Hi, Kelsey, and welcome to InspiredStartups.com!
First, please tell us a bit about yourself.
"Thank you for the opportunity to speak with the InspiredStartups.com audience, Rado!
A little about me: I’m 25, I live in Columbia, Mo., I’m an avid golfer, and I’m an aunt to the most amazing 10-month-old on earth.
I’m guessing you want to hear more about the professional side, though, so here goes. I run content marketing firm called Influence & Co. We help companies establish key employees as industry experts by getting their bylined articles published online. We work with everyone from venture-backed startups to Fortune 500 companies. I started the company right out of college, and we’ve grown from two full-time employees to about 50 full-time equivalents in two and a half years."
Kelsey, you skipped the job market straight out of college. What inspired you, and what was the driving force behind your decision to start your own business at such an early age?
"The way we started Influence & Co. was a bit different than you might expect. When I was a senior in college, I started interning with Brent Beshore, owner of Adventur.es. The Adventur.es company starts, buys, and invests in companies, and I was in charge of starting their co-working space and entrepreneurial club.
The day after I graduated and was officially full-time with adventur.es, Brent and I started to discuss the idea for Influence & Co. He discussed some struggles he’d seen startups facing with getting press and being seen as experts, so we started to talk through some ways to address this. For the next five months, I worked on Influence & Co. on the side with Brent while still running the co-working space and entrepreneurial club. In a sense, I didn’t “skip” the job market; I just took a somewhat risky opportunity and ran from there."
What are the pros and cons of starting up early?
"The Pros: It’s great to not be scared to take risks. I’m not married, nor do I have kids yet, so when I work crazy hours and take chances, I’m only risking for myself. However, I can see that taking the plunge and starting a company would be scarier later in life, when other priorities take precedence.
I’ve also seen that my inexperience in some areas has been helpful. If you don’t know how you’re supposed to do things, you might end up doing something differently and enhancing the process, rather than doing it in a routine way because of prior training. We see this with new hires, too; it’s amazing to hire young people we can train on our processes and practices and not have to work out bad habits they learned in former positions.
"The Cons: Getting clients or partners to take you seriously is a struggle. I was 23 years old when we started Influence & Co., and I know that I looked like I was 18. Luckily, when we started sharing our expertise through written content, our prospects respected us for our knowledge and didn’t simply judge us by our age."
What advice, tips, and recommendations do you have for graduates who want to become entrepreneurs?
"Start small and scale - the philosophy behind my favorite book, “The Lean Startup.” If you have an idea, don’t assume that you need thousands of dollars and a team of 20 engineers to accomplish it. Instead, figure out the smallest way you can test the idea, validate that there’s a need and that people will buy your solution, and then figure out how to scale from there. When we started out, my co-founder, John Hall, and I were performing every role in the company, but as time went on, we sketched out the positions we would need to hire for. As we grew, it motivated us to bring in revenue to hire for those positions and allow us to focus on growing the business."
You co-founded a successful business called Influence & Co. to help other companies and entrepreneurs with their content marketing. How does your business differentiate from others?
"We help companies educate and engage their target audience through articles authored by their employees that have been placed in publications that reach their demographic.
Most of our clients aren’t writers, and that’s where we come in. Our account strategists develop a strategy for each client that will accomplish the client’s business objectives through content. They then come up with topics that the client is an expert on that will also be valuable to his audience. The client answers questions around that topic, and our content development team turns it into a polished, edited article. This process allows our clients to showcase their expertise while saving time and ensuring that the final product is perfect.
We establish relationships with the publications that would be most valuable for our clients to get published in. We understand who’s reading each publication, as well as what they want to read, so we tailor our content to each publication’s readership.
After we get the client published, we help him understand what to do with the content. This entire process is designed to save the client time while showcasing him as a thought leader.
We’re different from a traditional PR firm because we don’t send press releases. We aren’t interested in having companies write about our clients; instead, we work on content coming from our clients that showcases them as experts. We want our clients to be seen as trusted experts in their fields, and we want their audience to come to them for both educational and entertainment purposes. This is how we’re able to get our clients published in over 700 publications, ranging from Fast Company and Forbes to The Scientist and AgencySpy."
Can you describe the early days of your startup? What were the primary struggles and challenges at the early stage, and how did you tackle them?
"In the early days, the two most important priorities were bringing on new clients and perfecting our process. It’s difficult to focus on both, which is why my co-founder and I worked so well together. He took most of the sales calls, and I focused on client services. There’s a lot you’re figuring out in the early days, and you have to see everything as a learning opportunity.
What recommendation do you have for startups
struggling to make their first sale? What was your experience a few
years back when starting up, and how does your current sales strategy
differ from those early days?
"When we first started, I was able to test the service for a few people
for free since I was working on it as a side project and still had my
full-time job running the co-working space. Not every startup will get
this luxury, but for us, it was a blessing because we could use those
people as case studies when approaching our first paid client. As a
result, we were able to show results before making any sort of profit.
If you don’t have that option, then understand your clients’ pain
points. Don’t try to sell the benefits you have - sell how you can help
Now, our sales approach is extremely consultative. We understand the
client’s business and figure out how our services can benefit him. If
we aren’t the client’s best solution, we recommend alternatives that may
be a better fit. It’s wonderful to be in a position where you can be
rather picky about your clients, and we feel very fortunate for that
Influence & Co. was listed as #72 on Forbes’ “Most Promising Companies in America” list for 2014; the company’s revenue increased from 2010 to 2013 by 1,780 percent. What is the secret behind this success?
"Hiring great people is our secret. I know for a fact that we would not have been able to scale as quickly as we have without the amazing team we’ve built. When we were hiring our first few employees, we knew that we were hiring the future leaders of Influence & Co., and I’m happy to report that these people have turned out to be amazing leaders. When you have smart, autonomous, and respectful people working for you, they make great things happen."
You have built a team of over 45 people since 2010. Could you describe your company culture and share some of your company culture tips with other entrepreneurs? What do you look for when recruiting new team members?
"Someone once told me that company culture is simply a reflection of what you reward and punish. At Influence & Co., our rewards are based on results, not face time. We have a very flexible environment with no limit on sick days or paid time off; we also offer flexible hours and the ability to work outside the office (although most people do work in our office because it’s pretty awesome). We believe in hiring autonomous, driven people and treating them with respect. If you hire people you can trust, you’ll spend less time micromanaging and more time allowing them to shine.
A few other perks about our company culture:
• Late-Start Wednesdays: We encourage everyone to work from home on Wednesday mornings so they can focus on projects without distractions (and because working in your PJs under the covers is just what you need sometimes).
• The Belt: We give out a championship belt when someone on our team does something phenomenal.
• The D-Bag Jar: Adopted from the show, “The New Girl,” we have a jar in our office that we pay money to if we say something that a co-worker deems “jar-worthy” (i.e., bragging, teasing, or anything not entirely supportive). When the jar gets full, we go out to happy hour and remind each other why we love working together. It seems like a silly thing, but it creates an atmosphere where people are called out if they say something inappropriate. It gets things out in the open, rather than creating an atmosphere of whispering behind backs."
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are struggling to get their businesses off the ground?
"Make your first sale. Even if your product isn’t completed, find someone who will buy it based on your sketches or your description. Make sure you have a customer base before putting too much time and effort into hiring employees and adding all the other bells and whistles."
What information resources do you rely on to keep yourself fresh with content marketing trends, news, and best practices?
"As you would expect, I read a lot of online publications. First, I obviously have to share our blog because I think it’s fairly awesome":
Influence & Co. - Blog
Other resources include:
Content Marketing Institute
Contently - Content Strategist
Do you have any content marketing tips and best practices that would benefit other entrepreneurs?
"I actually wrote an article on three tips for entrepreneurs just starting out, so I’ll direct you to that instead of rehashing all of it here":
Content Advice on Startups published on LinkedIn.
Coming back to the entrepreneurial part, are there any big mistakes you made? Could you offer advice to other early-stage entrepreneurs to avoid them?
"One big mistake we made was not valuing our services enough. We started out at a much lower price point, with month-to-month contracts. We didn’t realize that these two items would prevent clients from understanding the true value of our service as a long-term strategy, not a short-term fix. So, in one month, you see about one-tenth of the results you’d see in three months. Once we gained confidence in the results we could offer, we started going for longer contracts, and our clients responded very positively."
What are the key lessons you’ve learned throughout your entrepreneurial journey?
1. Start small and scale.
2. Culture is everything. Hire people you want to be around every single day.
Any other words of wisdom for young entrepreneurs looking to start a new business?
"My biggest pet peeve is when young entrepreneurs are scared to tell you their idea because they think someone will steal it. This is absurd for many reasons, but mostly because they never get feedback on their idea. When you have an idea, tell everyone. You’ll get feedback, and you may even find your first customer."
How do you picture your company in the next three years?
"In the next three years, we will continue to grow, provide more content services to our clients (such as whitepapers and e-books), and work with larger brands."
Three keywords to describe yourself?
"I’d say curious and kind. Since our team is really big on Myers-Briggs, I’ll add my type as a final keyword: ENFP. That probably tells you everything you need to know!"
Finally, where can our startup community find you online?
Twitter: @InfluenceandCo or @Kelsey_M_Meyer
Thanks for sharing your exciting startup journey Kelsey. You are truly an inspiring person and I am moved by your energy and passion. I am honoured to have this interview with you today and I hope to talk to you soon again!