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Celeb Shot: Dan Graham (Part 1)
Perhaps Saratoga's least-known business owner and best-known guy with whom to grab a beer, Dan Graham is full of stories from 19 years of running his company, SM2 Dev.
For the last year or so, Dan Graham has played an important, albeit easy-to-overlook roll in Saratoga Living’s operations. The Saratogian, who owns web development company SM2 Dev, is a food-lover, so he weighed in on his COVID-era eating habits in last spring’s Foodie Panel. He’s also a dog owner, so he stepped up as one of our gift guide gurus in our Holiday Issue, recommending three must-have items for any pandemic dog dad. Plus: He’s a DMB fan, so he’s credited with taking our Instagram photo of last summer’s Friday night concert. And he’s a whiskey connoisseur, so he was the one who turned us on to Washington Street whiskey shop First Fill Spirits, which opened in August of last year and partnered with us for a fab whiskey tasting in November (he’s a minority owner in the business).
But despite being our version of The Onion’s “Area Man” (without any of the negative connotations the satirical site pins upon its fictitious news subject), Dan has never really had his day in the Saratoga Living sun…or in any other suns, for that matter. And he deserves one. The man should be a “40 Under 40” list shoo-in—he’s grown his business, which he started when he was in college, may I add, from one that made flyers for local businesses in the Catskills into one that counts Johnson & Johnson and Sony Music amongst its clients. He supports local businesses so outrageously frequently that he could single-handedly keep Henry Street Taproom, or the Saratoga Farmers’ Market, or Moby Rick’s Seafood, in business. When he’s not running his built-from-the-ground-up business or dumping money into other local businesses, he’s supporting area nonprofits such as the Dake Foundation for Children, Pitney Meadows Community Farm and, most notably, Argyle’s Lucky Puppy Dog Rescue, for which he organized a fundraiser at Schenectady’s Frog Alley Brewing in December. Oh, and he’s pretty much universally liked by an ever-expanding friend group that he hosts at his home for various food-related functions, such as a 75-person Friendsgiving dinner that raised money for Franklin Community Center. No biggie.
If I sound awe-struck, it’s because I am, partly because I knew Dan as an acquaintance long before I knew anything real about his life. Up until last year, he was just a friendly guy I played volleyball with (yes, volleyball, golf, yoga, cooking and traveling are just a few more of Dan’s hobbies, which he approaches with a much-more-than-a-hobby attitude, and frequently result in one form of injury or another). Now I know that on top of leading a Page Six-level social life, being an impressive amateur athlete, and running a FOMO-inducing Instagram feed, he’s also a self-made website-building genius and a good guy? It’s honestly a little annoying.
Why Dan hasn’t been recognized more in local media is likely the same reason I knew him for four years without actually knowing what he did: He simply doesn’t really talk about it. While he’s the first to recognize how fortunate he is to have had the support and resources he did to build his business, when talking about being recognized for the actual success of that business, he gets uncharacteristically inarticulate. “I appreciate you doing this,” he told me. “Like asking me. This isn’t something I— I honestly try to do everything I can to— I’m the face of my company, but I don’t feel that way. I don’t try to go out—but I like to do things and I like to talk to people and to be able to do this is a lot of fun.”
Luckily, when asked more direct questions about how SM2 Dev actually came to be, Dan has much more to say, and says it much more eloquently. Here’s an abbreviated version of our conversation, which we engaged in over two (OK, four) Fidens Brewing beers this past Thursday afternoon.
I actually know very little about you. Tell me where you’re from and how you got here.
I grew up in the Northern Catskills, went to college at Long Island University and moved back upstate to Clifton Park; my ex was a teacher in Saratoga. We lived in Clifton Park for a year, and we spent every single weekend in Saratoga, so when it came time to buy a house, I bought a house here. That was nine years ago.
How did your business, SM2 Dev, come to be?
This will be a good story. When my dad moved to Upstate New York, he started a security camera company. In 1998, I remember sitting in the other room and him talking to my mom about how he was going to sell security cameras on the internet. My mom goes, “What does that mean?” And he was like, “Well you sell it, and then you ship it to people.” And my mom was like, “Well, what is that going to cost? Can we afford to do that?” It was something like $50 a month to have what is now called an e-commerce store. And then within two years my mom had to quit her job because my dad got so busy. He became the largest security camera retailer in the US for a period of time. And it was still a family business based out of a building in the back of my parents’ house. We had delegates from Panasonic that would come over from Japan to meet with him to talk about what e-commerce was. But it was purely a family-run business, so both me and my brother worked for my parents. I got Photoshop as a Christmas present, because we needed to make Google ads—like the very first Google ads.
That was a gift they gave you? Software for the family business?
Oh yeah. It was like “Hey, here’s Photoshop, but we also need these designs done.” It was all for the benefit of the family, so I didn’t think anything of it. That’s how I started getting into graphic design and understanding the internet. And then as I went to college, I was working for them over the summers, but my sophomore year I came home and my parents were like, “We hired people—we don’t need you anymore.” So they basically fired me. I have a lot of friends who are like. “Oh my god, your parents fired you?!” And I’m like, “No, it was just like you’re done here—go find something else to do.”
So what did you do?
I had just gotten a new car—I paid for it and my parents helped me out with it, but there was a deal that I had to have a certain amount of money by the end of the summer in order to have my car at college with me. My mom’s like, “You can go work at the supermarket.” And I was like, “I’m not working at the supermarket,” like I was too good for it or something, which I definitely wasn’t. I was like, “I’m gonna start my own business.” A lot of parents would probably say, “No, you’re not doing that,” but my dad stood up from his desk, pulled out his wallet, handed me $50 and said here’s your start-up capital. You need $3,000 by the end of the summer in order to keep your car—good luck. So that was essentially how the business started. I took that $50 and I went to Staples and I bought card stock paper and a dry erase board, because I felt like that’s what a business person needs. And folders, because I thought, “Well, I’m going to have papers, and I’m going to need to put them in something.” I ended up printing up brochures about making websites and doing graphic design and just went door to door in Cairo and Saugerties and Hudson handing out pamphlets. Back then, one out of every 10 businesses I visited had a website, so timing was on my side. I picked up four or five clients and then had to go home and buy a book about how to make websites because I really didn’t ultimately know how to do it. And that’s how the business started.
And obviously it continued on after college?
After finishing school, I wanted to go work in a big design agency. That was the dream: live in the city, be in this big design agency, make a difference. That’s what you’re led to believe your life is going to be like as a graphic designer. I was super fortunate—I had a friend of a friend that worked at an agency get me a job interview. I wore my first suit—I think my mom bought me the suit. It was probably baggy on me and everything. Carrying my portfolio, because that was what you did at the time, I sat down with this guy. He goes through all my work and he’s like, “Dude, all this is great. I see that you’re running your own business.” And he goes, “Let me lay out the next 10 years of your life.” I’m like, “OK…” And here I am a nervous, little 21-year-old. He’s like, “You look like a smart kid. You’re talented—maybe you make senior designer within two, three years. You end up with three roommates because you’ll be making maybe $32,000 a year living in New York City. Then let’s say you’re on a fast-track—you make art director or junior art director. Maybe you can afford your own place, maybe you decide to start a family, you move outside the city.” Now this guy was probably a scorned man who had been in this industry for a long time. But he basically lays out the next 10 years of my life, and he finishes by saying, “This job is always here for you. You call me, here’s my number, and I will get you a job here. But you’re doing your own thing—do your own thing and if that doesn’t work out for you, come back.” And that was like—I need to find that man and buy him a really nice glass of whiskey, because that was really the start of my business.
How has the business grown or transformed since then?
It’s been 19 years in business as of this year. The first 5-8 years were, if a bar needed a website, we built one. If a small business needed one, we built one. Every once in a while we’d get a corporate job. And then we started doing work for marketing and PR agencies, one of which was an agency my brother owns. He had us do some web work for him and he passed our name on to another agency and everyone was like, “Wow, you’re really good at websites.” I realized that as good as we were at design, we were even better at building websites and being imaginative and really good at user experience and user interface on websites, which wasn’t really a thing at the time. We just started getting passed around to larger PR/marketing agencies and then naturally what the business has become—a lot of our work is through larger PR and marketing agencies, not direct to clients. Seventy percent of our work is through agencies and about 30 percent is direct to clients.
Have you had any clients since the beginning?
A good friend of mine who was my first sizable client and whom I still work with is at National Dance Competition based out of Long Island. I have a couple of those. As we’ve grown—we do work for Sony Music and Johnson & Johnson and Panasonic and Rutgers University and some really, really large companies—we still take on a lot of local projects. Henry Street Taproom we built the website for…Cantina, Julie & Co. I never want to turn my back on some of our smaller clients. I tried to build the business in a way that although the smaller clients are not a money-maker for us, they’re not a money-loser, and it allows us to still grow but not turn our backs on what we came from in the first place, which is important to me.
Where did the name SM2 Dev come from?
When I was 18 years old, I thought the word “superior” was really cool. Because superior—like how are you going to get better than superior? So I made Superior Media. We didn’t do any media; it was websites. But I thought maybe one day we would. And then I made it Superior Media and Marketing and our logo was SM squared, and people started calling us SM2. And now we don’t do media, and we don’t really do as much marketing anymore—we do a lot of marketing consulting and digital strategy consulting. So when I rebranded it and we officially became a development agency, everyone still knew us as SM2.
Do you have offices in Saratoga?
We’ve been virtual since day one. Henry Street Taproom is my office. Dylan or Ryan can attest to that. For the first six, seven years it was just me and my CTO, Josh. Now I have 12 employees in eight states.
Anything else you’d like to add about your professional life?
My whole life is just professional things—professional whiskey taster…But no, my business is a very big part of my life, partially because I always wanted to build something and be a part of stuff and use that influence for good things.
To be continued…
Read Part 2 of our Dan Graham interview here.
Quote of the Week
“I can work when I’m dead.”
—one disillusioned Saratogian who this past Tuesday came up with the revolutionary idea to take the summer off from her job
Dubbed the unofficial start to Saratoga summer (which, from our perspective is a distinction coming more than a tad too early), opening day of the Oklahoma Training Track is today. The Whitney Viewing Stand will be open to spectators on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 7-10am beginning April 29.
What We’re Watching
Marvel fans got spoiled when Black Widow skipped theaters and was released directly onto Disney+ back in July, so it came as quite a shock to those of us not willing to get our butts off the couch and to Bowtie Cinema when Spider-Man: No Way Home took a full four months to become available to rent on Amazon Prime. But, lazy/cheap superhero movie fans, the wait is over and it was oh-so-worth it.
Another Thing We’re Watching
It may not be as gravity defyingly thrilling as watching Tom Holland (and friends) swing around the Statue of Liberty, but the SLAH team has got its eyes on a closer-to-home saga: an inexplicable row of Peeps sitting in the parking lot of the former Saratoga Children’s Museum. No animal, wild or domestic, has come for them. Thursday’s rain didn’t affect them. It remains to be seen how long this group of Easter’s most indestructible treats will remain intact. In related news, Albany Business Review reported this week that the Children’s Museum building will be turned into a nonprofit woodworking center called Saratoga Joinery.
While it’s still mud season and the Adirondack Mountain Club is encouraging hikers to stay away from trails located above 2,500 feet in elevation, closer to sea level (ie Saratoga, for our purposes), the trails are A-OK. The Spa State Park’s five-mile trail had only a few muddy sections earlier this week, as did the trails off Daniels Road.
ICYMI: This Week in Saratoga Living After Hours
On Monday, we gave word wizards an Easter-themed jumble to puzzle over.
And on Tuesday, we explored the community-built magic that makes the Spa Park’s clay tennis courts so popular.
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Have a fun, safe holiday weekend, everybody!