An Insatiable Desire to Improve. Great startups have an insatiable desire to improve in every way. They always want to find greater efficiencies and ways to improve or streamline processes. They want to hire better and better people. They want to expand their services and reach. They want to find new ways to reach their target audiences and engage them in increasingly meaningful ways. They want to find new ways to reward their employees and retain great talent. I often look back at how we were doing business even a few months earlier and am secretly horrified. “I can’t believe we were doing things that way!” I think.If you’re not looking back and thinking that (or even thinking that now, in the moment), you’re doing something wrong.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing April Margulies.
Trust Relations is a fast-growing startup strategic communications agency founded by public relations veteran April (White) Margulies, who has nearly 20 years of experience counseling and implementing campaigns on behalf of clients across various industries, from Fortune 100 companies to startups.
April worked at the world’s best PR agencies in New York City, including Weber Shandwick, Edelman, Rubenstein Public Relations and Spong, before starting her own firm, and has represented an impressive roster of clients and their executives over the course of her career. Clients she has counseled include MasterCard Worldwide, MetLife International, Sotheby’s International Realty, Hyatt, Rosetta Stone, Petco, American Standard, The Dannon Company, YellowTail Wines, Sealed Air and eMusic.
April received her B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications from Iowa State University and continued studying integrated marketing communications in the Strategic Communications M.A. program at Columbia University in New York City.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! 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 got started?
I decided to start my own communications agency, Trust Relations, after years of working at other esteemed agencies — arguably the world’s biggest and best. But I found, over the years, I had my own ideas about how PR agencies could be structured differently and more efficiently, and I had a dream of what a different company culture might look like. With about two pennies to rub together in my pocket, a growing client roster and some pretty grand/*iose ideas, I did what all great strategic communicators do: I told the story of what we were to become as though we had already become it. Why? Because what you project out into the universe becomes so, as long as you hold fast to the vision and walk (or often run) toward that pole star every day — and, of course, as long as it’s what the powers on high desire.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I was consulting with any agency (not named above) that was really dysfunctional. The clients weren’t happy. The team wasn’t happy. They weren’t making money. Everything was going sideways and the downward spirals the agency had put in motion, in so many regards, didn’t seem reversible — at least not without a major reset or overhaul. I was doing everything I could to run around and save clients, empathize with unhappy team members and bring in new business. None of it was appreciated. Suddenly I realized that I would be better off reallocating this energy into creating a better agency that addressed what I saw needed fixing both there and in some of the other agencies I had worked at, while simultaneously drawing upon what was good about each.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My big brother, Bryan Goodwin, is the CEO at McREL International. Given his expertise as a longtime CEO, he played a pivotal role at the start of Trust Relations. He helped me formulate what is now known as the “Trust Relations’ Points System” to appropriately and fairly allocate clients’ budgets. This proprietary system is not used by any other agency and has become a reliable way for us to provide white glove service to our clients at almost any price point, ensuring they get the level of service that matches their budget.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Trust Relations is the only intentionally virtual strategic communications agency, to my knowledge. We started out as a virtual agency before the pandemic hit for a few reasons: 1) we are not beholden to talent in a specific geography, which means we can assemble the best and the brightest PR practitioners nationwide; 2) we can offer a higher value to clients since we do not need their high monthly retainers to pay for our office space/overhead; 3) we can put more senior practitioners on accounts, since we don’t have to pay for an expensive office space in a major metropolitan city and then force recent college grads to work long hours and lead accounts to turn a profit; and 4) we can offer employees a much better life-work balance because we don’t need to squeeze every hour of work out of them we possibly can to make ends meet. The result? More value for clients and much happier employees.
Our all agency Zoom meetings are an amazing checkerboard of diverse practitioners from Hawaii to New York City — and many states in between. It’s truly a testament to how many incredible publicists there are in the U.S., who are motivated to come together for the same cause: to do good work and be good people. This is the team I dreamed of, and I couldn’t be prouder to be working alongside them.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My goal is to ultimately provide a landing pad for every great PR practitioner who wants a great place to work, and for every great client who wants a high-value agency that delivers real results. The success of Trust Relations isn’t just about the financial success of the agency. The true value of Trust Relations lies in our commitment to doing things more efficiently and more successfully with a people-first approach. It’s about creating a culture of true team spirit based on mutual respect and even admiration, where divisive competition, gossip and criticism are banned.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
1) I’m delightfully pushy. I once came up with a tagline for myself. It was: “Delightfully pushy.” This was true of me as a media relations specialist and it’s true now as a business owner. I don’t really take “no” for an answer — not in an uber aggressive, bullheaded way, but in a way that calls upon creative problem solving and imagination. My team has come to understand that if I ask them whether something is possible, “No” as a standalone response is not an acceptable answer. “No, unless…,” “Not until…,” or “No, but…” are all answers I appreciate.
2) I’m all in on whatever I do. When I am passionate about something, I’m all in. I become utterly focused on whatever it is to the point where I lose track of time and space — and, sometimes, other basic needs. I’m fixated on it like a tireless predator that won’t relent. This has been true of whatever I do in life, but it’s never been truer than when I started Trust Relations.
3) I’m optimistic. All in all, my default state of mind is optimism. I often believe things are possible even when the odds are against me. Whether it’s romanticism or foolishness in the eyes of others, generally my commitment to remaining optimistic in the face of daunting circumstances pays off, as eventually whatever I imagine will manifest in time.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Someone once suggested that I slow down on the new business development side of things to focus on the clients we have and refine our processes and procedures. While it was true we needed to get certain protocols in place, it was false that we needed to slow down the sales pipeline to do so. What this person didn’t know, and I didn’t fully either at the time, was that I must keep new business development on full throttle all of the time if I want to grow the agency, as clients will inevitably leave over time and we need our incoming accounts to outpace those that have run their course. In order to do this, we must never pull focus from new business development — even if other things need our attention. Those other things that need fixing are almost always better served by having the revenue needed to solve them.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There were definitely moments where I realized I had bitten off more than I could chew — but there was no turning back. If I had known how difficult this journey would be when I started, I don’t think I would have had the courage to begin. Fortunately, for the future of Trust Relations, I didn’t know. I didn’t know how many long nights there would be. How many hard conversations I’d have to have with clients and employees. How many financial close calls and mishaps we’d have. That a few unexpected collections issues would arise along the way. Or that I’d burn the candle at both ends so many days in a row I almost burned myself out. But I hear from other agency owners that the first two years are the hardest, and now we’re past that mark, so I know we’ll make it.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
A lot of the credit goes to my tenacious personality, which is largely a gift from my parents. My dad is one of the hardest working men I know, who has had his own legal practice for decades, and my mom is one of the most passionate and determined women I know. I am very lucky to have been sculpted by them both.
However, the most important thing to do when things get hard is to keep reframing them in a constructive way. This means that mentally, when you get in a downward spiral and are viewing the company and its outlook negatively, you need to rediscover your gratitude for the company, your team, what you’re building together, and the mission you’re on. The main reason for this is that you will manifest what you focus on. So if you’re thinking about things negatively for too long, they will go south. Trust me. I’ve done it.
I owe my husband, Jon, a debt of gratitude for helping me reframe things over and over through his more objective, intellectual and impersonal lens. I also find that it’s important to reconnect with your inner life and purpose. Once you rediscover the impetus behind what you’re doing, you can rekindle that joy in achieving what you set out to do in the face of the inevitable challenges and hardships — and you’ll begin thinking creatively again about the issues, which will lead to the solutions.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Be sure to celebrate your successes, because no one else will. Did you hire your first employee? Celebrate that! It’s a big milestone. Did you make it to the 1-year mark? Celebrate it. Did you survive your first collections or legal situation? That’s huge. The lows will always be there and, because you’re a founder, you’re always going to feel like things are going slower than you want and you’re not “where you want to be.” Just consider that the norm. The most important thing is to pay attention to when you achieved something and pat yourself on the back for it.
When we hit the two-year mark, I almost didn’t realize it. In fact, I nearly missed the window to celebrate it until someone told me to look how far we’d come. Suddenly I saw the vista of where we were and how high we’d climbed in two years. Our first website was terrible. Hiring my first employee was so terrifying. Then we added health benefits, which seemed insurmountable until that moment.
So we decided to create a video celebrating our second anniversary and everyone participated by offering a few words about their experience to date. The result was so touching that it made all of the long days and sleepless nights worth it, and it made me cry.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
The first thing to consider is why you want funding. If you can’t answer that question in great detail, it’s probably a sign that you should try bootstrapping instead. If you can answer this question and the reasons are a) that you have a narrow window to capitalize on a hot market opportunity, which you will miss out on without funding, b) you need the expertise and insight that only a seasoned VC can bring or, c) there’s no way you will be able to afford the upfront costs without outside funding, then you might need to go the fundraising route. Keep in mind that, according to Laura Entis in Entrepreneur, only 0.05 percent of startups ever raise venture capital. So pursuing VC funding and securing it are two different things.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
1) A Strong Vision or Mission. The vision you have for your company and its overarching mission or reason for being is the beating heart of your company. If you lose sight of this guiding light, you’ll “jump the shark.” The mission informs everything else. It influences what makes your company unique, sets you apart from the competition, and dictates your key values. There have been times when I briefly forgot why I wanted to create Trust Relations in the first place. When that happened, it was like aimlessly groping around in the dark until I remembered the mission and those it is intended to serve — essentially, the “why” Trust Relations needed to exist.
2) A Strong Culture. A company needs a culture that’s as strong as its offerings. The company culture is a direct extension of the mission and its corresponding brand values. It sets the stage for everything your company does. Every brand identity starts at the top, with the founder’s vision, and trickles down from there. In other words, the culture is essentially the foundation of the company’s brand, which is the genesis of its product or offering. By establishing a strong culture at Trust Relations, that honors our people and mission, I have seen a greater sense of teamwork and camaraderie than I have ever experienced in my life. This has led to a happier team that offers better client service — and has prevented burnout and turnover.
3) People Who See and Support the Vision. Once your vision and culture are clear, you need to hire other people who “get it” — people who see the mission and want to support the vision. If it “takes a village to raise a child,” it takes a small army to raise a company. Without a team that’s inspired to be a part of the company and its mission, it’s impossible to grow a company. I am blessed to have a talented team working with me, who is as passionate about building the company and making it the best it can be as I am.
4) A Willingness to Trust and Lean on Others’ Expertise. Being a founder is not for the faint of heart, the insecure or control freaks. When you start out, you’re doing almost everything yourself. As you grow, it can be hard to let go of the reins on various aspects of the business and hand them over to someone else — but if you don’t, you won’t flourish. I have found it’s best to hand off pieces of the business you know you’re not good at (or don’t like) to someone who has a true passion for it. This can be hard after you realize they’re doing a better job at it than you were, but it’s also a relief. The more I have done this, the bigger we’ve grown and the better we’ve gotten as a team.
5) An Insatiable Desire to Improve. Great startups have an insatiable desire to improve in every way. They always want to find greater efficiencies and ways to improve or streamline processes. They want to hire better and better people. They want to expand their services and reach. They want to find new ways to reach their target audiences and engage them in increasingly meaningful ways. They want to find new ways to reward their employees and retain great talent. I often look back at how we were doing business even a few months earlier and am secretly horrified. “I can’t believe we were doing things that way!” I think.If you’re not looking back and thinking that (or even thinking that now, in the moment), you’re doing something wrong.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
This seems obvious, but too many startups don’t carefully examine the competitive landscape to identify what makes them truly unique. CEOs and founders should always do a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) to see what sets them apart from the competition and lean into that messaging in their storytelling and marketing. The SWOT analysis reveals what makes them different, but the next step is ensuring there is a need for that key point of differentiation in the marketplace. In other words, CEOs and founders must make sure that clients or customers are really asking for what the company is (or will be) offering.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
I can’t say that I’m a shining example of doing this right, as I haven’t always taken great care of myself in the first two years, but I can say what has worked for me over time. If you’re regularly going to put in 12- to 16-hour days (or longer), I recommend breaking it into two halves. I typically have all of my business calls and meetings during the first 8-hour day, the normal 8–5 work day, and then take a break. For me, this usually involves taking a hike with my dogs for an hour, making dinner and watching a little TV while I eat it. After that, around 7–8 pm, I go back for the second half of my day and often work until midnight or 1 am, handling emails, Slacks, writing, reviewing, strategy, and analysis. I find that essentially breaking the day into two work days is extremely helpful for resetting my energy and creativity midway through — and ensuring I get some sunshine, fresh air and exercise almost every day.
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. 🙂
I believe that companies, like people, need to view themselves as servants of humanity. We are all here to serve the divine in each other, and companies should be built on the same principle. The main difference is that they are an organization of people who are serving other people in an orchestrated way. When seen from this perspective, companies are truly majestic. If all companies focused on this principle above simply turning a profit, the world would be a beautiful place. Of course, in order for companies to serve the people for which their products or services are intended (as well as their employees), they do need to remain profitable. But the primary focus should always be on why the company improves the lives of its target audiences and what it can do for them, not what their target audiences can do for the company. To borrow a page from John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your clients/customers can do for you — ask what you can do for your clients/customers.”
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would be over the moon if Brené Brown would even have a private Zoom call with me. She has been a true inspiration to me, in her courageous dedication to authenticity, and has unknowingly laid the foundation for my agency, Trust Relations.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/trustrelations/
Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/trustrelations
Twitter — https://twitter.com/TrustPRelations
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!