Matt Watson adjusts his tie, takes a seat and smiles for the camera, doing his best not to flinch. On his left employees launch paperwork and random office supplies in his direction, while on his right two graphic designers gleefully ready to douse him with a bucket of Gatorade. Meanwhile, his dog and young son randomly wander over to take part in the fun.
For many small business owners, this kind of commotion on a weekday afternoon would be a major distraction. For Watson, it’s just another day at the office. After all, the owner of branding firm Watson Creative is in the business of controlled chaos. He thrives on taking all the creative energy his team can launch in his direction and translating it into real products and services that boost the bottom lines of both his company and his clients.
And, if at the end of the day you end up soaking wet and covered in old contracts, paper clips and rubber bands, so be it. That’s the business of design. Or, as Watson likes to call it, business by design.
A formula for success
Watson’s clients range from pro sports teams to a local bank, café and winery. “I love the problem solving that goes into it,” he says. “It just electrifies me.”
For Watson, “business by design” is more than just a catchy motto. It’s his modus operandi – the strategy that drives everything his company does.
“Design is innovation, and innovation is the force that consistently fuels business success,” explains Watson. “By infusing your business with the mind-set and creativity that results from design, you can leverage innovation in every aspect of your business.”
If there’s one thing Watson knows, it’s design. He spent 10 years working at Nike as a designer and later as a senior member of the company’s creative team – and has an impressive collection of more than 300 pairs of shoes to prove it.
In 2006, Watson increased his business acumen by earning an MBA from George Fox. It was during this time that he gained a firm footing in business ethics – a special point of emphasis at Watson Creative – and began to formulate his business philosophy while studying the writings of noted management consultant, educator and author Peter Drucker.
“That’s where I think our studio is different. What we offer is not just stuff that looks good and functions well – it actually hits our client’s bottom line.”
Watson also found a role model and friend in George Fox College of Business professor Deb Sepich, whose success as an entrepreneur resonated with him. “Her story captivated me,” he says. “To have a woman rise up to power in the way she did, and with such grace, has been incredible. . . . I’ve had a lot of fun talking with her over the years, seeing her grow and her seeing me grow.”
It was out of this breadth of experiences and education – which also included a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from Oregon State and a stint with international design agency Lippincott – that the idea for Watson Creative was born. So, in April 2012, Watson left the security of “the Swoosh” to pursue his vision for a company that thinks like a designer, but acts like a business.
“That’s where I think our studio is different,” he continues. “What we offer is not just stuff that looks good and functions well – it actually hits our client’s bottom line.”
Playing with the pros
Today, Watson’s unique approach is drawing attention from some big-time clients in the sports world, including NFL franchises like the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers, NBA teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, MLS teams like the Portland Timbers, and the NHL’s Boston Bruins, not to mention major college programs including the University of Miami football team.
The core of the sports side of his operation is in creating a digital fan loyalty hub for season ticket holders – all accessible from a smartphone on game day. Fans can use their mobile device as their ticket to the game, to purchase concessions, to renew season tickets, and to access unique video and other viral content, all produced by Watson Creative. They are then rewarded for specific actions – like showing up early to the game, buying stadium merchandise, or even using certain hashtags on social media – with autographed team gear, a pregame field pass or a meet-and-greet with their favorite player.
The end result is more engaged fans taking actions that create additional profit for the team. “By having this system in place in an NFL-sized stadium, it creates an additional million dollars or more of revenue per game,” boasts Watson.
Watson Creative started out squeezing nine employees into a 300-square-foot space. Recently Watson and his now-18 employees moved into an expansive 3,500-square-foot office in North Portland near the Moda Center.
His company also handles branding for more than 60 current and retired professional athletes – from 2013 PGA Championship winner Jason Dufner to former Pro Bowl running back Ahman Green – including individual athletes’ websites, marketing collateral, social content and more. In addition, Watson plans to leverage his company’s own brand equity in the sports world to get a piece of the multi-billion-dollar athletic apparel industry. His connections with Nike have already led to some design consulting work with the company, with some big plans on the horizon that he can’t yet disclose.
But, as much as his work in the sports world gets the headlines, Watson is quick to point out that “60 to 70 percent of our work is not sports-related.” Watson’s non-sports clients include well-known technology company InFocus, a home remodeling business, a local café, a winery, a bank and a paper products company. He’s even implementing a fan loyalty hub for the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash. Watson thrives on the diversity.
“I’m working on an NFL team, I’m working on a small café, I’m working on a Nike initiative, I’m working on a bank,” he says. “It’s just interesting. I’m fueled by it, and I love the problem solving that goes into it. It just electrifies me.”
Climbing back from ‘rock bottom’
Success didn’t come easy for Watson. Less than a year after leaving Nike, his father was in the midst of a losing battle with cancer, his first child was on the way, and Watson Creative teetered on the brink of extinction.
“I was living off my savings, then living off the line of credit on my house,” he recalls. “We hit rock bottom financially in February 2013. All the money had been invested in the company; I had soaked up everything.”
Feeling that his company wasn’t yet ready to be marketed, Watson relied on word of mouth for business and only had two clients: InFocus and Cooper Design Builders, a local home remodeling and design company.
“I think the toughest thing was keeping my composure and believing in it,” he says. “Back then, I relied upon a lot of the things I learned at George Fox: ethics, composure, belief, being calm. I just rolled with the punches, did my best and had the belief that good things will happen to good people who do good work.”
And soon things began to turn around. Even without so much as a company website, word began to spread about Watson Creative, and two clients turned into dozens.
“Between those two companies, they knew so many people . . . and all of a sudden our plate was full of relationships,” says Watson. “It was just the warm handshake, the idea that you do a great job and that your product is better than anyone else’s.”
Finally ready to share Watson Creative with his extensive Rolodex of contacts and the world, Watson launched a website and “turned on the marketing engine” in October 2013. Soon after, he inked his first big sports deal with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.
Today, with 18 employees on the payroll, an expansive 3,500-square-foot office space in North Portland and projected revenues of $3 million, Watson’s unique business approach is starting to pay off big. But no matter how large his company gets, Watson’s focus remains on the next creative challenge.
“Our job is to provide the world something they’ve never seen before, something they’ve never experienced,” he says. “I can’t tell you how excited I get learning new things. I want to help out health care, I want to help out the elderly, I want to work with a company that makes sodas. Right now, I’m working with a laundry company – a [six-figure] project where we are working with a company that does all the laundry for all the restaurants in town and three hospitals. It’s weird stuff, but it’s so fun.”
He pauses and smiles. “Why are they hiring us? You’ll see.”