Why running a small business is like rappelling down 29 stories

Mike Gadsby, cofounder of 03 World, a Fishtown company specializing in digital production, begins his decent down Two Commerce Square on Market Street.

To really understand the mind-set of a small-business owner, first dangle from an office tower 29 stories up. Then start to rappel down.

Release some rope; inch your feet along the building's granite skin. Release more rope, walk some more. Pass a window, more granite, another window. Steal a glance down. Then more rope, more steps.

Racing heart, dry mouth, touch of panic be damned: You really have no choice but to keep going, no matter how scary it is.

And so I did the afternoon of Oct. 20, up close and personal with the exterior of Two Commerce Square, one of Brandywine Realty Trust's soaring stunners in the heart of Philadelphia's Center City office district.

Following me the next morning on the very same ropes was the reason I agreed to this insanity in the first place: Mike Gadsby, cofounder of O3 World, a digital product design and development agency in Fishtown.

Gadsby was there as an act of charity. The $2,000 he paid to rappel will benefit Philadelphia Outward Bound School, a nonprofit that teaches young people leadership skills, character strength, and service-mindedness through challenging expeditions. Its "Building Adventure" rappelling event was the school's fifth such fund-raiser.

Philanthropy is a priority at 11-year-old O3, he said. "I like having impact."

So do journalists. My desire to be a more informed one, and thus better equipped to appreciate and convey what it takes to be a small-business owner - my job the last six years at the Inquirer - is what got me to back off that 29th-floor ledge and trust the harness and cables that ensured my safe return to terra firma 10 minutes later.

When Gadsby - a 38-year-old father of two who wrestled at LaSalle College High School and the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in economics - touched down, he let out a "Whoot!" and declared the experience "pretty exhilarating," despite the stomach pain from being "all cramped" on his journey down.

I asked him to compare what he had just experienced to running a business.

"I don't know that running a business is ever that smooth," Gadsby said, chuckling.

Now that's saying something. Since its creation, the company of 28 employees has evolved from serving as the digital arm for advertising agencies, primarily working on logos and branding, to providing strategy, design, and technology assistance to a range of businesses. O3 helps them capitalize on new market opportunities through web and app development, with a focus on new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence.

The recession chilled new business opportunities and led to the elimination of two employees' jobs. Through that tumult was the added challenge of "creating a culture that is very employee-first . . . creating opportunity for them to do new and interesting work and creating paths for them to grow," Gadsby said.

"We realized how important it is that our people are thriving here," he said during our first meeting, an interview one week before we rappelled. We were in a far less terrifying space: O3's conference room in a former abandoned warehouse on Frankford Avenue, just two floors off the ground.

When talk turned to the rappelling challenge, Gadsby admitted, "I'm not real thrilled the building is as high as it is." Then again, in starting a business, he said, "you have to be willing to take a shot. . . . Growth cannot happen without a little bit of discomfort."

Echoing that perspective in a separate interview was Ed Ruggero, a Philadelphia Outward Bound trustee and business-leadership consultant. By doing something "a little bit scary," he said, people "can discover all sorts of capabilities on the other side."

He's not just talk. He rappelled down Two Commerce Square the same day I did.

Looking on from the ground as Gadsby descended was one of his employees, Justin Handler, 29, an account strategist who took pictures for those back at the office.

"It was pretty impressive," Handler said, feeling absolutely no compulsion to give it a try next year to earn points with the boss. "No way. You can quote me on that."



To watch Diane Mastrull's rappelling adventure, go to www.philly.com/rappel

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