What I’ve Learned So Far: GTJ’s November Business Leader of the Month Shares Insights

Jeff Hoffman, co-founder of Priceline.com, and Sarah Green, co-founder of Empact100, present an award to Spencer recognizing SPARK as one of the top 100 companies founded by young entrepreneurs.

In this new monthly column, Victoria Shapiro asks top young business leaders in the DC area to share their thoughts on succeeding in business and in life.

Business Leader of the Month: Spencer Gerrol, CEO and founder, SPARK Experience, a full service digital agency
Age: 30
Relationship Status: Married to Rachel Cohen Gerrol, co-founder of the Nexus Global Youth Summit and executive director of PVBLIC Foundation
Education: Tufts University
About SPARK: Recently recognized at the White House by Empact100 as one of the top 100 U.S. companies started by young entrepreneurs, SPARK Experience creates digital campaigns, apps and websites for clients ranging from small companies to Fortune 500s, as well as nonprofits and government agencies.
SPARK’s Key Market Differentiators:  SPARK analyses human behavior using psychology and research experts to ensure its design work is data-driven, reflecting how people think, act, and interact. SPARK bases its designs in research findings, not guesswork.

Victoria: Spencer, those featured here need to have demonstrated a sense of adventure, innovation, tenacity and commitment to community. This column is about spotlighting cool people, and the GTG Team thought you’d offer answers that people can really learn from.
Spencer:Thank you so much, Victoria. It’s such an honor to be included.

Victoria: Great, let’s get started. When did you start SPARK and what inspired you?
Spencer:I started SPARK Experience in 2009 after about six years working my way through the ranks of a large international user experience consulting firm. … My entrepreneurial tendencies had brewed beneath the surface until one day a light bulb went off, and I realized I could provide a higher level of service to organizations at a lower cost, which is exactly what the economy was begging for.  Companies still had to do business, but they wanted to do so more strategically.  I knew that my focus on combining science with creativity would fill an important gap in the market, so I went for it.

Victoria: What are the biggest challenges facing companies in your space?
Spencer:The world is changing and every day it changes faster.  Our field is at the forefront of this change, so it is contingent upon us to lead the way.  Only 15 years ago the internet was just a fledgling, Google was just gaining popularity 10 years ago, Facebook was just a tiny startup eight years ago, and the iPhone had just entered the scene five years ago.  The world of technology is changing before our eyes and it is not slowing down.  Neither can we.

Victoria: What kind of team/company have you created to help confront those challenges?
Spencer:My field of study, Human Factors, is committed to understanding human behavior and decision-making and to applying the principles of cognitive psychology to design and technology.  We train our staff to study human beings first.  Technology will continue to change, and we will continue to be at the forefront, but it is because of our understanding of the human condition that we will always be ahead of the curve in designing for the latest wave of technology in a human-centered way.  Social media, for example, is still a new concept to many companies… but to us it is human behavior in a different medium.

SPARK Experience enjoys biannual company retreats. Here the team enjoys team building and sailing last summer.

Victoria: What energizes you as a leader?
Spencer:I am energized by the ability to help others learn and grow.  My favorite aspect of leadership is identifying other people’s many strengths and helping them make the most of their gifts…. Too many organizations focus on improving weaknesses instead of customizing roles to leverage strengths and building teams out of how people work together best.

Victoria:What have you learned about prioritizing the different pieces of your life – friendships, your marriage, family, religion and business?
Spencer:I’ve learned that balance is an ever-moving target.  I used to constantly fight for balance and always feel like it was a losing battle.  Now I realize that different elements of balance are meant to shift throughout life.  At one time my friends were the most important element, during other times building my business had to take priority.  Marriage adds another beautiful component. As time goes on, this will continue to change, shifting the balance of friends and family, of business and philanthropy, of travel and of stability.  The important thing is to take stock in your priorities so balance is a conscious decision, not an aftereffect.

Victoria: How do Jewish values play a part in your role as a business leader?
Spencer: When working so hard for success it is important to know WHY you are really doing it.  Many entrepreneurs aim to make millions, and I have no qualms with that.  But that begs the question, why make millions?  To buy a Ferrari?  For me the answer is tied to my Jewish values: tikkun olam.  My end game is to leave the world a better place.  I hope to do a lot of good in my lifetime and the more successful SPARK is, the more capable I will be to contribute to meaningful causes.  That is not just me, and it’s not just Jewish.  I am proud to say that the amazing staff at SPARK all show a deep commitment to helping others.  It’s become part of our company DNA.

Victoria: What do you wish you had known five years ago?
Spencer: Shabbat is the most important part of the week. Life is hectic and we are lucky to have a day when we are supposed to STOP. Stop working, stop texting, stop emailing, stop traveling, and redirect all that energy to real quality time with the people you love. We need that time to step back, take a moment to breathe, and devote that time to our community, our family and ourselves.

Victoria: How do you motivate your team when times are tough?
Spencer: The right company culture is among the most important elements of an organization that can survive even when times are tough… we focus on values, on what really matters in life, and on creating a culture of sharing in successes and supporting each other.  I don’t have to motivate my team very much because they have the capacity to be self-motivated and to motivate each other.  I only need to set up a culture that allows that to flourish.

Victoria: What advice do you have for people who want to start their own businesses?
Spencer: Find a mentor who’s been through it, succeeded, and hasn’t forgotten what it took.  We entrepreneurs tend to romanticize starting a business.  We remember all the benefits and tend to forget the difficult times along the way.  Entrepreneurs are programmed that way; we wouldn’t get through it if we didn’t amplify the good and minimize the struggles.  I would recommend finding a fellow entrepreneur who can provide some perspective on both the emotional and practical sides of starting a business.

Also, a good life partner can be your rock.  My wife, Rachel, keeps me aimed squarely at who I want to be and how we want to live our lives together.

Victoria: That’s it, thanks for your time.
Spencer:  Thank you!

Victoria Shapiro is a senior account executive at Susan Davis International, a full-service communications and public affairs firm on K Street.  She is also an advisor to her family’s company, The Donald J. Ross LLC, the official licensing company for the legendary 20th century golf course architect.