What was supposed to be a 15-minute phone call accepting a flight out to California to participate in ABC’s Shark Tank morphed into a two-hour-long conversation and moment of catharsis for Kenny Nguyen.
It was 2012 and Nguyen, then 22 years old, led local creative agency Big Fish Presentations. The company had recently been featured in Inc. magazine’s annual list of cool college startups, and the producers of Shark Tank offered Nguyen and his team the opportunity to pitch their concept to a panel of billionaire investors on the popular TV show.
Big Fish workers had even penciled on their calendars a team party, scheduled not long after the phone call. But Nguyen says the woman on the other line, Karen Solomon, asked him a series of thought-provoking questions that made him realize it wasn’t the right move for his budding startup.
“She asked me if any of my heroes would be on the show, and I said no,” Nguyen recalls. That’s when he had his epiphany: No longer would he define success based on what others thought, choosing instead to do what he believed was right.
Nearly seven years later, the 28-year-old entrepreneur serves as CEO of ThreeSixtyEight—a branding, marketing and advertising agency tucked in a back pocket of Mid City, along South 14th Street in a vintage building once home to the Olde Town Emporium.
In that role, he measures his success in this way: allowing others to embrace their inner creative confidence.
While Nguyen is known locally for his presentation skills, that wasn’t always the case. As a 15-year-old Pac Sun employee, he was fired for his lack of communication skills.
“My manager told me, ‘You’ve got to learn how to speak to people or you’re not going to go anywhere,’” Nguyen says. “So basically I was fired because she thought I didn’t know how to communicate.”
The moment stuck out to him, as did another: Sleeping through the Art Institute’s Best Teen Chef competition, where, he later found out, he was favored to win.
Both setbacks propelled him to go on a trip to Vietnam, where he had a dream instructing him to open a business and build something he could be proud of before going on to empower other people.
Inspired, he began the prophetic journey by enrolling at LSU, launching I Am E (I Am Entrepreneur), an organization that would later become the university’s Collegiate Entrepreneurship Organization affiliate. It was during this time Nguyen saw what he remembers as “the most boring presentation of my life.”
“He had thirty minutes to speak, but spoke for three hours,” Nguyen says. “He had 150 slides of text, read off every single slide, started laughing at his own jokes and answering his own questions. I thought to myself, what if there was a company that could help people like these with their presentations and make them even better?”
From that tedium came the impetus for Big Fish Presentations, Nguyen’s first entrepreneurial foray with his childhood best friend, Gus Murillo. Founded in 2011, the two-man show specialized in making beautiful presentations for clients like Raising Cane’s, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana, and McGraw-Hill.
From there, it was go, go, go. As a college sophomore, Nguyen picked up calls from clients across the country, flying to New York on a Monday afternoon and traveling back to Baton Rouge at dawn to attend a Tuesday morning class. He and Murillo hired two part-time employees. They wrote a book called The Big Fish Philosophy. They caught the eye of Shark Tank.
Somewhere in between, Nguyen dropped out of college—calling it the “best decision I’ve ever made”—to focus his full attention on Big Fish.
Big fish, bigger pond
By early 2016, Nguyen and Murillo wanted to expand their footprint. They did so by merging their company with local creative agency Hatchit Co., owned by Jeremy Beyt and Nick Defelice.
The agencies long had a close relationship, regularly referring clients to one another. Hatchit also designed Big Fish’s website. They joined forces to create ThreeSixtyEight—the distance between the two businesses, in feet.
But after about two months, sales were skimpy and Nguyen began second-guessing his decision. He realized the new company needed to tweak its messaging.
“We knew we could present onstage really well, but with this new team, we could do websites and digital marketing so that not only do you look good, but the brand that you represent looks great,” he says. “Once we shifted our story, things started happening.”
Within its first year, the merger created a firm with 10 employees and combined billings of about $1.2 million, with $200,000 of that coming from new business.
Wanting to amplify the company’s presentation prowess, Nguyen also launched the Assembly Required Series, four conferences interspersed throughout the year. The quarterly events—which involve national speakers coming to Baton Rouge to offer different perspectives—have brought ThreeSixtyEight 10 new accounts, with Nguyen adding that five new businesses have formed from people meeting at the conferences. Nguyen has since revamped the event series as Some Assembly Required, making them smaller, more intimate, workshop-style gatherings in ThreeSixtyEight’s office building.
“When you have people from two completely separate backgrounds, but you have the empathy to work with one another and you’re focused on the same goal, you’re going to come up with a really cool idea,” Nguyen says. “We want to be that catalyst where that can happen because there was nothing like that here.”
The conferences might be smaller, but ThreeSixtyEight continues to expand.
It recently merged with another company—Prairieville-based Mindworx Marketing—which specialized in providing print collateral and marketing strategies to businesses in the health care and consumer packaged goods space, an area where Nguyen says ThreeSixtyEight wanted to grow.
Over the next several months, the four Mindworx employees with join ThreeSixtyEight’s 16 employees in its Mid City office, with all operations eventually merging under the ThreeSixtyEight flag.
It’s all part of Nguyen’s intense focus on his mission to let his clients embrace their creative spirits, and to foster more relationships with businesses willing to take risks.
“You’ve got to be focused,” he says. “The secret to everything we do is empathy—that’s what drives us.”