Allison Braley on the Power of Staying Curious in Comms
Mixing Board Studio Session
Allison Braley is an Operating Partner at Playground Global, where she brings more than 20 years of marketing, brand-building and communications expertise to the venture firm and its portfolio. The Mixing Board community member also is a generous soul who actively provides advice and lessons to others looking to better understand comms or move up in the industry.
Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Allison and Sean. They talk about doing deep work with deep-tech companies , the reductive arms race around funding stories, and what Allison has learned from regularly posting on LinkedIn.
SG: How did you get to Playground, and what are you focused on there?
AB: I’ve done a lot of work on the startup side, working for Zocdoc, Zoosk, I was the first comms hire at The Information, a bunch of these startup companies. I’ve also worked for big companies like Condé Nast. On the agency side, I’ve worked with Facebook, Amazon, TurboTax and Intuit. And at this point in my career, what I love most is helping early stage startups quickly develop a marketing and comms function that can learn from what some of the big players do best. I’m in a really privileged seat to have seen a lot of the best work out there and be able to accelerate that journey from, ‘what is comms and marketing’, for some of these deep tech startups that I work with to, ‘here’s how we do this well’.
Half of my time is dedicated to Playground, the firm itself. I get to work with some of the smartest people in the world full stop, former CTOs, people who’ve invented Apple Quicktime, an original board member at Tesla who was in the room when the idea was generated — incredibly talented people. And I get to help up-level their profile and the profile of the firm.
SG: Are your deep-tech founders willing students in the finer arts of comms and marketing?
AB: There are certainly your A students who come in, people who are marketing minded from the beginning. They’re not pitching a technology, they’re pitching a vision from day one. You also have the people who are brilliant technologists, who are building something really unique and wonderful, but aren’t great at connecting it to the bigger picture. They’re stuck talking about how it works, what it is, and having a hard time connecting it to the “why should I care?” Why does this matter in the grand scheme of the world? Why would the world be worse off in 10 years if you don’t exist, kind of thinking.
If you’re in the weeds building the technology and that’s what you care about — you might have this potentially misguided belief that, if you build it, they will come. And great products don’t require a lot of marketing, which if you look at almost every big company out there, even the ones that you think didn’t need a lot of marketing because there was inherent virality, they still did great marketing and comms. That’s one education piece.
In some cases, you’re dealing with humility — I don’t want to be out there as a thought leader. I don’t want to look like a jerk or self aggrandizing. I don’t want to oversell it. There’s a nervousness or a fear about how that stuff will be received. That comes largely out of people who come from academia, where being a showboat is frowned upon. They look at it through that lens of, “how will my academic colleagues react to this.”
SG: Then, when they come back three, six, 12 months later and they say, “Ah, yeah, you were right,” — what typically do they say? What do they see on their own that you maybe gave them clues to?
AB: Oftentimes, it’s a competitor with an inferior product, who’s getting much more attention. I think a lot of people undervalue how much reporters are spread thin and don’t take the time to clue into who has the better product. It’s who has the better pitch, who has the better marketing. Who’s telling me more interesting things? Who’s on the phone with me more? This can often be more signal to a reporter than the nuances of, this solution works better than this one. There’s this belief that, if I build the best thing, it will just work from the marketing perspective. And that’s not always the case.
SG: This is when they start saying, “Okay, I see my competitor getting this attention and getting these stories. I’d like one, too.”
AB: It’s here that you have to dig into the why of that. Which audience is important to you? Is hiring the big problem right now? Are you fundraising in the next six months? We try to dig into the reason, the why. What does great comms get you beyond some content to put out there? Once we understand that better, it’s easier to triangulate to an outlet, a reporter, and then back into a story. In many cases, it’s a momentum type story that a lot of these companies ignore at the early stage, even outside of deep tech. They say, we’ll do more PR when we raise our next round.
But you need to give people the breadcrumbs in between. Even if the potential investor or whoever your target audience is doesn’t proactively come across it, when they’re searching for your name, if there’s none of that breadcrumb trail to feel like this is a hot company and they’re clearly making progress, life is harder for you, too. In a lot of cases, it’s figuring out what the right momentum story looks like for a company.
SG: And that momentum is around, connecting the dots, right? Tying into something bigger and connecting what you’re doing on the inside to what’s happening on the outside.
AB: We were just talking about this before the call, we have all these logistics startups. There’s this shipagedon coming, round two. Last year was round one, this year will be worse. Connecting your logistics startup to the fact that FedEx and UPS just don’t have capacity this year. There’s all these sort of macro trends that some founders are inherently great at connecting to, and others need a little help.
SG: You’re talking to founders every single day around their next round, around the next funding announcement, around this next moment. I subscribe to the various deal book type newsletters, and there’s a lot of deals being booked. At the same time, a Series A that’s $40 or $50 million is not unheard of at all. That might even be a seed these days. So how has your advice and input changed or evolved given this kind of funding landscape?
AB: A few things have really fundamentally changed. One, you have to start by telling people your round, in and of itself, is not news. What you’re doing is interesting and congratulations on closing this round, but, unless you’re talking about a $100 million round, it isn’t news. I think it was Ari Levy from CNBC who tweeted out, “if your round is under $50 million, I don’t care.” The dollar amount, particularly in where we play in the early stage, just isn’t news, unfortunately.
Two, we have to connect this round to some broader story around your company. Just yesterday, we did a story with the company I love called Pandion, that raised a healthy $30 million Series A. But the story that came out in CNBC wasn’t that. It was all around this ex-Amazon Air founder taking on the big guys. The fact that we have this shipping crunch coming up was part of the pitch, we’re opening a new facility, and then the funding. You have to make it something bigger than just a pure straight funding announcement.
My third piece of advice is time. You used to be able to pitch one of these things and truly, 48 hours later, a story would run. That is not the world we live in now. Most reporters are asking for two plus weeks from the time you pitch them to the story running because there’s just a backlog. You have to plan more. Some companies want to do public filings which is challenging because then you’re on a ticking clock. There’s a lot of nuance there that goes into sort of planning the timing of these announcements adequately, so that you get the best bang for your buck.
SG: What is the impact of the story? What does it actually get you? How do you coach founders around that?
AB: In many cases, you’ve just closed funding, so you’re not pitching again to investors anytime soon. But it still serves as that breadcrumb trail for future investors to say, “Oh, wow. In their Series A, they landed this big article. Then it was here, here, here, here, and here. This is a hot company. I’m getting signal.” Investors certainly are also subject to FOMO..
Also more importantly, it’s customer catnip. This company is going faster and faster, they’ve got other customers, I better get on the train here before it leaves the station. Then employees. So many of these startups are competing for highly technical talent that’s very sought after. They want to know that they’re going someplace hot that has a great trajectory, and a smart founder who has a vision that’s out there in the world.
SG: What if you can’t get coverage for the news?
In the rare cases where you really can’t get a third party distribution on something, there are ways, particularly if you’ve put in the time and built up a following on a place like LinkedIn, Twitter or Medium, you can put out your own news. Which is such a trend in VCs, having your own owned channels. Startups can learn from that too, even at an early stage, and start to put some of that investment in, because it will pay off down the line.
SG: So go direct, but just not when it comes to the funding announcement (wink)…
AB: Meanwhile, that’s the way that they could get real readership for a lot of these go direct type channels, is if you started announcing your own funding stuff within the portfolio there. But, I get it. It is sort of an important milestone and there’s a sense that if it doesn’t get coverage, what does that mean about the company? Is the company uninteresting or undifferentiated? I don’t think that’s the case, but there is that feeling.
SG: I wish there was a more rich version of Crunchbase that was maybe open sourced or with some vetting that you have to go through to get in, like proof of the funding or something.
When I’m looking at a company, I look them up in Crunchbase — how many people, who funded it, what’s the funding amount, all that stuff. They have links to outside sources but it’s very dry.
If there was a richer way to present your news by posting, “Hey, our news included this TechCrunch story and a Forbes story around this big trend.” Or, “Hey, this was the crazy TikTok video we did around our funding announcement, because we’re this new DAO.” Or, “Our CEO did a YouTube video around this news in our airplane hangar.” That’s all there, and it becomes this compendium of whatever you want to do around your funding announcement. Anyway, maybe someone should do this.
AB: Someone should do this. Should this be a Mixing Board project? I mean, I love it.
SG: All right. On the record, we’ll make it happen. Anyone out there who wants to help with this, let’s do it.
Anyway, I think the point of it is, that we’re clearly at this place now where it’s a reductive arms race around funding news. It’s almost meaningless.
AB: Exactly, as the numbers get higher and higher, they become meaningless. But I would argue, to some degree, they were meaningless to begin with. The amount of money you raise should be relative to what you need to achieve with that money. The valuation, at this point, isn’t what the market has dictated. It’s what a few VCs in a conference room have dictated. So both of those numbers don’t necessarily mean anything other than I’m a great storyteller. I’m great at marketing. I built all this FOMO and now people are bidding up my startup. I don’t think it’s this signal that it used to be, that my company is likely to succeed.
SG: What always strikes me, is that there’s always some sort of corollary to political reporting for every single form of technology coverage. We always complain about horse race coverage, who’s ahead in the polls, this machination that happened, this speech that was given. But lack coverage around the undercurrents of trends, or the policies that make a difference, or the laws that may change because this person gets elected or not. It’s all very focused on the surface level area where it’s very transactional. But you can track a quick win here and there like a scorecard.
Somewhat of the same thing is happening with coverage on funding. At some point, we’ll cycle back to something that’s more substantive. I don’t think we’re in a substantive place right now. For Playground though, it’s important because you guys are doing deep substantive stuff.
AB: We are. I would say it’s been interesting for me as a person with a consumer background, coming into this deep tech firm. That was my big fear in taking this job. Am I going to be able to figure out how to talk about a quantum computing company? I’ve mostly worked on media properties, dating apps, social media, tax stuff, the Kindle. Is this going to be up my alley? What I ended up learning from the experience is that, in some ways, I think my background helps.
Coming from too technical a place, you have a high tolerance for technical jargon. I think I’ve gotten good at forcing companies to say what they do in terms that anyone can understand, because I am the idiot who’s asking, “No, really, tell me exactly what it does?” You can’t get away with ML, AI, this, that, the other thing. It’s ended up being helpful.
But there have been points where I feel my background more. Even when I first started, I was working on some quantum related stuff and I had to listen to a bunch of MIT tech review podcasts that broke down quantum computing to the level of, okay, a classical computer is like a piano that can play two notes, and then a quantum computer is like an organ. It can play a bunch of notes at the same time.
Overall my background has been net helpful. I’ll definitely say we’re probably the only VC firm out there that has a 70,000 square foot facility. The other week, we built an engine, a miniature plane engine that runs on ammonia. Other VCs like to play in the spreadsheets. We like 3D print engines. Every other firm is like, “That’s cool. You do that over in your corner.” But that’s what we like to do. That’s part of why deep tech founders like us, we will dig in, we want to get the technology and we have the people to do that.
SG: Let me dig into this kind of curiosity question. I don’t know if you were one of the kids in junior high, when the teacher would say something, you’d raise your hand and you’d ask the question. And then everyone else in the classroom would say, “Oh my God, thank you for asking that question.”
I think for a lot of younger comms people or people coming up in comms, or in any role, frankly, people are afraid to ask questions. Yet, asking questions is one of the most important jobs of a comms person. So how have you learned to be shameless and ask those questions? What was a moment where you were like, “I’m so happy I asked that?”
AB: Early in my career, Google was my friend. Somebody would say something in a meeting that I didn’t totally get, even around PR super early in my career, at Zeno Group and Weber Sandwick. Somebody goes, “Let’s front run this story,” and I’m like, “What does it mean to do that?” Then you’re Googling. That’s shifted to needing to do that on the tech side.
I still would say Google is my friend. I try not to ask a question that couldn’t be Googled, but a lot of this is meeting preparation. Going through docs before I go to a pitch meeting or before I go to the deal meeting, or before I go to any of these meetings, and make sure I’ve grounded myself at least in a basis. But then there’s still tons of questions. And it is our role in comms to say, I don’t get this. I’m a proxy for reporters. I’m a proxy for customers. I’m a proxy for the outside world and how they’ll react to this.
A big part of the job is keeping that room where the decisions are made from being so insular that you ignore and forget the fact that plenty of people who encounter this information will not understand it, will misinterpret it, will assume the worst about our motives. I need to act as that person, their proxy in the room. Some of that is also just educating people on the role of comms when you start a new job, or the role of marketing, role of brand, to expect that’s what I will do. I will constantly ask questions, pressure, test and just generally try to understand things better because I’m not a physicist. I don’t have an electrical engineering degree. And you want that, you want somebody like that in the room so that it doesn’t become jargon or worse, rife with misinterpretation.
SG: One other thing you’ve been doing that is also indicative of having some curiosity is what you’ve been doing on LinkedIn. You’ve been posting a ton of ideas, thoughts, posits and perspectives. It’s super impressive to me because you’re being very vulnerable by getting out there and posting stuff. I’m very comfortable with Twitter, but LinkedIn has always been hard. It’s this kind of weird zone between personal and professional and expertise. Tell me about what you’ve learned from that and how you’ve been able to teach others about using other ways to communicate beyond more classic communications.
AB: The genesis of it is interesting. We all have idols or heroes on different platforms. Like Ashley Mayer is my Twitter idol. She’s freaking amazing at Twitter. I have this friend, Justin Welsh, who’s a sales guru, who’s pretty amazing on LinkedIn. I had dinner with him when I was living in LA a little over a year ago. He’s like, “You should be on LinkedIn more. You have so many interesting things to say.” I’m like, “What is LinkedIn for?” Do I want to be a thought leader on LinkedIn? I hate that term. And I didn’t have a reason to do it back then.
But then I came to Playground and a lot of VCs are out there pretty broadly. Some for the power of good and others less so, but that’s certainly a way to become a recognized VC. I have five general partners at Playground, two of whom are very public facing and three of whom are very private. Super smart technical people who are great investors, but who don’t like being out there. I decided I’m going to dog food this, I’m going to eat my own dog food. I’m going to do LinkedIn myself and report back on the results and what works, and use it as a way to try to convince the firm, “Hey, in 90 minutes a week of content writing on Sunday night, look what you can do.”
That was sort of the genesis of the idea, it was a mix between Justin saying, “Hey, you should do this,” and the partners being so reticent to do it. I’ve ended up really enjoying it. A lot of it is just having great conversations with people I never would’ve met, who are potential hires we could put into the portfolio. Because that’s a lot of my job too, is saying, this person needs to hire a Head of Marketing and this person needs to hire someone based in Europe, and they need to understand chips.
Just broadening my network in that sense has been great. Now that I’m in my forties, I care less what people think of me. I’ve had posts where I was like, this was great, and it gets crickets, tumbleweeds, the sound of your own sadness. Then I’ve had posts that go broad, and it feels good. I don’t think that post was any better or worse than the one that failed. Maybe it was just written better.
I’ve had a couple learnings around how to write a great post and it’s all in the first sentence. If you can’t get people to click that more button, it’s over. If you have all this great information buried below that expand button, it goes nowhere. It’s about creating that initial first sentence before the break that really matters.
Then, in the content, things that you think are obvious in your career are very non-obvious to people who are not in your role. I’ve been able to take information that is rote and almost meaningless to me and do real numbers with that. Which has been bizarre, but great to understand. I thought I needed to write a treatise on something challenging, but that’s not it. That’s not the content people want.
SG: What’s the impact of getting the numbers and the attention?
AB: You broaden your network. People reach out to you all the time. I’m not job hunting, but you do get a ton of that. More than that, you get connected to people who want to know more about you. Maybe they want you to be an advisor. Maybe they want to pitch your company, so that’s deal flow for me within Playground, which is great. Maybe they are interested in a career and getting career advice, and there’s often a company I can help them land in. It’s been great for that. It also helps my credibility within the founders that we deal with at the firm. When I’m telling the CEO of XYZ company to get out there more, I can say, “Well, look, I do it myself. It doesn’t take that much time and it has been really beneficial.” There’s real value and utility in doing something yourself before you teach.
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