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Business with a conscience: How Symposia Labs is changing GRís marketing landscape

Symposia Labs team

Founder of Symposia Labs, Timothy Haines


On a windy afternoon I head inside a downtown coffee shop to sit down with Timothy Haines, the founder of Symposia Labs, a digital marketing and advertising agency, to chat about industry, ethics, and the growing Grand Rapids market.

The Symposia team is fresh from a ribbon cutting ceremony for their new Grand Rapids office that opened on January 31 of this year. In their move from Holland to Grand Rapids, they found a location just a few blocks east of downtown at 255 Washington Street.

As with any good story, I sit back and ask Haines about where it all began. Not surprisingly, the Symposia Labs story starts like many tech company stories: at home with employee number one, Haines.

“At first it’s all trial and error,” Haines says after I ask him if the company was always in digital marketing. “You take the work you can get, and you’re not sure who you are. Do you build websites? Are you in marketing? Do you do design work?”

Haines tells me that at first the company approached work by specializing in social media, and after some time he began to pivot to digital marketing as a whole. He explains it best when he says, “We’ve found that our approach has three components: technology, people, and business… and to do digital marketing right you have to understand all three. Not just those concepts individually, but also how they interact.”

I tell Haines how many non-business owners, or people outside of the industry, might look at Facebook advertising, search engine optimization (SEO), Google ad words, and so forth as millennial hogwash. Timothy replies with an elegant explanation. “Digital marketing is like a lense on a camera; it enhances what you see on the subject.”

So I ask him, what does Symposia Labs do? “ We execute and design digital design strategies,” he replies, clarifying that his team operates a bit differently than others. They of course have the cool office, telecommute option, and laid-back culture, but they differ in how they interact with their clients. Symposia Labs does not a have a large swath of clients across West Michigan, rather they opt to have a smaller portfolio of clients with whom they work closely.

“We work on retainer and mold ourselves around our client’s team to get the best results for them,” Haines says. In a city with more and more freelancers and small design shops, it can be hard to find a business with a conscience. A business that isn’t after billable hours, but rather a strong working relationship.

Haines credits the large, and growing, Grand Rapids market for his approach. “There’s enough pie for all of us here,” he notes. As part of his company’s move, they share a space with local design studio Kmotion Design to accommodate the few clients that need a bit of everything, including a custom website from the ground up. Symposia Labs has found what they are great at, honed their expertise, and expanded their network to include business friends to assist with the excess work load.

I follow up Haines’s thoughts about business with a conscience and ask him about the lack of professionals of color in tech and if he has this in mind in his hiring practices as Symposia Labs grows larger.

“Absolutely, we moved here from Holland for a chance, albeit still small, at greater diversity in our work,” he says. I mention how important it is for people of color to see representation in different business fields, and Haines points to the design landscape in West Michigan, sighs and says, “I know; you look around and it’s white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy, and you know there’s something wrong there.”

I’m surprised to hear Haines be so natural and at ease when speaking truth to these issues, especially because of what midwest decorum normally dictates. It’s refreshing to hear a person of privilege be so honest about their privilege and actively seek answers. We move on to speaking about operating from a place of intentionality and how we must be intentional if we want to help.

He brings up an example of his time in Holland, when he knew few people in the digital marketing space, and how he wanted to expand his network but also share and learn experiences and techniques in his field. Without an approachable resource to turn to, he started what is now Drinks and Digital, an event where professionals interested in digital marketing can meet up and talk a bit of business over drinks.

Haines mentions that it has evolved to a become a bit of a pool of prospective applicants where many of his hires have come from. His team is still ramping up after their Grand Rapids launch, and they will be searching for another team member to come on board as project manager within the next few months.

As he takes the last drink of his coffee I remind him that I discovered his agency on Facebook. His eyes light up, and he goes for his phone and says, “ I bet it was the latest Facebook ad we put out that you saw! We practice what we preach!”

Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email ken.miguel.cipriano@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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