Value Added: In business, it never hurts to remember some lessons from the ballfield


Anthony Pappas, founder of the Pappas Group, an advertising firm in Arlington County, played baseball since he was a kid. An injury ended his playing days, but he still uses the lessons he learned on the ballfield. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Thomas Heath
Reporter March 18, 2012

I never get tired of hearing people’s war stories from how they made it in the business world and what they learned.

I asked Anthony Pappas, founder of Arlington-based Pappas Group, to tell me what worked for him. His digital advertising firm, founded in 2003, employs 40 people and has $7 million in annual revenue.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

Pappas, 39, has an interesting background, including the fact that his father, Bill Pappas, was a near miss for being a guitarist for the rock band Kiss. (His dad’s current band, Dead Cat Bounce, is based in McLean.)

Anthony Pappas grew up in Brooklyn, living the game of baseball from when he was 5 to when he blew his arm out at 21 while playing for C.W. Post College, now Long Island University Post.

The graphic design and advertising student started work at Proxicom, a Reston-based Internet development firm that has been bought and sold several times. Pappas, who at 26 became the youngest vice president at the company, made enough from the sale to launch his company.

He comes from a family of self-starters. His father is an independent art director in the film business. His mother, Virginia Pappas, is the chief executive of the Reston-based Society of Nuclear Medicine. His aunt, Barbara Pappas, owns her own company. Pappas’s wife, Michelle, is an independent real estate agent.

Here are some of the entrepreneur’s thoughts on how to succeed in business (I edited for space):

Compete: “Competition is so often framed in a negative light. Some say, ‘You don’t need to make everything a competition,’ but everything in life is a competition.

“When I was with Proxicom, I got a call from the West Coast team asking if I were willing to meet with Nike after a first attempt by Proxicom to win the account had failed. I had to fly across country over a weekend and present an entire idea within 72 hours. I pulled the team together, and we worked straight through the weekend. We prepped on our layover. We poured our heart and soul into that 90-minute meeting.

We were in a layover on the way home when we got a call notifying us that Nike awarded us the project.

“You have to go over and above to win it if you want it.”

Know how to win: “Winning also can be whatever you make it to be. It’s the constant state of goal-setting. Make it personal, not ego-driven.

“Small incremental wins keep you going. Each little victory is a win, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not a million dollars.

“Don’t make it a big deal when you win: There’s no need to rub it in people’s faces.”

Honestly evaluate yourself: “You know where you stand in sports: You struck out. You must be realistic and accept what happened. Same thing happens as a business owner. You can get caught up in your own company — and what you see as success — but there is always a reality check. You can see your competition at awards ceremonies. We look around and say: ‘God, these people do some awesome work. You’re not the best.’ You need those gut-check moments.

“I try to find my limitations every day. It enables me to grow and evolve.”

Deal with failure: “We recently lost a pitch to a large media client. They asked us to brand, advertise, develop and market a new service. We decided to only do a portion of the overall pitch so that we could really do that well and assumed that we would get invited back. We didn’t even make it to the next round.

“Failing is a part of life. You’ve got to deal with it, bounce back and understand why you failed.”

Think on your feet: “We recently hosted PBS’s ‘Nightly Business Report’ in our office for an interview regarding our One Job for America pledge. They had told us that they weren’t going to ask any political questions. I’m on camera, and they ask me a very pointed political question. I had to respond without missing a beat. They didn’t include my response because I focused on what I wanted to talk about and not what they wanted to talk about.”

Prepare: “We prepare for pitches with dry runs. We were pitching a well-known brand in New York City recently, and we were up against three big agencies. On the train ride up, we went through our presentation — 10 times. We were awarded the project a few days later.

“You need to be prepared for every contingency: backup computers, answers to every possible question, multiple copies of what you plan to show.”

Pivot and take risks: “I started out as a two-person company earning income on a project basis designing Web sites, company logos, advertising, annual reports and brochures. But after two years, I realized we had to change the business model from getting one project at a time to a more strategic model of getting all of the customer’s marketing, although at a lower profit margin. It was a risk because I had to front the cost of more employees, hoping I would get the accounts to eventually justify the staff.

“It worked, but you not only have to change your game plan, but you have to take risks.”

Prepare to work 24/7: “I had to sell business during the day and work at night. I used my network and friends to find potential clients, and I would meet with them during the day at lunch or at meetings. Then I got home at dinner time and spent the evening putting together proposals discussed in those meetings, then I would grab a few hours sleep. The whole first year was like that.”

Hire people smarter than you — and collaborate with them: “I’d like to think I am brilliant and come up with all the innovations and ideas, but I’m just not that good. More heads are better than one. Sports taught me to know what it is to work on a team.

“We brainstorm all day long, and we sit there with 10 people in the room figuring out creative ideas for our clients. Everybody has a say and the ability to give an opinion, and we come up with amazing ideas.

“I don’t have to come up with the ideas or be the smartest guy in the room.”

Know your employees and your customers: “I grew up in a tough neighborhood. I needed to know who to stay away from and who to align myself with.

“I try to make a personal connection with every employee. I try to find something personal about each employee and each customer that is a common interest we share. It allows you to have frank and honest discussions about the work. And when we establish relationships with clients, I want them to become long-term friends.

“A good relationship with your clients makes it more enjoyable to work together.”

For previous Value Added columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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