How Public Relations Can Help Tell a Company’s Unique Story with Erin Simpson
Conversation with Erin Simpson, Founder & Principal, Brick Lane Public Relations
How Public Relations Can Help Tell a Company’s Unique Story
May 1, 2019
1. What is your business?
Our business is Brick Lane, a public relations firm focused primarily on startups and other interesting companies who are growing quickly. We work with clients whose businesses need help telling their story, launching a product, or speaking to a new audience. We often get involved when companies are at critical junctures in their growth before they hire an in-house communications team or are in need of a strategic extension of their in-house communications team.
It makes the job dynamic and fun because we get to work with the people who are building the product and the customers who will use it. We really get involved in the mind of the company and its mission as we find a way to package it all for the outside world.
Many of our clients have come from word-of-mouth referrals or people we crossed paths within our previous roles. They come to us already understanding what we do and our focus on storytelling, problem-solving and developing the company’s message. They know we’re really good at these things. It’s great because their needs line up well with our expertise.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
In the back of my mind, I always knew I would start my own business. For most of my career, I worked in entrepreneurial environments, so seeing people who started companies from scratch really sparked my interest. I was at Benefit Cosmetics in the early days and with Lyft when there were only 20 people working there. Each of these experiences really sparked my entrepreneurial drive, and, instead of this being something I did decades into my career, it became a short-term goal.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
It was really a self-imposed deadline that I had given myself, that if I was still thinking about this idea three months later that I would run with it. I ended up telling my boss, one of the Lyft founders, and my plan to exit responsibly gave me a little cushion of time. As much as I was sad to leave the team, ultimately they were supportive of me striking out and starting my own business. I stayed at Lyft for a while and on nights and weekends, did all those under the radar things like setting up my company name and getting my ducks in a row.
When I was ready to talk about it publicly, I had a lot of those ‘on paper’ elements in place, but the biggest impediment was not being able to line up clients since I wasn’t talking about it publicly yet. It would have been nice to have that lined up before I left to get the ball rolling, but it ended up working out. About a week before leaving Lyft, I made it public and emailed a handful of people. At the end of that day, I had someone who wanted to work with me. Three days after I left Lyft, I started working with my first client: Airbnb.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
Realizing that it was going to be hard to do everything myself. I quickly realized that having two or three clients was my maximum load depending on the scope of the projects. One day I had a big funding announcement for one client, and for another client, a day-long shoot booked with CNN which involved a lot of moving pieces. Those two things involved a lot of planning and execution, yet I was doing everything myself. It was a good problem to have, but that’s when I realized I needed some help. I could only do so much as one person and needed to duplicate myself to do more, provide better service, and drive more results.
At first, I thought I’d hire someone to help me execute and manage day-to-day things, but then I realized that meant managing someone and still trying to run the business. That’s when my thinking shifted to wanting to find a partner. I was actually introduced to my partner, Erin First, via an email mishap. We share the same name, and she was working at Stitch Fix. We ended up connecting a lot due to our shared experience at startups and picking each other’s brains. We stayed in touch, and shortly after her run at Stitch Fix, she was ready for something new and considered breaking out on her own. I threw out the idea of becoming partners. We started with a six-month trial, and our partnership was a hit. We became 50-50 partners shortly after the trial.
5. Was there ever a particularly tough time that in retrospect was a priceless learning moment?
All the time. Working with Erin (my partner) has opened me up to see my strengths and weaknesses. She comes from a really rich agency background, and in contrast, I spent a decade plus in-house. I started a PR agency without having really worked at a PR agency. She brought a lot of rigor and structure that I was lacking. I was doing good quality work, but I needed the structure in place to grow. For example, we now have processes in place to track ongoing projects with each client, to regularly report results and feedback on a weekly basis, which was something that I was basically doing ad-hoc without any real cadence or structure. That was really priceless: uncovering the things that we needed to be doing but that I wasn’t necessarily seeing.
6. How have you been able to grow professionally? What tools have you used?
I listen to a lot of podcasts. I love them, everything from “How I Built This” to “Trailblazers” or “No Limits” and classics like Tim Ferris. It’s very rare that I listen to one and not take a bunch of notes or send myself emails. I constantly get fresh ideas and inspiration from listening to them.
7. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
Building the business to a place that is financially stable. When you work for a company, your earning potential is determined by so many factors that you can’t control. I’m not proud of my track record of negotiating my salary. Working for yourself, however, you can’t shrink from asking for what you believe you are worth. I am proud of being able to build a business that is in a sustainable place where I make more than I ever did with a corporate job. That’s a really big personal achievement.
The really exciting part of our job is seeing our hard work come to life in big stories in Fast Company or the WSJ or features on the Today Show. It’s such a great, positive win to see how we’ve helped clients. I am really proud of these wins and equally proud of the times we have been able to help clients navigate tough situations that impact their employees and stakeholders. In the hard instances, like a layoff or bad news, we work hard to approach communicating the company’s perspective in a thoughtful and respectful way.
8. What are some of your current challenges?
We have built this company to a good place, and now it’s time to think about how to continue to grow. Right now we are limited since we are only two people, with support from a few great contractors, so we need to make decisions about hiring and the services we want to offer. Our next step is figuring out what growth looks like. Do we hire team people with B2B experience to learn and grow that side of the business?
Right now our main focus is B2C companies that want to tell their story to individuals, to drive that brand awareness, as well as tell their business story to a broad audience, and continue to build momentum and credibility in their industries. The difference in working with a B2C company is that you’re often working to establish a brand as a household name, and working to do so in more of a mainstream way.
In B2B, the challenge is storytelling designed to sell highly technical and complicated software products to other technical and corporate buyers. In this situation, for example, things like case studies and data stories are very helpful. The main challenge is that there isn’t always a big sexy product launch or a trend story. It might be more of an iteration story, or a deeper dive story on how the company is approaching something in a new way. It’s an area we’d love to develop our expertise in, as we see some really interesting companies in these spaces cross our paths.
9. Have there been positive or negative impacts on your family and work/life balance once your business was off the ground?
It’s been really positive. One thing about having your own business is that you never really fully unplug—many people don’t do this anyway because of email and the graying of lines between work/personal time. That is a danger when you have your own business: the nights and weekends become very blurred, so you have to be extra thoughtful about making space for turning things off and stepping away.
For me personally, I have found a lot more balance when I can determine my schedule and location. The flexibility of having my own business has been a boon for my family. My husband is English, and we have been able to spend time with his family overseas every year, while I stay fully connected to our daily client work.
10. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would’ve given to yourself ten years ago?
When you work for yourself, you really have to strip things down and tell a client exactly what you feel you are worth. It’s all about what you can deliver, your experience, your expertise, your brain power, your value. That’s been a challenge for me because I have never enjoyed those conversations in work settings.
A decade ago, I really thought people would notice the good work I was doing and that if I worked hard enough I could get recognition and a raise. But in reality, I should have been asking for the things I thought I deserved. You need to look out for yourself; people won’t necessarily seek you out and give you what you deserve. I learned that later in my career and still have to remind myself of it regularly.
So when we have a client who is requiring more work than what was initially scoped out, we need to adjust our rates. I have to remind myself of all of the work that we are doing, and the market value of our expertise. That is the number one piece of advice: know your worth and that you are providing real value to help these businesses grow, so make sure they are compensating you for what you’re delivering.
Conversation Date: March 27, 2018