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Helping other firms make a name for themselves

By Sharon McLoone
Monday, May 17, 2010; 14

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Katie McIntyre. She is the director of creative services.

In a land of national associations and acronym nameplates, Tate M. Linden has carved out a lucrative niche for himself.

He and his small Alexandria company, Stokefire Consulting Group, name things and then turn them into brands.

"If you're going to hide who you are behind a series of letters that no one gets, there's no value to your name," Linden said.

The firm's first mid-size contract was to help rebrand the Automated Meter Reading Association. "The challenge was people weren't relating to the name. It didn't sound like something that the president of a utility company should belong to," Linden explained.

Stokefire's solution was to rename the group Utilimetrics.

The formerly named Association of Physical Plant Administrators needed a way to answer the question "what is APPA" and was looking for an answer that didn't involve "physical plant" or "administrators." Stokefire helped the APPA team select a tagline -- "Leadership in Educational Facilities."

Stokefire, which now has six employees, a full-time contractor and three interns, just won its first government contract: to provide strategic communications for a government agency. Thanks to a robust list of clients ranging from small firms to large multibillion-dollar businesses, Linden expects Stokefire to become profitable in July.

The firm recently moved into new offices on King Street, and still has not completely unpacked. Boxes are scattered everywhere, and pictures sit on the floor leaning up against walls. Employees did manage to take some time to help Linden paint some of the office walls and trim a bright red-orange -- the fire in Stokefire. Some paint may have splattered a bit on the ceiling and on some neighboring white walls. But that's okay because Linden is not a stay-in-the-lines kind of guy.

He studied opera for 3 1/2 years but abandoned that track to get a college degree in philosophy from the University of California at Los Angeles.

"I loved the performance aspect, but spending eight days going over the same notes in the same way" was too much, said Linden, 39. "And colleges really aren't looking for original thought from philosophy students."

After college, he worked as a project manager running branding campaigns at some large firms, but he felt that the firms would choose their contractors "because everybody goes with them" and not because they were the best fit for the job.

Many campaigns seemed downright inept, so he decided to start Stokefire. He launched it informally in 2003 and named and incorporated it in 2005.

"I had no idea I was going to do this," recalled Linden, who grew up in Rockville and Napa Valley, Calif. "A couple of people who I'd worked with said if you start something let us know ... That really surprised me, but it was the first time I thought I could really rally troops. I had never had responsibility for a whole organization."

He developed a 150-step process to help brand firms better. Basically, the system helps define "who you are, your letterhead, logo, stuff your executives say, ways that you respond to a customer service request. It should all add value to what you do," Linden said.

He started to build his business through word of mouth and by discussing his ideas through his blog. "I did a lot of contrarian analysis of how people were branding," he said, and that helped Stokefire land a contract with a nightclub and a $40 million hotel.

He acknowledges that it's harder for him to maintain a blog these days because of the success of the business.

"Five years ago I wouldn't be able to get in the room with people we do business with now," he said proudly, adding that projects that once brought in less than $1,000 now push up into the six figures.

Katie McIntyre, Stokefire's director of creative services, joined the company recently. She also got fed up working with large organizations and went to graduate school to study linguistics at Georgetown University. There she did a project on naming blogs and wrote a paper about Linden and his finesse for naming. She was thrilled to land a job working for him. "We've all drunk the Tate Linden Kool-Aid," she said, adding that she likes the start-up life.

"I was drawn to the openness of ideas," she said.

Linden recently was named to the board of Imagine Alexandria, a local initiative to brand the City of Alexandria as an anchor to organizations specializing in the field of creativity. The position has opened up networking opportunities for the firm.

"I like the Alexandria community because they are open to partnering," Linden said. "We succeed because we partner, not because we compete ... We're not interested in tearing down the competition."

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