As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Molly George, Partner and CEO Kickstand Communications, a full-service PR firm specializing in support of high-growth technology brands. Under Molly’s leadership, Kickstand has helped build and define market leaders in some of the most exciting industries in tech today, ranging from cybersecurity and insurtech to mobility and health tech. Before founding Kickstand in 2013, Molly served in marketing and communications roles for some of Austin’s biggest startup successes, including Bazaarvoice, BuildASign.com, and Mutual Mobile. Outside of work, Molly supports the Austin entrepreneurial scene as a mentor through MassChallenge Texas and spends time with her husband and two sons, Caleb and Miles.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Prior to starting Kickstand Communications, I worked in in-house comms and marketing roles for a number of high-growth tech companies in Austin, including one of which I helped take public. I had always thought of launching my own agency in the future, but in late 2012, I got a bit of a nudge to make the leap in a pretty unexpected way. When putting in my notice at my current employer, the CEO of the company encouraged me to go out on my own, and offered to help make it possible with some early funding to get the business up and running while reducing some of the financial risk on my part.
I had already accepted another role for a company that I wanted to follow through on, but over the course of the next year, I worked in that full-time role and continued to meet with my former CEO on nights and weekends to plan the business, build the website, get it incorporated, and start meeting with potential prospects. I ended up quitting my ‘day job’ a year later to go full time with Kickstand.
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?
I wouldn’t say this was a mistake, but in the first year of the business there was a LOT of faking it to make it happening. I was a one-woman team for the best part of a year, but when meeting with prospects or talking about the business, I always used “we” for fear of coming off as too small or too risky of a choice.
One of the biggest lessons I learned in that first year of working solo was that I did not want to go it alone forever. While my business was growing, I think my personal confidence took a hit because — without others to bounce things off of or validate ideas — it was really easy to doubt my own thinking, my skills, my experience.
At the same time, I think I also learned more about my strength and tenacity than I ever had before. When you’re a team of one, you have to just figure things out. There is no other option. Now, as we’ve grown, we’ve continued to have that same mentality and approach to problem solving and to always trying to find a way to say yes to any challenge.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
At one point in my career, I stepped out of PR-specific roles and into a Client Insights role, where I helped launch and manage data programs including Win/Loss reviews processes and Net Promoter Systems. During that time, I saw how marketing and sales teams were becoming more and more digital and more driven by data — and when I moved back into PR, I saw how little had really changed in public relations. With Kickstand, I wanted to rethink PR for high-growth tech brands and bring that same innovation and culture of high-performing digital marketing and sales teams to PR. That’s still at the core of Kickstand today.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I am bigger than my business. I had other entrepreneurs warn me before launching the business that I would feel the highs and lows so much more intensely as a business owner, and it’s been incredibly true. When things are good — you feel like you are absolutely on top of the world. When things are rough, it can feel crushing — and it’s hard to separate your personal worth from that of your business.
But I am so much more than an entrepreneur. I’m a wife, I’m a mom to two amazing boys, Caleb (2) and Miles (9 months). I love cooking and drinking wine, I love creative outlets like calligraphy and photography. I am extremely proud of the business and the team I’ve built, but that is one part of my life and not the totality of it. I remind myself of that to keep perspective, and I think remembering that the same is true about all of our team members helps make me a stronger leader.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My husband and I have two young boys, Caleb (2) and Miles (9 months) at home, and their daycare has been closed throughout the pandemic. I work full-time running Kickstand, and my husband works two part-time roles helping to support new business for Kickstand and in sales and support for another startup. Early on, we tried to establish a schedule that would allow both of us to get work done throughout the day, but it still requires a ton of flexibility, and the reality has been that lots of work has to happen during evenings and weekends.
This has been a lesson in grace, for sure. Pre-COVID, we tried to be somewhat strict about the amount of screen time our toddler got. Now, Disney + deserves all of my money — some days, multiple movies are the only thing that allow us to get anything done. The pandemic has also impacted our toddler’s sleep in a huge way. Before, I would have laughed at you if you told me I’d be letting my toddler sleep on a pallet on the floor of our bedroom. But now, it’s the reality we live in and I try to remind myself that bad habits can be broken, and helping my son feel safe and secure during a scary time is the most important role I have.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We were fortunate to be a company that already worked remote part-time, so the shift to full-time remote — while it came pretty quickly and unexpectedly — has not been as painful for us as other companies. Earlier on, we used video conferencing for every meeting to make sure the team could still feel connected with each other and with our clients. Now, we have shifted to audio-only for most internal meetings because team members started struggling with the mental exhaustion that can come with being “on” for video all of the time.
We have tried to really double down on what we are best at and find ways to offer value-add services to our clients at every step of the way. For example, research is a core differentiator for Kickstand, and COVID has of course been dominating the news cycle. Taking those two things into consideration, we’ve been executing on agency-wide weekly research, offering our clients the opportunity to collect regular data on relevant COVID-related topics at no charge and turning that data into media relations campaigns and content that their teams can use across marketing and sales channels.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
One of the things I’m really taking to heart is trying to strike the right work/life balance both for myself and for the team. When you’re working fully remote — and when your options for social outings or personal hobbies are limited — it’s really easy to fall into this trap of just always working, and I think that poses a huge risk with regards to burnout. We’ve rolled out new benefits during COVID like mental health hours for everyone to take throughout the week when they need a break, and we have encouraged the team to continue using their monthly wellness stipend for streaming classes or tools like meditation apps and services. I am very aware of the need to model the right behavior and set the right tone for the rest of the team, so I try to take those hours myself and communicate directly that the expectation is not a team that sinks every free hour into work.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Remote work options will become the norm. COVID forced companies across the globe to go fully remote — a lot have now seen the benefits of that first-hand, and employees are also shifting their expectations as a result.
In fact, the research team at Kickstand recently took the pulse of American employees working from home, and found that 85% of employees enjoy working from home, nearly 1 in 3 say they’re even more productive, and 75% of WFH Americans now expect employers to continue to offer remote work options post COVID-19. What’s more, 79% of employees agreed that remote work policies will now be a factor when evaluating future employment opportunities.
Remote work options that used to be a “nice to have” have now become table stakes for the long-term and companies who don’t adjust will struggle to attract and retain great talent.
On a personal note — one silver lining in Texas is that curbside margarita and cocktail kits have been given the green light. Texans love their margaritas — don’t expect them to give them up now!
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Kickstand Communications has been a part-time remote company since its inception in 2013, and we plan to maintain our part-time-remote structure post COVID-19. Even during lockdowns, we’ve found ways to continue to improve team culture and internal communication between teams, which has impacted our culture for the better with improved transparency amongst the team.
As social distancing mandates begin to ease, we’re strategically planning what a potential (and safe) return back to the office will look like. Plans are likely to include implementing in-office rotations amongst our staff, and potentially leveraging conference rooms for added desk space in order to support social distancing as much as possible.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
We are proponents of offering employees remote work options, and believe that gives employers and employees the flexibility to do great work.
This is also a great opportunity for employers to re-evaluate their benefits and the wellbeing of their employees. At Kickstand Communications, we take mental health and wellbeing seriously and have always offered our team generous well-being stipends to be used to improve mental and physical health. However, because of the pandemic, we wanted to step up and acknowledge the fact that these times are tough. We started offering our staff weekly “mental health hours” allowing the team to step away from their computers and recharge, no questions asked. We’ve found that this has boosted morale, camaraderie, and transparency among the team, resulting in higher engagement and productivity.
I think other employers can evaluate what might work best for their team, and implement measures that show you care about their wellbeing versus only their productivity. At the end of the day, benefits like these help retain a happy and healthy staff and attract new talent.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” My husband gifted me an art print with this quote on it right after I started Kickstand. It perfectly encapsulates entrepreneurship and encourages me to think big and see uncertainty as opportunity. Turns out, that can also be a great perspective to have during a global pandemic.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Follow our blog at meetkickstand.com/blog, where we discuss the latest trends in media, consumer life, and most recently, the COVID-19 workplace.
Add me on LinkedIn to stay in touch!