In The Trenches

Happy Anniversary, Mike!

Published on January 5, 2023 Back to blog

This past September marked 20 years since we started Small Army in 2002. But, it wasn’t until the holiday break that I actually took a moment to reflect on that milestone.

 In 2002, things were quite different. Cell phones were used to make phone calls. Tweeting was something birds did. Google was just a search engine. Amazon was primarily a place to buy books and music. I was a newly-web with no kids. And I had one business partner, no employees and one client.

 Of course, I expected change. As they say, it’s the only thing that’s inevitable. But, there’s no way I could have predicted how those 20 years would unfold. The hundreds of team members, clients and partners who have been part of our story. The thousands of successful marketing strategies, plans, campaigns, websites videos, and reports we’ve created. Becoming part of the FINN Partners global marketing and communications powerhouse. And the endless stories that come with each.

I have infinite memories filled with pride, joy, laughter, despair, fear and frustration. However, the most defining moments were those I shared with my co-founder, Mike Connell, who lost his life to cancer in 2007. As I’ve shared in TEDx Talks and my book, that experience shaped much of who I am today and how I think about life, business and relationships. In turn, it shaped Small Army. So, it wouldn’t feel right to celebrate 20 years without celebrating Mike, who has been here with us in spirit for all of it.

While few others at the agency today ever knew or met Mike, his impact on the agency is unquestionable. So, today, in honor of our 20 years “together,” I share the top five lessons I learned from the amazing Mike Connell:

  1. Stories are the elixir of life. Mike wasn’t just a great storyteller. He was a great story listener. He shared his stories with passion and listened with equal intensity. When you were with him, you felt like you were the only person in the world who mattered, and were hypnotized by it all. You couldn’t help but love him and want to be around him. I so wish he were here to hear more of his stories and share some new ones with him. 
  2.  Relationships are our lifeblood. Often, as a result of the above, Mike created strong connections with so many people. Honestly, it would often frustrate me as it felt as though I was constantly working on the business while he was having fun sharing stories. But, when he got sick, our employees worked harder to keep us afloat, our clients stayed with us, and people in the industry (fans of Mike) came out of the woodwork to offer support and even work for free. (Big shout out to Paul Norwood, who served as our interim Creative Director for 2 years). Take the time to build relationships with people.
  3. The more you give, the more you receive. Two of our first “clients” at Small Army were ones that Mike brought in – both pro-bono (work for free). I really didn’t understand the logic. How could we make money if we gave away our work? Well, first and foremost, this work gave us great pride and confidence as these clients couldn’t have been more thankful and appreciative as we helped them to achieve their mission. (It feels good to give.) On a more practical side, these clients gave us some of our first (much-needed) case studies, and became life-long relationships that led to paying clients and new recruits. We’ve kept that giving spirit alive with the creation of our own 501c3 (Small Army for a Cause/Be Bold Be Bald cancer fundraiser), monthly non-profit moral sessions, pro-bono clients, Brand Heart Podcast, volunteer work, charitable donations, and more. It’s good to give.
  4.  The more you believe in your work, the more others will too. Back in the day, we presented creative work on physical boards (not digital slides or PDFs). When Mike presented, he would carefully remove each board one at a time from his large leather-bound portfolio, only touching each by the edges to leave no fingerprints, and avoid contact with other boards to make sure the spray glue holding down the precious goods did not come undone. The work was then revealed only after a thoughtful story about the inspiration behind it and Mike’s excitement around it (if not already apparent). It was rare for a client to not fall in love with everything he presented. 
  5.  Have Faith. Mike was a religious man, and I believe it was his faith that kept him positive through his entire treatment. Days before he passed, as I could not hold back tears visiting him in hospice, he was consoling me. And, it was like that for most of that time he was ill. While we each came from different religious backgrounds, he demonstrated the power of faith and taught me to believe that everything happens for a reason.  

Happy anniversary, Mike. While you have not been with us in person for more than 15 years, your spirit and infinite wisdom have always been with us, guiding us through it all.

Jeff Freedman
CEO/Managing Partner
Small Army | Finn Partners