Entrepreneur Q&A: ZeShan Malik, Co-founder and Creative Director of Melee Media.


Zeshan Malik. Photo Courtesy of Malik's Facebook. (Yes we had permission!)

A little business; a little creativity…. that is what we like here at Indefinite Transit. We sat down and talked to ZeShan Malik, a young entrepreneur (he is 25 years old! Impressive, no?), who started his own company this past summer. Malik – co-founder and Creative Director of Melee Media – describes his agency as being, “an ideation think-tank and an execution firm.” Basically, the Brooklyn, NY based company creates interactive and non-traditional advertising campaigns for clients who are looking for something new. Malik graduated from Gallatin in ’08 with a Degree Aesthetic philosophy and experiential advertising. We met with him in late September to talk about his newly founded company and his journey as a young entrepreneur under 30. December marks another monthly birthday for Melee Media, and while the company is still young, Malik says that it is continuing to “grow.”

We found what Malik said about starting a business to be very useful (after all, that is what Indefinite Transit is doing) and we thought other young – and more seasoned – entrepreneurs would too.

Read the full Q & A; Learn something.

1. What made you want to leave the comfort and security of your established job position and become a self-employed entrepreneur?

It became a pretty easy decision because I noticed that I had reached my ceiling, and the boss at my old company, even though he made promises to me and close friends that we would be elevated the company, it became clear that he was not interested in paying us what we were worth, but paying us by our age. Plus, on top of that, I thought the medium that we were working in was hot right now, so it became very easy decision to jump ship and do my own thing. Super, super easy.

2.What were some of the first steps you took in making the switch and starting Melee Media? (You once spoke to me of a To-Do list plan).

Before even a to do list plan, my first step…well, I knew that I wanted to have a business partner through this whole journey; to do things that I didn’t think I could do myself; [to do] things I didn’t want to do myself. I had this friend, Dale Kim, who I knew I wanted to work with. But before even a to-do list, the first step was that over the course of six to seven months [before starting the company], I trained him in all things about non-traditional marketing and media. We talked about how it was being used all over the world and how we could do it differently. I don’t want to use the word “training,” because I have learned so much over the course of these passed few months, but we just wanted to be as up to date as possible to do what we wanted to do. We needed to see if this was something that we could do together and be successful out. Then a To-Do list followed.

Partners Zeshan Malik and Dale Kim. Photo Courtesy of Malik's Facebook. (Yes we had permission!)

3. What did Dale have that you didn’t? (His partner)

Well, I have read enough about start-ups and a lot of different influential people that I have read in the past, some of them live by the idea that theychose a business partner, because if not you will always think you are right and you will be full of shit. Someone needs to tell you that you’re full of shit sometimes. And that is what a business partner kind of does. If you think you have a great idea, you maybe potentially lying to yourself – having a business partner is like looking into the mirror and seeing the truth. Whether it’s the true value of an idea, or reaching out to a client and saying ‘oh we have to pursue this person,’ or making a business decision of docking someone’s pay – it is always great to have a conversation and assume that you already have the right decision already in hand. That was a really big deal to me.

4. Did you consult with people before deciding to start the business? If so, who? What were their backgrounds?

Obviously you have to consult with your parents, because you know, they had certain aspirations for me. It was a big point for me to get them on board; and if they weren’t on board, I probably wouldn’t have done it. First was getting them on board with the idea, and my dad has his own business – he is a dentist – and it takes some know-how….it was really fun to talk to my dad about stuff other than just being sports, and stuff like that. We started to communicate on a different level and we are probably way closer than we have ever been.

So there was the dad and the mom, and besides that my mother also has a close friend who has started many companies in her career and she gave me a lot of advice. I probably haven’t followed any of the things she said, but having it all in the back of my mind – she was against my idea of having a business partner, but I think I am more of a collaborative person than she is, I think we are just different people.

So it was just really those three main people; my dad and my mom and the close family friend.

5. What was some of the best advice you got? Worst advice?

Well, as I just touched on…this idea that you can’t have a business partner, that you can’t be 50-50, I think that is BS. I think that some people are just made for it and others aren’t, but this notion that it’s impossible – it is complete BS. If you are a person that can take a breath in and not get agitated easily and have a bigger picture view on things, you are going to be able to succeed in a collaborative effort; in a corporation where you are 50-50

This idea that you need to have investors and a lot of start-up capital is definitely bogus – it pretty much depends on what medium you are going into, but for what I was doing. To this day people offer me a lot of money for a percentage of the company and I’ve kind of turned them all down, just because I don’t know the value of my company – we are like, two months old. So, if I sell 20% of my company for $75,000, that could be a really, really bad deal for me in two years. You do not need to sell off shares of your company to grow, at all, you can just do it a smart way.

Also, this notion that you can’t charge 50% up front is bogus – I do it all the time and I have cash flow coming in. Charging 50% up front is totally legit, I think.

6. What is different about starting a business today – is anything harder? Easier? If upfront capital, investors, etc, aren’t really requirements now, then what are? Is social media helping you at all?

Social media hasn’t helped us at all yet. I got to really start exploring that more, but that is really going to take some time. I need to create an infrastructure right now – that’s all I care about, right now.

But, yea, there is this one thing… When this recession hit – and this is more of answer to one of your earlier questions; saying you can’t start a business in a recession is also BS. It may even be the best time, because a lot of the competition went from being 30 person companies to 6 person companies in a matter of a year – legit competition. Whereas, I have no over-head. Me and my partner aren’t taking any money for a while; it literally all goes back into the company, so we have less overhead. We are making a pretty decent amount of money, so really there are just less worries. Whereas other companies have to clear $35,000-$40,000 just to break-even, with our math, we meed much less to break-even every month. Which is a completely different scenario. Whereas other companies are going down, we are rising because the situation was kind of perfect for that.

7. Was there a “blueprint” or path of starting a business that you more or less followed? How did you know how to start?

There was a blueprint, definitely. I haven’t thought about other businesses and how this applies, but I took a lot of notes while at my old company and I noticed that selling – I never thought I could be a salesman. I was this guy who didn’t shave, had long hair, the goofiest glasses and I didn’t really care about my image; maybe because I didn’t have to – or maybe I did, but I just wanted to be this funky guy. I never thought I could do sales, ever, but I did notice that my [ex] boss put so much emphasis on lining up meetings and hitting as many of them as humanly possible in every given week.  And once we started growing at the old company and we got a number of sales people, I remember him being very hard on them. He was like, ‘I need you to deliver eight meetings a week, or you are fired.’ So that was a hard line that he did and I started realizing how valuable – you know as a start-up company you need to take a lot of meetings. No one knows who you are and they will give you a chance, but you need to let them know who you are. Keep going out there. We went from three-weeks ago not having anything on the roster; and now we have like five executions under our belt.

In October, a lot of planning happens. For 2011, all the planning happens in October, just for every media company. That is what happens. So, any person that is going to give us business is going to do it in October. The $200,000, $300,000 campaigns are going to happen in October.

Blueprint I am following is sales, sales, sales. I am hitting up two meetings a day; doing everything our selves, or else [we] are not going to grow.

8. Is Melee Media doing something different to other advertising agencies? If so, what are those changes? If there are any, what prompted them?

We are definitely taking this route – that has not been necessarily fool proof – but we want deliver something new. We’d rather do something that has never been done before and that will never will be done again.

9. What are some of the things Melee Media is doing to get clients?

We have to set up a twitter and start following some of the biggest Ad people in the world, because once you start following them, they start following you. You get noticed…it might be easier to land a meeting, because at least they know who you are. It’s all about breaking the ice in some fun way.

Facebook was another step. Now we are ‘friending’ our clients on Facebook and it was like, ‘do I have to clean up my Facebook? Yes I do.’ It is not as transparent as it once was, but that is ok. We are very wanting to be open about who we are and be ourselves. Even in meetings. But this is working to our advantage. People just want to see real people. We have character and we are who we are in front of people.

10.  What are your biggest challenges now? Do you have Health Care?

We don’t have health care, but with Obama and the passing of this recent healthcare bill…. I am under my parents’ insurance, so is Dale, because we are under 26, but for a year we don’t have to think about that, at least.

Definitely one big challenge is staying on top of things and staying fresh.

Another big challenge is staying true to our company. I never want to go to work and be like, ‘why are we doing these lame things, this isn’t fun,’ so balancing this idea of having fun and doing something which we think is novel and at the same time making money and growing. You do have to sell yourself a little bit, but that balance is pretty tough.

Another bigger challenge is eventually Dale and I finding roles within the company once we start growing as a company. You know, I’ve seen a lot of people change…how success changes a person – that is a challenge.

You know, we are a start-up company, but there are also a lot of other start-up companies. A challenge is never getting too cocky and knowing that you know, when I start having employees and if I miss-treat them, they will go behind my back. So, it is learning from everything I have seen, doing the best possible job, and sticking to a plan. Not wavering from what we think is right – collaboratively. Not just what I think.

11.  Where are you succeeding?

Already with some of our campaigns that we have done, it is always a gamble. If you pitchout something to a client, you better be able to do it. There have already been some times where the client can’t afford a trial, so we have to do it right the first time, but up until now, every gamble we have taken has worked out.

And so, we have succeeded in that. We are pretty business savvy and we are being able to gage risk vs. reward pretty well right now, so that’s good.

Also, I think we are succeeding in making the office environment so awesome and friendly that we all love to come to work. It is an absolute blast every day.

In going with that idea, we are trying to build some kind of corporate culture and we are succeeding in that thus far and that is a big, big deal, because business is going to come, I am confident in that, lord willingly. A bigger emphasis may be, as business comes, how does the corporate culture stay the way it is, how does it get better? You should always be shooting for it to get better and better. So we are succeeding in that and making it better thus far. Treating your fellow colleagues well and going above and beyond.

Thoughts?

-A

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