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Courtesy of Zak Dabbas

The Punchkick staff collaborates on projects across the open floor plan of the company's River North office.

Creative culture, savvy timing define Chicago marketing firm

by Paul Glavic
March 19, 2013

Paul Glavic/MEDILL

Punchkick co-founder Zak Dabbas talks about how the company entered the mobile marketing industry just before the iPhone boom.

Zak Dabbas feels lucky. Lucky that he didn’t end up becoming an attorney. Lucky to enjoy coming in to work each morning. And lucky to have carved a niché in the mobile marketing industry at the most felicitous time.

Now Dabbas — in tandem with Ryan Unger, his close friend and business co-founder — is doing everything he can to make sure the staff of 40 at Punchkick Interactive feels the same level of good fortune.

Punchkick is a River North-based mobile marketing firm that creates mobile messaging campaigns, websites, apps and branded video games for a client list that boasts the likes of Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp., Allstate Corp. and Harley Davidson Inc.

It’s a rapid ascension for a company that began in 2006 during the perfect storm of ennui and opportunity.

Dabbas was attending law school classes in Cleveland when he decided he wanted to reroute his future away from practicing law. His close friend Unger was also in Cleveland at the time, working for an advertising agency. The two had been building websites as a side project — “making weekend money,” Dabbas says — and decided to expand that venture.

Shortly after that decision, Unger attended the Adobe MAX conference, an annual design and development seminar. He returned back with a premonition that reads more like a prophecy.

“He came back and told me, ‘I really think mobile is the next big thing and I think we should get into it early,’” Dabbas says. “So we launched our website, got the initial materials together with no venture capital whatsoever, and I literally spent all of my time in law school, any free minute I had, setting up the agency in-house. Ryan did the same. And by the time I graduated in ’07, we had landed two big clients who are still clients of ours today and we were profitable — I didn’t have to work as an attorney; Ryan quit his day job.”

Dabbas and Unger set up Punchkick’s first office in the Warehouse District of Cleveland but moved the company to Chicago in 2010 in an effort to grow the business. The growth is expected to place Punchkick on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. in 2013, an elite list for businesses with at least $2 million in revenue during the previous year.

“We came to Chicago three years ago with three people and today we’re 40. So we’re doing it all ourselves,” Dabbas says. “We’re growing organically. And I think culture plays such a big role in our success, in shaping how we’ve been able to become this company that really works with some of the biggest and the best.”

Punchkick works with the biggest and best that Dabbas describes to not only create a mobile product but also to develop a tactical approach for communicating through mobile devices.

“We’ll have a brand come to us and say, ‘We don’t know what to do in the mobile space, and we haven’t had success with it,’” Dabbas says. “And what we’ll do is assemble a team that can go onsite, do discovery, learn about what makes a client tick, and make strategic recommendations about what they can be doing in the mobile space to move the needle — whether it’s on sales or customer engagement. And from there we’re able to execute those strategies in-house.”

The company recently completed an iPad app for Harley Davidson that allows customers to create personalized versions of Harley Davidson’s new 1200 Custom bike. Last year Punchkick developed a mobile recruiting site for Microsoft that allows users to receive job alerts and send applications to the software giant from their phones.

These projects and the feedback they receive from clients makes Dabbas proud of a team that he sees as so much more than a workforce.

“Family — I really think that’s the word I would use to describe it,” he says.

Dabbas and Unger work to curate an atmosphere that is both familial and creative at Punchkick. There are no corner offices for Punchkick’s founders. They join their team of designers, developers and sales people in the open floor plan of Punchkick’s white, minimalist River North home.

The office is also home to Brooklyn, the beagle Dabbas calls the office mascot.
“He comes into the office everyday, says hi to everyone and then he goes to sleep. He’s just a real calming force around the office,” Dabbas says. Brooklyn is just one more element to that familial vibe Dabbas and Unger want to craft for Punchkick.

“We have zero politics,” Dabbas says. “We’re a very horizontal company, so anybody can say anything they want to anyone they want. There’s no need for a filter and, in fact, being an authentic person is actually one of our core values. So we encourage people to be candid, to say what they think and to mean what they say.”

Punchkick employees have flexible schedules — they can start between 8 and 10 a.m. — and then the team kicks off its time together with a 30-minute “huddle” at 10 a.m. that is designed to unify as much as inform.

“We talk about everything — company updates, what projects are launching, new work we’re pursuing. And then we go around and everybody gives a little bit of good news going on in his or her life. So it could be something personal. It could be something work-related. It could be, ‘I just had pizza last night at a brand new restaurant and it was mind-blowing,’” Dabbas says.

Culture is so important at Punchkick that Dabbas and Unger make it a clear priority in the company’s recruitment process.

“We’ve always said that you hire for culture; we can train the rest,” Dabbas explains. “Our first interview is always culture. So we do a cultural interview and then we’ll have a candidate come back and take a skills assessment test.”

Dabbas invites Punchkick staff members to sit in on the interviews and help gauge a candidate’s cultural fit. He’ll make sure there are designers at a potential developer’s interview, or sales people at a potential designer’s interview. It’s all part of determining whether a candidate would sincerely enjoy working in a collaborative atmosphere.

Joseph Drambarean, Punchkick’s director of mobile strategy, says that his exposure to the Punchkick culture during his interview process solidified his desire to join the team.

“The moment that I stepped into my first interview with Punchkick, I knew that I had to be a part of it, even if it meant I’d be sweeping the floors,” Drambarean says. “This fanatic mentality — the will to be a part of something great — is a unifying theme that everyone shares in. Call it our Kool-Aid, mission statement, or whatever you will — it’s part of our DNA and it’s something that we start every day with as a team and take with us when we leave the office.”

In an economic milieu of a recession that has led to setbacks in pay and benefits for many workers, Dabbas and Unger are treating employees to what are, relatively speaking, lavish benefits. In addition to flexible hours and an office dog, Punchkick employees get 18 paid vacation days that roll over from year to year, half-day Fridays in the summer, and long-term disability and life insurance at their employer’s expense.

Dabbas knows that these benefits and incentives help to attract top talent, but his motivation for creating so many perks for Punchkick employees comes back to his notion of family.

“There’s all these really cool things that we do. But at the end of the day, you can’t fake love, and Ryan and I care so, so deeply about everybody that we hire and we really get close with them — I mean, we go to dinner together, we do brunch on the weekends,” Dabbas says. “We’ve tried to foster this feeling of family, where our team knows that we care so much about them, and that as we grow and as our revenue climbs, their salaries will climb, the benefits will get better. And I think that they see that and they genuinely believe it, and in turn they deliver to us the best work they can.”

Drambarean agrees that the company’s atmosphere is fueling a more creative set of ideas and inventions.

“Punchkick’s mission is to create a place where people can become better versions of themselves,” he says. “It sounds like a cliché, but the reality is that, even though our clients are important, if we’re not happy, our clients won’t be happy.”

Jessica Lee, the director of digital talent strategy for Marriott International Inc., can vouch for Drambarean’s theory that happy employees translate to satisfied clients. Marriott has been a long-term client of Punchkick’s. One of the companies’ recent collaborations was a mobile careers site for Marriott International and a separately branded site for Marriott subsidiary Ritz Carlton. Lee believes Marriott has benefitted from the synergy shared by Punchkick employees.

“One of the things I observed about them is that they seem to like each other,” Lee says. “It’s evident in terms of how cohesive they are in regard to communication.”

Lee says she’s even teased some of Punchkick members about the camaraderie they share beyond the confines of the office.

“I follow some of them on Instagram and they’re hanging on the weekends and outside of work,” she says.

Erin Gallagher, a professor of speech communication at Oregon State University, has done extensive research about the tradeoffs that come with developing strong friendships in the workplace. She sees many advantages to the culture embraced by companies such as Punchkick.

“Close friendships in the workplace have several benefits such as increased social support, more information sharing and collaboration on tasks, and higher satisfaction and motivation levels,” Gallagher says. “All of these benefits tend to increase employees’ commitment to the organization, which means they will have a higher tendency to stay rather than pursue other job options.”

She warns that the same affinity that can benefit a workplace can also harm it if not carefully maintained.

“Friendships that aren’t maintained well may begin to deteriorate or even escalate to a level that feels inappropriate for the workplace, which can be stressful and distracting — two factors that decrease work productivity,” Gallagher says. “Simply recognizing that it can be difficult to maintain the work-personal boundary can be helpful because employees will realize that friendships do fluctuate and it may require some effort to maintain a positive and productive work environment.”

The emphasis on culture at Punchkick is what one might expect to find in cities such as Austin, Boulder or Seattle that are known for their casual and heterodox startups. In Chicago — a city that does produce its share of startups yet is not exactly known for its relaxed work environments — are potential employees tripping over themselves to work in the environment Punchkick has created?

Dabbas modestly affirms the notion.

“I like to stay humble, but I will say yes. The answer is yes. When we interview candidates, they just love it here. Our team loves it here,” he says.

Michaela Morris, Punchkick’s director of sales, knows that Dabbas’ exuberance could come across as an oversell but she insists that the benefits and incentives that Dabbas and Unger offer the team really do make the Punchkick story as much about family as it is about mobile marketing.

“It almost sounds too good to be true, but I promise you it is,” Morris exclaims. “I can't imagine ever leaving Punchkick — anywhere else would just feel like settling.”