There are some people who take years to discover what they truly want to do in life, sometimes embarking on second careers as their second act in life. Then there are others lucky enough to find their passion early on. Rob Simons is in the latter category. He stumbled into a part-time job in a printing shop in high school in the ‘80s, right on the cusp of the computer age. At home, his supportive parents bought him a Macintosh Apple computer. By joining those two youthful interests, the path toward future entrepreneurial success was set.
“I was able to combine what I knew in printing with my computer skills,” he says. “I grew up around computers and started working with Illustrator and Pagemaker back in the ‘80s.”
Once in college at Auburn University in Alabama, where he grew up, he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, and the die was set. A young man in a hurry, he finished college in just two years and nine months in 1989, when he was just 20 years old.
Today, Simons runs Toolbox Studios, a San Antonio-based company situated along the River Walk with satellite offices in Dallas and Austin. The company’s 14 employees provide messaging content for numerous clients in a variety of media platforms — print, web-based, through iPad apps, social media, blogging and more. He founded the company while still in his 20s, informed by his youthful experiences combining old-school traditional printing with computer work. It’s the second time he’s launched a business, and in a note of full disclosure, previously formed PixelWorks with former business partner Mike Gaffney, publisher of this magazine.
We’re storytellers,” he said succinctly in describing the business venture he founded 16 years ago. “We help companies tell their stories about what they do, what’s compelling about what they have to offer. We create a lot of content for clients that’s engaging, educational and inspirational.
The latter attribute is particularly evident in the messaging provided for the company’s faith-based clients. Toolbox Studios is responsible for Reform, an award-winning program intended to help teenagers learn about their religious faith through a workbook and an assortment of videos produced for Minneapolis-based Sparkhouse that’s sold through churches and to youth ministers. Another big faith-based client is Baptist Standard, a century-old Christian newspaper. The company also provides the content for faithvillage.com, a popular religious website.
The company also has clients in the secular world, including Dow Jones & Co., which counts on Toolbox to produce a juvenile version of The Wall Street Journal distributed to high schools nationwide to help young people understand the world of finance.
“One of the things about Toolbox is we believe good content is what people want,” he says. “It’s all different now, but at the end of the day you have to have great content.”
Toolbox also focuses its efforts on providing content for the financial services industry, particularly for wealth management firms. Other clients can be found in the food and beverage industry, including Z Tequila and Rebecca Creek Whiskey.
“College is overrated,” Simons says with a chuckle, describing the résumés that come across his desk from people who are well educated but lacking real-world experience like he had. While in school, he held down three different jobs and later freelanced for companies as a consultant. “I’ve only had quote, unquote, one real job my whole life, and I was making more money freelancing,” he says.
Not that he dismisses the value of education. But what he values most is the development of the sort of work ethic required for entrepreneurial success. To that end, he hires interns from Trinity University and other local colleges with the understanding that they won’t be just running errands or fetching lunch or coffee for the higher-ups but actually learning the business, he says. The approach benefits the firm itself, with one-third of the staff made up of former interns — all paid during their intern stints, illustrative that he eschews the concept of unpaid internships.
When he’s not busy running the business, Simons enjoys traveling throughout the world. Much of that travel comes through his involvement in Entrepreneurs Organization, a worldwide group promoting business ownership with 8,700 members in 41 countries and a goal of building up global membership. In that role, Simons travels the globe, advising people on launching their own businesses, a job that has taken him to such countries as Bahrain, Nepal, Dubai, Cuba, Canada, Mexico and more.
“At the end of the day, they’re just like us,” he says of the people he visited in China — a communist nation with ideals vastly different from those in America. “They’re just trying to make a better life for their families. This organization has dramatically changed my life,” he adds, expounding on the perspective it’s provided him on the ability to pursue a dream in America, even for those who have grown up in poverty.
“That’s the other takeaway: There is still a caste system in other countries that we aren’t used to. This is what differentiates the United States from some other countries, that you can come from nothing and still achieve your dreams.”
His involvement in EO is no mere résumé-builder, but an extension of his innate belief in the value of entrepreneurialism to a society: “I truly believe when it comes to the financial crisis that it’s not going to be Republicans or Democrats who save the economy, but entrepreneurs,” he says, noting the demonstrable job production consistently emerging from the sector.
When time permits, Simons enjoys going to schools to advise students intent on pursuing corporate success. He offers would-be entrepreneurs this advice: “I always tell them the best time to try something is when you’re young, when nothing is holding you back. For me, surrounding myself with entrepreneurs who inspired me was key. You also have to have a lot of confidence in yourself. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, you’re never going to have success as an entrepreneur.”
Such a busy life leaves little time for recreation, but Simons enjoys boating, cooking and photography when he’s not working. Still single at 43, he says he hopes to someday find his dream woman. For now, through Toolbox Studios, he will continue making the dreams of his clients come true.
By: Tony Cantú
Photography: Casey Howell