I have a confession to make. I almost didn’t do this interview because I didn’t think there was real money to be made by a company as young as Fission Strategy which helps non-profits. But in the first 3 minutes of my pre-interview with Roz Lemieux, the company’s co-founder, I was so excited about the business that I refused to wait till I had a free slot on the interview calendar. (That’s why we didn’t do this interview live.)
Beyond the attention-getting headline about doing over $1 million in its first year, what I think you’ll admire about this company is: 1) how it expresses its founders’ beliefs, 2) how it allows its employees to work from anywhere, 3) how the founders achieved rapid growth because they first spent time building relationships, and 4) how much of what they did you can emulate to make your business the embodiment of your beliefs.
Roz Lemieux, Fission Strategy
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Hey everyone, it’s Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart.
Today’s guest is Roz Lemieux, found of FissionStrategy which helps social companies harness social media for social good. About a year after launching the company, it exceeded a million dollars in revenue and I invited Roz here to Mixergy to talk about how she did it and to teach what she learned along the way. And what I love about, Roz – Roz, welcome to Mixergy, first of all.
Interviewee: Thank you.
Andrew: What I admire about you is you actually put together an outline of the things that we could talk about in this interview and that we could teach the audience. Instead of using the outline that I had, why don’t we use yours? What are the four things that you had in mind for us for this interview?
Interviewee: Sure. I thought I would start with telling you a little bit about my vision and sort of our success in the first couple of years so you know who we are and what we’re talking about, a bit about the importance of our personal networks, myself and my co-founder, Cheryl Contee, in developing the business and our initial growth. And a bit about our flexible work place, and as you can probably tell, maybe, you can’t tell. I’m in a home office as is our whole team, and then our model of consulting which I like to think of as an empowerment model in consulting. So, that’s it.
Andrew: OK. And I actually didn’t know that you were in your home. I just assumed the whole thing was in an office, the way I heard the phones ringing and I’m looking in the background. I always look over people’s shoulders to see where they are and what it’s like. Well, good. All right. Absolutely. Let’s get into it.
First of all, why don’t we start with, ‘What is the business?’
Interviewee: Sure. As you mentioned, actually non-profit organizations are our clients, primarily versus companies. We help them use social media for social good which means the products that we have and services are. We do web application development and web development, and we also provide online strategy. So, everything from online campaigns, like issue campaigns that a non-profit would run to really just non-profits that are kind of at a point where they just want to get off the ground.
Maybe, they don’t even have – some of our clients don’t even have an online program at all, and we start working with them. Some do, but they’re primarily email based and they want to get into the social media stuff. So, it’s pretty broad-ranging.
Andrew: So, non-profits can actually within a year of being in business help you generate a million dollars in revenue?
Interviewee: Yeah. Non-profits are not a small business in this country. There’s, I think, around 35,000 non-profit organizations in the U. S. Many of them are multi-million dollar a year organizations. And something that we found – we got started right when the recession was starting which seemed like a stupid time to start a business. But it actually turned out to be really good, I think, in a couple ways for us in our particular niche.
One is that non-profits are a cycle behind the economy. So, they got, like, a year warning, I think, over companies where they saw it coming. But because they’d been funded for the coming year, what they did was a lot of non-profits we saw were doing strategic planning because they knew that it was going to be tight in 2010.
And so, they looked at, you know, what are the areas that we can become more efficient and where we need to invest so that we can continue to grow when the money gets tight in a year? A lot of them looked at that and said, ‘Online is the place that we need to be investing, and we need to get good at this and build the infrastructure while we have some money in the bank. And so, I think that actually helped us in 2009 a lot.
Andrew: OK. So, you launched, I think, September 2008, right?
Andrew: Can you give us the revenues for 2009? Actually, wait a minute. Let’s me see. I’ve got my numbers here in front of me. 2008, you launched so you have revenues for 2009. And, I guess, projections for 2010?
Interviewee: So, we started in fall of 2008. And we grew a little bit in those first couple months. In 2009 that was our first full calendar year, and we brought in about 1.2 million which I thought was pretty good since it’s just two people and we grew. In that first year we were 100 percent consulting model, so everyone who worked on our projects was a consultant.
In 2010 we switched about half the team to full-time employees or traditional with benefits and everything. And our team is now 12 people, our core team, and they’re almost half and half. So seven full-time employees and five contractors, but contractors who are really, really part of the team.
Andrew: You mentioned earlier some of the things that you do for these non-profits. Can you give us an example of one that you’ve worked with so that we can see what you do in action?
Interviewee: Yeah. Absolutely. So, let me tell you Reform Immigration for America. They are a coalition of about 300 non-profit and community organizing groups who would like to see comprehensive immigration reform.
A very similar group had got together in 2007, and there’d been some legislation and that didn’t pass. So, that coalition had broken apart, and then they’d come back together in late 2009 and decided, you know, we have Obama in office. We’re going to make another push for it. It was part of Obama’s platform.
So, when we got involved with them, the campaign hadn’t started yet. They had the organizations on board, but they were really not campaigning. They were really in the formulating stage and said, ‘Can you come on and help advise us on the technology and staffing?’
So, we came on, on a three month contract, helped them with the technology, helped them craft not just their online strategy but also kind of take a step back. Our opposition really fooled us in the last round because they had built a million person email list, and they just generated faxes, faxes, faxes to Congress and we had nothing like that. So, now this December I’m having a million member email list.
Andrew: So, they come to you and say, ‘We need you to help us get a million people on a mailing list?
Andrew: Wow. OK. Were you able to do that?
Interviewee: Pretty much, yes.
Andrew: OK. All right.
Interviewee: (________) That’s all you have. So, this was January of last year. We looked at their demographics and said, ‘Your base is in large part Hispanics, and all that research says that that is the demographic that is online less than other populations. But on mobile, using mobile at a higher rate than any other population, any other demographic. And yes, mobile has to be a big part of it.
So, we created a mobile list upfront and did some interesting stuff with files and also just started a traditional online campaign, you know, built them a website, got them some email tools and so forth. Basically they said, ‘Well, can you guys run it for us?’ We said, ‘Ultimately, no. If you’re going to run a serious campaign you need to staff this up and furthermore you need to staff it up with whoever is in charge of this, at a senior level in your campaign.’
That’s one of the things that we really try to push with our clients. You can’t just order up a million person list. And if you could, you wouldn’t be able to get it to do anything. This won’t work for you unless you have your online strategy integrated with the rest of your campaign strategy. You need to have senior people empowered with decent size budgets and decision-making power.
So, that was, I think, one of the early things we did for them, was get some staff in place and get their mobile list in place. And then, last year’s campaign last June. And really what I think we did was helped them get off the ground. We said, ‘Your biggest asset right now is all these 300 organizations. You have a list of zero, so this is a long way from zero to a million.’
So, we created a launch campaign that said, this is really happening. There are 300 organizations, etc. We sent emails to the 300 organizations and said, ‘We’re going to do an optional program where if you send this out to your folks and they opt-in to our list, then we need a little code that had them also opted into their list.’
So, it was a way to build trust with organizations that had been frankly through trying and failing legislation together and of those 80 organizations generated list growth for the campaign in the first week, which is pretty amazing. If you’ve ever worked with a coalition, to have 80 organizations send out something on your behalf in a week.
We also generated out of that initial push 200,000 faxes to Congress in the first week which pretty much blew their doors off. There was a little trick to that. We sent more than one fax per click which was to leadership and their congress person. But the thought of (________) Congress and for the spirit of the coalition was that we were able to say after a week, ‘We’re back. We’re serious. We’re a coalition of 300 organizations, and we just sent you 200,000 faxes, and we will not be taken lightly.’
So, that got us off to a great start, and then meantime they hired a fantastic web team. This has been a year since that launch. They had a terrific team and they really took seriously growing the mobile list. And they now have, by far, the most powerful mobile activist list in the United States. It’s 150,000 people.
One of the things that happened early on was after we set up the mobile list, there really hadn’t been a lot of examples of successful mobile lists for activism in the U. S., just a lot of people talking about potential.
And so, we did a test. There was 800 people on the list initially just from promoting it at events, and we did a call Congress event. We pushed an 800 number to the cell phones. We said, ‘Call Congress and tell them you want programs in immigration reform.’ And click to call. It patches them through to, like, a central line so we know how many people called.
They actually forwarded it enough that over a thousand calls were made off of an 800 person list which is absolutely through the roof. So, it’s more than 100 percent response.
Andrew: Because they had other people that they knew make phone calls, also.
Interviewee: Yeah. They forwarded it.
Andrew: Let me get to some of what you said so far before you add any more. I’ve got a list of things here that I want to follow up with you on. The first is, what’s the incentive? You talked about how there’s 300 organizations, each helping you build your mailing list. And the incentive for the organization to help you build a mailing list is that you’ll also help build their mailing list.
What’s the incentive for the end user to sign up to the list, for the activist who’s giving you the email address? How do you get them to trust both organizations enough to give the email address, and do you even find out about the landing page where they would give their email address?
Interviewee: Well, in a case like that, you’ve got to contact an organization that has their own list. In a larger organization they might have a large email list, to start with. For example, National Coalition for America’s Voice are organizations in the coalition that are out campaigning and the Center for American Progress. They all work hard at it. They’ve built large email lists through online campaigns over years. And then smaller organizations some of them, maybe, get their community organizers so they’ve got lists of people that they’ve literally canvassed on the street, that come to their meetings, that show up at local meeting places and so forth.
So, they have much more personal lists, and in both cases they’ve built those lists through who would actually be doing services for folks and lobbying for a legislation that they want to pass, sort of traditional campaign stuff. And we were pitching this coalition as the mobilizing force for immigration reform They were the ‘go to’ place. Every organization in the country practically was working on immigration reform and was part of this coalition. So, if you want immigration reform passed, then you need to act through this organization, and everyone was pushing that same message.
Andrew: But, then if one of the 300 organizations is sending their members to your forum to add their email address to this list, the incentive for them to do it is that they’ll end up getting email addresses, too. But they already have them.
Interviewee: But there’s pass along.
Andrew: I see. So, we’re hoping that people pass it along. Did you do anything to encourage that pass along?
Interviewee: We do do it. I just want to clarify one thing. So, when people go to the site, they just don’t give their email address, they send a fax to Congress.
Andrew: I see. And in the process of sending a fax, you get the email address, too.
Interviewee: Right. So that’s actually giving value added for the end user and for the partner. It costs something to send a fax. So, they get the value of – the central campaign invests in the fax service, and then everyone gets to use it.
Andrew: Ah, I see. OK.
Interviewee: And we promoted it through social networks and so forth. But at the beginning of a campaign, that partner outreach is really effective.
Andrew: What did you do to get it to spread via social networks?
Interviewee: Let’s see. Well, we created the sort of standard profiles for them, Facebook, MySpace. Eventually, Mehante. We’re a little behind on that now.
Andrew: Eventually, what? I’m sorry.
Interviewee: Also, Mehante which is like Spanish social network, Twitter. The thing that we have really been going with the various social networks, they’re good for different things. So, Twitter we really use as a vehicle for engaging the web.
So, what we do at the beginning of any campaign is put together a list of bloggers and influentials and not issue area. Find them on Twitter. We follow a little trick which I don’t know if I’m giving away anything useful, but we’ll often follow the followers of those people because those are people that are interested in the same topic. And that helps builds up our Twitter following pretty quickly.
So, that was something we did at the beginning was just how to build up their Twitter following. Once the campaign got started, and we had really found, as I mentioned, early on that the mobile network was great at generating phone calls which is a key objective. They started promoting the mobile network through just every vehicle that they could get their hands on.
I had a partnership with Univision so there were PSAs and mentions. One of the really creative things they did was create a network of radio deejays that would mention the mobile network whenever there was an action of any kind. And also, a lot of these community organizing groups have on the ground events all the time. And so, we’re constantly giving them flyers and reminding them to promote it, and there was just this constant beating of the drum every time you talked to someone to tell them about the mobile list.
Andrew: And what’s the incentive for a person to add their number to the mobile list? I’d be very cautious, by the way, who I give my phone number to and what service I’d allow to text message me.
Interviewee: Yeah. I mean, the incentive is that people who are on that list really care about passing comprehensive immigration reform.
Andrew: I see. So, they just want to do whatever it takes to be a part of it, and this is a small thing to do if you’re really passionate about the cause.
Interviewee: Yeah. And because the coalition has really a lot of legitimacy added to the moving vehicle for that issue, they don’t mind. That campaign has been very, very careful about scheduling their alerts. If they’re going to do geo-targeted alerts, they make sure no one gets two in a day or two really even in a week.
Andrew: All right. I’d like to talk a little bit about tactics, too. So, you mentioned earlier about an email list tool or a set of tools that you give the organizations you work with. What kind of tools? Which ones?
Interviewee: There are a few different tools that are pretty commonly used by our clients that do kind of the same set of things, which is email list, contact Congress, letter to the editor and events, distributed events.
Andrew: We lost you for a moment. You said – the first one was DemocracyInAction.com is where people can go see it.
Interviewee: Yeah. I think it might be .org, actually. They’re non-profit. BlueStateDigital, which I should in full disclosure say it was co-founded by my husband. And they’re the firm that did the Obama campaign’s online presence and website. Conveo is sort of the high end, expensive version of those. And NewlinMarket is something called Action Kit.
Andrew: And what does that do?
Interviewee: They all do basically the same thing.
Interviewee: They’re all email lists, contact Congress, pretty much CRM that’s really oriented around activism.
Andrew: OK. What’s your husband’s company?
Andrew: All right. I know BlueStateDigital. How long has it been around?
Why do I know that name?
Interviewee: Probably from the Obama campaign.
Interviewee: They were founded by some folks who had been the Dean campaign’s technology theme. And after the Dean Campaign was over, they founded BlueState.
Andrew: Cool. I should have him on. That’s pretty impressive.
Interviewee: Yeah. You should, actually.
Andrew: Is he willing to do what you did and give revenue numbers?
Interviewee: Probably. He actually left almost two years ago, so he left in the middle of the Obama campaign.
Andrew: Why did you, by the way, give your revenue numbers so quickly?
Interviewee: Maybe, we’re just too innocent to worry about it yet, being sort of new. I don’t know. I feel good that we started something and that it has grown quickly. I can’t think of what anyone could do to hurt us with them. If there is something, you should tell me.
Andrew: I’m always shocked that companies are willing to give it out, but when it comes up and I ask them, the reasons that they give me make a lot of sense. A lot of times it’s, ‘Hey, we’re a young company. We want the world to know that we’re not scraping by, that we actually are bringing in money, that it’s a legitimate business. And when we give our numbers out, employees feel more comfortable working for us and companies feel more comfortable hiring us.’ Maybe, that’s the reason why people do it.
Build a website. What kind of website do you build?
Interviewee: Typically, campaigns, events for non-profit organizations. Sometimes, there are organizational websites, particularly redesigns. It seems there is a category for redesigns and then new builds tend to be campaign websites. There are tons of web development firms out there. I think that we end up with folks that trust us to give them advice along the way and strategy around what makes sense for them to build.
And we do particularly the (________) grown up and developed as a company. We have moved more and more in the direction of . . .
Andrew: Sorry. It looks like we’re losing the connection. Do you have something else running in the background, maybe, Outlook or iTunes?
Interviewee: No. Let me shut down everything.
Interviewee: I’m not on wireless either. I’m actually on a real Internet connection.
Andrew: Well, good.
Interviewee: So, I don’t know what it could be slowing me down.
Andrew: If you have anything in the background, turning it off will help. If not, we’ll just go with what we’ve got.
Andrew: Is your husband using Bitturn in the background or downloading a movie for later tonight on iTunes? No? All right.
Andrew: OK. All right.
Interviewee: I guess he can hear us.
Andrew: Sorry? Hello?
Interviewee: He said he’s going to shut off whatever he’s got going on there.
Andrew: All right. He’s got it. All right. Let’s talk then about the next point on our list, which is building a personal network. In our pre-interview you brought this up, and the first time you brought this up I guess I didn’t see the significance of it. So, I talked about the other points that you had. And you said, ‘No, no, Andrew, this is important.’ Why is it important?
Interviewee: Well, you were asking me about how we grew the company, and I think that’s a huge part of it. And also, I think it’s an interesting point for us because it’s also what we tell our clients.
We tell our clients you can’t – when they come to us and say, ‘We have a campaign but still need a million person list, but how do we use Facebook?’ It’s really hard to develop a social network when you need it. And so, in the same way that we tell our clients this is something you need to be building, and then when the moment comes, it will be there for you. I think we’ve found that to be true for ourselves as well. So, just to give you a little background. We think it’s a key part of how we have been able to grow. My business partner, Cheryl Contee and I, we both come to the arena which is now our plan.
Andrew: So, you come from what arena?
Interviewee: From the arena of that’s now our client base, the non-profits, the progressives. So, I should give her props for being – she’s one of the fast company 2010 most influential women in technology this year.
Andrew: Oh, wow.
Interviewee: I’m very proud of her. She also started her career in non-
Profit work in the technology department.
Andrew: Let’s go back to the personal network, the importance of the personal network.
Interviewee: Sure. So, I was just mentioning about Cheryl. She also started in non-profits and so has been in the position of the people that are hiring us now and then moved into consulting. But at the same time started blogging just because she personally was concerned about the state of politics.
She blogged anonymously for a long time and then became public a couple of years ago as Jill Tubman of Jack and Jill Politics, which is one of top black political blogs period. So, she has this whole network that comes out of her work at Jack and Jill, which is technically not related to the business. But, of course, it is a terrific source of just connections and public speaking opportunities and so forth for her.
And it’s important in our work because part of what we’re doing is reaching out to bloggers. So, she knows a lot of them personally. So, that’s directly related to our work.
And then, for me I also started my work in non-profit organizations. I worked for MoveOn.org from 2004 to 2006 and then left there to help get the New Organizing Institute which is a training institute for basically tech-enabled campaigners, progressive campaigners. And helped train an awful lot of online campaigners who worked on the Obama campaign and then now are sort of littered throughout the administration and government, including at the White House.
So, when Cheryl and I got together, we started the business with this network of folks who have kind of a natural distrust for consultants but knew us. And I think felt much more comfortable working with us and still do. And so, those networks which we really make an effort to maintain through public speaking. I still do some training occasionally for New Organizing Institute.
We also try to encourage our employees and even our clients to do a lot of public speaking. I’ll get them on panels and to do training sessions.
Andrew: Can you give me an example of how public speaking has led to business?
Interviewee: Oh, sure. If you’re up in front of the room speaking about specifically the type of things that we’re doing for our clients, of course, people come talk to us after and say, ‘Oh, we’re trying to do that.’ So, there’s probably dozens of cases where, at least, initial conversations have been in the post panel, post training spaces.
Andrew: Can you think of one specifically that came from that or one specifically that came from blogging? I know it’s hard to connect it directly to something that you’ve said or have written.
Interviewee: Sure. I’m trying to think. This is a little bit tricky because usually there’s multiple connections.
Andrew: Talk about that a little bit. How do you mean?
Interviewee: I mean, often we’ll have a conversation with someone after a panel or a training, but we also know them through someone else since they’ll, maybe, get a recommendation through that other person.
I’m sorry. I’m having a little bit of a hard time coming up with a specific example, but I know that it’s definitely part of what drives our development in general.
Andrew: OK. I understand why it’s not a direct – you come off the podium, and suddenly somebody hands you business. It just adds to your reputation, and it adds to your visibility in the space. And people start talking to you about what you do, and eventually that leads to business.
Interviewee: Yeah. And you know, nowadays people will tweet from panels and from speaking events, and so even in the moment people are retweeting things that you say. And that sort of helps instantly build up your reputation on the website.
Andrew: You know what? When I was learning how to build a network back in high school and college, all the business books essentially would say, ‘Whenever you meet someone, add them to your Address Book, to your Rolodex, to whatever it is that you are using, cell spreadsheet. Add a couple of notes about who they are, and then when you need to reconnect with them in the future, you’ll have that list that you can go back to. In fact, once a year you send them all cards.
And I used to do that, but it’s not exactly that neat and organized when it comes to building connections in a world full of social networking, right? You can’t keep track of everyone who’s tweeted about you. You can’t keep track of everyone who you’ve met. How do you do it? What do you think about that? What’s a new way?
Interviewee: I don’t know that I have some sort of perfect formula for that. In fact, Cheryl, my business partner, is probably considerably more organized than me. I’m not as good as it as she. But I would say, I don’t worry so much about tracking them in Sales Force or an Excel spreadsheet or something in that sort of precise way that you would have in the past because I do have this sort of constant, low level communication with folks. And it is so easy to search your contacts.
So, I do, to some extent, still keep up on LinkedIn. If I make a connection that I think is useful, I will typically add them on LinkedIn because it’s a more professional space. It’s also easy to search. It’s pretty handy if we are looking for new people who work in a specific field in a specific place. I’ve actually found LinkedIn to be pretty useful.
The other thing that’s recently helped me a lot is my email is Google Apps and Gmail, so I use this plug-in called Reportive. It’s sort of creepy but really handy. It basically has all the person’s social network info next to them with a picture when they come up. So, if you’re terrible with names and faces and slightly socially awkward, like I am, I sort of have the geek genes instead of the social genes which I leave to Cheryl.
It helps me a lot because I see those faces every time they send me an email, and I vaguely keep up on what they’re up to because it has their Twitter feed and so forth. It’s right there. And then, they’re LinkedIn and it’s also there. So, if I get an email from someone and I’m going to want to stay in touch with, I just click right then and add them to my LinkedIn. In some ways, it is kind of the same. Keep in track of people. It’s just a few different places now.
Andrew: The company you mentioned is Reportive. I use them on one of my computers, and on the other one I use Etacks. I’m checking them both out to see which one I like best. But essentially, like you said, it’s incredible. When you get an mail from someone who you haven’t talked to in a long time or you’re not sure who they are because you’ve never talked to them, you see right on the right side who that person is and you find out on LinkedIn what they do. You see on Twitter what they’ve said recently. It’s incredible. It helps responding so much.
Interviewee: Yeah. And they have an API so some communities are even building on to their thing which is itself an add-on. So, suddenly a foundation for (________) created a Reportive plug-in which looks at people’s donation info which I think the FTC records every time you make a campaign contribution. So, now not only do I see what they are tweeting, I see who they contributed to in the last election.
Andrew: Oh, no way. Wow. That’s incredible to be able to see. Wow.
Interviewee: It’s a bit much, actually. It’s kind of interesting. It’s conceptually interesting. You can pull down and get to the point where you have a lot of information about a person every time you hear from them.
Andrew: OK. Let’s talk about then flex work. That’s the next item on our list.
Interviewee: That’s one of my favorite topics. So, I haven’t had an office in years and years now. So, I work from home. Our entire office is distributed, and I think it is a huge part of what’s made our business what it is.
And so, for example, from the beginning we were able to recruit great people wherever they were and sort of whatever level we and they were ready to commit. So, our first two employees, first two team members, really, were from Atlanta. They’re still in Atlanta. And Cheryl, she’s in the Bay area. She has this lovely home in Sausalito, so she does her work overlooking the Bay, and I’m in Washington D.C.
And then, we’ve got folks now in Detroit, and three in New York City and someone in Boston and wherever we found someone good. They can work for us and be fully a part of the team.
I think that something that is challenging has become more popular over the years for people to tele-commute. I think it’s quite different if you have a power center in an office, and some people are dialing in. I’m not going to be left out of a lot of important conversations and particularly brainstorming and creative conversations. And that’s when they have this kind of second class status where if everyone is distributed and you really have to build your company to accommodate that, I found that that works great.
Andrew: You know what? I’ve had this conversation with Jason Freed. He also believes in it. The guy from 37Signals says that people should be able to work wherever they happen to live, and your company shouldn’t limit itself to whoever is within driving distance of the office.
The question I asked him is the one I’ll ask you. How do you stay on top of people and make sure they’re actually working when they’re not in your office?
Interviewee: I’m glad that you asked. We have a few systems in place. One is not so surprising which is something called Central Desktop. It’s very similar to Base Camp. Sorry, Jason Freed. We are pretty disciplined about every little task goes in Central Desktop. So, we’re able to track pretty thoroughly who’s done what, by when, and we can see progress towards milestones.
More importantly, we have something called Yimmer, which is like Twitter but it’s just for our team. So, everyone has a desktop app, and they say we established a protocol internally that throughout the day, starting when you get in in the morning, you say, ‘Working on such and such.’ So, as the day goes on and people are working on different projects. They say, ‘Working on a conference call, working on an interview.’
So, I know pretty much what people are up to. I would say considerably more so than in an office where you just know whether they’re physically present or not. I actually know whether people are working. It also helps adds some humanity to the work place.
I think one of the dangers of working at home is you get very disconnected whereas since we have this constant feed of chatter with people’s picture and we share things like, ‘Oh, going for a walk with the dog, going to the gym, taking a breather and sharing funny things on YouTube and just kind of do some of the chatting that you would do in an office. It helps bring some humanity.
And then, the last thing that we use is video Skype for all of our calls.
Andrew: To have conversations the way you and I are, instead of doing it on the phone.
Andrew: I love that Skype. What do you use to share desktop? Do you ever need to do that, to show your desktop to somebody else in the office?
Interviewee: We use DimDim.
Interviewee: It’s free and I think it’s terrific. It doesn’t require a download or anything. I think it requires a pretty light download if you’re sharing your desktop, but it doesn’t require anything to see it.
Andrew: Right. OK. All right. Have you had issues with it, or has it all been great to have a distributed office?
Interviewee: There have been a few people for whom it wasn’t a good fit, but you know . . .
Andrew: What do you do with them?
Interviewee: They don’t stay. I mean . . .
Andrew: What do you mean by not a good fit?
Interviewee: You know, some people just really like the office environment, like to come into work and be around people. Some people have a hard time working at home. Maybe, it’s the social pressure of being at their desk. We tend to attract people that have the opposite problem, and we have to say, ‘Go and walk the dog. Go to the gym. Get out of here.’ It’s like any office. There’s a culture, and it’s a fit for some types of person and it doesn’t fit for other people.
Andrew: What is Cheryl doing on Yimmer right now? Is she walking the dog?
Interviewee: I shut it off because I didn’t want it to interrupt.
Andrew: When she’s on Yimmer and say, ‘I’m walking the dog.’ It’ll be your own private conversation stream in addition to the business that gets talked about on there.
Interviewee: Yeah. So, it’s sort of a general constant feed, so we all see. You can divvy it up into subgroups, but we don’t do that. Everyone sees what everyone posts. I would say 85 percent of the posts are work related, but people do it, in part, so that we know that they’re not there because one of the things that’s challenging about this type of setup is that sometimes you will send someone a message on Skype, for example, and they don’t answer.
You don’t know whether – if they’re worrying you, if they don’t have the answer, they aren’t physically there, when they’re coming back. So, we try and keep each other informed with Yimmer so that we have some shared expectation about availability.
Andrew: I’ve got to tell you. For many people, this is an ideal job. You’re in social media and there’s a lot of excitement around that. You’re actually a healthy company in social media, and most people really don’t have that. They just have a Twitter profile and a desire which, you know, that’s where things start but is still starting.
You’ve got the ability to work from anywhere which people would love, and you’re doing good things. How many companies are there out there that are actually doing things that are good for the world?
I’m sure I’m going to get emails from people who say, ‘Hey, I’m a conservative. This is a little too liberal for me.’ Whatever it is, it’s – Go start the conservative version of this business. Let’s start a conservative version, and then you guys can scare each other’s customers into spending even more and battle each other.
It may not be their thing, but the point is that this is an incredible company that you’ve built here and that you’re still building it.
Andrew: Let’s talk about empowerment consulting? What is that?
Interviewee: Sure. So, one of the things that was challenging for, I think, me and Cheryl, but probably more for me, just based on personality. At the beginning it was that coming from a non-profit background, I always had a strangely adversarial relationship with consultants. You know, they’re expensive, particularly social media consultants. You have this sort of negative aura around social media consulting.
And so, I feel a very strong obligation to counteract that and make it very, very clear to our clients that we work with that actually this is a value add, not only at the level that they’re paying for but on par with other marketing and even marketing expenditures, organizing expenditures and to some extent more so.
The social media stuff and anything online are clients that are just getting into that arena. They’ll often be sort of senior folks who have some hesitation. They can’t measure it but it’s just because they’re not used to measuring it. In fact, it’s more measurable, considerably more measurable than what a lot of us were doing in the past.
Anyway, so that’s kind of the background of where I’m coming from when I got into this business. So, we do a couple of things to try to make it really reverse that relationship into a very positive one. One of them is being quite data driven, which I mentioned, making sure that they’re clear what are the results that they’re measuring our value against and reporting back on those.
And that is one part of the empowerment that they are really clear on what they are getting for the money. And they’re clear themselves how to track it and that they can compare it to other things. So, if we’re not returning a good value compared to money that they could be spending just straight applying the list, for example, or doing other kinds of advertising, organizing or hiring an organizer. We want that to be clear to them so they can make an informed decision.
But the other big part of it is we try to avoid dependency. So, in a number of cases, we’ve had clients who have said – or, at least, several cases we had clients who’ve said, ‘Can you just do this for us? We’ve got the money, just be our staff.’
That’s fine for a short period if you’re trying to get off the ground. A lot of times what we do is we then help the infrastructure get off the ground and then try to get out of the way. To some extent, it’s unintuitive that we would try to do that because for us, for our bottom line, wouldn’t it be great if they just paid us to stay in place forever and never knew how to do the things that we’re doing.
I think it’s not good for our clients in the long run. It puts them in a very dependent situation on us, and also, at least, it’s kind of boring for us. We’re kind of a small company. Cheryl and I are still very involved with our clients. We don’t want to be in the position of doing the rote kind of day-to-day stuff with them forever.
So, we very much try to have clients go on that arc, so what technology do you need to get in place? What staffing do you need to get in place? What training do you need? And then, we get out of the way. That really is very literal.
We help with the hiring process in a lot of cases and help with the vendor selection in a lot of cases, do training. We do webinars for the staff and then kind of ease our way out. Oddly enough, what we found is that it works sort of in the opposite way than you would think in that when organizations and campaigns make that investment in developing their own infrastructure and staff. What happens is that there’s successful, and then that department grows.
And so, then they hire us back to do more work. That’s happened in several cases where we thought, at some level this doesn’t make financial sense that we’re having to hire this person and training them, but we think it’s the right thing to do. We did it, and then they got in there. We were their
‘go to’ people. We helped establish the department, so there was a lot of trust there.
Andrew: I see. So, the idea is you’re going to set them up with a system that’s going to help them manage their email list. You’re going to help them set up a system to grow that list, that website. But if they say, ‘Hey, manage our website and send out our emails on a daily basis’ you say no. We’ll train your people to do it. We’ll get out of the way, and when you have another project that is bigger than just maintaining our past project, we can talk about doing another engagement.
Interviewee: Yeah. Yeah. A lot of times there isn’t even a gap because we’ll be that interim staff while they’re staffing up. It’s not just their website and email. It’s also the mobile list, if they have one, and the social media, day-to-day blogger engagement, Really, your online program now if you’re doing it right, it’s a lot. It takes a whole team to do it right because a large part of your communication now is online and mobile.
Andrew: It drives me nuts. There is so much to do. Even if you’re just maintaining your own personal Twitter account and, maybe, a Facebook stand page, it takes forever. And you’re doing that in addition to running the rest of your business.
Interviewee: Yeah. And with non-profit organizations, there’s other layers to it too. It’s not just the organizing, so it’s not just that you’re doing that kind of work and you’re paying the staff. Ultimately, what you want is for your own supporters to be doing a lot of that work, to be empowering people, identifying leaders, giving them tools to basically own the campaign and be out there speaking for you and reaching out to their own networks. And that’s a whole other arena in itself. That’s a different kind of work.
Andrew: How many people does it take to run a social media, actually to run all the social media tools that a non-profit would need?
Interviewee: I mean, teams vary widely in size, obviously.
Andrew: What about their former immigration organization?
Interviewee: They are a team of basically four. They have an online communications director, John Brian McCarthy, who is totally terrific, really has done an amazing job bringing that team into the overall campaign strategy and growing that list. You asked earlier if they had their million person list. They’re perilously close and the response rates greater than the million person list we were trying to find.
So, they have their online team director, and then they have three other people who are full-time.
Andrew: I see.
Interviewee: And then, they have us. So, we also work. We’re almost the equivalent of the half-time employee but our whole team. So in that half-time they have my time, Cheryl’s, design, developer and so forth.
Andrew: All right. What’s next for the business, I mean?
Interviewee: Well, we are probably always going to – our long-term vision is not to become some giant monster on the scene. We want to always remain kind of a boutique firm, maybe, 20 people instead of 12, always distributed. But really, where we’re headed is just continually improving the quality of our campaigns, the lifestyle. I guess we want our whole team to be happy and comfortable and permanent.
So, it’s really kind of stabilizing things that are working well and growing a little bit. I don’t think we’ll ever be more than, say, double our size. But, ask me in three years. And then, we’ll looked a little bit at branching out our services of that, but our core is going to remain the same which is online strategy and development for progressive non-profit organizations.
Andrew: All right. Well, I do hope to talk to you again in three years. I’m glad, though, that you came and did this interview today. Thank you.
Interviewee: Thank you for having me on.
Andrew: It’s great meeting you. Thanks.
Interviewee: You, too. Bye.
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