How to be fearlessly authentic in business—and succeed
Scott Ihrig and Shannon Morrison are building a powerful business in Ohio.
"Fearless authenticity" is a core value that Scott Ihrig and Shannon Morrison consider fundamental to their work leading IM Creative, a Columbus, Ohio, event design and production company that brings live theater experiences to the world of corporate events.
They speak their minds, even when clients may not agree with their vision or idea. Without honesty, however, Ihrig and Morrison wouldn't be true to their business values—or themselves.
"We want to work and live in a world where we can be who we are and not have to pretend or front that we're someone that we're not," says Ihrig, IM Creative's chief executive officer. "We'll be in pitch meetings with new clients and say things like, 'Look, we're two gay guys who own an agency in the middle of Ohio and if that's not cool with you, then let's get a quick 'no,' and move on.'"
The fact is, plenty of clients have happily said yes.
Since they launched IM Creative in 2000, Ihrig and Morrison—who are a couple—have specialized in creating live event experiences for corporate events and product launches. While IM Creative has built a diverse set of clients, its strongest niche is in the financial services industry. The company has about 30 events each year from San Francisco to London.
In each of the last two years, IM Creative has been named one of the fastest-growing businesses in Inc. magazine's list of the country's top 5,000 privately-held companies. IM Creative has opened offices in New York, San Francisco, and Charlotte, and is in the enviable position of adding staff.
"We both love theater, and we have seen empirical evidence that live experiences are becoming even more potent," says Morrison, IM Creative's chief creative officer. "As we get more engrossed in our digital lives, our analog lives sometimes get short shrift. If you put a corporate clientele in a live experience, it tends to be much more profound for them."
An unlikely path to Columbus—and event production
Theater provided the initial meeting ground for Ihrig, originally from Omaha, Nebraska, and Morrison, who hails from Maine. During the 1990s, both were living in New York City. Morrison worked in Broadway theater production. Ihrig, a former attorney, worked as an independent producer of major projects like the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
"He introduced me to this world of corporate theater," Morrison recalls. "After some cajoling, he put me in the mix, and it turned out to be a really great fit. We've been IM Creative ever since."
With a loan from his uncle, Ihrig launched the company with Morrison. And from the start, the couple operated from the belief that being together mattered—professionally, and personally. Even the company name is intentional — "IM" blends the first letters of their last names.
While New York City was a great spot for creativity, the couple realized the cost of living made it prohibitive to run a small business. So they began searching for a more affordable city that was also LGBT friendly. Columbus, Ohio, was that place.
Growing a business with room for change
The Columbus business community quickly embraced the entrepreneurs. Ihrig and Morrison say they remain surprised at how quickly they were able to make contacts in Columbus. Soon after they arrived, in fact, IM Creative landed a contract to work on the city's bicentennial celebration.
In turn, Ihrig and Morrison embraced Columbus. They held their wedding ceremony in the city on Nov. 11, 2011, even though same-sex marriage wasn't legal in Ohio. One year later, the two traveled back to New York City for a legal ceremony.
Today, the couple run their business in Columbus' trendy Short North district, between downtown and the Ohio State University campus. Ihrig is in charge of the business decisions, and Morrison serves as the creative mind.
While both consider Columbus a great place to do business, operating an event production company in an area outside traditional event destinations has its difficulties. Because so few large-scale live events take place in the region, hiring can be challenging, since Central Ohio lacks a large talent pool of senior-level event producers.
"What we do as a company is bring people together—both physically and metaphorically. But we're able to do that by working remotely," Ihrig says. "We've designed our business model to flex to what I think is the model the world is moving to, especially in a creative services industry. We can work anywhere."
From their initial quest to establish their business in an unfamiliar location and land clients when they set up shop in a spare bedroom 17 years ago, Ihrig and Morrison continue to work on strategically scaling the business.
And they're still focused on being authentic, and proud of who they are. At the end of June, they'll be in San Francisco producing the employee engagement campaign for a global technology company participating in the San Francisco Gay Pride parade.
"The hardest part of that show is deciding who's going and who's not, because the entire team wants to be there," Ihrig said.
That's a challenge they're happy to take on.
Shannon Shelton Miller is a Chase News contributor. Her work has appeared in the Detroit Free Press, the Orlando Sentinel, and the Huffington Post, among other media outlets.