It takes something special to stand out for more than a few moments in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace. That’s why so many brands turn to Team Epiphany, whose founder Coltrane Curtis has been dubbed by culture and lifestyle platform giant Hypebeast “the Godfather of influencer marketing.”
Curtis’ New York City-based agency has won a string of big-name clients (and industry awards) for the unique way it leverages personal connections and creative campaigns, often featuring special live events, to make a long-lasting impact. Among those it has worked with: Absolut Vodka, American Express, BET, Coca-Cola and Nike.
Team Epiphany’s sweet spot is helping companies zero in on the specific consumer groups they are interested in.
We have a lot of subcultures within Black culture. That’s where brands are having a hard time connecting with particular communities, and I think that’s the gap we bridge for them.COLTRANE CURTIS
Curtis launched Team Epiphany in 2005, having graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in marketing and worked for designers Ralph Lauren and Mark Ecko. While later interviewing celebrities on-air for MTV about their styles, he discovered that “90% of them didn’t know what they had on, where it came from, why they had it on,” and he also realized that “I wanted to talk to the people who were creating the energy and creating the cool.”
Today as managing partners, Curtis and his wife, Lisa Chu, lead a team of 100, having built a successful company without taking any outside funding. Instead, they have drawn on their own experiences growing up in entrepreneurial families and leaning into their different areas of expertise.
For Curtis, that’s the creative, cultural and connections side. If one thing drives Team Epiphany’s approach, it’s marketing for clients that focuses on “where they’re going, not to where they are, or to where media says that these people are or what they like.”
Chu is the steadying hand that keeps all that on track. With her own background in marketing, she originally joined the business to help produce some live events but soon realized operations needed to be fixed (“They were paying people out of an ATM, doing funny-style men things. I was like, ‘I don’t know how to do this the right way, but I’m pretty sure this is the wrong way.’”)
“A lot of family businesses don’t work… because you bring in a lot of outside people that don’t share the same values.”
Though they are wired differently, they are rooted by the same values and some similarity of backgrounds. They each saw their parents “do extremely well … [and] do poorly,” says Curtis, “and what we really realized was that the reason why a lot of family businesses don’t work is because you bring in a lot of outside people that don’t share the same values. And then there goes the loyalty, there goes weird budgets and side accounts, and the money gets jammed up.”
From the start, their shared mindset was that “we’re gonna make some mistakes, we’re gonna learn from them, but we’re gonna do it ourselves.” They each brought experience of family business into Team Epiphany. Curtis’ father built a marketing agency from the ground floor up—actually, even lower than that. Back in the 70s, the family bought a roofless brownstone in “the crack-epidemic Brooklyn hood” where they lived in the basement. With the roof fixed, “we moved up, they rented the basement, and it became kind of like the financial hub of our lives,” says Curtis. “And then once he put the roof on the house, that became my dad’s office.
Among his father’s clients, Christian Brothers Brandy. “I saw him start from one person drawing his own logo, to printing his own cards, and I was just hooked.” One of the early lessons Curtis drilled into his son: “You’re going to be positioned, so it’s best that you position yourself because once you’re positioned, it’s impossible to change.
The biggest single thing he learned from his dad, though, was “do what you love, right? Be good at it, do what you love, but also work with those people that you care to spend your life and your time with.
Chu’s father and grandfather ran a trade agency together, with Hanes a longtime client. They discovered that a family friend in charge of the company’s finances embezzled a lot of money over a period of years. That experience prompted her to giving oversight to Team Epiphany’s finances: “You can’t trust other people to do you right.”
Separating their Team Epiphany business partnership from their home life has been easier since they became parents. “I feel like it was probably harder in the beginning when we didn’t have kids, because it would just be an ongoing, rolling conversation about work,” Chu says. “But then we had kids and agreed to not discuss work stuff unless it was really important at home and just focus on them when we were with them; we could always pick it up after they go to bed. But for the most part, I feel like we’ve gotten into a pretty good groove.
Staying in their own “swim lanes” helps, adds Curtis. “It’s very clear what I’m good at and what I’m not good at.
Partnership principles and practices
From their near-two decades’ experience with Team Epiphany, what do Coltrane Curtis and Lisa Chu believe are three essentials any couple going into business together needs to keep in mind?
Know your strengths. Be realistic and clear about what you each are good at and what you should leave alone. With some people she knows in mind, Chu says, “When one has expectations or thinks their significant other can do X, Y, and Z and they’re not [able to], they can only do A, B, and C, it’s not going to work. You’re going to be disappointed.”
High-five yourselves. Don’t wait for others to celebrate you; take time each day to acknowledge a win, says Curtis. It could be something internal to the business, like providing good benefits, which plays a part in sustaining a healthy and creative team. “We take the time to really celebrate ourselves and the wins as they come.”
Build a team. Curtis and Chu are the faces of Team Epiphany, but “there’s good senior leadership that’s been here for over 10 years,” she says, “and we trust them like we trust each other. When there’s a big decision to make, it’s not just me and him . . . it’s a group conversation.”
ON ‘HAVING IT ALL’
Women in business are always asked whether it’s really possible to “have it all.” Lisa Chu’s answer:
“For me, yes, but I’m a realist. I’m grounded in reality, in things that are feasible, doable, realistic . . . I’m not that person who wants to do it all at the same time; I know, physically, that’s not possible. I feel like I’m a better mother because I work at Team Epiphany; I’m not the type of person that could be a full-time mom; I think that would drive me insane. I love my kids, but I need a break from them, and I feel like when I come home and I’m with them, I’m fully with them. I think for moms who want to be with their kids all the time, but then also want to work, that’s probably a little bit harder.”