Company founded on talking and tweeting sees early success

By Antea Gatalica

There’s no shame in crashing at Mom and Dad’s after graduation if you’re Taylor Gaines, a 23-year-old entrepreneur who has successfully launched a full-service social media agency.

Founded just two years ago, Chicago-based TNT Digital Media now sees steady revenues of approximately $10,000 each month.

“We went from zero in monthly revenue to $25,000 monthly as our highest earning month. Of course, our goal going into 2016 is keeping that as a stable number,” Gaines said.

Gaines operates TNT with one other full-time employee, Tim Trad, who officially joined her one-woman team in September.

In TNT’s early stages, Gaines explored several different markets, including tech, food, and apparel, to try and find a niche for her business and to build her client base. She now has several clients, up to 20 at one time, across a variety of industries.

A typical day for Gaines is an assortment of meetings, proposals, content development, project management, and client management, but on occasion, the work comes with perks.

In September, a client in the tech industry flew Gaines to Germany to work a trade show. There she was able to learn more about the tech sector, which has helped her network with tech executives.

“I’m a total nerd so I have so much fun on the tech side of things,” Gaines said. “It’s fun to be a part of that conversation.”

But, admittedly, for the first six months Gaines didn’t take her company seriously.

While a senior at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Gaines was simply looking to have a little fun and wrap up her studies. She had just been laid off at an ad agency where she had worked as a social media account executive.

She started TNT to make some money to get by.

“If I’m going to take a pay cut, I may as well start my own thing and see where it goes,” Gaines said.

It wasn’t until winter break of her senior year that an interview at another agency, back in her hometown of San Diego, made her rethink her commitment to her business.

“The question that really, really struck me was when they were like ‘How long would it take you to phase our your clients?’” Gaines said.

That was her defining moment.

“And I was like, ouch! I’ve built really great relationships… I don’t want to ‘phase them out,’ that sounds rude,” she said.

Upon graduating in 2014, Gaines moved back in with her parents and focused on rebranding and relaunching what was to become TNT Digital Media.

Gaines looks back on this time fondly, although it wasn’t easy.

“If you’re going to build something, bootstrap it as best as you can for as long as you can, reinvest in the people that are helping you, and reinvest in your company,” Gaines said.

She persisted, and finally took her first paycheck at the beginning of 2015.

Gaines said what sets TNT apart is the willingness to provide a comprehensive feature analysis on a deeper level than others.

“[There are] people younger than me that are like ‘Yeah, I Snapchat every day.’ A lot of people understand how to post on social media, but they don’t really do or dive into how all the features work… how can I use this button to benefit someone in a certain way,” Gaines said.

She found the same qualities in her employee, Trad, whom she met in March when a client enlisted the help of Trad’s company for a grassroots campaign.

At the time, Trad, now 30, had been playing music professionally for 10 years. By necessity, he had learned about self-promotion and social media while on tour.

“There are so many people who go to school to learn what we learn the real way,” Trad said. “I feel like being in a situation where you actually practice the real thing, it makes you a lot stronger. The skill set is way more practical. You have to market yourself, and if you’re successful in music, you can pretty much do anything.”

Trad is based in Columbus, Ohio, where he also co-owns a clothing business.

Gaines and Trad worked together for quite some time before ever physically meeting. With WiFi, there was no need for a shared space.

“I can do my work anywhere,” Gaines said.

While she was finding success, she also found San Diego’s laid-back culture a poor fit for her growing business.

So in July, she made a fresh start and moved to Chicago, a city known for its vibrant advertising and marketing industry.

“I’m young, I have nothing tying me down, and I have nothing to lose. I threw my clothes in my car… I drove out here and said let’s make it work,” Gaines said.

It’s that confidence that will be Gaines’ most valuable asset as she navigates a digital landscape that continues to grow, according to industry experts.

Guy Lay, founder and CEO of Chicago-based GRP Media, who also started an agency during his time at the University of Texas in Austin, said digital advertising is the easiest segment of the industry to break into, as there are few financial barriers to entry.

“The low barrier to entry means anyone with the expertise can open their own shop, but if they aren’t willing to scale (add employees and formal office space), they won’t be able to grow to any size,” Lay said in an email interview.

Without the willingness to grow, Lay said smaller agencies will fail to attract larger clients.

“It will continue to be difficult to break into unless you are able to open the doors with a client that can pay the bills. Then comes decision time if you want to grow the business or not,” Lay said.

Gaines plans eventually to attract larger clients, but she said it’s her passion and respect for the industry that motivates her, and she sees other agencies, both large and small, as inspiration rather than competition.

“There are the large agencies that can do all the bells and whistles, that can engineer insane campaigns, which I idolize, because I respect and love what they do, and it inspires me to do really cool things. It keeps me motivated,” Gaines said.

At the same time, “I would support anyone who is trying to get started and needs advice,” Gaines said.

Ambitions aside, Gaines, a self-proclaimed foodie, said she is still slightly in party mode, enjoying being with friends and exploring and traveling.

“I’m pretty much down for whatever, I’m very much an open person,” she said.

Photo at top: Gaines occasionally works from the Metropolitan Club in downtown Chicago, located on the 67th floor of the Willis Tower. (Antea Gatalica/Medill)