A deep dive in public relations with Ilissa Miller
Avi Freedman: Hi, and welcome to Network AF. In this episode, I talk to my friend and network whisperer, Ilissa Miller. Ilissa runs a PR firm working with folks in the networking industry, and has had a great career in the industry starting doing consulting and working in product, and we talk about how she got into the field, how she learned, sees people learning, what it's like to start a business, how she got into that, how to work with people, how to work with especially journalists and people covering the field, and a little bit about community, how to help people break in, how to basically be great people. So join us as we listen to Ilissa's story. If you like Network AF, you can find us on iTunes and other podcasting services. Please like us, follow us and download. Hi, and welcome to Network AF. I'd like to welcome a friend of mine and fellow network whisperer, Ilissa Miller. Ilissa, could you give us a little background on... Well first, what that background is and where you are and what you're up to?
Ilissa Miller: Sure. Well, thank you so much for having me on your program, Avi. It is an honor and a pleasure. My name is Ilissa Miller. I am the CEO of iMiller Public Relations. I'm also the president of NEDAS, which is an association that talks about convergence for wireline and wireless communications infrastructure, and I also work with a company called DE- CIX, an internet exchange operator, helping them with their North American partner and marketing initiatives. So a wide range of things there that I am in the midst of and my background is that I've been in the industry for over 25 years now. I didn't go to school for engineering at all like many of the folks in our space but I was an early adopter of Internet Relay Chat when I was in college and I loved Internet Relay Chat and when AOL came out, I loved all of that and when I had an opportunity to enter the field of communications infrastructure, it was in around 1996, right after the deregulation act was passed, and I had an opportunity to work with a consultant and learn the industry. Everything from trading minutes to networking to SUBC, cable capacity, data centers. It was a really wide range of exposure for about four years, and working with an engineer, it was fantastic because I got a chance to ask questions. Even those silly dumb questions, right? And we would map everything out on a whiteboard-
Avi Freedman: Foundational questions.
Ilissa Miller: Right, exactly, exactly. Thank you for clarifying that. Whiteboard everything, he gave me the books to read, TeleGeography was like the Bible back in the day and it still is for many. And so yeah, that's how I got into the industry and then it took off from there which I am blessed for.
Avi Freedman: Cool, you know, it's funny. As someone that still runs Usenet servers, I have to say IRC, sort of the always keeping the window open to summon, never worked for me, but in our industry, many of my friends on the engineering side it really worked for and I know some that are still using it. But you don't still use, you're not still on IRC?
Ilissa Miller: No, no, no.
Avi Freedman: Okay.
Ilissa Miller: We don't need to anymore, we don't need to know all that code and everything but-
Avi Freedman: Well now there's just like eight different chat things that you have to be on for people to summon you on, so... I mean the time period you're talking about,'96 to 2000, there was like eight new things a year. There's a lot going on now, but there was definitely a lot going on then. So when you got into it, it was the consultancy that was your sort of break into networking?
Ilissa Miller: Right, so his name was David Mayer, and David Mayer was an executive at IDB WorldCom. He ran their international group, and when he left the company, he started his own consultancy because he had some great relationships and leveraging those relationships, he became a strategic advisor to them on how they were expanding their networks, putting deals together, introducing network operators to other network operators, bringing in investors. So it was a wide range of services that we provided, including managing data gathering meetings for the launch of inaudible back in the day.
Avi Freedman: Oh, interesting.
Ilissa Miller: So I was involved with that. Sometimes I often joke around that I'm kind of like the Forrest Gump of the industry in that period because I was in so many closed- door meetings with executives being privy to information about the deals that were going on, but I was there. It was really an incredible time and an incredible way to learn the industry.
Avi Freedman: That sounds really cool. You may have been more Gumpy than I. I had a weird experience once when I caught a ride from Boston to D. C. with the Enron folks, and I was talk... Because they were trying to do peering and making it trading and basically doing what we call network as a service now which we've actually built but it wasn't buildable by them back when they were doing it. And I told the story about WorldCom and UUNet and how everyone suspected that they were actually... Stopped selling inaudible because UUNet asked them to stop having people as potential peers, and he opened up his laptop and he pulled up the memo that he wrote inaudible to do that, I'm like, Oh, I am with the dark side, okay, I got it.
Ilissa Miller: Wow.
Avi Freedman: So yeah, it's like some things that you suspect that you just draw the dots to. Was it all like sunshine and roses? Were there things that were frustrating and difficult?
Ilissa Miller: Yeah. David really wanted his daughter to come and work for him, and I was the next best option that came through the door and interviewed for the position. And so it was kind of like a father- daughter type relationship and he would yell out to me what he needs and I would yell back, " Slow down, I can't do that," or whatever it was, right? Because I would be writing all the reports and all the notes and making sure that the communications were going out. So yeah, it wasn't always easy and sunshine and roses, but I loved working and learning. I will tell you that I was a young person really impressed with all of these executives that got to travel the world, go to places like Hawaii, Las Vegas and Monaco and et cetera and I thought that was really pretty cool, that you can get a job that you can travel and do all these things. And so yeah, be careful what you wish for.
Avi Freedman: Yes. It's funny, you can make travel... The way I describe it, people are like, " Oh, it must be awesome to travel everywhere." And it's like, " Well, the times when you're home for... You're trying to get home for a week solid," I say, " You can make it so that it's good, but it's like that's good on average and you have to do a lot of prep work to make it so that... Compensate for the planes and the time zone adjustments and stuff like that."
Ilissa Miller: Right. Right.
Avi Freedman: But we all forget how cool and new everything is from early in career, when we take these things for granted that we could just pick up and it's like, " Oh, I'd like to see my friends in Australia. Maybe I'll pick a conference there and go too." Did you find those networking conferences to be easy to get into and form relationships and did they feel like welcoming spaces?
Ilissa Miller: So when I went to the events with David, he was a great mentor, and he was the one... I was in meetings with him and got introduced to all the executives from that way. They were very kind to me, I don't know if they knew how much I understood or didn't understand at the time but they were certainly welcoming, and when I did want to leave David's group, I spoke to David about it, it was time to move on, and he helped me get my next jobs.
Avi Freedman: Wow.
Ilissa Miller: Yeah, the next job I got was working with a company selling data center space in 1999. It was a building across from Penn Station and because of the context and the relationships that David had exposed me to, I knew who to call to offer that space to and within six months, we pretty much booked up that space. And I ended up calling Band- X. I don't know if you remember, right?
Avi Freedman: I remember them. I remember them.
Ilissa Miller: The Enron days, when you mentioned Enron, Band- X.
Avi Freedman: It was after Invisible Hand. Which Justin actually worked at.
Ilissa Miller: Right. Exactly.
Avi Freedman: My co- founder Justin actually worked at Invisible Hand. So it was after that, but yeah, I remember.
Ilissa Miller: Right, right. So Band- X, they had launched in 1997 and they were only operating out of London, but in May of 2000, they opened up in New York and somebody had mentioned that he was going to work there and I said, " I want to go work for Band- X." Because I thought it was so cool that you can do this internet exchange, right? Where it was transit internet but one to many, right? Doing BGP and so I called up the CEO, Jamie Martino and I said, " I want to come work for Band- X." He had no idea who I was. He interviewed me and he said, " Well what would you do for me?" And I said, " I'll do business development and marketing." Because I had so much experience and so much intellect about the strategy and the vision for the industry. It's really hard when you're kind of exposed at that executive level to figure out how do you gain that professional experience for yourself. You got to get that hands- on experience. It's not as much that I knew all that stuff. I had to get into the industry and learn it and see if it's something that I could actually help advance. And so yeah, I was with Band- X until they sold to Arbornet in 2004, and that's really where I cut my teeth as an individual, and apart from David, where I was the one working and bringing the company to market and also closing up operations because of the dot com bubble burst and bringing the company to profitability so that they could ultimately sell that to Arbornet. So there were only four of us left at the very, very end, and I was one of them. So that was a great honor.
Avi Freedman: So yeah, I mean that's part of the lifecycle of businesses sometimes. I have seen that as well. When we did the first version of PacketFabric, we were fortunate in that we made money during it but we decided to shut it down because one, none of us were focusing like full- time on it, and two, and Equinix was just like, " Maybe you shouldn't be competing." This is before they had dropped their exchange prices, so it was actually cheaper at the time to... If you had an exchange in multiple buildings, it was actually for two people to connect in the same building and undercut the exchange, which was not our goal. Our goal was to make New York consumable let's say between all the buildings. But still, it was no fun. People that said they were going to use it weren't, it was too early in the market. So it's interesting to do that translation as you said between the executive level engineers. Sometimes I struggle because I think that people want the answer which is the NANOG person standing behind my shoulder pointing out any inaccuracy, but you actually need to give the idea of the answer and pitch the value and how it's going to change their lives. That's why I introduced you as a network whisperer, right? Helping us, helping people understand. Were you ever tempted towards the dark side on technology or you like that intersection of making it useful for people and helping people understand?
Ilissa Miller: Well I did. So the closest I got was product management. I went to Telstra after Band- X and I was a product manager for International Private Lines, MPLS, and Voiceover IP and I will say I loved that job because product sits in the middle of everything. You have to work with all the departments, operations, legal, sales, all of it because you cannot bring a product to market if you cannot invoice for it. If you cannot support it. If you cannot service it, and so that job was a matter of designing the product capabilities, educating the team and giving them all materials and tools so that they can sell it but making sure in the backend operationally we can deliver it, customer service was aware of it and legal and I was responsible for all the RFPs for the enterprise customers who were looking at those products and I thought that was a great opportunity again for me to just understand how these large organizations work. I came from a startup, right, Band- x, and even though I worked within that entire organization and at Band- X I was the escalation point for any network outages, so yeah, I did get the 3: 00 a. m. calls.
Avi Freedman: Wow. Okay.
Ilissa Miller: I was there. But I wanted to understand how everything all worked together because that is the key to helping companies. If you know how companies work, then you can navigate them and get the right team aligned with you on what you need to do and move it forward.
Avi Freedman: An interesting question, which is the more valuable set of learning? Sort of about people and companies and how they organize and I'll say politics and motivation or the actual technology of the industry, I don't know which is the more interest... You have an opinion?
Ilissa Miller: I do, and I would say that the people side of it is definitely more challenging. Yeah, there's a lot of psychological and understanding how to position and speak with people and how to inspire them to help you. We're changing as a society, but there used to be a lot of people who felt that their knowledge was just for them and they would hold it and that was their value and you can never get rid of them because they had all of that knowledge and I had the opposite approach where I think whatever knowledge I have, let everybody and anybody get access to it. Because we're so individual as people that each of us process whatever information we get taught to us very differently, and so you're always going to be unique and always an individual with whatever you know. No two people that know the same thing are ever going to be the same and never going to be able to use that information in the same way moving forward.
Avi Freedman: I agree. I mean there's a corollary in the startup world which is people that are afraid to share their idea because someone else is going to do it. It's like it's really about the execution of it, having the idea doesn't help you make it so. And everything is more complex when you actually try to go do it. But I think it's definitely true in the 90s, there was an attitude that was summed up by some that was summed up as the clue on the internet is constant, which I always disagreed with. Meaning if you teach people bad things will happen or it's fine... It's like there only will need to be 40 computers in the world. It's fine if there's only 50 internet engineers. And at the time, people were saying, " Well, but if you teach people BGP, then it will explode the internet." Even though it was big networks that did most of the exploding of things, so... Yeah, it's definitely interesting, the people side of it, making it so... At Akamai, a lot of the times, the biggest challenge which people had difficulty learning was when we wanted a carrier or a big, big enterprise to do something that we actually really thought made sense for them and made sense for us. We had to actually learn their way of thinking enough that we would say words that if you just listened to them, we would say, " Well that's crazy. Why would you believe that?" But that's... You still have to translate to the framework of organizations that come up with their own way of doing things, and to say that I don't mean Akamai is uniquely awesome, when I look Akamai Facebook as a technologist, I look at the biggest companies and how they do tech, and they all do some stuff that's super amazingly awesome and some stuff that's like, " Oh my God. What the hell are you doing? Why don't you fix that?" So it's just the nature I think of how humans behave and organize, that skill set was really valuable. And as you said, we'll say you have to ask foundational questions because these organizations, they have their assumptions that just they assume, which is... We could talk about it later, it's a challenge for people breaking in is a lot of this is not in books or blogs even among people that want to educate, a lot of this sort of tribal knowledge and how do we get into that.
Ilissa Miller: Well you know, interestingly enough, when you're asking questions, I call it being curious and the biggest problem that I think we have as an industry is that we make a lot of assumptions. So you brought up Akamai. I can assume that Akamai is a CDN and they do X, Y, Z, but the assumptions that I have may be based off of old or outdated information or a construct that inaudible because they've been around for a long time. And so I find that the problems happen when people aren't asking enough questions, when they aren't aligning what their thought process is about what edge means with another company that may be talking about that. And getting curious about, " Well when you say that," and it doesn't show that you don't know anything. It shows that you're trying to understand and align and look at the world from that person's or company's perspective.
Avi Freedman: Well I have... It's almost a disability because I run a company which sells to large enterprise, and while I religiously believe, like you were saying, actually the path to success is teaching people and making great resources available, it is true that practitioners speak more in features and they sort of get it and executives speak more in value and what it does for the business. And when I want to understand that industry, even my own, sometimes I can look at a company and I know what they do, but the way that they're marketed, especially if they have a traditional enterprise marketing approach of I think you have this problem, we solve it, would you like a demo? Versus making the technology available. Like Cloudflare does a good job of doing both. But when I was at Akamai, people would say, " I know what Akamai does but I can't figure out from the website what to do." And so like how do you bridge that gap? So when I go to trade shows, I do what I call vendor torture, which is I'm trying to figure out what they actually do, because I can't reason about something unless I understand, " Well, they all say," as you said, " They all say they're edge, but what actually is it? Or they all say..." It's like, " Well okay, service mesh versus network mesh versus all these things." So I wish that I were a little bit in the middle and not always going towards the features and trying to construct from the ground up and that's why we have an awesome marketing team who helps with that translation as well, so... And PR firm, like the industry that you're in. So how did you decide to start your own business? I know I guess we're skipping over a few stages of companies you worked with but -
Ilissa Miller: So the truth is, I didn't decide. Someone decided for me. I was a director of marketing at Telx, and I left Telx to join a small PR firm. At the time, they only had one and a half clients, and the person who founded it went off to get married for a month and left me with the business. So when she came back, we had five clients.
Avi Freedman: Because you are fearless and call people up and say, "You need to be my customer."
Ilissa Miller: Right, right. Or people who knew me and what I knew said, " You need to help us." So that was great, grew that business, but as in any kind of partnership, I guess she didn't like something I said or did and one day I woke up and I didn't have access to any of the information, any of the email systems, nothing, and I was a partner. And I didn't get any answers, nobody was allowed to talk to me. So I called my clients and I said, " Hey, this is what's going on. This is really bizarre. But you have a 30 day out, and so how about I support you for free for the next 30 days and I will send you a contract with my new company and you can join me in a month." And four out of six of my clients joined me, and that's how I started my business. They believed in me so much that I called them up and said, " I know your business better than anybody else." I had nothing, I had no systems, no people working for me. I didn't even have a company name. But they believed in me so much and I'm so grateful for that, that that's how I started my company.
Avi Freedman: Well I'm sorry that happened to you but I guess I'm glad that happened to you.
Ilissa Miller: Yeah.
Avi Freedman: It's always bad when you have a situation like that and it can take a lot of maturity to face conflict head- on, but it sounds like it didn't happen in that case. So looking back, actually I'll switch topics, because you said something that interested me. It's a big challenge to find a PR agency that tries to really know not just the industry but the business. Is that the biggest I guess competitive differentiator for you and part two, how do you hire people that have that as you say curiosity or intellectual curiosity to be able to do that?
Ilissa Miller: Right. Lots of tough things in there. So I really value the history of our industry, the evolution of where we were to where we are today, from the Band- X days to the SUBC days and the dot com crash and so I focus a lot on making sure that I set a foundation with my team to understand a bigger picture and so that they're not just focused on the linear, the here and the now. We have to have that in context, and that's really hard to do because there's only so much time in the day and there's a lot of work that needs to get done. Hiring people who are naturally curious helps and in PR writing is one of the big skills. I'll tell you, it's been a learning lesson for me. I'm in my 11th year now, and I've gone through various types of iterations of different types of skills, and as a PR firm, it is a different skill set. It's more strategic, it's being able to be a translator, you mentioned that earlier, I talk to companies and say, " We translate technical into business speak. That's what we do." And we have to understand not only our clients' business but their target market and what's important to their target market, and that constantly changes and evolves as things go on, but a message for a company has to be consistent. You can't just keep changing that message every three months because you're going to confuse your market. You have to stick to a message and build on that foundational message to expand on that and grow with that to make the marketplace... Be sure that they understand you. So hiring people who are writers, they're naturally curious because they have to write about so many different things that they have to kind of deep dive and do some research and understand things. We're also at a phase in the industry now that we're very fortunate that some of our children are of age to join companies and-
Avi Freedman: Make the next generation.
Ilissa Miller: Right, and if you have someone let's say who grew up literally in the data center space, who has had project management experience, who is interested in supporting companies, those are great types of people to look at, people who have been exposed to it their entire lives. They don't appreciate how much they know oftentimes, and so helping them to open that up and realize that they are more comfortable in a space than they know for themselves is really exciting to see too.
Avi Freedman: It's funny, I'm told I shouldn't use big words and say the osmotic learning, but my wife Gail is brilliant but her passions do not lie towards internet infrastructure. Yet at any given time, she could tell you which vendor I prefer or not because obviously she's friends with my friends and we're at conferences and we're talking to people and so people... You do pick up a lot of that... Again, we'll talk about it later, but that sort of tribal knowledge which can be really hard to get. I guess two PR specific questions. Is it hard to find people who are willing to write in a natural voice, or is that part of the get them young and they'll have to unlearn sort of gobbledygook speak?
Ilissa Miller: Right. That is where I probably spend most of my time is helping people articulate and writing things without it being too marketing, without it being too nebulous because it can be confusing, and I'll know right away if somebody does not... If somebody's too surfaced with their knowledge and be able to go in and provide them guidance on where they need to go deeper. And it's a constant process, and there are some really strong writers but there are also writers who have learned bad habits using more creative type approaches to writing versus business approach. And it's easy from that standpoint to kind of help correct them when you can point out to them you've got to write it in a certain tense or making sure that you're not using adjectives too much because we need to write more factual and more matter of fact and oftentimes, we have to simplify a company's message in order for it to get understood. If you get too technical, most of the people that will read it will not understand it.
Avi Freedman: Yes, I have a proxy when I review things which is I glance at it and if I can sort of pick up this... If I can just sort of scan through it and get it, then I'm like, " It's okay." But if I have to slow down and stop and read something about something which I'm pretty familiar, then as a proxy, I think, " Wow, this is going to be difficult for someone else." Now some of the tools that are dual use, because you can also use them to for example review for job postings to make sure that they're friendly for a diverse audience, but there's writing tools that you can use. But they get how complex is a sentence and things like that but still sometimes, whether it's jargon or the ideas are not connected enough, I had my knuckles beaten in on expository essays with the three paragraphs and the first paragraph could be the last paragraph but it's really more of an intro and the first sentence is an intro and three sentences and you could... Like all that stuff, but at the same time, when I do want to get creative, I have difficulty because I was trained in... But yeah, it can be difficult to find that. It's something that we work on. I know a lot of companies that are working on that. So the second I guess PR, I'll pick your brain, inaudible, I don't want to say settle a debate but provide another input. One school of thinking, especially in SaaS is don't do a press release unless it's like major news. So like don't do trickles of stuff about a customer signed up and we're going to be... I guess we've never done anything which is like, " Oh, we're at a trade show." Only save it for... And usually those people say, " Well, and no one cares about press releases anyway." I guess in terms of importance and frequency, do you have any opinion or is it situational or do you have any general rules of thumb?
Ilissa Miller: Yes.
Avi Freedman: Awesome.
Ilissa Miller: So there are various different approaches to getting your news out. There is a press release and there's also something called a media alert or a media advisory. It doesn't go over the wire, but it's information that the media may be interested in because you never know what type of stories that they're going for. There's also the pitching aspect of it, right? Being able to just write a pitch and get an interview so that this third party can write an article or a blog or something about it. There's also article submissions that you can use, and there's great platforms like Medium right now that help -
Avi Freedman: Forbes and yeah.
Ilissa Miller: Right, Forbes, Tech Council and Medium that allow you to publish things by yourself without it being too commercial of course. But those are different channels and when you are thinking of your PR strategy, you do want to think about all of the avenues and channels that you have access to. Even an email newsletter or an announcement to your customers, and how relevant that's going to be to the market and what is the purpose you're trying to get by getting it out there? Oftentimes people will do press releases just to get their brand, their name recognition out there and that's important, just to be part of the conversation, but yes, you can get too noisy. It can be uncomfortable sometimes to get things that you don't feel are relevant for you to get. I'll tell you, I got an email from a media person just yesterday. We were talking about traffic stats and all that type of stuff and he basically was like, " That's not interesting to me anymore. Because everything's going up." And it's a great perspective to be able to get because we too have to get into the head of the journalist, the analyst, to understand how they're going to process the information, and while one company thinks this is a great customer announcement, this is fantastic and it's going to really blow us up, the marketplace doesn't really appreciate that unless it's in a case study format, unless it's something that is relevant to a specific industry, and that is revolutionary. And so yeah, you have to really think through how you're doing things, but all of this matters and this is why. What happens when you leave a customer meeting or a prospect meeting? They're going to google you, and if there's not enough third party verification or information out there about what you're doing and if they cannot substantiate what you just told them, then it's going to be harder to win that business. So that's why PR is that secret weapon for companies, because you are putting information out there in a regular and consistent way that hopefully your sales team and you are consistently sharing that information and it shows the marketplace that there is a momentum and what you're saying is viable.
Avi Freedman: That makes sense. I think it is definitely broader than just press releases, but I try not to extrapolate only for myself because I don't consider myself to be a good proxy for sort of everything, but when I am researching something, I guess I do prefer to see a Medium article talking about what a referenceable customer is doing inaudible, especially if it's written by the customer, than just a press release. But it can be interesting info. I can think of a lot of websites where they really could tie all the things you mentioned together better to reference each other instead of being silos as you said to help the prospects understand and see. So when you think about what is interesting to journalists, you mentioned the that's not interesting and Michelle inaudible has almost got me to look in advance and say, " Will this be interesting? Is it news?" But if not, she's there to keep me honest. But how do you think about building relationships with them so that they feel that they're not just being pitched and that you have companies that... They'll say, " Hey, I'm looking at this, do you know anybody that can..." Or what strategies can a company do to build those things? I did an interview with Doug Madory who works for Kentik who has done that over the decades, but I'm just curious what your take is for companies to execute.
Ilissa Miller: So education is the key thing. Educating anyone, whether it's a journalist, an analyst or your customers, and approaching it from an educational standpoint, highlighting the facts, the details, really the meat of what matters, getting to that really quickly, helps a lot because they'll quickly know if you're wasting their time or if you're not. If you bury the lead, if you're burying facts and data points and you're being too nice in reaching out, you're not going to get your point across and having conversations with them. Finding out what they're most interested in, what's the topic du jour. Looking at their media kits and understanding what kinds of topics the publications are going to be writing about, and timing information with those publications that's going to be effective and symbiotic for everyone. And the truth is mentoring them. I can tell you that there have been many journalists in the industry that have come to me that I've had the pleasure of mentoring, right? I remember one time I did a press junket in Italy and this young media person was invited and was there and we were talking about technology and networking and he comes up to me and says, " What is ethernet?" And being someone that they're comfortable coming to, that I'm going to be able to give them the answers and provide them with insights and point them in the direction of information that's going to help them, it's really a pleasure to do that and you build that trust in that way and that's really what it is. The trust matters, we're not wasting people's time, we are delivering on our promises and the hardest part in running a PR agency is that we are reliant also on our clients to be responsive and so if we have a relationship with a journalist and the client keeps canceling those interviews, that makes us look bad and it makes them look bad and it hinders our ability to have another client of ours interviewed because it's hassle to go through in scheduling. So there are some challenges there that you need to be aware of and it requires education on both sides. Education to the client as well as the journalist but the nice thing is that most of the key publications that cover data centers for instance like Data Center Frontier, datacenterHawk and DatacenterDynamics. I mean we've all kind of grown up together in the industry and have a good sense of things and they do learn a lot from the PR people because we're introducing new technologies, cutting edge solutions, new approaches to how companies are doing networking, et cetera, and that's important for them to know.
Avi Freedman: Have you ever had to fire a customer? You could decline to answer and please don't be specific about customer names but-
Ilissa Miller: Yes.
Avi Freedman: Okay. There was a customer, so this is a $ 12. 50 ISP user at my ISP, and I wasn't the only ISP anymore, but I was one of the three, and I had to tell him, " Perhaps you would be happier with a competitor," and actually I said, " I have arranged with my two competitors. They would both be happy to offer you the first month free." They were like, " No, you need to change your service to do this." And there's a point, even as nice as you are, where you're just like, " That's not my model. No, thank you. Thank you for the feedback," which is business speak for no but no. A foundational question, because I've heard the term, I think I know sort of what it is, but I have an expert. What is a media kit? You mentioned media kit journalists and what they're looking for?
Ilissa Miller: Right, so a media kit is a real straightforward way of sharing information with a journalist that gives the storyline and the trajectory of that company's positioning some context. So it would usually be an overview of the company, if you had digital assets like an interview with an executive that helps to crisply tell that story, those are great assets, along with any kind of product information and press releases. So they can see what has been written, they can review all that information and get to know the company a little bit better than just receiving a press release, looking at a boilerplate and then going to the website. And you can create digital press kits on your website to make it real easy for them as well.
Avi Freedman: So you don't even need your PR firm to pitch it? They can go find it.
Ilissa Miller: You don't. I mean you do but you don't, right? What's the value of a PR firm? We've got relationships, we know the trends, we have a big picture view on what the market is, we can help piece things together because it's not just a standalone tunnel vision type approach to something. It's in context of how everything else is working and that's really important also in communicating with the journalists, why does something matter? Why the why matters is important.
Avi Freedman: Right, or the... As Jamie, who's on our board but she has a marketing background, so what? That's what she says, which is slightly less polite, so what. Even when it's like, " Well the internet went down." " So what?" And we see a lot of unfortunately authoritarian regimes doing things and then it becomes easier to connect, but some of the more esoteric things that you do, it's like, " Well," or, " What's the day in the life? Like who is the person?" Because the journalists are not from of the backgrounds, so... Is there a way? Is there a standard way that you can find out other than... Do press outlets, whether it's a website or an online physical paper hybrid, is there a way other than by just following the journalist and the things they've written that you can see what they're interested in? Do you just have to have the relationships so they'll call you up and say, " Hey, I'm researching this," or is there a way you can find out?
Ilissa Miller: It is about relationships and yes, you can have conversations with them and ask them and typically, if you're doing media briefings, you're on the call, waiting for a client to come on, those are great opportunities to have those types of conversations, a little trick of the trade, building that relationship and that trust right there. They're coming in five minutes late, it's great. You just have five minutes of a conversation to help set up that call while learning about what's important to them, and oftentimes, we are the ones educating them because we tend to be the first to know. Remember, we're launching products, we're launching companies, and so that's really exciting to journalists and to the analysts. The analysts are really important as well and we could talk about that because they need to know what the trends are and what's on the horizon and where things are going and so when you're launching a company or a product that's fairly new and different, you want to make sure that it's in context and why the why matters is important and that inspires the journalist to want to learn more, and they'll do research before coming back and say, " Yeah, this is the first time I've heard of this. This is the first time I've mentioned it. Yes, I want to talk to them."
Avi Freedman: Okay, interesting. But you can't... You're limited by also... I don't want to say, limited may be the wrong word. I could say to a journalist, " Well, this network as a service is... It's basically a telco. It is about automation and convenience and connecting things, but it's also just a telephone company that people haven't learned to hate yet. Like it is a network but it's designed for the convenience using SaaS principles." But if that's not the messaging of the company you're representing, you are in some ways I guess limited by some of the things that you could say as you be true and honest and help them.
Ilissa Miller: Right, right. And I mentioned the analysts, and I want to go back to that because it's very important to understand the role of our industry analysts, right? From inaudible to Gartner to Forrester, et cetera. They are known as industry experts, and they are studying the market and doing deep dives and getting insights on products and the technical details of things and they're writing reports and they're writing summaries and their customers tend to be enterprise customers who are paying them for this information. But also journalists and the media go to those analysts to substantiate information, so if I'm launching a product and let's say it's something new, they may call an analyst friend to say, " Is this new indeed? What should I know about this? Did you hear about this company?" And they can potentially get those research notes. And so oftentimes, I will start with an analyst briefing strategy for clients that are coming out of the gate because you want to make sure that they substantiate what you're doing when they get the phone calls. If you skip that step and just go straight to the media, yeah, you could get some success, that's not going to be a problem, but you're better off doing it with the analyst as well because that analyst is an influencer with your target market and they need to understand things in order to be able to position you, your solutions, better than somebody else's or provide a fair evaluation to their clients.
Avi Freedman: You know, it's an interesting and subtle distinction because as a startup, you look at analysts and I've seen a lot of startups and as my mother put it they try to argue with city hall. Like they try to convince them that their guide should require things that the startup is seeing is proving the customers want. But the structure of some of the biggest analysts is I'm going to say, and I don't mean this in a negative way, to be behind the market. It's what are people actually offering and buying at large scale now, then they have separately the emerging, where they cover sort of the emerging trends and again I won't pick one analyst but the trends in where things are going. And so it can be confusing because you could be recognized as emerging and cool and awesome, yet especially if you're disrupting a very large industry but that isn't innovating fast, you're like, " Well, but that should be a requirement because look at all these customers." So I think... What's been most helpful for me is the customer side of it. Like is that part of your strategy? Like just connecting people with the customers to help them explain to the analysts why and what the gaps are and why they're excited about the new way? Whatever the new way is, there's always a new way.
Ilissa Miller: It's always great, right? That's why we use case studies but you don't always get the opportunity to have a customer be your rabid fan and speak in the market and the other issue we have in the technology industry is that it takes a long time for customers to adopt new technologies and new ways of doing things. It's a very long cycle. Much longer than we think, right? And it requires a lot of education, a lot of consistent messaging out to the market, and engaging not just your customers but engaging those analysts. When you're on those calls with the analysts and you're giving them a presentation about things, you have the opportunity to ask them what things are going on, and that's what I remind our clients is that every conversation you have should be a two- way street. You're providing me information so I don't have to ask a lot of questions back because we're having a conversation, but it should be a back and forth discussion when you have those briefings.
Avi Freedman: Right, yeah. I do think it's important to ask those questions and if you're a client, then you can do the asking them, even about product as you said, being a product manager as you're thinking about a space. One of the challenges, as I'm now in SaaS and not necessarily peer networking, is when I look at Kentik, I look at other companies also that start off with some of the best brands but that are not corporate.... They're not enterprise or not corporate IT. That doesn't resonate as much with the bigger analysts and who their clients are, so who they're following. So it took us a few years until we started getting major enterprise customers and corporate IT as well as production networking, and we're like... Again, at Kentik I've learned so much. I also have a decade, a career that was decades before I started Kentik, but there's always an infinite amount to learn. So I've learned a lot, especially at Kentik, but yeah. You need to... It's like why do we have all these impressive customers but the analysts don't want to talk to them, and then it's like yeah, you need to find the people that are like for whoever that is, like their customers for them to be most interested. For us, we've decided as a strategy, there's one analyst who said network observability is not a thing. It's like, " Okay, well you know what? I have 300 customers that are super impressive, including the ones that are their clients that will just say that it is, as opposed to one vendor up in Boston who sued a big analyst which is not what I would recommend." If you have a position and you want to educate the market, just go educate the market, so...
Ilissa Miller: Right, and to that point, know where you have your allies and know where you don't and spend your time where you know you're going to have success versus trying to win somebody over. That's a lot of time and effort right there, and there's just so many others that will be open and that's where you want to go, for sure.
Avi Freedman: On the other hand, if you get an inbound email from a firm you've never heard of that sizes the market that you're in at 40 times the size that you know it is, you should check with your friendly local AR person or PR firm, and they will tell you like, " No, this is not a good use, do not use this market sizing that they will write custom for you."
Ilissa Miller: Right. There is a lot of vanity awards and vanity editorial opportunities that are solicited to executives, " Hey, you too can be on the cover of..."
Avi Freedman: If there's a reprint fee mentioned in the pitch, then it's probably not something that people are going to respect. We did one of them from a vendor that has two names with an and in the middle, but they had actually written something that was a very good product marketing piece by putting together all our stuff. So it was like a guide that was almost a whitepaper, and so we didn't value it necessarily as the, " Oh my God, Jill has said we're awesome." But they wrote a good piece for us and we negotiated it down to like$3,000. 00 or something, so we bought it.
Ilissa Miller: You know, I'm glad you mentioned that because there are strategies where paying for something actually will help advance you. Especially if you're a startup or if you're a young executive who wants to get on the speaking circuit. Somehow, you have to start to establish your market- based credibility and even though they are pay for play, oftentimes the market does not know it's a pay for play situation and therefore it helps to build up your resume and that's usually what I recommend to young speakers who don't have a lot of credibility, it's hard to pitch them, it's hard to land them a speaking gig. Sometimes you have to sponsor something and prove that you're worthy of being invited in the future.
Avi Freedman: Interesting. Yeah, I think that is... That's something we've talked about, for the people that live it, I look at Crunchbase and I can look at the tea leaves and see, I can look at a startup website and see that the only awards they have are the pay to play and I draw something from it, but as a way to explain and most people are not going to... They don't live in this world enough to see that. So I guess that's a good point. But still-
Ilissa Miller: Remember. Yeah.
Avi Freedman: Consult your local expert before paying money because-
Ilissa Miller: Exactly.
Avi Freedman: You don't want to have someone where you're paying them and then they say something that's so patently ridiculous that the network observability market is going to be$ 4 trillion next year and then people will turn off if you do that. So looking back at iMiller and running your own business, what are the best things about getting to run your own business and then what are the things that people should consider that are maybe not the best things, if they're considering it?
Ilissa Miller: What are the best things? Well, you get to do what you love, what you're passionate about, and you oftentimes have choices about who you can work with and who you should work with, want to work with, et cetera.
Avi Freedman: Including customers.
Ilissa Miller: Right, exactly. So you don't always have to work with customers that don't treat you well or you don't believe in their solution or technology or philosophically the approach is different. There are companies that confuse marketing and PR and they will put out press releases that are more marketing focused and for me, that's kind of like a sucker punch in my stomach. It's like, " Oh, God. That's not what PR is about." And it's very frustrating and when you find clients that are like that sometimes you just have to let them go. But on the challenging side, I will tell you, that's where I've learned the most. I think in my earlier years, where you play the good cop- bad cop sometimes, I would let my management team be the good cops and then I would come in as the CEO, as the bad cop, and that really was challenging to a culture. I learned that the hard way because when... Then the managers are like, " Well see? The CEO said this, so you have to this," and that doesn't help to foster an environment where people really want to work for that company and again, I've learned it the hard way. And so by switching it into being more of a positive influence to the team and a mentor and a guide and someone that they can go to in a safe way definitely changes a culture, and I now have my finance guy as the bad guy and it's a much better place to be because businesses are about making money and if you have a good partner in finance who understands that and knows how they can track that and then communicate to the team where he needs them to help, it's all about that bottom line at the end of the day. I can nurture a lot more people and encourage them to think in different ways when I'm playing the good cop.
Avi Freedman: Thank you for sharing that, Ilissa. I think people sometimes think running your company, it's all sunshine and roses and awesome. We've had a lot of people that I interview to come to Kentik and I ask where do you think you want to go and actually some of them, some folks will say, " Actually, I think I want to start a startup," and then 80% of the time, when I check in in six months or a year or certainly by two years, they're like, " No, I don't want to do a startup anymore. I don't want to go start and startup and do a startup. There's a lot of uncertainty, there could be a lot of stress." But everyone has to find the thing which they enjoy. For me when I get frustrated, I just go talk to customers. It's like the thesis was we could build something and we'd love it, and so if that's true, then no matter how frustrating it is, if you're building things that people are using, then you can get validation from that. But everyone's got to find their own path there.
Ilissa Miller: Right, and remember, we're all reliant on the people that make the magic happen for our companies. And those people matter. You see all these articles about the great resignation and why is that really happening and I hear people all the time talking about, " Oh, my manager is this, my manager is that." Listen, in our industry, we grew up with tough people. We did. I'm sure you've had as many tough managers as I have. The language that they use, right? The threats, right? If you don't this, we got to hit our numbers. The stress involved in some of these companies is really high and it's real. So yeah, I had to stop that and kind of rethink of who am I really and what kind of team and company do I want and when it's flipped in that way, they're not looking to hurt me on the way out. They're looking to help me on the way out. " Hey, how much time do you need? Do you need a month of notice?" Instead of, " Hey, I'm going to give you two weeks' notice if you're lucky." Because as those people come and go in the organization, it's very disruptive and the buck stops here. You're the one that has to be responsible for that.
Avi Freedman: Yeah, in hindsight, I'll say I had a good time at the company but I remember the one... I guess the most difficult manager I had. When I decided to quit was when I needed to make a decision because a decision needed to be made. People were arguing literally about what color the cable should be for different things, and it was marketing versus engineers and everybody... It was like, " Okay, well, loop detection. It's been five days, five meetings. The decision is this." And then one of the old timers went to the CTO and the CTO sent an email that said, " Avi is confused. Do this." And I was like, " You've just undermined my authority." And at the time, this was right before I went to Akamai actually and ultimately I was actually just like really intrigued by what was next and the idea that at Akamai you could run networking. You're like, " You could run networking but never be paged. Like you and I have been." So I mean there was a time when I could just like wake up like an intern and just clickety clickety without any time. Now it takes me like 10 minutes to get going. You probably wouldn't want me configuring anything for 10 minutes. So I guess yeah. That's another conversation. I do still configure things, but... So speaking about that topic, people and community, one of the things that you mentioned Ilissa which is the difficulty that it can... There's so much history of why things are the way they are which isn't in a book. Like even just peering and the fact that it's not just technology, it's not just, " Oh. Okay. I want to peer. We'll do this." It's the social and the political side of it. As you look at things and bringing people on in your community and your company and as we try to be more welcoming in NANOG and our broader communities, any ideas about how we can really help with education, making people feel welcome, comfortable asking those foundational questions? I have had Andree Toonk share on this podcast that he came to NANOG as a deep technologist and saw... Again, you could imagine, even me and someone else just like passionately arguing about whatever the hell our religious geek binaryitis thing is and it was like, " Wow, that's intimidating. These people are using all these terms and all this stuff." Like what do you think we could be doing better and if I can help let me know, but...
Ilissa Miller: Yeah, it's a good question and I don't know that I have the answers, but I will tell you, if you ask someone for help, that person is going to help you, period. It's the hardest thing to do, to say, " Hey, I don't know what this technology is, I don't know how this works. Can you please explain it to me?" And going in NANOG for so many years, even going back to the Band- X days in 2000, that's the one thing that I so appreciated about that entire community is that I can go up to someone like Martin Levy and say, " Hey, I've heard you talking about this."
Avi Freedman: Well he's super cool.
Ilissa Miller: Right, right. Well why does this matter, right? And he would take the time to really explain it to me, and there are so many other people that would do that. Others will snicker of course because who are you to ask a question, plus I'm a girl, so what do I know. But the truth is, the more you know, the more inaudible, the more you can recall and engage with the topic and the information, the better off you're going to be. And I know pretty quickly at least with my team who's going to be the winners and who may not be the good fitters for the organization. If they are unable to have the aptitude, to understand, to retain, to connect dots after they've been told a couple of times, they're not going to be a good fit because that's the foundation for this entire industry. It all works together and you have to understand how all of those... The pieces of the puzzle combine and that's with everything and anything and how we're communicating as well. So yeah, asking for help is key and knowing who to go for help. Google's great to learn. You have to read. Reading is everything. I will tell you that when I'm reading materials, particularly from my team who hasn't been reading because they're not using-
Avi Freedman: Who hasn't been following.
Ilissa Miller: Yeah, they're not using the same language and they're talking about things in a way that just does not sync with the target market that we're going after.
Avi Freedman: I spend about an hour a day on Feedly, scanning huge amounts of stuff. But that's just because... And Infovore. It's not just networking, it's actually I follow storage and crypto and poker and other stuff too but we're trying to think about how we formalize that. Actually we have our communications group and actually our PR agency helps by... I think it's really important for the whole company, customer news, industry news, and we've been behind but really want to actually help break that down for people so that they can as you say hit the pattern matching and learn.
Ilissa Miller: So I'll tell you what I did, and you could easily do it yourself is I created an internal webpage pulling RSS feeds from all the major techs.
Avi Freedman: Oh, interesting.
Ilissa Miller: And they're all in one location, so my team can just go to that link and see the news headlines of the day and click right in.
Avi Freedman: I've been thinking about doing that with Feedly boards, but you have to curate those actively and someone has to pick that it's interesting to appear on... Actually maybe that's not true. I need to go look at that again. See if I can do using that Feedly boards. Interesting.
Ilissa Miller: Yeah, and then you can point them to the publications that you're reading that really matter to you. Yeah, having that news page for my team, we call it the newsfeed, has been super helpful.
Avi Freedman: And it's a rare person who actually just goes think, think, think, clickety clickety however many hours a day. So it can be a good way to... When people do want to take a break, be able to do something which is related to learning around, and it's interesting because everyone comes at it from a different approach. For me, the way I describe it is enjoy getting confused. You just have to be able to start reading things that you don't understand and just start... As you said, like you see the words appear but I don't really even understand it. Marketing has been that journey for me, especially at Kentik, and be uncomfortable with that. But there's a lot of people that come from a culture or a background where that's not valued or where asking questions gets you dinged reputationally, and so everyone's got to find their way towards it to be able to do that. You mentioned that I guess at least a few times you've had people that you thought didn't react well because you were a female. Is that getting better? Worse? Was it an impediment when you got started? Is it, you know...
Ilissa Miller: I would say I didn't think it was an impediment when I started. I just didn't think in that way. I just thought, " If I was the smartest person in the room, then I was going to be qualified for what I was going to do," and that's what I aimed to do. Over time, it became clear in some of the roles that I had. I had some male managers who were not kind or respectful particularly in customer meetings and when I started to notice that, it became uncomfortable and that's when I would leave jobs of course, when it just was not a situation where I was going to be allowed to be that smartest person in the room. I'm going to get cut down no matter what. It's interesting, I was talking to someone I guess about some of my experiences at these conferences and events. Especially in the age of the MeToo movement. I am shocked, still, at some of the behavior that I see inaudible. Now I'm pretty cool. Like I can withstand a lot, but if I'm going to send a 33- year- old gal to a conference and be exposed to that, I can't expect that person to be more understanding and kind about those reactions. And so yeah, we have to do better. It is about being qualified to do the job. It isn't about necessarily whether you're a man, a woman or a they. It doesn't even matter, you have to be qualified to do the job. And as a woman, I also don't want to be awarded business because I am a woman. I think that that's the opposite side of where we need to go as a society. But there should be equal opportunity for everyone and anyone no matter what.
Avi Freedman: You want a fair shot based on what you can deliver. And it could be hard because... Growing up in an ethnic household, my mother had to educate me that in ethnic households, one expresses clear and open communication loudly and frequently. But that's not the way of the business world, and sometimes it's the opportunities that you just don't get or don't see that you have to almost develop a sense for which is unfortunate. But again, there are lots of different cultures, there are some cultures where you just have to be able to sense that, so...
Ilissa Miller: Well I do have to give a big shout- out to Mom, my mother. Because when I was eight, she went back to work and she was a manufacturer sales rep and she worked from home and she grew her little business over the years and became very successful in a male- dominated industry. Now I didn't know any of this, right? As I was seeing her go to trade shows and conferences and I was helping her and watching her world, so when I got into the business world, I had no idea that being a girl, being a female was potentially not a good thing because I saw my mother just out there doing it. And it's funny, when we talk about some of my experiences and the trade show stuff, yeah, she's sharing some of her stories and experiences as well and sometimes you just got to let it roll off your back she said and just sit there and just... You've got to be resolute and confident in yourself and know what your boundaries are. It's pretty much that simple, but it's hard to constantly hold up those boundaries.
Avi Freedman: That was a learning experience for me too. My mother, well we are Jewish and my mother was an attorney. Just at the point where you didn't have to be in a Jewish only firm. Like maybe within 10 years and so she joined a white Jew firm and I just never saw it because she was like you, an indomitable... In taekwondo, they say indomitable spirit, a force of nature, and she mentored people and whatever but later on I discovered she had a lot of those frustrations that she had to deal with, some of it quite overt and so yeah. No, it's interesting. A couple last questions, because... I was going to ask, how can someone break in and you talked about you need to hire me and I think that can be challenging for people that either don't come from a culture where that's what you do or there are people that will react differently if it's a white dude calling up and saying that, but what would your advice be to both people entering the workplace, as you said sort of you can tell, how can you tell, how can someone demonstrate that, and how do you work around that if it's a new culture, a new environment, or you're not in the majority. Any advice or tips or tricks? inaudible?
Ilissa Miller: Yeah, so I look at all different types of people, but I do put an extra emphasis on anyone who has music, sports, or any type of team activity, whether they were on the debate team or something like that. That illustrates to me a sense of being part of something larger than the self and the ability to know where their strengths are within the context of the game or the orchestra and be able to be the best at what they do in that role. That team spirit and the idea that people do have ideas. They want to bring and be creative and add value and they want to be heard. Being able to communicate why or why not that doesn't work within the team context is helpful and I'm a music person, I wasn't a sport person but I'm a music person, and so I oftentimes will think of myself as the maestro. I've got all of these different groups of people with different skills and different capabilities, bringing them together so that the music plays in the most beautiful way possible to get the result you're looking for is kind of how I approach what we do and so yeah, being able to identify and illustrate if you're going into a company and if it's a team environment that you are a team player, that you are able to share, provide information, transparency. That's really important to me and so for people looking for positions know where your strengths are. If you are an individual contributor, that's great. Go for jobs that are individual contributors like sales. If you are a team player, go for jobs that you're part of a team, developing products that you're programming and you're doing things that requires more than just you to accomplish it. And that would be my advice is to know where your strengths are and be honest with yourself.
Avi Freedman: Interesting, I think that's great advice. Although we do even look for team, especially early in career, I would say even on the sales side, but there's something about being able to excel together that can create the right spirit and unless you're really lucky, the team doesn't always win. So getting trained in how to live with that. I mean sales, recruiting, SDR, you have to get comfortable with a huge amount of rejection.
Ilissa Miller: Absolutely.
Avi Freedman: Which could be hard. Again it's like I'm willing to do any job in the company, but that would be... That is sort of the hardest and it can be hard for people that have had a lot of success let's say coming just from academics and it can be a shock coming into the workforce. So it sounds like you've had a fantastic career. But if you could go back in time and give yourself some advice as you were entering with the consultancy or even a little bit before, any tips you would give young Ilissa?
Ilissa Miller: Yeah. Remember to be kind. Remember to show appreciation. I mean I've evolved into that type of leader thank God, I learned the hard way, but people... You have to inspire people no matter what. Whether they're working for you, whether you want them to write a story about your client, whether you want someone to hire you or choose your product or service. You have to find a way to inspire people and you do that through kindness and honesty and appreciation and so yeah, I would have been more kinder earlier and if I were aware of the masculine approach to management versus the feminine approach to management earlier, I probably would have appreciated that better.
Avi Freedman: Very interesting. I had a early mentor at a company I worked at after high school who said, " Avi, you have to understand, it's not sufficient to be correct. You have to care about the outcome, not just like are you technically correct." And you see this in people who argue with customers and clients like, " No, you got the word wrong," and that's not... It's like if you are just abrupt, then... And it wasn't that I couldn't understand people, it was that I came from sort of... That was the school that I went to was we argued about stuff and we were super nerds and sort of like networking can be sometimes. You see a couple people arguing ferociously about stuff and then still going to dinner, you don't see the still going to dinner part, you just see that though. So remember to be kind, awesome. Well thank you Ilissa for sharing your story, the good parts and the frustrations and hopefully that can be an inspiration, especially for people to see that there's lots of different ways to bring networking to the world, not only on the technology side.
Ilissa Miller: I so appreciate this opportunity, Avi. It's a pleasure to always speak to you. I so appreciate the opportunity to tell my story and technology is great. It's going to be here for the rest of humanity. It's a great career opportunity for anyone. I encourage everyone to look at this as a growing field to join, so thanks for that.
Avi Freedman: And how can they find you?
Ilissa Miller: They can find me on LinkedIn. My website is also imillerpr. com, pretty simple. Yeah, anybody could reach out to me at any time. I'm always happy to speak to anyone about anything, so thank you for reaching out in advance.
Avi Freedman: Thanks and I am Avi Freedman on Twitter and LinkedIn and Avi at avi. net and Avi at kentik. com and thanks for listening and Ilissa, thanks for joining.
Ilissa Miller: Thank you.
Ilissa Miller, CEO of iMiller Public Relations, joins Network AF to talk about her start working in infrastructure communications, and her advice for companies interested in engaging more with her customers and media. She talks about challenges on the people side of public relations, competitive differentiators of great PR professionals, and lessons learned in running her business.