The world of communications is an enigma, and sometimes, it feels at odds with the job of a journalist. So when I hear that there’s an effort to help more users exchange notes, share stories, and prepare curated responses, I have a selfish concern that we’ll have less vulnerability from founders and executives across the startup world.
But Sean Garrett, Twitter’s first communications and marketing leader, is trying to convince me otherwise. Garrett built Twitter’s communications team and helped the company develop a marketing, public affairs and government relations strategy. He also advised the Obama White House on digital strategy and communications, Slack, and created two other communications consultancies. All the background that makes his latest bet all the more interesting: Mixing Board, a startup that brings communications and marketing leaders together in one place to help clients avoid “the BS PR stuff.”
The Mixing Board brings together current, emerging, and seasoned marketing leaders to trade notes, whether that’s how you’re messaging a startup’s pivot or announcing the debut of a secret business to the world. It offers different programs based on different needs, but primarily focuses on scaling coaching with executive advice from Airbnb, American Express, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Netflix, the Obama White House, Oatly, Slack, Twitter, Virgin Group and more. Over 200 people are in the community to date.
The company doesn’t want to be an alternative to a PR agency, but wants to help people within organizations level up through mentoring support and gain more diverse ideas beyond the monolithic perspective of perhaps their immediate network. In other words, his customers are not startups. he is the head of comms at a startup.
Right now, it’s free for comms leaders to join the Mixing Board. The startup makes money through a crowdsourced recruiting operation in which companies pay the money to help with an exec search. The startup splits a finder’s fee 50/50 with the member who made the pitch, and as Garrett describes it, “it’s”much more return than the karma points we all collected doing this kind of thing for free for many years… tIts success (as well as the current financial currents) is why we are also adding fractional/intermediate and advisory roles to those we help originate.”
Unlike 10 years ago, when communications specialists mostly stayed in their own lane and competed more than complements, Garrett believes the current market offers a key opportunity for the team. “One of the big changes, obviously, that’s happened in the last few years is just the relative power of workers is increasing. People talk a lot about its impact on social justice issues, it has an impact on organizing but also an impact on truth,” he said. “Organizations and companies can’t destroy marketing campaigns or PR campaigns that aren’t based on or focused on the truth, because employees will call it out immediately – it might be dead on arrival.”
Workers are some of the best sources, both for organizing and for leaking corporate doubts to the press, to bring about change. For him, this power shift is an opportunity for companies to focus on their truths and ask people to be better and stronger at their jobs.
Another tailwind the Mixing Board is looking to capitalize on is the evolution of what a comms person is responsible for today, compared to when they first started. As I led this story, we often think of comms as media relations. It’s part of the job, but Garrett emphasized that so is editorial strategy, community oversight and events. Basically anything that involves someone speaking or supporting their audience could have a comms person involved, behind the scenes, making sure things run more smoothly.
“What has really changed profoundly is that comms is now in this kind of leadership structure, more and more. And even I have a lot of colleagues who like our communications leaders who do marketing under them,” he said. “They no longer report to the CMO, the marketing team reports to the contact person, right? It means that the work is much more important … the thinking and perspective of communication is infused into the executive strategy.”
Garrett gave me the example of the Mixing Board helping communications people find the best ways to handle layoffs. Members will talk about “how to communicate with employees, how to approach this. Be direct, be clear. Don’t over-promise. Don’t do things like, say this is the last time we’re going to do this because if it’s not… you’re really screwed.”
“We’re really focused on that internal audience and obviously there’s the external audience as well, but if you can get the internal audience right, like it’s going to do well, and it’s going to be fine,” he said. “You remember when people treat you humanely and when people treat you kindly…this inner focus really should be the norm and [what will] center’.
Another neighboring effort in the networking world is the Coalition, a fund and network created by and for operators. Both entrepreneurial endeavors aggregate advice, bring industry experts together, and reinforce founders’ need for more curated advice (especially in a world where they may not be hiring as much). The difference, however, is that the Coalition tries to scale that advice outward by matching companies with experts, while the Mixing Board tries to improve a career internally.
The founder also noted Reforge, which sells cohort-based, executive-led programs to founders looking for advice on how to overcome a specific business problem. “Right now we’re looking at how to unlock the know-how that’s been stuck inside organizations. Once we do that, we can use it to create a flywheel of talent development and opportunity that lifts all boats,” he adds.
All companies want to produce something that was often informal, sharing advice, with something that is hard to enforce, building a true community.
As recent examples have shown, startups selling access to the community can struggle to balance efficiency with venture capital incentives. Mixing Board works with 200 members, but what does it look like when it reaches 2,000 members? 20,000; We know that networks can scale – oh, YC – but we also know that there has to be buy-in, proven value and natural synergy to make them work.
Now that the Mixing Board has officially launched, the team is building a community and defining differentiation. To build a stronger foundation, Mixing Board raised $350,000 in a pre-seed round from Bloomberg Beta and others. The startup is now profitable, Garrett says, but more importantly, it has time before it needs to monetize, digitize and offer self-service tools, and raise more outside funding.