When I started VCS 14 years ago, I had very little foresight. I lived for the moment and dealt with the things that were in front of me.
Now, I know that what I am doing is an investment for tomorrow; and this is a tomorrow that will not only affect me, but other people, too. I come up with a plan and make sure that I stick to it day by day. Now, I do things following a grander vision — and this is certainly a vision that is bigger than myself.
- Amrei Dizon, Founder, General Manager, and Managing Partner of #TeamVCS
I am Amrei Dizon, Founder, General Manager, and Managing Partner of VCS.
I have always been a big dreamer. I did not fear the unknown.
But had I known what it took to run a business when I was starting VCS, I may not have dared to do it in the first place.
VCS was accidentally born in 2004 — 14 years ago. I was 2 years fresh from college, freelancing as a graphic designer, when a client required me to issue an official receipt. Because of this, Vitalstrats Creative Solutions was registered as a business.
I’ve always dreamed of having my own creative company, but I definitely wasn’t ready for it at 23. I only had a year of hybrid advertising and production experience. I only had 20,000 pesos in savings. I didn’t have any industry connections and I thought that no big-name client would trust me. My original partner took care of the client servicing side while I did all the creative work, but I was challenged to take over everything when she opted to pursue a different career track.
Setting Up Shop
Our first office was a 10-sqm room at my parents’ house. We had a Pentium 4 computer and a fax machine. That was it! We accepted small projects, like tarpaulin banners for politicians, signage layouts for small stores, small business websites. We also accepted printing jobs, but what we did was look for cheap printers and just mark up printer fees. We also delivered the materials by foot. I didn’t have a car back then and there was this one time when I had to carry a heavy tarpaulin printout and walk blocks in a village.
That was when I realized that doing our deliveries took up time that I could spend taking care of creative work. Because of this, we hired a messenger, Arthur, who was VCS’ first employee.
Eventually, we moved to Puno Building and started sharing an office with a friend’s company. Our equipment and furniture were purchased from second-hand stores.
VCS grew into a six-man team, which was originally made up of my cousin, my friends, and my orgmates from college. There was no official recruitment process. I knew that I could trust them, so I asked them to join the team. I also didn’t give myself a salary. I just had a small allowance, which I would use to cover my daily expenses.
Fortunately, we started doing well. We got more projects and earned the trust of more clients. We started having more funds, which we used to sustain and, eventually, to grow the business.
The Growing Pains of VCS
I am a Fine Arts graduate. I had zero knowledge about running a business, so everything was done by trial and error at the start. In my early 20s, I considered myself as a struggling artist. I didn’t have any plans. I got by day by day, project by project. I knew my craft but i didn't know how to make my talents and skills sustainable.
I focused on my goal, which was to produce great creative materials for our clients. I wanted to gain their trust and create the best output for them, but I had no control on the business side. I didn’t know how to cost out properly. We were underpriced and we were working more hours than what we were getting paid for. I didn’t know how to make the business profitable. I have failed many times, and I failed over and over.
I didn’t even know how to read financial statements! I got fooled by accountants and I lost cash because of piled up collectibles.
We didn’t have internal rules and policies. We didn’t have a documented standard process. We were really playing everything by ear.
Because I didn’t have much experience as an employee, I didn’t understand what my team needed. People were having conflicts, they were resigning, the office was gloomy. I asked myself if I still wanted to pursue the business but, of course, it felt like I didn’t have a choice. I had a responsibility to the team. I couldn’t resign or quit. I accepted that, at that point, I’d deal with the challenges because there was no turning back.
VCS survived by word of mouth. We made sure that clients liked our work. Our first multinational client gave us more brands to work with. When our original clients resigned and transferred to other companies, they brought us with them. This paved the way for VCS to penetrate different industries and also presented us with the need to expand the team.
Overcoming the Challenges
It took a combination of individual and corporate efforts in order for us to hurdle through the challenges of our early years.
I, for one, have always had a hunger for learning and exploring. I know that I had to be tough. I had to be brave enough to jump off a cliff without knowing what’s waiting below. I loved the process and I made sure that I always found the learnings in every failure.
I read a lot of business books. This was how I learned majority of what I know about running VCS. I wanted to study at a business school, but i didn’t have the money and the luxury of time to pursue it back then, because I was very hands-on with the business.
I also read books on finance, productivity, marketing, and management. I also went over inspirational books from entrepreneur authors. I searched for my own mentors and people with similar experiences and tried to learn from them.
I began joining local organizations. When i joined ASAP, I got immersed in the industry and found myself in the company of advertising suppliers who also happened to be entrepreneurs like me. This really opened up doors for Vitalstrats. I got to meet partners and collaborated with other advertising companies. PMA also gave me the chance to meet marketing professionals and to have a better grasp of the corporate side of the business. I lacked personal experience on this matter, but interacting with marketing leaders shaped my perspective on our clients’ motivations and needs.
With these combined experiences, I learned that, if you’re really passionate about something, there’s always a way to get it. If you have a grand vision, you have to make sure that you align what you do everyday to get there.
One of VCS’ biggest turning point was when my partner, TJ, agreed to join the team. We complement each other. She is left-brained; I am right-brained. She is into details; I take care of general directions. I also got the chance to take my Masters in Business, so her experience and my learnings were merged and implemented to professionalize the company.
The members of Team VCS also played a big role in helping the company overcome the challenges. Each member brought something unique to the table. We were able to create a culture of creativity, passion, and excellence. We embraced our diversity and we welcomed conflict, knowing that pressure is needed to create something exceptional - just like how diamonds are made.
14 Years and Growing
Growth is certainly in the cards for VCS; not just for the members of the team and for the company, but also for the industry and, eventually, the nation.
We will focus on the growth of our team members. After all, they make up the team. We can only grow if we establish a solid foundation of growth for each individual. I see myself in them, because I used to be a young artist who was struggling and who needed guidance. VCS wants to help our team members to become better, to become more professional, and to succeed. It’s fulfilling on our end, as business owners, to see them grow and transform.
VCS will also serve as a venue to help other people. We can use creativity to solve problems and to help businesses grow. More importantly, we can use our craft to make sure that important issues and causes are brought to the surface and not only heard, but discussed and resolved.
We will also do our share in helping young creatives and entrepreneurs succeed in their chosen paths. We wish to work with more LGBT leaders and entrepreneurs, especially those who are experiencing their own growing pains. Personally, I want to be an inspiration to them. I started with very little — with almost nothing, even! But I kept trying and working hard, even during the toughest times.
VCS is run by LGBTs, and we want to be role models for LGBT leadership. This has always been the mindset and this is why we truly encourage diversity and we see to it that we establish an accepting and inclusive workplace.
Of course, it goes without saying that, as we grow as a company, we’ll have a stronger capability to offer even better services for clients. As we help businesses grow, we will contribute to nation building and to the creative economy.
I make sure that we keep track of this vision by sustaining our hunger for knowledge and learning. I still listen to a lot of podcasts, because I know that there are other things to learn and master! Most importantly, as a company, we’ll continue motivating each other and helping one another in dealing with the challenges that we’ll encounter.
- Amrei Dizon, Founder, General Manager, and Managing Partner of #TeamVCS