Tag Archives: spearia

Part 3: The Rise and Fall of Spearia – The Employees

Spearia.  If you have no idea what I am talking about please read this first before proceeding.

We have talked a lot about the company, Danny Beckett, and the filmmakers.  But what we haven’t focused on too much was Spearia’s employees.  Spearia being a web development company (though others may argue that they were event organizers) most of the employees were designers  and web developers.  At the company’s peak, 25 people were employed.  I was able to talk at length with one of these former employees who worked as a web developer.  But I also had many former employees comment on my first Spearia post who provided some great insight such as Pat Perry who left these comments:

“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.

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.”

I also received comments from Someone From Spearia who provided much more details on the cost of some of the events and also stated the following “What killed spearia was just bad business practices. Not willing to invest in the clients, bad estimates, bad contracts, etc.

I also received an email from a former employee who said “While I loved what I did there, I’m getting tired of us designers getting the blame for what happened.”

As I mentioned before I was able to interview a former web designer and developer from Spearia and below is a transcript of our conversation:

Whose ideas were all of these events?

“All of these events came from the top down.  I never quite understood the rationale (if there was one) behind the many events that we put on. I don’t like to think that it was all merely an ego trip, but sometimes I wonder.”

More Details on the Comstock event:
“I don’t know the financial details of Comstock, but I don’t think it was profitable. Some members of the team were always wary of a new, inexperienced company like ours putting on an event of that scale – especially with no main goal in mind other than to get our name out there.”

What was your personal take on the events?:
“I  usually didn’t want to do any of the events that Spearia held, and I stayed as far away from them as possible. I was more focused on doing my job.”

Why was Spearia looking for investors?
“I assume we needed cash.”

Why was the Indianapolis office opened? (note: per an email from Beckett, is office is still open and operational)
“I will never know. Most of the Spearia team was opposed to opening a new location; we had enough trouble hammering out our own processes without having to worry about keeping another location in check. It turns out that we never really interacted with the satellite office after it opened, which was unnerving and a huge concern for me. That decision never made sense to me.”

What was the purpose of all the vehicles?
“We had two cargo vans, three mopeds, and the RV. The official purpose of the vans were to be company vehicles for use in transporting cargo and people. For instance, we were allowed to borrow the vans in the event of car trouble, but I was never sure about the legal status of such use. The mopeds were for pleasure, and the RV was purchased strictly for Artprize (I believe).”

In your opinion what went wrong?
“Every company has it’s strengths and weaknesses, but I felt like things at Spearia were constantly improving and devolving at the same time. Anytime we started to gain traction and improve our workflow, something ridiculous and crippling would happen. That sort of environment isn’t enjoyable or sustainable.”

What were your thoughts on the video?  Was it accurate?
“Yes and no. I think it was an accurate depiction of Danny and how he operates, but I spotted many false statements that Danny made in the video. He mentions Spearia’s “initial purpose” of “growing the good in the world,” but I had never heard him say that before. He mentions our vision of “being this leading experience-based creative firm,” but this vision was not shared with the employees. When he first uttered this phrase in a meeting (earlier this year, I think), many of us groaned and disapproved. I won’t drill through each of the discrepancies, but you get the point. Also, every time Danny says “we” in the video, he usually means “I.””

Anything else you would like share?
“People usually know about Spearia because of our Free Lunch Fridays, the Comstock event, the Free Hugs event, and many other marketing events that Danny and the marketing team worked on. But underneath all of the noisy neon, crazy events, and brash slogans, there was a hard-working team of developers and designers, who really wanted nothing more than to create great things for the web. We weren’t interested in the glitz and glam lifestyle, but we also didn’t own the company and didn’t have much say in the extracurricular activities that went on. We constantly felt jilted and put to the side in favor of this month’s fun, new event. We got tired of feeling like this, so we left.
However, I don’t wish to put all of the blame on Danny for what happened to Spearia. We all share partial blame in how things went down, but we also all share pride in the great things that happened there. I worked with some truly amazing people, and I wouldn’t trade my experience there for anything. But at the end of the day, the culture at Spearia just wasn’t sustainable. It’s a shame, but it’s not a surprise.”

Of course you can always speculate what is going on behind closed doors but actually hearing first hand from former employees is pretty telling.  They paint a very interesting picture.  I find it fascinating that although a majority of the employees were designers and developers, it seems that not much input was solicited out of them (maybe they did but based on the comments above it doesn’t look that way).  Like would a Free Lunch Friday event with a live band affect your work environment or your deliverables.  Also admirable is the approach that my interviewee had that he doesn’t blame Danny for everything, because they all had a role in it.  All the employees seemed to echo that they enjoyed working for Spearia but just wish somethings were different (which is true for almost any job).

But I do have a request and a question for my readers.

My Request:  Please watch these Spearia videos below:

My Question:  What is your impression of these videos?  What were the employees thinking?  I will share mine in the comments.

For more insight into Spearia check out their YouTube and Vimeo channels.  Here is another video from Grand Rapids Business Journal , of Beckett giving a tour of building before Spearia moved in.  I find it fascinating that Free Lunch Friday idea as already developed.

Lastly, a special thanks for my interviewee (a former Spearia employee), and to all other former employees who commented as well.

This is Part 3 of the Spearia Tale.
Part 1: Spearia background & story
Part 2: The Filmmakers

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


Part 2: The Rise and Fall of Spearia – The Filmmakers

In researching the whole Spearia situation I  was able to interview Justin Vander Velde a senior at Grand Valley State University, who created Switching Gears, the Spearia film.

First off let me talk about the film for a little.  Justin is majoring in Cinema Video with an emphasis on documentaries.  In a documentary class Justin and his four other classmates:  Matt Dayton, Jake Dawson, and Andrea Wallace (yes only four, it was a small class I was told) had a whole semester to create a documentary.  The classmates batted around some ideas before settling on the interesting story of Danny Beckett, and Spearia.  The former motocross rider turned entrepreneur and founder of a web development company.  Justin was familiar with Beckett because they had worked on some projects together in the past.  Justin approached Beckett about the documentary idea and Beckett was all on board with the idea, and agreed to help the classmates with their project.

Justin had a pretty good idea of how the documentary would turn out …  a cool company, with a cool ex-motocross guy doing things their own way, with cool events, sponsorships, and activities..  They started filming in September, with Justin asking the questions, and the other students were helping out with filming and editing.  By Mid-November the students thought they had their film basically wrapped up after they completed filming the Halloween themed Free Lunch Friday.  But also during this time the students sensed for the first time that something was amiss with Spearia.  This happened when they were interviewing Jason Dodge outside of Spearia office when he mentioned he was no longer the Marketing Director, but rather he was now a Project Manager.  A week after that interaction Jason left the company.  Then as mentioned in the video the team could not get a hold of Beckett anymore.  As you could image with students who have a grade on the line, panic quickly set in.

Eventually the students received a tip about the For Lease Signs on the Spearia building.  After they drove to Comstock Park and filmed the empty building, the students were left at a crossroads on how to proceed.  They needed to complete their film, and turn it in for a grade.  On one hand they had the story they initially were trying to do – Fun company being successful doing their own thing, but obviously there was now more to the story.  Or they could keep on asking questions and hopefully get a answer about the For Lease Signs.

The students decided to try to get the full story, and were still trying to make contact with Beckett.  Finally they got a hold of Beckett, since Justin had a personal relationship with Beckett, he had a hard time asking the hard questions.  Luckily, Jake picked up the slack and was able to ask Beckett the difficult questions that needed to be answered.

The classmates were happy with the way the project turned out but they would have liked to have more time filming and being able to wrap up the story properly.  They ended up working on editing the video just hours before the final film was due to their professor.

As you could imagine Justin and his classmates received a lot of feedback on the video after they posted it to Vimeo.  Though  about a day after it was posted, the video was taking down.  Justin wanted to change some privacy settings to the video, and it was not in fact taken down because of Beckett or his actions (Justin just wanted this to be clear).  Justin had a difficult time with this project because as mentioned earlier he did have a personal relationship with Beckett, and as you could imagine it would be quite difficult to be in the middle of everything filming this company as it is unraveling.   He did not want to tarnish Beckett’s image since he did help them out with the film.  But he did hear back from Beckett after the final video, and Beckett relayed his congratulations to the filmmakers and was very proud of the way the video turned out, and was happy to help them out in their class. Through various Facebook postings the students also got feedback from former Spearia employees who were happy to see the whole story out there and thought for the most part that everything was accurately depicted.

Justin said he will have to make another film for next semester.  He is leaving the door open to perhaps follow Danny Beckett more closely in what happens to him after Spearia.  Per Justin, Danny is looking at becoming a public speaker or writing books.  So it will be quite interesting to see what comes out of this.

What Justin and his classmates were able to capture is amazing in my opinion, and I thought they did a great job on the video.  I have never met Danny, so I am not sure how open he is in general, but I would have to think that as the filmmaker, he had to have some role in either asking the right questions, making Danny feel at ease to discuss the company so candidly, or both.

On top of that I thought that the students did a great job handling the curveball they were throw.  As mentioned the students thought that they had the video wrapped up after that Halloween themed Free Lunch Friday.  Then you find out that something is up, i.e. finding investors, people leaving or getting new titles, the For Lease sign on the building.  So all of a sudden you have to go in a new direction with the story, because all that fun, cool, crazy stuff Spearia was doing just doesn’t quite fit in the story anymore.

So then going back through the footage and being able to piece together the rise, the pinnacle, some surface cracks of trouble, and finally the demise of the company was great.  I watched the movie numerous times, and at first I did not zero in on the whole interesting exchanges with Jason Dodge, and Kristen  (the woman employee) who talked about the challenges of working with an ideas person, and then catching the awkward exchange regarding Jeff’s new position at Spearia.  I had to re-watch that portion a couple of times to really get the magnitude of those exchanges and how they fit in the story.  Getting that shot of Danny alone on the deck was a very demonstrative shot, and just getting Danny to tell you in his own words about the end of the company, and them showing the shots of the for lease sign to reinforce to the viewer what Danny is saying.  So nice job Justin, Matt, Jake, and Andrea.

In case you were wondering Justin did receive an A in the class.

This is Part 2 of the Spearia Tale.
Part 1 can be found here.
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.

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.