‘Big Tuna’ Keeps His Business Relevant
The plaque on Blair Winans’ door at Rhyme Digital in Easthampton, Massachusetts, reads: Blair Winans / Big Tuna.
That well tells the story of this spirited entrepreneur, who took a risk in 2005, launching a business that has since reinvented itself several times and grown exponentially, from only one tuna to a school of seven.
With an official—yet far less colorful—title of “president,” Blair leads a firm that is centered around helping businesses in western and eastern Massachusetts grow via online marketing and sales. He swims in a sea that is rife with local competition. He makes it his mission to stay on top.
As a creative, Blair also runs a shop that is markedly original. There is whimsical artwork on the walls, and dogs under conference tables and in the offices of his various colleagues. Blair’s dogs, Butters, a yellow lab, and Flora, a pug, are almost always underfoot.
“There came a time when I was done with working for people,” Blair says. “I wanted to be able to have more creative control and the freedom to feel like I could provide a lot of additional value to clients.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from Boston University in 1998, Blair worked for ad agencies in the eastern part of the state, initially as a graphic designer and then as a web developer, after learning on his own how to tackle that work.
Clients of those initial agencies included Hewlett Packard and other high-visibility tech clients. And Blair was part of the team that launched Dunkin’s first website and had a hand in internal materials for the shop’s 50th anniversary promotions.
After seven years of working for others, he wanted to have more of a role in working directly with clients on planning and strategy. “I really felt hemmed down as a graphic designer,” he says. “I like talking to clients and explaining the thought process behind the work, but I was always behind the scenes, the middle man.”
In 2005, Blair launched Winans Creative out of his home in Greenfield. He was out in front.
“It was difficult to go solo at first,” Blair says. “I had to go from 0 to 60. It takes one out of the comfort zone quickly.”
In that first year, Blair said he was thinking about survival week to week, rather than planning six months, or a year or two ahead. “Ultimately, once I picked up a few clients, the referrals started to happen. It became something that was self-sustaining.”
As Big Tuna now, Blair holds himself accountable for the lives of his staff members. “I have to think long-term about payroll, and that’s a big responsibility,” he says, noting that he works diligently to control growth, slowly and purposefully.
Winans Creative operated in Greenfield, Shelburne Falls, and Easthampton until 2014, when Blair sold it to one of the agencies he worked with in the past. As part of that agreement, Blair operated a satellite office in Easthampton. Three years ago, he had the opportunity to buy the business back.
Blair and a team of now-staff members, got it up and running, as Rhyme Digital, in 30 days. It operated out of Eastworks until September 2017, when Blair moved it to 27,000 square feet of commercial space on Route 10. Team members are graphic designers, web developers, data analysts, a project manager, and Blair’s wife, Tiffany Lyman-Olszewski, a copywriter.
“We all came together to make this happen,” Blair says.
Winans Creative was a branding and web design and development firm, but Rhyme Digital’s mission has evolved into something more sophisticated. It offers digital marketing intended to attract a client’s target audiences. This means conceiving of and placing digital ads, creating email marketing campaigns, and, most importantly, tracking the success of those efforts.
“We make sure they have the tools they need on their websites. We optimize the experience of a client’s online presentation,” Blair says. “We also measure success.”
Clients of Rhyme Digital include Florence Bank, so we well know the expertise behind the firm’s work. Conversely, Rhyme Digital is also a customer of ours; they have a business line of credit that Blair says was an essential component in the decision to relaunch as Rhyme Digital.
“The bank is great,” he says, noting the 10 branches around the region are convenient. “I appreciate its technology and apps, but I prefer the experience of going to the bank more than anything else. I like the personal aspect of things.”
As Blair and his team help clients keep up with the ever-changing world of digital marketing, they also need to stay out in front themselves. Blair keeps an eye out for new trends and apps, and he looks for ads on new tech products and services.
Blair recommends that entrepreneurs just starting out ensure that they diversify their client base—making sure they have a range of clients in varying industries, so if an industry collapses, the entire client base doesn’t disappear. He says managing growth is also key.
Overall, he encourages people with an independent spirit to take the risk of heading out on their own. “It’s really been fun to do things my own way,” he says. “I’ve made mistakes along the way. I’ve learned from them. It’s been a fun journey because of the team here too.”