The founder and leader of No Limit Agency talks to 1851 about his past, present and future as an entrepreneur.
Nick Powills, 34, takes the term CEO seriously. It’s a title he said must be earned every single day, and he recently spoke to 1851 about how he does just that. As the founder and leader of Chicago-based public relations firm No Limit Agency, Powills is focused on not just getting results for his company’s impressive roster of clients, but cultivating an environment where employees can thrive along with the brands they represent.
How did you end up in your current role?
I promoted myself into the role (laughs).
I’ve always been entrepreneurial, I always wanted to own some sort of business. When I was young, I ran carnivals during block parties. I once threw my parents’ change bowl out a window and charged people a dollar to grab as much change as they could carry from the backyard.
At some point in high school I decided I wanted to be a writer – a journalist. I had always written things. I went down the path of writing, but in the back of my head I was always thinking, “How can I connect the writing to a business?”
I created a music magazine called Lumino in the summer of 2000. I was working at a daily newspaper in Chicago. At that point I wasn’t very good at business. With the magazine it was challenging to find what the revenue stream could ultimately be. The cash wasn’t coming in. I took a job in PR, thinking if I work for corporate America, maybe I’ll find a way to make the magazine successful. It being 2007 by this point, there was no way a print magazine was going to take off.
I proposed two business concepts to my PR employer, both of which he rejected . One of them was an online magazine, which is what 1851 eventually became, and social media, which he said was a fad. I went off on my own, quit a job, broke up with a girlfriend and moved across the country to get No Limit started.
Funny thing is, about five minutes before I met my future wife, I also saw my previous employer for the first time after I quit. I had the most stressful moment and the most successful moment of my life within five minutes of each other.
What have been the biggest challenges you've faced?
People, no question. It’s very challenging to lead people.
A marriage is challenging because you’re trying to get one person to walk in the same direction as you, and vice versa. It’s not easy – look at the divorce rate. Now try expanding that to three people and five people and 10 people and where we’re at today all trying to move in a unified direction that is not just good for the business but is good for the lives of the people working here. It’s not always easy.
What has been the most important lesson you've learned?
The smartest move I’ve ever made is bringing in our vice president. She looks at people more strategically. I was always about hiring sunshine and then focusing on tactics, so we had a lot of nice people, but maybe not the best business people. Our VP adjusted the way we hired to get better people in our system.
People are our greatest asset, but they can be our biggest weakness if leadership fails to lead properly.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
The benefit of the category that we serve – franchising – is there are a lot of entrepreneurs. People who work at our agency are able to say they communicate and interact with CEOs of major companies on a daily basis without any barriers. Those have been my mentors - our clients. While I’m trying to create solutions for their businesses, I’m also wondering how those same issues could affect our business. There have definitely been people who have made a huge impact on me since I started No Limit, but it’s really a combination of little stories that help mentor me on a daily basis.
What do you most want to accomplish?
I look at the greatest businesses that ever existed and one common piece is that at some point, early on, it was not about money, it was about success. Success naturally brings money, but for the first three years of No Limit, I took a salary of $40,000 a year to put the rest of the funds in reserve to protect the business. I’ve never looked at that reserve and said, “That’s money I have access to.” It’s our success fund.
I don’t know what the agency will look like in five years – no one can predict it. I’m much more guarded about the future. I want to take steps toward becoming the best midsized agency that ever existed. Could we be the best large agency that ever existed? Sure, but let’s not skip over the steps.
Our clients could never go anywhere else to get better service and results, and that means we win. That’s success. And as it continues, everyone who’s committed to that process here gets to be taken care of.
What has been the accomplishment you’re most proud of so far?
We had Checkers and Philly Pretzel Factory on “Undercover Boss” in quick succession – that was both the hardest and most rewarding experience of my career. Checking every box up to seeing one of our clients get essentially an hour-long commercial on national TV? To be a small agency booking those - it was huge. The relationship we’ve had with “Fox and Friends” has also been big.
Those were defining from a media standpoint. From a people standpoint, the staff that we currently have is pretty amazing. Realistically, it won’t be the same staff a year from now – life just doesn’t work that way. But it’s so rewarding when things are clicking and processes are being followed.
Also, moving into the Prudential building is a signature next step. It’s a building I used to stare at from Grant Park every year on July 3 for the fireworks that now somehow we’re going to be in it. It’s pretty surreal.
What would your advice be to the next generation of young men and women hoping to make their mark on the business world?
If you’re going to go into business for yourself, understand it’s not black and white. No business books prepare you for being on your own – it is scary, it is risky. Everything everyone says is true. It takes a special scenario of everything aligning for it to work. But if you believe in yourself and in what is possible, it can come to fruition.
If you want to move up in the business world, move up. Don’t try selling that you’re doing a great job, actually do it. Walking the talk is how you move up.
I’ve seen it my entire career - people thinking they do more than they do. But if you walk the talk, no one can ever question what you’ve contributed to the business.
When I started No Limit, as much as I wanted to think I was a CEO, I wasn’t. In title I was, but I didn’t have enough experience to earn that title. I earned the right to be an entrepreneur.
Of course, I’m 34. I think someone who’s 60 is still earning the right to call themselves CEO. You have to earn it every single day. That’s the most stressful thing about staying at the top – you have to bust your ass to be successful and ensure the people underneath you are taken care of as well.