Melissa Melonson and Cara Stellato worked together at an agency years ago, after they both moved to Connecticut from New York. Both shared an entrepreneurial mindset and a vision for creating an innovative digital agency. They cofounded Lumi Agency in the summer of 2016.
Melissa and Cara talked to Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about their entrepreneurial experience and finding a home for their agency in Hartford.
NAN PRICE: You both knew you wanted to own your own company, how did you decide to partner?
CARA STELLATO: I started a freelance development company while I was in college and continued for a short time after graduation. But I stopped and I started working full-time for a company because I realized I couldn’t do it alone. Wearing all those hats was difficult. I knew I was going to go back to it eventually, but I also knew I needed to find the right business partner.
Melissa and I had been talking about an idea she had for an app. Her business idea resonated with me and I saw a lot of my own ambition and hustle in what she was willing to do. I remember calling her and saying: If you’re serious about this, I want to do this with you.
MELISSA MELONSON: I told her I was very serious. Our long-term vision and our goals were very similar. We both knew we probably weren’t going to accomplish those things working for someone else.
From the beginning, we truly wanted to create an agency where we could allow ourselves to be as creative and innovative as we wanted. Some other agencies in the area are much more traditional. We have the freedom to create what we want, when we want, where we see a need. We can be agile for our clients and for ourselves. That’s been exciting and fun for us these first few years.
NAN: Why Hartford? Why did you choose to locate the business downtown?
MELISSA: We talked about whether to set up shop in New York City or New Haven or Stamford to be closer to New York City. In setting out and creating this agency, we knew we wanted a space where we and our employees could be happy and inspired to enjoy work. We felt we’d be able to create the right environment to build the agency we envisioned here in Hartford.
CARA: We wanted to have that city feel we loved about New York City—but New York City is very expensive and we knew the market was crowded there for digital agencies.
We read a lot about how Hartford was working its way back up. We thought: What better way to start and grow a new business than with a city that’s trying to be great too? Rents here are reasonable and Harford has that city feel. From the moment we started establishing ourselves in Hartford, we felt part of a community. People wanted to meet us, hear our story, and work with us. From there, we just became more ingrained.
MELISSA: We started working out of an office suite in a co-working space to test to waters. We met other local businesses and found the community extremely supportive. I think that was important to us in finding our home.
NAN: Did you tap into any specific Connecticut business resources as you were getting started?
MELISSA: We’ve been learning as we go. Recently, we’ve been trying to get involved with Upward Hartford. The MetroHartford Alliance was a valuable resource as we were getting up and running and we became an investor.
The Alliance was very supportive and gave us some guidance about the right types of people we should try to create relationships with and talk with to find business opportunities. They were helpful in navigating who’s who here in Hartford.
NAN: Let’s talk about weHartford, which is one of Lumi’s initiatives.
CARA: We created weHartford right at the onset of establishing ourselves in Hartford because we saw a need. Also, we were meeting others who were new to the area and wanted to learn more about it, so we created weHartford to help us navigate the area, but also to help us network.
MELISSA: weHartford started with us sharing interesting things we found in our travels as we were trying to meet more people and become a part of the community. In those conversations, we kept hearing great stories and seeing exciting new businesses opening. It kind of snowballed from there. People started reaching out to us asking to be featured or suggesting stories to be shared.
Now we have this community we’ve developed over time that’s hungry for more information. So, we have more of a responsibility to keep up with it and it’s much more strategic in terms of what we’re talking about and our mission and goals for the next few years.
CARA: Other than the Make Hartford Yours video series, we haven’t really put any spend behind weHartford. In the beginning, we were focusing on the restaurants and places Melissa and I liked. But, as we saw the series grow and we started speaking more to the community, we realized we need to expand a little bit beyond just what we like and showcase more things the community would like to learn about and experience.
MELISSA: And showcase what really makes Hartford amazing. So many people come to work in Hartford every day, but they leave as soon as work is over. They don’t take the time to explore and get to know what’s beyond their office. In the Make Hartford Yours series, we’re trying to educate those people and show there’s so much more to Hartford. Take a look. Go explore. Take the time to learn about all the people and things happening here.
NAN: You’re going into your fourth year as a business. Tell us a little about the evolution.
MELISSA: When we first started, it was just Cara and me. We outsourced anything we needed using designers, developers, and strategists and managed that process 100% between the two of us. Pretty quickly on we hired two interns who helped us through our first summer. At the end of that summer, we were able to start hiring our full-time employees. Our first year we quickly grew up to 14 employees. And we landed some pretty large clients including Google, Kamen, and Prudential.
The evolution was interesting. We had to do a lot of learning in terms of how to run the business—all the back-of-house type things and front-of-house, business development, managing employees.
CARA: We’ve also evolved in terms of business creation. When we were doing our Upward Hartford presentation, we saw the in bio Upward had written about us that we had created four business in three years. We looked at each other and thought: We did that?!
I think a lot of times you’re just doing and moving forward constantly without really taking a step back to look at what you’ve done. With regard to creating those businesses, it came down to what our customers needed from us and then what we were seeing as holes in the market.
From Lumi Agency, where we wanted to be this creative, disruptive, innovative, fun, startup-type of agency, we heard that our hospitality clients wanted a hospitality agency, and we had enough clients to help support that. We started hiring employees who were experts in the hospitality industry and understood it well just to work on those clients. From there we created Lumi Luxe.
MELISSA: We love coming up with creative solutions and ideas for businesses. We enjoy putting the work into branding them and figuring out how to build them and get them out into the world. But of course, that takes resources and a good, solid team.
The natural first step was creating a solid foundation and a business that could quickly generate revenue, which was Lumi Agency. We built a creative digital agency that could do this kind of work for clients, which we still enjoy doing. We try to look for opportunities where clients are thinking more about creating innovative new products or solutions that will reach their audiences.
Long-term we want to create more internal businesses with different solutions. Our first product is Crate, a software as a service (SaaS) application for small businesses with a monthly subscription fee.
CARA: Crate is its own business. It wasn’t a product we anticipated creating, but we saw a need for it in the market and we decided to launch it as our first product-based venture. Our dream is to be able to build and maintain additional products, release them to the public, and then constantly enhance them.
NAN: In terms of Lumi’s team growth, how have you found employees?
CARA: When we were looking at basing our business in Hartford, we got a lot of feedback about tapping really good local talent—from marketing to development. The resources are out there. Obviously, the University of Connecticut has a big stronghold, and a lot of people we interview to work for us are from UConn. But there are so many other excellent schools in the area.
Some Connecticut natives may go to school in another state but return to Connecticut because they loved growing up here and living here so much. There’s a lot of opportunity for those people to find great places to work here—and those places can find skilled local talent. We have been very lucky to find the great core team we have now.
Learn more about Lumi Agency