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Shane Kinkennon is the principal of a boutique communications strategy-consulting shop in Denver, CO that serves well-funded nonprofits and charitable foundations, as well as for-profit ventures. Kinkennon Communications, Inc. (KC) calls itself, in a somewhat self-deprecating way, a “quirky little communications consultancy that does really important work,” a nod to his tendency to uncover work with “a little bit of meaning,” as he says. The shop helps organizations discern precisely what to say, how to say it, and when. What results, according to Shane, is creative and “strategically aligned” ways for clients to be articulate as organizations, and use communications to achieve broader business aims.
Shane began his career in Washington, DC. So despite KC’s slight do-gooder bent, the company still spends lots of time serving DC-based clients and doing issues work for big corporate clients. Case in point: when The Hill newspaper recently named the “Top 10 lobbying victories of 2011,” Shane realized KC had been involved in media strategy in three of those battles, including the top one on the list.
MO: What influenced you to leave your career in Washington, DC and start your own communications firm in Denver?
Shane: In my last “real” job six or so years ago, I was a VP at a respected public affairs agency in DC that was in the process of being acquired. In many ways the place had been great to me. But the uncertainty that accompanies M&A activity made it a particularly poisonous time in a corporate culture that already had a way of rewarding behavior that was not altogether constructive. I found myself even particularly drained. So for kicks, for two weeks I carefully logged every minute I spent on gossip, speculation, triangulation, alliance building and the other unsavory behavior.
What I learned astonished me: I was spending more than 40 hours/week, including weekends, on office politics, and an order of magnitude less time on what I was actually being paid to do. My clients had remained reasonably happy, because I do good work … but yikes!
So I figured I could quit the place and branch out on my own. By doing that, I could reclaim all the time I was spending on destruction to literally double the amount of time I spent on high-quality work for clients – say, up to 30 hours a week!! I work fast, so I can get a lot done in small time boxes. And I’d discover an additional 10-15 hours/week to go live a healthy and happy life!
And Colorado was definitely the place I wanted to have that fun. Back in 2000, working for a startup DSL company located outside of Denver, I commuted back and forth to Colorado every other week and fell in love with it. I’m an avid mountain biker and snowboarder, so I felt very called to the high country and its 300+ days a year of sunshine. And I loved the laid back ethos – I thought it’d be a great place to bring some balance to my workaholism, do some repair to my stomach lining, and perhaps even uncover some dating options that weren’t lawyers. All that turned out to be true.
Finally, true to what a few smart advisors had assured me over the years while advocating that I start my own business, KC has been more lucrative than any PR / marketing job that requires me to sit at someone else’s desk, even at a senior-leadership desk. The downside of course is that no one is looking out for me, really – I alone am responsible for my success or failure. It’s a trade off I gladly accept.
MO: Where does your passion for advocacy and working with non-profits come from? What were your early influences or inspirations?
Shane: I’ve done for-profit marketing and public relations, and I still do. I’m good at it, so those opportunities come along regularly, and they’re great at paying the bills. But as I’ve gotten older, I really like taking those “business” skills, if you will, to organizations that are trying to change the world in some positive way.
For instance, one client right now called “Hope Street Group” – a think tank of sorts – convenes smart and successful people to put the wind behind the backs of innovators in education, the job market, and healthcare, all for the goal of returning America to a place of widespread prosperity. Helping the organization figure out how to say all of that in plain English – but more importantly, helping the organization actually achieve all of that – is just really fun for me. And that organization’s board of directors and senior staff, which is the level of people I work with, are loaded with hyper-successful businesspeople. I get a lot of stimulation out of it and the reward of being part of something important.
MO: Why are you at your best with clients that face big, complex challenges?
Shane: Let’s face it: communications and public relations are not rocket science. There are a lot of really, really good practitioners out there. Organizations that have communications pretty well figured out and really just need someone to execute are simply not that interesting to me. And I sort of need to find things interesting in order to fully engage.
What I love is problem solving – helping organizations that are grappling with fundamental business challenges. (Even nonprofits have those. Most have lots of them.) There are lots of problems an organization can have that communications can’t solve: for instance, an unfocused mission, a faltering economy, or products that aren’t very appealing. But for organizations that really have their ducks in a row, communications can solve lots of problems. I love being at the nexus of all that complex stuff.
So, when a client says, “Here’s our five year strategic plan. Here are the major hurdles we see to achieving our strategic plan. How can communications help us clear any of these hurdles?,” it’s music to my ears. My response: “OK, let’s go…”
MO: How do you balance a work life that is based in both DC and Denver? What are the distinct advantages and disadvantages of such an arrangement?
Shane: When I made the move to Denver, I did it in the equivalent of the dead of night, over a Thanksgiving weekend. I was terrified by this idea that my professional network in DC, which would always need to be a significant source of business for my new shop, would take me less seriously because I had gone west.
Luckily, none of that turned out to be the case. The business has been quite successful, even through these economic doldrums. And the DC-based work still comes fairly easily and often. What I learned is that no one cares where I live. What they care about is getting great work.
I maintain a home office in DC – it’s actually a spare bedroom that I rent in a good friend’s large house. In it is a bed, a desk, a printer, a computer charger, a suit and a couple of ties, a bicycle for zipping around downtown. It makes it easy to drop into DC and go. I spend about a week a month there, which works out great.
MO: You’ve had the opportunity to work on some significant projects that have had a lot of impact. Can you give us an example of a project that was meaningful to you and yielded great results?
Shane: Perhaps my favorite project KC has ever been involved in was a pretty herculean effort to help an informal rump group within the United Methodist Church’s global leadership to return the focus of the denomination’s once-every-four-year governing convention to the church’s hopeful, aspiring mission. The previous couple of those conventions had been dominated by vicious fighting over divisive social issues, and the leaders who hired me believed that if the likely distracting ugliness at the next convention wasn’t headed off at the pass, the denomination’s very survival might hang in the balance. My job was to help the church figure out a way to suck the oxygen out of such fights before they even occurred.
We ran a year long “pre-campaign,” in many ways a sort of “whisper campaign,” to diffuse the expected rancor. Then we carefully scripted the opening day into a “day of messaging,” with lots of input-seeking and buy-in, that really set the tone for the event. It worked – in a survey at the end of the General Conference, participants reported having very positive feelings about the experience and to some degree having their sense of ministry and mission reignited.
MO: What is the most important piece of advice you have for those looking to start a business?
Shane: I agree with what all the advice books say. Write that business plan, don’t cut any corners, and make it good. I’ve talked to people who believe that if they’re setting out to form something very small, like a one-man consulting shop, they don’t need a business plan. Wrong.
And recruit a board of directors, certainly for the early years. I picked that up in a book somewhere, and it was perhaps the best advice I found and absolutely critical to KC’s early successes. Find a small handful of mentors, sounding boards, or former colleagues, and ask them to be part of the company’s board of directors. Even if they’re given no governance responsibility, they can deliver incredible value.
KC’s Board has no governance responsibility. Its three members – all good friends of mine – simply serve because I asked them to. The Board serves the company as guide and chaperone, correcting some of my more passionate and wilder inclinations. It’s invaluable.