3 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Going In-House (And Into Tech)Featured

If you had told 24-year-old me that a decade into my public relations career I would be acting as a communications leader “in-house” at a healthcare company, I would have brusquely told you in a New York accent that you had the wrong person and to excuse me while I attended to an important client matter.

I was both relieved and grateful to have found my career path early on in my twenties (although at the time, I distinctly recall having many quarter-life identity crises) in PR and communications.

Growing up in an immigrant household, I always saw the concept of work as an avenue of income and survival, not enjoyment and self-actualization. When I found myself in a senior role at a startup PR agency that offered a home for my combined skills and passions of writing, business development, creativity, emotionally connecting with people, and thinking on my feet in high-stress situations, I thought the agency world would be my forever career home.

For the next ten years through a variety of roles at traditional PR agencies big and small, I executed campaigns for some of the most talked-about and prestigious consumer brands in the world (LVMH, Diageo, Sony Electronics, TAO Group, to name a few), as well as startup businesses just launching where my work could have a real bottom-line impact on. It was a privilege to be able to do this work, and it was also fun.

I never thought I’d leave the agency world, so when I connected with the CMO at Tend, an early stage company attempting to disrupt the dental industry, I was both intrigued by the challenge of joining a marketing team in-house and intimidated by the unknown of what that would be like day-to-day. Professionally, I had reached a point where I was ready to take on something totally new and daunting, but that wasn’t to say that I didn’t have a bad case of imposter syndrome or was particularly well prepared for the changes ahead.

I just celebrated my two-year anniversary at Tend, which in startup years feels much longer. These are some things I wish I had known before making my career jump:

Be humble and be a sponge; but also be confident in why you’re there too

My first 90 days at Tend felt like a marketing boot camp that at times made me question my right to be on such a brilliant team. I quickly learned a slew of basic marketing acronyms (CAC, CPM, CRM, etc..) and still managed to feel like the dumbest person in the room at most of the meetings I attended. I have literal statisticians on my team who can probably perform calculus in their heads.

In a grand effort of self-preservation, I had to learn how to show up with confidence in my own skills and what I brought to the table. An organization (and even a singular team) has many parts, and it took me a while to get over the perception of communications as a “pink ghetto” that didn’t command the same respect as other parts of a marketing function. When people would ask me what it was like to work at an intense early stage company with a team of such pedigreed leaders, I would be self-deprecating and say I was “just adding glitter” with my comms work. In an agency setting, you’re so used to being driven by positive reinforcement from your clients. It shook my confidence to let my work speak for itself.

But eventually, it became clear to me — I was driving leads and investor chatter with my work, which is just as important as email marketing, or a paid ad. I remember one of my teammates complimenting me privately that our brand and media presence felt much more professionalized since my arrival, which was a light bulb moment for me that my work was having an effect both internally at the organization and externally to consumers — an extremely rewarding experience.

Time is your most precious asset; protect it

My CMO told me in our first 1:1 that time would be my most precious asset. As the only person serving communications at the company, I learned quickly how cross-functional the role was, and how much exposure I have to the rest of the organization. In a practical sense, this means that in addition to my external-facing duties like managing our media relations and social media presence, I also have to answer to the many other departments that have communications needs within Tend (whether that’s HR, Operations, and even Finance).

In an agency setting, prioritization is pretty simple: you either service the client shouting the loudest, work on the new business pitch with the highest retainer, or the deadline looming the quickest.

In-house, it can be easiest to just service the requests that feel the most important from various stakeholders (or whoever is shouting the loudest). But you can be at risk of letting your own priorities, goals, and KPIs for your function get lost. As a lifelong ‘yes’ person, learning how to say no to internal stakeholders (or more diplomatically, give them a reasonable timeline or required lead time for ad-hoc tasks) was a huge learning curve for me. My colleagues will still tell you that I’m a big people-pleaser — I thrive off of the energy that comes from collaborating and working cross-functionally — but I try to be more strategic and protective of my own time these days.

That said, in addition to this mindset shift, I have learned that in a practical sense, this has meant learning to leverage the secret weapon of the calendar. I’m probably late to the party, but declining unnecessary meetings and putting in work blocks for heads-down time has been instrumental in helping me stay on task and continue pushing my function forward in how I think will best serve the company.

You might be a silo; find a squad and support system

I am a team of one person. In the context of startups and lean teams, it is fairly typical for just one person to own the comms function, but for anyone who has been managing accounts staffed with multiple team members, this felt immediately jarring. At my most recent agency role prior to joining Tend, I was running a consumer division with multiple account teams of up to five people. Now, I do reporting and administrative tasks that I haven’t done in many years.

While tedious work doesn’t bother me (I even find it meditative at times), what I miss the most is the company. The biggest challenge of moving in-house was that there was suddenly no one to bounce ideas off of, validate your hypotheses, or rally with you to push an initiative across the line.

Fortunately, through a good deal of aggressive networking and socializing, I was able to find a close-knit group of people and mentors who do my job or some version of it at different companies (many also tech startups). This has been a truly invaluable experience — I’ve been able to discuss everything from media contacts to offline marketing tactics and even compensation. We make it a point to connect on a regular basis. It’s free therapy, brainstorming, and mentoring, all rolled into one.

And even though I hadn’t used my social butterfly muscles in a long time (having 2 kids within 3 years will do that), I found low-lift ways to make connections. Our comms partners at some of our VC investment partners were great resources (one of ours helped me join a few industry Slack groups through which I met wonderful people). At the beginning of my tenure at Tend, I took as many coffee meetings with peers as possible, attended events, and used LinkedIn to find programs and opportunities other tech firms were offering.

While all of these were effective, I found that the most valuable and lasting relationships I’ve made stemmed from one of my oldest PR tricks — throwing a party! Or more specifically, collaborating with like-minded companies to host an industry event. Working with peers who become stakeholders with you in a project has the unique effect of bringing everyone close together, quickly.

It’s taken me years to overcome the learning curve of being an in-house communications partner who works cross-functionally instead of serving clients. There are endless challenges, especially in this seemingly volatile macro environment where roles are changing constantly and requiring us all to be more flexible. But if you’re nimble, humble, and remain confident that you’ve earned a seat at the table, you’ll be just fine.

As an in-house designer of almost a decade, this really rings true and is valuable to anyone starting out on their journey! Kudos for figuring it out so quickly and I'm grateful that you articulated the tension that exists within the perceived "pink ghetto", I've sat in the Comms function for years and never heard this term (but definitely experienced it!) I'm still working on not being deprecating about the value I add and this is a great reminder.
@shrutinayak @marialopezmph @meiracharles @oliviajoy You should definitely read this piece! :) I feel like it might resonate/give you some tips and tricks in your own career at content writers/communications professionals.
You’re a doll!! Thank you ♥️
As a fellow in-house comms person - I wholeheartedly agree! The most valuable thing I've done since moving in house is build a network of fellow in-house pros who I can bounce ideas off of and just generally commiserate with.
Thank you for this informative narrative and advice!! I am curious, how did you network to find mentors and like-minded people? I know nowadays everyone says LinkedIn, but wondering if there are other avenues!
I'm interested in knowing this too!
I am so sorry that I'm just seeing this now, but actually just listened to a great podcast about networking, finding mentors and peers. Joining a cohort like First Round Capital's was great for me.
I've never felt so seen! I also lead in-house comms and content at a startup, as well as customer engagement and email marketing. I'm also the go-to copywriter supporting cross functional teams. Amid servicing everyone's needs, and everyone's needs being a priority, it's easy to lose track of your own goals and values, and for the longest time I just thought I wasn't smart enough or on top of things enough. This reminded me to have perspective of the different value you bring and role you play as a comms professional. Thank you!