'Startup nation:' Financial comms experts see opportunity in going out on their own

A number of well-known financial PR experts have recently left established firms to start their own shops. Why now? Technology is changing communications, and it's easier than ever to launch a company.

In the relatively small world of financial communications, there are some new kids on the block.

A number of communicators from some of the best-known shops in fincomms have left established firms in recent months to launch their own agencies. They say technology and storytelling are changing the financial comms industry into a teeming ecosystem for entrepreneurship.

Late last month, Jonathan Gasthalter resigned from Sard Verbinnen & Co. after a 16-year tenure. A day later, Gasthalter & Co. was registered with the New York Department of State, and that same week, he was joined by former colleagues from SVC.

Similarly, after 15 years at LAK Public Relations, Suzanne Dawson resigned from the firm in February to launch S&C Public Relations with longtime colleague Cecile Fradkin, who departed LAK in March after almost a dozen years.

Both declined to comment citing contractual reasons.

The way Dan Simon, cofounder and CEO of Vested, describes it, communicators have more tools at their disposal than ever before to disseminate content. He sees a financial industry transformed by technology and e-commerce resulting in opportunity.

In 2005, Simon founded the American arm of Cognito. However, a decade later, the barriers to entry for entrepreneurship were "considerably lower" when he and some former Cognito colleagues launched Vested, described as a retooled PR outfit built for the digital age, in July 2015.

"All you need is physical space and Ethernet and you’re off," Simon says. Space is more affordable and readily available, he added, and the cloud allows colleagues to coordinate with ease.

"We were reluctant entrepreneurs at first," Simon explains. "We saw an opportunity that couldn’t be exploited under our then-current structure. We had a vision of integration that was articulated from a place that is new."

The firm prides itself on serving the "new financial industry." Its client list includes both staples such as Bloomberg and disrupters such as WorldRemit, which is challenging heavyweights such as Western Union in the remittance area. WorldRemit was named the fastest-growing U.K. tech company in 2015 by Deloitte.

‘A start-up world’
In late 2015, Suzanne Hallberg left her position as director of communications at SkyBridge Capital to launch Zip Communications early this year.

"It’s a start-up world, right?" Hallberg says. "Whether you’re an established business or you’re just launching, or you’re somewhere between those two, everyone’s competing for a share of voice. And I noticed there was a need and a demand for senior-level counsel like myself, who has an agency and in-house background."

Experts note that organizations in need of a person with a background in consultation can turn to a boutique shop for a much lower price than an established player in financial and corporate communications.

"Obviously, it’s a lot more cost effective to start a PR agency without as much overhead," Hallberg says. "There’s a community now because it’s such a start-up world that you can tap into in terms of resourcing, support, and networking."

Like Hallberg and Simon, Thomas Walek dove back into entrepreneurship this year when he launched Peaks Strategies, his second startup. He founded Walek & Associates in 1998, and the firm was bought by Peppercomm 15 years later.

Walek says he left Peppercomm to return to his roots and build a "focused, specialist financial services and capital markets firm." He adds that improvements in technology have resulted in strategies and opportunities to help companies target messages, build brand awareness and visibility, and drive growth.

"There are plenty of opportunities if you’re smart and aggressive and you can roll where the market goes," Walek explains. "If you keep your eyes open and wits about you and you help clients manage the market, there will always be opportunities."

Walek attributes these new opportunities in part to changes in technology that have resulted in new strategies. Yet he notes there are other forces at work: product and service innovation, disintermediation, pricing pressures, regulatory changes, evolving communications channels, and demographic shifts.

While Walek says he isn’t sure if startups are launching more often today than in the past, he notes it is clear that it is easier to put out a shingle than ever.

"It’s a start-up nation. Everywhere you look and turn there are startups," he says. "It’s probably easier due to technological advances, in part. The mechanics to run a business are literally at your fingertips. But there have always been a lot of sole practitioners."

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