NOTE: Originally published in the Daily Herald Business Ledger Oct. 24, 2011
Your small company is located in suburban Chicago.
Your managing partner lives half a country away in California.
Your designers and programmers live half a world away in Ukraine.
These logistics alone can be daunting for any business owner, but it’s a balancing act Alena Tsimis and Olga Weiss deal with every day.
Tsimis and Weiss are managing partners of I Imagine Studios, an advertising/marketing company the two founded 10 years ago. The Evanston-based company has had a successful decade developing web-based marketing and advertising strategies for mid-size companies, landing clients ranging from kefir-based products maker Lifeway Foods of Morton Grove and Mount Prospect-based Salton Inc. to the Midtown Athletic Club in Chicago.
About three years after the company started, Weiss married and moved to Southern California. Though the partners were separated by more than 2,000 miles, they were determined to make the long-distance relationship work.
For that, they turned to technology.
Weiss works with the Evanston team from her office in Santa Monica, Calif., through Skype, the popular web-based videophone system. During a recent strategy meeting, Weiss worked with Tsimis and the I Imagine team to fine-tune and finalize plans for promoting and hosting Chicago Ideas Week, a weeklong innovation forum held earlier this month.
In addition to Skype, Tsimis said the firm also uses the web-based project management system Basecamp to develop, coordinate and keep track of projects among the staff of 20 employees and contractors spread out the company’s three locations. The program not only helps everyone stay on the same page with the company’s many projects, but it also allows the team to communicate directly with their clients, updating them on projects and getting feedback.
“Unfortunately, we’re not big enough to have our offices function independently, where (Weiss) can have her team and I can have mine,” Tsimis said. “We’re very much dependent on each other, so we have to learn how to work smart.
“We tried to find something that allows our team to work as a virtual team,” she added. “Our entire lives are spent on the Internet.”
Life on the Internet has helped I Imagine meet the challenge of the time differences between the three groups. With Weiss living two hours behind the home office and the Ukraine team living nine hours ahead, the company’s web-based tools keep everyone updated at any given time.
In some cases, Tsimis notes, the time differences have been beneficial on time-sensitive projects.
“Our clients know this and it can work to their advantage,” she said. “We can submit a project into Basecamp at 4 or 5 in the afternoon, and the job can be done by the next morning.”
While the firm spends most of its working life in the virtual world, Tsimis and her I Imagine team pride themselves on providing a “high touch” approach in their marketing and promotion efforts. The firm focuses on developing custom-designed websites and tools for its clients, the majority of whom Tsimis said fit with I Imagine’s mission of promoting better lifestyles.
“We believe marketing has a purpose to serve, and it’s not in developing bad habits, but in developing good habits that help people live healthy and happy lifestyles,” she said.
About 20 percent of I Imagine’s work is done pro bono for nonprofits, helping with specific causes. Among the groups the agency has worked with are Rotary International, the Emergency Fund for Needy People and the Homeless Connection. Their work includes developing a site for Rotary’s Kick Polio out of Africa campaign, which allows visitors to virtually autograph a soccer ball.
Tsimis points out that the company’s commitment to nonprofits stems from personal experience. She and Weiss became unemployed during the dot.com bubble bust, and they did volunteer work with the Rotary. When they created I Imagine, they folded that commitment to volunteerism into the company’s mission.
Despite the recession, I Imagine’s business has grown about 30 percent over last year, Tsimis said. Down the road, she looks to get the attention of more Fortune 1000 companies, especially those that have a focus on healthier lifestyle choices. She cites work being done by PepsiCo to provide a healthier lineup of snack and food items as an ideal future client.
“What they are doing goes beyond potato chips and soft drinks,” she said.
Most recently, Tsimis said, I Imagine has contracted with Laila Ali, professional boxer and daughter of boxing great Muhammad Ali, to develop a strategy for her new line of all-natural food products and cosmetics.
“We have been fortunate enough to have really good clients in that vein of health and wellness,” she said.
Having clients that fall into your mission helps create a stronger relationship, Tsimis said, as well as enhances the “high touch” personalized level of service the I Imagine provides.
“There is a saying that you can’t take your business personally,” she said. “I can’t do that. We take our business very personally.”