I founded Aquent, now the world’s largest talent agency for creative and Web professionals, in my college dorm room with two classmates, in 1986. Fifteen years later, Aquent has grown to 60 offices in nine countries, generating more than $200 million in revenue last year. It’s a far cry from the early days when we were typesetting resumes, sitting on milk crates and celebrating a “three hundred-dollar day” in revenue. However, we’re not living like millionaires.
I started my company out of a college dorm room with two friends. We were many things including desktop publishers, graphic designers, and laser printer shop staffers when we hit upon the idea to launch a temp agency that specialized in procuring Mac-savvy talent. MacTemps [rebranded as Aquent in 1999 because we weren’t just “Macintosh computer” or “temps” anymore] grew to become the 12th fastest-growing private company according to Inc. Magazine by our sixth year in business.
“It took all three sets of parents to co-sign, in addition to our personal guarantees to attain a five thousand dollar loan…”
When we turned 26-years-old and our parents could no longer put us on their health insurance plans, we decided that not only did we need health insurance benefits, but our temps did to0. We changed the temp industry landscape when we became the first national staffing firm to provide comprehensive medical and retirement benefits to temporary employees. We didn’t think we were doing anything revolutionary — we needed this ourselves!
In March of 1993, John Chuang revolutionized the temp employee industry by introducing the company’s innovative health, 401(K) retirement and vacation benefits plans for its employees. The New York Times called the plan “..the envy of many permanent workers.” Those employees working 300 hours in a ten-week period are eligible for conmprehensive long-term health care coverage, full disability insurance and complete dental converage for preventive care. MacTemps pays 60% of the cost for long term health care, and 100% of disabiliity insurance and preventive health care. Employees who manage to work 1,900 hours in a 52-week period will receive full health benefits at no cost. In addition, MacTemps offers family coverage as an option to its employees and in 1995, the company expanded its benefits to include a dependent care reimbursement plan.
The gig economy was something that we embraced and came up with a lot of ideas to help freelancers. Our success lies in an entrepreneurial environment that embraces failure as a way to learn and improve. We also saw technology as a competitive advantage, and, in some ways, we are a tech company even more so than a staffing company.
Even when you know a diverse workforce will help your business, the question remains: How do you achieve balance without making race or gender more important than competence?
Today, my company 27 domestic and 10 international offices strong, and the top 10 most valuable brands in the world rely on us for creative, digital, and marketing talent. Our full history is here.
When I started MacTemps, a staffing firm, in 1987, I thought that if I just hired according to merit and turned a blind eye to race, age, and gender, I’d get a diverse and balanced workforce without imposing rules or guidelines. I was idealistic and believed in the market’s invisible hand. Moreover, I disliked affirmative action because it allowed people to typecast me. Did I get into Harvard University solely because I was a minority? I felt that I’d worked hard for my own success and that I should be recognized for my efforts, not my ethnic background.
Our 35th anniversary approaches in December — we don’t really have an exact date because what day is it really? The day we got an idea? The day we landed our first job? The day we incorporated?
MacTemps is not just a temp agency; it’s a talent agency. The company takes a keen interest in the free agents it welcomes into its fold. “Think Jerry Maguire,” says Aimee Youngblood, 28, an assignment manager at MacTemps in Dallas. “I help them help me help them. I help them find assignments. I manage their careers.” Like their sports and entertainment counterparts, MacTemps talent agents tend to specialize.
To celebrate, my partners and I are going out to dinner. The location was cause for some deep reflection. The restaurant where our banker took us out to lunch once a year, Casablanca, is no longer in business.
We thought about the Spanish restaurant Iruna that we all frequented as students. Alas, it closed just a few months ago. Grendels is gone too. And Pizzaria Uno’s. Ice cream staples like Steve’s and Herrel’s are long gone too. Things have changed in Harvard Square. I guess it has been more than thirty years.
Still, the Hong Kong is still there with its giant scorpion bowls. Personally, I preferred the food at Yenching. It’s gone though too.
There are still a few places left from the old days of MacTemps. The RegattaBar is still at the Charles Hotel. We used to go to Happy Hour and get the cheapest drink in order to eat all the appetizers as our dinner when we worked summers on our start-up and did not have access to dorm food. Alden & Harlow now presides in the space vacated by Casablanca restaurant. It’s quite good with small plates of flavorful and well-prepared food.
Afterward, we will likely wander Harvard Square and marvel at the changes and also about how we grew up here as wide-eyed students with a dorm room business. These days, our company is based in Back Bay Boston. There are less food memories here but we are still cooking up ideas.
My middle daughter wants me to write a memoir of our start up days. There are some funny stories about the early days. What do you think? Want to hear more?
Entrepreneurship Children’s Books
Bikes for Sale by Carter Higgins, illustrated by Zachariah OHora
Friendships form after two young entrepreneurs collide. Serendipity, entrepreneurship, and friendship are the trifecta of a successful enterprise. I can attest to that! [picture boo, ages 4 and up]
Peg + Cat The Lemonade Problem by Jennifer Oxley + Billy Aronson
Bartering is the original form of entrepreneurship. Peg and Cat trade marbles for lemonade in this fun math adventure. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
What Do You Do with an Idea? by Kobi Yamada, illustrated by Mae Besom
Whether it’s starting a business or a creative project, it all starts with an idea and the courage to act upon it. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business by Esphyr Slobodkina
It isn’t always easy to get people to buy your products and setbacks can happen. It takes creativity to solve problems and move forward. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Cookies & Milk by Shawn Amos
Review by Ms. Yingling Reads:
“This was a fascinating fictional look at life in Hollywood, based on the real-life experiences the author had with his father, who founded Famous Amos cookies, the first store to sell ONLY cookies. The process of setting up a business was interesting, and I loved that Ellis was given so much freedom to go places and interact with people in order to build the business. There are good period details, like Ellis’ Afro, his zip-necked terry cloth shirt (that right there made the book for me!), and the interesting business on Sunset Boulevard. Of course, there are also details about the racism the family faced at the time since they are some of the few Black people in the area. It is great to see that Alex and his father don’t seem to care about this, and interesting to see Ellis’ reaction when he goes to Wishbone’s radio station, where most of the employees are Black. There are some slapstick moments of mishaps, adventures riding down hills in the shopping cart, and meeting some surfers, and the story moves briskly with a lot of heart and humor. Think of the historical fiction you’ve read involving Black characters– how many of those books cover Black joy? Not very many. Despite the challenges they face, Ellis and his father not only experience joy but do their best to spread it through cookies!” [middle grade, ages 8 and up]
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.
2 thoughts on “My Dorm Room Start Up Celebrates 35 Years & Entrepreneurship Children’s Books”
What a fascinating story. So love that you were pioneers in getting temps health coverage and other benefits. As a consultant, I know how important that is.
I vaguely knew that you were involved in a start-up program in college, but had no idea how successful it had become. I am impressed. Thanks for sharing.