Your brand, says head of a16z marketing and Outcast Agency co-founder Margit Wennmachers, is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. And it’s going to happen, whether you choose to have an active part in it or not. But what does this mean at an individual, not just company/product level?
In this episode of the a16z Podcast, Wennmachers and Outcast CEO Alex Constantinople — both longtime veterans of public relations and building executive profiles — de-mystify what having and building a personal brand takes. It’s not only about “thought leadership”, either… a personal brand can also provide a filter for choosing what to do (and what not to do), as well as define your aspirations for where you want to go next. Even if you cringe at the idea of putting yourself in the spotlight.
This conversation, moderated by a16z partner Hanne Tidnam, was recorded as part of the BreakLine Tech program for military veterans, an immersive education program for veterans transitioning into new careers (including a week of talks and courses hosted at Andreessen Horowitz, some of which can be caught here).
- Defining what a personal brand is and how to get started [0:30]
- The importance of storytelling and tension [5:20] and why everyone needs a personal brand [7:19]
- Examples of effective personal branding and the importance of authenticity [10:38]
- Logistics around creating a brand [13:55] and how to know when it’s working [17:12]
- Managing mistakes [19:29] and audience Q&A [23:45]
Hanne: Hi, I’m Hanne, and welcome to the “a16z podcast.” The phrase “personal brand” is something of a cliché, but we all know we’re supposed to have one. So what does it really mean, and how do you go about actually creating one? In this episode, a16z’s Margit Wennmachers and Alex Constantinople, CEO of The OutCast Agency, both break it down into basics and also give us a sense of nuance on how best to think of a personal brand. This podcast was recorded as part of the BreakLine tech program for military veterans.
Defining “personal brand”
So, I just thought we would start with a really basic question, just to lay a little groundwork, which is, what do you think a personal brand actually is? How would you define it?
Margit: I think, in a nutshell, it’s basically what people think or say about you when you’re not in the room. That’s how you should think about your brand. What is your reputation? What is the association that you occupy in someone’s mind? And so, that’s in a nutshell what it is. If you think of — companies are easier than people. If you think of Apple, you probably think of design and elegant products. If you think of Virgin, you probably think of irreverent and fun. Like, those are the brand attributes that you think of, not even consciously, necessarily, and that really what defines a brand.
Alex: Yeah, I mean, the good news is, just being conscious about it actually will help you. So, I think, while it is a huge part of what others say about you, I do think it’s what you choose to put out into the world as much — and is actually more important.
Hanne: So let’s say you’re starting totally from scratch. You know who you are, you know what you’ve done, you know what your resume says, but how do you go about — step one to finding what your personal brand is?
Alex: What we usually do is we’ll have an executive come in and really just do a whiteboard session. And we really start with, “If I talk to your neighbor, if I talk to your parents, or your partners, or your best friends, or your co-workers, what would they say about you?” And we find that’s an easier entry point than if I say, “Give me adjectives,” it feels weird. Like, “I am the smartest, the prettiest, the most fabulous…” Like, it’s harder to get it out of people because it’s awkward, right, to be, like, “This is who I am.” But this is how we usually just really start.
And then the next question, the most important one probably, as you’re thinking for yourselves, is also, “What kind of leader am I? What is it that I want to put out into the world and have people see? How do I want to be?” And this can be aspirational, all of this, by the way. It might not be who you are today. You might feel like, “You know, I’ve gotten feedback.” I mean, my 360s that I’ve gotten from GE, past to now, are hilariously the same. It’s sad. I’m not happy about it, but there are some feedback points in there that I’m like, “I can’t get rid of that,” you know?
And so, I think being conscious about it, like — what are some of those things, the way I lead, that I want to be seen and then how do I get there — which is part B of this. And then really your expertise is a big part. How do you want to be seen out in the world? This is where more of you heard the phrase “thought leadership.” When you’re out more in the external world, what do you want to be known for? What are you really, really good at? What can you own as an expert? And then that can be subject matter. It can be super broad or very, very narrow and all of the above.
And then the last for personal brand, I think, is really everything about you, because I find you can’t leave your personal stuff at home. You can’t leave that you might love the outdoors and you’re more the adventurer. It helps round up the picture. You love to read. You love to be with your family. Like, that is you. And if you come to a job, I find, without your full self, you can’t have the most value. And so we don’t leave that off as soft stuff. It’s really important that you are authentically you.
Hanne: Another way of getting at this is thinking about story. When you’re saying all that, I’m thinking, like, “Well, that’s so much information.” I mean, how do you know what the story is that pulls it all together? What’s a good way of thinking about that?
Margit: I think, to Alex’s point earlier, that is where you have a fair amount of control, right? Like, what are the anecdotes that you want to share, right? Like, what’s the part in your childhood that shaped you that made you join forces, or that made you the leader that you are. Like, you can control all of those anecdotes. If you think of, like, a very carefully crafted brand — whatever you think of the person or not, this woman Sheryl Sandberg — you all know who she is, right? Well, if you hear her speak, or if you read her book, or if you see her on TV, there’s always a story about when they were kids, she was managing her siblings, right? She put that out there, right?
So, a good way to get at what your version could be is, if you read — take any of your favorite magazines and read a personal profile that someone has written about a business leader. It’s probably the most relevant example, or an athlete, or whatever — and, sort of, look at, “Okay, what would my version of that be? How would I fill out paragraphs 1, 3, 7, right?” And you see, once you dissect an article, it becomes not as black box voodoo-ish as it seems when you first think about brand, right? You go, like, “Oh, they have their family interests. They have their childhood experience. They have their expertise.” And you can deconstruct the story. And then if you take one of those articles, go like, “Okay, if I had to write a story about me, or if I wanted a story written about me, what would be in that story?” And that gives you a control over what it is, and it also helps you build the body of how you talk about yourself.
Hanne: So are there things, though, that you think universally make a good story? You know, that you look for when you’re helping people do this, characteristics that you say, that’s…
Margit: So, I think it depends. We haven’t even talked about — we’ve talked about what is your brand, how do you want to describe yourself. We haven’t talked about, like, how you put it out in the world, right? So that’s a whole…
Hanne: Right, mm-hmm, which we want to come to next.
Margit: Which we want to come to. But when you think of stories that other people tell about you, like a magazine article or something, they always want some tension. And that’s fine, as long as I think there’s a happy ending at the end, right? And tension can be anything from a tough childhood or a really tough mission, to the extent that you can talk about it, or, you know, what countries were you deployed in and whatnot, right? But, like, they all want some tension. They want the reader to go along and go like, “Okay, I want to read the next thing,” right? It can’t just be like, “Here’s my picture-perfect resume, and, like, yay.” Nobody wants to read that, right? Like, we don’t even want to read that.
Alex: I was going to say like, if there are lessons learned — people really like what can you bring to somebody else. And so, I love people who put themselves out there and are a little more vulnerable. And I know that is hard. So being able to say, “I tried this,” or, “This was something I did that didn’t work, but I learned x from this,” I think is a great way to think about that particular tension.
Margit: Just last night I was reading your profiles. I was like, “One, we shouldn’t be talking. You should be talking.” <Exactly.> But there are great stories in there, right? Like, one of you tried to land one of those planes, and it didn’t quite work out.
Alex: Raise your hand if you tried to land a plane that didn’t work.
Margit: That’s amazing.
Man 1: <inaudible>
Margit: You’re here, right? But I was reading that and, like — look, it stuck with me. So there are amazing stories. I thought these profiles were really, really interesting to read, and there’s a lot of good stuff in there, where I thought, like, “Oh, my God, they have a lot to work with.” And also, thank you for all the stuff that you’ve done.
Why everyone needs branding
Hanne: So, maybe this is totally obvious, but does everybody need a personal brand then?
Margit: Yes. Soapbox moment.
Hanne: Even if you’re interested in a job where, say, you don’t want to put your opinions out there that much.
Alex: I do this with college graduates. Anybody who needs to tell — to be — they’re going out into the world doing something, I feel, like, “Shit.”
Margit: If you have interactions with people, you need to think about this. And if you think of the startup world, here in Silicon Valley, most of them — they languish in obscurity. You do want to stand for something. You want to be remembered for something, you know, as much as there are a gazillion jobs out here, right? Like, everybody needs to go, like, “Okay, I want this person, because they struck me as such, such, and such and such.” And a brand doesn’t have — it doesn’t mean fame. I think people confuse brand with fame. If you have a powerful brand with the right 20 people, that may be it.
Alex: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Margit: It doesn’t have to be fame. It’s not like — you don’t have to be on CNN or whatever. Like, no one’s saying that, but you just want to have a deliberate way of thinking about, “Okay, how do I want people to think of me?”
Alex: I wish there was another name for it. I think, especially here in the Valley, personal brand, I found it was — I spent the majority of my time in New York and D.C. before I came out here, and personal brand, it was no big deal. Here, it’s sort of like, “Oh, I don’t want one of those. Like, that sounds too much for me.” The personal brand can turn people off because they — certainly if they came up through the technology and the engineering side, it’s very uncomfortable. It’s like, “I’ll go out there. I’ll only do my Fortune story or whatever…”
Margit: They feel like they’re lying.
Alex: “…if it’s good for the company, but I’m really not interested.” And they’re kind of missing the point, because, to Margit’s point, it’s not necessarily the next step — which [it] can be for people — then what’s the communications plan against your personal brand. And that can be, “Okay, start talking at these places and giving these kinds of speeches, and let’s work toward, you know, this kind of profile and this kind of publication that will help your business grow.” But I think for purposes of just any executive — and I’ve literally done them for professors, for, you know, scientists, people who you wouldn’t think this would be — but it really can work with anybody because it’s just a way to frame your activities.
What we also say to a lot of executives, no matter what level — it really also helps you as a filter for your time. If the activities you’re doing — and you’re going to get asked to do a lot of things, right. If it doesn’t necessarily fit within what you’ve laid out for yourself, then I think it’s easier to say no. It’s like, “Right now, I’m focused on this.” You know, obviously, everyone has a favor for a friend that they’ll do, but I think it will help you focus and save your time. So that’s another really practical reason that we try to put this down. Now, it doesn’t mean it won’t evolve over time. You can look at it again in five years’ time, in two years’ time, in a year, and say, “Okay, now that I’ve been doing this…”
Margit: Achieved that.
Alex: Yeah. Is this good? Does this feel right? Because I think we do want to push ourselves all to be aspirational.
Margit: The other side of the coin is, like, brand happens to you, whether you want to or not. Like, people will describe you in their heads. So, would you rather have some say in what that is, or do you just want it to kind of let it happen, right? So it just happens. I mean, think of business executives that you admire, or hate, or whatever. Like, you have opinions about them, right? And so would you rather shape how people perceive you, and have it be true to yourself and what you want it to be, or just have it happen, right? So just take control, like you always do with everything.
Hanne: Are there some examples of people — I like that you distinguished between fame and brand — that you think, maybe, are not on the famous side, but did such a good job telling their story and establishing a brand?
Alex: You mentioned Virgin already. I think Richard Branson.
Alex: I do think he’s done quite a good job. The companies he’s built absolutely are from him. You don’t feel a disconnect. He doesn’t say things that then don’t show up in his companies.
Margit: By the way, it’s the only business, I think, that has a brand that’s consistent across very different businesses.
Alex: Yeah, yeah. He’s a horizontal growth, so it’s like, you know, mobile to hotels to airlines to…
Margit: Trends. Everything.
Alex: Yeah, it’s crazy, but it’s — that thread through works, and then the way he jumps out of planes and, you know, doesn’t have insurance or whatever the hell, like, seems to work for — you know, it absolutely works. It absolutely works.
Margit: Another person I think who’s done consistently a good job of their brand is Warren Buffett. He’s just very authentic. He’s got that folksy style, but he’s also smart. You know, he shows up consistently, and I think he’s done a really lovely job of managing his brand. And I’m not even sure he’s consciously doing it. Maybe he’s just lucky and gifted. Sometimes people are more gifted than others. Another person who actually doesn’t even tell her story, but I think has done a good job, is Angela Merkel over in Germany. I think she’s just like no-nonsense, right? It’s not a flashy brand. It’s not a “let me use my feminine charm” brand at all. It’s just, like, you know, walks the line.
Hanne: She is who she is.
Margit: She is who she is, and she’s just like boom. She keeps marching, right? So I think she’s done a good job. And then the example of someone whose brand has changed a lot for the better will be Bill Gates. If you — you know, some of you are too young but, like, he was just, particularly in Silicon Valley but I think widely, hated because of their hardcore business behavior. And now he is one of the most admired — and rightly so, one of the most admired human beings. Now, it’s easy when you have that much money to throw at the problem, but still, a lot of people have quite a bit of money and don’t bother to try and improve the world. So I think he’s done a really good…
Alex: That’s a good one.
Hanne: That makes me think of — you mentioned authenticity and, like, the role that authenticity plays. I mean, how do you avoid feeling overproduced or over…
Margit: I think it starts with, if you’re trying to portray something that you truly are not. So let’s just say you are hardcore competitive. Then don’t try and make your brand be, like, “I’m a little puppy dog,” right? It’s just, like, not going to work. Just own who you are, right? And I’m sure there’s an okay version of who you are, and own that, right? So that’s step one, authenticity.
And then Facebook, and Twitter, and Snapchat, and whatever else, they just demand authenticity, because it’s so easily detectable if it’s someone else doing the writing, or if these photos are too curated. From a content point of view, make it who you are. Like, everybody has features and bugs, in Silicon Valley parlance — like, “I have a lot of bugs, but you’ve got to find the place where the features are valued,” right, and you’re going to be successful in those jobs and not in others, right?
Hanne: Okay, so let’s talk about logistics a little bit, and platforms. You’ve made your list of adjectives. You know, you’ve figured out you, sort of — how do you actually go about getting it out there? And, like, are all platforms — do you have to be on all platforms all the time and…
Margit: Well, I mean, that’s an entire book of a conversation, but to start with, let’s just assume you’ve done not just the adjectives but also, like, “Here’s my story,” right? Here’s the biography that is not, sort of, your official resume that you send out in the world. I would start with — if it’s something you love — if you’ve done a lot of speaking as part of your work, and if it’s something you love, like, go to town. Try to get the TED Talk. But don’t try to get the TED Talk if it’s not something you really love, because the worst thing that you can do is just, sort of, do a very high-profile thing and then just fail at it miserably. A, it doesn’t feel good. And then, B, it just don’t you any favors. So I would start, if it’s something that’s totally natural to you, I would start with something really small and comfortable. I don’t know, it could be your alumni newsletter. It could be very, very small.
And then, the other thing I would say is, not every medium is for everyone. So I’ll use Marc Andreessen as an example. If I do Q&A, he’s brilliant. He’s just very good at the repartee, the question and answers, being quick on your feet, getting to the heart of the matter. He talks fast, and the whole thing works, right? Just find what you are. If you are good at speaking, speak. If you’re good at writing, write. Now, if you’re good at speaking, you still need to write, because you want to make sure that what you say is, like, really deliberate and whatnot.
But, like, everybody is different. There are things like LinkedIn and Medium, right, where you can share things like what Alex was saying, like, lessons learned or tips or, you know, like those kinds of things. Then obviously there’s press, which is the least controllable, because whatever you say, it goes through their filter and, like, they end up what gets used, and how, and all of that. So I’m sure you know the pitfalls. But it also is, in some ways, the most credible, because it’s not just you doing your own talking but a third-party, and they have their readership, and whatnot. But there are all kinds of options.
Alex: I will bring it back to — in case none of that is where you are, right, it’s actually — within a job, it’s what activities are you doing and what are those — are you doing the kind of work that you want to be doing? Are there projects that you want to be on? I think there’s also ways to use this for your advantage within a company, or within your environment, and maybe it is more community advocate as well on the side, and then what are you doing to do that, right? You know, do you want to sign up for something? Do you want to participate in a non-profit? Like, whatever those other things are, that also can be included. So I think there’s a quieter way, also, to think about the execution of a personal brand exercise that can be — how do you show up wherever you are?
Margit: Just to add another thing. It can also be, like, maybe you want to create your own personal network. Let’s just say you’re here, you have a job. It could be just, like, you corral a bunch of people and you have dinners. It shapes — as Alex is saying so eloquently, it shapes your activities and also what you say, and what you focus on, and what you want to impart.
Hanne: How do you know when it’s working? I mean, is it followers? Is it, like, getting places published? When do you know, like, “I’m telling the right story”?
Margit: I think it’s —companies spend millions of dollars doing brand studies, and they’ll do things like sentiment analysis, and Twitter followers, and all that kind of stuff. I think you know when it’s working, and I think you would know when it’s not. And it sounds like a pat answer, and maybe Alex can help me refine it, but are you working in the right job? Is that fulfilling? Do you feel like you’re connecting well with people? Are you spending your time on activities that you enjoy? Do you feel like your expertise is valued? To me, it’s like, are you working on something that you think is important, that’s larger than just yourself? And do you feel like you play a meaningful role in it? If you keep running into trouble, or if you keep not interacting well with people, then, yes, then I think it’s time to revisit it and go like, “Okay, what’s not working here?”
Alex: I actually wrote down three things off of mine, that I wanted to use as a temperature check, which I keep looking at. So, you could have your own version of this but mine was, “Am I growing and developing?” So, actually, one of the reasons I took this job is that at first I was like, “No thanks,” and it was just, like, pre-“Lean In” territory. And I was like, “I can’t.” I just had my third kid. It was a surprise. Like, oh, my God, and then running a company? I don’t think so. I’ve never been trained for that. And then I was like, “No, this is — this matches growth and development. I’m going to push myself. I’m going to throw up probably every day, but that’s okay.” I cried a lot and, like, did “St. Elmo’s Fire” with the curtains a lot. Totally true for the first year, but I’m over it now.
Growth and development was one. Adding value was a big one because that is — and I have two versions of that, which is — am I able to do what I do best at the job I’m in? Am I bringing everything? Are they accepting what I’m giving, basically? And that was also the personal part, and I actually think I’m successful because it’s all of me in that whole brand platform page.
And the last one is just the fun, is my thing. You may have another one, but for me, I think, at almost 48, [I’ve] just been like, you know what? I am not working with people even on your crappiest day — I was going to say shittiest, but I’m trying to work on — on your crappiest day, that you can’t have a little bit of a laugh, or be like, “What the F is happening?” you know or whatever. And you just have to have that. So that’s my thing. So, you will have your own things, but I think that’s another way of thinking about it in the frame that you asked.
How to handle mistakes
Hanne: So what if you mess up, on a less happy note? What if you put something out there, and then you’re like, “Whoops, that totally doesn’t feel like me,” or you get a bad reaction? What then?
Alex: You have a famous phrase, “Never waste a crisis.”
Margit: Yes, never waste a crisis. It’s my way of coping. So, there’s a company version of this. If you mess up, like, how do you handle yourself, right? What are you doing? Because there are no secrets. We all know this, right? In theory, we all know this, and then we try to forget it when it applies to us, but there are no secrets — particularly not if you’ve tweeted something. It’s just, like, own it. Own it and move on. Just own it.
Alex: Interesting enough, with the PwC thing from the Oscars, right? And all the coverage was, they are taking it on the chin big time. The chairman actually came out and quoted about it. I always appreciate, and I’m sure you do as a regular consumer — think of brands that are messed up, whether it’s a food brand and something happened, or, you know, just saying, “We did this. We’re sorry. Here’s what we’re going to do to fix it.”
Margit: And then actually do it.
Alex: Yeah, I mean, you probably already tell your kids that. Like, just own it and say you made the mistake. I mean, you’re only going to get as much trouble if you make eight lies and make me hunt you down.
Margit: The thing about the human condition, we want to forgive. We just want to feel heard. We want to feel heard, and then we’re ready to forgive. But if you’re lying to us…
Alex: You cannot get that.
Margit: …then we get very needley and obsessed and whatnot.
Hanne: In your own experience in building your own, you know, personal brand, what do you felt like was the hardest, or what was the most challenging for you?
Alex: I would say the hardest and most rewarding was coming out here and not knowing anybody. I mean, my whole network was a completely different network, and I moved here, much like I think you guys are. And that was just hard, because it was, sort of, this blank slate of like, “Nobody knows me.” So it’s kind of awesome.
And what do I want to be? So, starting over and making that transition, I think, can be very challenging but incredibly rewarding and you just have to be patient. The best times, coming out of that, I was just extremely thoughtful, and I’ve never made a “mistake” in my career yet so far. I did a lot of due diligence. I really thought about, you know, what kind of company do I want to work for, what brand, you know, is it. Like, how will my story — I’m not a planner so I’m not, “My 5-year plan, and my 10-year plan, and I’m going to be this, and I’m definitely not going to run for president in 2034, and holy hell.” But, I do think I’ve been along the way — to, sort of, combat that scaredness about it — just trying to be really thoughtful, and not rushing a decision, or not rushing into it, and not looking at a whole company, or not looking at the people that I’m going to be working with, and the kind of work, and can I be successful.
Margit: So mine was — when I was running OutCast, we sort of had made a decision — it is going to be all about the clients, and we are not going to be out there and vocal. Maybe that was my excuse for not doing anything. But, like, my belief was, you don’t ever want to be in the news and have your client go and like, “What is she spending her time on while I’m paying?” Like, that just didn’t sit right, so I kept a very low profile. I basically did nothing. And then when I joined here, Marc, essentially, sort of, challenged me. He didn’t force me. He said, like, “I would highly encourage…” He’s very convincing. “I would highly encourage you to, like, up your brand profile a little bit.” And that was really weird. Like, it was so ironic, right? I’m sitting here. He’s going like, “You should work on your brand,” and here I am hiding in a corner, right? So he called me on it.
And it was really difficult at first. So, I did things that were comfortable. I did dinners. I did dinners with reporters. And, like, somebody wrote a story on me out of that, which we didn’t work on that. It just kind of happened. It sort of happened organically. And then I always have, like, my happy home place. Germany — the Germans, like, want to talk to me all the time, because there’s so few Germans in Silicon Valley, and there’s all this tech tourism happening now. So if I want, like, an easy win, I’ll just go talk to the Germans and it’s like, “All right, fine.” But, like, that’s what I was saying. Like, find where you’re comfortable, right, and work your way into it. And it doesn’t have to be pressed, as Alex was saying. Find your way where you’re comfortable and, kind of, worm your way into it.
Hanne: That’s a great note to end on, and we’ll take some questions. If anybody has, ask away.
Woman 1: Thank you very much for being with us this morning. Most of us were transitioning out of the military, right? And so we’re in the space of, somewhat recreating ourselves, trying to, you know, downplay — even though we’re proud of our achievements in the military, you’re trying to connect the dots where people see you being in an executive space, or being in the tech industry. So while we’re transitioning, is all the advice you gave the same? And then — or, also, maybe when you get more specific, of where specifically [there’s] a company or industry that you want to go into, how do you shift? How is that brand shifting happening? And can you do this by yourself, or is it something that you’d actually need to hire someone?
Alex: You can definitely do it by yourself. I think the interesting thing is, on the stories, it’s what translates. It’s — what [are] the activities in the work that you did. In your military experience, a lot of the leadership skills in general, without being very specific to what each company does and what you’ll need to do in that company — finding those bridges of the work that you did, and the kinds of teams that you ran and oversaw, project management. Like, take those very basic things that are core to any leader anywhere, and map those for people just with your experience.
Margit: Yeah, and I would say — I mean, you’re going to laugh, and rightfully so. But Silicon Valley thinks of itself as a place of disruption, which means there are uncertain environments that are wobbly. They can shift any second. And a company that’s hot now is not tomorrow and whatnot. And it’s full of people with engineering degrees, but not a lot of actual, sort of, real-world experience. So what do you guys do? You guys go into uncertain environments and make stuff work, basically out of nothing.
So, I think that’s highly, highly applicable, and so you just need to find out the specifics of how you’ve led, and explain those in plain English. But, like, we need so much of that, because a lot of the folks here, they are running large companies but, like, they’ve never run a thing. They’re out of a dorm into their new dorm, with kombucha and massage tables. It’s a little mind boggling. So, someone like you coming in there is like, “All right, people, here is how we’re going to go…” is a thing of beauty, and I think that should be highly, highly transferable, and desired.
Man 2: Thanks for both of your time. The idea of who you are is much more multifaceted than just, “This is my brand, this is what I want to be seen for.” Like, it can be situationally dependent. It can change on your life circumstances, and it can — you know, I may need to be a jerk in this situation, and that’s who I have to be, [and] in this situation I’m not. How do you encompass all of that authentically into one brand without having to, like, hide this side of yourself?
Margit: Well, look, the brand is not trying to prescribe every detailed behavior in every situation, but I think — you know, having to be a jerk in a situation, that’s just sort of adjusting your management style, right? But, I think if you have three or four —three, we like three — brand acquisitions, it gives you a well-rounded body of, like, the essence of who you are. It doesn’t describe every behavior. And it’s also not static. I mean, if you looked at me funny when I was a teenager, I would be blushing, and I rarely spoke. And I can speak now, even in a different language. Go look at that. So, it’s not static as I think we might have made it sound.
Man 3: I’m finding that it’s okay to be associated with a startup that fails. It’s actually positive for a lot of people, but it’s very negative, it seems, to be associated with a stolid, old-fashioned company who may be successful, but, if you go there in your career, you’re quickly known as one of “those guys.” Not good enough to make it at a, you know, high growth — is that a real concern, or is that something that we should ignore?
Alex: I so lived this. This is literally where — I came here. I got to — yeah, my first job since moving here was with “WIRED” magazine. So, that was, sort of, my first, kind of, couple years, which was great, and I got to learn the space. And then I got to OutCast, and it was like my GE-ness — because we worked on startups and [they] were like, “Ugh, ooh, how embarrassing for you, basically.” And I think that was part of my year of feeling horrible, like, all this stuff I learned. And then I realized, “You know what? All of the stuff I learned through osmosis, through being in boardrooms, or just my experience traveling around the world is actually bigger.”
So, I had to, sort of, move from feeling really bad about myself about it, right, and that it was an albatross. And I have to say, I over-rotated a little bit in the beginning. I tried to bring, like, too much project management, or too much process, to the company, I think, in the beginning, and then I found my way. You know, by people saying, like, “This seems too much,” right? So, I learned also a lot of, like, not necessarily my way was always the right way. So learning to be flexible like a startup, I think, was hugely valuable. But you will get that. A lot of startups don’t have that experience of how to run, you know, a big company, and that is actually what they all aspire to so it’s sort of ironic.
Margit: I think there’s the chatter, and then there’s, like — we have an executive talent team. When a startup gets a certain level of momentum, they actually do want someone who has sold to big customers before, or who has worked in a big security department before. Like, they do do that. There’s, like, the what’s cool and there’s like — Forbes does a list of, like, the 30 under 30, and the 20 under 20. And, like, nobody does the 60 under 60, right? But, like, you do — you know, I think in the real world, once companies get to a certain scale, they actually do want the experience, and they do want, sort of, the big company-ness.
Alex: But I do think you’ll pick up, when you’re interviewing or talking to these companies — you easily can pick that up, I think. There are some founders who aren’t very good at the “this is the way I did it at Microsoft,” and you could feel it very quickly, they’re not interested. And then it’s just, you know, “Fine, good to know,” or not your place or maybe that is your place because you don’t want to be like Microsoft.
Hanne: One more maybe?
Woman 2: Hi, thank you so much for your candor, by the way. It’s very refreshing.
Margit: We only have one version. It’s the brand working.
Woman 2: So, we’ve had a lot of feedback on translating military skills into civilian skill sets and things like that. And really what that boils down to is branding, in a way. And one of the things that I think is pretty universal throughout the military is the ability to be, you know, an athlete, and do a ton of things all at the same time. I think the problem with that, with our personal branding efforts, is how do you portray the fact that, “Hey, I have a lot of different skill sets,” without coming across as contradictory? I think my concern is just that, if we do brand ourselves as this athlete that can come in and do a lot of things, it’ll come across as we’re, sort of, a jack of all trades and a master of none. You did kind of touch on it, but how do we keep from being, I guess, pigeonholed into, like, the standard military, “Oh, you’re a military member, so you need to do this specific thing and kind of…” Does that make sense?
Alex: Would you say that you were wide and deep though?
Woman 2: Yeah.
Alex: That’s how I would phrase it, right, that you can go wide. Like, wherever you’re going to go, you’re going to be successful, because you know how to go deep, and then think of maybe, you know, two examples where you did that. Like, we say that all the time, even with what we do. Like, our portfolio companies we work with is — everything from Patagonia to Amazon to Airbnb. <inaudible> company, right? So, when they came to us, they were like, “Well, do you have life sciences?” and we were like, “No, but…”
Margit: You know that.
Alex: “…we know what to do.” We’ll learn really quickly on life sciences. Like, we get up to speed. We know so many industries, then we go deep. You know, we know there’s a way to get smart, and then we can go deep but we are not — and then we own it, by the way. We say, “We’re not a life sciences agency. If that’s what you want, we can make a recommendation for you, but I can’t pretend to be something I’m not.” And then usually they’re like, “Ooh,” or they’re like, “Thanks, we’ll be moving on,” and I’m like, “Okay, bye.” So that’s okay. Like, I would rather say that than be like, “Yes, we can do that for you.” And then you get in there and you’re like, “Shit, really there’s no way I can do that,” or public policy…
Margit: Only so much winging it.
Alex: All right, thank you.
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