Mike Spakowski – Founder of Atomicdust

The secret to making ideas come to life is having the discipline to do it. Discipline is the hardest part.

More than 14 years after founding Atomicdust, a marketing and design agency, Mike Spakowski is actively involved in day-to-day brand strategy, art direction, and studio management.

Since 2001, Atomicdust has helped clients in the healthcare, nonprofit, professional services, and food and beverage realms make bold statements in conservative industries through brand identity, design, and user experience.

As creative director, Mike strives for design excellence and sets the tone for Atomicdust’s work. Organizations like Fast Company, Communication Arts, The One Club, AIGA, Identity Designed, The Dieline, and the American Advertising Federation have recognized Atomicdust’s projects. The company’s clients include Elsevier B.V., Premise Health, Boss Manufacturing, Reebok, Warson Brands, Propper, Klogs, Better Life, Stratos, and PGAV Destinations.

Mike has dedicated himself to empowering the St. Louis design community and building its reputation across the country and the globe. By creating ongoing speaking engagements such as “Things We’ve Learned” and “Bright & Early,” Mike is opening up conversations within the industry — and among competitors — to elevate the profession as a whole.

Mike also sits on the board of AIGA’s St. Louis chapter, serving as the Design Week chair. St. Louis Design Week 2014 featured more than 45 multidisciplinary design-related events throughout the area and attracted more than 1,400 attendees. HOW Magazine also featured it as a Design Week to watch.

Where did the idea for Atomicdust come from?

Atomicdust is a design agency that started in 1997 as the result of me and a group of friends trying to see how far we could push the Internet. The idea of turning it into a business was really just a reaction to the popularity of the web.

At the time, not many people knew what the web was, especially more traditional design agencies in St. Louis. We felt like we were the only ones in our area designing for the web, so we had to create our jobs. The agency we wanted to work for didn’t exist, so we had to build it.

As we’ve grown our business (and ourselves), we’ve added services and matured into a marketing agency that helps companies with identity, marketing strategy, and execution. But what hasn’t changed is the spirit of throwing ourselves into projects and pushing for the best work we can create.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

Most of my days start early with some combination of reading and writing. When I get to the office, I usually spend my time in a whirlwind of new business meetings, project kickoffs, and creative reviews. I also squeeze in time for AIGA St. Louis and planning St. Louis Design Week. When I leave the office, my time is split between Little League baseball games and bedtime stories for my three sons.

Even though it means getting out of bed before the sun rises, carving out an hour a day to be alone and think makes my days feel incredibly productive. Coffee doesn’t hurt, either.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Some ideas are easier to bring to life than others. I live in a world of visual design where big, new ideas need to happen at least a couple times a day. I’m lucky enough to work with a team of people who love the process of coming up with ideas. Most of our ideas are born through collaboration, which is a nice word for arguing.

The secret to making ideas come to life is having the discipline to do it. Discipline is the hardest part.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m still excited about the web in general and what it means for communication. We have these great tools and systems available that can turn any brand (or person) into a publisher. The web is the great equalizer. Everyone now has the chance to be heard, and it’s exciting for me to see how people are using it to succeed. Some of today’s most successful people likely wouldn’t have been heard if they’d had to rely on traditional communication tools.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Reading, writing, and constantly learning and applying.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I once worked at an IT help desk doing tech and network support. I wore a suit every day (even though no one saw me) and sat in a maze of cubicles. Management would remind us that if we were more than five minutes late twice a week, we were fired. We had 30 minutes for lunch.

I didn’t last long there. Not because I was late — I just took a new position. But the saddest part was that some people worked there for years. That’s all they knew a job could be.

I learned that you only get one life, and if you have the choice, you shouldn’t waste your time at a place where you feel threatened or where you don’t have the ability to express yourself. It sounds morbid, but for me, that’s the fastest way to the grave.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Have more confidence in myself. Whenever you start something, especially when you’re young in a creative industry, you tend to think that you don’t know as much as you should. You have this cloud hanging over your head and fear everyone will discover you don’t really know what you’re doing. As you gain more experience, you start to see that no one really knows what he or she is doing. Making things happen starts with simply declaring that you’re the person with the solution. After years of saying you have the solution to a problem, you tend to believe it yourself.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Seek out new experiences, and learn as much as you can. Inspiration and ideas can come from anywhere, and it’s important to actively look for them. Some people find them through networking groups, mentors, or books. However you find them, diverse perspectives will help you think about your situation in new ways.

I also recommend writing. It’s painful, and no one wants to do it, but it prepares and organizes your thoughts. It also makes you look like you know what you’re talking about.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

At Atomicdust, our business plan is pretty simple: We try to do the best work we can and tell as many people about it as possible. Using our website and social media platforms as publishing systems for our culture was probably the greatest thing we did for promotion and growth. We try to publish our latest projects and helpful advice for clients several times a week. It’s a simple approach, but it takes discipline to make it happen.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

In new business meetings, I find I get too wrapped up in wanting to fix a client’s situation. In my head, it’s so clear how to solve the problem, and I just want to get started, so I disregard the small budget or the tight timeline. This has caused me to leave money on the table many times, and I’m thankful to work with people who can ground me and protect the business side of things. What makes someone a good designer can also make him or her a bad businessperson. I haven’t overcome this, and I’m not sure I want to. I fear my work will suffer if I stop being design-focused.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I think there’s huge potential for managing people’s digital assets when they die. How will they hand down digital pictures to their relatives? What happens to every digital purchase they’ve ever made? There should be some kind of service that will catalog assets and serve as a vault for families.

I would also say a delivery service that cooks fried chicken in your driveway in the back of a grease-filled El Camino. Both ideas have merit.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I recently bought an Amazon Echo for my house. My family is really into music, but pairing and unpairing our Bluetooth devices is always a pain. It’s pretty cool to just say, “Play whatever,” and have it happen. And my kids like asking it for jokes.

I love the idea of the Internet in appliances and connected devices. Combine that with a successful company like Amazon experimenting with “hobby” side projects like the Echo, and I’m hooked. It’s pushing the boundaries, and I like the spirit and philosophy of the whole thing.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

As an organization, we primarily use Adobe products and Basecamp for project management. In mid-2014, our design team started to migrate over to Sketch for UX and web design. There was a bit of a learning curve at first, but our team is pretty happy with it.

I used to think that choosing the right software could help shape better project management at our agency. But at the end of the day, you must have dedicated people. You need a culture that’s compatible with the tools — or the tools will be useless.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Last summer, I read “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield (not to be confused with “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu). It offers a great perspective on overcoming resistance, which only keeps you from doing your work and accomplishing your goals. Discipline is the way to break through.

I also like to re-read Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon and Marty Neumeier’s Zag every couple of months.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

There are so many people who have influenced my thinking over the years, including Hillman Curtis, Stefan Sagmeister, Blair Enns, Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Debbie Millman, Marty Neumeier, Austin Kleon, Charles Eames, Seth Godin, Frank Lloyd Wright, Austin Howe, and Bill Cahan. It’s a manic list that bridges business and design.


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Mike on Twitter: @mspako
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