Jackpine founders fired up, feel right at home in heart of Chinatown

Much like the tree for which it is named, marketing and design firm Jackpine Digital was born out of less-than-ideal circumstances.

The Ottawa company’s namesake has cones that open only in intense heat, usually from a forest fire. From the ashes of that destruction comes new life.

Jackpine’s co-founder, Liam Mooney, says that as strange as it might seem at first blush, that pretty much sums up his fast-growing firm’s approach to business.

“We called this thing Jackpine because design is a destructive process arriving at the simplest conclusion,” says Mr. Mooney, the company’s CEO and creative director. “Don’t over-decorate it. Make it right. Good design doesn’t come with an instruction manual. We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can do that and arriving at that simple, simple endpoint.”

Warming to the topic, the perpetually enthusiastic 28-year-old entrepreneur extends the metaphor a bit further.

“This is not a good economic time to start a company. It’s opportunity through decay.”

Putting a positive spin on words like decay and destruction would probably be a struggle for most of us, but not Mr. Mooney. Throughout an hour-long conversation with OBJ, Jackpine’s articulate, energetic CEO tells the company’s story with a passion that’s so genuine it’s hard not to believe in his dream.

Sitting in the back lounge of the firm’s office in the heart of Chinatown, he and business partner Clayton Powell, Jackpine’s chief operating officer, insist their mission isn’t just to make money – it’s to help build a community.

If that sounds hokey, well, you’ve never met Mr. Mooney.

“We had the skills,” he says. “We knew that Ottawa needed a (marketing and design) studio where culture and community could flow from and be a genuine contributor to the neighbourhood. We knew that collectively there existed the ability to do something amazing right here in the neighbourhood. This is our neighbourhood. This is where we live. It matters to us.”

So far, Jackpine appears to be succeeding.

In less than two years, it has evolved from essentially a one-man operation based in Mr. Mooney’s apartment to a bustling enterprise with about 20 employees. Mr. Powell, who handles most of the administrative tasks, is predicting year-over-year revenue growth of between 200 and 300 per cent.

Jackpine now provides web design and marketing services to a roster of clients that includes some of the city’s most powerful companies, including Claridge Homes, as well as some of its most buzzworthy newer businesses, such as Beyond the Pale Brewery, SuzieQ Doughnuts and Union 613 restaurant.

But in the early days of 2013, revenues were scarce. Jackpine had no seed funding and few customers.

Eventually, however, it was no longer practical to run the company out of Mr. Mooney’s apartment. Well aware that renting and furnishing an office isn’t easy without money, he and Mr. Powell were forced to get creative.

“What we found right away was people were interested in helping us,” Mr. Mooney says. “It was like, ‘Hey – if we ask for something, we can get help.’ That’s really cool.”

The pair put an ad on Craigslist offering to exchange design services for office space. That’s how they found their first real home, a townhouse on Young Street in Little Italy. It came with no furniture or supplies, but that didn’t matter.

“We wanted the place that looked the best – the most compelling,” says Mr. Mooney. “We’re a design studio. Who’s going to want to work with us if we’re in the basement of some dingy (office)?”

Undaunted, the partners bartered for furniture with another neighbourhood store. Then one day while chowing down at a nearby eatery, Beech Street Burger, they hit on a plan to work for food.

“They had just opened up,” says Mr. Powell. “Over a little bit of a conversation with the owner, he was convinced that a website was the way to go.”

The owner agreed to let Jackpine design the restaurant’s site. In return, the Jackpine staff got free food. The result was doyoulikeburgers.com, which catapulted Beech Street Burger into the top spot on Urbanspoon’s local rankings – and kept Jackpine’s workers well fed.

“We would go there basically every day and eat hamburgers for lunch,” Mr. Mooney says with a chuckle.

“We learned a very sound business principle,” adds Mr. Powell, 32. “If you don’t ask, you won’t receive. You have to know how to ask, of course.”

Ultimately, the burger joint didn’t last, but Jackpine was starting to hit its stride. The company eventually outgrew its Little Italy headquarters and moved to its new home on Somerset Street last summer.

The office, located amid a busy block of Chinatown stores, has a rustic feel. The sign from a former Chinese medicine and acupuncture clinic down the street now adorns the main workroom. Artfully designed Argentine movie posters from the ’40s and ’50s line the walls. An old street light – which someone on staff bought for $30 at the Great Glebe Garage Sale – rests in a corner.

It’s a bit rough around the edges, but somehow it works. It feels homey, not flashy, which is fitting for a company that rarely even looks at prospective employees’ resumes, preferring instead to hire based on face-to-face meetings and the recommendations of friends and co-workers.

“It’s a lot about fit and feeling and intuition,” says Mr. Powell. “And it’s working.”

The business is “stacked on the creative side,” Mr. Mooney says, but the administrative side needs more support, he concedes. Buoyed by the company’s association with firms such as Claridge, Mr. Powell is anticipating Jackpine will reach seven-figure revenues in its third year.

“We want to make sure all the pieces are in place for when we do hit that mark,” he says.

Still, amid all the challenges of building a business, one thing never changes, says Mr. Mooney: it’s the creative process itself that keeps fuelling the fire that leads to new growth.

“It’s a very delicate process and we help (customers) move through it,” says Mr. Mooney. “We love that. This is the coolest job in the world.”