Cimin Ahmadi-Cohen of Idea Peddler: “Dump the fear”

Dump the fear. The cliches here are a mile long, the sentiment is simple. You gotta try big things. Things that push you past your comfort zone. Things that feel impossible. Long shots are what make the trajectory go from traditional to hockey-stick. The fear of failure is one of the most toxic, unhelpful self-preservation techniques we’ve evolved to have as humans. If you can dump it, you’ll be emboldened to live and work in a way that isn’t afraid to burn the ships, toss the sacred cows and make something really unique and authentic.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cimin Ahmadi-Cohen of Idea Peddler.

Cimin Ahmadi-Cohen, like so many pioneering women, is challenging the norms of male-dominated, stagnant professional services. As the founder of her agency, Idea Peddler, she’s dismantling how media and advertising is traditionally approached, banishing the negativity and toxic mindset that has plagued the industry. After working at major firms on Fortune 100 accounts, Ahmadi-Cohen continually challenges and pushes the boundaries of what is typically expected and executed. Her motto of doing “good work for nice people” extends not only to her clientele but also her staff by nurturing and developing a healthy work culture. In doing so, she’s managed to double her billing year over year since 2017, while also growing her staff and offerings despite the pandemic. Idea Peddler was pleased to see 167% growth in the first six-months of 2021 compared to all of 2020 in addition to achieving their three-year goal in six months of year one.

Idea Peddler is a full-service agency that unites big agency expertise with boutique agency service. We create bespoke campaigns that deliver on clients’ unique goals and follow through with exceptional execution. In uncertain times, ideas win.

Ideas that inspire. Ideas that shift behavior. And ideas that create growth. Idea Peddler holds true to the promise of doing good work for nice people.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Austin, TX, I always loved media. My sisters and I would spend our summers making our own commercials or pretending we were hosting weather segments. Advertising as a career hadn’t really occurred to me until college, when I realized that the culture and energy of the Psychology lab, which was my major at the time, was not a great fit. When I found the media department at UT Austin, it was the perfect intersection of creative, business, media, and science that tied together all of my passions. Years later, after graduation, I was feeling super burnt out after my time working with some of the biggest media agencies and Fortune 100 brands in the world. I was on a fast track to leadership, but looked ahead at the people whose seats I’d eventually fill and didn’t see many happy faces. It looked to me to be a never-ending cycle of bosses on higher floors than you making decisions that impacted you but you had no say in; clients perpetually underserved and understaffed, always disappointed and annoyed at you; and teams that reported to you that were also underserved and therefore not happy either. It all felt very toxic. I escaped to the mountains of New Mexico by sheer luck where I made the decision to leave advertising and media. But advertising wasn’t done with me, and I was invited to help in a pitch for the New Mexico Tourism Department. I fell in love with the clients, the team and the work. From there I just started to say yes more and more, get a lot of referrals and word-of-mouth business and we’ve grown like crazy since then to where we are today. By staying focused on doing good work for nice people, we’ve eliminated a lot of the sadness and toxicity I see as pervasive in agency life today. We’ve been able to stay selective about our client list, working with companies whose values align with ours and who are rooted in improving the customer experience.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Early on, I was eager to grow and so excited about every potential new client. A friend introduced me to an attorney who needed advertising help to recruit folks who had been involved with a tragedy. My spidey sense started to go off right away in the way he talked about the event. Then towards the end of the call, the attorney started getting a little belligerent in the way he was asking about honesty and ethics. More or less, he was trying to use scare tactics to avoid being taken advantage of and proceeded to ask me to hold 150,000 dollars of money for him through the end of the year. That was a huge media budget for me at the time and it was clear budgets could grow into the millions quickly. I didn’t think twice though and politely but sternly declined, noting that trust is the foundation of any relationship and I didn’t think it would work for me to represent him given his inherent trust issues. It was… weird. But it was an important lesson in listening to my gut about the right and wrong clients.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

This sounds incredibly cheesy, but my husband. He’s been my champion since day one and has always believed in whatever crazy goals I set. Whether I’m experiencing self-doubt, imposter syndrome or just general anxiety about not being able to achieve my vision, he reminds me of the trail of success I have behind me to prove that anything in front of me is possible.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Fear. Most women I know want very much to be great at everything they do and don’t ever want to look like they’re out of their element. There is an awareness and sense of self, a sense of being perceived, in the female energy that is, candidly, really unhelpful for some parts of entrepreneurship. Whether you’re bootstrapping, out trying to close deals or raising money, far too many women pull back when they feel their edge of confidence begin to shake. Secondarily, there are far too many men in most of those decision-making seats who have come through business with a mentality of setting people back on their heels as a way to test them. Unfortunately I think that can be very off-putting to women, for some to the point where they drop out or never try.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

Greater social security infrastructures like elongated and paid parental leave. Increased child care support. And ultimately, I’d love to see a woman in the executive position of President, even Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I think seeing women lead in that way would help eliminate a lot of the fear women may have about shifting the masucline power dynamic.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

I believe women founders are going to change the shape of business as we know it today. That may seem overly lofty, but every female founder I know is focused on their business success in addition to the really important task of instilling and living a work/life balance. The more women bosses we have, the more understanding managers we have helping the next generation buck the traditional work styles of the industrial world we know today.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

Gosh there are so many. Some rosy and some less so. Some rosy myths are that all founders are rich. In reality, most founders I know pay their employees better than themselves. A not-so-rosy myth is that founders are impatient and erratic. I find that to be untrue. Most founders I am surrounded by are relentlessly focused on improvement in all things, but almost especially process.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

“Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.” I find the Theodore Roosevelt quote to fully encompass the day-to-day mindset that’s true to being a founder. Some days I’m leading HR, some days I’m a CFO, and some days I’m a client account director. If ambiguity and the feeling of riding roller coasters doesn’t appeal to you, I’d recommend maybe sticking with a traditional career path.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You need to surround yourself with other founders, particularly women. Being an entrepreneur can be very lonely and isolating. None of your friends with jobs can relate to the pressure you face to support yourself and your team every day. You can’t confide deeply in your employees or it will shake their confidence. So, it’s SO important to have other female founders to turn to. Being able to share wins and losses with people who 100% are experiencing the same thing opens up so many learning opportunities and acts as a kind of balm for the scratches and scrapes you will inevitably face along the way.
  2. Say no with a smile. Saying no can be really hard. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re overly hopeful and optimistic by nature. So it can be incredibly counterintuitive to say no. To people, to opportunities, to clients, to team members and so on. But you know your business best. And when your gut says something isn’t right, you have to trust that it’s not and say no. I’ve been saved by myself more times than I can count by saying no to business that would have hurt us, drained the team’s resources and energy or just not been a culture fit.
  3. Hear no with a smile. I hate losing. Just like Brad Pitt in Moneyball, I maybe hate losing more than I love winning. But in the same way you have to trust your gut to say no to the things and people that won’t serve you, you need to trust that when you hear no, it’s the same universality of making sure you have only things that will truly serve you and the business.
  4. Get yourself a cheerleader as a partner. In my case, I was lucky enough to actually marry a former cheerleader (Go Stratford High!). In all sincerity, Sheryl Sandberg talked about this in Lean In. It’s incredibly difficult to make being a female founder work without a partner who is willing to sacrifice their career and time for the family. I’d go even further to say: it’s incredibly challenging to make it work as a founder if you don’t have your greatest champion at home. You will be exhausted, defeated, deflated, overwhelmed and anxious, but having a partner who lifts you up when you’re in the low spots makes a huge difference in having the mental grit to see tough situations to the other side.
  5. Dump the fear. The cliches here are a mile long, the sentiment is simple. You gotta try big things. Things that push you past your comfort zone. Things that feel impossible. Long shots are what make the trajectory go from traditional to hockey-stick. The fear of failure is one of the most toxic, unhelpful self-preservation techniques we’ve evolved to have as humans. If you can dump it, you’ll be emboldened to live and work in a way that isn’t afraid to burn the ships, toss the sacred cows and make something really unique and authentic.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We’ve been humbled to be able to give back to our community non-profits like Austin SAFE Alliance and Caritas of Austin. But more than monetary donations, I get real joy from being able to help create a workplace that really allows men and women to have meaningful work life and family life; and to be able to do that in a way that’s real and authentic to our culture. I find it rare these days that the true work-life balance is delivered without some sideways glances on having to take a sick day for your kiddo. Building an environment that is truly rooted in human kindness towards ourselves, our teammates and our clients is an experiment in and of itself towards micro changes that will hopefully impact a bigger change.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I really appreciate David Brooks’s perspective on the topic of character and by extension civility. If there was one thing I think we as a collective need to do, it’s to focus more on our commonalities than individualities and differences. There are too many things that separate us, that make us all unique, but I find my deepest connections come from finding the common threads. I hear some people cringe at the idea of being friends with someone from another political party and it makes me sad honestly. If we can’t all move toward finding the common good in each other, no matter how different, it’s going to be very hard to affect the kind of change we need to in order to save our planet and our civility.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Sarah Blakely! I appreciate how honest she is about how much work and time it’s taken her to build her business. Yes, there was tremendous success quickly, but she’s remained extremely hands-on in the business for a long time past what most would consider the traditionally scaled part of the business. She’s candid on social media and in interviews that only in the past few years has she been able to make time for things like regular exercise and hobbies. I think too often there is a real myth circulated among women entrepreneurs about having it all: the successful and growing business, a happy healthy family, a healthy diet and lifestyle, beauty and fashion and so on. Sometimes you have to prioritize one over the other, give yourself some grace for where you know you’re coming up short and make a plan to address it later.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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