Fluency Media's Vertical Climb

Walk into Fluency Media's offices at 777 East Eisenhower and one thing stands out above the rest. The view. 

The digital marketing firm is on the seventh floor of the high-rise on the south side of Ann Arbor. Its section of the building overlooks miles of green space in Tree Town and nowhere is this view better than in the corner office of the company's CEO, Tim Schaden. It's easy to think you can conquer the world when you feel like you're sitting on top of it. However, Schaden isn't trying to take over the world. He and his wife, Preeti Garg, are simply working to grow their company.

Seems easy, right? Fluency Media celebrated a decade as a successful business this spring, handling work for some big firms, like ebay, I Love New York, and Beaumont Health System. Its business model and technology is a verifiable success when it comes to helping clients find the best mix of social media, email, and search engine marketing. The problem is Fluency Media is restricted when it comes to scaling up its client list.

"I can only do one (client) per vertical," Schaden says. "I am learning new businesses all the time. I hate that. It's not that I don't like doing it but there is a limiting factor to it."

That works for running a lifestyle business that can cruise along on referrals and modest growth. In Fluency Media's case that means a client list filled with big-name corporations, and a high-rise office stocked with 15 employees and the occasional intern. But Schaden and Garg believe they have figured out a way to expand their digital marketing business and still follow traditional rules about not creating conflict of interests between clients.

"Our plans are to double the company's employment in about two years," Schaden says.

Entrepreneurial Record

It's not hard to understand why Schaden believes his company can do things most of its counterparts can't. Schaden and his family grew Quiznos from a small franchise operation to a global, public company. He started a marketing/tech company (Reservision) turning the MGM Grand casino and billionaire Kirk Kerkorian into its first customer. His father is working on a startup that would revolutionize long-distance flying with microwave technology.

"I came from a family that started a bunch of businesses," Schaden says. "I grew up thinking about business."

Schaden got his entrepreneurial start not long after he got out of college in the early 1990s. At the time he was working on mergers and acquisitions. His brother worked as a stockbroker. His dad worked in law. It was a good life but the falling job prospects of his brother led to the family investing in Quiznos franchises in Denver.

"He was at the bottom rung in investment banking and the rung was disappearing," Schaden says. "He decided this is something to try. We liked the food. We liked doing this."

Back then Quiznos was a small firm with only a few franchises in Colorado. Schaden's family started three franchises and then bought the franchise operation. Schaden quit his job and took over developing the Michigan market as an area director for Quiznos. Quiznos grew to 5,000 stores in 26 countries. The company went public, and then went private again. The Schaden family eventually sold its position. In the midst of that, they created the spongmonkey commercials, licensing the animated rat-like creatures from a British artist.

"All of us guys were a certain age at that time," Schaden says. "People hated them. The CMO got calls all day long for months. 'I hate you. They look like road kill. I can't even eat after watching them.'"

And people couldn't stop thinking about it. Or talking about it. Or get the thought of Quiznos' stupid pepper bar out of their head.

"We didn't have much an advertising budget so we would run really edgy stuff and then run value adds after that," Schaden says.

Schaden's father, a former aeronautical engineer at Boeing, is now working to create the first microwave radiation powered space vehicle. He has a staff of 17 scientists working on the prototype from his offices in Colorado.

"He wants to replace the space shuttle with something that doesn't have a heavy payload for fuel," Schaden says. "He thinks that plowing through the atmosphere to go from here to India is the silliest thing. Once you're outside of the atmosphere you can be there in an hour and a half and with using almost no fuel. You can just wait for the earth to turn and be there."

Fluent in Business

Schaden started Reservision in 1994 with the intent of streamlining the travel and hospitality industries through new technology. That's where he met Kerkorian and landed MGM Grand as the firm's first client. He exited that business to start Fluency Media 10 years later. Since then he's built Fluency Media by attracting premium talent and giving them the room to do their jobs the best way they see fit. 

It works. Fluency Media has turned into a go-to place for people with histories in Michigan looking to move back and land a job with creative freedom and impactful work.

"The people who work here now are the people who used to work at Big Fuel, GM, and McCann, and JWT," Schaden says. "They didn't want to do the death march Super Bowl thing because they have kids. They wanted an Ann Arbor lifestyle but have more impact than they did at Fortune 1,000 companies."

He adds, "I really try not to manage them much at all. When I really knew and could only afford the people I had to manage a lot, I worked more and needed a lot more people."

Schaden expects to expand his hands-off approach to hiring over the next two years. He is aiming to grow Fluency into the healthcare vertical, especially targeting hospitals. He points out that healthcare providers only compete against similar companies in their region.

That opens up the potential to have huge healthcare clients with billion-dollar budgets in each major metro region of North America. Fluency Media intends to use the lessons it learns from one hospital and apply it to many others across the country without having to learn the ins and outs of a whole new business.

"Hospitals are super under-utilizing their online opportunities," Schaden says. "They don't think of each other as competitive outside of their drive market. There are 875 hospitals with more than $1 billion in revenue in the country. I only need one per DMA."

Fluency Media currently has Beaumont Health System as a healthcare client, but Schaden hopes to land several more hospitals within the next year. And its not just hospitals where this idea can flourish. Fluency is also looking to utilize the same tactics with care-providers and insurance companies. Add that up, and it's one big world Schaden sees his business scaling.

"We're probably getting about one good-sized medical company looking at us every two or three days," Schaden says. "Hospitals, medical centers, insurance companies, pharmaceuticals."

Jon Zemke is the Innovation and Job News Editor for Concentrate, and its sister publications Metromode and Model D. He is also the Managing Editor for SEMichiganStartup. He works from his loft in Detroit but would trade that little home office for Tim Schaden's office view in Ann Arbor most days.

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