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When Ethan Rasiel and Amanda Proscia – both friends and longtime communications executives at Samsung and American Express, respectively – were talking at a charity fundraiser in 2013, they realized they shared the same frustration. When working in a large organization, they opined, it can be challenging to operate quickly enough to keep up in today’s increasingly digital and fast-paced world.
“Marketing has to be quick and responsive,” said Rasiel, who also spent almost fifteen years at PR giant Edelman before joining Samsung. “You have to jump on trends and be very nimble… so I decided to start a company that solved that challenge [for large organizations].”
That solution came with co-founding Brooklyn-based Lightspeed PR in 2013, a virtual PR firm that works with clients such as Krux and NextCapital to manage everything from digital content development to social media to more traditional public relations needs. In every phase of the game, Rasiel (the firm’s CEO; Proscia is the managing director) says his company is committed to living up to its name.
“We wanted Lightspeed to be about our team, and we wanted speed to be our differentiator,” he told Free Enterprise. For starters, the company has no physical office space, and Rasiel and Proscia work with a roster of contractors and freelancers in order to stay nimble. In many ways, what started as a fiscally conservative early-stage strategy to keep risk at a minimum and overhead expenses low turned into a viable and sustainable way of running a business – all virtually.
“This wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago,” Rasiel emphasized. In the advent of flexible office hours and co-working spaces, he noted, common work-management applications and software have significantly changed what can be done without physically sitting in a room together.
“I hate email,” he responded when asked about how he communicated with his remotely located team. “One of my philosophies is to reduce sending email. Instead, we usually use Slack, Trello, and Google Hangouts for meetings. For hiring, LinkedIn and Upwork.”
Rasiel’s mantra was to put work first. Allowing his contractors to work flexibly from home, coffee shops, and co-working spaces reduced commute times and helped Lightspeed compete with larger agencies for top talent.
“People [especially more senior employees] don’t want to compromise their work schedule,” Rasiel said. “Rather than directly competing with agencies for top talent, we attracted people with convenience and flexibility.”
This became especially salient when Rasiel saw an influx of employees that weren’t able to adhere to the traditional work model for personal or familial reasons. Unlike many upstart agencies, Lightspeed PR doesn’t restrict its talent to younger, 9-to-5 contractors living in the New York City area, and instead, has workers in Florida, Chicago, and San Francisco. “A majority of our contractors today have children as well,” he added.
The strategy is working well. Since its genesis, Lightspeed PR has been operating at a profit, with revenue from its first two clients – just over $5,000 – coming in before any expenses did. “We were very deliberate and didn’t take on any debt at the start,” Rasiel explained. “We aren’t selling a piece of hardware or a gadget; we’re selling talent.”
Today, while still adhering to the virtual model, the company has successfully managed to reach the $1 million mark in annual revenue, bringing in $86,000 just this past October. “We’re at a stage where we’re competing with much bigger agencies,” he continued. “We can handle RFPs [Request For Proposals] from anyone.” Lightspeed now boasts a roster of more than 12 clients – no small feat for a company without a physical conference room. Operating on a retainer model, as opposed to getting paid hourly, the company brings in more than $8,000 a month from its clients.
Admittedly, one of the main reasons Lightspeed PR can still operate virtually is because its team is still comparatively small. Across the United States, Lightspeed PR has a team of about 15 freelancers, with about five backups “on the bench” for major projects – half of them residing in New York.
Reducing risk and maximizing efficiency and growth are important to both Rasiel and Proscia. But as the company has now begun attracting bigger clients – educational technology company D2L and advocacy organization AARP being recent notable additions – Lightspeed PR has reached an interesting juncture where, after three years of operating profitably, it will make its first two hires next February. In many ways, this is a big step forward for a company looking to increase its scale of operation. The decision is a well thought-out and cautious one.
Additionally, as the team expands, Rasiel and Proscia are also interested in organizing co-working meetings with the help of WeWork, while also partnering with other PR agencies – such as NY- and LA-based entertainment firm BHI – that provide them with temporary office spaces and conference rooms when needed.
From the looks of it, vetting full-time hires first as contractors is a route that Rasiel is interested in sticking with. “It takes a certain kind of person to be disciplined enough to work in this structure. There’s an element of trust, so I’ve had to be very selective,” said Rasiel, a big believer in reducing surprises.
Looking ahead, Rasiel is interested in expanding on a growth model that has already been proven effective for Lightspeed: gain bigger clients while keeping an agile team of contractors and employees. This doesn’t necessarily mean the company will always run virtually. As with many of Rasiel’s decisions for Lightspeed, this one too is driven by the idea of delivering better client work faster.
Running a business is never something Rasiel had envisioned for himself – let alone running one virtually. “I was used to working in these big organizations where everything was taken care of for you,” he said. “But it’s been so rewarding to create something [myself].” When we asked him what he’s learned running Lightspeed PR’s workforce from a computer screen, his answer was clear: “Always remember to keep an open line of communication, and pick up the phone more often.”