Eva Rijser on How Flexport Capitalized on its Big Moment

Mixing Board Member Eva Rijser recently left her role as VP of Global Brand at Flexport, where she built the comms function from the ground up and oversaw creative, content, PR, and more. Before Flexport she spent over a decade at Edelman as EVP & Group Director of Corporate Affairs where she was responsible for client service and operations across Corporate Affairs where she worked with companies like Genentech, McKinsey and ServiceNow. Eva will be starting a new leadership role soon.

In this Studio Session, Eva and Sean talk about her Flexport experience, why you should invest in data to tell great stories, the importance of integrating demand-gen and brand work, and how being Dutch helps you in comms.

SG: Let’s start with your time at Flexport. You spent the vast majority of your career up until that point at agencies, specifically Edelman. How did you come about the Flexport opportunity? What was happening at Flexport when you joined?

ER: Flexport reached out to me a couple of months before they got their billion dollar round from SoftBank. There was this sense that we need to get some experience in the door.

I had been at Edelman for a long time and I was ready to make a move in-house. I talked to Brooke Kruger, who was one of the few recruiters that was just real with me. She said, you’ve been at agencies for a very long time, you’re senior enough to be a Head of Comms, but you don’t have that in-house experience. So we’re going to need to find someone who’s willing to take a gamble on you. That was the word she said. And I was like, whoa, okay. That’s different from what I’d heard from all these other people who were impressed with my experience. One day she calls me up. She said, okay, I know this is going to sound boring, but there’s this logistics technology company. And I said, “Oh I actually love supply chain.”

My father was a trader, a very Dutch profession. He moved the raw ingredients for cattle feed — he would buy bulk ships full of it in Indonesia and other parts of the world and then ship it to Europe. I grew up with my dad on the phone at four in the morning yelling at someone at a port. There was this enormous romance around it for me. I had done some work in supply chain for different clients. I started referring to it quite quickly as the supply chain apology, because everyone I talked to was like, “I know what you’re thinking…” I would say, “No, you don’t have to do that.” I met with their CEO, Ryan Petersen, their CMO at the time, and a few other folks. Then I really quickly put together a plan for what an internal and external announcement of the billion dollar round could look like. I joined the company on January 28th and I think we announced on February 14th. It was a running start.

At that time there were 1600 employees but there was no comms function. Some folks from the marketing team had dabbled in comms and there was a PR agency in place, but they just didn’t have a good client and they were not able to be effective. I stood that function up, brought internal and external comms together. That was one of the things that was really important to me. We did the first integrated launch where things happened at the same time, and employees got to hear about it before the rest of the world did. We did an exclusive with Alex Konrad at Forbes which was great. And people were like, oh wow. If you don’t just let it happen then this can actually be really meaningful. It was a great way to start.

SG: With a company that’s moving at that velocity and has all that funding, how were you able to create the room and the space to create that integration? Versus just jumping in and being reactive yourself? What were you able to do to force people to say, “Well, let’s just slow down a little bit, think this through, and plan this out. If we do that, it’s going to work much better.”

ER: I think about this a lot when I hire and when I do performance reviews. Comms is so often a clarifying function and a function that has license to ask questions other functions aren’t asking. But you’ve got to do it in a way where you’re never seen as a speed bump. Or you play that speed bump card very selectively, at the right time. There are some people who are just excellent at doing that and bringing people along in their way of thinking. This is actually feedback I gave someone on my team at their review a couple weeks ago. One of the great blessings for me is that comms had not been a real function before and so there was all this pent up demand.

I hired a small team, two folks on internal and two folks on external, which is all I wanted. When I talked to people at Flexport and explained what our team was there to do, they were like oh my god, yes, please come into my business. That was a huge blessing versus why are you here and why do we have to do all these things? Our founder and CEO, Ryan, is a strong brand thinker himself. He’s very sold on the value of brand and the value of earned media, and his wife is a reporter. All those things really helped because I came in with the CEO backing the effort that we were there to kick off.

SG: Fast forward a few years later. There’s more magazine covers but even more importantly, there’s these Twitter threads and these conversations that Flexport is leading around the supply chain crunch. People are likely just beginning to get their heads around what that means, and yet Flexport is right there as one of the organizations — if not the primary organization — helping to explain what may be happening during the holiday season, what the ramifications are, the downstream inflation impacts.

How did you get from a place where comms had never been done before to actually driving what was one of the most thoughtful, proactive programs in the last couple years?

ER: It’s the best example I’ve ever seen of never letting a good crisis go to waste. A lot of us joined the company three years ago, or well before that, and had to explain to our friends and family why it was compelling and why you should care. Cut to us getting daily inbound from top tier media. We would say, “Oh, now you love us, huh? Now you care about the supply chain.” So for sure, there was a huge element of luck and timeliness.

But two other factors — one was that Ryan invested a great deal of his own time and his personal capital in explaining to the world what’s going on. And that comes from his origin story as a founder. He was an importer/exporter. He had bought goods in China, found the supplier, and thought OK we’re good now. But then he realized that the hardest part was actually getting them into the country. And no one was willing to help him. Everyone who wanted to work with him had an incentive. He started to wonder, why won’t anyone just explain to me how this works? So Flexport’s mission, as a company, is making global trade easy for everyone. And that lends itself very well for editorial brand building. Everything we did was about — how is this helping people make better decisions about their trade or their supply chain?

Quite quickly after I joined, we hired a Chief Economist, who built out his team over the years. That team now runs three or four indicators that Bloomberg just picks up every week. It’s just a part of their reporting. So when the time came, and people started to ask, why is this so messed up? We had spent years, before my time and during my time, building up all these efforts to explain to people, “Did you know that it takes 20 parties to move a single shipment? All those handoffs are people on different systems.” So by the time people were asking the question, we were prepared, credible, and just very ready.

At that point we were able to move very quickly. We had switched agencies and started working with Strange Brew Strategies, who were phenomenal. And Ryan was like, put me to work. And all our other executives had the same mentality. It was so ingrained in people that they’re there to help. They’re there to help people do a tough, necessary job, just like two percent more easily.

SG: A lot of startups, who might be perceived as boring, are actually sitting on so much data. Of course you can tell a big story in a flowery, vision-y way. But you can also tell a story with data. Obviously, you have to structure it in a way that makes it understandable and useful for people. Let’s say you were talking to a company that thinks — we could be the next Flexport. We’re super early and we’re sitting on all this interesting data. At what point do you think companies should start taking that data and thinking about what they can do with it to inform people? Because the more people are informed the more it will support us and allow us to more credibly tell our story, which has all these follow-on effects. But it’s a hard thing for some CEOs to get their heads around.

ER: It’s the highest ROI investment you can make in storytelling. If you’re spending money hiring comms people, or you’re hiring an agency, you also need to hire a data analyst. You need brain power at every part of the chain. But even if you can bring on a data analyst that can go well beyond data and is delivering insights, you still need someone in the business who can translate that into a story. And of course your comms team can help, but I have found this to be an unmissable step. I tried to do it by connecting a PR person with my data person, thinking they’ll figure it out. They did not. Short story, they did not figure it out.

But the minute you’re investing in that tail end and you’re thinking, you know what? PR could be right for us. We need to start building a brand. You then also have to open up some brain space on the data side. It will be worth it.

SG: That’s so true. And I think even hiring someone who does some data visualization is just such a great hire.

ER: I would actually say that that’s something that Flexport did not do very well at all. We have a really great design team, especially if you look in the context of supply chain. It’s pretty dreadful out there and we really stand out. We weren’t as strong on legitimate data viz, not just data storage and — hey this graph looks real nice — but actual data viz. But honestly if you have a hard-to-convince CEO, you could just have three killer stats that no one else has.

SG: Something we talk a lot about at Mixing Board is the harmonization of comms, brand marketing, and all the other elements of the marketing rainbow. And whether it’s all one thing or different things. During this time of acceleration for both the company and how you guys communicated, you took on different roles. Can you explain the evolution of your role at Flexport?

ER: After I had run comms for a year, there was a rift between our company’s leadership and the marketing team’s leadership. And the executive team subsequently asked me to take over. There were just no great alternatives. I was the first to say, I’m not a marketer. But I do know how to lead teams, I do know how to keep people together. That was in February of 2020. And of course in March, we all got sent home.

COVID hit and no one knew what was going on. We did know goods were no longer coming out of China. So in addition to the pressures of, “what do you mean I’m working from home for the rest of my life,” if you’re an importer, you weren’t importing. And if you’re a company that makes its money on imports, we’re potentially not making any money. It was all pretty crazy. We were working through a seismic shift — but at that point, what we needed most was to stick together. And the one thing I knew that we could do as a team was to continue to deliver on the mission and help people understand what’s happening.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, to keep that team together, to restore the trust, and break down the silos. Things had been pretty messy for a while. There’s a reason why that trust was lost. After about a year of doing that, I realized that I don’t wake up thinking about the funnel. I wake up thinking about reputation and the experience people have when they interact with us. How does it make you feel to be a Flexport client? So I said, this is too important to let me, an amateur, handle it and it’s just not what I want to do. It’s not what gives me joy. I want to be here to help build this company, but if I keep holding on to this demand generation bit, I’m going to quit. That’s when we carved out the role that I have on LinkedIn, which is VP of Brand. I still kept product marketing and events, which was beyond my scope (internal and external comms, content and creative). Effectively up until about two weeks ago, I ran marketing at Flexport. That’s how the role evolved.

SG: These are not unique situations. Comms people, especially at tech companies, are often the most trusted front and they begin to get asked to do more things. And there is some friction between performance and brand. You could ask some people, even within Mixing Board, and they would say, performance is brand. That you have to be good at performance to be a good marketer. But then there’s other people, who would say — it’s not in my DNA. I can do a really excellent job at certain things, but once I start thinking about performance, I can no longer be excellent at all this other stuff. I don’t have that many sides in my brain. There’s something really interesting about that and how you navigated it. What was it that made you finally say this demand gen stuff is actually diminishing my ability to do these other things?

ER: If you’re doing brand work that doesn’t drive demand or if you’re doing demand work that doesn’t build the brand, stop 100%. But there’s often a growth marketing mindset that is very hacky, opportunistic, and short term. If you partnered that with someone who has their eyes on the long game, it can actually be great. Those are some of the demand gen interactions I enjoyed the most. Where my partner in demand gen was like, we just need to pump out 50 landing pages that say, “Are you shipping freight from [insert destination]?” Just so that we’re the first one to come up. Straight up SEO play.

I’ve done all flavors of comms at Edelman, but most of it has been in corporate comms. When you come from a corporate reputation mindset, you know the biggest good that you have to lose is your credibility and your trustworthiness. And I’m not willing to surrender that for a higher clickthrough rate on an email. But you also need someone who is just mercenary, who’s mindset is to push it through no matter the cost. And 99 out of 100 times, they’re right. I hate to use this word, especially now, but I think I’m a little too conservative for it. I remember we ran an email after the election that had Biden in the headline, which if I had seen it, I would’ve gotten in front of it. It evoked a ton of response. From a corporate perspective, I would’ve said absolutely not. We cannot go there. Everyone ships freight, it’s not just Democrats.

On the PR side, the content side, any of the other sides — we over delivered. Of course there was always someone who felt they weren’t getting what they needed, but in general, people were like, “I can’t believe they’re pulling this off.” It bought us enormous credibility. So I could say to people, I hear what you’re saying, but just give me a minute and let me finish this thing. This is the larger story we’re telling. But on the demand gen side, I never got to the point of having that benefit of the doubt, because we were always on the back foot. This is very specific to my Flexport situation. If we had been able to let them loose a little bit, I would’ve had more fun with it. But it always felt like a defensive exercise.

SG: How did you have fun on the brand side?

ER: I’ve never seen an industry where there are so many memes about how much this job sucks. Reddit is full of “supply chain sucks” memes. But people revel in it. They’re like, yeah, we’re in the trenches. We started to think, maybe making global trade easy for everyone is the wrong thing to do. Instead we should celebrate that it’s tough as hell, but we’re here for it. I started doing some of that work with another Mixing Board member who joined as our creative director, Angelica Triola. She’s so bright and so thoughtful. And that really lit me up.

SG: You mentioned the founder’s role and how engaged he was. What could other executives learn from that?

ER: Ryan is a uniquely good spokesperson, just in terms of his capability to tell a story. He is incredible. Even when no one understood what was going on, we were getting daily inbound from top tier media, really great opportunities with new reporters — he put in the work, he put in the time. He got very good at explaining what was going on in a way that positioned Flexport as a thought leader. While it is hard, there’s definitely some natural ability in being a great spokesperson. To strike while the iron is hot is not rocket science. It would’ve been easy for him or anyone else in the organization, frankly, to say, look, the world’s on fire. I have to focus on my business. But we were able to curate these great opportunities for spokespeople at any level that felt appropriate to them, that felt fun and exciting to them. And they put in the time. As a result, we became this very reliable go-to. Our people were unafraid to take a stand, say the words, make a joke, have a pun.

You have to invest the time in identifying your story, which any PR person will help you do, and then make yourself available. Put in the effort. You don’t become famous overnight. There can be some faux coyness around being famous, people saying, “I don’t want to be famous, that’s for sure.” OK, I don’t need you to become famous. But I actually need the CEO, and other members of the executive team, to be out there. That is part of your job and I need you to fill that role. That was always very well understood.

SG: If you were giving advice to someone joining a company, like Flexport, or any new company that has this big opportunity in front of it, what advice would you give?

ER: Like we talked about, if you think there is a data play to be made, invest early. I remember writing in one of our Slack channels on a day when Bloomberg covered two of our indicators. And we had been at this for years — a chief economist had to build a team, the whole team had to figure out what is compelling data, and then figure out what we can share and what we don’t want to share. And comms had to build the relationship. I wish that we had started that earlier, now that I see how fruitful that was.

Second, you want to quickly find out the tolerance the company has for what you can either call clarifying questions or speed bumps. How many speed bump cards do you get to play this year? How is that perceived? Maybe you work with the world’s most understanding executive team and they’re like, oh yes, thank you for asking 10 questions. Or maybe you don’t. That will greatly impact the success of your whole function, if you’re clear from the start what kind of team you’re working with.

There is such enormous excitement around comms and what comms means. There’s a little bit of dark arts mystique. I had a boss once who said, your work is the company’s playground. Be aware of that privilege and share the joy a little bit. Talk about how you are making certain stories happen or why they didn’t happen, because accounting doesn’t get that. They don’t get that love. Let them share in that excitement. If you are more aware of that, comms can be this enormous unifying force for good. Use that more actively.

SG: How does being Dutch impact your perspective in American bloodsport?

ER: Even for a Dutch person, I am very direct. That has served me well. Going back to my agency days, there’s a type of client that wants bubbly vibes. But especially on the corporate reputation side, more often than not we would work with leaders who just really wanted to know what you were thinking. If you came in and said, here are my concerns, here’s why, here’s an alternative, it was very well received. I’m not going to humor you, I’m not going to kiss your ass. Just direct — here’s the risks of the path you’re taking. That played very well.

And now, that translates itself to having very high authenticity at work. Leaving Flexport and just the outpouring of love that I have received from people who were like, I was in this meeting with you five months ago and you said this thing and it really opened my eyes. Well, I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like something I would have said, so thank you. So much of that has been, you showed me that I could be myself and that it’s okay to talk about the stuff I like or to make a lame joke or whatever. Dutch people aren’t good at pretending to be something they’re not, and that’s helpful in our profession.

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Previous Mixing Board Studio Sessions are here.

Find Mixing Board at https://www.mixingboard.co/

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