THE NARRATIVE THAT DRIVES THE FUTURE
Kyle Arteaga, Cofounder and CEO, The Bulleit Group
Today The Storied Future Podcast welcomes Kyle Arteaga, cofounder and CEO of The Bulleit Group, an award-winning high-tech PR agency.
From an early age, Kyle believed that the science fiction of movies and television could become reality—had to become reality.
At the core of Kyle and his team’s mission is a recognition of the ways technology has shaped the present, and a determination to tell the stories of the companies that will drive the future.
In this episode, Kyle and Chris discuss how companies that are inventing the future can thrive in the midst of uncertainty and use narrative to change what happens next. They cover:
- The influence TV shows like The Jetsons and Knight Rider had on young Kyle’s vision of what was possible
- How comms can evolve to address the acceleration of invention, the proliferation of communication channels, and the complex desires and demands of customers, employees, and policy makers
- How startups and enterprise tech companies can effectively tell their stories in a way that brings their vision of the future to life
- Why having a strong narrative in times of uncertainty is critical to the future of your company
- How to build an authentic narrative, and the importance of bringing your audience along on the journey
And much more!
008 Kyle Arteaga: The Narrative That Drives the Future
Kyle Arteaga 00:00
So that's my advice. Yeah, stop sitting on the sidelines. The world is moving regardless of what you do. So if you want to have a role in the future, show it to us. Make a plan.
Welcome to The Storied Future Podcast with Chris Hare, a show that provides the knowledge and inspiration C-suite leaders need to shift the future. Hear from experts, innovators, and purpose-driven leaders who have harnessed the power of strategic narrative to create lasting change.
Chris Hare 00:29
Hi, and welcome to The Storied Future Podcast. I'm Chris Hare, and I'm glad you're here. Each episode I talk to C-suite leaders, experts, and innovators who have created new narratives that change minds, change behavior, and change the future. My guest on today's episode is Kyle Arteaga. Kyle grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a farming town across the border from Juarez, Mexico. When Kyle was a kid, he spent hours watching The Jetsons and Knight Rider and Back to the Future. And those shows led him to believe that anything was possible. In fact, he spent months trying to build a working hoverboard. And while it never worked, Kyle never stopped believing in the power of invention. Like all kids, he had dreams for his future, and so did his parents. They were very intentional in guiding his upbringing – the people he hung out with, the activities he participated in at school, and the sports he played – in ways that he didn't understand until much later in life. After high school, Kyle's journey took him from small town New Mexico to the University of Arizona, where he studied how people's garbage can actually help you predict future trends. Then in his senior year, he wandered the train tracks from West Texas to Los Angeles, where he studied hobo graffiti, what made these artists travel from place to place, and what it was that shaped their work. After college, he eventually made his way to Silicon Valley, where he ultimately landed a comms role at Netscape before making the move to Reuters. Today, Kyle is the CEO of The Bulleit Group, a tech PR and media agency that works with startups and enterprise tech companies across AI, robotics, neuroscience, computer vision, autonomous cars, and more to bring science fiction to life. PRovoke Media has called Bulleit “The go-to boutique to create narratives for cutting edge technology”. In this episode, we explore how startups and enterprise tech companies can effectively tell their stories in a way that brings their vision of the future to life. We discuss why having a strong narrative in times of uncertainty is critical to the future of your company. And finally, we look at how to build an authentic narrative and the importance of bringing your audience along on the journey. Let's dive in.
Kyle, thanks for joining The Storied Future Podcast.
Kyle Arteaga 02:48
Thanks, Chris. Thanks for having me on.
Chris Hare 02:51
Can you take me back to when you were a kid? We've talked about this before, but I'd love for our audience to hear. I heard in an interview recently with Anthony Kiedis, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And he was talking about Rick Rubin and said, “If you look at his origins, it's no accident that he ended up being the person that he is. He got fed the raw materials as a kid, and it opened up his dream.” I know for you, your parents were very intentional about what you were fed growing up to ensure your success. Can you talk about your childhood?
Kyle Arteaga 03:20
Sure, yeah. I grew up in a small town called Las Cruces, New Mexico. It was incredibly eclectic. I mean, I didn't know it at the time, because that's all I knew. But it was a town of about 60,000 people about 40 miles away from the border. For any of you that watched Narcos, it was where Narcos, Juarez, was filmed. It's right there. And it had a very interesting mix of people in the community. So it was a farming community. It was a university town. And it was also right next to White Sands, it's a missile testing center. So, like a typical small town, we had football and basketball and baseball. It kind of felt like Friday Night Lights, the Hispanic addition. It was a predominantly Hispanic community. So you know, I was going to school with illegal workers, as well as university professors’ kids and legitimate rocket scientists’ kids. So again, totally eclectic. And I think my parents were very understanding of the fact they grew up in a small town – they grew up from parents who were first generation – that your friends become the community that you belong to, and also kind of help define what your future is. And I think they were very intentional about making sure that I was spending more time with the university professors’ kids and the rocket scientists’ kids then perhaps some of the other people who live down the street from me. And, I mean, looking back, that makes a lot of sense, but at the time, I just, you know, I didn't understand it at all. But to your point about Rick Rubin, I think they were trying to get me clearly focused on the future and what the possibilities were outside of this border town.
Chris Hare 04:50
And so what were some of those things that they fed you or poured into you or the kinds of activities that helped shape you?
Kyle Arteaga 04:57
Well, as I mentioned before, it was a Friday Nights Lights-version town. You know, it really felt that way. Everyone was going to the football games and basketball games. I wasn't allowed to play either. I played soccer, I swam, I was in tennis. I remember taking all sorts of summer courses. I remember taking buses and cabs to different schools to take advanced courses across a bit. So I was already the youngest kid in my class. And then I was, you know, being shuttled around from elementary school to junior high to go take math classes. So, I mean, here I was a short little kid from the other side of town, going to the school for a single class and then popping back in a cab and heading back. I mean, I really felt like an outlier in every sense of the word. I don't think I would trade it for anything. But it was definitely an experience.
Chris Hare 05:43
You said that you didn't really understand at the time, but what was your parents’ vision? Was there a specific career that they wanted for you? And then I'm also curious how, in what ways, that maybe collided with what you wanted as a kid?
Kyle Arteaga 05:56
I don't recall them actually pushing me towards a certain career. I do recall them pushing me towards grad school or some sort of professional but not like, Hey, you've got to be a doctor, you've got to be a lawyer. I do recall very early on wanting to be a politician. And I can't for the life of me figure out where that came from. Now looking back, that was crazy. But yeah, I mean, I wanted to be a senator from New Mexico. I thought that was the plan that I had. And my parents were fully in support of that. Whether they believed me or not, I've never asked them. I probably should.
Chris Hare 06:30
That's awesome. I want to shift over a little bit into the role that or, how technology captured your imagination as a kid. So for me, I remember it was probably 1981, 82. And I was riding the bus to school. And this one older kid had a calculator watch, I think it was the Casio C-80. And I remember it just blew all of our minds, right? And having a conversation about it. Hey, one day, you're gonna actually be able to use this thing to talk. That might have a phone built into it, right? Talk to me about some of the things that lit you up as a kid.
Kyle Arteaga 07:05
Sure, but yeah, before you go to that, the C-80, is that the one where you could play the video games where you could play Defenders on it, I think it was? Or Asteroids?
Chris Hare 07:12
Yeah, I don't recall. I think we got stuck at the functionality of just the calculator.
Kyle Arteaga 07:18
Yeah, I recall having all those versions. Yeah. I mean, to me, pop culture really is what opened my eyes. That generation of kids, a lot of us were latchkey kids. Our parents were still at work when we got home from school. So we watched a lot of TV. And some of the TV that I watched really impacted me. I think it started with Rosie the Robot on The Jetsons and the flying cars. I think The Jetsons first started in 1962. So I was watching it in the late 70s, early 80s. That had to happen, right? Like, of course that was going to happen in our lifetime. It's been on TV for 20 years, it has to. It just wasn't even a question. Then, like 1982, here came K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider. And I mean, I was obsessed. You know, here's this car that you can call, like, autonomous ride hailing, assisted driving development, like all the different things that K.I.T.T. could do is actually what we're seeing in self-driving cars now. I mean, it's funny to think that Hollywood predicted so much of what we're actually starting to see now, but that it actually took this long, from 1982 to now, to come to reality. And I guess the last touch point, and I'm sure you share this with me, Chris. All of us watched Back to the Future. This was 195. And every kid that I know ordered a hoverboard kit from the back of Boys’ Life magazine. There was a little ad in the back, I don't remember if it was $5.99. I don't know what it was. And you buy this little book, and it tells you how you're going to make a hoverboard. And every Dad and Mom was groaning, saying there's just no way this is gonna work. But you know, you’re a kid, you believe it. I think I was 11, 12 at the time. So I had them buy an old vacuum cleaner, tear apart the motor, and try to get this work. And of course it didn't work at all, like not even close. It didn't even stay up for a second. But I was still positively convinced that it was going to happen and I was going to make it work. I must have given up eventually after six months or so of trying. But I never gave up the optimism that it was possible. Yeah, maybe I was a little dejected when it didn't work that time. But that's the nature of scientific discovery, right? Like if I didn't try that out, I wouldn't have even thought it was possible.
Chris Hare 09:21
I love that, Kyle! I love how there's just this bringing together of the vision and what your parents were pouring into you, and then what you got on your own from the television, from Hollywood, and really created this picture of this world that was just so much bigger than the small border town that you grew up in. You know, when you think about your parents trying to open up your eyes to what was beyond your town, what do you think it was that drove them to do that?
Kyle Arteaga 09:49
They both grew up in a small town outside of Las Cruces called Deming, New Mexico, which, I don't know, I think it's 12,000 people maybe. And there wasn't much industry there, right? Like, you made it if you got to college, if you got to the big city, Las Cruces, of 60,000 people, you made it in everyone's eyes there. So I think they always aspired, like, Hey, our kids are going to have more opportunities to them. And so what they pushed us to is they started pushing us to travel. I remember being 13 years old, this was the summer after eighth grade, and I spent the summer in Germany, in Hanover, Germany, as an exchange student. It was just completely eye opening. The town that we were in was a suburb of Hanover called Laatzen. And it's where CeBIT takes place. And CeBIT is the world's largest technology conference, and has been, I think, now for the last 20 years. But this was before CeBIT even existed. And so they were building this huge, World's Fair-style auditorium/buildings/campus, I suppose. And it was just fun to watch. It makes a lot of sense now that that's where a lot of these new discoveries were first developed and were shown to the world. And I'm just proud that I was able to spend that time there.
Chris Hare 11:00
Yeah, there's just something really predictive about your future, right? Like you had no clue at the time, but that you were there, and were a part of that energy. That's just really cool. Let's shift now to talk about how you got started in college, and then your career. You're the only person I've ever met whose career was inspired by garbage and graffiti, and that combination of the two of them together. So let's start there.
Kyle Arteaga 11:25
Sure, yeah. I mean, pop culture has always fascinated me and I take a very liberal term on pop culture. Garbage and graffiti are part of it. We talked about earlier, I was dead set on becoming a politician. I mean, literally, everything I was gonna do was to be a politician. I remember being in college, my freshman year, and I used to make everyone swear that they would never tell anyone that I was drinking, because that could come out and ruin my political career. Little did we know that where politics would end up, that would actually probably be helpful. But anyway, what I kind of stumbled into at the University of Arizona was this incredible class called Introduction to Garbology. And it was taught by this crusty, amazingly brilliant scientist named William Rathje. And he had discovered that if you look at garbage piles, you could extrapolate from that what kind of milk people were drinking, or whether they were recycling or, I don't know, consumption patterns basically foretold what was going on in society. And if you think about it, it totally makes sense. It’s just no one had ever taken the time, frankly, because garbage is dirty, right? No one wanted to. So as soon as that clicked in my head that like, Wow, actually, we as humans are leaving clues about how we live everywhere we go. I was in awe, like, I couldn't get enough of it. And so I wanted to keep studying with this professor. And after taking his course, I then talked to him like, Hey, I need to figure out a way to keep working with you. And he's like, Well, you could do the Garbology Project. But you know, that's kind of basic. Or I challenge you go find something like it, go find something else where society's giving us clues that no one else is studying. I spent about six months just racking my brain, like what on earth could that possibly be? Is it gum wrappers on the ground? Like, I don't even know, what could that be? And then I just started thinking about growing up in New Mexico and all the train tracks. There's trains that go all through the southwest, because that's the most expeditious way. This is far before there were all these trucks on the roads, far before we sent things by airplane, you know, we used to just use trains everywhere. And there were always hobos underneath those train tracks. And I started looking at the spot and like, Hey, their graffiti there doesn't look like normal graffiti, right? Like the graffiti there was all about movement, like, Hey, I was in Los Angeles last week. Now I'm heading to Dallas, and here's why I'm going there. And so I created a study program under Dr. Rathje where I would study why people are going from one place to another. What drove them? If they had no other considerations. If you had no reason, no barriers, financially it wasn't an issue, anything else wasn’t an issue, what makes you move from one place to another? And so for the next year and a half or so, that's what I studied. I would just go to find train tracks, I would look for hobo graffiti, and I tried to track where people went.
Chris Hare 14:15
So, what was that like for you growing up in a family where there was a very clearly defined path and guardrails that you're going to follow? And all of a sudden, it sounds like you are very much in a similar place to the people that you're studying, where there's this undefined future, and you're going on this journey, and you're not sure where you're gonna end up, right? What was that like for you? And what did that do for you?
Kyle Arteaga 14:36
I mean, it's freeing in so many ways, right? Like, Wow, I've got a world of opportunities. And that's the first stage. And the second stage is, Holy smokes, I've got a world of opportunities. I've got to narrow this down. Like, How on earth am I going to figure out what I do with this? So, I think stage three was, Okay, let's not get overwhelmed. Let's just do some experiments and figure out what we like and also understand the fact that things are going to change. Things are always going to be in transition. I'm a person who actually likes transition. I feel comfortable waiting in that. I feel comfortable determining, changing course constantly, and adapting to what's going on. And so just embracing that was the first step. But that was a lot of fun, actually.
Chris Hare 15:19
So when you came to the end of that season of the graffiti chasing, how did how did you eventually make the transition into the world of comms?
Kyle Arteaga 15:30
Well, I’m calling forth on the experimental journey. I went to law school, I went to NYU, and was there for a year. I did my summer internship, a part in Silicon Valley, a part in Phoenix. The study of law was fascinating, but when I got to actually see the law in practice, and, actually, let me take that back. When I got to see the way that I was going to be able to practice it, which meant if I ever wanted to be a litigator, you know, it's gonna take 10 years of living in books, I just thought, I don't know that that's really going to suit me all that well. And so I dropped out of law school, and I got an internship at a public affairs firm in Sacramento, which a few months later turned into a startup job in Silicon Valley. So this was 1997. I remember getting the job from San Jose Mercury News’ printed newspaper ad, that was maybe two lines, said “Small Startup Needs Marketer”. I wasn't even quite sure what marketing was. I knew I knew comms. But I didn't know exactly what marketing was. But somehow I got the job. And I remember my first day, I was in a small room of maybe 600 or 700 square feet for four or five other co-workers. And I was working on top of packed boxes because they were moving offices the next day. And I was 23, maybe? I thought that was exciting. Now I'd be scared to death of something like that. But at the time, I thought that was really fascinating.
Chris Hare 16:56
And then, you know, going back to part of your childhood, feeling like an outsider. When you transitioned in that world, obviously there was the excitement, and it sounded a bit like, Hey, I found not necessarily my drive, but the right environment, right? Did you feel like an outsider when you went into that world?
Kyle Arteaga 17:14
That's a good question. No, and I'd say no because I didn't know what that world still was. I think it was still such early days. So if I'm not mistaken, I think Netscape went public in ‘95. This was 1997. I joined this little startup in ‘97. It was bought the next six or eight months later by Netscape. We were all plopped into Netscape. I think I was employee 300, or something like that. And, I mean, I recall them saying, Just sit with the group that you think you're gonna want to work with and we'll figure it all out later. Which to me, that sounded great. But you know, now I just think it's different worlds. So I think we all were outsiders. I think all of us were trying to figure out, What is this thing? What is this industry we're working in? And how exactly does it fit into the world? We weren't completely sure.
Chris Hare 18:06
And then, after that happened with Netscape, I know you joined Reuters around 2002 in New York. Where did your career take you from there?
Kyle Arteaga 18:15
Well, so when I started Netscape, there was so much going on. And then slowly, Microsoft just eroded the market share completely from Netscape. Netscape was, when I got there, they could do no wrong. But Microsoft just showed that with diligence and with size, they could eventually wear down a start-up. And so that's exactly what happened. So I saw the rise and the fall of Netscape and Netscape became AOL West, that just wasn't what I was signed up for. So that's when I left. And then I just decided to do something exactly opposite. What I was so excited to hear, but turned out to be problematic over time, the second I joined Reuters, you know, here's this old British company that's been around forever that everyone sees the news on TV. And most people in the US call it “routers”, but at least they've heard of it. They've seen it. And, you know, it's kind of a name of sorts. And so, I remember my boss saying, the first thing out of her mouth on my first day was like, Look, you're coming out of tech where I know you guys had no rules. Just remember, we have 151 years of process that needs to be unwound here. So just try to be patient. I'm not a patient person to start. So that was challenging. It was a big learning to understand how a truly global organization… Netscape was global. I mean, yes, its product was used everywhere. But we didn't have employees in every country. We weren't selling in every country. We didn't have to deal with policy issues in every country. And so it was really fascinating to see a company that was handling all of this and, you know, 100 countries at once. So I loved the learnings. I loved the things that I got to see there. But it also kind of led me after five years to understand that that was not my future.
Chris Hare 20:06
I wanted to talk a little bit about the origin of the company you lead, The Bulleit Group. So in 2012, I know you are drinking Bulleit Whiskey with a friend and dreaming about the future. Can you take me back to that moment?
Kyle Arteaga 20:19
Sure. Yeah. So 2012, I moved back stateside maybe five years before that. I was living in San Francisco at the time. And I just found myself in a time of transition, like personal transition, work, transition, just trying to figure out – you know, it's funny, you think that you know exactly what you're going to be when you grow up, but you don't really figure it out until much later. I'm not sure I still have completely figured that out. But that's kind of where that conversation started with, like, What do I want to do with the rest of my life? And, you know, I was talking to my friend, Alex, and we were just saying, like, Hey, this tech thing isn't a fad anymore, it's actually something that's gonna last for a while. But I think people are focusing on the wrong things. I think they're focusing on, you know, sharing pictures and communicating with their friends. And that's great. And that's all really necessary. But I do think that there's some bigger things that technology could do. And there's some weightier issues that it can solve, like climate change, like transportation, like energy. And we just wanted to focus on that. So that's where we got started.
Chris Hare 21:18
So let's fast forward to today. Tell me some more about what you've built. And then how you all are specifically working with your clients to create the future.
Kyle Arteaga 21:28
Sure, so we're, we're focused on bringing sci-fi to life, I am a firm believer – and again, remember, I was influenced by Knight Rider and K.I.T.T. – and so I'm a firm believer that sci-fi and fiction in general, has predicted a lot of the technology that we're going to start seeing in our everyday lives. And so we're trying to help people who have grand ideas of better ways to live, work, and play, and the role technology could play in it. So really, what we do is we build education campaigns around these new technologies. So take, for example, self-driving cars. There's a lot of things that people are worried about self-driving cars. A lot of it is merited, but a lot of it isn't. And so the goal here is just to educate them on why this is helpful, who it’s helpful for, what it could do to your everyday life, and why we think it should be advantageous to us in general, as a society. So that's where we focus a lot of our time. But that manifests itself in talking to the press, talking to legislators, talking to employees, talking about future employees, and just trying to build a movement around the technology and the work that people are doing.
Chris Hare 22:37
Is there a specific client or project that comes to mind that you're currently really excited about? Or something that you're super proud of?
Kyle Arteaga 22:44
You know, the interesting part of that question is that the most interesting stuff that we're working on right now is so far away that it'd be kind of hard to believe. But something that I'm really particularly proud of that's coming into reality right now? So we worked with this company called CTRL-labs that was founded by a guy from here in Seattle named Thomas Reardon, who was really well known for creating the Microsoft Internet Explorer. And he dropped out of technology for several years after Explorer beat Netscape, and he just decided, You know what, I need to do something that's actually going to impact people's lives. Took a few years off, went to study neuroscience at Columbia, and came up with this company that was all about neural interfaces. And what I found super interesting about that is, here's someone who could do almost anything, who could do everything possible, and he wants to figure out how we can increase human agency in the face of technology agency. You know, you hear Elon Musk talk about how robots are going to take over humans. Here's Thomas Reardon saying the exact opposite. Humans are going to drive computers, humans are going to drive machines, and they always will. And they should, and I'm going to build technology that will prove this. And so what I was excited about is he was using the input signals that your brain sends through your wrist to drive things like robots, to drive things like a Roomba or a car. And it's still being used today in Facebook's Reality Labs. And I think we'll see common uses of this in the next few years.
Chris Hare 24:10
I love that. And I love your passion for the future, and for how technology can do that. But how also technology can just make us better humans. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like you said you're not a very patient person.
Kyle Arteaga 24:22
Chris Hare 24:23
It almost seems like you're potentially not patient in the present, because you want to get to the future. But at the same time, there's a patience of, you have this vision of the future that's just way out there. So it seems like there's that dichotomy where you have that patience for the long term in that way. Is that accurate?
Kyle Arteaga 24:39
I'm working really hard to develop the patience for the long term, I think it's the better way to think of it. You and I have had these conversations, and this is where I think narrative plays such a strong role. I think you have to have all of the above, right? You have to have a strong narrative about where you're at now, and where society is at. And I might be thinking 10, 20 years ahead personally, but I have to be cognizant of the fact that everyday society, and different stakeholders within everyday society, are at different points on that journey. And so what we try to do at The Bulleit Group, and what I'm passionate about is, How do you bring them along, in a reasonable timeframe for them, where they can see the benefit to themselves? You know, that's the exciting part. Because it's not as simple as just saying, Well, I might have this crazy vision of the future, I might believe in flying cars. But not everyone agrees. And how do I get them to agree at a time that's relevant? Because if you try to boil the ocean, it's never gonna work.
Chris Hare 25:41
Yeah. So it's how do you work to create that clear picture of the future, but then it becomes very much about bringing those people along, people change and culture change and things like that, to make it happen? Yeah, I hear that. That can get frustrating. How do you get people there?
Kyle Arteaga 25:56
I mean, I think narrative development these days takes a really creative mind. And then narrative distribution has to take an almost political science approach to it. You have to almost think about it in a very demographic way. And also just in an emotional way. What is it that drives this individual? You know, if you look at self-driving cars as a proxy, weirdly, they chose the elderly population as the first population to focus on, which, on the face of it sounds completely ludicrous, right? Like, the most risk-averse people, the people who are going to have the most questions, and yet it proved to be really prescient, because that's the audience that really needs help driving. They're the ones who really need to get to the store or want to go to the doctor's office, and they need to rely on people and technology to get there. So even though they might be risk-averse, they're willing to throw that out the window if it gets them to their doctors on time.
Chris Hare 26:54
Yeah, and I think that really speaks to the importance in building a narrative of just being 100% connected to your audience every step of the way. Because to your point, like if a bunch of smart people were just sitting in a room, they might not have come up with that on their own, but really understanding who their audience is and what the challenges are that they're facing, or enable them to get to that unlikely solution, right? So what are some of the brands that you work with? And is there a story or two that you're able to share about how you've helped your clients shift the future?
Kyle Arteaga 27:24
Sure. So we've worked with Google for nine years now, mostly talking about some of the new AI initiatives and some of the publishing initiatives that they have. We've worked with LinkedIn. With LinkedIn, we focus on engineering comms. So they've been a client now for eight years, I believe, and we focus really on, Why is it a great place to work? What is it about the LinkedIn newsfeed that allows it to be topical and relevant versus say, not to say there's anything wrong with Facebook's, but you've seen all the issues around the algorithms with Facebook and Twitter. We've talked a lot about how LinkedIn creates their algorithm and how they serve it up to people. Some of the other things that we've worked on: Procter & Gamble came to us and they said, Look, we're obviously a big company, we have a bunch of products, how do we penetrate the startup ecosystem? So for Procter & Gamble, we created an innovation challenge, where they were able to sponsor a new set of startups who were using technology to serve their products better. That was a lot of fun, because, you know, here we are trying to talk to technology journalists about Procter & Gamble. And the second you say those names, they just think of Tide or Clorox, and like, things that just to them didn't connote technology.
Chris Hare 28:39
You were talking earlier about trains and their use in the southwest, especially before trucking was used as much as it is now. I know you all have done some things in the truck space, or in the trucking space. Can you talk a little bit about some of your success there?
Kyle Arteaga 28:54
Yeah, I mean, transportation as a whole is really exciting. There's just going back to The Jetsons case, and the flying cars that we talked about, or the hoverboards earlier, it's always going to evolve. And we all rely on it, whether we're on a bus, or a train, or a car, or a scooter, or a bike, you name it, we're all going to be relying on transportation of some sort. And I think this is something that we need to invest in, that everyone is investing in. So we've worked a lot on different pieces of it. We've worked on autonomous driving technologies with Zoox and help them reveal the new design of their product, which hopefully will be out in front of consumers sometime next year. We're working now with a company called Ghost Autonomy, where they try to bring iterative autonomy to vehicles. So, most of you might not have heard of this but there's a L1 to L5 listing for self-driving cars. L5 means completely self-driving, L1 means there's no self-driving at all. And things like cruise control would fit along that spectrum. And so what Ghost allows you to do is to bring one feature or two features or, you know, kind of adjust the features that you make available in your car, to roll out to customers. And so you can roll it out in an iterative fashion. We've worked with Flexport, who’s a freight forwarding companies, so they they're the ones who bring things from factories in China and bring them back to the US. They've been all around the supply chain and the supply chain issues and the geopolitical issues we've had with China over the last few years. So we've worked on a number of different pieces here. But what's fascinating to me is that people are actually starting to pay attention to the supply chain and transportation beyond just what we as consumers do. I don't know about you, but when I see a FedEx car or UPS truck, and it comes and drops off the package to me, a) I feel bad that they, you know, here's some more recyclable material that I've I have to put up in a proper way so that I can be a responsible steward of society. But b) I look inside that truck and I say, Hey, wait a minute, that's not packed. Like, what kind of emissions is that going out with? You know, what is that doing to the world? Why isn't this packed? Like, we're all talking about how we're not getting things on time, and we can't get certain things at certain prices. What's going on in the world that we can't optimize this? And so what excites me about transportation is there's just so much more room for innovation there. And there's so many things that people want to see and will need to see if we're going to start effecting the changes in society that we want.
Chris Hare 31:34
So we touched a little bit on narrative before. How do you place companies into narratives about the future in a way that's authentic and relevant? Because there are so many products out there, and there's so many people talking about how innovative they are. How do you do that in an authentic way?
Kyle Arteaga 31:50
Well, to start, we have to get a clear understanding of the product itself. Second, we need them to take a view on the future. We push our clients and the people that run the companies to take a view on what's going on in the world and where the world can be. And to really think through the consumer benefits. Like, let's create personas, and let's map against those personas, what this is. And then once we think we know what impact we can have, then let's actually run it by real people and real companies. And let's get their view on it. And I know you and I have talked a lot about this, but a narrative, I think the first step is just getting that view, right? The second step is then running it by real people and getting them to co-create alongside you. That end product is probably going to look drastically different than the narrative of what you had of the future. But that's the one, the one that you co-created with other people is the one that you should be taking to market, it’s the one that you should be using. Because like we were talking about earlier, my view on the future and my client’s view of the future might be different. And it's certainly different than my client’s clients. So just taking all that into account and building that together is what we tend to work on.
Chris Hare 33:04
Well, as you think about how comms has evolved, and in some cases not evolved, I think there's a clear line between people who have been doing things the way they've always been done, and those who have really embraced the future of comms. Can you talk a little bit about that divide and how you all are specifically pushing towards that future?
Kyle Arteaga 33:25
Yeah, I mean, comms used to be seen as a derivative of marketing. And most people, I would say, don't even know what communications really means, or what it is as an industry. But for those that do, they still think of it as the press release, right? Like, you're launching a new product, here's a press release, and off you go. And that could work if you're Apple, or Microsoft, and you know, you've got a million products and people are going to talk about you anyway. So, you know, you can get away with that. But even for them, I don't think it's the most effective. Google actually were the ones who did the most to change the game. When they launched a new product, they didn't ever announce it until way after it was general availability. They would just throw a beta out there, let people try it, and then they would go in GA, and you would pay for the product. And they still hadn't done a press release, they still haven't really talked anything about it. Because their whole philosophy is, You won't understand it until you see it. I talked to a comms person who used to work early days of Google Cloud. At the time, it was called Google Enterprise. And I remember her saying, like, she works in crypto now. At that time, no analyst or journalists would believe her that people were going to trust Google with their data. Like, why would you trust the search engine company with your data when you’ve got Microsoft Word? Or WordPerfect? You know, and clearly they were wrong, right? Like, I mean, nowadays, I trust Google a lot more with their security than I trust myself. I don't think I could provide the same level of security that they could. And so I think there is a necessary evolution of communications and it has to be built into your DNA, to your company’s DNA, to your personal DNA. You and I have talked about this, like communications is a muscle. When you first start using it, it's slightly immature and needs to learn. Like, it's building up the dataset, it needs to understand how to do it, it doesn't, you don't immediately know how to snowboard the second you get on a snowboard. It takes some time, right? You’ve got to fall a few times, you’ve got to take some lessons, you’ve got to watch some friends, you’ve got to go with people who are better than you and see what they're doing and mimic that and then adapt it to your own style. Same thing goes for comms. And you can't just rely on the media anymore, because social media is so prevailing. You really have to focus on all the different channels, which means LinkedIn and Twitter and blogs and podcasts and video production and photography. Like, you have to think of all the different mediums and make a concerted decision on what you're going to do. And so that's where I think comms is going. It's less about trying to change perceptions of a few media people, and it's more about just educating the communities that matter about what you're doing and what benefit it has for them. And so that just takes on a very different approach. I really do believe that communications have done well. It looks a lot more like a public affairs campaign these days than it does just product PR that was old in the past.
Chris Hare 36:19
Which really adds, I mean, speaks to the level of imagine the level of complexity, right? As you're managing across all of those channels, and all of those conversations, which again, points back to the need for have a unifying narrative that everyone aligns around, right?
Kyle Arteaga 36:35
That's exactly right. I mean, especially, you know, if the last two or three years has taught us anything, is even the best futurists can't predict what's right around the corner. And so as a result of that, if you don't have something that you feel comfortable with, that you can rely on as your company values, as your narrative, then you're gonna have a hard time competing in the market, not only for customers, but for employees, even for your own passion, even to get yourself motivated to go through the day and do what it is you promised you were going to do.
Chris Hare 37:10
So how does that, you know, there's so much uncertainty in the present, right? Like, if you rewind, several years back, or even a year or two back before the economy started dipping, money is still free flowing, and people are spending a lot of money, and there's a lot of confidence about the future. But now there's so much uncertainty. What role does narrative play in this space right now?
Kyle Arteaga 37:33
I mean, we talked a lot about when we were children, and I was so optimistic about the future as a kid, and I still am very optimistic about the future. But you talk to people who are in their early 20’s now and younger, and there's some concern there, right? They're seeing what's going on in politics, they're seeing what's going on in some of their localities, they're looking at the economic situation. And there's a lot of hesitation. I guess what I would suggest to everyone is develop your own personal narrative. And, you know, obviously, for companies as well, your personal values should not change in that situation. Maybe they adjust, maybe you tweak them a little bit, but you should still have a reason for existing. You should have a reason for the way that you're spending your time that makes sense to you, that you believe in, and you feel passionate about. And until you find that, you're gonna feel uncomfortable. I think this goes back to like what we were talking about earlier. Transition can get comfortable, if you realize that we're constantly going to be in transition. If you realize that that's the constant, then maybe it's not as scary as it needs to be. And so that's why I think narrative is just so important, to have a view of how you could help the future and what your role could be. Policymakers are still making decisions, consumers are still making decisions, perhaps most importantly, your employees are still making a decision. And so if you're not giving them something to believe in, if they don't think that what they're doing for you is really making a positive impact both to you and also to society, why should they stay? I don't know, I sometimes I think people see marketing and comms and narrative in all the wrong ways. They’re thinking about it purely as a consumer as a customer acquisition strategy. And there's certainly a component like, absolutely, that is true. But you should think of it more as like your north star, like Why do you exist? That's the true way to think of it. Why should someone come and believe in you? Why should they bet their career or bet two or three years of their life on you? Why should their families be reliant that what you're doing is working?
Chris Hare 39:42
You've talked about discovering or uncovering what your soul is as a company, and what your values and your mission and vision are. And I think I love that idea of, you know, talking about a future center of gravity. When you have that vision of where, that future that only you can create, with your board and your employees and your customers and your partners and your community, there are going to be ups and downs on the way there. But it's that future vision that's pulling you towards something better versus being in this just constant reactive mode of, What do I do now? But being grounded, I think that is really grounded, has to be grounded, in who you are. And if you don't know who you are as a company, and what your values are, then you are going to be tossed around quite a bit.
Kyle Arteaga 40:28
I mean, we're looking at prime examples of this right now, right? Like, if you look at Patagonia, you'd be hard pressed to find a company that embraces narrative strategy better than Patagonia right now. Their founder just said that when he dies, the whole company is going to go towards conserving nature. Like, literally that is what they care about. And so, as a Patagonia employee, you're going to be incredibly energized by that. And if you're not, then maybe Patagonia is probably not the right company for you.
Chris Hare 40:58
Yeah, it aligns the right people around, it repels the wrong people. And yeah, and that's super powerful.
Kyle Arteaga 41:05
Yeah, we're seeing a lot of that these days. And I hope to see more of it, you know. You know, Elon Musk is another polarizing figure out in the world. Whether you like him or not, he attracts a certain type of person. So, if you like someone who's really pushing the envelope, he would be a great person, probably to work alongside. But I understand that's not for everybody. And I don't think he wants everybody working for him. Whether people like him or not, he's clearly articulated what he stands for. And he's given people a signpost of what they can expect. And so, in that respect, I think he's done a good job of at least letting you know who he is, whether you agree or not. And that's what companies need to do. If you're just going to be some bland company that doesn't have a future, yeah, you're gonna get some employees, but are they going to really care? Are they going to give you their best work? Are they going to want to stay there? And are they going to want to strive to do better? Maybe not, you know, probably not. So, you know, a lot of that should factor in. And that should be why you want to do narrative. You want to do narrative because you want your company to be relevant in the future, and you want your company to make a difference. Don't worry so much about everything else, everything else is just an outcome.
Chris Hare 42:15
So, when we think about the broader, some of the broader narratives about the economy, there's just a lot of negativity in the media right now. And everywhere, people are freaked out, right? I know you wrote, “The guidance for companies is straightforward. Hunker down and focus on fundamentals.” And then also, “Getting out in front of the world through strategic communications seems like a risky gambit.” What happens if companies follow that guidance and wait for the dust to settle? And then what are the stakes?
Kyle Arteaga 42:47
Well, I think the best analogy I can draw was maybe three or four years ago. I went to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and they had an exhibit about robots taking over human jobs. You know, you pick up any newspaper, you read, you listen to any podcast, and everyone's talking about this, right? Like, oh, my gosh, they're going to take all my jobs, and we're not going to have any jobs left. Well, this exhibit was actually from the 1920’s. And to read the stories, there wasn't really much difference. I mean, yeah, they used some idioms slightly different. But it was pretty much the exact same thing that people are still saying. I mean, I'm old enough to, when I was earlier in my career, I used to work for a company that would help with smart meter deployments. And, you know, even in really well-educated parts of the Bay Area, like Berkeley and Marin County, there were some people that were putting foil paper on top of their smart meters, because they were convinced it was giving them cancer. I mean, these are people with PhDs, in some cases. This is the type of knowledge that you're fighting against, I suppose. If you don't get out in front of this, people are still going to think the wrong thing about you, no matter whatever you think people think. So you need to educate them on the best uses of your technology, the best uses of your product, and the way it's benefiting the future, or frankly, you deserve not to be relevant anymore. So that's why I say like, yes, everyone's saying it's risky. Sure. But it's also risky for you if you don't. It's far riskier if you don't. And that doesn't necessarily mean you have to go full throttle, and hey, you need to be talking to the New York Times every day. It just means like, Heck, let people know. Let your employees know where you stand. Ask your employees where they stand, ask them to help you tweak the way that you think. Start building a communication process in everything you do. And that will just serve you better for the future.
Chris Hare 44:41
So one of the areas that we talk a lot about on the show is just, it sounds super basic, but the importance of talking to your audience, right? Because the bigger companies get or the faster they're running, it's just we forget to do that, right? Can you talk a little bit about some of the audiences that you're engaging with, and especially VCs. And what are you hearing as you have these conversations about what's going on now and what they're expecting the future to look like?
Kyle Arteaga 45:08
So, we work with a couple of VCs and private equity firms. And we obviously talk to a bunch of them. And I think a statistic came out a few weeks ago that says that they're sitting on $290 billion of dry powder.
Chris Hare 45:19
I saw that. That's crazy.
Kyle Arteaga 45:21
That's $290 billion that they have to deploy in the next two to three years, with their limited partners expecting at least a double digit return on their money. So, they're kind of itching to write checks. I mean, obviously, due diligence is up there, like, they're gonna be looking at a lot more than maybe they have in the past. But they want to be investing, they need to be investing, right? They want to be working for the next company that's going to be helping people. And so that's encouraging, right? It's not that they just stopped because they made a concerted effort to do so. It's more that there was just, like, a practical reset, like, Hey, let's think about this. Let's think about where we need to be putting our money. Let's think about what kind of impact we want to have. And let's think about what our thesis for the future is. So I think everyone's kind of reset on that and said, Okay, here's where we sit and here's where we want to be. Then there's the policyholders. I mean, they're more - or not policyholders, policymakers, sorry. They're more active than we've ever seen. Like we were saying about Biden, I mean, you expect those types of export controls from the Trump administration, but no one was expecting it out of the Biden administration. In fact, he went 10 times further than the Trump administration did. Who would have guessed? No one had any idea. If you look at the recent bills around climate change, we've got a whole industry, like, I worked in climate and in the clean tech industry 10 years ago. And I can tell you, it feels really different this time, because you've got policy behind you. You've got the UN, you've got the US, you've got different European countries, you've got different Asian countries. Everyone's paying attention to it. Corporates actually care, consumers care, you've got a whole generation of people now who are going to be asking, What's the environmental impact of your of your product? So we're in a completely different place and time that is forcing all of us to have a stance on this.
Chris Hare 47:18
So it sounds like bottom line, what you're advising is, don't wait, don't let the dust settle, right? Have that narrative established, and be out there telling that story, because otherwise, people are going to be telling their own story about you.
Kyle Arteaga 47:31
Well, people are telling their story already, right? And we're all being inundated with data points and news and all sorts of other viewpoints on a constant basis. It's not unexpected that people will forget about you if you're not talking to them regularly. And if you want to actually talk about the impact you're going to have on their life, maybe you should ask them first. Maybe you should bring them into that conversation. And then that way, they don't forget about you, right? Like, they've helped you co-create the story. So that's my advice. Yeah, stop sitting on the sidelines. The world is moving, regardless of what you do. So if you want to have a role in the future, show it to us. Make a plan.
Chris Hare 48:15
So let's get really practical then for thinking about startups specifically. What are some of the tactics that our audience should be thinking about as they seek to engage investors and give them confidence and demonstrate impact to them in this season?
Kyle Arteaga 48:30
You know, there's some simple things. I think first, especially when it comes to recruiting, be transparent about equity compensation. You might have seen some headlines recently about Instacart and how they've lowered their valuation now twice in the last year or so. I think it's really important that they're doing that because what they're telling their employees is, We realize that a large part of your compensation was stock options. And the stock options were not as valuable as they once were. But we think you're equally as valuable. So we're going to reprice this so that you can hopefully get something similar in terms of compensation when you go home. What we're starting to see now is, if you're looking purely from a compensation standpoint, some of the best jobs out there are with publicly traded companies and with private equity plays. It's not with startups anymore, because we don't know when this economy might turn. And so as a result of that, that startup has to have some other edge. You know, there's lots of talent that worked at edgy crypto ventures or were burned out from the big tech firm, who just want purpose. So yeah, maybe you're a climate change company that isn't going to match what Meta or Facebook's gonna pay. But you can show a tangible increase in reforestation. To a lot of people, that's what matters. That's far more important than how much money they make. So really focus in on that. Focus in on what a day in the life will look like. Who are the people you're going to interact with? What's the type of work that you're going to be doing? What kind of life will you lead as a result of this?
Chris Hare 49:56
You've said that for leaders, your most important audience is your team. Why is that?
Kyle Arteaga 50:02
I mean, no one can do it by themselves, right? You can have the best ideas, you're still going to need a team around you. It doesn't have to be a big team, but you're going to need a team around you. But if you want customers to believe in you, if you want investors to believe in you, you're going to have to make your team believe in you first. So if you don't lock in that audience, you don't have a future. You aren't relevant in the future. So I think that's where people often overlook. And you know, I'm guilty of this, too. Sometimes you just, you get so caught up on everything else that you kind of forget the basics. Your employees have the most context on what you're doing, what your goals are, where you're heading. So bring them along in the story. They need to have a role here. And if you don't lock them in as an audience, I just don't know how you can move on to other audiences.
Chris Hare 50:48
Well, Kyle, this has been an amazing conversation. I know there's no shortage of doom and gloom out there, and we've talked a bit about it or a fair amount about it in this episode. But in closing, I'd love to hear what you're excited and hopeful about as we look to 2023 and beyond.
Kyle Arteaga 51:05
Well, there's some areas of the market I'm really excited about. I'm really excited about transportation. I'm excited about renewable energy. We're starting to talk about nuclear fusion as a real possibility. And you know, that might be a way that we can all scale renewable energy. So I'm excited about that. I think there's a lot going on in food tech, especially in Singapore right now. There's a lot of innovative products that we could create that you don't necessarily have to eat meat anymore to be able to get some of the benefits of it. And so that's really exciting. But I think what's most exciting to me, and I think you might appreciate this, Chris. So I was going through my daughter's classwork yesterday. And both of them are doing a personal narrative writing test – or not test, personal narrative writing exercise at school.
Chris Hare 51:49
That's amazing! I've never heard of that.
Kyle Arteaga 51:50
I mean, six years old, right? Like, you can't get away. Everyone's talking about their narrative. And it's just so exciting to me that this has actually become part of the lexicon. It used to be like a scientific word. Narrative was this spooky formula that you created that only marketers did. But now you've got six year olds in first grade talking about their viewpoints. And that's really exciting. And so if the six year old and first grade teachers around the state of Washington are saying, You know what, having a point of view on things is important, I don't see how anyone else could argue that it isn't.
Chris Hare 52:25
I love it. Well, thank you so much for your time, Kyle, and looking forward to our next conversation.
Kyle Arteaga 52:30
Thanks for having me, Chris.
Chris Hare 52:33
When I was a kid, one of my favorite series of books was Little Bear. Little Bear’s mom would shoo them into the backyard where he would play for hours and hours on end, often alone, entertained by his imagination, dreaming up new realities, and traveling to other worlds. In one story, he has nothing to play with but a cardboard box. But when he puts it on his head, he's instantly transported to the moon. And that's where he becomes the best version of himself. As a kid, I had a lot in common with Little Bear and I spent hours roaming the woods behind our house, dreaming up stories and living them out in my imagination. Six years ago, I started my company, The Storied Future. And if you've seen our brand identity – it’s a hare on a hoverboard – you'll see a nod to those Little Bear books that I loved so much as a kid in the woodcarving style that we use. But you'll also see a character who defies gravity, embraces technology, and is ready to travel to a better future. There are times I wonder if our logo is too whimsical (it's not). But then I remember it reflects the magic, delight, and whimsy that I bring, and that we all somewhere down inside wish we could bring to work. Changing the future requires deep creativity, and the ability to create new narratives in order to make that future possible. Narratives that get our audience to buy into that future and make the journey with us. But as we grow older, it can be challenging to hold on to the imagination and creativity that seemed to come so easily as kids. I think Kyle is one of those rare people who haven't lost that sense of wonder and delight, coupled with the insight that's necessary to make the world a better place. And that's it. Until next week. Thank you for joining The Storied Future Podcast. Please subscribe, leave us a review, and be sure to visit TSFpod.com for more information about Kyle Arteaga, for Show Notes, and to check out other episodes.
The Storied Future Podcast is a production of The Storied Future, LLC, produced and edited by Ray Sylvester, audio engineering by Ali Özbay, logo design by Evan MacDonald, theme music by The Brewz. Your host is me, Chris Hare. Learn more about our work helping leaders create great B2B narratives for a change at www.thestoriedfuture.com.
Kyle is cofounder and CEO of The Bulleit Group, an award-winning high-tech PR firm that’s working to bring sci-fi to life.
Their 50-person team in San Francisco, Nashville, Washington D.C., and New York consists of anthropologists, data scientists, physicists, politicos, and journalists all turned master storytellers. They get fired up when uncurbed experimentation leads to reinvention.
Kyle was previously Vice President of Corporate Development and Communications at Siemens, VP of Corporate Communications at Serena Software, Global Head of Marketing and Communications at Reuters, and Public Relations Manager at Netscape Communications. He has a B.A. in cultural anthropology from the University of Arizona.
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