Launch CEO: Michelle Hagen treads unknown waters to revolutionize the MarTech industry

Last summer, we launched #LaunchCEO (pun intended), a new event segment designed to shine a light on North Texas CEO’s taking bold ideas and creative innovation to the next level at our monthly Dallas New Tech events.

For our March #BigDNT event, we invited Michelle Hagen, CEO of Tandem Theory and a Dallas MarTech thought leader, to take the stage in what we know will be an unforgettable fireside chat. Hagen also spoke to us about her journey to entrepreneurship and Tandem’s unique tech approach to marketing.

At the time Michelle Hagen took the first steps to founding her company Tandem Theory, she huddled into a ball, processing her decision to quit her job just days earlier. She was in tears on the phone with her long-term mentor and terrified of the unknown in front of her.

Worried about the future of her family as well as her own financial security, Hagen played with the idea of taking her previous position back, yet her mentor reasoned her through this imminent fear that discourages many innovators form starting.

“I was panicked and said why am I leaving this perfectly good job making a great healthy salary… [and] why would I leave all that and take all this risk,” said Hagen. “He said you have to just ask yourself, ‘Are you an entrepreneur or not. It’s a very analog answer. It’s yes or no. There’s no grey. You can be entrepreneurial and that’s totally different, but you’re either an entrepreneur or not.’”

While these words did not take away the unpredictability that the next few months would hold, these words did provide the direction needed to push Hagen beyond the million reasons that keep many innovators from ever taking the risk to entrepreneurship. She knew she made the right decision, and she knew she must continue on her path to founding her first company.

“As soon as I made that decision about myself or understood that part about myself, things started to fall into place, and I wasn’t going to resist it anymore. I had already resisted it for a long time,” said hagen.

She founded Tandem Theory in 2013. At the time, she had two young children at just one and three years of age, and she was leaving over a decade of steady employment working in businesses ranging from startups to Hotels.com.

From Healthcare to Marketing

Hagen, however, wasn’t a stranger to adaptability as she had previously pivoted her career at several points in her life.

Photo credit: Christopher Alvarado

Graduating from Oakland University with a degree in medical technology, Hagen started her career working in a microbiology and chemistry lab where she realized that having a passion for science did not always translate to an interest in the work. Over the years, she transitioned to be the “computer girl” at the hospital where she worked, acting as the liaison between her company and the Austin-based software startup whom she eventually left her work in the hospital to join their team.

“I loved knowing about healthcare and science, but being in a tech startup, it was like crack for me,” Hagen said.

Continuing to feed her interest in innovation and technology, Hagen eventually started with Hotels.com where she moved into a marketing role in the mid-2000s. In this capacity, Hagen’s technical background gave her a competitive edge among other marketers to better understand the products she was representing. Reflecting further on the unintuitive separated nature of marketing departments and their technology team, Hagen decided to think along the same lines others in the MarTech industry who worked to mesh these two fields, and she began to formulate the idea for Tandem Theory.

Invigorated by the fast-paced and proactive nature of agency work, Hagen delved deeper into marketing and took a position at RAPP, an Omnicom company, from 2011 to 2013, which marked the last time Hagen worked for someone else.

“The larger you are, the harder it is to change,” Hagen said. “RAPP was trying to evolve but because they were large…it was taking longer to really make that shift in order to serve customer needs, so I knew if I spun off, I could get it done more quickly because I was starting with a blank canvas.”

Starting Tandem Theory

After much introspection, Hagen did just this, finding the entrepreneurial spirit that her mentors and family saw in her from an early age.

Hagen’s office, which includes this beverage cart, reflects the stylish creativity of Tandem Theory. Photo credit: Christopher Alvarado

“If you know in your heart that’s who you are then that’s who you are, and you have to go try to be that person and use the talents you were born with in a way that fits you,” said HagEn.

“I think it was in that moment that I thought well s***,  I’m an entrepreneur, and then you look around and are like okay, well, what am I doing here.”

The initial shock of leaving her position subdued, and Hagen dove full-time into making Tandem a reality. In the three months following that she left her job, Hagen founded Tandem Theory, and took on her first client: Ralph Lauren.

“They say whatever you need comes to you,” Hagen said. “So as soon as I left the job and made myself open…it did. People came to me.”

Tandem’s Expansion

Short after its founding, Tandem started taking on high-profile clients such as GameStop, Sally Beauty and La Madeline, and scaled growth followed.

The business started out of a large supply closet owned by one of Hagen’s friends, which eventually moved into the beautifully decorated space that Tandem currently holds in North Dallas.

For the first few clients, Hagen spearheaded the work; however, with increased demand, she hired three employees after only a few months, which expanded to over 46 employees after just four years.

Photo credit: Christopher Alvarado

All the while, Tandem developed a strong sense of identity and culture. In 2016, the Dallas Business Journal named Tandem Theory one of the best places to work.

“When I think about it in the early days when we sat down and decided what our culture attributes would be, I think we were describing ourselves a little bit, but we all agreed on some non-negotiables, and we said we are not going to compromise it,” said Hagen. “In the recruiting process and when we interview potential employees, we think about the non-negotiables and we make sure we don’t compromise it because every time we did, we’ve been burned.”

In addition to shaping a strong work culture, the company also molded its place in the Dallas market by blending technology and innovative methods such as artificial intelligence with marketing, which differed from other agencies that focused on one or the other.

“We are equal part divergent and convergent thinking, so we make the space for creative problem solving and that’s one of the things that our clients have noticed very consistently, and I think we do that very well,” Hagen said.

In fact, Tandem Theory is built upon this sharing of ideas, leading to much flexibility and adaptability among the team. Commonly, the entire direction of projects is pivoted if a new idea better meets the needs of the client.

“We learned how to make Ikea furniture look expensive,” said Michelle Hagen. Photo credit: Christopher Alvarado

“So a client gave us the challenge of hey we need to redefine ourselves, and we want to be known as an innovator,” said Hagen. Shortly before the pitch with this client, the team realized their client’s competitive edge wasn’t being an innovator but rather through a new direction.

“We just decided like two hours before the pitch, so we’re changing the deck around like let’s change this and move that and oh crap what if we’re wrong,” Hagen said.

This dedication to create unique and creative outputs, however, has allowed Hagen’s brainchild to grow into the successful agency it currently is today. Tandem Theory continues to take on big projects, such as the relaunching of three websites for Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, Inc. last December.

In fact, this dedication to innovation is the heart of Tandem Theory at its core.

“No great ideas come out of fear. Never,” Hagen said. “So how do you get to that place and embrace the unknown and then springboard from that and the ideas will naturally flow out? That’s tricky but if you don’t let yourself off the hook, you won’t give yourself enough room to be a creative thinker or to really give yourself some credit.”

Photo credit: Christopher Alvarado
  • Editor at Launch DFW | SMU senior studying journalism, creative computing and computer science graduating in May '18 | Twitter: @jacquieeli | LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/jacquelynrelias

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