by Lon Wagner
photography by Keith Lanpher
Let’s start by stereotyping the heck out of a CEO. Yes, stereotypes are unfair, but play along – just so we can take that stereotype and snuff it out the way a Hollywood movie CEO takes a swig of his Dalmore malt reserve scotch and snuffs out the nub of his Cohiba Behike cigar.
Don’t take it from us. Google “CEO.” Click “images.” Swim in the C-suite of dark suit jackets, starchy white shirts, and ties. If not for Steve Jobs and “CEO Barbie,” it’d be unanimous.
Now close that browser and meet Drew Ungvarsky. Founder of Grow Interactive, a downtown Norfolk – … computers, design, interactive, digital experience … “interactive studio,” they call themselves. To get specific, Grow makes really cool stuff happen when you click on the right place on your computer or phone.
The little firm operating out of a historically restored storefront on Granby Street has done sites for some corporate titans you might have heard of: Sprint, BF Goodrich, Google Labs, FedEx, Gillette, Toyota, HP, Intel, JCPenney, Nike, NBC and, now, HBO.
And here’s Ungvarsky, CEO: 31 years old. Plaid shirt – but not your dad’s plaid. Untucked. Sleeves rolled up. Jeans. Gray sneakers. Dark shortish hair and only-slightly trimmed dark beard.
Just to clarify, when he goes to Big City, USA, to pitch Grow’s work to NYSE Traded Company Incorporated, this is the look they get?
“I bought a blazer earlier this year,” he relents, “so I have stepped up to that level of commitment to my … presence.”
Ungvarsky got a warning that we might cast him against a prototypical CEO, but he apparently didn’t prep much.
“I tried to think of some things that would make me a nonstandard CEO,”
he says, smiling. “I should have made some notes.”
A real CEO would have. A real CEO would have had his staff develop a PowerPoint presentation, predict a writer’s questions, and formulate some talking points.
But really, the best way to see how nontraditionally Ungvarsky operates is to have him narrate a tour of the Grow Interactive offices.
The first thing you notice upon walking in are the bikes hanging on the wall: painted in simple colors, no brand names visible, just sky blue, gray, beige.
Office bikes, Ungvarsky explains. They are for employees to grab off the wall and take around the city and “enjoy the fact that we’re downtown.”
The building has been exquisitely restored, with the brick structure exposed and tin ceilings revived. Deeper into the first floor, there’s a wall of shelves with books, magazines and skill development guides. Any employee who wants any material that could extend that person’s skills – the company buys it.
Every employee can choose one conference each year to attend – on the house.
Just past the books, in the middle of the room, is a pingpong table. After all, on the careers section of Grow’s website, in a couple of paragraphs aimed at luring the country’s best interactive talent to Norfolk, Grow says: “Two more things you should know: We have a few resident dogs, and we will crush you in ping-pong.”
“It may be an idle threat,” Ungvarsky says. “None of us are really that good.”
The pingpong table leads to an open room where there’s a giant table filled with what appear to be the highest of high-end Macs and four employees. It’s an “open working environment” to keep the people who are working on projects together and talking.
When Grow began expanding and planning to move from a space off 21st Street to downtown in 2010, Ungvarsky gave a piece of paper to each of the employees and asked them to submit ideas for features they’d like to see in the new building.
One of those ideas was a terraced sitting area for presentations. So next to the giant table, rising toward the second story of the building, Grow has what essentially looks like a stepped, wooden mini indoor amphitheater. It seats 50. To foment more creativity in the community, Ungvarsky lets outsiders use it for meetings, and a local craft club does.
Upstairs, there’s another example of new thinking and heeding employees’ ideas. Grow has always let employees bring their dogs to work, and on a typical day three dogs hang out there.
“When we moved to downtown last year,” he says, “one of the few employee concerns was, ‘Where are the dogs going to go when they need to go out?’ ”
The answer: In the back of the building, on the second floor, there’s a picnic table and a rooftop lawn.
The list of unexpected corporate features goes on and on: There’s a full kitchen and dishwasher on the second floor, because plastic and paper and Styrofoam are not environmentally kind – so the Grow people use real dishes and wash them.
Even in the open working environment, employees do sometimes need to make phone calls in private – so they fashioned a couple closets to serve as phone booths. Throughout the building, there are unassigned rooms with couches and tables.
Employees can get up, move around and work in different spots throughout the day.
“This is a couch with a pullout bed,” Ungvarsky says, “in case you get into one of those situations.”
On the third floor, they preserved and restored a full bathroom – so employees can shower after biking to work or working out during a break.
There’s more, but that’s enough. This isn’t some sort of New Age, interactive worker commune. This seeming lack of structure is actually a meticulously created structure – built this way to get the best work out of a group of people who are at their most creative in this setup.
Ungvarsky leads the way to a living room-like arrangement on the second floor, plops onto a couch and puts his feet up on the coffee table.
So, when did Grow start?
“I really should develop an answer for that,” he says. “The short answer is, eight years ago.”
He studied computer science at Old Dominion University, and when he finished, he knew he wanted to do this kind of work. So he built a website for “a fake company,” one he called Drew Media.
What do you know, about six weeks later a guy in Delaware found that site, and contacted him to build a site like Drew Media’s. Ungvarsky pretended he knew how to spec out and price a job, and did it.
Around that same time, he liked listening to music on another site, mp3.com. There was this band he really liked, an indie pop-punk group, called Lucky 7. He e-mailed a band member and asked if they needed a website. About 30 seconds later, the guy e-mailed back.
They haggled and cut a deal.
“We agreed I would build him a website for two T-shirts and a CD.”
The company nabbed more and more jobs and became Grow Interactive –
and since nothing great happens without a big break, they got one. A New York agency named Toy gave them a shot. Office Max wanted to build 20 innovative websites for Christmas. Grow wound up building five out of the 20.
When Ungvarsky began hiring people, Grow expanded to four employees – and he knew the business faced a crossroads. He knew this because he was reading a book titled something like “How to Run a Graphic Design Business” – and the book told him it was decision time.
He could plan to set aside more time operating the business side of Grow, or he could hire a business manager. Since he likes the creative work, he went with the second option.
There was a print designer he had been following. The guy thought print was dead and was presenting a lot of interesting ideas on his blog.
“We hired a guy who didn’t have a business background to come and be our business manager.”
“Yeah,” Ungvarsky says, “maybe stupid. Maybe brilliant.”
Probably the latter. Grow’s workload has expanded so much it has added 15 more employees.
It all fits in with one of his two universal, guiding management philosophies.
One: If I do what seems right, what seems practical, it’s probably the right decision.
Two: I never started this to make a company. I was just doing the work that I liked to do. I have built this up over the years based on the mindset that I just want to keep doing good work. He leans on these guiding philosophies often. How big does he think or want Grow to be?
“I never answer this succinctly,” he says. “I don’t need it to be anything. I just want it to be as good as it can be to get the opportunities that we want.”
He won’t say what a job has to be worth for Grow to take it on, though a design community rumor puts it at a minimum of half a million dollars. He’ll say only that Grow is so busy that it now has to turn away jobs it really wants to do.
A guy like this must have an interesting upbringing. Check. Ungvarsky often says he gets his leadership instincts from his father, a retired Navy captain, though he admits he has had to step out of the reserved nature of many computer programmers.
“I know through practice that I am a leader. I want to see a plan. If there is not a plan, I want to step up and make it.”
And he says that he gets his creative thread from his mother, “Mrs. Ungvarsky,” the art teacher at The Williams School, a private school in Ghent.
“I love it that people around town recognize my last name from my mother,” he says. “She has given me the talent to recognize good design – I’m not the one to create it, but I can see it.”
Grow is up to 20 employees, and Ungvarsky is continually scouring the country for more talented people. He knows that in the minds of younger, super-creative people, New York, Boston, Silicon Valley and Chicago seem like the places to be.
But he has built a company that is, as he says, “Googly.” And he’s adding to it all the time. One perk is that Grow will buy any employee a rail pass. If you agree not to use a parking spot out back, Ungvarsky will pay you the equivalent of what a parking spot costs.
Parking, which is a nice way to get back to our CEO angle. Ask him what he drives, and a sheepish grin takes over.
“Dammit!” he says. “I’ll tell you: I drive a Lexus, so I fit that stereotype, but I have to tell you two side stories…”
First, he rides his bike to work, a Fuji track bike, more days than not, because he lives about a mile from the office, on purpose, because he loves getting fresh air and not having to get on the highway.
Secondly: “I drove a VW Jetta for the longest time. My employees beat me up about it. They said, ‘You’re the boss; you have to drive something better than that.’”
So he ditched the Jetta and bought the Lexus. Because it’s always good, in this
newfangled management world, to heed your employees’ input.