Monday, December 26, 2011
Last summer, Alan Fairchild, a student at Lakeland College, came in for a short visit to Jake’s Cafe, and we had a nice interview for a research paper he was working on. As “Creative Communities” were beginning to pop up in different areas of the country, Alan felt that it might make an interesting subject for a paper. A few days ago, he sent me a copy of his paper. I think he did a pretty good job, so I thought it might be appropriate to add to the record as it shares a lot of interesting information on how Jake’s came into being.
The marketing and advertising agency of Jacobson Rost, founded in 1957 by Jake Jacobson, has long been associated with the city of Sheboygan as one of its premier professional firms. In April, 2010 the company moved its headquarters from Sheboygan to Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward, while maintaining branches in Chicago and Franklin, Massachusetts, just southwest of Boston. When operations in Sheboygan ceased, the company’s real estate holdings in the city remained in the hands of the original founder’s family.
Jake’s son, Tryg, and Tryg’s wife, Ann Marie, transformed the four-building campus at the northeastern edge of the city’s business district into a new and somewhat experimental venture when they opened Jake’s Café almost immediately after the departure of Jacobson Rost.
The new business bills itself as, “…a full-service creative environment with everything you need to do business at a highly professional level.”1
What exactly is a “creative environment?” It is a place designed to cater to the imaginative — and collaborative — efforts of individuals. The creative community at Jake’s Café at first limited its creative focus to marketing, advertising and public-relations. After a year of operation, though, it has become much more.
“When I sold the (advertising agency), I actually thought I would rent the buildings to Jacobson Rost and stay in business, but the person I sold it to had a different idea of where he wanted to go with it,” Tryg Jacobson says. “Our values were different, and I don’t think my former partner felt he could realize the kinds of things that were important to him in a small town like Sheboygan.”2
That unanticipated turn of events spurred the creation of Jake’s Café.
“It was a shock and it was difficult,” Jacobson says, “but it was also a godsend because it gave me the opportunity to explore something new, and perhaps it made me test myself about all those things I had been preaching about branding and innovation — making some sort of unique value proposition to fill a niche. All those things really came to a head.
“I found myself moving,” he quickly adds, “from the advertising business into the commercial real-estate business.”
“The first rule I applied,” Jacobson says, “was that, if you can’t be first in a category, then create a new category that you can be first in. So we turned the real-estate into a creative community.
“It worked,” he explains, “because from the standpoint of brand authenticity validating what the new promise was, people could believe that this could be a creative community, because it once was the shell of another sort of creative community. My idea of a creative community, though, was far bigger than an advertising agency.”
Jacobson analogizes his transformation of the remnants of Jacobson Rost to sailing, an endeavor he is very familiar with. While growing up along the shores of Lake Michigan, Jake Jacobson used the sport to teach many of life’s lessons to his son.
“You can be in a sailboat and the wind can change,” he says, “and you can be so close to where the mark is, and then all of the sudden you get a 180-degree wind change. You can be upset about the wind switch, or you can readjust the sails and head the boat up and take advantage of the switch and, maybe, you’ll get to the mark even faster. You just readjust. You just readjust the course.”
The new venture started with two tenant firms. One was Huber Creative, run by Blaine Huber. “Blaine was working in his garage as a graphic designer,” Jacobson says, “but he was far more than that. He was a real good thinker, a very out-of-the-box kind of a guy, and a terrific writer as well.” He reflects for a moment, and then continues, “… just a great person to start a new fire with.”
The other tenant was Leclerc Brothers Motion Pictures. Philip and Chris Leclerc had been making movies in their attic at home. “I saw that there was tremendous talent there,” says Jacobson, “and I thought, ‘Well, here’s where we’ll start.”
“I’ve got some ability to help them market their talent,” he continues, “and I think Blaine could help them out with some writing. We’re going to get them out and we’re going to see how we can help them grow their business — as an example.”
So, through a collaboration of Blaine Huber’s writing skills, Tryg Jacobson’s marketing skills, and the technical skills of the Leclercs, they went to Sheboygan County Economic Development with the idea of trying to help Sheboygan by using the talents of some very interesting and independent people who had been working out of their homes before collaborating at Jake’s Café.
Summing up the experience, Jacobson says, “We produced a film called The Promise of Sheboygan County, a beautiful film by two boys who were 19 and 21 years old.” Then he muses, “Could it have happened without the collaborative environment we were able to create here? Unlikely ...”
From the original two tenants in the spring of 2010, Jake’s café has expanded to include not only more people, but a more diverse group of skills than originally conceived. Almost 23 entrepreneurial enterprises and around 55 people now reside at the café.
Tryg Jacobson’s explanation for this is simple. He thinks of the café as a tool kit — a box of crayons, if you will — that is constantly being added to and tweaked to meet the needs of the community.
“How can we fill this campus with 64 crayons rather than five?” he asks. “And how can we move beyond graphic design and market consultation, into web design, and fashion design, and painting, and new product development, film making, writing, and all sorts of creative venues? Not just those typical to keeping a conventional advertising agency’s promise.
“Jake’s Café,” he says, “is really a broadening of the promise to encompass something I see as a very important brand proposition moving forward — because we’re moving from an economy that was perhaps more manufacturing-driven to one that has to be more driven by creativity. Manufacturing is, for the most part, being exported to China. Even information services,” he adds, “is moving to India. I like to think that Jake’s Café is on the edge of a new wave.”
To that end, Jake’s Café has expanded the definition of the word “creative” to include not only the traditional arts, but the endeavors — some of them customarily thought of as more tedious and mundane — that are so necessary to building and maintaining creative enterprises, be it business management, forensic accounting, financial planning, or commercial real-estate development.
“We knew that you weren’t going to build a creative community unless you thought a little out-of-the-box yourself,” says Jacobson. “It couldn’t be just a fashion designer, and it couldn’t only be a filmmaker, or somebody who’s just painting dishes. You need to have a variety of different types of thinkers, and that thinking can manifest itself in a variety of disciplines.”
Jake’s Café exhibits that variety in the forms of DynamicDevelop Web Design, Gartner Technology, VibeTech, Zimbal Fashions, Innovation Applied, entrepreneurial solutions through Lakeshore Technical College, and SME Partners venture capital services, among others.
When asked if this idea is one that is being adopted by others, Jacobson says that, “… the café concept is a little bit of a hybrid. There’s a guy named (Richard) Florida who wrote a paper on the importance of developing the ‘creative class,’ and the need for communities to position themselves for the creative class because it’s the creative class that is developing the ideas and innovations, and new ideas and products that will drive the future.
“Not only that,” he continues, “but it’s the creative class — whether it’s in things like art, or theater, or music — that become the kinds of cultural meccas that people who may not necessarily be the creators want to flock towards. They want culture. They’re amused by it — they like it. It’s enjoyable. It’s fun. It’s enticing. It arouses curiosity. They want,” Jacobson surmises, “to put it in their homes. What they work for is the ability to define themselves by the culture around them, whether it’s drinking a great beer or hanging up a beautiful painting, it all comes from the creative class.”
Florida’s conclusion, says Jacobson, “was that communities need to begin doing things to lure the creative class.3
“I saw right away that Sheboygan had all the things that were fundamental to attracting the creative class, built pretty-much on the unique geography of the area,” Jacobson continues. “You go north, and there’s not much there. You go south, and there’s not as much as you might think. But here, you’ve got the beaches and the dunes and the rivers and the kettles — and you’ve got interesting trails and good fishing, and all these fabulous things that attract creative people, because they thrive on this stuff.
“When you look at what Jake’s Café is — it’s sort of a microcosm that is drawing and providing an environment for Sheboygan’s creative class to come together and collaborate and work,” he says, then, when asked about the strong traditions in the area that could cause resistance to creative change, he adds, “There could be, within the community outside. I think that, yes, there’ll always be a bit of resistance. And if there wasn’t, well, it’d be just like an airplane having a real strong left wing. It’d spin itself into the ground.” He goes on to say, “You need the balance. You need a good sparring partner. It’s the resistance, I think, that allows creative people to fly.”
The creativity nurtured by the café environment sometimes can result in conflicts, and the necessity of examining long-held ideas. Jacobson, himself, has encountered such situations, like the time when he was challenged by a member of the café to remove the previous occupant’s artwork from the walls of the café’s buildings.
“Jacobson Rost, prior to Jake’s Café, had produced a wonderful history of work,” Jacobson says, “and I thought, ‘You know what? We’re going to keep that history in here, to show people where we came from.’ But Blaine Huber said, ‘Tryg, can’t we get all this Jacobson Rost work out of here? This is not who we are anymore.’ ‘
“Well,” Jacobson said, “that’s got to hurt. ‘That’s the last 30 years of my life, and you want me to get it all out of here?’ Okay, I took all the Jacobson Rost stuff out.
“Then a week later he said, ‘What would you think if on the outside of the door coming into the building — we just had exactly what we are, printed in letters on the door, and when people came in they could see what we’re all about?’
Jacobson was astounded. “He wanted to do what? Write some sort of credo, then rub it down on the door? I’m thinking, ‘Isn’t that’s going to be somewhat weird?’ Well, okay. We did it.
“A couple months later” he continues, “‘…Tryg, why is this wall full of all these bulletin boards with peoples’ bios, and everybody is put in these little boxes? Is this what it’s really all about? Why don’t we rip them all down and paint this wall a bright-colored gold and then get a Milwaukee muralist in here to paint graffiti on the wall and let everybody write what they want to on it?’ Well, that was really pushing it, but, ‘alright — if that’s what you think we need to do, then let’s rock-and-roll.
“You see,” says Jacobson, “the last thing I want to do in a creative environment is stifle creativity. What I really need to do is create a community in which people have permission to innovate, permission to create, permission to have fun, permission to do what they want. Every place they go in this community, it’s always, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I’m thinking, ‘I determine what the values are that set the tone for the culture of this place — that’s cleanliness, fairness, respect, dignity, and doing great things in a great way.’ After that, ‘Let her flicker.’”
The values and organizational culture of Jake’s Café are things that Tryg Jacobson has given a lot of thought to, as illustrated by the “Beliefs” page of the Jake’s Café web site.
“It was borne out of the frustration of having not only delegated my responsibility to others when I sold Jacobson Rost,” Jacobson says, “but that I had abdicated my values — and to watch, over a period of time, how the company began to change into something that was not me was painful.
“I knew that in my next venture — while I might have to delegate certain responsibilities — I would never again abdicate my values in favor of those I had delegated my responsibilities to.
“Jake’s Café,” he goes on, “whether I am here or not, is a sustainable idea. People come here because of what we believe as a community, and they stay. And if they do someday leave, they’ll carry with them something they learned here — or something that grew here. And maybe they’ll take those values with them, and they’ll grow their own companies based on the same kinds of values and culture they found when they were starting their businesses at Jake’s.”
That is the bottom line of the organization’s culture, as set out by Tryg Jacobson.
“That would be the ultimate compliment,” he says. “Not that people would just stay here, but they would grow big enough to want to go out on their own and take with them the values they learned here. It’s like kids. The greatest compliment they could show you would be to take your values — the things that you taught them — to leave the house, to go out and start their own families, and teach those things to their kids. That would be your legacy.
“The legacy of Jake’s will be just that — to do great things in a great way, and to take our values and move on one day.”
Jacobson sums up the experience that is Jake’s Café this way: “There are some fundamentals that I think you have to stick with,” he says. “One of the fundamentals that I stick with is that one of the most important things people can do in their lifetimes is being trustworthy, because it’s all about trust. People put value in that which they trust. They put little value in that which they don’t.
This trustworthiness is something that’s always been important to Tryg Jacobson. “Dinnertime at the Jacobson house,” he recalls, “always found its way back to the same old mantra — ‘dad talking about trust again.’ Well, my three girls left after 18 years in the house, after having it pounded in. ‘There’s only one thing you have to do in the course of your life. You’ve got to be trustworthy.’ That’s because when you’re trusted, you can do anything. Then your job is to try to be unique and be meaningful — and be trusted.
“Then,” he says, “you’ve got the world by the horns.”