As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ali Grant. She launched Be Social in 2012 as one of the first agencies with a hyper focus on executing influencer outreach and collaboration. Ali recognized the power of digital creators and built a business harnessing their influence. Today, the communications group is headquartered in Downtown Los Angeles specializing in influencer, media and events for brands and digital creators.
With Ali at the helm, Be Social has been named one of Inc.’s fastest growing businesses spearheading digital-forward campaigns across influencers, events and editorial. Accolades and press include Fast Company, Inc., WWD, PRWeek The Innovation 50, Forbes, Huffington Post, Fashion Monitor, Bulldog Reporter, Daily Front Row, BW Confidential, The Holmes Report, and more.
The firm supports and is partnered with the Freedom & Fashion non-profit, which uses the arts of fashion and beauty to empower youth overcoming trafficking, homelessness, and other injustices.
Be Social has recently been acquired by Dolphin Entertainment, putting the company alongside some of entertainment’s greatest, such as 42West and The Door. Read the full story in Variety. Ali also hosts the agency’s podcast, Follow Me, which has been rated as a top 100 business podcast.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I started life in San Francisco, then to New York and my family finally landed in San Diego where I spent the majority of my childhood.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I loved writing, art, sports… and thought I’d grow up to be a news anchor. I spent my free time in middle and high school working on our school’s morning broadcast station… where I reported on the daily happenings. I took it very seriously and thought I was the next big thing in news personalities. Ha. From there, my passion for writing and storytelling continued to grow, and I went to university to study journalism. I found my real interest when I took my first public relations class… I found myself wanting to pivot to work towards storytelling on the brand side. I switched my major to public relations and brand communications and had a goal of opening my consultancy one day.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Looking back many of my decisions are laughable. I was young and naive! Trying to navigate the world of business with little business experience is tough. Most businesses fail within their first year, I still find it shocking I was able to push through the ups and downs at 24 years old! The fact that I was naive allowed me to look past the possible dangers and kept me moving along. Fast forward today, I’ve gone through the troubles and have enough experience to know when to bow out and say no. But in the early years I think my mistakes were mostly rooted in saying yes too frequently and taking on more than I could handle. I eventually got to a place where I was overwhelmed and exhausted without any real solutions. I forced myself to take a few steps back and recalibrate, so I could focus on building strategically vs. quickly.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The team members who have worked for Be Social along the years helping guide our clients’ success are a huge piece of the company’s success. I am fortunate to have had some of the most intelligent, savvy and hardworking individuals come into this organization and share their knowledge. Currently, our staff is filled with the best in the business and we could not keep growing as we have without their support, experience and creativity.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I think a lot of the struggle came from the fact that the company was self-funded, so every penny mattered. I didn’t have any back up plan, so if I couldn’t make my bills, that was the end. I knew I needed to expand my business, but with limited financial resources, I had to carry on a lot of the weight before I was able to move forward with plans of hiring. With that, came a lot of stress and I became extremely overwhelmed and overworked. The combination wasn’t good for my mental health. I had to learn to believe in myself, trust the process and believe that the company would succeed. It was a relief to get to a place that I knew every investment I would make now, would eventually pay off. And it did. Believing in yourself can be the hardest part.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I loved what I was doing, so the bumps in the road were something I could get past. Even in the darkest parts, I always saw light at the end of the tunnel. I knew what I was building was beneficial for brands and there was a market for the services we could provide, so I had confidence in the fact that it would all work out. That kept me going! Putting everything into perspective always helped too…business is just business, but it’s not everything and certainly shouldn’t define you. Realizing this can really help differentiate problems from affecting your personal life.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Business will always have its ups and downs. A well-funded company with the most experienced leadership will come across failures, so when you’re smaller with limited resources, issues are bound to rise. What has changed the most is how I deal with the problems and how I let them affect me. As a leader of a company, I have to know how to ride varying waves. The most recent pandemic was a huge obstacle for many companies, including ours, but I had to get through it through evolution and flexibility.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our team has deep-rooted influencer and editorial contacts. In an industry that is all about relationships, we are able to navigate and develop partnerships, collaboration and wins for our clients seamlessly. For example, with the launch of our product, BrandEdit, we are able to easily curate a subscription box of our favorite brands and send them to our influencer contacts and create awareness, content and buzz.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
A few of the things have helped me are:
- Separate your personal feelings from business.
- Realize YOU are not defined by your business.
- Learn to let go and stop stressing about the little things.
- Delegate tasks and responsibilities.
- Don’t bring your laptop in bed with you.
- Turn off at a certain point at night.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am still working on this! We have been able to carve out resources for the things our team cares about, such as partnering with Freedom & Fashion, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping youth overcome trafficking, homelessness, and other forms of abuse.
There’s more I would like to do in this space. More to come!
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Get a mentor. I didn’t. And I regret it. Many people are too afraid to ask someone to be their mentor, but I think more often than not, experts want to share their personal experiences with others!
- Learn the fundamentals of operating a business, including HR and accounting. It’s key you have an understanding, even from a high level, of what it takes to operate a business and employ staff.
- Hire experts. When it comes to legalities, business formation, accounting process, and employment practices, hire experts who know what they’re doing so they can set you up for success.
- Separate business and pleasure. Lines can get blurred, especially when you work in an industry that intersects with your personal life, but when your business consumes everything, you will eventually burn out.
- Have an exit strategy. Whether that’s to sell, to partner, or maybe it’s to keep owning the company yourself… just have a plan of where you want to take your business and what that next level looks like. It will help you prioritize goals and maximize your efforts.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
I am still learning! I do have to say, surrounding myself with team members who know more than me has been a game changer. I come to work and learn from my colleagues. That is special and allows us all to evolve and keep growing.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something; you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
You have to learn from experience in my opinion. With something like growing a business, there’s not a class you can take, a degree you can obtain, or a book you can read that will properly prepare you for what will come your way. You really need to learn by DOING!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Mental health advocacy has been an area in which I’d like to dedicate more time and resources. Our emotional well-being is everything and we often lose sight of that in the hustle of life. Leaning into a movement that provides resources that support positive behavior, thinking and feelings would be rewarding.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Find me on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/aligrant/ and follow our work at BeSocialPR.com and BrandEdit.com!