Treat other people how you want to be treated yourself. Be generous to your employees. The days when we have had a good year and I get to give out bonuses are fun. Understand what “people currency” is — money, time, or even praise. Or a hotel room. One time, I had a great art director whose air conditioner went out in his apartment when it was 100 degrees in the shade, so I got him a hotel room for a couple nights.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sue Kruskopf.
Sue Kruskopf is CEO of KC Truth, an advertising agency she started in 1988. The philosophy the agency was founded on — cutting through the BS and getting to the truths about brands — has proven to be even more important today in our digitally connected world where brands are more transparent than ever. Entrepreneurial at heart, Sue is also co-founder of MyWonderfulLife.com, a website where you can plan your own funeral online which was featured on the ABC TV show, Shark Tank.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was an Art Director at a large Minneapolis advertising agency in the 80s and was 28 years old. There didn’t seem to be any women over their mid-30s in the Creative department, so I decided that this may not work for me long term! My copywriting partner and I weren’t making much money and decided we could do better. We quit, and soon after KC Truth was born and I have never looked back. But it was not an easy road!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are two moments in time throughout my career that stand out.
First, we worked on the political campaign that got Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestler, elected Governor in 1999. The campaign we did with him as an action figure was credited in part with getting him elected and landing the cover of Time Magazine.
Second, with the help of the agency, we started another company in 2008 called My Wonderful Life where you can plan your funeral online. I was on the 2012 season of Shark Tank with that business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We were working for a local upscale shopping mall called Gaviidae. At that time, the Governors’ wife, Mrs. Perpich, was accused of spending too much on the renovation of the Governors’ mansion. In a newspaper interview, one of her quotes was “I don’t spend too much on anything. I don’t shop at Gaviidae!” or something to that effect. We clipped that out of the newspaper and put it in an ad with the headline, ‘Mrs. Perpich, we are having a sale starting today.’
We lost the account. But it got a lot of attention!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mom always told me I could do or be anything I wanted to. So, in 1988, when we started the agency, I had no clue what I was doing. I decided to call the heads of other well-established agencies in town and ask if I could buy them breakfast. It was where I learned the most, and I earned their respect! Some of them even gave us business that was too small for them, and some are still friends to this day. Smartest thing I ever did.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I think so few women started agencies back then for a few reasons. One, they had no mentors. All agencies were led by middle-aged white guys. Only one agency at the time had a woman in a leadership position: Fallon McElligott Rice (Nancy Rice), and they were a big disruptor at the time. I wanted to be like Nancy Rice!
Second was that agency life was not conducive to raising a family whatsoever. Everyone at a good agency worked nights and weekends. So, I decided that when my daughters were six and eight — which was in 2001 — that we would have a work/life balance and I was going to be home after school. No internet then by the way.
Third is that now it takes money! We were just a creative team and had one account person and the first Mac. We still used markers and sketch pads! Now, there are so many media channels and more technical skills than ever before, which requires more people and subsequently salaries. At least you don’t really need office space!
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
I actually think things are getting better. I think working from home is now more the norm and that helps. There are many more funding options for women- and minority-led companies. More and more women are taking leadership roles in government and that will help.
It really just comes down to the women themselves because I do think you have to have the characteristic of persistence and grit. Don’t take no for an answer.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
It’s the greatest freedom and the greatest noose, which is what makes it exciting. After all, you never have to worry about getting fired or let go.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
There are a couple. People think I still work 60 hours a week because I am an entrepreneur. That lasted until I had my kids in my 30s. Then, I learned to delegate, which was very important.
People also think I must have had money from somewhere to start the agency, and I did not. All the risks I had taken were based on the money I had earned.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
In my estimation, persistence and grit are the hallmark traits for success. Being able to fall, pick yourself up from the ashes, dust yourself off, and start again is absolutely critical. Having the humility and curiosity to ask questions is the only way to learn new things.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- The drive to persevere. Fall down seven times, get up eight. I am known for being relentless in pursuing new business, but always polite. I have been known to send a letter attached along with a really great pizza to a potential client for lunch.
- Always be humble. When you don’t know or understand something, it’s okay to admit when you don’t. When you make mistakes, be honest. It shows your clients and employees vulnerability. Vulnerability is a good thing to show, but of course that has its limits too.
- Treat other people how you want to be treated yourself. Be generous to your employees. The days when we have had a good year and I get to give out bonuses are fun. Understand what “people currency” is — money, time, or even praise. Or a hotel room. One time, I had a great art director whose air conditioner went out in his apartment when it was 100 degrees in the shade, so I got him a hotel room for a couple nights.
- Hire slow. Fire fast. Layoffs are still harder than firing people. Sometimes, people stay too long at the party and stop growing. Make sure you recognize that sooner rather than later.
- Stay relevant in your industry and business. Advertising has changed so much over the course of the 30+ years I have owned my agency. Stay ahead of the curve so you don’t become a dinosaur.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’ve used my success in different and perhaps not obvious ways. Inside the office, I’ve continued to serve as a mentor — giving my time and thoughts to the women who’ve shown an interest in their careers and futures.
Outside the office, I’ve looked at all that life bestows upon us, and it should be celebrated among family and friends. I’ve tried to make people’s last wishes a reality with My Wonderful Life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
We adopted our daughters when they were infants in orphanages, one from China and one from Cambodia. It used to be common in the 90s to adopt from China but it has now become more difficult. I wish the world would realize that there are many couples who can’t have children and there are many children globally that need to be adopted. However, governments in foreign countries do not make it easy and that needs to change.
We are very 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
If he were alive, it would be Anthony Bourdain. He had such a way of connecting with people and is a great writer and storyteller.
Right now, I am reading Bob Iger’s book, “The Ride of a Lifetime.” It’s interesting to hear the ideas he created and lessons he learned during his tenure as CEO of Disney, as well as how he dealt with the pressures of dealing with and reinventing such an iconic brand. He would be fascinating to meet.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.