In a quiet corner of town, something remarkable is happening: A hole in the wall restaurant is catering lavish weddings, a tiny nonprofit is expanding their donor base online, a boutique pie factory is being covered by the Travel Channel and on their way into Whole Foods. You might ask, how is this possible considering the lack of resources small organizations face in the current economy?
Patrick Hart can answer that question. “Efficiency, in a word,” he says, “Low overhead is the new high revenue, and we’re able to help so many disadvantaged organizations by following our own advice.” Patrick founded his SMB marketing agency in his junior year of high school at age of 16, with three other enterprising partners — all teenagers. “We didn’t want to work in fast food, and we each had some marketable talents, so I rallied the troops and we formed a summertime garage startup,” the founder reminisces.
“I don’t know how we did it then. Our academic schedules were packed and our extracurricular activities were demanding. Three of us were touring the country with the Mt. Eden Choir, and then in college I was a graphics/features dual editor for the Chabot Spectator newspaper. There were many a deadline Wednesday night we were there long after the janitors had gone home, laying out stories until 2, 3, 4 in the morning,” he continues, “We had the best advisor Bill Johnson who would go to great lengths to reinforce the tenets of quality journalism. Years later, when I dropped by to help the new staff with some computer glitches, Mr. Johnson surprised me by stopping the class and introducing me as ‘the only guy who was ever too big for this place’ and I’ll never forget that. He passed away a few years later, forever remembered like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.”
Patrick himself, knew he wouldn’t be able to afford college without this venture, his family was trapped in the income bracket that plagues so many parents of middle class students: they made slightly too much to qualify for financial aid, but having a single father with four children in this case, too little to bear the expense of higher education.
Thankfully, business began to take off the next year, after word got around almost exclusively by referral. “I can remember us driving around the neighborhood in a well-worn minivan, printing individual fliers on index cards, all from a borrowed inkjet printer rigged up to the cigarette lighter. We were just trying to get the word out, and we had nothing behind us but the entrepreneurial spirit.” recalled Stephen Apostolos, a partner in the original company. Parents and friends initially gave the group some specialized projects that would either be too short for a permanent employee, or too costly to hire a big advertising agency. It was then that they realized a niche had been carved out. All the industry giants were going after big names like Coca-Cola and Clorox. Nobody seemed interested in serving the little guy...
After high school, inevitable changes began to transform the company. The other partners went off to college, got called up for military duty, moved east, and Patrick was left wondering where the next steps were. “I decided it had to be a family business. Families and communities are who we’re serving, and that’s who they want to work with,” and the company was reborn as DualStar Digital. They had no venture capitalists, no angel investors, not even an SBA loan. The entire undertaking was financed personally and organically to maintain absolute freedom in business decisions, some of which would not have been seen as the most profitable by shareholders: like reinvesting in the community instead of squeezing the market for all it was worth.
The next few years of steady growth produced a new website for the Hayward Unified School District, which was covered in The Daily Review; joining the Hayward Chamber of Commerce introducing the young firm to politics; and a substantial role in passing the Yes for Kids! Measure I School Bond, which resulted in $205M for new and improved schools in Hayward — for which they earned an Outstanding Achievement Award signed by the school board. Campaign volunteer Conrad Hake shared on LinkedIn, “Patrick brings everything you need for a marketing campaign. I can attest, after working with him on a School Bond Campaign, that he is organized, efficient, high-energy and has marvelous interpersonal skills. He listens and incorporates ideas brought to him and helps each member of the team without ego problems that can derail so many team ventures...”
Starting in 2008, the burgeoning ensemble began to outgrow home offices, cubicles, and sublets. They began looking for their very own exclusive office space, free from the distractions of unrelated industry. After much research and auditioning, they found it in Hayward's oft-overlooked Eden Landing neighbordhood— with a rare opportunity of reasonably-sized Class A office space on a budget, keeping with their culture of high quality with low overhead. “It’s a perfect location really,” said wife and business partner Kate, “right here in the Heart of the Bay — 30 minutes from anywhere and on the foot of the San Mateo Bridge.”
So it was with great enthusiasm they began to gather the collective of freelancers, and pool the talent under one roof. That roof was soon blown off with the volume of business that started rolling in. “We became slightly visible for the first time; we were so used to being under the radar and behind the scenes of our clients’ successes,” voiced project manager Robert Gillette. They did the first thing that came to mind. A fancy new building? Not quite.
They looked to their roots and gave back more: Volunteering IT for the Hayward Education Foundation, joining the Business Advisory Board at Chabot College and advising the DECA program, donating fliers to the San Leandro & Union City Chambers of Commerce for struggling small businesses and restaurants, sitting on the Marketing Advisory Committee defining new and relevant curricula for the Eden Area Regional Occupancy Program, joining the 100 Club to benefit families of fallen police officers and firefighters; donating business cards to Education Through Music Bay Area, printing pro bono bus signs for Eden I&R’s 211 outreach effort to promote free access to health, housing and human services; and sponsoring posters for an exhibition at the Oakland Museum and Sundance Film Festival. From the latter’s website: “Question Bridge: Black Males is a transmedia art project that seeks to represent and redefine Black male identity in America. Through video mediated question and answer exchange, diverse members of this ‘demographic’ bridge economic, political, geographic, and generational divisions.”
As a result, Patrick was invited to the boards of several K-12 educational empowerment programs such as Partners In Education, Business 4 Schools, and the Hayward Educational Wireless Network, which aims to provide citywide free wireless internet to all students. The last two initiatives, Patrick’s father Rick Hart, is the founding chair.
“This company would not be in a position to help so many people if it weren’t for my dad. He taught me about work ethic, he taught me the importance of community service, he taught me how to be an entrepreneur. And he lead by example: When I was 3 years old he set me up in front of an ancient TRS-80 computer hooked up to the TV, and showed me the beginnings of the Logo programming language. He didn’t tell me, he showed me, and that demonstration carried through everything. It was like a lifetime course on ‘How to do the Right Thing’ in every situation. I watched how he handled upset customers, and because of that we don’t have any,” Patrick remembers.
Volunteerism led to more opportunities in politics, and soon DualStar’s team had a part in winning campaigns for Assemblymember Bill Quirk, School Board Vice President Annette Walker, Oakland City Auditor Courtney Ruby, Dublin City Councilman Kevin Hart (no relation) and newly elected Congressman Eric Swalwell.
A proud member of the Freelancers Union, Patrick never sends work overseas, and prefers to keep production as local as possible. He remarks, "I'm a believer in the famous quote: 'When you buy from a small business, you are not paying for a third vacation home for some CEO. You are helping a little girl get dance lessons, a little boy get his team jersey, a mom or dad put food on the table, a family pay a mortgage, or a student pay for college. You are making the American Dream come true for somebody in your community; somebody you probably know. Our customers are our shareholders, and they are the ones we strive to make happy.' Thank you for supporting small businesses!"
As for their latest work, DualStar is working with the City of Hayward to produce a beautiful series of greeting cards highlighting murals all over the city. They are also helping the Hayward Police Department to design officer trading cards to make officers more accessible to youth, and engage the community in public safety.
When asked about his aspirations for the future, Hart forecasts: “I think people are going to continue to see the value in what we do, so we’ll keep growing. The key is to grow smarter not larger. I want to make sure we stay true to our principles, never lose that personal touch, and always remember where we came from.”