A Compassionate Angel with Skin in the Game

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Malinda Gagnon is CEO and Co-founder of Uprise Partners, a consulting firm / investment firm that provides full-cycle go-to-market and deep technical delivery. Uprise can help launch and grow a business fast: whether they are a startup, launching a new product, or entering a new market. Whatever it is, Uprise teams can help companies “just blow it up” into something bigger.

Anchoring on a company’s brand promise, Uprise brings in efficient, results-driven SWAT teams of focused experts who have fast-growth, go-to-market capabilities: to build anything; to implement sales and marketing programs; to do branding; and to build, select, compile, and integrate technical solutions. Uprise applies agile methodology to everything it does, always asking: “What can we launch that makes the most impact, as quickly as possible?” 

Uprise may not have traditional agency/client relationships—its focus is on a mission to help business founders from areas that are underserved – minority founders, women founders, founders in rural areas or markets lacking a vibrant entrepreneurial culture and support system. If Uprise finds a small company they want to invest in, they will put “skin in the game,” take equity in the company, and bring on the skills that will help the company grow. 

Malinda spoke at Hubspot’s Inbound 2019 on the topic of compassionate commerce – “the art of selling what truly helps the customer.” The challenge? To be able to “talk about compassion in a way that people feel comfortable about it in a professional setting.” 

Malinda describes the more-commonly referenced empathy as the first step toward compassion: empathy is the ability “to walk a mile in someone’s shoes, see the world through their eyes.” The next step toward compassion is “to understand the most fundamental motivator a customer has – their emotions. Critical to getting to that level of understanding? Map emotions to every stage of that customer journey and address those emotions, both positive and negative. You only reach compassion when you understand the customer and “have a deep desire to help.”

Malinda can be found on her company’s website at uprisepartners.com of by email at: malinda@uprisepartners.com. She and her husband/co-founder also have a tech-oriented podcast called Data Myths, available “everywhere.”

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined in person by Malinda Gagnon. She is the CEO and Co-founder of Uprise Partners, based in Boston, Massachusetts. Welcome to the podcast.

MALINDA: Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.

ROB: Good to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Uprise Partners and what y’all do? It’s amazing.

MALINDA: Uprise Partners is a consulting firm and an investment firm. We have a different model that has been working really well for the clients that we’re looking to help. Essentially, what we’ve done with Uprise is build a team that can launch and grow a business.

Why I wanted to start Uprise is I saw a huge need in the space after working in ad tech at Google and then working in WPP in consulting and product and technology. There wasn’t one place where a client could go if they had a fast growth initiative – if they were a startup, if they were launching a new product, entering a new market, something like that – where they could say, “This is my team that’s going to help me just blow it up.”

In order to do that, you have to have the key functions in-house to make it work. You have to have go-to-market capabilities, sales/marketing. You have to have technology. Knowing what to use, how to plumb it, put it together, and how to build tech. We have that team in-house. We have a team of developers that can build anything. We have a team that can implement sales and marketing programs, branding. We are really surgical in how we work with clients, so we’re efficient and we’re totally results-oriented.

ROB: Very, very cool. I can see this going to both ends of the spectrum and anywhere in between, from very nascent and new businesses who might be hard to hunt down and hard to collect money from sometimes, quite honestly, all the way up to enterprises with some very strategic initiatives where they don’t have internal capabilities. How has your business evolved along that spectrum? Where do the clients fall?

MALINDA: Speaking to that model, a consulting firm and an investment firm, we’re a consulting firm in that we offer all those same services under both models. But the consulting type of relationship is what you could probably well imagine. They hire us, we have a project, we do the project, maybe there’s a monthly retainer.

Now, the different part of our model is how we act as an investment firm. If we find a new company that we really believe in and we want to invest in, we partner with them and say, “Okay, we want to help grow this thing with you,” and that can take a lot of different forms, but typically we take equity in the company – similar as a VC would, but instead of writing a check, we’re actually saying, “We’re putting skin in the game. We’re in this with you. We’re going to roll up our sleeves and make some things happen.”

That might take a form of advising them on their investment strategy, how to get funding. It might be serving as their Chief Technology Officer or their R&D department or their entire sales and marketing team. So it’s as much or as little as they need us. That really depends on what that relationship looks like. That’s allowed us to work with some very early stage companies, to your point, that couldn’t afford us, but we believe in them enough to say, “Hey, is this a relationship that makes sense for both parties? Let’s do it.” So we’re in it for the long game together.

ROB: For sure. I think a lot of people would like to be able to do this in the consulting game, but not everybody in the consulting game has the experience to invest – but also, frankly, the capital to do so. There’s not enough money built up in the business to do that. How did you go about getting that pool of capital together? Did you know some people who were looking to invest? Did you get some traditional limited partners, LPs, in the deal?

MALINDA: That’s a great question, and that’s one we get a lot. Brian and I – Brian Gagnon is my husband and co-founder. He’s a technologist, so he was early days in VMware, went through their IPO, started a lot of tech companies. He really leads the technical part of our practice. Brian and I jumped into this headfirst. [laughs] Right into the deep end, starting a company together, leaving our corporate jobs.

We’ve bootstrapped it. We believe in what we’re doing. We’ve done this kind of work for a long time. Essentially, we are putting our own money where our mouth is by starting this business ourselves and funding it ourselves. Fortunately, we have also built consulting practices before, so that side of the business obviously helps to support it financially as well.

It’s off to a really great start, and we’re excited with the portfolio companies that we’re in with now, and excited for the next portfolio companies that we want to invite into the fold. And they’re few. You have to be really – anyone investing, even if you’re an angel or VC, you have to be careful and thoughtful, obviously, on who you invest in. With us, it’s also the case because we’re putting our team on this business.

ROB: Right. I can tell that you do have a passion for those companies. When you started to talk about your portfolio, you were lighting up and firing up. You can’t always see that on the audio feed. What was the first company that you invested into with Uprise?

MALINDA: We’re actually just in the process of talking about our portfolio companies, and there’s only one so far that we’ve been open about sharing. There’s more to come on that. I don’t want to be cagey or secretive at all, but – 

ROB: No, that’s fair.

MALINDA: Yeah, we’re just in Year 2, so we’re still early ourselves. But one company that we have been public about is called Node, node.eco. They’re a sustainable prefab housing company that is offering homes that are, first of all, beautiful, sustainable, healthy for people to live in, and very quick to assemble. And they’re tech-enabled out of the box. I don’t want to say “out of the box,” because there’s obviously much more to a home than out of the box.

But the team is incredible. It’s a purpose-driven company that has a great offering and is really key to solving part of the housing crisis. They’re based in Seattle, which has a huge issue with housing.

ROB: Right, so they’re thinking about the problem of urban homelessness because it stares you in the face in some places that you go.

MALINDA: People can’t afford homes there. It’s a real huge problem on the West Coast. We see it maybe less here on the East Coast.

So, we’re so excited about this company because there’s such a great need for it. We discovered them at South by Southwest. We scout out and look at cool companies at a lot of these flagship events and wherever we can find them. We go to pitch competitions all the time. We’re going to one tonight at MassChallenge.

We said, “Hey, this looks really cool; let’s meet these people.” It’s not only, of course, about the idea, but it’s about the founders. The team is just absolutely fantastic. We very quickly said, “These are all the ingredients.” We have these great people who are capable, enthusiastic, great values, amazing vision, and we’re doing a lot with them and really a big part of the team, and it’s exciting.

ROB: That is exciting. So, you’ve got the investing arm coming along. You’re also doing consulting for people who you’ve not invested in that just need the full spectrum delivery. You mentioned I think, a little bit, with your founding team, not too many companies can do full cycle go-to-market and deep technical delivery. Is that part of the magic of the founding team, to get those two ingredients in one recipe?

MALINDA: It is, and those are really the ingredients you need to make a company launch and grow really quickly.

So that is what we brought together under one roof that typically a client would have to go to an ad agency for their go-to-market. Sometimes agencies don’t have the sales expertise, so maybe you have to go to another partner for that, go to a specialty tech firm to actually either build technology or just to figure out data architecture, data security, that type of help. And then you might have to go to another consulting firm – and granted, a startup’s not going to go to a McKinsey or an Accenture, but a Fortune 500 does for their business strategy consulting.

So, by taking that approach and saying we’re going to do that under one roof, it allows us to completely understand the business. We don’t miss a step with losing things in translation among different companies, different teams. We can say, “Okay, given where you need to go, your challenges and how you need to grow, what do we do first?”

We operate off of an agile methodology. Anyone who’s in software development will be familiar with that. But we apply that to everything that we do. We say, what can we launch that makes the most impact, as quickly as possible? Then we iterate on it or we go on to the next thing. But that is how we always think.

ROB: Got it. You mentioned what you were trying to accomplish when you started Uprise. From a career path and logistical perspective, what led you to that point where you said, “We’ve got to start this company instead of whatever other job I was already doing”?

MALINDA: It really is very simple for me. I wanted to help my clients more.

ROB: Where had you been, and what were you doing before that was more limited?

MALINDA: Before I started Uprise, I was at WPP for 8 years, with GroupM, so it’s like a holding company within a holding company, this mammoth of an organization. I started and led a consulting group there, started and led their product and technology group. It was a great experience because I essentially had my two little startups within this company, funded by the company.

So, great experience. What I saw that was a great need in the industry – and anyone who’s following the industry these days will certainly identify – we weren’t able to be nimble enough with serving the clients in how they needed us, and part of that is because of a business model that was no longer relevant in today’s world. There have been so many changes at every media holding company to better align the business model, the teams, to better serve the client. And it’s absolutely necessary.

Not only was the business model a challenge, but the expertise in-house wasn’t there, because it was all about media marketing/advertising. There is a place for that for companies that have that specialty, so I’m not saying there’s not. But for fast growth initiatives, if you can consolidate that in one group that’s like your SWAT team for this particular growth initiative, you can move a lot faster. And typically spend less money on doing it.

ROB: Sure. The holding company side of things, there’s incentives towards these large, big deals. I don’t know if there are more or less of those, but there are a lot more people who need a more comprehensive and smaller deal at the same time. That still makes sense to service. It’s what you’re doing.

MALINDA: Absolutely. To have a company like a Nestle or a Procter & Gamble that has a team that handles their media that’s the size of a small company, for them, the complexity and the scale at which they have to operate, that can make a lot of sense. But yeah, you have to fit the team and the solution to the problem.

ROB: Right. You are here giving a talk about compassionate commerce. Tell us, what do we need to know about compassionate commerce?

MALINDA: Essentially what compassionate commerce is, it’s the art of selling what truly helps the customer. The connection that I’m making with compassion is that really, compassion is first about understanding.

We hear the word “empathy” much more commonly in the professional setting than we hear the word “compassion,” but empathy is like 1.0. You have to have it, but empathy really just means that we can walk a mile in someone’s shoes, see the world through their eyes. We really try to, as much as we can, understand – in our case, understand our customer from their experience. So that’s the first step to compassion.

Compassion is 2.0. Basically, you understand, you have empathy, but then you have this deep desire to help. You’re in it with them and you’re motivated to help.

What I walked through in the talk was how do we map the customer experience – so the stages of a customer discovering us, understanding us, getting to know us, and finally sign on with us, buy our product, engage in our service – and to be able to serve them most compassionately, we have to understand the most fundamental motivator that a customer has, and that’s their emotion.

How are they feeling at the time? How do they want to feel? What do they need from us? Because if we can tap into that emotion, the functional benefits, the rational, logical benefits, are going to come too, because we’re reaching them truly in the way they need.

So we map emotions to every stage of that customer journey, address the emotions, positive and negative – because that truly supports the customer throughout that journey, treats them with compassion – and that’s how we reach them in a meaningful way and build a relationship with our customer. And that’s always what we want, right? But we need to understand them so we are enabled to do that.

ROB: It’s interesting. There seems to be this pull towards helping people with self-actualization by how you communicate a product to them. How do I help you become the person that you want to be? And if you’re compassionate, how do you do that in a way that’s not icky and making people feel like they’re not good enough?

MALINDA: Yeah. The first step is to understand where they are. An example I gave – I gave a few examples in the talk, but a toothbrush. Sure, you can sell a toothbrush by saying it will clean your teeth. Big deal. Wow, that’s exciting.

But if I say to you my toothbrush is going to help you be confident, my toothbrush is going to help you walk into a room, have a big smile, and just feel like you’ve got it – now that’s something that people can get onboard with.

So, it’s a matter of figuring out, if there are, to your point, aspirational emotions, if there are certain basic needs that we’re meeting, or if there are fears and holdbacks, what are those things? We certainly never want to make our customers feel less or to feel alienated or any of those things. So that’s the art of crafting our messaging in a way that’s respectful and supportive.

ROB: Yeah. Because you’re talking about toothbrushes, I’m thinking about Crest, and I’m thinking about how Crest sells a thing that you need, that you should, that you’re obligated to use, in your toothpaste – and they sell Whitestrips. For some reason, toothpaste is a way to get white teeth, and Whitestrips are a way to get white teeth – one of them appeals much more to the emotion.

MALINDA: Exactly. I actually worked on both of those products. I did communications for Procter & Gamble for a long time, and that was a key part of – they call it their oral care portfolio, and every product had a different key value that they would focus on. Yeah, absolutely, Whitestrips was all about confidence and beauty and standing out. That was a much stronger line with the Whitestrips than some of the other products.

ROB: I almost wonder, revenue-wise – Whitestrips have to be kind of a big deal. I wonder if they sell more of those than toothpaste sometimes. You may not be able to speak to that.

MALINDA: [laughs] I can’t, I can’t.

ROB: I want to know. I’ll have to find out somewhere else. [laughs] That’s fine.

MALINDA: Big sellers, I can say that.

ROB: For sure. What are some other details or stories from your talk that we missed out on, if we weren’t there?

MALINDA: Let’s see. The bottom line with the talk on compassionate commerce is I want to, first of all, talk about compassion in a way that people feel comfortable about it in a professional setting.

The way I started the talk was to make this connection of compassion not only helps us, of course, to reach our customers in a way that is authentic and meaningful because that emotion is the motivator and that emotion creates action, but it actually serves us in our professions. It’s no matter if you’re a marketer, a salesperson, a product manager, on the executive team, because if we can understand and connect with our customer compassionately, we’re going to build better businesses across the board. It’s relevant no matter what our roles are.

And as human beings, we are actually hardwired to be compassionate. Literally, we have chemical reactions in our bodies that make us feel good when we’re compassionate. Our heartrate slows. You release oxytocin; that’s called the bonding hormone. Areas of the brain light up that are associated with caregiving and pleasure. So it’s win-win. Like, I’m feeling good every day about what I’m doing.

ROB: There’s a reason you can actually feel better about the work that you’re doing.

MALINDA: Yes.

ROB: It’s not like an emotional, “Oh, it’s so nice helping people.” It’s actually scientific.

MALINDA: Exactly. And talk about building a fulfilling career. When you’re truly helping people, that’s really rewarding. I think back on some of the jobs I’ve had over time – my very first job at a college, I had all these great job opportunities lined up in New York City. I went to school in Maine at Bates College, small liberal arts school. I was interviewing at Ogilvy and Random House and ready to go to New York City, and then I decided last second, “Oh my goodness, I don’t want to live in New York.”

So, I moved to Boston. I had no job. I was just literally walking into stores and restaurants, asking for work. But anyway, long story short, ended up being a salesperson at Saks Fifth Avenue. Commission-based only . . . and had to sell very expensive clothing to people. And if I didn’t sell clothing, I didn’t get paid.

What I learned very quickly was how to sell an experience. How to understand not that this woman wanted a cocktail dress, but what was she trying to create for herself? How did she want to feel? What was that going to do for her? Once I figured that out, man, I was good at my job. You would say, “Oh great, that’s really changing the world and helping people, by selling very expensive clothing” – I feel actually really good about it, because when that woman walked away, she was lit up. She was so excited. And that was great.

So, we all have these ways to do our jobs in a way that makes someone else feel better, be better. And that’s rewarding.

ROB: Yeah. At the end of the day, you probably had very few customers who were like, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t bought that.” There’s lots of other products that people sell all the time that people regret when they buy them, and they regret after they buy them. So, if someone can have that feeling of the image they want to present and who they want to be in a moment with clothing, it makes sense.

MALINDA: It does. When we think about whatever we’re all doing in our careers, if we are serving our customers in a way that really helps them, we’re doing a great thing. The more we can connect with that and not let the game ensue – the game of “targeting” our “consumers,” getting a new “deal” – all these words actually are not really what we’re going after.

ROB: Yeah, they’re very transactional.

MALINDA: Yes. They’re transactional. They objectify our customer. They dehumanize them in a way. It’s so easy, in the rush and frenzy of day-to-day activity at work, to get swept up into this game, and sometimes we get a little too far removed from who we’re serving.

ROB: You mentioned you were working sometimes with relatively early companies, and sometimes if you ask them what is the “why” of their customer, sometimes they don’t know. What do you do when you’re engaging with a client, or even in the clothing world, someone who – they want something, but they don’t know why?

MALINDA: The very first thing that we like to do with our clients is to have a working session all around what is their brand promise, and that is grounded in what is that fundamental need that our customer has of us, because in order to distill a brand promise, we have to be focused on one thing that we’re always delivering on.

No matter the type of product that we’re selling – because we usually all have different things that we’re offering – no matter the persona that we’re selling to – and every persona will likely have different priorities in the benefits they value over others – but it’s always the truth. It’s what we do every day. To get to that brand promise, it’s a lot of discovery and understanding of the customer, and then a lot of understanding and discovery around who we are as a team.

Because we have to be able to walk the talk. If we say our brand promise is to, for example, improve the lives of kids through healthy food – because I was just listening to Jennifer Garner’s talk; that’s on my mind – that we can live and breathe that every day, and especially with the founding team and the leadership team, that we absolutely personify those values and that mission. If we can’t, it’s going to fall flat. Not only from a branding perspective, but from a company mission perspective.

So those are intense, soul-searching workshops that we have, but it’s the critical first step, because when you get it right, you’re off to a super strong start.

ROB: A lot of consultancies and agencies will think about having a very long-term role in a customer’s team. It seems like part of the outworking of what you’re working on is you’re investing. You expect these companies to grow, and you probably expect them to outgrow you at some point. How do you think about that from a business perspective, where you are constantly trying to kick birds out of the nest, in a good way?

MALINDA: A couple things with that. With our model, we always say that we’ll do it with you, we’ll do it for you, or we’ll teach you how to do it. That’s very different than a lot of models. Obviously, I come from the agency world; we would never teach a client how to do – like, “Oh, you want to take your advertising in-house? Great. We’ll show you how to do it.” Of course not.

ROB: “We have the best media buying. Don’t ask for the wizard behind the curtain. He’s magic, trust us.”

MALINDA: [laughs] Exactly. What we want to do with our clients, no matter if they’re a traditional structured client or a portfolio company, we’re going to recommend the best thing that we know to help them grow in where they need to get to be. If we do that, we are always going to have success and more business. Maybe it’s even not with that client, but they will recommend us. Referrals have been great for us.

So that’s how we operate. When the day comes that one of our portfolio companies is the size of a Nestle and we need to get a media buying powerhouse to come in and manage that account, that will be great. [laughs] And I’ll work with that team, and it will be fantastic. We just always want to be focused on what the real need is, and if it’s not us, that’s okay.

ROB: Do you think that most of your portfolio will be here in Boston?

MALINDA: No, we’re all over the place.

ROB: Very cool. It seems like Boston and many other places – Boston, notably, is a huge historical tech hub, but there are probably also plenty of people who are starved for tech help. We’re in Atlanta, and there’s some smart people, and we have good technical colleges, but also there’s a gravitational pull West for those people. Everyone else says, “How do I get somebody to build my product? How do I find somebody who knows how to market a tech product?”

MALINDA: Yeah, I’m so glad you bring this up, because this is one of the core missions of Uprise as well. We have team members in Maine. Brian and I are both from Maine. It’s a place that we really want to build a strong presence, and we are building with some great team members in Maine. We have team members in South Carolina. Mexico City, we have developers there.

One thing that we are very focused on in our mission is to help support ideas and founders – founders, primarily – from areas that are underserved. So, minority founders, women founders, founders in rural areas or markets that don’t have a really vibrant entrepreneurial culture and support system. We are actively going out and searching for these opportunities to invest.

I’m from Maine. I’m from a rural town in Maine. I can say for myself that there’s a lot of great, of course, ideas. Entrepreneurship can happen anywhere. But if you don’t have the resources, it’s going to be really difficult to get something to work – and particularly to get the funding to make it work. So that’s something that we’re really working hard to do, to provide the resources and the connections for some of these founders to get everything to take off.

ROB: I imagine, being here in Boston, you have connectivity into the venture community. Are you positioned as an angel/angel fund, and then you’ll be able to partner up when a company’s looking for later stage funding?

MALINDA: We don’t position ourselves as an angel fund, but for companies where we see a great fit with an investor, whether that be an angel or a VC, we absolutely make those connections. The fit has to be right, of course, but I’ve worked with a lot of different venture companies in the past just with my work at WPP. We of course did a lot of investing in companies and acquisitions.

Over the years, you just get to know different people and what they’re interested in investing in. And Brian was primarily based in Silicon Valley for most of his career. So, between the major hubs, we’ve got a good network that we can help plug people into.

ROB: Perfect. Malinda, when people want to find you and find Uprise Partners, where should they go to learn more?

MALINDA: Our website, uprisepartners.com. Email me, malinda@uprisepartners.com. We also have a fun podcast, if anyone wants to check out Brian’s and my ramblings. It’s kind of related to Uprise, but it’s more related to just what we’re seeing in tech and what we think about it. It’s called Data Myths.

ROB: There it is. It’s on iTunes and Stitchr and everything else?

MALINDA: It’s on everywhere, yeah.

ROB: Fantastic. Do go check that out. Thank you so much, Malinda, for joining us today.

MALINDA: Thank you. This was fun.

ROB: All right.

Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.

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