3, 2, 1 Liftoff: How Two Design Grads are Making a Name for Themselves

The room doesn’t look like much. It’s huge, nearly eight thousand square feet, mostly windows. The unfinished concrete floor is covered in construction debris — bits of wood, fragments of electrical wire, a dusting of plaster. It’s empty of furniture except for a plastic folding table, upon which rest blueprints for the new Three21 Creative offices. For founder and CEO Joe Boutin and partner and CCO Bryan Gunter, the plans represent a new phase in their professional lives, one marked by decades of friendship and years of sweat equity.

“Our first office was 200 square feet,” says Joe. “We had just enough room to fit two desks and a little bar to our whiskey, which we never drank. We wanted that office to feel like Mad Men.”

“We weren’t making much money in the beginning,” adds Bryan. “But we saw the big picture. We’re both hustlers and we knew as long as we kept grinding, something good would come of it.”

Friends since the second grade, Joe and Bryan bonded over a love of art and computers and remained close through middle and high school. As graduation approached, Joe decided to drive from the duo’s hometown of Rockledge, FL to check out Full Sail’s Behind the Scenes Tour. Bryan came along to offer support.

“The tour was exciting,” says Joe. “And the Digital Arts & Design program seemed really well-rounded with an emphasis on web, motion graphics, and print. At the time, I didn’t know Photoshop at all. I couldn’t tell you the difference between the pen tool and layers.”

Bryan found the tour so impressive that he decided to enroll in the program alongside Joe.

“For two people who came in with very little experience, Full Sail gave us the toolset to excel. We learned how to create and learn on our own, and that’s carried us through our careers,” says Bryan.

After Full Sail, Bryan and Joe each went on to work at various agencies around the state of Florida. Joe also took on as much freelance work as he could during that time. Eventually, it became too much for one person to handle, and he enlisted Bryan to help manage the overflow.

“It grew from there,” says Joe. “One of our freelance clients was a hospital who was looking to book a big campaign for their dermatology program. We came up with the idea to make a video outlining who we were and what we were all about, as if we were a real agency.”

The only problem? They needed a name. After lots of brainstorming Bryan and Joe hit on the idea of a countdown. They decided to spell out the number three to create visual interest. The pitch video was a success. Suddenly, they weren’t just two guys pretending to be a real agency — they were a real agency.

“In our early days, we were strictly a creative house. We’d focus on design and making things look pretty, but we offered minimal back end development because we just didn’t have enough marketing experience,” says Joe.

In order to grow, Bryan and Joe brought on a third partner, Carey Sobel, to handle business development. As the company grew, they built a team around the things they didn’t know — mainly digital marketing — in order to position themselves as a results-driven agency.

That was three years go. Since then, Three21 has expanded from a small design firm to a full-fledged creative agency with 24 employees (seven of which are Full Sail grads). They offer a variety of services including branding, digital marketing, web, and video production.

“Everything we do is driven by strategy,” says Joe. “When a client comes in, we provide them with what we call a Digital Strategy Architecture, or DSA. It gives them competitive analysis, budget, allocation, brand touchpoint, and where we think they should be going with their marketing.”

The company’s new offices may not look like much right now, but by early next year they’ll have been transformed from construction zone to a state-of-the-art creative space overlooking the city of Orlando. Along with the new space, Bryan and Joe plan to launch a revamped logo and website as well. They’re also looking forward sponsoring events.

“We’re big on collaboration,” says Bryan. “Not just within our company, but in the design community. Our new office will have lots of collaborative workspaces, and we plan on hosting community events both independently and through design-centric organizations like AIGA.”

Three21 still considered itself a small agency, but Bryan and Joe both acknowledge they’re poised to break out into the big leagues. Orlando Business Journal called them one of the top agencies in Orlando, and they recently named Joe to their “40 Under 40” list. Up until now, their small size has allowed them to avoid some of the cutthroat competition that dominates the creative design industry. If competition is the price of growth, Bryan and Joe are both ready to take on whatever’s next.

“We’re on the cusp,” says Bryan. “I think in a couple of years we won’t be able to fly under the radar as much. But that’s okay. For now, we’re staying hungry. We’re going to keep grinding.”