Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Ariella. I’m from Washington, D.C., and I currently live in West Village, Manhattan. In my past lives, I was a speechwriter at the Department of Justice, the youngest public relations hire at Uber, a professionally-trained ballerina, and founder of an organization that connected employees in duress to employment attorneys. Today I’m founder and CEO of Lioness, a storytelling company that brings untold stories to light and democratizes everyday people’s access to the news media.
Lioness is a conduit to the media for startups, corporations, non-profits, and individuals. The “strategies” side of our business tells stories of enterprise clients that range from childcare tech startups and electric vehicle companies to employment law firms and political nonprofits. We have been behind product launches that have led to products finally gaining traction, opinion articles arguing for the merits of certain legislation or in support of much-needed cultural shifts, and social media campaigns that have built up grassroots momentum and shifted public conversations.
The “stories” side of Lioness focuses more on the stories of individuals, including whistleblowers or former employees who need help bringing sensitive information to light. Employees with stories of abuse, wage theft, and fraud have sought our counsel, and after vetting their information, we have served as a bridge between these sources and top-tier media.
Alongside my business partner, Amber Scorah, I oversee business development, business strategy, media relations and messaging work, editorial development, campaigns, and legal and financial operations. Our days vary drastically - we could be developing a policy argument on behalf of a client, negotiating with a journalist or editor over the merits of a story, or debating business structures that encompass our vision for Lioness as a multi-faceted, several-pronged storytelling company.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I worked for years in tech communications and public affairs. But what interested me most about public relations and storytelling was not merely the act of blasting out a formulaic press release or being a yes-woman to a CEO hell-bent on disseminating propaganda. I was more interested in leveraging media platforms to connect ideas, products, and services to different subsets of people - all while maintaining integrity and grounding the story in truth, not just hype. I suppose no one goes into public relations only wanting to peddle propaganda. But in launching Lioness, I wanted to think deeply about the weight and magnitude of the information that makes up a story. How does a company want to be perceived, and how can we balance that with the truth and what journalists are actually interested in talking about?
My interest in more authentic and broad-reaching storytelling was compounded by an experience co-founding a workplace rights organization. The organization connected employees in challenging work situations (i.e. harassment, discrimination, bullying) to employment lawyers and therapists. I witnessed hundreds of workers and employees sign non-disclosure agreements that hindered them from telling their stories. Had their stories seen the light of day, I am convinced they would have changed mindsets and workplaces.
I wondered, if an individual with no media experience or connections has a compelling story that strikes a chord with broader society or culture, how can they bring that important narrative forward? Corporations have the muscle of corporate public relations armies, helping set an agenda for what the media could focus on via a Rolodex of contacts - I wanted to bring that power to individuals as well.
So the idea for Lioness was born: a storytelling company that takes a journalistic approach to public relations, marrying interesting behind-the-scenes stories with what is in the media zeitgeist, and working with both enterprises and individuals to provide untold ideas more airtime and space in the public discourse.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We don’t really have a digital or physical product, so this answer is going to focus a bit more on how we built up the “street cred” to even launch a storytelling company responsible for setting a story agenda.
Substack has been a good forum for sharing our earned media coverage and how the stories we’ve been behind came to be.
In general, trust is sort of our “product” - it is the most important currency in the media business (can journalists trust we won’t refer them to the next Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos, or a boy/girl-who-cried-wolf?). Before launch, I spent years building bonafide relationships with the media, and learning about what makes a high-fidelity, well-evidenced story. (I also saw a lot of fraud and hype, which helped in gauging what to potentially not trust.)
We also had conversations with trademark, media, and corporate attorneys to think about how to best structure our entity, balancing the current version of what we are with future iterations of what we hope to be, and thinking about how to mitigate risk.
Lastly, it was important to spend time thinking about values and priorities. What kinds of companies and people would we represent? When and why would we turn down money? There are billions of stories out there in the world clamoring for attention (as evidenced by social media), how would we prioritize them? Of course, things have to be somewhat flexible and malleable in a nascent company, but it felt important to align on a north star.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I knew I didn’t want to take outside capital for the business (and didn’t have to, because it is a services business). I also knew that upon launch, I didn’t want to be beholden to an investor’s idea of what Lioness could be. So I saved up money from my last full-time job and started consulting on the side. When we did launch, I had a financial cushion, which I used to pay contractors, design a website, and engage legal advisors.
Our timing was a bit difficult, though: Lioness launched just a few months before the pandemic. All but one of our clients pulled out of their contracts, and in 2020, it was a challenge to get the media’s attention in the midst of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, a racial justice movement, and a charged presidential election. Candidly, at one point, I was tempted to give up and return to the comforts of a corporate job. And beyond the financial strain, it felt lonely launching a business in the midst of global public and mental health crisis.
We played with the idea of crowdfunding, or even pursuing venture capital - but ended up simply hunkering down on a shoestring budget for a few months, not growing but keeping things somewhat afloat. After a few months, clients and funders returned, referring more and more business our way. Since then it’s been about demonstrating our value and return-on-investment to clients, as well as proving our integrity to journalists and news organizations, who have come to trust the information we route their way.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Today, the lion’s share (lioness’s share) of our revenue comes from monthly client retainers. Our clients pay us for strategic communications, brand, and reputation consulting - and they have referred many other clients our way. We post frequently on LinkedIn about the stories and campaigns we have worked on, often inviting interest from our networks to engage services or a partnership. (“FOMO” works well here - people see the stories of others out there in the media, and they want the same thing for themselves or their companies.)
Substack has been a good forum for sharing our earned media coverage and how the stories we’ve been behind came to be. Medium is another avenue for expression and blogging, drawing in clients and partners on more of a personal and emotional level. This is not entirely conventional, in that a lot of strategists prefer to be invisible in this work. But for us, the more people know about us, the deeper the well of stories we have to draw from.
Finally, via an investigative journalist’s connection, we received a grant from a foundation that funds investigative journalism work. We will use that to build a media literacy guide for whistleblowers in the tech industry, in partnership with an activist who advocates for more humane cultures at tech companies.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Right now we are quickly growing our strategic communications service, which encompasses ghostwriting, campaign-building, public policy communications, product communications, and social media development. We just brought on a former journalist and news editor as our first hire - someone who inherently understands how to spot news trends before they happen. We also have brilliant interns.
In the future, we plan to hire for and build out three other services: a public policy division that uses stories as catalysts to introduce legislation; our own content and/or news platform that brings untold stories or investigations to the fore; and an entertainment arm that brings stories to documentary, television, and filmmakers. We believe in the potential of storytelling to shape a more sustainable and humane culture, and we are interested in exploring multiple avenues of achieving that.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
It is important to invest in top-notch lawyers and accountants - specifically trademark attorneys, corporate attorneys, and accountants well-versed in forming business partnerships.
The sting of rejection or failure can make you think you are unworthy, but it has to be fuel to transcend obstacles.
Additionally, while no work environment is going to be completely smooth sailing, it is critical to curate a positive work culture with decent people. We have a somewhat unconventional “no-asshole” policy that applies to anyone we do business with - essentially, we do not work with people who demean or disrespect others in their day-to-day, or with people who believe that stoking fear is the best way to get results. When you make a stance to repel assholes, you actually can end up creating a pretty healthy ecosystem around you. I think we’re way more productive as a result.
Lastly, know your market value. While I don’t believe any work is beneath me, we have set a threshold for what financial value we put on our work. Sometimes some prospective clients try to squeeze us, and it’s usually never worth it, especially when other clients are validating our worth. You get what you pay for, and clients find that out sooner or later.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We can’t do without Slack, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Slack is where we communicate. As a lean and remote team, we don’t like to hold unnecessary meetings, and much of our day-to-day writing, research, and strategizing are done pretty efficiently over Slack.
Twitter is also essential, in that it helps us understand what is bubbling up in the cultural landscape, or what is becoming a part of the media zeitgeist.
LinkedIn has helped us scout new hires. I actually discovered my business partner, a ridiculously talented author, and speaker, over LinkedIn. Another ghostwriter we work with, who has written for magazines like The New Yorker, found us through LinkedIn. So it’s been a useful tool in attracting talent that helps us grow the business.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I was pretty tantalized by the book She Said, by New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. They share the story behind the story of Harvey Weinstein - how they paved the way for petrified sources to bring information forward, all while dodging threats from Weinstein and his lawyers.
Several of the sources I have worked with - especially women speaking up about abuse of power - have read this book as well, and it helps them understand how long and winding the investigative process can be at times, and how breadcrumbs can be pieced together from different sources to reveal information, without people needing to go on the record.
I also love the My Brilliant Friend series by Elena Ferrante, a story about the ebbs and flows of female friendship, and power reclaimed through storytelling. And then I’m now reading a book about physics by physicist Frank Wilczek, called Ten Keys to Reality. It probes the contradictions of physical objects, the subjectivity of perspective, and the importance of dissecting things from many different angles.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
This sounds extremely cliche - but I’d say, don’t be afraid of falling and getting back up. The sting of rejection or failure can make you think you are unworthy, but it has to be fuel to transcend obstacles. I think this is an especially important message for women, who tend toward perfectionism and are almost reticent to try anything that would knock them down. This limits so much of their potential. One of my mantras is to not let perfect be the enemy of the good.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are looking to hire ghostwriters, former journalists, and people with experience in the entertainment realm.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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