The communication world is a mystery and sometimes feels like the work of a journalist. So to hear that there is an effort being made to help more communication people take notes, share stories, and prepare curated responses, I have the selfish concern that we will be less vulnerable from founders and executives in the startup world.
But, Sean Garrett, the first communications and marketing leader at Twitter, tries to convince me otherwise. Garrett built Twitter’s communications team and helped the company develop a strategy for marketing, public affairs, and government relations. He also advised the Obama White House on digital strategy and communications, Slack, and founded two other communications consulting firms. All backgrounds that make his latest bet all the more interesting: mixing boarda startup to bring communications and marketing leaders together in one place to help clients avoid “the BS PR stuff.”
Mixing Board brings current, emerging and seasoned marketing leaders together to trade notes, whether that’s how to message the hub of a startup or how to announce the debut of a covert company in the world. It offers different programs based on different needs, but mainly focuses on scaling mentorship with executive advice from Airbnb, American Express, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Netflix, Obama White House, Oatly, Slack, Twitter, Virgin Group and others. So far there are more than 200 people in the community.
The company does not want to be an alternative to a PR agency, but instead wants to help communication people within organizations reach the next level through mentorship support and get more diverse ideas beyond the monolithic perspective of perhaps their direct network. In other words, its clients are not startups; it is the head of communication within a startup.
At the moment, it is free for communication leaders to join Mixing Board. The startup makes money through a community recruiting operation, with companies paying the money to help with executive searches. The startup shares a finder’s fee 50/50 with the member who made the suggestion, and as Garrett describes, “it”a much greater return than the karma points we all accumulated doing this sort of thing for free for years… tIts success (as well as current economic trends) is why we are also adding fractional/interim and consultant roles to what we help search for.”
Unlike 10 years ago, when communications experts mostly stayed in their own jobs and competed more than complementary, Garrett thinks the current market presents an important opportunity for the cohort. “Of course, one of the major changes that has occurred in recent years is that the relative power of workers is increasing. People talk a lot about its impact on social justice issues, it has an impact on the organization but also on the truth,” he said. “Organizations and businesses can’t ruin marketing campaigns or PR campaigns that aren’t truth-based or centered because employees will say so right away — it could be dead on arrival.”
Employees are some of the best sources, both in organizing and leaking corporate doubts to the press, to drive change. For him, that shift in power is an opportunity for companies to focus on their truths and make people better and stronger at their jobs.
Another tailwind that Mixing Board wants to take advantage of is the evolution of what a communications executive is in charge of today, compared to when he first started out. As I led this story, we often think of communication as media relations. It’s part of the job, but Garrett stressed that so is editorial strategy, community moderation, and events. Basically anything that involves someone talking or supporting their audience can have a communication person behind the scenes, to make sure everything runs more smoothly.
“What has really changed profoundly is that comms is now increasingly in such a leadership structure. And even I have a lot of colleagues who like our communications leaders and who take on marketing among them,” he said. “They no longer report to the CMO, the marketing team reports to the communications officer, right? It means the job is much more important… the communication thinking and perspective is imbued with the executive strategy.
Garrett gave me the example of Mixing Board helping people figure out the best ways to deal with layoffs. Members will talk about “how to communicate with employees, how to contextualize this. Be direct, be clear. Don’t promise too much. Don’t do things like say this is the last time we’re going to do this because if it isn’t… you’re really screwed.”
“Really focused on that internal audience and of course there’s the external audience too, but if you can get the internal audience right like it’s going well, and it’s going to be okay,” he said. “You do remember that when people treat you humanely, and when people treat you kindly…that internal focus really should be the rule and [what will] center yourself.”
Another adjacent effort in the network world is Coalition, a fund and network built by and for operators. Both business endeavors are gathering advice, bringing experts together into one vertical, and building on top of founders’ needs for more curated advice (especially in a world where they might not take on as much). The difference, however, is that Coalition tries to scale that advice outwards by pairing companies with experts, while Mixing Board tries to take a career to the next level internally.
The founder also noted: reforge, which sells cohort-based programs, led by executives, to founders seeking advice on how to solve a particular business problem. “We are currently exploring how we can unlock expertise that used to be embedded in organizations. Once we do that, we can use it to create a flywheel of talent development and opportunity that lifts all the boats,” he adds.
All companies want to produce something that was often informal, share advice, with something that is hard to force, build a real community.
As recent examples have shown, startups selling community access can struggle to balance efficacy with venture capital incentives. Mixing Board works with 200 members, but what will it look like when it reaches 2,000 members? 20,000? We know networks can scale — ahem, YC — but we also know it takes buy-in, proven value, and natural synergy to make them work.
Now that Mixing Board has officially launched, the team is building community and defining differentiation. To build a stronger foundation, Mixing Board has raised $350,000 in a pre-seed round from Bloomberg Beta and others. The startup is profitable now, Garrett says, but more importantly, it has time before it needs to monetize, digitize and offer self-service tools, and attract more outside funding.