Tom Semmes grew up on a picturesque farm in Potomac Maryland (think rolling hills, horses, barns) and spent much of his youth exploring the woods and streams near his home. His grandmother, an artist herself, bought Tom his first paint set when he was a teenager and encouraged him to explore his own artistic talents. It was there, on that farm, where he discovered his fondness for painting and sketching landscapes and buildings.
Tom enrolled in art school at the Rhode Island School of Design, but, like so many who begin with pursuing a creative career, he left to opt for something “more practical”. He graduated with a B.A in Economics from the University of Maryland. His creative side continued to call him and the jobs he worked while in school involved magazine production, layout and design work. His career has centered on some sort of design ever since. He never worked as an economist, but notes economics and art combine well to support the disciplines he has pursued.
After graduation, Tom worked at the American Society for Association Executives as an in-house designer. “This was good experience that served me well”, Tom noted. “I learned about nonprofits and how they work. Almost every job after that has been for or involved working with a non-profit.” Several jobs later that included working a graphic communications organization for nearly eight years and a four-year stint at the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, he realized he was tired of the all the “back-biting and generally bad things insecure people do” in large organizations, the “bad stereotypes of a corporate environment”. “I’m not good at the whole teamwork thing”, Tom added. “Maybe that’s why I work for myself now.”
As is usually the case, some good came with the bad. The good was that Tom learned about building websites at a time when they we were still very new. In 1999 he decided to take that and strike out on his own – at least partially. For a while, he worked part time for yet another non-profit to supplement his income. Soon he realized that what he was doing as an employee he could do as a freelancer. He quit his employment job and went back to work for the same organization as a freelancer with more control over his time and destiny – and more money.
With the launch of TGS Communications in 2003 (later renamed TGS Creative), Tom had become a fully independent consultant. The many connections he’d provided him a steady stream of work of brochure design, website design and development and more. His clients liked his personal touch and that they could work with him more directly than when dealing with a large agency.
For a while, word of mouth was all that was needed to keep Tom busy, but, Tom noted, “My whole business changed about two years ago.” The steady income (50% of his total) coming from that former-employer organization was gone and, for one reason or another, he had lost nearly 90% of his client base. He had to start over again from scratch. He had to rethink who he was and what his business was all about. He wanted to get away from being someone’s “webmaster” to designing and building websites on a project basis.
With his world a bit shook up, Tom took the opportunity to examine what is most important in life. He’d been living in the D.C. area, but not enjoying it much at all. He called it “soul-crushing” in our interview for this article. He longed to get back into art. He needed an outlet for expression, so he took classes and connected with the Frederick art community.
Tom and his wife, Joyce, arrived in Frederick about a year ago, first living with parents and then purchasing a home of their own about six months ago. Almost immediately, he set up an studio in his new home where he could paint. What he did not set up in his home was an office. Tom had read about coworking spaces and was very happy to hear one had recently opened in Frederick. He signed up for a part-time member the very next day and soon became a full-time member. He now has a dedicated desk and Cowork Frederick, where you’ll find him working most days.
Tom loves Frederick, noting how quickly he got to know his Alderman, how connected he feels to the city, to his neighbors, and to the art-scene here. “Frederick has a very creative, upbeat feel to it – especially downtown”, said Tom.
As part of rethinking and remaking his business, Tom also explored options for finding new clients such as Craigslist (not as source he recommends, by the way). Mid-way through the year, he joined Business Networking International (BNI). This was a big stretch that has paid off, as have been his connections at Cowork Frederick.
“Joining Cowork Frederick was a key part of seeing myself as a business person. You need to ‘get out there’. Working at home gets stale – you get stale. You get quickly get out of the loop working day after day by yourself. Besides, working at a dining room table with food getting mixed up with work – that was not good.”
“I knew I liked the idea of coworking, but I’ve been able to get a lot more out of it than thought I would. It’s the random encounters, helping each other. I’ve made friends. I get, and give, support. I’ve teamed up with others to do work. Kimba Green’s “Social Media Therapy” classes were great. Then she got me into BNI. It’s a whole new world.”
“You should learn every day and being part of a coworking space helps make that happen.”
What is the most important lesson Tom has learned about running a business? “You are your biggest client. You need to do for yourself what you do for your other clients. Keep your own website current and compelling. Pay attention to your own marketing, etc. also, in order to work well, have to learn how to relax well too. You need balance.”
In that spirit, Tom’s art has become more integrated into his life. Finding time or the mindset to create used to be a struggle. Not anymore. Now it all fits. In fact, Tom participated in Artomatic and was a Cowork Frederick Artist of the Month earlier this year and has hung several pieces of his work in our space (a much appreciated gesture of sharing).
What’s on the horizon? Tom plans to beef up the blog he started a few months ago, teach classes, continually perfect his website so it serves as an example to others (and certainly potential clients!), learn and focus more on Search Engine Optimization, and to continue and strengthen the relationships he’s formed at Cowork Frederick. In fact, Tom and Glen Ferguson (also of Cowork Frederick) are looking at the possibility of creating a system for small businesses and independent professionals to support them in building a quality website without the high cost of programming and design.