Brandon and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett are members of a small fraternity of former VPs of Comms at Twitter. In this Studio Session, they talk about their shared Twitter experience in two very different eras; Twitter’s current moment (this conversation happened just before Elon Musk made an offer to buy the company); the current state of comms; and, what it’s like to do comms for a Web3 company.
Mixing Board Member Brandon Borrman is the Head of Communications for Alchemy — which, if you haven’t heard of them, is a very important player in the emerging Web3 world that has raised well over $500 million. Brandon joined Alchemy last October as their first non-engineering hire.
Before Alchemy, Brandon was the VP of Global Communications at Twitter for more than three years (2018–2021). He had multiple decades of serious comms work and accomplishments before diving into the Twitter role.
SG: Are we in the weirdest Twitter era ever?
BB: God, there’s so many to choose from, how do you rank them? I don’t know if it’s the weirdest ever, but it might be the most unpredictable. Most billionaires are looking at buying yachts, but when you’re Elon Musk, and you’ve got that much money, the only thing with a price tag that’s interesting is a company. Is he doing this just to entertain himself? In which case, poor Twitter. Or is something serious and fundamental going to happen here, in which case also poor Twitter. I don’t know how this works out favorably.
SG: If you were still running comms at Twitter right now, what’s your focus?
BB: My primary one would actually be internal — you’ve got employees who’ve gone through a ton. For the most part, the first part of this year has gone pretty well for them. The products got a roadmap and they’re putting product out, which is, as you know, very unusual for Twitter. The CEO change went relatively well and people were excited to see what Parag was going to do. But for some employees who are feeling like maybe we’ve turned the corner, this is going feel like going back to 2020 election chaos. My primary concern would just be morale internally. Keeping people focused, reminding them why they’re there and trying to assuage some of their concerns.
SG: I might have a couple ideas on this, but what is it like doing comms for a company like Twitter, which is obviously a global communications machine? What analogy would you give for it?
BB: I’ve never served on a political campaign directly, but I know a lot of people who have. The people who had that were at Twitter said that in the corporate world, this was the closest it ever came to being like a campaign. Beyond being 24/7 nonstop, it wasn’t just who were you playing chess against, but was it even chess you were playing? What was the game? And did the other person on the other side of the table agree to the rules? At least with a campaign, you’re doing it in one geography. But for a company like Twitter, just as you get through the US and start to take a breath — Japan wakes up, India wakes up, Europe wakes up. You’re drinking from the firehose every single day.I would tell every new hire we had that you will never have another comms experience like this. You will never have to beg somebody to write about you, you’ll be telling people, no, we don’t want you to write about us. You’ll be dealing with issues that your parents are going to see on the news and on the front pages of newspapers. It’s a phenomenal training ground, because anything you do after this is going to feel remarkably relaxing.
SG: I always say, the metric that you should measure comms success by is what percentage of your work is proactive versus reactive. Is it even possible to be proactive at a place like Twitter?
BB: At the end of every year, that is the metric that we consistently failed on. I will say, with the product team now putting out product, it’s given that side of the comms team space to go be proactive. And they’ve done really good work in the last 12 months in particular. But you need a little bit of head space from the product itself in order to do that. When I was there, everything was basically about multiple elections, product issues, et cetera. So no, you really couldn’t be proactive. It is definitely an area I would give myself a failing grade on after my three years there.
SG: Well, I failed too. The closest analogy I came up with during my time at Twitter, was that it was like running communications at the White House. It’s probably similar to a political campaign except that, like you said, you’re very focused on a single candidate or candidate you’re opposed to. But in the White House, you’re expected to be a spokesperson for the free world. Anything that happens in the free world, you’re expected to have an opinion — and it can be completely random — but we want to hear what the White House is to say. At Twitter, you’re almost like a spokesperson for anything major that unfolds on the internet. You could be totally focused on your own product and your own stuff one day, and then you have to completely pivot and focus on how an earthquake that happened in Chile is being seen through Twitter. And you’re like, “Yesterday, I didn’t even know this city in Chile existed. Now I’m supposed to be an expert on what’s happening there?”
BB: In some ways, we exacerbated that because we made a really clear decision early on in my time there. We saw Facebook and a couple of others going in another direction, so we were going to step into the void and be the voice of what the internet used to be and why we should all be worried about an open internet and not centralizing power. But in doing so, we made ourselves the voice of everybody who wasn’t working at one of these five companies. Which definitely made things more complicated. But it made things more fun too. You know this, it’s why people go work at Twitter. Not that they’re getting paid better than everybody else, it’s a company with a mission and they believe in it.
SG: Like a political campaign or working at the White House, no matter how long you worked there for, it’ll be seared into your DNA for the rest of your career. But you’re doing something different now. Explain your move into the future, Brandon.
BB: I have jumped into web3 and crypto. And I feel similarly to Twitter, it’s mission driven. I do believe in what people are trying to do in the Web3 world.
SG: And what are people trying to do in the Web3 world?
BB: You have one group that’s obviously coming in to try and make a lot of money very quickly. But that happens anytime there’s a new industry, people see an opportunity. Talking to the people who have been in this for a while and the people who are building these things, there’s a real belief that the fundamental technology layer needs to change if we’re going to take the power out of the hands of a few big companies and big governments and put it back in the hands of the people.You and I, our career started around the same time. We both have that Gen X idealism about the internet being this big open, free for all. Over the last 10 years, the trends have been against that. So I believe in this bigger mission. We have to find a way to give people control over their own data, find a way to let people have access to things no matter where they are or who they are. It’s a big shift from where we are right now.
SG: There is a Web2 to Web3 parallel to communications. The Web2 version is more command and control. Obviously, if you’re dealing with a disintermediated technology, you may be giving up some control about how you communicate about it or how you interact with an audience. What is that transition like?
BB: It’s a transition I started working on when I was at Twitter. I was fortunate to have Jack and some of the other executives there who really felt like one of the fundamental problems was companies, including Twitter, just closing themselves off from the outside world. We did a lot there to try and be more open — be honest about the mistakes we’re making, go out and talk to people where they were, and listen to them. A lot has been written about the breakdown and trust between individuals and big organizations. As comms people, we haven’t taken a big enough step back to understand the role we’ve played in that.Our jobs for a long time have been to be the wall between the group we’re representing and of people outside. We need to shift our minds to look at ourselves more as conduits. We should be bringing people in, bringing the insiders out. As you get into a lot of these Web3 companies, press is still important, but the community building aspect of Web3 is the secret sauce right now. All of the successful projects here, whether they’re NFTs or even Alchemy, which is a complete infrastructure company, hardcore B2B. But it’s the community these organizations are building around themselves that’s making them successful. The press piece is an addition on top of that, instead of that being the sole focus.
SG: Community is one of those things that can both be true and a total meaningless buzzword. What is the definition of community? Because it feels like just throwing up a Discord server can be defined as community. Or doing IRL events around owning an ape is another community thing. In your mind, what is community and where does that go?
BB: Those are all constituent parts, they’re the tactics. Every time I ever talked to anybody about how to make your Twitter account successful for a company, I would tell them it’s got to be two-way. You’ve got to have a conversation. You’ve to be willing to listen to feedback. To be successful building a community around a company, you’ve to take that and multiply it by 100. You have to help people figure out how they play a role in product development and it’s got to be more than just giving hearing feedback that you then go take and keep behind the walls for six months and then pop out a product. It should be an ongoing, iterative process. How do you build APIs in public so people can give you feedback and other people can see that feedback.Discord is great way to engage on an ongoing daily basis, but the IRL stuff is stupid important. It’s the events you throw, but it’s also how you show up at the events that the marketplace is already throwing. Our developer relations team went to ETHDenver, which is one of the big Ethereum developer gatherings. Our team showed up in these crazy tracksuits — they wanted people to know they were there and wanted people to know they were fun. They ended up becoming the hit of the entire event.But then people would realize, the Alchemy team is actually really helpful. They’d say, “I’ve got this little project I’m trying to get off the ground and this person from Alchemy just recommended four other people for me to talk to, to make this happen.” That’s how you start to build successful community. People trust you and you view you as friends with everyone. Our goal is for all of us to succeed, and if we can do that in a way where Alchemy is the answer, great. But sometimes it might not be, and I’m still going to help you.
SG: How does that transcend into everything else that you do as you build this out? You ran a fairly large team of Twitter, global, multifaceted, people who do product comms, consumer comms, Europe, Asia, et cetera. And you walk into Alchemy, as the first comms person, first non-engineer hire. You’re given this blank slate, and need to think about how we should build and grow this thing? How do you think about that within this Web3 context? How are you thinking about evolving a team?
BB: A big chunk of it was just going in and getting agreement with the founders that one of the most effective ways that we could grow the business would be to grow the whole ecosystem. If we agreed on that, it gave us a framework to make decisions. When I walked in they were announcing their Series C, which was big flashy numbers. What we did immediately after that was launch a free educational platform. We went out to all of our investors, to chain partners, companies we were working with, and said, “Look, we all have materials to train people in this. Let’s create a centralized resource, and we’re going to make it free to everybody. We’ll take care of all the hosting and all the expenses.” Doing things like that help the community piece, but it also positions Alchemy as a trusted convener.And there’s an obvious upside for us too. The more people who are educated about how to work in Web3, the more potential customers we have. That’s the kind of approach we want to take with comms as a whole. Find those places where we can go in and really show our commitment to the community first and then all of the press stuff, the speaking opportunities, that’s the stuff that goes on top. That’s the bonus. The core of the work is community, social, and a lot of content work. We’ve got a ton of expertise inside that’s helpful to the outside world. So how do we turn that into content that we can share with other people? That’s not to say that the press piece isn’t important. I firmly believe the press plays a critical role in society and they should play that role in web3 as well. From a comms perspective, it can’t be our single top priority any longer.
SG: I don’t even know how you define press anymore. When you talk about the de-emphasis of press, even though it still has an important role, where do you see this going? It’s a funny conversation to still have in 2022, because we’ve been talking about this for so long. There is this contrarian view that remains, which I frankly believe in more now than I did a few years ago, that there are still great opportunities in engaging with journalists. There still are really game changing opportunities for organizations, if they do it right. How do you see it evolving as someone who, like me, sees the pros and cons of both sides of the fence?
BB I wish I had a really clear answer. I’d be better at my job if I knew. Working in tech, we’re all in this boat, we view the role of the press as an important thing. But we do have a little bit of an uphill climb here. We’re not just trying to get the great TechCrunch piece about the company, but we’re trying to help our organizations understand. It’s almost like there’s a moral obligation to society for us to engage with people who have a third party, potentially, semi-critical position.Things like Andreessen doing their own publications or what Coinbase has been talking about completely replaces the press. But there is a place for that kind of thought leadership and deep thinking on a particular topic that doesn’t really have a home in a publication. Companies should invest in building out more of those platforms and putting that kind of content out there. But it doesn’t replace engaging with reporters and journalists.
SG: One thing I observe — even in the Web3 world — is an over-emphasis on getting attention, on getting coverage. For startups, I’m curious if you had this experience at Alchemy, it becomes about — we’ve just got to get this one story about our fundraise, it’s going to help us hire engineers, it’s going to help us do this and that, it solves for so much. There’s an over-emphasis on it and an assumption that it’s going to be this silver bullet for so many different things. How do you help founders properly place press into these different contexts? Because everything you just outlined in terms of a deep content strategy, community building, et cetera are right on, but all those things sound like a lot of work and a lot of investment. When instead I could just go get this TechCrunch story tomorrow, and that will solve everything for me.
BB: I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that sometimes you just have to do the piece. Because it makes people feel good, makes the investors feel good, and that stuff’s important. Where I’ve had more success is getting down to the nuts and bolts of what we are really trying to achieve. Do we want to drive sales? Do we want to drive recruiting? And then walking through how more specific and tailored channels can actually move the needle more effectively.We’ve had a couple really substantial investment rounds since I got here, and big press hits, they spike traffic at the website. But the spikes that come through for signups and for actual use of the product are typically driven more by the content we’re putting out. And our content is really thoughtful documentation on a specific problem and how to solve it. Some of the videos we’ve got are people creating, building, and launching NFT projects. If you can demonstrate a clear connection between the goal and the right channel to do it, it gives you more freedom to then pick and choose how you approach things. To be able to sit down and say, look, press is not the answer to everything. But you’re right, it is the answer to this problem.
SG: To play devil’s advocate, maybe a concern is that it can become similar to a subreddit that you’re extremely good at. Like, I’ve got this audience nailed, I have the best memes that are going to get the most up votes. If you do the corporate version of that, you’re talking with this very specific audience, this very specific community, which you feel like you have nailed, but then you miss the forest for the trees of other outside opportunities. And you’re getting so many signals from this insular community all day long on your own channels — how do you evolve from it?
BB: Part of the reason I keep pushing people who’ve got experience in comms doing other things to move into this space. When I walked in the door, it was like, it’s TechCrunch, it’s the Crypto press, that’s what we have to focus on. I made the argument that we also have to think about Forbes, Wall Street Journal, and others. Because eventually these big Web2 companies and Fortune 500 companies are going to be moving here. And when someone comes in with a contract from Alchemy, you want the CFO to say, “Oh, I recognize that name, because I saw it in The Journal yesterday.” Psychologically it just makes it easier for people to sign off on.I worked with someone at Brunswick years ago and Cisco was a client and he used to go in and say, “The greatest proposition you guys have is that no one ever gets fired for buying Cisco.” That’s where some of that press stuff helps to work. You mentioned paying too much attention to noise in the community. It’s a problem in Web3, but it was a definite problem at Twitter. I’m sure you experienced this.
SG: I still remember the very specific people who would DM me all day, yes.
BB: DMs were a whole other thing. It’s difficult, and I don’t know if there’s a single solution. Sometimes as a comms person, you just have to say, “Okay, I don’t agree with this. But I know we’re going to do it. And we’ll take care of it and we’ll do it well.” And that gives you a little bit of space to focus on the things you really want to do.
SG: As someone who worked at Brunswick and with some very prominent tech companies for a long time — Brunswick’s job was around big financial events, crises, or serious corporate stuff. And serious corporate stuff required controlling that narrative. Having that messaging document, having everything nailed down, and buttoned up. What is the state of controlling the narrative today? Is that ever going to be a thing again?
BB: We have to come to terms with the fact that it’s just not. I remember being in the rooms when everyone was like, social media is going to destroy everything. How are we going to deal with everybody having a blog and anybody can be a journalist? And we’re way past that. The world has changed so fundamentally in my 20 something years. I look back on the stuff I was doing at the beginning of my career, and I don’t think it has a place here anymore. A lot of our job in communications is helping our internal clients come to terms with this change.You can’t just put out a press release anymore. You can’t tweet something and expect that no one’s going to engage with it and then expect you to follow up and continue saying something. We’re lucky right now, because you can look at Twitter, Discord, Reddit, and maybe a few other places. In the next five years, that level of comfort is going to go away. I worked a little bit on helping get the Bluesky project at Twitter off the ground, which is about an open-sourced social protocol. Something like that is going to happen. When that type of thing happens, this content is going to be everywhere.
SG: For context, that means that a tweet that would normally just go onto the timeline could go on all sorts of different platforms, apps, sites, et cetera.
BB: If you take it to its extreme, it would fundamentally change Twitter from being the place where this stuff is created, hosted, and saved to just one way to see all of the content that’s being created everywhere. So you’ll have very small communities pop up and maybe it’s only 100 people and they’re interested in one really esoteric thing. But they’ve got their little community going. You might never see that on Twitter, or maybe you do. Information is going to continue spreading and moving into smaller and smaller pockets. And it will fundamentally change how we have to think about communications. Because we’re going to have to start figuring out, like, what are the pockets I actually need to be involved in and how do I get there?
SG: One lesson that old guys like us know, is that being afraid of that is probably not the best answer. Running into the opportunity is a better one. You might get burned at some point, but at least you’re moving something forward. What is the best way to run into that opportunity of further disintermediation?
BB: You have to go out and try to experience it. There’s a shocking number of comms people who’ve never been on Discord, and don’t know what it is. That’s a good glimpse to where things are going. We have specific servers on specific topics or subjects and you have to find them and engage. It can go really well for you if you’re a contributing part of the community and taking part in it. But it gets very overwhelming very quickly. It’s hard to be just a casual observer of things.I remember reading this book in 1999, but I went back and read it a few months ago, The Cluetrain Manifesto, which is a shockingly prescient book. It’s crazy to read it now and think that it’s taken us about 20 years to come around to some of the lessons that that book put out there. They talked a lot about how the internet was just going to fundamentally change your relationship with your customer. And that it was going to be ongoing, it was going to be a conversation, and things were going to happen in public. It would put more power in the hands of your users and your customers than they ever had before. A lot of corporations are still coming to terms with that and it’s going to do nothing but accelerate in the next few years.
SG: As Alchemy continues to expand and actually starts working with Fortune 500 companies, is the biggest opportunity to bring them into this change and help them understand and contextualize this broader opportunity? That’s the most fun thing you can do is be at the edge of two different worlds, and try to be the connector and educator along the way.
BB: Part of the reason I went to Alchemy is that they’re well positioned on both ends. The core of the business right now is individual developers, working with people who are starting companies like OpenSea or the folks at Dapper Labs. Starting with them and helping them build those into real companies. Now as Fortune 500 and Web2 companies are waking up to this and trying to figure out what’s happening, there’s a huge opportunity there as well. Alchemy is uniquely positioned because it’s built a really solid, trusted reputation with devs that we can keep growing, we can keep having unicorns explode in Web3, and we can go to big brands and work with them and help bring them into this world too.
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