Ten Life Lessons Learned During the Founding of Barokas PR
September 16, 2013
There was a day in the fall of 1998, while the world was completely entrenched watching the outcome of the Kenneth Starr inquiry into the Clinton affair,
when the idea of Barokas Communications was hatched. And it was hatched on a whim. I was a 23 year old kid, fresh out of the University of Oregon beginning a still semi-professional career when my manager Howie Barokas decided enough was enough. We were working together at a large tech PR firm in Seattle. We were working hard for our clients, but the political headwinds of a big firm slowed us down, and frustrated both of us.
At that time, the tech world was on the brink of an epic explosion but no one knew it. And we can’t take any credit for having the foresight to see it coming. We were still searching with Alta Vista (because Google had just come out and no one thought about using anything besides Alta Vista) and we sent ICQs (the first instant message). I would loosely guess that only 20% of professionals at the time had a cell phone and those phones were heavy non-computing bricks that were only a slight step up from the still super popular pager. Microsoft was the tech giant. And Internet was largely dial up, unless you were really lucky and had an early DSL connection, or worked at one of the ten big companies in town who had a T1.
Every tech company that was VC funded at the time wanted a large PR agency to add to their resume because simply listing that big name PR firm made it appear like they were really in the game, although most were not. Times were good and on the verge of getting much better. So why did two people who hardly knew each other decide to split from that big firm and give something else a go? Because we didn’t know any better, and that turned out to be our greatest strength and differentiator. There are ten things I would list as not only lessons from the founding of Barokas Communications, but lifelong lessons in how the world works, and how to carve your place in it. Let’s take a look.
1. Avoid group herd mentality. This is crucial in almost everything you do. If there’s a line, go somewhere else. If someone says something is the next big hot thing, run the other direction. Few people are successful copycats. A much larger number are true innovators. Warren Buffet made a fortune buying stocks when everyone was selling. “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful” is his famous line. Adhering to that made him the richest person in the world. Attaching your name to a big firm did nothing at the time to propel those companies forward. It only may have helped propel you forward in an already crowded landscape. But clients needed good old fashioned hard work from a passionate team. The larger agencies couldn’t bring that, and they didn’t. In 1998, we made a move on this theme although it wasn’t quite as calculated as it sounds now.
2. Nothing matters except results. This is a good #2, following on the heels of #1. Big agencies at the time were focused on having a team of interns assemble books and binders full of press coverage to justify the work they did. Nobody asked about sales, or the true measurable impact of their PR efforts. What matters is sales, all the time. And it’s never going to go out of style. Every member of every company should be focused on one thing, and that’s sales. If you’re not contributing to the bottom line, you should rethink what you are doing. Barokas Communications’s first slogan, which we kicked around for a while was “PR minus BS.” A wise gentleman at one of the world’s largest tech companies told us to think twice about that because we didn’t have the history to back up such a bold claim at the time. So we changed it to “Results. Are you Ready”? It captured the essence at the time, and only later, after years of delivering results did it change to the current day “PR Minus the BS.”
3. Pick up the phone. In 1998 the Internet was on the outer edge of becoming the prevailing medium that it is today. In 1998 large agencies and other lazy folks billing themselves as PR professionals (who I guess are “PR mavericks” or “mavens” today) were sending loads of unpersonalized emails expecting big results to fall in their lap. But the only results that emails delivered were the ability to highlight their “top tier” outreach into the huge binders delivered to clients that were chock full of other indecipherable information, perfect for agencies to secure those large monthly retainers that ran rampant during this time. You have to be more aggressive than that. Yet no one wanted to be at the time, and unfortunately too many still do not today.
4. Be Small and Nimble. Agencies back in 1998, and many still to this day, are loaded with all levels of account managers and nobody is doing the actual work except for perhaps a handful of interns and the one or two superstars who will probably get poached away rather quickly. But when an internal meeting is called the big guns come in to boost those billable hours. That’s what they do. These people make their first “appearance” on the account since the account was first pitched to the client under the guise that every senior staff member would be involved in the day to day work on the account. That never happened, ever. Staying small and lean, with a hard working team of people who got along was what drove the BPR engine forward in its early days. Nothing was off the table from anyone if it helped advance our client’s interests, which again was sales, sales, sales. This focus on sales became even more important following some of the huge IPOs that began hitting in the late 1990’s. Anyone with a little revenue could get funded and start the move toward a mega million IPO.
5. Recognize your allies. In the early days of Barokas Communications, a couple clients took the chance on a two person start up with no office space and barely any Internet access (hence prior importance of working the phone). One of these companies, believe it or not, was a very large global tech company that tasked our small growing agency with a handful of difficult objectives. What do you think we did? We busted our butt every waking moment to overdeliver for them, and that client became a lifelong professional and personal relationship as a result.
Many other companies took a chance on us back in those early days, and talking to them about working together was so different than it was with the larger agencies. There was a true feeling of passion in the air that can’t be described or faked. It was never an agency “pitch” as much as it was a strategic brainstorming as a group. We were like an army helping formulate orders with the general and no matter how outrageous or unattainable those orders seemed, we were hell-bent on getting them done. In the process of doing so, we made many allies in the tech world, and created a name and a brand that continued to draw the interest of more and more companies.
6. Work Harder than the Next Guy. #5 is a good segway into this one. If you aren’t willing to work hard and to hustle beyond belief to do good things for your client, you can bet that someone else will. Our commitment to the hustle is why we gained clients. When most agencies were trying to keep business by striving to “deliver” we sought to only “overdeliver.” No one was doing that then, and few are doing it now. Remember Samuel Goldwyn’s famous quote, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”
7. Know what you are talking about. This one is huge and seems like a no brainer, but so few people actually take the time to invest in knowledge of the product they are pitching. Barokas Communications arose from the seed of product knowledge, which lies partly in the fact that we were nerds, overly interested perhaps in these new technologies that were changing the world. If a marketer in any form isn’t truly passionate about the product or service they are pitching it will die a fast death with the media who actually are truly passionate about it. If you aren’t interested in being passionate about it, you should find a new line of work that you are passionate about. When building our initial team we were fortunate to find so many others that shared our curiosity for what the future held and who relished in the ability to affect it. That is what clients expect, and deserve
8. Never Ever Give Up. I recall an early BPR client who really wanted to be in the NY Times, and they had a brand new product that was kick ass and could definitely be a good fit for the NY Times tech section. The editor at the time was as tough as tough gets, with a reputation for being incredibly hard to pitch. But all that did at BPR was add fuel to the fire. It made us want it even more. The success that would be gained far outweighed the extra effort that would be required. And in this case it took a few months, but we were able to secure an interview and the resulting coverage. Always choose the hard path. There are fewer people on it.
9.“No Risk No Reward,” or better yet “No Balls No Babies.” There is no substitute for gut instinct, and the best part is that everyone has it. Sometimes you have to suck it up, get uncomfortable and ride it out. That’s how the world changes. That’s how Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Rockefeller used to roll. We used to say back in the early days that we should shoot for the stars, and if we get almost there it’s better than not having set our sights so high. Or as Michael Jordan once said “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” In the world of PR, there is no better mantra. Either you go for it, or you sit back on your laurels and watch the world unfold before you. Pick a side, take the chance and ride it out with hard work.
10. Even if You’re Small You Can Be Big. No one is going to call you out on being small if you play the role and play it well. If you know everything about a product, its industry and its competitiveness, and if you are empowered with the ability to reach senior executives and industry movers, then you are big, and you are bigger than the big guys who are not empowered. You’re only small if you think you’re small. You’re only big if you think you’re big. Move all in, all the time. Play to win.
And there’s a quick ten. There are many more. On that day when BPR was born, I sat across the desk from the president of a large PR agency and I was trying to quit and get out of the building as fast as possible (I may even have had a cab waiting). I was scared to death, not only that he was going to pummel me (because he was a big, strong guy and one blow with his bowling ball sized fist would have broken all my teeth) but because I had no idea what was going to happen next. And that is why we were able to pull it off.
The curiosity and the doubt. The unknown. The question mark. The possibility, and seemingly high likelihood, of failing miserably. The possibility of disappointing the clients who rolled the dice with us. The fact that we might not be able to do it. The possibility that we’d be unemployable after this, scarred from severe failure. Maybe we didn’t have the skills, the knowledge or the capabilities. This great unknown and “the scare” is how Barokas Communications was born, and it is why it has grown today to be 15 years old. It is also how every major movement in the world begins and the reason why they thrive.
Barokas Communications Employee #1