The communications world is an enigma, and at times, feels counter to the job of a journalist. So to hear that there's an effort to help more comms people trade notes, share stories and prepare curated responses, I have the selfish worry that we'll have less vulnerability coming from founders and executives around the startup world.
But, Sean Garrett, the first communications and marketing leader at Twitter, is trying to convince me otherwise. Garrett built Twitter's communications team and helped the company develop a marketing, public affair and government relations strategy. He also advised the Obama White House on digital strategy and communications, Slack, and created two other communications consultancies. All background that makes his latest bet all the more interesting: Mixing Board, a startup to bring together communications and marketing leaders in one spot to help clients avoid "the BS PR stuff."
Mixing Board brings together current, rising and seasoned marketing leaders to trade notes, whether that's how to message a startup's pivot or how to announce a stealthy business' debut into the world. It offers different programs based on different needs but mainly focuses on scaling mentorship with executive advice hailing from Airbnb, American Express, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Netflix, the Obama White House, Oatly, Slack, Twitter, Virgin Group and others. Over 200 people are in the community to date.
The company doesn't want to be an alternative to a PR agency but instead wants to help comms people within organizations level up through mentorship support and get more diverse ideas beyond the monolithic perspective of maybe their immediate network. In other words, its clients aren't startups; it is the head of comms within a startup.
Right now, it's free for comms leaders to join Mixing Board. The startup makes money through a community-sourced recruiting operation, in which companies pay the money to help with an exec search. The startup splits a finders fee 50/50 with the member who made the suggestion, and as Garrett describes, "it's a far greater return than the karma points we all collected doing this kind of thing for free for many years … the success of it (as well as the current economic currents) are why we are also adding fractional/interim and consultant roles to what we help source."
Unlike 10 years ago, when communications experts mostly stayed in their own lane and competed more than complemented, Garrett thinks that the current market brings a key opportunity to the cohort. "One of the big changes, obviously, that's happened in the last few years is just the relative power of employees increasing. People talk a lot about its impact on social justice issues, it has an impact on organizing but also an impact on the truth," he said. "Organizations and companies can't ruin marketing campaigns or PR campaigns that aren't based or centered around the truth because employees will call that right out - it can be dead on arrival."
Employees are some of the best sources, both in organizing or in leaking corporate misgivings to the press, to beget change. To him, that shift in power is an opportunity for companies to focus on their truths and get comms people to be better and stronger at their jobs.
Another tailwind that Mixing Board seeks to capitalize on is the evolution of what a comms person is in charge of today, compared to when he first started. As I led this story with, often we think of comms as media relations. It is a part of the job, but Garrett stressed that so is editorial strategy, community moderation and events. Basically anything that includes someone talking to or supporting their audience could have a comms person involved, behind the scenes, making sure things run smoother.
"What's really changed profoundly is that comms is now in that kind of leadership structure, more and more. And even I have a lot of peers who like our comms leaders who take on marketing below them," he said. "No longer are they reporting the CMO, the marketing team is reporting to the comms person, right? It means the job is way more important … the comms thinking and perspective gets infused into executive strategy."
Garrett gave me the example of Mixing Board helping comms folks drum up best ways to handle layoffs. Members will talk about "how to communicate with employees, how to contextualize this. Be direct, be clear. Don't overpromise. Don't do things like, say this is the last time we're going to do this because if it's not … you're really screwed."
"Really centering in on that internal audience and obviously there's the external audience as well, but if you can get the internal audience right like it's gonna go okay, and it's gonna be okay," he said. "You do remember when people treat you humanely, and when people treat you with kindness … that internal focus really should be the rule and [what will] center you."
Another adjacent effort in the networking world is Coalition, a fund and network built by and for operators. Both business efforts are aggregating advice, bringing experts together in one vertical and building atop the needs that founders have for more curated advice (especially in a world where they may not be hiring as much). The difference, though, is that Coalition is trying to scale that advice outward by pairing companies with experts, while Mixing Board is trying to internally level up a career.
The founder also noted Reforge, which sells cohort-based programs, led by executives, to founders seeking advice on how to get through a certain business problem. "We are currently scratching the surface of how to unlock expertise that used to be stuck inside of organizations. Once we do, we can use it to create a flywheel of talent development and opportunity that lifts all boats," he adds.
All the companies want to productize something that was often informal, sharing advice, with something that is difficult to force, building a true community.
As recent examples have shown, startups that sell access to community can struggle to balance efficacy with venture capital incentives. Mixing Board works with 200 members, but what does it look like when it hits 2,000 members? 20,000? We know networks can scale - ahem, YC - but we also know that there needs to be buy-in, proven value and natural synergy to make them work.
Now that Mixing Board has officially launched, the team is building a community and defining differentiation. To build a stronger foundation, Mixing Board raised $350,000 in a pre-seed round from Bloomberg Beta and others. The startup is now profitable, Garrett says, but more importantly, has time before it needs to make money, digitize and offer self-service tools, and raise more external financing.