From the Ground Up: An Interview with Heidi Sullivan of UpCity
In this week’s “From the Ground Up” interview, we sit down with Heidi Sullivan, senior vice president of product and marketing here at UpCity. Below we discuss how she helped grow Cision into the PR powerhouse it is today, how to find the right work-life balance, the future of UpCity, and more!
Q: So Heidi, tell our readers a bit about your background and how you came to be part of the UpCity family.
A: I’m currently the senior vice president of product and marketing here at UpCity and this position is really the culmination of a lot of different past experiences.
Traditionally, I’ve always been a big-company person. I spent 14 years at Cision and PR Newswire, the 800-pound gorillas in the public relations software space, but spending that much time at one organization felt like working at 10 different companies. When I started, it was an $80 million business, and when I left, it was an $800 million business. Essentially, I had a different job every year; I probably had dozens of bosses; I was a Jill of all trades, so to speak.
Cision wasn’t even called Cision when I first started: it was called Bacon’s Information and it was a traditional press-clipping business that also put out a directory of media contacts. In other words, it was somewhat like a phone book of journalists. On the eighth floor of our building, there were a bunch of workers cutting out newspaper clips and reading for mentions of a particular brand that we would then mail to them. In my time there, we turned that operation into a fully-integrated SaaS solution that was global in scale. That experience of really building out an entire product and software solution helped to prepare me for my role today at UpCity, which is more of a late-stage startup.
After Cision, I spent a little time hanging my own shingle, which allowed me to define what it means to build a business. I consulted for a number of companies, but ultimately, my partner (who also happens to be a consultant) and I decided that one of us should maybe consider getting a full-time position with health insurance. You have to think of those things when you’re raising a family!
As I started to look for positions, UpCity came up and felt like the perfect combination for me. I’d be able to help tackle a company’s growing pains and really leverage a lot of the skills and experiences I’ve had at past positions.
Q: We will, of course, get to your position here at UpCity and how you’ve helped us build the UpCity Marketplace into what it is today, but I’d really love to chat a bit more about your time at Cision first. What was it like seeing those first changes from a room full of people literally cutting out press clippings and snail-mailing them to clients to the fully-integrated global SaaS solution that Cision offers today?
A: It’s been such a fun revolution to watch over the last 20 years, and it continues to change even faster with each year. The accessibility that we have to data and the new tools that we have to analyze that data are allowing brands to do some pretty incredible things. I know we’re probably all tired of hearing about AI and machine learning, but it’s truly powerful and becoming integrated into absolutely everything we do.
I joined Cision in 2004, and by 2008, there were a few major things that happened. The first was that I was one of those fortunate people who tripped over Twitter and got involved very early on. I started monitoring for mentions of Cision and other clients before social media monitoring and all the listening tools we have today were ever a thing. I was really an early adopter of Twitter and just started responding to people who were talking about our brand. There were a couple of crisis situations where we were able to get on top of it early and people took notice of that.
I started to speak at conferences, became a spokesperson for Cision’s brand, and started to be able to look industry-wide as a whole. Social media was taking over the industry and I was in a prime position to be a big part of that transition.
The second element that really spurred things along was the collapse of the economy. During the recession, a lot of industries were hit hard, but the newspaper industry was one of the hardest-hit. I remember tracking in a spreadsheet every single time we’d see a mention of different newspapers that had just done layoffs and we’d have to pick up the phone and call to make sure our contacts were still there.
People just don’t read newspapers anymore. Now, it’s all about digital; it’s about blogs and videos and social media. You don’t have to be a professional journalist or a New York Times best-selling author to build an audience anymore. You can be a mom blogging from your back porch in Ohio or a gamer in a basement in San Francisco. As long as you have a voice that resonates with people, you can build an audience. That transition in consumer behavior has radically changed the way that brands get their message out.
The third thing, which in a lot of ways is related to the second, was that the way we all ingest news completely shifted: it was the end of news as an event. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone today who says, “Honey, stop what you’re doing. It’s time to watch the 9:00 o’clock news.” We might pick up a newspaper on our way to work in the morning, but there’s a greater chance that the news is going to find us through social media, emails, text alerts, or some other kind of real-time notification. The news is aggregated in real-time in our pockets.
For consumers, that’s awesome; for marketers, it completely changes the game because there’s no silver-bullet for reaching your target audience. You can’t get by by running a full page ad in a trade publication or putting out a TV commercial during the right programs; you have to have a more holistic strategy or you just won’t reach your entire audience.
Brian Stelter wrote this article for the New York Times back in 2008 during the presidential election when there was all this media coverage saying, “Oh shit! Young people are getting more of their political news from John Stewart and Stephen Colbert than the newspapers.” This college student in the article hit it on the head when he commented that, “If the news is that important, it will find me.” That’s been the biggest shift.
Q: Absolutely. And so, as you started to see Cision really start to take off, what was the most exciting part for you?
A: I helped coordinate Cision’s partnership with Radian 6, which is now part of Salesforce. It was one of the first social media monitoring tools in the industry, and when we started seeing that adoption blow up, we got really excited because PR people were (and still are) just so hungry for all of that data. Radian 6 named us their partner of the year, and it was the most exciting twelve months of just, “Hey, we’re really onto something here.” Everything was changing and it was changing forever. It wasn’t just going to be a flash in the pan, so to speak.
Q: Awesome. How long did you say you were at Cision before you left?
A: 13 years.
Q: That’s longer than UpCity has even been a company! I’m sure it must have been hard to leave a company that you’d help grow for that long. What was the impetus behind your decision to leave and start a consulting business of your own?
A: You know, so much of it was personal, Jordan. I was really a kind of fixer for Cision for a long time. I ran the product team, the customer experience team, the research team, and in my last few years, I was actually the managing director of their Canadian business. We had gone through nearly a dozen acquisitions over my last five years at Cision, so I was a road warrior. I got to rack up a lot of airline miles, but a year before I left the company I adopted my son. I realized that I just wasn’t getting enough time with him and I wanted to take a step back. I had been traveling and speaking and going all over the world, but it was just finally time to slow down a bit.
My fear in making that jump was always, “How am I going to get those first customers?” Once you get those first customers, it all grows from there. I ended up being really fortunate having worked with so many great companies that I acquired most of my initial clients through networking and established relationships. Once I had that foundation, I could start experimenting with other ways to acquire more customers and start figuring out exactly what my company’s identity would be.
Like I said, I was a bit of a Jill of all trades at Cision, so I wasn’t sure what I was actually going to consult in. I had done product work, marketing work, content production, strategic planning; it was all over the place. Ultimately, I ended up settling into product marketing and competitive analysis. I got really good at being able to dig in, find competitors, and come back with actionable insights for my clients.
Q: You know we always talk about how word-of-mouth is so powerful for growing your business, but it can also help you start your business if your personal brand is strong enough!
As your consulting business started to grow, how did you manage to maintain a work-life balance that was a good fit for you? In other interviews, we’ve discussed how hard that can be. Especially when you’re starting your own business, you’re hurting; you’re doing everything on your own; you’re working directly with clients. You don’t have a team, so all the work is on you, and when you’re done, then you have to market your company too! How did you find the right balance?
A: To be honest, I still don’t think I’m great at that. I don’t think I’ve truly figured out how to turn it off, but I’ve gotten a lot better. One of the hardest lessons to learn early on was not being afraid to say no and not being afraid to fire a client. It’s important to find the clients that are best suited for your business, and early on, I struggled a bit there. There was one contract that I signed and wasn’t very precise about what my work was going to be. The next thing I knew, everything was falling under my umbrella and I had 100 hours of work on my plate and getting paid for about 20 of them. Understanding what my bandwidth is and limiting the scope of my work has been helpful to achieve a better balance.
The biggest thing for me though was only taking clients that didn’t require a lot of travel. Once I reduced my travel, I was able to spend a lot more time with my family and figure out a little bit more about who I am. I was a single mom at the time, so it definitely allowed me to take a step back and figure out what I wanted to do.
Q: So, how did that experience lead you to UpCity?
A: Like I said before, a lot of it was for personal reasons. My partner and I decided it was time that one of us left the consulting world and got a full-time position with benefits to help out the family. I started to see what was around in the Chicago tech scene. I knew that UpCity was looking for a head of product, and when I looked at Dan Olson’s profile, I realized we had something like 42 connections in common that were all really awesome people. That really stood out to me, so I thought that we should have a conversation.
As I started talking more with Dan and the rest of the leadership team, I found out how awesome UpCity’s growth story has been thus far, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the branding or messaging at the time to be honest. I felt like it could use a lot more clarity on the product side and we could really promote the collaborative and helpful nature of everyone on the team. I knew that if UpCity was able to grow this far, it could go even further with more solid messaging and branding. Getting to know the team sealed the deal for me and I knew it was the right fit.
Q: We couldn’t agree more! You’ve been instrumental in helping us build out a number of teams and bringing in the right people to give our whole offering a makeover. That’s been really incredible to see.
What can you tell our readers about the future of UpCity and what they can expect in 2020?
A: A few months ago when we launched our refreshed brand, we announced that not only are we going to work with marketing service providers, but that we’d be expanding to other B2B services in 2020 from accountants to HR professionals to IT services companies and more. That might not seem like such a natural extension to the untrained eye, but as we started to look at the market, those companies have the same growth stories and the same struggles. When it comes to choosing a person to help you build, grow, or manage your business in some way, trust is paramount. It’s a big change, but we’re excited to see where it takes us.
I truly believe that the data and insights that we have available today can directionally, immediately, and directly provide actions for businesses to continue to grow their business, build their digital footprint, and manage their reputation. Everyone here on the UpCity team has been working hard to find new ways to expose these actionable insights to our partners and be transparent with more and more of the data points that we collect. We just released the UpCity Dashboard, which is a huge step for us in that direction, and you can expect more great things to come.
Q: Awesome! I know we’ve all been really excited to get the Dashboard out into the wild and into the hands of our partners.
That’s all the time we have for today, but as always, I’d love to close with your advice for future entrepreneurs looking to start their own business.
A: Know your own brand. All companies, including UpCity, Cision, and my own company, pivot at one point or another. You might have to adjust your offerings over time, but it’s important to remain true to who you are and what your culture is. That’s what’s going to help you establish the credibility and trust that will keep your business around for the long haul.
Q: Thanks again for taking the time to chat today, Heidi.
A: It’s my pleasure! This was a lot of fun.
Heidi drives the product, marketing and insights strategy for UpCity. Prior to that she was a VP at Sterling Talent Solutions and spent 13 years in various executive roles at Cision, including as SVP, Product and Managing Director, Canada. She was named as The Hub’s Individual Influencer of the Year in 2014, one of PRWeek’s 40 Under 40 Rising Stars in 2012, and was host of the podcast Influence Pros on Convince & Convert. Heidi is a born and bred Chicagoan, mom, animal lover and ukelele player.