Like many successful business partnerships, Griffin VanMeter and Brad Flowers got together in 2008 and built a company because, well, they needed work.
VanMeter had bought and fixed up some North Lexington rental property. Flowers had been a mechanic at Pedal Power Bike Shop.
Both had spent a lot of free time on community projects. Flowers chaired the Mayor's Bike Task Force and helped organize Bike Lexington and the Shifting Gears charity bike program for Pedal Power and Kentucky Refugee Ministries. VanMeter had organized a bike race and helped friends launch Stella's Deli and Al's Bar.
They met at Al's Bar over ping pong during Flowers' 30th birthday party in November 2007. They discovered they both had common interests in branding, marketing, event promotion and good pizza. They kept talking over dinners of homemade pizza.
Finally, in fall 2008, they decided to launch a business called Bullhorn. But what kind of business?
"It literally came down to a coin flip between Bullhorn the pizza restaurant and Bullhorn the branding and marketing company," VanMeter, 31, said.
Branding and marketing won the toss. Now in its fourth year, Bullhorn (Bullhornwill.com) is getting a lot of attention for its branding creativity and marketing efforts for Lexington businesses and community organizations.
The company recently won its biggest contract yet after answering a request for proposals to bring better design and consistency to the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government's communications with citizens.
Rather than each city agency designing its own public communications its own way, Bullhorn will create templates for city employees to use, beginning with the annual Fun Guide calendar. The goal is to improve communication and save the city money, said Scott Shapiro, a senior adviser to Mayor Jim Gray.
"Their proposal showed a contemporary, solid design across media," Shapiro said. "Plus, they clearly love Lexington. They seem like they would do anything to make the city of Lexington shine, and that came across in their proposal."
(VanMeter donated $1,000 to Gray's 2010 mayoral campaign, according to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance database.)
A love of Lexington and Kentucky is a consistent theme, both in Bullhorn's work and the partners' personalities. Flowers spends a lot of his free time on local bicycle advocacy. VanMeter started a quirky Facebook page, Kentucky for Kentucky, for Kentuckians to share trivia about the state.
Last November, VanMeter and two friends launched a Kickstarter.com campaign to raise $3.5 million to produce a Super Bowl commercial promoting the greatness of Kentucky. They fell well short of their goal but received priceless international publicity for themselves and Kentucky.
After attending the 2009 Creative Cities Summit in Detroit — and helping to organize one in Lexington the following spring — Flowers and VanMeter sensed that Lexington was changing.
"We were both really inspired by all of these young entrepreneurs who wanted to do something and just did it," VanMeter said. "We felt like we could see a lot of opportunity, but we needed to change the dialogue about how Lexington saw itself."
Bullhorn first gained attention for work on behalf of non-profit organizations such as the Blue Grass Community Foundation, Junior League of Lexington, Fayette Alliance and The Plantory, an incubator for social entrepreneurs.
Bullhorn's first business client was Henkel Denmark landscape. Others have included the local Vespa scooter dealership, Link-Belt Excavators, The Lexington Angler fishing shop, Hayden Construction, Parlay Social and Mt. Brilliant Farm.
About half of Bullhorn's clients are non-profit organizations. The company has produced several high-quality, storytelling videos that explain an organization or company's values. The ability to share videos on the Internet makes multimedia storytelling a powerful branding tool that is no longer costly to produce, VanMeter said.
So far, the partners said, they have provided all of Bullhorn's start-up capital. Revenues have doubled every year. Bullhorn now has three full-time employees, two interns, a part-time bookkeeper and several independent contractors for various services. Bullhorn is looking to hire two more full-time employees: a business-development specialist and a graphic designer.
Bullhorn's partners hope to keep growing their business without losing its quirky sense of humor and a company atmosphere that encourages outrageous creativity.
"We're now focusing on making Bullhorn a sustainable business and not just a fun idea," Flowers said. "As jokey as our public persona is, we're really serious about being a stable business and staying around."