At some point in early 2014, Grant Tudor and his growing band of mentors, friends and co-conspirators realized that the aspiration they all shared – to democratize high-end marketing services that have been traditionally reserved for companies that can afford to pay for them – could actually work. In other words, this thing really could leap the canyon between the world of daydreams and what-ifs into the complex territory of making a real difference for real people.
So what did Grant, Samantha Papadakis (a brand strategist) and the handful of friends who were gathering around this idea do?
They kept their day jobs. But they also started seeking out and taking piecemeal work that scratched the itch that Populist would later address. It hardly fit the romantic image we tend to have about startups, especially ones seeking disintermediation of an entrenched system (as one person connected to Populist put it, “our premise goes against every agency’s model of thinking”). Populist was brimming with smart people and chasing a worthy idea, but even then it wasn’t smooth sailing from day one. The way forward wasn’t clear, and they had to effectively stumble their way along until they could get far enough into the muck to churn up some alternatives and situations that required them to choose. In the absence of clarity that plagues most efforts to create change, over time, small, almost imperceptible choices can begin to accrue into a strategy. In fact, as we wrote some time ago, strategy is just simple, recurring choices that lead in a particular direction
Turning any aspiration into reality always requires a strategy and the courage to choose.
By crossing one (sometimes tiny) threshold at a time, they started making clear choices about where and how they would serve. The group stayed small and nimble at the start, working on Populist stuff in the margins and on their time off. This meant that sacrifice and commitment were the cost to play, but it also kept the risks and overheads low. In the process, they effectively road-tested a broad-based talent model they thought could work, and learned a ton. Populist was built for the work, not to support a cadre of workers.
The flexibility unlocked by the early choice to form a loose confederacy that pulled in the expertise required by each particular project allowed them to increase scale quickly, and it remains an essential part of the Populist model that enables the delivery of world-class marketing expertise and insights at a low cost. Since there was little cash to pay the talent assembled for those early projects, the compensation was simple: derive a benefit—meaning and purpose—that was less available at work. People have fun getting together to “jam” on something meaningful, and in this case they could do so while still paying their bills because of the flexible model. Populist had found a sweet spot for people interested in marketing and making a difference. In this case, it was a smart choice to deliver capacity through coordinated chunks of time spread over a number of people.
Early in the story, with an unproven model and no demonstrable success, clients were taking a significant risk to work with Populist, no matter how wise and well-meaning this roving band of marketers appeared to be. Grant and Samantha realized this, and made a strategy decision around it – they needed success stories and case studies in order to achieve the kind of reach and impact they knew Populist could have. So instead of delivering even meager cashflow from successfully completed projects, they turned those successfully delivered projects into contacts and case studies, a choice made possible by low overheads and the choice to keep their day jobs. Soon, having gathered a few proven success stories, they were able to pitch bigger work for larger clients.
These were a few of the clear choices that Grant and his team made that allowed them to reach for increasingly bigger projects like Sanergy
, a social enterprise purposed to confront one of the leading causes of mortality in Kenya—poor sanitation. Sanergy is building a franchised network of safe, dignified, affordable toilets in the slums of Nairobi. Populist both assembled a team and brought in partners to conducted on-the-ground behavioral research, and subsequently conceived, designed and prototyped influential creative ideas to drive uptake of clean toilet use among residents. It was a huge success for Sanergy, for Populist, and ultimately for the people whom Sanergy had set out to serve.
As Samantha put it in an interview, “Sanergy was an excellent proof of concept that the network we had been building was coming together, and that it could be assembled in a multi-disciplinary way, and then successfully brought to life across multiple weeks and multiple continents.” Furthermore, Sanergy was the first client that began to suggest that the business side of Populist might become functional enough to allow expansion at scale. It was a big win – a galvanizing moment for both the team and their strategy.
However, strategy and the clear and sometimes imperceptible choices that comprise it are not just the stuff of startup leadership and culture. Strategy applies just as much to the personal dimension as well. For instance, Grant described a visceral reality that threatened his aspiration: the fear of failure. “There’s nothing I’ve been more scared by than failure,” he shared. “Because if it all goes up in smoke, everyone will know.” It was clear how seriously he took that, and that he must have had to summon a full measure of courage and humility in order to pierce the risk bubble and get past that fear. But strategy is what helps make virtuous behavior stick.
“The idea of a lone entrepreneur is nonsense. Risk is better shared,” he said promptly when asked about what helped him overcome that fear. And so, aside from needing other capacity and expertise to deliver the kind of impact he envisioned for Populist, Grant made a conscious decision very early on to insulate himself from the threat – or the “nonsense” – of chasing his dream alone. This is just one more expression of the kind of clear choices that, woven together, comprise strategy.
“We tend to imagine change being linear and planned,” Grant expressed, “but in reality it’s pretty ugly.” Though it may be but a weathervane in a windstorm, it at least provides some clarity for the future. For strategy is an indicator of how to act in the future commensurate to the quality and quantity of the past and present choices of which it is composed.
As you see here, at both the personal and the enterprise level, after metanoia
—a change of heart and mind—has produced a new aspiration for who we are in service to others, we can only begin to bring that vision to life by way of strategy… on the way to the purposeful enterprise.
Next time, we’ll examine the third critical lever, embodiment.