The Rise and Fall of Spearia


Part 1

Never have I seen a company just come out of nowhere and have such a far reaching presence in such a short period of time like SpeariaSpearia was founded by Danny Beckett Jr. in 2007 in Belmont as a web & marketing development company.  The company at its height employed about 15 professionals in a variety of positions, and produced over a hundred website projects for their clients.  In September 2009 Spearia moved into a two-floor, 8,000-square-foot facility at 2934 West River Drive NE in Comstock Park, which they renovated for $500,000.

Just by announcing this move along Spearia started to get a load of press from local media. And this trend only continued when they announced Comstock 09, an event Spearia created to help celebrate their new office.  So what was Comstock 09?  Here is a list:

  • Two professional motocross shows
  • Music – free performances by Delilah DeWylde and the Lost Boys, The Concussions, Nobody’s Business and Funktion
  • Hot dog eating contest
  • A wide variety of free children’s activities in Dwight Lydell Park.  Kids can bring their own bikes and ride behind the professional motocross bikers from Fifth Third Ballpark down White Pine Trail to the park
  • Water balloon fight
  • Face-painting
  • Moon walk
  • Special appearances by Miss Michigan and the Whitecaps’ mascot, Crash
  • Food vendors and a beer tent

So all this sounds extremely cool, but once again Spearia was spending money.  According to this article Beckett was putting $50,000 of his own money into the event, and was also hunting for sponsors to help defray the costs of such a massive event.  In fact after the event I began hearing rumors of vendors who helped with the event were not paid for the services they provided to Spearia.  Of course rumors are rumors but looking at the tale events unfold in the past year it looks like there might be some truth to the rumors (more of that to come).

But since Comstock 09, Spearia just pushed on ahead with even more events, sponsorships and just general spending money.  For example – the Spearia team has (or had) a fleet of vehicles at their disposal like:

All these vehicles could not be cheap and maintaining the vehicles as well could be costly.

But there is even more. Did you know that Spearia also was a part of the following:

I understand that community involvement is really important for a company, and building a brand through this could be a huge benefit.  But I would love to find out how effective these campaigns/sponsorships really were.  What was the Return On Investment (ROI) with all these activities and did they bring in any new business?  How much money was spent on these events, that could have been used to reinvest in the company (new resources, new employees)?  How far did some of these activities stretch away from their core business.  Why on earth would a marketing and web development company decide to purchase an RV retrofit it, and do a custom painting on the outside, and then go drive people around ArtPrize?  How does this make sense (they even served pizza and drinks and had a magician on board)?  Granted they did charge $15 per ticket and the proceeds were donated to WMCAT, but still wouldn’t your time, money and resources do much better if they were invested elsewhere?

So where is Spearia now?  Well look at their twitter account – not active since December 10th, 2010.  Look at their facebook account – not active since December 10th as well.  What exactly happened?

Watch the video below from Justin Vander Velde…it answers a lot of questions.
Switching Gears
from Justin Vander Velde on Vimeo. (Make sure you watch that video!)

Justin Vander Velde, a GVSU student along with his classmates Matt Dayton, Jake Dawson, and Andrea Wallace were doing a documentary on Spearia, and founder Danny Beckett,  for a class project.   The students were able to capture a captivating tale of the company,  through some interesting thoughts from Danny Beckett.  For me the video really got interesting at 5:27 mark, when they were speaking with Spearia employees about some of the challenges in working with an “Ideas” person, most likely alluding to Beckett.  Both employees phrased it well but seemed to imply that the company had little focus and was always jumping from one thing to another without much thought or analysis on how this would affect the business.   Jason Dodge, Project Manager, also caught the Justin off guard when he stated that he was no longer the Marketing Director, and that lead to a awkward exchange, which only makes you question what happened.  Then at the 6:45 mark, Beckett starts explaining that perhaps they did too much and that some of their events were “too huge”, and needed to be “more focused”, they “weren’t prepared” and had “lack of planning”.  They were “focused on the fun”, and in the end “relationships got broken” and “a lot of people we own money too.”  All these comments were related to the first event of Comstock 09.  If this was the case, then why did the company continue throwing all these other events?  The video also details that the directors lost touch with Beckett and only heard back from him 3 weeks later, and also noted in the film that Jason Dodge ended up leaving the company. Afterwards Justin and his classmates drove by the Spearia headquarters on West River Drive and filmed the empty building with a For Lease sign from DAR Development in the front window.  Also exposed during the video was that Spearia was looking for investors but ultimately the deal they had in place fell through.  Lastly, the filmmakers were able to contact Beckett and he basically stated that the company as it was known was no longer there, and he talks about his original vision and how it was just not the right vision.  I am still in shock about how honest and forthcoming Beckett was in regards to his business, and how aware he seemed of the company’s mistakes and shortcomings.  But just as baffling is why similar mistakes (in the form of extravagant events) kept on happening.

Per Beckett, Spearia’s vision was to be a “leading experience based creative firm” and he later stated that was a “false vision.”  Now I am not sure if it was a false vision, because being a “leading experience based creative firm” sounds like a great goal, but it just seems that the approach to get to that vision was flawed.  Focus on your product and your service, instead of worrying about making a big splash or being the company that everyone thinks is “cool” or that has a fleet of vehicles for tooling around town with.  Just focus on what you do, and do it well.  But the whole thing about owing people money and breaking relationships that part is not cool at all.  You have to pay who ever you do business with, vendors, banks, partners, whoever and by not doing so is one of the quickest and easiest ways to break relationships.  I can’t help but wonder if this story would have been different if Spearia used all their time, money, and resources on their company instead of “events” and community outreach.  Maybe all these extra activities soon became a weight to great to bear for Spearia.

Oh and I guess this did not help the whole Spearia money situation either – Someone hacking into their phone system and racking up over $20,000 in charges.

It’s just kind of a shame that West Michigan lost another company.  I am sure that Spearia employed lots of hardworking people who did their jobs well, but ultimately it looks like a multitude of decisions may have lead the company to unravel.

So did anyone work with or worked at Spearia?  How about go to the Free Lunch Fridays or any of their other events?  What are your thoughts?  What happened?

This is Part 1.
Part 2 – With insights from the filmmaker Justin Vander Velde is now posted.
I will have one more follow-up post with some insights from a former employee of Spearia.

For more reading and discussion on Spearia check out Urban Planet message board and the mlive – GR Press article on Danny Beckett.

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17 responses to “The Rise and Fall of Spearia

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Rise and Fall of Spearia | West Michigan Business Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. My name’s Pat Perry. I was hired at Spearia in July of 2009 as a paid intern, and worked there until April 2010. Although my focus is more art/illustration, I was excited to get a job interning at a design firm, especially since I had just graduated high school.

    When this article speaks of too much focus on big splashy events, and not enough focus on the product, this is the truth. However, most designers and developers (The people who actually built the websites) were very talented and focused workers. While Danny went and promoted his community events, many just rolled their eyes, and kept on working on the website project they had been assigned to. During Free Lunch Fridays, many of us would escape to the private meeting rooms and close the door where we could keep working. Several of the employees at Spearia became annoyed with the “stunts” that their higher ups were pulling, which eventually led some of Spearia’s most talented and important designers and developers to find work elsewhere. One by one, the whole design team that I had worked with quit and found work elsewhere. Many developers left also. Its funny to read the critiques that this article points out, because they are echos of things many people on the team had been stressing for months. More work, more focus, less goofy stuff.

    Unfortunately, the members of the Spearia team that were the most focused and passionate about the web, were not the ones in charge. So they left, and not to my surprise, they easily found new jobs designing, developing, and getting excited about the websites in other more productive environments. As for me, I left in the Spring to pursue what I had wanting to do from the beginning; making art and doing freelance illustration. Its going great, and I am thankful that Spearia gave me the chance to come watch, and work with some really talented designers. I often see many of the designers and developers that I worked under at Spearia, and it delights me to see their successes in other companies around Grand Rapids.

    • Hi Pat,

      Thanks for sharing, and giving everyone a more inside look how things worked at Spearia. I could only imagine that for the designers and developers having often “events” could be quite the hassle especially considering deadlines and customer demands, and if you do have billable hours. It employees avoided events, did others take issue with that?

      By the way I did enjoy your artwork on the RV for ArtPrize. That was pretty cool.

  3. Oh my – I’m in the video at minute 7. Someone caught me on tape wearing a suit! – Halloween is the only time, people. Well, that and a funeral.

    Good bye Spearia. I am sorry to see any business fail in West Michigan. Danny does list some things to watch out for when you start a business, like planning for growth and having the correct focus. I think this article and video are a good lesson for entrepreneurs.

  4. This is an interesting article, really, quite sad. Danny seems to be a genuine guy. Does anyone know if the company left a load of debt in its wake? Were any clients mishandled in the deal (ie. paid but didn’t get a website).

    I know there were a lot of vehicles, stunts, new digs, etc. but wondering if this money came from Danny, or at the cost of others in the business community.

    I see the article is titled “Part 1”, is there more to come?

    -JP

    • Thanks for the comments Joe. I have not heard anything about unfinished projects, but I would imagine that that could be a possibility.

      Many of the articles I read mentioned either that Danny used his own money, but it was not exactly clear in all the stories.

      I do plan on doing a follow-up post as well with insight from the filmmaker and also from a former employee.

  5. Can’t believe nobody has said it yet:

    There’s no such thing as a free lunch!

  6. Someone From Spearia

    Sorry for going annon.

    I’ll give some facts and figures for your questions.

    The free lunch fridays cost spearia about $200 for each event. We, for the most part, made that cost up in new clients, or at least leads. This started to disappear towards the end though and for the last 6 months each free lunch friday was sponsored by someone else. An example, Meijer donated $500 for the last free lunch friday. Not sure why or how.

    The social events (downtown turkey throw-down, easter egg hunt, free hugs, etc) cost spearia nothing but the time that danny and the volunteers put in. Monetarily-wise, can’t say. All of these events were also sponsored.

    The Park(ing) day cost speaira less the $200 for the spots and grass, around $100 for food, and some time. We gained a lot of sales leads from it.

    I can’t speak for everything; but what made spearia go out of business doesn’t have much to do with those events. Those were actually very good ROI’s for how little they cost. What killed spearia was just bad business practices. Not willing to invest in the clients, bad estimates, bad contracts, etc.

    • No worries about the annon, but thanks for shedding some light on the true costs of some of these events. Do you have any details on the cost of the Comstock event?

      • Someone Formally From Spearia

        No numbers, other then a lot.

        What you have in your article goes about as far as I know. It was supposed to be a small party to celebrate our new office, but in normal danny fashion, it grew out of control.

  7. It does make me wonder if a good old fashioned “feet on the street” sales team and some traditional advertising on tried and tested media (radio, TV print) may have brought real business to this company, rather than relying on publicity stunts, events, social media and gimmicks. I continue to believe it will take a blend of both old and new media, young and old people, and traditional and new marketing methods to make any company successful in the future.

  8. Never in my life had I ever felt so old as when I called on Danny. When he told me that he had built his company solely on relationships and social media I felt like a dinosaur, as we are the diametric opposite in that we support well defined sales cycles and “block & tackle” marketing that delivers ROI (and questioning the vailidity of social media in lead gen http://www.thebyersgroupllc.com/Newsletter-1.html).

    Thus, I cut the meeting short saying I couldn’t help him if that was his model, wishing him well but continued to follow Speria in wonder. The “old school” principles of substance & style have proven true (and if there is a choice, substance over style) with Speria. I would have felt better about it if he would have substitued “I” instead of “We” more often in the video as it looks like the employees all saw it coming as the deck chairs were repeatedly being rearranged on the Titanic.

  9. This is somewhat surprising news, but only because I knew of them peripherally and all I heard was of their greatness through local press and local social media.

    I never attended any of their events, but they do sound fun. Unfortunately, it sounds an awful lot like a rehash of the dot com bubble of the late 90’s. Spend a lot of money doing cool things and the business will just come knocking. No real emphasis on ROI. I could be wrong, but that’s what I’m gathering from this post.

    I remember back when I was in business school about a decade ago, during the height of the dot com boom, that several of my professors were saying “The old rules don’t apply anymore! It’s a new economy!” And this was at an upper tier program! Well, six months later it all came crashing down. Seems like this mindset was adopted by the Spearia heads. The old rule of, “If you spend a dollar, you should be sure to get more than that dollar back” still applies.

    I applaud the cool things they did in Grand Rapids. I think it’s great for the local community. However, it seems that their core competency and business intent was in web design, not event production.

  10. I cannot speak for others, but I am well acquainted with a former client of Spearia’s who paid several thousand dollars for web design and received a hopelessly defective product. Again, it would not be appropriate for me to name names or speculate on motive, but I do know that when approached with the complaint, Spearia was not at all cooperative, refusing to either refund the client’s payment or fix the non-functioning website. My acquaintance has since hired another web designer and launched a successful business, but not without losing several thousand dollars to a company that unbelievably prides itself on the strength of its relationships. Given the above accounts, it appears the handwriting was on the wall all along.

  11. Pingback: Part 2: The Rise and Fall of Spearia – The Filmmakers | West Michigan Business Blog

  12. Pingback: Part 3: The Rise and Fall of Spearia – The Employees | West Michigan Business Blog

  13. Pingback: Creating for a Greater Good | West Michigan Business Blog

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