I had mentor once that used to say: you may not remember what people say, you may not remember what people did, but you will always remember how people make you feel.
Over the years, I’ve found that to be true – and it’s true of Gini Dietrich. I don’t really remember how or when I first bumped into Gini online, but I do remember being surprised at her responsiveness. Not just with me, but with everyone. The commenters on SpinSucks are a community onto ourselves; the “crazies” as she affectionately calls us.
Here was an influential PR pro, with tens of thousands of followers, as CEO of Arment Dietrich with a business to run, taking time to respond to individuals as individuals. It was beyond impressive – and a lots of people noticed. Gini makes you feel good, and I often wonder if that’s a talent that can be learned but not taught.
If you peruse her posts regularly, you’ll begin to pick up that Gini has had some tip-toe-to-the-edge-of-failure experiences in the business world. Even so, there was always some detail in between I had wondered about…and Gini agreed to answer the five hardest questions I could think to ask.
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S&S: You’ve often written you used to work for a Top 10 PR firm. Then you left and started your own company. How did that evolution take place? Did one day you just decide to resign and go put out a shingle, or was this something you had been planning or something else? Spontaneous?
GD: I actually went from FH [FleishmanHillard] in Kansas City to an advertising agency in the suburbs of Chicago. The catalyst for my leaving was Kansas City was that I had an ex-boyfriend who was dating my former roommate and I had to get the heck out of dodge because I kept running into them. I knew I wanted to move to Chicago or New York and FH couldn’t transfer me so I had to leave. But the reason I went out on my own was nothing that was planned or really well thought out. About a year into working at the ad agency, I had a client ask me if I’d ever thought about running my own business. I had never even considered it and I told him so. But that conversation sat in my brain and noodled itself into every thought. I eventually left after the one millionth conversation about why I couldn’t take the newest ad to the media and have them write a glorious story about it. Even then, I didn’t set out to start a business. I freelanced for a couple of years with some of the big agencies as I shopped where I wanted to land. Then, one day, I had too much work to do and hired an intern. The rest, as they say, is history. And, by-the-way, that client who germinated the idea in my brain was our first client and was a client for seven years…until we decided we weren’t a consumer communications firm.
S&S: You’ve freely shared that you almost went bankrupt once. What was the underlying cause? What went through your mind?
GD: What went through my mind? HOLY SHIT is what went through my mind! Sorry, I don’t typically swear online (and it’s against our social media policy), but that’s exactly what went through my mind. I went through a lot of the feelings – guilt, anger, dread, fear, and then I reached a calmness I didn’t think was possible in a situation like that. I realized bankruptcy wasn’t the end of the world and we could even stay in business with that over our heads. It was a really interesting experience. You realize you’re failing, but that you did everything you possibly could to keep it all together and it’s very calming. I mean, I kept it all together during the worst part of the recession, only to have it come undone in 2011. The reason that happened is I made some very bad decisions about how to use our line of credit in 2007. I invested it in people and those people didn’t perform at the level I expected. What I didn’t realize is it was all my fault they didn’t perform. We didn’t have a structure or process in place for them to succeed.
Fast forward to 2011 and I had spent all our cash trying to pay down $250,000 I had spent on people who were no longer there. When the credit debates took place in the summer of 2011, every client put on the brakes on paying invoices. What were paid in 30 days or less moved to 90 or even 120 days. We didn’t have the cash to make it until we got invoices paid and I didn’t have a line of credit I could borrow against. So we got 90 or 120 days behind in paying our vendors, including rent and utilities and suddenly we had not a single penny left. I hadn’t taken a paycheck in more than a year and I owed the bank $75,000 (I did a good job of paying down that debt to the detriment of having no cash) and owed the landlord, insurance, and other vendors some significant cash. I had literally had the conversation with my attorney about how to file when checks started coming in and it saved us. We made it by less than a month. You know what I learned? Cash is king. Now I stockpile cash and I’m ultra conservative about spending it. I’ll learn balance soon.
S&S: By all appearances, business is going well Arment Dietrich. Your blog is top notch, you’ve hired some familiar faces from the social media world, you’ve got another book deal. It’s amazing really. How do you balance your role as managing a business and being a leading voice in the industry?
GD: It’s very, very hard. Sometimes I think I’m too accessible. One of the hardest parts of being the face of the company is everyone wants to work with me, which is neither scalable nor super motivating for my team. But in the past three months, I’ve learned how to hire the right people and give them the resources they need to do their jobs. When you have the right people on your team, doing the things they’re really good at doing, clients don’t wish they had the CEO working on their lead generation or media relations or blog content or social media networks. They quickly go from, “I need Gini on this” to “Don’t ask Gini! She costs too much!” That’s the secret…having the right people doing the jobs they excel at doing. I also try really hard to put my ego aside when someone on my team has an idea I hadn’t before considered. I hope they’ll tell you I’m willing to let them take some risk and I always let them follow their ideas. I know if I can continue doing that, the business will keep growing and I’ll get to keep doing what I love: Writing, speaking, networking, building community, and mentoring my super talented rock star team.
S&S: For several years, I’d see you everywhere online. You were a machine. You’d respond to every comment on your own blog or otherwise (and you do have high volume of engagement on your own blog). You’d reply to every tweet. You were on every social network, everywhere at seemingly all hours. I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but maybe about three months ago, I started to notice that I noticed you less. Not your online presence, but the responsiveness. You’ve toned down. What happened?
GD: Do you think it’s a coincidence you’ve noticed a decline right when cycling season began? I’m only half-joking. I’m riding about 15 or 16 hours a week right now and that time used to be spent responding to every tweet, commenting on blogs, responding to every person who commented on my Facebook status updates, and pinning all the things! It’s to the point now both my team and my husband will say to me, “Have you ridden today?” which is code for, “You’re grouchy! Go release some stress!” And release stress it does…plus I have killer calves and an awesome (okay, really terrible) cycling tan.
But it’s really bigger than that. Last year I took 63 trips throughout North America and Europe (I only know this because I checked in and out of O’Hare on Foursquare 126 times last year). It became impossible to respond to every tweet or comment on every blog post I read (and I still read a lot). At first I felt guilty about it, but the book I co-authored with Geoff Livingston (Marketing in the Round) afforded me the opportunity to go to conferences where I got to meet the people I was tweeting with in real life. Then it became less about staying top-of-mind because meeting people in person gives you a deeper knowledge of them and you think about them more often, even if you’re not chatting online every day.
We also got a lot busier at work. This year is either going to be our second best or our best year in our eight year history (hopefully the best, but it’s summertime and no one makes decisions so I’m not totally confident the pipeline will close). We’re doing new and interesting things. Clients are letting us take some risk and we’re making some money for them. And I’m building a virtual team (which we’ll talk more about below), which takes a different skill set and more attention in places you don’t even consider when you see people every day.
And, yes, I caved and decided to write my second book this year, which is decidedly harder than co-authoring a book. It’s taken a lot more of my time than I expected. Patti Knight (my assistant and work wife) hasn’t figured out how to clone me yet so I had to re-prioritize some of the things I was doing. Just like anyone does, I looked at what drove the most business and I spend my time in those places. I don’t totally ignore Twitter and Facebook and Google+ and LinkedIn. The difference is you only see me there once a day (usually first thing in the morning) and not all day like you used to see.
No other boss I have ever had would show up for a meeting in their cycling spandex
S&S: You run a virtual firm. Your employees don’t come to the office every day. Many of us that work in offices can pop around the corner and chit-chat. How do you build a sense of connection? Camaraderie? Enforce a dress code (I’m kidding)? Do you hire people without meeting them in person? Do you ever meet in person?
GD: I require them to send me a picture every day of themselves holding the daily newspaper so I can make sure they’re wearing suits and then I check in during the day to make sure they haven’t changed out of their suits by doing surprise Google Hangout meetings.
It’s actually been a really funny process. I do all of my one-to-one meetings with my direct reports in person (if they’re in Chicago) or on a Google Hangout. If they’re in Chicago, they come to my house and we hang out in my living room. We do our staff meetings through Google Hangouts. In the beginning, those meetings were the only days we put on real clothes and makeup (for the girls). Now it’s pretty rare to see someone not in a tank top or yoga pants or surfer shorts or cycling clothes (cough, cough). Yvette Pistorio said to me the other day, “I love you. No other boss I have ever had would show up for a meeting in their cycling spandex.” Look, I ride every day at noon. I’m not going to shower and get all gussied up just to put on spandex and ride 30 miles a couple of hours later. I have too much to do and that doesn’t seem like a good use of time. Also, I’m shockingly lazy when it comes to girlie things such as spending time putting on makeup and drying my hair. So the virtual environment suits my very well.
As for hiring…I don’t hire anyone without meeting them in person. Our process is you interview via Google Hangout with our team. If you pass muster, you interview with me via Google Hangout. If you pass that muster, you do a second interview with two or three people on our team. THEN I fly you to Chicago for an intense and formal interview. After you’re hired, I try to get you to Chicago once a month. But, with summer hours and everyone’s vacation time, we take a mini break from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Then we’ll ramp back up with the monthly visits every month. At Christmastime, everyone is in Chicago for a full-day meeting and fun dinner.
People ask me all the time about the water cooler types of conversations we miss. We don’t miss them. I don’t know if it’s because we’re still relatively small or because we all genuinely like one another, but we probably talk to one another through the magic of video technology more than we did when we sat in offices next to one another. I guess we’ll see how that goes as we keep adding more employees.
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Well, holy shit indeed, Gini! I just violated your social media policy too. Is that a crack in the armor? If it is…then next I want to go after your rule about jeans. Thank you for answering these despite your traveling!
Note: Off Script is a new series being launched on this blog with three objectives: a) to use this blog to connect more people b) to discover some under-recognized but deserving people and c) to ask recognized people some hard questions.
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Off Script #1: Ruby Simmons PR Pro with a #socialCV