by Hannah Swayze
In what used to be part of the Sync.Space offices in downtown Kingsport, the ARO Creative Inc. team attempts to carry on business as usual. Part of the team works from home, due to cautionary measures related to COVID-19. Others maneuver around an office mid-renovations. Employees video chat with coworkers to show off an impressive new light fixture and catch up on work which has piled on lately.
The small, women-owned business ARO Creative Inc. was founded by Ashley Shutt and Samantha Culbertson three years ago. It is an advertising agency with six employees, three of which were just added in the past few months.
“I would say we probably have around 40 active clients right now,” Shutt said. “That ranges from… international corporations to mom-and-pop local businesses to startups.”
The agency provides a whole host of creative services for their clients which include but are not limited to branding, marketing, strategy and high-quality content creation and design. Notable campaigns featured in the company’s portfolio include work for businesses and projects like LC King Denim, General Shale and the “This is Kingsport” movement.
Many aspects of ARO Creative Inc., from the use of creative partnerships to the caliber of work the agency produces, makes the company unique. Its origins are no exception.
In the beginning, Shutt and Culbertson’s office was in Sync.Space– a business accelerator and co-working space in Kingsport. The small business outgrew their shared space in roughly a year.
“Accelerator spaces and coworking spaces in general– sometimes they exist in the same space– there is just that aspect of collaboration and teamwork that we have always liked,” Shutt said. “So, I think that’s what probably drew us there to begin with.”
ARO Creative Inc. is collaborative in its operations, relying not only on their own creative talents but on that of their creative partners. These include members of their production team, which are part of an Emmy Award-winning company out of Knoxville and other agencies in Nashville. Local partners include entrepreneurs like Tara Burns of Branded and Tara Hodges of Tara Hodges Photography.
“A lot of businesses are very competitive with other businesses,” Shutt said. “They don’t want to work with people who are in their field. You know, you have all these enemies. Why not instead make all these friends and form all these partnerships and then everyone wins?”
It’s an attitude that was buoyed by ARO’s experience at Sync.Space.
A place for entrepreneurs
Sync.Space was created four years ago by local entrepreneur Heath Guinn.
“What we’re really focused on now is, ‘what could entrepreneurship mean, if we considered it a primary component of the economic development strategy for the region?’” Guinn said.
Sync.Space was the answer to that question and the Sync.Space office was a concrete investment in that concept.
“The Sync.Space was really more about, ‘How do we position the opportunity for entrepreneurs?’” Guinn said. “And I break [it]down in a couple ways mainly. How do we help elevate regional entrepreneurs that we have or people who are interested in getting into entrepreneurship or starting a business? How do we help provide more opportunity for them to grow quickly?”
To do that, Sync.Space assists businesses, like ARO Creative when it was originally founded, through connecting them with its local and national network.
ARO Creative Inc., Guinn said, is one result of those efforts. He said Sync.Space’s role in the beginning was helping Shutt and Culbertson understand how valuable their talent was and could be and help with rounding out the business, allowing them to focus on what they were good at.
“What they bring to the market is incredibly unique,” Guinn said.
Opportunity through others
According to Shutt, the opportunity provided by Sync.Space manifested in the form of mentorships from Guinn and other entrepreneurs.
“When Sam and I started we were 27, and we were two girls in a very male-driven, business-owner area as far as entrepreneurship,” Shutt said. “And so, I think proving ourselves was a little bit harder at the beginning, which, I know that every business goes through that, but that was something, particularly, that we had to deal with early on.”
Shutt said through Sync.Space, they were introduced to others peers, which was a big deal to their credibility. Then as time went on, they were able to prove themselves through their work.
“The connections that [Guinn] has throughout the state and the mentorship that [Guinn] has given us– that Sync.Space has given us since we started– is really invaluable and we attribute most of, if not all of our success, to Sync.Space.”
The connections also connected ARO Creative Inc. to more potential clients, as startups often have a need for marketing and branding.
Over the years, Shutt said the mission of ARO Creative Inc. has evolved with the business. When they first started out, Shutt said their mission was to create passionate, impactful work for their clients. It still is, but through their community involvement connections they’ve made over the years, Shutt said it’s about more than just ARO Creative Inc. Shutt said the mission is not only to do high-caliber work but to improve the lives of her clients, community members and local businesses. She wants to help the region prosper.
“It doesn’t always have to be about client work, you know?” Shutt said.
Shutt is now mentoring others and using her talents to give back to new entrepreneurs and students through organizations in Sync.Space’s network like LaunchTN.
Shutt said she believes one person with a good idea can change the world, and that change comes from investing in the people working toward that change and nurturing those Ideas.
“(It can bring) not just change but prosperity and (improved) quality of life,” Shutt said” “All these things entrepreneurs and startups– their products and their ideas can do that.”