Mixing Board Studio Session with Erika Ekiel

Sean Garrett

Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Erika and Sean. They talk about what goes into a good corporate story, why the story building process is a lot like group therapy, and what it really means to be a leader.

Erika (Brown) Ekiel has been behind the stories of Silicon Valley since the dot com era. First as a respected journalist at Forbes for more than decade and subsequently in marketing and advisory roles to VC firms and startups. At her boutique consultancy, Storyboard, the Mixing Board community member has worked with the likes of Accel, Google, Kitty Hawk, Patreon, Salesforce and more.

SG: What got you to make the move from journalism to communications?

EE: I worked my way up at Forbes to become an associate editor. I was on the first team building The Midas List, and I led it for six years. I was there for just over 10 years, and mostly covered startups and venture capital.

The thing that Forbes does for you that not every publication does, it truly teaches you how to understand what is a story and what isn’t a story. How to tell a very complex story with lots of mumbo jumbo and complicated technology and jargon, and turn all that into something very digestible by anyone who wants to read the magazine.

It really helped me to learn how to go deep, because they wanted you to understand not just the business, the business description, the business strategy, but who the people are that are making those big decisions.

When they started to transition a lot of analog dollars to digital, it became very clear that publications, in order to survive, were going to have to get a lot of new content. But they couldn’t afford to pay for the content. The only people who could afford to create content were companies. From what I had seen as a journalist, most companies were awful at telling stories. It was full of jargon. It was very canned. It wasn’t ever for the purpose of truly educating, interesting and moving the audience. It was only created for the purpose of shoving the story down somebody’s throat. I thought, “Well, there seems to be a need on both sides. What if I could go over to the other side and help them do that?”

SG: How did the transition go?

It just accidentally worked out. My first thought was venture capital. When you’re a reporter, you’re used to doing a different story either every other day or every other week or every other month, and you get really bored. You don’t want to tell the same exact story 20 times for five years or 10 years. It just seemed like a very tedious boring nightmare to me. At venture capital, you’ve got 50, 60 portfolio companies, you’ve got a dozen or more partners. There’s so many stories to tell, every day is different. So first I went into a firm called Matrix Partners and then Greylock Partners.

Towards the end of my first maternity leave, I would get these calls from former colleagues or friends. They’d say, “We’re stuck. Our company’s not resonating with anyone. The story’s just not clicking. Can you come in and just be a story doctor?” Nobody really knew what that was, but I went in and I said, “Well, tell me what’s going on and where you’re getting stuck, and where it’s falling short? What’s interesting? Why are you doing this?”

I kept asking questions just like I did as a reporter. Only the output is different because now instead of interesting a reader, you’re trying to get interest from an investor, from potential recruits, employees, from potential partners and customers, certainly from journalists. That requires really the same skill set — it’s just asking a lot of questions. Understanding what’s new and different and telling it in a way that people can get and get excited about.

SG: What was the biggest surprise when you made the transition from a journalist into the corporate world?

EE: I attribute this whole thing to my friend, Adam Gross, who at the time was running product marketing at Salesforce. I was at Matrix leading a total rebrand, a gut rebrand, everything from our messaging to our positioning, our logo, our website, everything. I was just trying to get approval for a design for the website. I was really excited about it from a creative standpoint, because it was just like putting out a magazine, which I had done running The Midas List over and over again. I thought, “Great. Just like a magazine. I’m the editor and the publisher. I can do whatever the hell I want.”

But you can’t just pitch it in one big meeting to all the partners. You have to sort of pre-sell it to certain groups, think through strategically how they’re going to position it to this person. Once you get this one, that folds and then this one will come in, so you’ve got all this support ahead of time. I remember I was out to lunch with Adam and I said, “I don’t know what to do. I’m so frustrated because all these meetings are getting in the way of me doing my job.” He goes, “They’re not getting in the way of your job. That is your job.” I was like, “Oh no, what have I done?” That was a big transition.

SG: How do you help entrepreneurs understand the power of telling their story better?

EE: I remind them of all the places where the story’s happening, whether they’ve thought about it strategically or not. I’ll say, “Well, you’ve got this investor pitch deck. What do you think is in there? How did you decide what elements of your story to tell where and when?” Or you’re writing a pitch for your launch to either an exclusive journalist or some big embargo plan where you’re going to talk to 20 something journalists. You’re also thinking about recruiting and you’ve got to recruit 50 engineers this year. Each one of those times you’re coming up with a way to write this content that’s going to appeal to somebody.

Wouldn’t it be easier if you did it just once, upfront? If you did the agonizing work now? It’ll feel like therapy, otherwise it’s not working. Then you get it really tight, you get it where everybody can sing the same song with the same lyrics. Then you just lift that up and it’s almost like cutting and pasting into these different places. Your content strategy, your social media, your website, your PR — all those things rest on understanding this one piece. If you skip it, you waste tons of time later reinventing it every single time. You confuse your team and you confuse your market because the story is mishmash everywhere.

The final piece that finally tends to get them to get it is when I explain to them that if your story is a mess, people assume your strategy is a mess. You may think you have a good strategy, but if you can’t explain it in a tight story, you probably don’t.

SG: So they’ve agreed to this therapeutic process. What are the questions that really get to the heart or the soul of what you get into?

EE: I’ve developed a very exhaustive list of questions to get exactly to that. I would say the very simplest way is one, what do you do better than everyone else? Two, what’s the big story beyond just what you do? Three, why should anybody care?

If you can answer those three questions, all the details of those many other pages of questions that I will ask you over a long workshop ultimately will just bring you back to that same point. Shockingly, it’s really, really, really, really hard for most CEOs to tell you the answer to those three things, definitively, concisely, and in a way that is relevant to the audience, not just themselves.

SG: What I’ve also found is that even if the CEO can do it, there might be key people on the team who can’t. Or there’s disagreement among leaders, or among the team, or more broadly over what the story actually is. In those cases, do you work on helping companies align themselves around a certain message in addition to helping them create it?

EE: There is no story without alignment. The truth is if you have different people telling a different story, you still don’t have a story. The market is going to get incredibly confused. They’re going to talk about you for a little while in different ways until they realize they don’t know how to talk about you at all. They stop talking about you and you no longer have any strength or relevance, or position. Now, you have to fight to come back from that.

This is why a lot of it is like therapy. Not even just individual therapy — sitting on the couch and talking about your why, how you got here, and all of that. It’s also a little bit of relationship therapy where you’re trying to help them come to a place where they understand where their strength is as a company.

Another way I convince companies to do this work, if it’s a pivotal moment — say the beginning of a pivot, a shift, a rebrand — I emphasize that it’s really important to figure out the basis from which everything else grows. If you’re doing a rebrand and you end up in a web design meeting, you’re going to get to the point where one of the partners goes, “I hate yellow.” Someone else is like, “No, we decided it was going to be a sunshine theme.”

If you’ve done this work upfront and you’ve already agreed that actually your archetype is the outlaw, yellow doesn’t belong there anyway. It shouldn’t be about your personal preference. The same is true for the story. You’ve got to get away from this idea that it’s your story. It’s not your story, it’s the company’s story. Everybody’s opinions have to fall away for the good of that central story in the end.

Getting them to that comfort level, getting them to that conviction, where they’re comfortable enough to tell that story, even though it may not have been the one they wanted to tell, is a big part of the job.

SG: What are the moments when companies really should go through this kind of work? When is it the most effective for them? The answer could be there’s no bad time to do this, but there are obviously inflection points that organizations go through, that make them more open to doing some of this. Maybe even more effective.

EE: There is no bad time, but also there is such a thing as not a great time. If there isn’t an impetus, you often have a lot of foot dragging and people have a hard time making decisions. They have a hard time coming to compromise because they feel no sense of urgency. There is a firm I worked with where there was no deadline or reason really, at least not one that all management agreed upon. Do you want to guess how many revisions and how many months it took to write an About Page for them? 27 total rewrites in 11 months.

Contrast that with startups where they have much more clarity in what they want, they just don’t know how to say it. There is a time driver, “We’re launching in three months. Our new CEO just came on and there’s no time to mess around.” They need to make sure that message is loud and clear that they’ve got it going on. They need a clear vision and a clear path so that the market doesn’t freak out, their employees don’t freak out, their customers don’t freak out, their shareholders don’t freak out.

So anytime there’s a big change and/or a start. Another one could be within a giant organization, they’re about to launch something totally new about which they know nothing, and they have no experience. Finding that comfort zone for them by doing the research and finding a story they can tell is very helpful in giving them a go-forward plan.

SG: There’s always this tension when you go through a process like this, “I know we’re doing this deep work, but we have to rock this out and we have to do this thing. And what about this thing that’s happening tomorrow?” How do you balance the long game and short-term needs?

EE: You compartmentalize. That’s the thing, you’re not doing this in a lab. You’re doing this in real life, at a real company where they’ve got to sell stuff and they’ve got to hire people, and they’ve got to raise money. All those things happen at once. I usually set the expectation with the leadership, whoever that is, that, “Look, we’ll do this little side piece using the best version of what we’ve got right now, the best guess we’ve got as to what the right angle is.” But you need to also recognize that once we finish this whole process, you might realize that that wasn’t the right thing. You’re going to have to go back and clean it up a little bit.

Sometimes, what it turns out to actually be is a little bit of a market test. It’s a smaller test zone with a smaller blast radius (so if it all goes wrong there’s less risk). You’re testing out a new angle or a new story or a new point of view and you can instantly get a response that can inform what you’re going to do big picture.

SG: How do you use your journalistic roots when working with an organization to figure out how to bring a story to life? You’ve already helped them develop their point of view or perspective, but how are you helping them to bring it to life externally? How do you best decide what vessel that lives in? What to write about? How do I bring that context to move forward?

EE: Sometimes I am that person. Sometimes I’m not that person. It very much depends on what the company resources are. Do they have a bunch of agencies? Do they have a really good team internally who can handle that? Sometimes, I create that foundational document for them. Then, I hand that off to a larger team who knows what they want out of it. Sometimes, it’s in concert with recruiting that new team and then bringing them up to speed and then helping them along the way. Ultimately, my job structure is to work myself out of a job. I don’t actually want to be in-house permanently anywhere, or even have a client for longer than a year or two. I want to keep being fresh and coming up with totally new stories.

Sometimes, it’s obvious where they desperately need a logo, it’s something out of 1995. They desperately need a new website, it’s something out of two generations of websites ago. Maybe it’s also obvious that their social media is a disaster and needs to be updated. As part of that, then you go, not only do we need this big corporate point of view and messaging system, but we should also get some thought leadership platforms for the individual leaders. Then helping them figure out, “Well, what are you?” It’s just like those first few questions — what do you do better than everyone else, what is the bigger story beyond just what you’re doing, why should anyone care?

If you can help the top one to four leaders figure that out, then it’s figuring out what are they good at? Are they good at public speaking? Are they more comfortable writing and being behind the scenes? Are they good at video? Some people are just incredibly good at video. I had a client where writing was a bit of a struggle and we put him in front of a video camera and holy cow, he just lit up the room and took over. We found our channel. For some people it’s social media. Some people are great in front of a crowd of 2,000 people. Then you say, “We’re going to build this into a speaking platform. For the next 12 months we’ll create this one themed speech and it’ll be a 45-minute keynote at SXSW.” You adjust it for the audience.

SG: I’m always telling people if you’re not good at Twitter or you don’t like Twitter, don’t do Twitter. If the thought of writing a Medium post gives you anxiety, then don’t do it. How do you figure out that this person’s great at speaking at SXSW, this person’s great on video, this person’s great at social media? What process do you go through to find those people’s sweet spots?

EE: Sometimes it’s having it go wrong. I can think of somebody in particular where we wrote draft after draft on a post and it just wasn’t going anywhere. It was like, “Have you considered public speaking? You get invited to a lot of things, let’s try it on a panel.” Then you go to the panel and this person is taking over the panel and you’re like, “Let’s try keynotes.” You just try a few different things until you find the place that they feel most comfortable.

Sometimes you’ve got to do some jujitsu. One thing I learned from an editor of mine, Dennis Kneale, back when I was at Forbes, when something in the story looks like a weakness, you’ve got to flip it and use it as your strength. Here’s an example — a lot of times VCs are criticized because they came from investment banking and they don’t have operating experience, which is very trendy right now. Lots of people want that. Because of this a banker turned VC once asked me, “Well, I can’t possibly write any content because I wasn’t an operator. What do I have to say?” I said, “Well, how would an investment banker look at this? You were in research. Have you considered writing a very short, one-page version of a research report?” Try it and see if it flows better than this other form you’ve been trying. And he knocked that thing out overnight and sent it to me and it was amazing. Now, that’s his shtick, these little research one-pagers. It’s differentiated.

SG: You see people copy media strategies, but I feel people copy content strategy even more. This firm or this company is doing this blog this way, or their CEO’s tweeting, that must be the way we should do it. So beyond just finding your skillset, it’s figuring out what’s your truth? What’s your difference? What are the things that you’re really good at? How do you help people get past looking over their shoulder or seeing what other people do, to getting them to chart their own path?

EE: I have to say that’s one of the hardest things to do, especially for people who come to this with a business background. They’re taught to look at case studies as a sign of what to do. They’re maybe a little nervous about doing something out of the bounds of what’s been done before, what is safe, and what is proven. What I try to help them see is that branding takes courage. What that means is you have to be willing to stand out. You can’t say the same thing as everybody else and expect that anybody’s going to hear it and think that you’re actually a thought leader. Being a leader actually requires coming up with something new and showing people a new place to go where they weren’t going before.

It’s actually being a pioneer. ee cummings said, “Nobody else can be alive for you; nor can you be alive for anyone else. Toms can be Dicks and Dicks can be Harrys, but none of them can ever be you.” I try to help them realize what is really great about them and what they could do if they just owned that individuality and specialness. Stop being afraid of who they could be and just get out with it.

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