#51 and Setting the Curve on What it is to Win

Oct 26, 2021

On Thursday, October 21st, my youngest child turned 7. That evening, as he drank boba with his older brothers before a celebratory dinner of sushi and birthday cake, The Key was named #51 on San Francisco Business Times’ list of Top 100 Fastest Growing Private Companies.

The TL;DR is we’ve grossed millions of dollars each year, taken no outside funding, and invested seriously into setting a course that’ll serve us for the long haul. Conscious. Human. Open-hearted and consistently curious. We work with some of the best and brightest clients - long-term, brand new, ongoing and for the chapter they need us. In the years we’ve been in business, we’ve navigated incredibly tough times on the media front, and the broadening role of comms.

Given the past couple of years, two celebrations in a day would be noteworthy regardless, but this alignment brought up SO MUCH as a founder and a mother, and as a competitor and a team builder.

Building a conscious and intentional culture while being a present parent often stands in stark contrast to what is established as winning. What drives The Key is remembering that the game is rigged in favor of some, and that the winning exemplified by too many “top” companies requires commensurate hardship and loss for others. It leaves too many off the field, and requires too much from executives and teammates.

So we’re changing the rules for ourselves at The Key, measuring success differently. I often (so often my teammates and clients may already know what I’m gonna say) describe what COVID has done to business and society as similar to knocking down all the blocks in a tower.

Now, it’s up to us to be more thoughtful about how we rebuild. Cheers to a new plan!

If you want to know more about how we got here, and which elements of this milestone shine brightest in my own esteem, keep reading:

Creating The Key

What is now The Key started bubbling through my brain while I was on maternity leave, so the timeline syncs directly - and building a comms agency that honors parenting was a core component of what I set out to build.

October 21, 2016 was also the date I set for myself to make a formal go of it (because with both my 2 and 3 year-olds in preschool, parenting would be easier [ha!]). Starting The Key from zero, with four kids between me and Founding Principal Kat Madariaga (ages 4, 3, 2 and 1), we had the privilege to each have insurance through our spouse’s job, and set out with neither company name or website. It was game on from day 1, with our first client replacing a 7-person team from a global agency with the pair of us (and staying with us to this day!).

Keyed in on New Way to Play

And what a game it’s been! I almost didn’t submit to SFBT, shy that our net revenue was too little to matter, but my friend Michelle, founder of Nana Joe’s Granola (#44! Congrats!) convinced me that having consciously built businesses on the list is essential. SO stoked to be on the list for the revenue and headcount growth it represents, and thought I’d also share the human-centric investments we’ve made along the way.

First - in an era when women, particularly mothers, have had to leave work to parent during the pandemic, prioritizing life outside the office is core to The Key. In our first four years, my kids’ co-op preschool required me to be on-site between 4 and 6 mornings a month to a) give my guys the social emotional tools we treasure, and b) institutionalize structured time to ensure I didn’t miss their young years in favor of my company’s infancy. The same has been true for attending to parents, siblings, pets and the self outside of work.

This kind of attention to life outside of work is obvious, right?!

You’d think, but coming from my first agency where I had to take half a vacation day to receive a delivery or go to the doctor...let’s just say, we’ve come a long way in 20 years. Having done the work to strike that balance was essential when everything closed, and it came time to parent, partner and lead from home.

Over the course of the five years we’ve been in business, we also invested significantly in the structures, coaches and framework that’d hold us accountable to building the company we envisioned, starting with a process that helped us surface and name our mission to Tell a New Story.

Living By Our Agreements

Showing killer growth through a hard five years is amazing in its own right, but I’m most proud that we’re approaching our fifth birthday having poured resources - time and money - into building a launchpad that ensures that as The Key’s growth accelerates, it does so in lock step with our Key Agreements.

Initially designed in our second full year as a company, the Agreements served as a firm guide as COVID threatened, and never waivered through the havoc the pandemic wreaked. If anything, the pressure hardened our commitment, and when George Floyd’s murder amplified the need to be more explicit, we worked together to add another Agreement.

Fastest growing is fire, but doesn’t show the other elements that underscore The Key’s success:

  • Partnering on DEIB: We worked with the best in the biz to make sure we’re invested in creating a culture centered on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging
  • Pro Bono Work: Committing to pro bono work - ongoing with Women’s March San Francisco, but also with SF New Deal and others as the pandemic called us to support our community
  • Preferred Pricing: Offering preferred pricing to women and other underrepresented founders, and to social impact businesses helps us ensure our portfolio reflects change
  • Prioritizing People: Long-term partnership with La’Kita Williams at CoCreate Work to ensure both our established and emerging leadership have consistent learning and development opportunities around people leadership and organizational design; and for me with Jadah Sellner on how to lead with love
  • Planned Rest: Surviving COVID as our 4th and 5th years in business; with no layoffs (prioritizing stability and well-being over margin); more flexible schedules; both Fall and Spring Breaks and ongoing programs to help ensure we’re as well as can be through terrible times
  • Pledging 1%: Committing as a Pledge1% company, with a track record since founding of more than 2% of time and revenue donated to philanthropic efforts
  • Profound Perks: Bomb benefits, ongoing, but also taking advantage of COVID policies like the CARES Act Student Loan Forgiveness, helping at least one Keymate finish paying off student loans and taking a big chunk out of others
  • Parties and Presents! Celebrating throughout! Milestones, holidays, client and Keymate anniversaries and more.

We are grateful to every one of you who helped us reach this milestone - as teammate or client(current or during a previous chapter), referrer, partner, booster or otherwise. It has taken every bit to get here, and we can’t wait to show you our next flex.

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