Jay Wilkinson is a big believer in daily motivation. The longtime entrepreneur and founder of Firespring has traveled the world to discover the wisdom of the universe and keeps a stack of books on his desk from which to draw inspiration. “Do More Good” is even spelled out in neon on his office wall.
But one thing above all else has nourished his entrepreneurial spirit, driving him to think bigger and reach farther, a Stephen Grellet quote that’s lit his line of sight ever since his professional journey began in high school.
“I expect to pass through this world but once,” it reads. “Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness I can show, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.”
“That quote still hangs here above my desk. It’s been there for my entire adult life,” Wilkinson said. “But it wasn’t until 2013, when the sign was hanging on my mirror above my sink at home, that the words ‘Do it now,’ jumped off the page. I kind of went, ‘What are you doing?’ I came in and told my leadership team I had this idea.”
A Whole New Ball Game
The idea was to transform Firespring, and the vision Wilkinson had for doing it was unlike anything he had launched before. Until that time, the successful string of companies he’d built all followed the tried-and-true ethics model shared by millions of other entrepreneurs worldwide. The businesses did no harm but didn’t exist to intentionally do good, either. With Firespring, Wilkinson proposed to turn that business model on its head, making way for a new kind of purpose-driven enterprise.
“I’d been doing research and I found this thing called Certified B Corporation,” Wilkinson said. “I thought this might be a way to give us structure and guidance and best practices around what it means to be a company that lives by its purpose rather than have aspirations to just be.”
What Firespring does is provide clients marketing, printing and various means of digital tools, including services specifically designed to help nonprofits sharpen their messaging and build their brand. What the Lincoln-based company is goes far deeper. As one of the state’s first Certified B Corps – a legal status conferred by 35 states and certified by third-party B Lab – Firespring is required to support ethical, purposeful operations right down to reporting its social and environmental performance.
In other words, Wilkinson and his crew are not only judged by what they do in the marketplace but how they do it as it benefits humanity and the good that grows from those efforts.
Good on Purpose
“We had done a lot of things right, things that would benefit the people helping build our company and not necessarily just owners or shareholders,” Wilkinson said. “But just being frank and honest, even though that ethos was present, there were so many years when it disappeared into the sea of uncertainty and frustration that every business goes through, wondering if you’re going to make payroll that week. Things that, still to this day, we struggle with from time to time as we grow and expand.
“The Certified B Corporation structure gave us a list of 117 things we, as a business, should consider. It gave us a framework for all these things and it wasn’t any one of those, it was the totality, the wholeness of all of these different possibilities from social, environmental, HR to community involvement. All these things that truly do make a difference in terms of what it means to be a do-more-good business.”
To say Firespring was out on a limb is putting it mildly; there were only 1,000 Certified B Corps worldwide in 2014 when the company earned its designation and still only about 6,000 on the planet. Unconventional though it was, the company’s new purpose-driven ethos was amazingly effective, balancing its growth with equally robust community service and ethically responsible behavior both internally and externally.
The World Takes Notice
Every year that passes has elevated the company to another plateau of capstone accomplishments. The company has been recognized nationally in the top tier of industry sales as well as being a “best place to work” and ranking globally for its social, corporate and environmental responsibility. In 2023, Firespring added SBA Nebraska’s Legacy Business award to its resume.
“When I got the notification the SBA was going to present this award with us, I was under the impression it was the local SBA coming over to say thanks,” Wilkinson said. “I did not know there were 70 companies chosen across America on the 70th anniversary of the SBA and the gravitas of the intention behind the award until I literally was in the middle of receiving it. It took me a bit by surprise. It was very humbling to accept it, just an incredible honor.”
As for where the company goes from here, Wilkinson admitted that like any business, Firespring has its mountains yet to climb and he’s as ambitious to do good as he ever was to do well. But he’s also been shown by time how, with constancy of purpose, the company can leverage what’s best in people to achieve great things.
“Without question, every human innately desires to feel seen and heard, to feel appreciated and to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” he said. “I didn’t realize that in the early days. Some of it was just kind of happenstance, some it happened accidentally, some of it happened with a little bit of intention and then grew into something more.
“I don’t see work and life through the lens that they’re somehow two different things anymore. Life is work and work is life. It’s all one thing and the more we bring our wholeness and our humanness into work, the better off we all are. Building intentionally around a cause, where people feel they are part of something bigger, that’s the community aspect of business. Everyone wants to be part of that.”
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From Good to Great
A snapshot timeline of Firespring
1992 – Firespring begins as an Alphagraphics printing franchise in Lincoln. A second Alphagraphics opens in Omaha three years later.
1996 – Level100 Communications, a website services division, begins operating in the printshop basement.
2001 – Company reorganizes outside the Alphagraphics franchise network as Cornerstone Print & Marketing. Digital IMS spins off and launches PrinterPresence to provide website solutions to the printing industry.
2003 – Company launches websites and tools specifically developed for nonprofits.
2007 – Digital IMS changes its name to Firespring and rebrands under a more purpose-driven mantra.
2010 – Firespring is named to its first Inc. Magazine’s “Inc. 5000” list of America’s fastest-growing private companies. The following year, the company is named one of the magazine’s Top 50 Small Company Workplaces.
2012 –Cornerstone and Firespring move into new 70,000-square-foot Lincoln headquarters.
2014 – Firespring becomes Nebraska’s first Certified B Corporation. That same year, the company donates $1 million to Nonprofit Hub to create a 12,000-square-foot facility that will be home to hundreds of nonprofits.
2015 – Firespring merges printing companies Cornerstone Print & Marketing, United Enterprises, Mail Marketing, CopyCat and MinuteMan along with ad agencies 42 and Snitily Carr to form one of the largest marketing communications firms in the Midwest.
2015 – The Better Business Bureau names Firespring an Integrity Award winner for ethical practices in business. The following year, Inc. Magazine names company to 50 Best Workplaces list and the Omaha team moves into a new 55,000-square-foot facility.
2016 – Firespring merges Jacob North and A to Z Printing under one banner. Also that year, the company is recognized as a Best for the World Honoree for achieving a community impact score in the top 10% of all Certified B Corporations worldwide.
2017 – Company is featured as the largest Quick and Small Commercial Printer in the U.S. by Printing News magazine.
2018 – Firespring team members reach 50,000 volunteer hours in less than four years, serving 270 local organizations and making a $2.7 million financial impact in their community.
2019 – Firespring helps launch inaugural Do More Good Conference to help educate, empower and inspire leaders to leverage businesses to do more good.
2020 – Company named one of 100 Top Impact Companies in the world by Real Leaders magazine and one of 25 Forbes Small Giants for commitment to purpose, leadership, culture, finance, relationships and community. Also that year, Firespring becomes a Partner of the United Nations Global Compact to help elevate a principles-based approach to responsible business practices worldwide.
2020 – Firespring recognized as SBA Nebraska’s Legacy Business.