I left New York for London in September 2014, pregnant with my third child and transitioning out of my position as chief communications officer for Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal.
I was absolutely ready for a career break. Having taken relatively little time out with my first two children, I was resolute the third and last maternity leave would allow for some much needed earth mothering for me and the kids, baking endless cakes and enjoying magical evenings together.
Fast forward a year and a half with three kids at home. With the dream and reality not quite in sync, I was desperate to return to work.
One Friday afternoon in February 2016, I was introduced to entrepreneur and Spotify investor Shakil Khan who was working on a new project. By Monday, I was at the Student.com offices helping them plan the announcement of a $60 million funding round.
The international student market is growing. So, as is the case for many disruptors, there is natural growth for Student.com. On the student side, there are 5 million students travelling abroad to study, growing to 8 million by 2024. On the accommodation side, there are an increasing number of professional landlords developing purpose-built properties that cater to the modern day student – think high-speed WiFi and pimped-up common areas. Simply put, Student.com connects the two. We help students from all over the world find accommodation in more than 400 cities worldwide.
I remember how it felt arriving in Bogota, Colombia, as a 21-year-old student, searching for the right place to live. It can be tough to find a home in a foreign city, especially when you don’t speak the language. So it’s great to be part of a solution to a problem I experienced.
I’ve spent the last 14 years in companies of no less than 5,000 employees, aside from a brief flirtation with a small theatre in London. The IT team was a phone call away if anything stopped working, there was no shortage of colleagues to sanity check – read: double check – everything you were doing, and I had teams of people to whom I could delegate chunks of work.
However, with every company meeting or quarterly results, there were recurring disappointments and challenges. How do you adapt to a rapidly changing environment? How do you hang on to revenues and profit while fighting industry headwinds and legacy technology? Life at a startup is not without struggle, quite the opposite. But it’s uniquely invigorating to be part of something with natural growth. Annual targets focus on how much you grow the revenue year-on-year, instead of merely maintaining revenue or minimal growth.
I love the agility with which startups can move and adapt, free from the embedded processes that can slow you down.
From a PR perspective, managing the reputation of a big brand has its advantages. Journalists are keen to talk to you, and a good volume of coverage is more or less guaranteed when you launch a product. Those positives quickly turn to negatives when the news is bad, of course. That said, raising the profile of a smaller startup brand is a refreshing challenge if you’ve mainly worked in larger companies. You can benefit from a lower volume of reactive PR and instead focus on top-notch pitches and campaigns in your target regions without distractions. This can be a welcome change and allows you to flex important professional muscles you haven’t used for a while, and ones that should remain engaged.
Being at a startup has helped me understand how PR can integrate with other functions across the business in a more in-depth way. Maximizing the impact of PR within an organization has to be done in tandem with the content and digital marketing functions; learning how this is best executed by native tech pros is invaluable.
There are certainly days when I miss the fabric of big business, big budgets, and big brands. But most of the time, I’m delighted to be wearing jeans, working with great tech minds, and feeling part of the future.
Like many people, I believe the pace of digitization and innovation will only increase. There is no end to the number of products and services that have already been, or will be, disrupted in the quest for a smoother and more efficient consumer experience. And in time, the disruptors who don’t keep up the pace will be disrupted by newer, better services.
As the high-growth industry expands, raising the profile of a startup will play an increasingly critical role for PR pros.
Paula Keve is head of communications at Student.com and the former chief communications officer at Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal.