Sabina Gault – Founder & CEO, Konnect

Sabina Gault is the CEO of Konnect, an award-winning communications and marketing agency with offices in Los Angeles, New York and Austin, TX.

A seasoned and passionate PR and marketing practitioner, Sabina’s approach to client service, strategic communications, and measurable results are apparent in Konnect’s rapid rise from a startup to a mid-size agency with an average annual growth rate of 60 percent. With more than 50 employees across its 3 offices, Sabina leads a team of dedicated staffers who provide a boutique-level personalized service combined with an adept ability to effectively build brands that has resulted in a long list of legacy clients.

As a working mother and the entrepreneur behind a WBENC-certified, women-owned business, Sabina has a passion for the challenges and rewards that stem from successfully balancing family and career. This passion is evident in Konnect’s relationships with brands that serve families and children, as well as its work with clients in the franchise space and the artisanal “better-for-you” food and beverage industry.

Since founding the agency in 2009, Konnect has been named the #1 PR Agency on the Inc. 5000 “Fastest Growing U.S. Companies” list, three years in a row, and was included on the Los Angeles Business Journal’s “Best Places to Work” listing among many other accolades.

Running a company in an ever-changing environment (where magazines close their doors weekly, social media channels come and go faster than anyone can keep up with, and marketing strategies are constantly evolving) brings on some serious challenges.

However, Sabina applies her scrappy attitude to running the company on a tight budget, always looking at the bottom line and keeping track of the numbers. She started the company with the philosophy that she needs to surround herself with intelligent people that have experience in running successful companies. She built a culture where people love coming to work and enjoy putting their best foot forward on a daily basis, rather than clocking in and out. But most of all, she worked the hardest. She set the tone for a culture of leading by example, and that example was that hard work pays off!

Sabina is a graduate of Berkeley and currently resides in Long Beach, California with her amazing husband and two children who keep her grounded and contribute to the motivation that drives her success.

Tell me about your early career.
I started my career in PR in Romania (where I am originally from) and moved with a job (also in PR) to the United States about 15 years ago. I’ve never done anything else other than PR, and I’ve been lucky enough to experience a wide range of industries, from TV and film to entertainment and consumer. All these have helped me understand the field better, allowed me the opportunity to cross between the various channels of communications seamlessly, and ultimately to become a better communicator myself. For the last ten years, I have been working with entrepreneurs in the consumer-packaged goods arena. I’ve seen the rise and fall of businesses and have had an intimate knowledge of what makes a brand succeed. That’s been extremely exciting and interesting, and it’s helped me have a better understanding of what to do in my own business.

How did the concept for Konnect come about?
Where I come from, the concept of entrepreneurship was not something you learned about in school or saw people in your circle do. So unlike many, I did not necessarily start out by having a dream of building a successful company or growing a thriving business. I started out with a job, but found myself enjoying the business part of things. I also realized I wasn’t the best employee – I was opinionated and strong-willed and relentless when it came to what I believed in. So, rather than planning to start a company, I quit my job and was followed by two clients who had no interest in working with anyone else. And thus, Konnect was born.

How was the first year in business?
Compared to now, easy! I had one or two employees, several clients, and a good amount of time! Growing the business was fun and I was able to have personal relationships with everyone (from the team or client side). I was lucky to have close friends (and clients) who had been in business for a long time act as advisors on my own business growth. That made all the difference and thanks to them, I made less costly mistakes and learned to run a business efficiently.

What was your marketing strategy?
Same as today. Put people first. Strong, truthful relationships with clients and business partners make all the difference. Clients don’t leave the company – they leave the people in it! So, beyond ensuring that we provide the best service, we always build a long-lasting relationship with the people based on trust, understanding, respect, and results.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We have doubled in size, year-over-year. Last year, we did about 40% and this year we are probably going to do 20% or so in growth. It’s obviously harder the larger the company gets. Next year will mark 10 years since I hired my first employee (who is still working alongside me today).

How do you define success?
In any business, there are so many facets that one can define success by. For me, it’s the client and staff tenure on one end, tight financials on another, as well as overall personal happiness. Obviously, the first two are much easier to measure – how long do people stay, and how good are our numbers. The third one is tricky. But I’d say that feeling good about what I do and who I do it with on a daily basis, is a good measure of happiness.

What is the key to success?
Well, it all depends on how one measures success. For me, the key is hard work and putting people first – that’s what accomplishes my first two measures of success. The key to happiness lies somewhere within and quite frankly depends heavily on the people I surround myself with, and the filter I choose when I look at the world. For me, success is much more than money, notoriety, and running a good business. It’s about the memories you create for yourself, your family, and the people around you while you are in that business.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I have to think about this one. I have learned so many. But one of the greatest is that no matter what, truth should always come first. In my industry, we are used to changing perspective, to make people think the way we (or our clients) want. We are always filtering information and choosing what people should and shouldn’t see. And while truth should prevail in all business, it is that much more prevalent in PR.

What are some quotes that you live by?
There are many, but “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars” is one of my favorites.

What are some of your favorite books?
I’m a huge fan of Simon Sinek and Jim Collins, among others. Just finished reading Simon’s Leaders Eat Last and loved it. I’m actually making the entire company read it because I think it speaks so truly to the climate we live in. Jim’s books Good to Great and Great by Choice continue to inspire me and are shining beacons of how businesses around the world should run.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
It was about two years ago. We had opened two offices, one in Texas and one in New York, and my entire executive team was focused on them. We wanted to make sure they will succeed (oh, and this “open two offices in one year” should probably go up there with lessons learned – don’t do it!). So, that year our lives were spent on the road. What we didn’t realize then was that we took our eye off of our home office, and things started to crumble. What had been a strong, collaborative environment, without leadership in place, became a mad house. We lost 60% or more of our LA team in a matter of two months. We couldn’t hire fast enough and we couldn’t seem to keep people long enough. The culture was suffering and the business started to suffer. As things got frantic, and the battle between keeping people on board and clients calm, and me finding piece of mind and continuing to grow, the business came to a head. I realized that nothing more than the people mattered. That day when the storm finally stopped and quietness rolled in was the hardest. Looking at the aftermath and deciding how to start putting the pieces back together (as well as realizing the time it was going to take to do so) was incredibly hard!

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I personally have a strong desire to not let anything stand in my way. It’s part of who I am and how I was raised, but also where I come from. But I also think about the people in my life and how me not moving forward will affect them (and their families). When you own a business, it’s no longer about you (contrary to popular belief). It’s about the people you lead and how you are impacting their lives on a daily basis. So, wanting to do well by others is an equally strong force.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Buckle up! It’s a wild ride. From the day you make your first dollar to your hundredth million (or more), you are challenged to an extreme, pushed into situations you would never get yourself into (in your right mind), and asked to constantly weigh the good and the bad against the status quo. The choices you make impact you (as well as others) in ways that you cannot always control, but it is the most fulfilling thing you will ever do.

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.