As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristina Kennedy.
As COO of Kickstand Communications, Kristina is responsible for client growth and success, financial planning, the launch and expansion of additional product lines, and geographic expansion. Kristina and her co-founder are also recognized leaders in employee-first culture, continuously acknowledged for generous benefits, work culture, and innovative programming for working parents. Under her 7 year tenure, Kickstand has achieved exponential growth and record client retention levels.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Growing up, both of my parents owned small businesses. My dad built a local business repairing swimming pools and my mom created a play and music program for parents and their young children. Our dinner table was always lively with talk about whether or not to raise prices, how to find people to work in the seasonal pool business and the best class description for the community education flyer. But it was also colored by the stress that comes from a lack of benefits like group health insurance and retirement savings, the ‘always on’ nature of owning a company that means you never get a vacation day, and the day-to-day financial strain when business declined or customers didn’t pay on time. I watched it all, and swore I would never own my own company. I would work for someone else. I would have health insurance and a 401K, and I would take vacation.
But as they say, “Never say never.”
After college, as fax machines moved to email and landlines to Blackberries, I moved out to Boston and started my career at a PR agency (RF|Binder Partners). A midwestern fish outta water, I was fortunate to land with incredible colleagues, mentors, and managers who met my youthful narcissism with an unyielding zeal to teach me, and I quickly realized two things: first, that my ‘dinner table’ business education gave me a natural instinct for understanding our clients, and second, that a girl who grew up next to a corn field and didn’t have internet until the 12th grade was now falling in love with technology.
From that PR agency, I joined Zipcar as their first head of communications, an experience I equate to winning the lottery — not for the financial payout, but for the professional dividends it paid. I was only 24 when I accepted the role and by the time I left, after four years of incredible company growth and working alongside some truly brilliant people, the skills I had developed placed me at the top of my field. From there, I took on a series of challenges. I wanted to expand into broader marketing so I took a role as Director of Marketing at the rapidly growing Gazelle.com. Then later, I wanted to build a marketing org from scratch and worked as head of marketing at Abine and in-contract for Philo. It was then that I decided to get my MBA at MIT Sloan.
At Notre Dame, where I was lucky enough to attend as a first-generation undergrad, people say that “If you aren’t a football fan going in, you will be one going out.” I think this is a bit the same for entrepreneurs and MIT, and during my MBA is the first time I thought seriously about starting my own firm, but the timing wasn’t right.
Upon graduation, my husband and I had just had our first child and we were looking to move away from the east coast — ideally to more sun and cheaper housing — and I got an offer in Austin, TX. We grabbed the opportunity, but very quickly after the move, I lost the job.
Now, for anyone still reading this story who has lost a job, you know the feeling. It’s a bad day. One you never imagine will happen to you. Add that to the fact that I had just bought a house, had an infant son, and now lived in a city where I knew exactly one person. Austin eight years ago wasn’t what Austin is now, and the job market certainly wasn’t what it is now. It was a stressful time.
At some point during my job hunting haze, my husband said to me, “Why don’t you consider working at an agency?” I thought, hmmm… maybe that’s not a terrible idea. So I began going to my agency contacts. I spoke to them about opening an office in Austin– and was told by many they didn’t see it as a strategic market. So I switched course and went to agencies that didn’t sell into tech and built plans to launch a technology practice for them. I spent hours on the plans and came to form a strong point of view for what it would look like and what I wanted to build and slowly started to wonder why on earth I was about to give it away to someone else for a mere salary, health insurance, and a 401K.
But I didn’t want to start an agency alone, and I knew exactly one person in Austin, so I became a bit stuck. Then, a life-altering stroke of luck. A job appeared on LinkedIn for a VP at an agency. Taking a look, I could see the agency was just launched by a woman named Molly, and that she was getting started doing the very thing I wanted to do in the very way I wanted to do it. A cold LinkedIn message and a couple of Starbucks meetings later, and my, “I will never” became Kickstand.