The year is 2001, fresh off the heels of the acquisition of my award-winning interactive firm, Underline, in NYC by Boston based technology firm Context Integration.
With my post-acquisition employment contract coming to an end, a few bucks in the bank and the market reeling from the start of what would be known as the great dot-com crash, there was something I sensed in the services market. It was in need of a change.
There was enormous blowback directed at companies that had spent the last 5+ years inventing a way to do business in what was still in its relative infancy: the internet.
Before Facebook and Twitter were invented, a certain sense of entitlement surrounded some of those early trailblazers who made it all up as they went along and wowed customers with innovations in design, and in a discipline that was quickly becoming known as User Experience (UX). UX was quickly becoming more critical to a successful web-based effort, and an expertise in the newest technologies like Macromedia Director and the early versions of Flash were still pretty hard to find, and they knew it. The year was 2002.
An intro to Colombian Talent
There had to be a better way. And as I toyed with what to do next at the ripe age of 34, I thought about a different approach. I was blessed with a staff in NYC at my first firm that was magical. A group of people from all over the world who came to the US and jumped into the world of web design with as much passion than I’d ever seen.
One of the sources of this talent, to my surprise, was Colombia – a country that I (and most Americans) knew very little about outside of “Romancing the Stone.”
What I did know was that they were good, extremely good, and they brought a humility and passion to their work that was refreshing. Keep in mind this contrasted with the ever-growing contingent of NY-based digerati who felt they were still entitled to inflated salaries and perks that were no longer supported by a market reeling from a crash of irrational exuberance.
The demand was there. Perhaps not as volatile as in the past, but the business out there needed to be serviced and the internet continued to show its muscle across a multitude of verticals. Again, I wanted in.
Heading to Colombia
After the crash, many of the international employees who had been working on H1-B and L1 visas were forced to return to their home countries. That was the case for many of my superstar staff who found themselves part of the many “RIFs” that came with the cutbacks that a crash fuels.
One of those unfortunate fellas was a particular guy I stayed in touch with. He came to NY on a wing and a prayer, literally – we met in 1997 through a friend; I was impressed and hired him immediately. He had only worked for me right out of school, so his entire portfolio was work he created from my first firm Underline, all elegantly presented on his personal site, www.zemoga.com. His Name was A. Gomez. Zemoga backwards.
So I thought, could I do it all again, but with the twist being from Bogota, Colombia? I made a trip there, which was nerve racking for a Gringo in 2002, but alas I was blown away. The beauty of the country and the people were like I’d never seen before. Shame on me for my ignorance.
I made him an offer. A full year service contract that would guarantee income for him and his family for the right to have his design and coding expertise 100% dedicated to compliment my strategy and creative direction from the myriad of new and former clients coming my way. He would be employee #1. I charged him with getting to work looking for the local talent I knew existed from my experience with them in NY before the crash. No need to come up with a new company name. No need to go to VC’s. I would fund the entire effort myself, bootstrap the entity and get to work.
The network I had fostered since leaving Saatchi in 1992 was itching to see what the new idea I had was all about. No time to waste.
I quickly drafted a one-page contract and offered $50,000/yr to employee #1, which was a king’s ransom in Colombia in 2002. I knew I could reinvent the outsourced creative and engineering services industry. No need to jump through branding and URL hoops…there was an original name right in front of me…I think I’ll call it Zemoga. (I toyed with the name “the cartel” for awhile… but it was probably too soon). To hell with the obvious search results challenge, I would prove them wrong about how to get stuff done, and from Colombia to boot.
Immediately the most talented designers, engineers and PM’s flocked to Zemoga. It was easy getting excellent talent. There was no other company in the entire country trying to do what we were doing. The newly minted students leaving the universities were all walking into a much more promising Colombian economy thanks to the efforts of continuous Administrations transforming Colombia as we knew it. The Escobar scars were still there, but they were healing. There just was not a ton of opportunity in Bogota. That’s why many chose to try their luck in markets outside Colombia in the 90’s.
Zemoga would change that.
Our own ‘El Dorado’
Convincing NYC advertising and marketing executives (a type I knew all too well from my days on Madison Ave) that they should give us a shot was anything but easy. Instead of hiding the source of the talent as some suggested, I decided to use it as a strength, because it was exactly that. “From Bogotá with Love” was our tagline. Unapologetically, I marched into conference rooms up and down the annals of NYC, portfolio in hand, bursting with newly mined magic from my own personal El Dorado in Colombia.
Although employee #1 had left the business early on for personal reasons, those early staff that I had worked so hard to assemble in those formative years had in their hearts the most precious mettle in all of Colombia. They would become the foundation of what is now one of the most awarded and respected independent design and engineering companies in LatAm.
It was not easy. There were many challenges. We had to deal with our fair share of both personal and business challenges. Our success bred a few industry “haters” who were hell bent on seeing us fail. But I saw clearly in this small group of people a passion for Zemoga. It’s what I call “bleeding green.” This was their company. They knew they were the best. And not just at their work product, but in their workplace. In how we treated each other. How we had each others’ back. It’s not something you can teach easily, but when you have it, you know it, and so do those around you. And it’s contagious.
Couple this with a new found Colombian pride I demanded they all have. They were just beginning to understand that there was no need to make excuses for the misdeeds of those from their country’s past. Escobar’s damage ran deep and there was still a tangible loss that the Cartels were responsible for. The missing children, the kidnapped, the killed. All of these horrors of the past took a toll on their perception of themselves. A universal national guilt spread wide, especially in the youth who were now adults and struggled with some undeserved defacto shame of being Colombian. But in my eyes, they were all children of survivors. Their parents weathered a tumultuous time in their country’s history and came out the other end. They put in place leaders who were committed to turning the country around. And they did. They were Colombians and I could tell first hand they were sick of everyone in the US thinking they had an eight ball in their pocket.
My opinion was: let’s face the ignorance head on. Let’s be part of the turn around. I told them, “you can either internalize your anger for what people may think about Colombia and cower in the corner, or you can kick their ass with your talent.”
Erasing attitudes about an entire country through an O and a U
With each passing year their confidence increased. It was time to put a flag in the ground, and this group of Colombian superstars agreed. So much so that the team put together a social media campaign to start addressing the global ignorance of who Colombia really was a most brilliant way. The idea was simple, if you can’t spell the name of the country correctly, you don’t deserve to have an opinion. And so “It’s COLOMBIA, NOT COLUMBIA” was born. By simply addressing a common mistake head-on amongst Americans used to referencing the early American deity, Columbia, a dialogue ensued that continues to this day.
Grammy Award-Winning Juanes, F1 Pilot Juan Pablo Montoya, Grammy Award-Winning Fonseca, Film Director Simon Brand and Actor Antonio Banderas, sporting ‘It’s Colombia not ColUmbia’ gear
Not to our surprise, much fanfare and attention was given to this grassroots movement which continues online and in stores, with T-shirts, hats and mugs sold in every airport in Colombia emblazoned with our simple, but poignant trademarked message for the world. “IT’S COLOMBIA, NOT COLUMBIA™”
More than a team, my ‘socios’
We started to emerge a stronger team after this win and many others. I quickly realized this team was more than just a group of talented employees; they were partners, and deserved to be treated as such. So I made them partners. They stood by me in the face of adversity. They celebrated with me when we won new work, an accolade or award. These “socios” are now part of what is called the “Fellowship of the Green.” A group of Colombians who know the values and work ethic that make us different. Although the “Fellowship of the Green” continues to grow with new members who work and live by what makes us different, these leaders are a few of the pillars worth mentioning. Currently there are 16 “fellows,” and here are just a few…
Our head of Technology, Andres Garcia, was employee #4 and is widely regarded as one of the most talented engineers in the industry. The throngs that visit our newly designed offices in Bogota to hear him speak call him “Profe”, or in English, “Teacher.” A well-deserved title for his 15 years of innovation and leadership in technology.
Carlos Ferro, our COO started as a PM 9 years ago and has reconstructed our process from the ground up. Carlos has passionately driven how we serve clients and is largely responsible for a process that has resulted in our 100% success rate in delivery.
Juan Diego Velasco, our Head of Creative has won over some of the most renowned clients with his innovative approach to Design Thinking and his never-ending curiosity, willingness to share and a humility that is indescribable. When you see our work, JDV’s influence is in there somewhere.
Katherine Renteria, a powerhouse of a PM and Head of Delivery, is what makes us different, incarnate. She joined in 2012, had a respite during some of our troubled times and returned in 2017 with a wealth of experience that she continues to leverage through mentoring our growing delivery teams. Her commitment to perfection is a beacon that all of us follow.
And finally our CFO, Carlos Pardo, who is anything but a typical CFO. Carlos has been the driver for 14 years of not only our healthy financials, but more importantly, our culture (in partnership with his lovely wife and Head of Zemoga HR, Tatiana Gonzalez). He took to heart my example and continues to spread the mission I brought to the country, which was simple. Let’s build a better kind of company in Colombia. Let’s create a company YOU would want to work for. Be the boss YOU would want to work for. Hire people smarter than you. Why? So when you are in a room celebrating a big win with all of these people. What does that make you? The smartest person in the room. Empower them. Nurture them. Challenge them. Deliver on these and the results will be long lasting. You will live better. Work Better. Build Better.