On July 18, 2018, Nikki Davis, 30, and her fiancé, Matt Staley, 34, bought out the private equity firm that owned Cosmitto, a Pittsburgh digital advertising agency. More accurately, the pair formed an LLC – Musality – which then bought the company’s assets, including its operating name, client base, and a limited number of employee contracts.
Notably, the decision meant that Nikki, formerly one of the company’s Account Directors, climbed the internal ranks from Account Manager to Creative Director and Co-owner in less than two years. Her first-hand experience and “front row seat” to the company’s sometimes erratic history meant she was invested in its fate long before she stepped in as an owner. Now, of course, she has a larger hand in shaping it.
“There was too much talent here to ignore,” she says. “And both Matt and I wanted to build a core team that was going to work cohesively and cooperatively for clients.” Ultimately, the company went from 14 employees to nine in the exchange. “We were working with a lot of limitations, and there were multiple drafts of the final team. These weren’t easy decisions but we stand by them.”
As Creative and Technical Director respectively, Nikki and Matt recognize their unique ability to work well together. “We combine different backgrounds and skills sets, but more importantly, we recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses. That makes us a good team in life and in business. We divide and conquer.”
But what led to their mutual interest in the company, its clients, and its employees?
“I’m starting to think that I’ve always wanted this job,” says Nikki. “When I was little, I used to buy magazines just to look at the ads. But for a long time, I didn’t fully understand what that interest meant, or that it was something I could have and should have pursued from the start.”
She studied biology at Penn State Altoona, but as someone who had spent a lot of time happily coaching basketball and volleyball, she realized her value was best expressed as a leader.
Next, she studied for nine months to become a hairdresser, thinking one day she’d own a salon, but admittedly, she disliked the day-to-day. She thought that perhaps teaching was a better fit, and while it was a step in the right direction, she still wasn’t satisfied.
“I didn’t want to settle, so I took some time to figure out my future. I spent a lot of hours bartending, traveling, and getting to know myself. It brought me back to that initial passion for advertisement.”
She enrolled in Strategic Communications at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, fitting two academic years into one calendar year, and in March 2017, she was hired at Cosmitto (formerly known as Community Elf).
The other half of Cosmitto’s dual ownership, Matt, followed a different path. “I’ve been forever entrenched in family business,” he says. “Grandpa started Staley Communication in 1959 as a two-way radio service center. We did the communication for policemen, firemen, EMS, and a lot of stuff for coal mines. It’s changed a lot since then, but I wanted to be in the business since I was three years old.”
Matt’s early professional life was more fixed than Nikki’s, and in some ways predetermined—but it was anything but easy. In fact, he calls his business background “trial by fire.”
He went to college at The University of Dayton, where he double-majored in electrical and computer engineering. Motorola, a Staley Communication partner, brought him on as an intern for two summers in Chicago. Ultimately, Matt decided to return and take his place as next-in-line to run the company.
As Matt’s father distanced himself from the company, Matt was given more and more responsibility – management, sales, business development, accounting, software creation. In many ways, he was running the operation and managing all 85 employees.
In February 2017, Matt’s family sold the company. Employee numbers went up, and he discovered that he preferred the ins and outs of small business.
Nikki says “things were different” when she was first hired at Cosmitto. “Our responsibilities were more generalized. Account Managers had a hand in everything. At times, I felt like quantity reigned over quality.”
She and others wanted to bring a level of stability and security to the company, its clients, and its employees. In response, there was a push for specialized roles – allowing people to discover and grow into their strengths. After Nikki’s promotion to Senior Account Manager in October 2017, additional policies were put into place, and things continued to move in the right direction. But there was still room for growth, and she didn’t have the authority to enact long-lasting change.
For a long time, Nikki and Matt discussed the possibility of starting their own digital advertising agency. “Nikki knew the agency side of things, and I could handle development,” says Matt. In December of 2017, they created a solid business plan and built out a website for their potential new business. In March 2018, they registered the LLC for what they dubbed “Musality.”
“Nothing was set in stone,” says Nikki. “It was just a possibility we were considering. And if I did leave, I wanted to make sure that I left in the right way, on the right terms.”
They also knew that because Cosmitto was owned by a private equity, there may be an opportunity to buy. This led to another discussion. Was there a chance to make a better investment? Instead of starting from scratch, should they put their resources into an existing business?
“I knew there was a really good core of talent here,” says Nikki.
“And if we did go our own way,” adds Matt, “we legally wouldn’t have been able to hire back any of those people.”
In June ‘18, after much deliberation, they decided to put an offer on Cosmitto – but that wasn’t the only big decision they made that month.
“I ruined Matt’s entire proposal plan,” laughs Nikki. “He wanted to go get dinner on a random Tuesday, but we were on this crazy schedule – traveling, ironing out the details of buying the company, and closing on a new house. Basically, we argued, then he came out with this bottle of wine we were saving for a special occasion and the ring.” She shrugs and sighs. “I’m the worst.”
Matt just smiles and shakes his head.
“We are still establishing our new voice and brand,” says Nikki. “But as a small group of like-minded people, it’s a natural process. Fun too!”
She and Matt have several long-term goals: Help clients get to know the new Cosmitto, build stronger strategic partnerships, give employees stability and more specialized roles, and naturally, increase recurring revenue.
It seems that the couple has eased into their new roles. “I love the dynamics of this job,” says Nikki. “Working with clients and seeing their businesses grow. We get to make a difference and watch it happen.”
“It’s so different from what I was doing,” says Matt. “But I use a lot of the same skills. The culture is different too.” He jokes, “I came from a bunch of grumpy old men to an office primarily made up of young, funny, outspoken women.”
They’re excited to grow but don’t ever want things to get to the point where they don’t know what’s going on in their employees’ lives. They’ve learned a lot about themselves and the business and plan to keep learning.
“When I first came to Cosmitto, I acted on the motto that ‘the customer is always right,’ which came from years of customer service. There’s value in that attitude, but I realized I have to fight for my expertise. Clients want to work with an agency who knows their stuff, and we do. So I make sure that if I believe there is a better way, I express that,” says Nikki.
Looking back on the past two years, and further, Nikki says this: “I firmly believe that it’s never the ‘right’ time to do anything. But sometimes, you just have to do it.”