An Update on Our Business: A Dispatch from Startup Nation
By Mike Kuczkowski
It’s been awfully quiet on the Orangefiery blog. Too quiet. Fifteen months since our last post? That’s outrageous!
All we can offer is a typical excuse: We’ve been really busy.
It’s true. Business is good and growing. We’ve got a dozen clients and eight team members. The work we’ve taken on has been challenging and rewarding.
The creation and development of Orangefiery has been an intense and fulfilling journey. Fifteen years ago, when I joined Edelman, I was a vice president in its 100-or-so-person New York City office; the firm itself was the seventh largest in the world. When I left, after holding the positions of executive vice president, global client relationship manager, president of Edelman Consulting and general manager, the New York office had 800 people in it and the firm was the world’s largest by a significant margin. Having been a part of that evolution, I thought I knew a fair amount about growth. I didn’t realize quite how different life at a startup would be.
My vision for Orangefiery was rooted in a strategic view of communications: research-based, campaign-driven, stakeholder-focused and change-oriented. We know that stuff. We’ve been doing it for years and have a great track record at it. Still, there were lots of questions about how all of that would come to life. The last 15 months have been full of experimentation within that framework, figuring out the right business model, offerings and work structure. I believe in experimentation as a core pillar of business — try things, see what works, see where the marketplace takes you. Here’s what we’ve been doing and what we’ve learned along the way.
What We’ve Done
- Consulting: From the beginning, the focus was on creating a consulting model for communications, as opposed to a typical agency model. I’d studied consulting, talked to a lot of very smart business, consulting and communications leaders about it, and started up one (now-shuttered) consulting business at Edelman. I felt like there was still a big gap in the marketplace. Communications is one of the most complex, rich and potentially impactful functions of business, but communications firms generally don’t structure their work like a management consultancy with research and rigorous analytics. This means the communications strategy work is often less empirical and less valued. Consulting firms, on the other hand, often lack a strong theoretical and practical understanding of communications. They view it as linear — aim the message at the target and shoot. We started out working in a consulting orientation, focused on projects: how to build a new market in a therapeutic area, how to create a brand architecture for a non-profit, how to build an advocacy engagement function, and how to quantify the environmental risk around drug pricing decisions. The assignments we landed were unique and exciting, and the work product was extremely fulfilling. But…
- Implementation: A funny thing happened along the way. As we completed our projects, many clients asked us to implement our recommendations. Which made sense to us. The consulting projects had given us a clear sense of our clients’ goals. We understood the context in which our clients were operating, and we knew what they wanted to achieve. Our communications orientation, which gave us a unique perspective for consulting deliverables, made us well suited to implement our own recommendations. We could develop and deliver messaging, engage with stakeholders, create communications materials and conduct media relations. It worked! And, it was rewarding. The sense of accomplishment of seeing a project’s recommendations brought to life is incredibly fulfilling.
- Health care: We’re bullish on health care. About 75 percent of our clients are biotech and biopharma. (The remainder are corporate and/or crisis/risk clients.) At the start of this venture, I was not sure if we’d wind up focused on health care, tech or corporate communications, so this was something we learned along the way. Why? Health care is a rich field with so much exciting news right now; it’s awesome. It’s also a complex system with lots of interdependencies between payers, patients, physicians and policymakers. We know those worlds, and the dynamics between them, which gives us a competitive advantage. Also, health care leaders oversee businesses marked by uncertainty (like communications) and are accustomed to doing research, evaluating challenges and opportunities, analyzing assumptions and making decisions that they continuously evaluate and recalibrate using metrics — which is our model, so it turns out it’s an excellent fit.
- Crisis and risk: Crisis and risk communications is another area where we’ve had much success. We have people on the team with strong backgrounds in this area, and the work can be extremely impactful. As with the health care business, in a crisis or issue context, the future is marked by uncertainty. Being able to develop assumptions about how people will respond to anticipated events and developing scenario plans — these are powerful and effective tools. Plus, it’s an area where experience matters. Having handled high-profile client crises and litigation projects in the past has set us up for success in this arena. The challenge is that it can also be all-consuming. We try to keep our roster to no more than one crisis-oriented client at a time.
- Tech: While we’re talking about what has worked, we should be honest about what has not. When I moved to San Francisco from New York in 2012, I anticipated that this hot-bed of innovation would be open to (and embracing of) innovative approaches to technology communications. And, that may be true, particularly as it relates to social media and digital marketing platforms. In my experience, tech public relations in general seems less rigorous and less oriented toward research-driven messaging, campaigns and metrics than I would have hoped. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but my experience is that the technology sector is extremely dependent on a press release machinery that churns out product-focused news, rather than a stakeholder-oriented industry that is trying to have an impact on beliefs and behaviors. This gives me a whole different level of appreciation for some of my former colleagues who advocated for a more story-oriented, campaign-style approach in technology PR years and years ago. I had no idea what they were up against.
- Messaging and Narrative: Partly based on the experiences above, we’ve learned that one of our core capabilities as a firm is messaging and narrative development. We can write a press release with the best of them, but we shine when we’re bringing a brand to life through a narrative and key messages that represent the business or brand at its core. Messaging is a complex art/science. It requires an understanding of where stakeholders are today (attitudinally, behaviorally) and where they are heading in the future. It also requires a deep understanding of an enterprise, what it can do, what it can’t and what it aspires to be in the future. And, it requires creativity, the craft of writing and visualizing a story. Those are things we’re good at and will continue to work on. We’ve been working on projects that focus on what we’re calling “situational narratives” that adapt a traditional master narrative to whatever challenges a brand faces at any time. Look for more on that topic from us in the future.
- Social Media: We’ve done solid work in social media, with strategy work and implementation work that has helped clients generate growth in followers and engagement. Ultimately, success in social media requires an understanding of audiences, storytelling, media and dialogue. These are the same skills communicators had in place (or should have) before the world got digital. There are some discrete aspects of social media that are new, like the ability to self-publish, the speed of transmission, the dynamics of information flow, and the vast search tools, but, for communicators, the goal is to achieve outcomes like creating awareness, increasing understanding, and changing behavior. In many ways, social media is a test for the things we have talked about from a theoretical perspective for decades; now we get to see it (and do it) in practice.
- Research: We do research! All our client assignments involve research — often done by us, sometimes done by partners. Generally, we focus on secondary research and qualitative research. Landscape analyses and interviews with stakeholders in therapeutic areas to help set the context and understand the key issues in a space. We’re very good at mining research and turning it into actionable insights. Doing this sets us up to develop stronger programs for clients and to be able to understand where we can have the greatest impact.
- Workshops: We give good workshops. In the past two years, we have led more than a dozen workshops with different teams — leadership teams, communications and marketing teams, sales teams and cross-functional teams — ranging in size from five to 45. Getting great results from a workshop is an exercise in design and we have a good blueprint for these sessions, bringing the outside world into the conference room, framing discussions and break-out sessions around objectives and key questions, and keeping the flow of the overall workshop on track for results. There is a bit of a performance art to these sessions, but at their heart they are incredibly productive — which they should be, given the company’s investment and commitment to making them happen.
Things I’ve Learned
- Love your clients: This wasn’t really a new lesson, but it’s something that’s been reinforced at an entirely different and far deeper level as head of my own small business. Our business, by which I mean the communications and public relations consulting/agency business, is a client-first business. Period. Yes, we as practitioners should have a point of view. We should empower our employees. We should care about and reinforce ethical practices. We should advocate for the role and domain of communications and public relations. And, we should speak up about trends and errors that impact perceptions of this industry. Ultimately, though, we’re in this business to serve client needs. We need to devote ourselves to understanding our clients’ priorities and challenges, their opportunities and vulnerabilities. We need to be invested in helping them succeed. Looking at these words, let me just be clear: I know I’ve failed at this in the past, and I probably will again. But I will always strive to keep our clients’ needs as our North Star.
- Be practical: I’ve always had a certain affinity for theory, and it’s probably what’s drawn me to more research-oriented, consulting-style work. The most elegant solution, though, is one that will live in the world. I try to discipline our team to ask what the story will look like when it’s written? Thinking of how things will manifest is a solid forcing function as to whether you’re on the right path. Tools like calendars, audience personas, Gantt charts, scenario plans and two-by-two risk frameworks help bring theory to life in actionable ways. We borrow tools from the school of “design thinking” in this area, and the benefits are myriad.
- Be true to principles: If you’re going to put your name on the door, you need to believe in things and be willing to take a stand, which at times can put you at odds with the “love your clients” imperative. And, we do. I’ve referenced some of those beliefs above, and we’ve codified some of these beliefs in internal documents. It can seem silly to write down “values” when you are a small consultancy, but it pays dividends down the line and comes through in the work we deliver.
- Be generous: When I look back on my career, I think I have at times taken an almost lawyerly approach to advocating for the needs of my clients or teams, which has at times put me in conflict with colleagues. In reviews, it was often said that I did not suffer fools — and that was probably putting it kindly. I regret moments when I sparred with colleagues, rather than seeking out the common ground, and I do not think those episodes reflect the real me or the person I aspired to be. When I went out on my own, I felt like I had a chance to hit a reset button on that. I’ve tried to live the principles of Adam Grant’s Give and Take. When a neighbor told me he was leading a health care nonprofit that was looking for funding, I helped him develop a narrative and pitch deck. When a friend asked me to help her think through a brand positioning statement, I reserved a conference room and we spent the day at it. When a friend asked me to help him pitch a piece of business in Boston, I was on a flight a week later. When people ask me for references or to read a graduate school application, I do it. I’ve fallen behind on this a bit lately, but I’ll catch up. Does this pay off in the way Grant describes? I think it does, but I also think that’s not the point.
- Team up: In the past year, we’ve brought on board a range of new team members, and I’ll just say this, in all transparency: I’m conservative, so I always want to ensure I have the resources to bring people on board. On a couple of occasions, I’ve taken a bit of a leap of faith. It has always paid off, both in the quality of work and in the business sense. Always. I’m thrilled with the team we’ve assembled, and consider myself very lucky that these people want to work with me.
- Keep the conversation alive: Especially as a small business owner, I find it’s vital to keep talking with people. Find out what they are seeing in the world, what trends concern or excite them. How they’re approaching new opportunities. At a big agency, there was always a chance to engage people in conversation about what was happening and stay abreast of important developments. With a smaller firm, it’s important to keep seeking out those conversations.
- Have faith: People have given me this advice, and it’s very much been true. Things happen for a reason. Some business you lose, and it wasn’t the right business for you at that time. Sometimes you win something, and it doesn’t seem like quite the right thing, and it teaches you a valuable lesson. And sometimes when you take on something without knowing how it’s going to turn out, it’s a game changer. Have faith in your business, your people and yourself. It works.
That was our 2016. Our hopes for 2017? More strong client work, more challenging assignments, more growth in our team and our capabilities, and more experimentation and learning.
This time, we won’t go quiet. We have plans for a new web site, new offerings and a more active level of engagement on our blog and social media. There are a lot of things to talk about, without question, on all the topics noted above — and many more. We look forward to seeing you and keeping the conversation alive in the year ahead!