Just about every business now has to figure out how to navigate the digital world, but companies whose purpose is to help clients do that face a related challenge that can be just as tricky.
Because it is so easy in technology to move from one thing to the next, to adopt the latest and greatest innovation, firms can struggle to set boundaries. Not every firm can be an Amazon or Alphabet, Google's parent, capable of spreading into seemingly endless fields.
"It's very easy to lose focus," said Brandon Steiger, president of 2120 Creative, a Chester Springs firm that describes itself as offering consulting, professional, and marketing services. "You have to be very almost scripted in your approach and say, this is who we serve, this is why we serve them, and then, lastly, what are the [client's] goals?" Steiger said.
The 2017 Philadelphia 100 list of fast-growing companies, a joint project of the Entrepreneurs' Forum of Greater Philadelphia and the Wharton Small Business Development Center, is full of companies facing similar boundary tests.
The Entrepreneurs' Forum, the Wharton center, and others launched the list in 1988 to highlight the impact of entrepreneurial companies on the region's economy and to develop business acumen locally by sharing success stories, according to the Entrepreneurs' Forum website.
Because the list is based on nominations by the companies themselves, the Wharton center, the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program, consultants, and public relations firms, it does not represent the region's economy or even capture all of its fastest-growing companies.
Nevertheless, the strong showing of technology firms in the list — from IT services to digital marketing to cloud computing — reflects strong growth areas for the U.S. economy and sectors in which Philadelphia aspires to greatness as it bids for Amazon's second headquarters.
To make the 2017 Philly 100, nominees had to have 2014 revenue, verified by a certified public accountant, of at least $125,000 and an increase in the most recent fiscal year. There were 256 nominations for the 2017 list. To attend the awards event, click here.
Making the cut were companies with revenues ranging from $253,000 to $324 million and full-time employee counts ranging from 1 to nearly 2,300. Aggregate revenue for the companies was $1.6 billion, up 87 percent from 2014. In all, they employed 9,041, up 59 percent from the base year.
Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties accounted for more than half the firms, with others from Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties in Pennsylvania; Burlington and Camden Counties in New Jersey; and New Castle County in Delaware.
One five-time Philly 100 member said there is an aspirational component to the list. "There have been some pretty big names that have come through the Philly 100 over the years," said David Rose, president and founder of Brio Solutions, a Fort Washington technology and software consulting firm.
Among the standouts is Epam Systems Inc., a Newtown software development firm that had $1.1 billion in revenue last year, up 59 percent from 2014, and publicly traded shares worth $4.7 billion in early October. It was on the Philly 100 list four times.
Rose, who is also copresident of the Entrepreneurs' Forum, said he is familiar with the struggle that technology companies can have defining and explaining what they do. The short version of what Brio does is "help businesses better use software and technology to grow fast," Rose said.
That mission leads Brio to cross into new industries and new systems. "As much opportunity as it opens up, being able to service any part of the business, it gives you trouble when trying to focus," Rose said.
In what was a common refrain, Rose said it was crucial to focus on the client's goals, rather than getting caught up in cool new technology. "That's risky for a business. You can't always implement the newest thing," Rose said.
Eastern Standard is a Center City branding, design, and technology agency with a quick answer to the question of boundaries. In the marketing world, Eastern draws the line at public relations and large-scale video production, even though it often needs those disciplines in its projects, said Jim Keller, Eastern's technology director.
The company is the product of the 2014 merger of Context, a web and application developer, and Tabula Creative, a branding agency. The merger paid an early dividend when Circuit Trails, a coalition of trail groups in the Philadelphia region, was seeking a website developer and a branding agency. Eastern got both jobs.
"They selected us because, they said, we were the only agency they felt was actually competent enough to create a branding campaign and to help to produce a website of the complexity that they were looking for," said Mark Gisi, Eastern's strategy director.
The ultimate leap over the boundaries of a digital-marketing firm was made by Michael O'Donnell, who started Medium Rare Industries, to sell his own products. The company sells grilling tools and accessories under the Cave Tools brand.
The impulse was to test his own skills, he said: "Am I a good marketer?"
Wil Reynolds, founder of Seer Interactive, a Northern Liberties digital marketing agency, found it easy to circumscribe Seer's role. "Our job is to understand, how do we, when somebody is looking for a solution to a problem, get in front of that customer with our client and help our client to have a great answer to that question," Reynolds said.
Seer's goal is excellence in that specialty. "Look at the changes in the last two weeks that Google has made to Gmail marketing, to search — paid, organic, the things Twitter and Facebook have changed. In the last two weeks, they've made so many changes that we have to keep our team focused on just that," Reynolds said.
Being the top firm in a category can be tough when you hear from clients something that highlights the tension between offering expansive services and trying to be the best at one thing.
Reynolds says in the voice of a potential client, "You might not even get the full value of all those number one [firms], if they are constantly banging into one another, trying to get all your attention, time, and money."