Season 2, Episode 6: Becoming Your Own Boss with Kirstin Richter

January 10, 2024

Stacey Copeland: Welcome to FCAT after school, a podcast project from SFU's Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology. In each episode, we join student hosts in conversation with alumni as they explore career journeys since graduation, and gather advice for the next generation. Today on FCAT after school, we have a special long last episode to share with you, featuring SFU School of Communication student, Eden Pollitt, and alumni Kirstin Richter, co founder and creative director of The Social Agency. In this interview, we joined Eden in following the story of how Kirstin went from working at her aunt's PR firm in Regina, Saskatchewan, to starting her own marketing company The Social Agency right here in the Vancouver area. Here are FCAT's own Eden Pollitt and Kirstin Richter.

Eden Pollitt: My name is Eden Pollitt, and I'm a current student in Simon Fraser's communications program. And this episode, I had the opportunity to speak with communications alumni, Kirstin Richter, about her journey from graduation to traveling the world, developing the Vancouver International digital festival and meeting her co founder of The Social Agency. She currently operates as the creative director working with a wide variety of clients such as the BC Farmers Market Association, the Rick Hansen Foundation, White Spot and YYoga. So without giving too much away, let's hop into today's episode. So to start off, I'd like to ask what brought you to Simon Fraser's communications program?

Kirstin Richter: I had always been interested in communications. In high school, I was really focused on the English program and was contemplating journalism, but I got my start in the communications field actually working for my aunt in Regina. I grew up in Saskatchewan. And it was a high school job in the summer and I worked for her at her PR firm and she was working with a number of really exciting clients, including Rick Hanson, and he was doing his man in motion to her back then.

Eden Pollitt: For anyone who doesn't know who Rick Hanson is, you are not alone. Neither did I. One quick Google search informed me that he's a paraplegic track and field athlete, as well as an activist and philanthropist. Between 1979 and 1984, he won 19 wheelchair marathons, three world titles, and 15 metal -  six at the Paralympic Games and nine at the Pan Am Games. The man emotion tour Kirstin is referring to is this journey of traveling the globe via wheelchair to raise awareness for accessibility, and to prove the capabilities of people with disabilities.

Kirstin Richter: And so it was really fun to kind of see firsthand what PR looked like. And it seemed like a really fun field. So I was a little bit torn between going in her direction and journalism as I had kind of originally intended. When I started looking into schools and SFU was flagged for me as a great fit. It was one of only a couple really strong communications programs back when I was applying.

Eden Pollitt: Personally, I've heard this claim before about SFU having one of the best communications programs, but when I go to fact check, I always seem to come up empty handed. The Communications homepage even claims to be one of the best communication programs in the country, yet lacks a reference, which is kind of ironic for our communications program, if you ask me. While my internet research may require some further digging, I personally love what I'm learning and won't complain too much about people's positive and prestigious view of the SFU Communications program.

Kirstin Richter: And I didn't really know anything about it, but I applied and was accepted and so that became my journey out to BC.

Eden Pollitt: Is there something in particular you love most about communications?

Kirstin Richter: I just loved all of it, to be honest. It was really all so new to me. I've kind of went on the media theory stream of things when I was a student. And it was just, I it was kind of mind blowing to me, I was exposed to a bunch of new information and theories that I just really hadn't been aware of. I had some incredible professors and the time and just I love the community of students I was with who were in. it was a really great cohort of people that kind of I was in taking classes with and graduating with and it's actually been super interesting to follow everybody's career since. But, um, SFU just offered some cool opportunities like the Co Op program for one. Also, I was involved in a program called Newswatch Canada and it was a you know the one of the professors brought on student researchers to kind of look at biases in the media. And it was really interesting because we each each student took on kind of two different areas of study and, at the end, we were actually published in a book. So that was a pretty cool takeaway as an undergrad, and definitely was an opportunity that I might not have had elsewhere.

Eden Pollitt: On the SFU website, I found an excerpt stating Newswatch Canada began as Project Censored Canada in 1993, as a collaborative project of the School of Communication at SFU, the University of Windsor and the Canadian Association of Journalists. It was renamed Newswatch Canada in 1998. The association undertakes independent research on the diversity and thoroughness of news coverage in Canada's media with a focus on identifying blind spots and double standards, as per the SFU website. How did it feel to know that you were being published,

Kirstin Richter: it was pretty exciting, you know, we kind of knew that that was a possibility with our research, if we actually, you know, if we were able to show some interesting stats or outcomes from it, but actually seeing the book published and having a copy that it was really, it was really cool, it really made you feel like you were part of something at SFU. So that was, that was definitely unique and stood out to me in my in my time there. But yeah, just I loved kind of, you know, there was a lot of discussion, you know, certainly my journey was different from my friends that were in more of a kind of like a science program, or, you know, there was just so many different classes you could take as a communication student, and I really appreciated being able to kind of delve into all these different types of classes and perspectives that would really complement my degree. And, you know, I just remember lots of discussions and hanging out at the pub and kind of like continuing classes beyond beyond their time, and just really getting to know some really fantastic people during my time there.

Eden Pollitt: While still working towards her degree, Kirsten enrolled in the Co Op program, and held a job at the airport and customs, which, if you ask me is a pretty unique experience. While she enjoyed it, she ended up finding a job on her own and worked there part time for two years.

Kirstin Richter: It was working for a boutique, PR firm run by two women, there was about a team of probably 10 people, and it was really fascinating, again, really cool clients, very, very fast paced. I loved that it was this really kind of collaborative environment with everyone kind of having their own specialty and skill set. My role obviously wasn't as you know, super exciting, or hands on, but I just felt like being around all of it, I really got to get a good feel for how the industry worked, and, you know, kind of client relations and structuring pitches and all of that, you know, my, my role personally was more about, you know, answering phones and booking meeting rooms and, and that kind of thing, but again, it was just such a fun environment to be in and I really, really appreciated the experience that I got there.

Eden Pollitt: Would you say that experience inspired you to start The Social Agency later on?

Kirstin Richter: My aunt was my original inspiration. So I kind of always had this goal of running my own business someday. I thought it would be later in my career, but um, you know, it all kind of worked out the way it did. And so happy that it did, but yeah, working for the agency was the firm was called the Barkley Gazeley Group. And just getting a feel for how that was run and how the two principals were involved. I was like, Yeah, this is definitely something I want to do someday.

Eden Pollitt: I can imagine that finding that job on your own, and having such success in that role was very rewarding on a personal level, would you be able to maybe kind of elaborate on that experience?

Kirstin Richter: You know, it's just really goes to show that just kind of putting, you know, putting it out there that this is something that you're wanting to do. You never know who might be able to make the right introduction for you. So I felt very fortunate to be able to find this opportunity. And then to have two years there, it was kind of a perfect part time job while I was in school.

Eden Pollitt: So then after graduation, what was your mindset? Did you travel or join the workforce right away?

Kirstin Richter: I went and backpacked through Europe for three months, which I highly recommend. It was an incredible experience. And, you know, I, you know, you kind of think you got to get into the workforce immediately. But you know, kind of, I'm glad I took that time to just take a little breather and kind of think about what I wanted to do. I actually ended, in my last year of university, I started temping with a temp agency, you know, and that takes you out on a variety of roles in offices, primarily. But again, I think it was just really good experience and one of those temp jobs actually led me to a position in the future. So you just never know.

Eden Pollitt: And then when you returned, what was the game plan?

Kirstin Richter: I came back here. And at that point, I think I started working at UBC. And it was kind of a different role. It wasn't communications, it was more of an events role at their conference center. So and I stayed there for a couple of years, but I loved it. I worked with a really fun team, it was really enjoyable, but I always knew that I was like really wanting to get back to communications. So that was kind of what was my goal and eventually, I found a role that was a really fantastic fit, and then really kind of provided the mentorship that I was looking for.

Eden Pollitt: And how would you describe that transition? Were there any like, feelings of impostor syndrome happening?

Kirstin Richter: It was 100% imposter syndrome. I was kind of terrified, to be honest, um, you know, like, the program at SFU is fantastic, but I really didn't know a lot of kind of the day to day things. And so I remember a lot of my friends and I were kind of starting our careers at that point and there was a lot of messaging each other going, "Hey, do you know what this is? And how do I do this?" You know, we were all really trying to figure it out.

Eden Pollitt: I love Kirstin's note here about messaging friends, it makes me visualize some sort of chaotic group chat with friends asking, "What is appropriate work attire? Or, what is a wireframe?" or all the sorts of questions I've encountered in my first job experience.

Kirstin Richter: You know, it's really a fake it till you make it moment, I'll be honest. For the first probably year, I was working in, like communications role and I just kept at it. And I knew we were kind of all going through this, we were just all kind of figuring it out together. And everyone was kind of landing in really different spaces. It was really fascinating to see, I'm still friends with a lot of people I went to school with. And, you know, somewhat kind of, you know, when I started my career, it was really the kind of whole "dot com" thing. So a lot of tech companies were popping up in Vancouver. And so I ended up in the tech industry with along with a lot of people I know. And, you know, some of the people that I graduated with, they were some of the first people to kind of launch web agencies in Vancouver, and some of them are still around today, and have been really successful, so... It was interesting, because that was kind of an element of my studies. Richard Smith was one of the professors and I still know like, you know, it was so groundbreaking at the time, everything we were learning about, you know, the internet and kind of, you know, the marketing aspect of it. So this was kind of pre social media a nd we were just trying to off kind of figure out what it all meant

Eden Pollitt: Maybe talk a little bit about how you got to creating The Social Agency from, you know, maybe earlier in your career and having this nonprofit job. When did when did that transition start to take place?

Kirstin Richter: So part of the job when I was with Digi BC, the not for profit, one of my major roles there was launching and kind of producing the Vancouver International Digital Festival. It's called VidFest. We ran it for five years and we brought in speakers from around the globe. Some were pretty amazing and you know, we had it was a fantastic fun event that, you know, I kind of put all of my heart and soul into

Eden Pollitt: VidFest ran in Vancouver from 2004 through 2008 for a total of five years and had guest speakers like Don Mattrick the president of Electronic Arts and Sander Schwartz, the president of Warner Brothers animation.

Kirstin Richter: And I met some really amazing people through that journey. And you know, including my future who was going to be my future business partner, Monica. So she was doing some freelancing for us for PR for the festival. I just really enjoyed working with her. And then eventually, I mean, the real impetus for me starting The Social Agency was the fact that I had a child. So I went back to work after having my first daughter. And I felt that I just wanted to be a bit more self directed. I wanted to be able to have a bit more flexibility in my schedule, because I was feeling a bit run off my feet with a new kid and just trying to juggle everything. So I decided that I would see if my boss at the time was open to me taking on more of a freelance role. And thankfully for me, he was and so I left my full time job and started freelancing. He was my first client and then I started to pick up a few more clients. But I quickly realized that I'm really kind of a team person, I really enjoy being collaborative, that's when I feel most creative. And so I decided that maybe instead of starting my own company, in 10-15 years, maybe I should just do it now. So I reached out to Monica because she was still freelancing at the time to see if she would be interested in CO founding an agency with me, and thankfully, for me, she was. So we launched The Social Agency in 2009, and really, with a focus of being able to work on projects that were really inspiring to us and work with great people, but also to be able to have some work life balance, because we both by that point, uh, I had two children by the time we launched, and she had her first so we wanted to really prioritize our own schedules as we kind of navigated everything at that point in our lives.

Eden Pollitt: Would you say that being a mother has influenced the way you and Monica, run your business? I was looking at your website, and it looks like a lot of your employees are also women, so I just be interested to know how not only as a founder, but as a current manager, slash team leader, how that affects your business practices?

Kirstin Richter: It completely informs everything that we do. And you're right, we do work with a lot of women and majority of them have children, we really wanted to create an agency that provided an opportunity for people like ourselves to do the work that they love, but not be constrained to a 40 hour workweek, you know, to be able to kind of pick and choose projects to be able to work when they want it to work. You know, we've always had a kind of hybrid model way before COVID as far as like, where people work from. Half our team actually doesn't even live in the Vancouver area and it's always been like that. We have people in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver Island. So we just always wanted to allow people the flexibility to do their work, because it's just enabled us to work with some extremely talented people who just weren't interested in working for a larger company that had kind of more restrictions around what a job looked like.

Eden Pollitt: Were there any obstacles that you face initially around that kind of a work schedule? Or maybe just even the creation of the company? And how did you overcome those obstacles?

Kirstin Richter: Oh, yeah, the first year was a little bit crazy. I was pregnant, Monica had a newborn, we were trying to pitch clients, I had a toddler at home. You know, it was a bit wild first year. I was, you know, when my youngest was born, I just remember she was like days old, but I really wanted to just kind of finish up this one project I was working on, and, you know, my mom was like, "What do you mean you're going to work today?" and I'm like, "Yeah, but I'm only going to work for an hour." You know, um, so just trying to like, figure out that balance, that first year was a little hectic, but we did get our groove pretty quickly, and we've always really spelled each other off. You know, we've both allowed for each other to take the space they need when they need it, and I think our whole team is super supportive that way. So yeah, the first year was definitely a little hectic, you know, trying to basically launch ourselves. We were, you know, building this website and this brand and the thing with our timing was, it was actually kind of amazing, because when we launched, there was only probably a couple other agencies that were specializing in social media, so our timing was pretty awesome in that regard. So we were able to kind of get on some pretty great projects right from the get go, um, which obviously really helped and some of those are still clients now. But yeah, it's just a now, you know, there's so much competition in the space of social, but I think the thing that kind of sets us apart now is that we do really have this traditional PR background and traditional communications background so, you know, there's a lot of kind of strategy behind what we do and we don't just do social, we often do a mix for clients. You know, there's a lot of crossover between PR and social media. I think just having this more well rounded team and expertise has really helped us succeed and make it to our 13 year anniversary, which we just celebrated this month.

Eden Pollitt: Congratulations. 13 years, it's like a teenager company now. How did the pandemic impact your work? Because you were ready in this hybrid remote space and then a pandemic comes along, so you're already somewhat situated to continue to work through that, but I am sure it had some sort of impact. So I'm just wondering what that looked like for you and for of the social agency?

Kirstin Richter: It definitely had an impact. You know, marketing, obviously, is a budget that isn't necessarily always going to be the priority for some companies, especially if they're struggling themselves. So we definitely lost some work during COVID. You know, we lost a couple of retainer clients. We often do a lot of kind of public facing campaigns in the summer around, you know, events that are happening, and those were all canceled. So definitely work slowed down. It, we decided, though, to kind of reframe that downtime that we had as a time for us to kind of like, really do a deep dive into what we wanted to focus on. We kind of relaunched our website. We just kind of really like looked inwards to see like, what type of projects were we wanting to do, what type of services were we really wanting to focus on. We're working with some really cool clients already this spring and summer, and so I'm glad we I'm glad in retrospect, that we were able to have a little bit of time to kind of do like, look at that. Because often when you're a business owner, you know, you kind of put yourself last as far as your own business model or your own marketing or your own strategy, because you're always focused on that for your clients. So it did give us a chance to revisit what we wanted to prioritize.

Eden Pollitt: You mentioned working with some fun clients this upcoming summer. Do you have any projects that you look back on that are some of your favorites?

Kirstin Richter: Oh, gosh, yeah, we've had so many fun projects over the years. We're currently working with the BC association of farmers markets, we've worked with them kind of on an ongoing basis, each summer is on different campaigns, we've had a ton of fun with them over the years. We are, we worked with Rick Hanson, you know, kind of earlier when we launched the agency and that was like a really cool moment for me personally, just because he had been one of my aunt's clients and I'd met him when I was young. And so to have my agency be working with him on his new campaign was just really cool. And I was really, like, thankful to be able to have that. I love that it's always changing. You know, we certainly have worked with a ton of kind of nonprofits over the years. So that's something that we've always kind of focused on, we work with Coast mental health. And so it's just amazing to get to work on these kinds of really, public facing projects that are helping so many people. We've tried a lot of different type of areas and so it always keeps things really interesting, because when you're doing marketing for a project, you kind of become like a de facto expert on that topic. So, you know, certainly it's constantly learning at the social agency.

Eden Pollitt: And just to wrap up, I've really appreciated having you on, and now I just wanted to know if there's any other advice you'd like to give? Or if you have some final words?

Kirstin Richter: You know, I kind of went on a different path than I might have potentially foreseen when I graduated. Like I said, being more self directed, wasn't what I thought I would do. Initially, I thought maybe this wasn't somewhere I'd land much later. But I love it. I can't recommend it enough to find a job that gives you a bit of flexibility. You know, we're all kind of everybody has, like all these different interests and aspects of their life that shouldn't always have to take a backseat. So I think if you're in a position where you can really, you know, develop an expertise in an area and become kind of indispensable to someone, it gives you some freedom. So, you know, certainly you want to kind of, like try different things, but you know, being really good at what you do, just makes you like, so appealing as to how often as as an employee, but also just, you know, just things like strong work ethic, and willing to try different things is just as makes people stand out, like, when we're, when we're looking to add to our team. We just really appreciate a truly collaborative person that will try a little bit of everything and, you know, with that we can really kind of rely on to get the job done. Again, you know, because we're not all in an office setting, just knowing that someone's got great time management skills and can just kind of take a project and run with it. It's just a huge benefit.

Stacey Copeland: Interested in learning more about the FCAT community. Stay tuned for a brand new episode of FCAT After School in your feeds every other Wednesday this season. A big thanks to Kirstin for joining us here on the show. You'll find links to resources mentioned and more info on Kirstin and the SFU School of Communication in the show notes Our hosts for this episode was Eden Pollitt, production by Eden and me Stacy Copeland FCAT after school respectfully acknowledges the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Qayqayt, Kwantlen, Semiahmoo and Tsawwassen peoples, on whose unceded traditional territories our three campuses reside and where many of the stories shared in this series take place. Make sure to rate us and subscribe to FCAT After School in your podcast app of choice, so you don't miss any of our upcoming episodes. You can follow us on social media at FCATatSFU. That's f-c-a-t at SFU on Twitter and Instagram