Spending time in Africa as a college student, Spencer Blanchard learned about hard work and how little he knew about the rest of the world. Courtesy Spencer Blanchard
Spencer Blanchard is a business owner who became so popular with his clients, he ended up working for them.
Blanchard is a Grand Rapids native and entrepreneur. Specifically, he’s what you’d call a digital marketing expert in the field of “startup, venture capital based, community and growth-hacking.” He is the founder of The Tillery, a growth-stage consultancy for marketing and technology, and also, along with his wife, Melissa, is the co-founder of Unlocking GR, a blog dedicated to finding great things to enjoy in Grand Rapids.
Oddly enough, neither of those two businesses are currently his main focus. Blanchard is also the director of marketing for OXX, a Start Garden-funded portfolio member that is known for its one product: Coffeeboxx, “the world’s toughest coffeemaker.”
Blanchard first became acquainted with OXX in August 2015 when the startup became a client at his startup, The Tillery. Just a few months later, in December, Jim Doan, CEO at OXX, asked him to join the company.
Now Blanchard is an entrepreneur and business owner who’s also working for an entrepreneur and business owner.
“I did put my business on the backburner. It was a hard decision. I wanted the autonomy,” he said. “What I want to work for, and is worth it, is people who can cast a really large vision and work as hard as that vision is to make it happen. Jim epitomizes hard work from start to finish.”
Blanchard grew up in Grand Rapids and graduated from East Grand Rapids High School in 2008. When he was a child he thought he’d like to be a marine biologist, until a middle-school job shadowing at John Ball Zoo showed him it wasn’t all about playing with animals. In high school, he decided he wanted to pursue advertising because it balanced his artistic and business sides.
“I always knew I wanted to marry some of my creative skill sets with business, and I didn’t want to sacrifice either of them. I thought advertising would be good for that,” he said. “You can be creative and also in the business world. In my high school head, I thought that would be a fun career.”
Blanchard attended Michigan State University, majoring in journalism before switching to advertising. At the time, he said, he had an idealistic notion of journalism, although he sees a connection between his desire to capture stories and what he does now with marketing.
“I think marketing is turning into journalism. As generations continue, different generations are expecting more brand authenticity — the truth; not sales pitches but ‘Can this help me? Is this really valuable?’ … a lot of things good journalism speaks to. It was always very attractive to me, getting to the root of the story,” he said.
“I see journalism taking over marketing. If you told me today, ‘I need a contact person,’ I’d rather hire a journalist than a creative writer because it’s all about storytelling, right? A creative writer can sling some words together, a copywriter can make a great headline, but a journalist is going to give you what you want.”
One of his major life events occurred in 2010 during Blanchard’s sophomore year of college. He spent eight months in Africa working with the faith-based nonprofit Youth With A Mission. Most of his time was spent in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, but he also worked in Egypt and Kenya.
“I worked with faith-based organizations that were on the ground. Part of it was working with children and getting them off the streets, back into some form of education or halfway (home) … getting them away from gang violence,” he said.
“A world view is crucial for leaders — business leaders, especially. I’d say I found my initiative in Africa. Why? Because I still want to help. I’m in talks about investing in Africa. I want to create jobs there. … As the world gets smaller, brand voices get larger, and that’s something business leaders need to be very, very aware of.”
Africa taught him about hard work, Blanchard said, but it also taught him about his ignorance of how the world functions. During his stay in Egypt, the Arab Spring was in its infancy. Men armed with AK-47s escorted him everywhere. This protection came in handy, especially on the day when someone pulled a knife on him. It was then he realized how little he really knew about the world.
“I think I went over (there) with the idea that I was going to help people and potentially provide solutions to the many problems in sub-Saharan Africa. I think the biggest thing, though, was that Africa was the teacher — mostly, the people of Africa — and I was the student,” he said.
“One of the things that led me to that point was realizing I had nothing to offer them. I was a young kid with dreams, hopes and a vision to offer big things, but I had nothing to offer from a business or health standpoint, and I was so young, I wasn’t even able to give good life advice.”
When he returned to the U.S. in late 2010, Blanchard got a job as a content marketer at Grand Rapids-based digital agency Mindscape. He spent the next four years there, rising to the position of account manager before he left in 2014 to start The Tillery.
The greatest lesson he learned from his time at Mindscape was the relevancy of digital marketing, he said.
“I started to see how technology was changing, how the world started to perceive social media marketing. … If you say digital marketing is irrelevant, then you’re irrelevant,” he said.
Blanchard said he felt compelled to start The Tillery because he wanted to push himself in his career growth.
“I had this thing Mindscape taught me: to never stop learning. But then I got to a point where I wanted to see if I could do it for myself.”
“Grand Rapids is very supportive (of entrepreneurs). There’s a lot of competing small businesses around here, but there’s enough business to go around for everyone. It’s pretty awesome.”
Blanchard opened The Tillery at 944 Cherry St. SE, in fall 2014, at about the same time he and his wife launched Unlocking GR. The majority of that website is now run by Melissa, he said.
“Unlocking GR was my first test to see if I could do what I wanted to do online. I wanted to see if I could generate buzz, get people to share content,” he said. “We haven’t been generating new content (lately). I think it’s going to pick up soon, though. We’re getting a lot of inquiries.”
As for The Tillery, Blanchard’s two employees are essentially running it. He said he only spends about 2 percent of his time focused on that business. Most of his energy is spent on growing OXX, he said.
While it sometimes is hard not to focus on his own businesses, Blanchard said his choice to build OXX has been too rewarding to pass up. The company is currently looking to double its size, adding marketing, sales, customer service and mechanical engineering positions.
“(The Tillery) is not something in this stage of my life I’m interested in growing. I’m interested in growing OXX,” he said.
“The Tillery is where I learned the essence of entrepreneurship. It takes a lot to start your own company. And I have mad respect for anybody who chooses to venture on their own, start their own company and make it successful.”