094: Doing good in the world is good for business with Justin Ahrens

I am super excited to have Justin Ahrens of Rule 29 on the show today.

On the side of his firm, Justin launched an initiative called Wheels 4 Water, where he’s raised over $200,000 for a non-profit focused on providing clean drinking water in Africa.

What’s cool about our conversation today is that Justin shares why it’s easier to set up a non-profit by not actually setting one up. We also talk about why Justin started this initiative and how it’s opened up big doors for his primary agency.

If you are in a spot where you want to do more good in your business and see it grow as you do that, this is the episode for you.

Finding His Give Back Project

Justin started Rule 29 to take a shot at entrepreneurship. Today, he works with organizations from UNICEF to All State Insurance.  

When I saw Justin on stage at the HOW Design Live conference, I knew I wanted to hear more. He told me that Wheels 4 Water started out many years ago. When working with Lifewater, he traveled to Uganda and saw first hand how providing clean water isn’t that simple.

Justin decided to raise $40,000 for Lifewater despite having no idea where he’d get the money. In brainstorming how to do this, Justin figured out how to combine his interest in biking, non-profit, design, and social media.

Wheels 4 Water became a 1,200 bike ride from Boston to Chicago where no one would drink a drop of water they didn’t filter themselves. Justin and his team raised $142,000.

Growing a Business with Non-Profit

Interestingly, Wheels 4 Water finds a way into Justin’s agency work. At the end of every pitch, he talks about how his agency cares about the world and shows his work with Wheels 4 Water and Lifewater. This sparks a lot of conversations.

Why do this? Justin says they don’t want to work with jerks.

Their non-profit work shows the value of their design and their pride in what they do. Incorporating non-profit into his firm has changed his agency.

Getting Past 501(c)(3)

Wheels 4 Water isn’t a 501(c)(3) and here’s why. Speed and efficiency. Justin had no idea where the initiative would go and he knew there were already enough 501(c)(3) organizations in the world.

Rule 29 set up their initiative to support a 501(c)(3) that already existed. Justin never sees a donation. It didn’t cost him anything to get started and it sped up the process of being able to give back.

The events are paid for by sponsors and the team itself. By starting an initiative with a website or through a platform like Classy, you can get going a lot faster.

Finding New Clients

In the beginning of his agency, Justin’s strategy was all about networking, getting in organizations, and asking for referrals.

Justin’s firm also got lucky creating a coloring book with a print shop and traded profits from the coloring book for print work. Justin was able to present beautiful print packages to potential clients because of this connection.

Today, Rule 29 works more and more with in-house creative teams on projects they don’t have time for or don’t have the expertise to do. This is a powerful transition for the agency.

Within these large organizations, Justin makes it a big priority to ask around and find more connections with other departments and ideal clients. He builds the groundwork of communication, time, and paying attention to build relationships that really support each other.

Staying Boutique or Going Bigger

Justin is at the critical stage of deciding whether to stay small or go big and right now the agency is at an in between phase. He feels like they’re a couple of designers short to grow to a big team, but is watching things carefully to feel out what’s right for Rule 29.

For people growing their agency, Justin recommends paying close attention to your culture. You have to test and interview for your culture to bring in people who are in line with what you do.

I really appreciate Justin coming on the show and taking the time to share a behind the scenes look at this agency and non-profit initiative with us. One of the most mind-blowing things to me was seeing how Justin set up Wheels 4 Water as a brand and that really changed my perspective on working for a cause. I hope you got a ton out of our interview.

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