Website design and development studio Thinkbox Creative has been around for nearly 20 years, but in the last four years the company has redefined itself and grown tremendously.
Partners Ben Eggers, Travis Fahlen, Brian Dokter and Michael Probst run the firm, which was founded in 1996 in Big Rapids by Eggers, who had just graduated from Ferris State University.
Thinkbox relocated to Grand Rapids a decade ago and joined the city’s west side neighborhood three years ago. It recently moved from Front Street to the Widdicomb Building, 601 Fifth St. NW.
Dokter explained the company has evolved with its members’ talents.
“We got our start as a full-service agency based on the skill set that Travis had,” he said. “Travis and I got together about 10 years ago and I started doing some strategy and sales and account management, and he was doing all the design and development work.”
Dokter said Fahlen was getting involved in web and digital work just as West Michigan companies were starting to ask for more of those services.
“We grew for a couple of years and got to a place where the needs of our clients and potential clients became very digital, and exceeded, from a development standpoint, what Travis was able to keep his focus on … so we brought on our fourth partner, Michael Probst, who is our technical director, and he manages our development team.”
Probst brought enhanced web skills, an ability to create complex e-commerce sites and even a bit of software development.
In just the last year, Thinkbox Creative grew from six employees to 16, plus five interns.
“In the next two months, we will be hiring two more developers and a project manager,” Dokter said.
“Our move into our current space was out of necessity for our team, but also really focused on building an environment that fit us and our culture and gave us some place where we could serve our clients and do great things with and for them,” he said.
The new space provides the same open office concept the company had on Front Street, but with the addition of more private spaces when someone needs to do heads-down work or have a private conversation.
“We wanted something that had the same legitimacy as being downtown, but we didn’t want to be downtown. We wanted to be somewhere that was new and had character and history,” said Fahlen.
He said Grand Rapids’ west side offered the perfect fit.
“When we are creating brands for companies, authenticity is really important,” Dokter said. “I think that is really what pulled us to the west side. Thinkbox has been built on work ethic. We are younger. We are upstart do-it-yourselfers who appreciate the value of a dollar and what it takes to bring it to our clients. We have a client base that is hard-working local companies that don’t have money to toss around, and they need return on that.
“The more we’ve gotten into the west side culture in the last three years, with our previous office and now this one, it is a community that values work ethic and is willing to work early mornings and late nights and get the job done.”
Fahlen noted every member of the company has shown a tremendous level of commitment, usually starting as an intern or a part-timer before becoming a full-time member of the team.
“None of us has just stepped in and started working here; there has been a buy-in on both sides,” he said.
The company’s success also has come out of knowing what it is good at and not being afraid to evolve.
“Over time we’ve been really growing our digital team,” Dokter said. “Our ability to build websites has been a cornerstone of what’s created our growth.”
He said the company’s skill at branding is another cornerstone and noted how its website products grow out of this expertise. “Building logos and brand identities are key to who we are and how we build websites,” he said.
As the company moves ahead this year, it will focus particularly on digital marketing and helping clients utilize that arena to grow their businesses.
Dokter said Thinkbox has begun to shift from a product-based company to a marketing consulting-based company with a strong in-house support team, and he expects that will continue.
“We are moving more toward a service-style company,” he said, managing multiple things for clients on a monthly retainer basis, as opposed to building one-off products.
The company’s evolution means it is important to have teams in-house that understand each phase of a client project and can work directly with clients.
“We have our design team, development team and digital marketing team in-house,” Dokter said. “We are trying to create a culture and skill set that understands all the different angles of why people build things and need things from a marketing perspective, so that holistic approach can guide the solutions we are offering to our clients.”
While the future of marketing budgets will remain focused in the digital realm, particularly in the area of mobile, Dokter said he is seeing a resurgence in print marketing.
“The current trend now is to figure out how to combine (digital marketing) strategically with traditional outbound and print types of campaigns,” he said. “You’ve got that bi-focused trend going on with ad dollars.”
Dokter said even millennials are overwhelmed by all of the advertising coming at them online.
“People are starting to be overwhelmed and going back to more authentic experiences,” he said. “If you can get things in people’s hands, it feels more legitimate and authentic. It feels like a company is investing in an experience for you. Those tangible things are swinging back in importance.”
He said consumers do so much research ahead of time that marketing efforts must take that research process into account.
“Local companies have to understand that you have to have multiple pieces of an authentic campaign,” he said. “By the time people are contacting you, they’ve already made their decision. It’s less sales and more authentic having your brand speak for you.”