will Clark event unfold and led me to the Rolling Stone and Details internships was a mentor.
My parents, my wife, my friends and my business colleagues are all mentors. I believe that mentorship can come from all directions if you are willing to listen and internalize the moments of your life. I absolutely believe that the mentorship of the collective helps me find answers in daily challenges.
What advice would you give to a young person looking to build a network and a brand organically like you have? What are the most important qualities you would suggest they foster?
Nice people do finish first. Even when your competition beats you down, continue to do you. Be kind. Try your best. Try your best to create ‘happiness’ moments for others. Niceness will help you achieve great things. Also, should you find some initial financial wins, don’t spend them until you sell. Live in a lower lifestyle. It will help create a rainy day fund that can save you if it pours.
I love a great cocktail. Who is one person that you would like to have a drink with, get to know, and gain inspiration from? And, equally important, what are you drinking?
Grey Goose rocks, bleu cheese olives (extra) — let’s get the drink out of the way. There is one person I am super fascinated with and try to study his approach — that’s Joe Maddon. This guy works with 25 millionaires — many who were born with the skills that they have and many who are under the age of 30. Millennials, today, can be challenging to work with. They have higher expectations and want reward much differently than our parents expected out of their jobs and careers. He has found a way to make them gel (over and over again) through strict and fun leadership. Joe Maddon, if not a coach, would make an incredible CEO. My perception is he likes to drink, too.
A huge thank you to Nick for sharing his Begin Anyway story with us. Be sure to check out No Limit Agency and all the amazing the amazing work him and his team do!