Editor’s Note: This is part of What She Learned, a new interview series with successful women entrepreneurs about their journeys and the lessons they learned along the way.
When Jessica Resler was in business school more than a decade ago, she felt adrift and needed “a sign from the universe” that she was meant to pursue an MBA.
So she decided to enter a competition while at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
“I was like, ‘If I win, I will be an entrepreneur,’” she said. “And if I lose, then I will go work for someone else.”
Spoiler alert: “I really made sure I won,” she said, laughing.
Resler is the founder, along with fellow Stern classmate Ruthie Schulder, of The Participation Agency, an experiential marketing venture launched in 2011 that offers deliverables to clients in the form of outlandish, avant-garde experiences (AdWeek has dubbed the campaigns, which mash culture and digital marketing, “crazy”).
Resler handles the creative side while Schulder oversees strategy and new business. Neither had any agency experience coming in, and they didn’t raise any seed money to get started. Now, the company employs 30 people and, according to Inc., generated more than $8 million in revenue in 2018.
To date, they have been listed as one of the 39 Disruptors in Advertisting, Media and Tech by AdWeek, and Schulder was named a Rising Star by Forbes while Resler was recognized for her TEDx talk, “Progress Through Creativity.”
Embracing the Whimsical
“The first couple years of any new business, you don’t know whether it’s going to succeed,” Resler said in a recent interview at the agency’s stark, spread-out offices on Manhattan’s Lower East side.
“The failure rate is high. And I just had this innate sense that [our] business won’t necessarily fail — it’s just going to be that Ruthie or I quit.”
[Related: Get Over It: Fear of Failure]
For their first big campaign, in 2012, they turned a vacant lot on the Lower East Side into a whimsical suburban backyard. People could rent the space, dubbed Timeshare Backyard, by the hour. The company even hired “moms” to bring out lemonade and installed a Slip ‘N Slide.
“Very few people who live in New York have a backyard, and most people who move here come from suburban or less urban areas where a backyard is really nostalgic,” Resler said. “We wanted to capitalize on that.”
The Wall Street Journal caught wind of it, and interest in the project exploded. “We had over 1,000 emails come in of people wanting to rent the backyard,” Resler said. “It helped crystallize something for us, which was that experiences should be bite-sized and meaningful.”
Establishing a Homebase
Turning something dingy and vacant into something cool is a lot like how the growing company built its workspace.
Resler has transformed the industrial space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan into a stylish, minimalist office that mixes posters bearing inspiring slogans with coffee table books about David Bowie, music video director David LaChapelle, and bad boy photographer Terry Richardson — a gritty, bygone version of New York transplanted to an aspirational startup for the millennial age.
Resler, 40, and I spoke on a wide black leather couch in her office, which stretches back several feet and features two work tables, a full-length mirror, and plenty of plants that somehow didn’t seem starved for light in the dark, curtained room. There were posters on the wall that read “Championing Creativity” and “On The F—ing Project.”
Sporting a black-and-white ruffled shirt with tattoos peeking out of her sleeves, black pants and a beige beanie, Resler had just landed at JFK Airport and come straight to meet me. The Seattle native had been in Los Angeles for Summit LA, which bills itself as “the world’s preeminent ideas festival.”
“Being a relatively small agency and female-owned, and definitely being on the rise with big growth ambitions, it’s important to us that we’re taking risks,” she said.
That’s why she and Schulder have decided to focus on emerging, artsy markets, such as Asheville, North Carolina, El Paso, Texas, and Asbury Park, New Jersey, to continue developing their edgy brand. A recent project that typifies their work is called Outpost, a rest stop for touring musicians to recharge and network. Or as Resler described it in her 2017 TED Talk, it’s as if someone combined “7-Eleven with Soho House.”
The growing company is currently pivoting to “purpose-driven” projects that tackle some sort of social issue, and is in the midst of a yearslong digital campaign called “Without Plastic” that aims to reduce waste.
“If we can move the needle in any way possible, we will,” Resler said. “The areas of our focus are inclusion, diversity, sustainability, and really just helping women to actualize their dreams in different ways.”
‘Out-gaming’ the System
Helping women achieve their dreams is especially important to Resler and Schulder, especially because they know firsthand the ways women can be belittled as rising entrepreneurs.
“We are strong female leaders, and we’ve never liked to consider ourselves limited,” Resler said. “But what we have definitely had to consider is how limited other people are.”
During an early pitch meeting for a big company (Resler would not say the brand’s name), the client, a man, referred to the businesswomen as “girls” several times on the phone.
“There was a moment where we were like, ‘Should we even do this pitch? Because we’re not going to win,’” Resler recalled.
Instead, they asked themselves, “‘How do we out-game this?’”
The women decided to bring Schulder’s cousin, “a tall, good-looking man,” to the meeting. They had him put on a suit and gave him three talking points while they did the rest of the pitching. They knew that the client would primarily address the relative during the meeting — even though he wasn’t the one bringing fresh ideas to the table.
The women were “in the periphery saying all the information, because we know we have amazing ideas here,” Resler said. “And we won that pitch. And I don’t think we would have won, unfortunately, if we didn’t do that.”
[Related: This Founder Didn’t Let Rejection or Sexism Stop Her From Building a $130 Million Insurance Startup]
Building a Strong Partnership
Over the years, Resler and Schulder have learned to “respect each other’s lanes,” Resler said. Even though they each maintain separate lives — Resler has a longtime partner and does not plan on having kids, while Schulder has a husband and twins — they make time for each other and go on “vision retreats” together to discuss new ideas.
“We have really learned how to be incredibly strong partners,” Resler said. “We don’t try to be one another.”
As soon as the hour was up, Resler went into the adjoining office to check in on her employees, who sat in front of Mac computers in the open-plan space. For her, “work does come first.”
She has two pieces of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: Trust your gut. And ask a lot of questions.
“The things that tripped us up were any time we doubted our intuition, and not being as educated as humanly possible on the finances of our business,” Resler said. “So ask as many questions as possible when you don’t understand something, and don’t ever be ashamed that you don’t know.”