Embracing Audacity: A Conversation with Erin King
By Josh Corman

ERIN KING IS KIND OF A BIG DEAL. The renowned speaker, author and entrepreneur has inspired organizations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (the folks behind The Oscars) to the United States Navy, written a bestselling book (titled You’re Kind of a Big Deal, naturally) and discovered what she calls her “true north”—using what she’s learned to help other leaders and entrepreneurs become the best versions of themselves. Pulse caught up with Erin as she prepared to address the 2022 ISPA Conference in a pair of Knowledge Builder Sessions to learn why audacity is an ideal characteristic, why she feels liberated by the moment and why she thinks you’re kind of a big deal, too.

Pulse: You have pointed to a moment early in your career when you left your job after being passed over for a promotion as the starting point for your current path. What did you learn from that experience?

ERIN KING: When I made that big jump from having a corporate job to starting my own company, I called the company Jump Digital Media because I just leapt off the cliff. They say entrepreneurs are people that jump out of the plane and build the parachute on the way down—that’s an awful idea! If I could go back and talk to my 25-year-old self, I’d say, “Hey, maybe start a side hustle slowly and test your business model and build it up over time.” Not everything has to be this dramatic moment of ripping off the band-aid and going all in. It took me two more rounds of companies before I had a profitable business.

What I really learned from that big jump was the beauty of “test-and-learn,” the beauty of small concepts. Try one product, not the whole line. Try one social media strategy, don’t revamp the entire thing across six platforms. Ask, “Is this provable? Is this profitable? Is this a positive impact for me, my team, my customers?” Yes, we have to think big, but when it comes to how we execute, make sure to honor the sexiness of the small—the small campaign, the small product test. Test and learn, and look for those patterns until you feel that you have enough data points before you go all in on the investment or all in on your time. I learned that the hard way because it worked out, but it took me a lot longer and it was a lot more expensive!

P: One of your Knowledge Builder Sessions at Conference is subtitled “How to Lead with Audacity.” Have the last couple of years had an impact on our willingness to set “audacious” goals?

K: In the last few years, everything got really small: Our physical spaces got small, our ability to plan got small, our expectations got small, the information that we used to make decisions got small. It’s almost like life became so ordinary that a lot of us forgot that we desire an extraordinary life, that we actually seek big hopes and big dreams. I think what’s happened is that it’s very hard to survive and dream at the same time, and we’ve been in survival mode for so long that we’ve forgotten that we desire big dreams and that we have big goals. It made us start to challenge our decision-making capabilities with even the most basic everyday tasks, let alone big decisions around business and strategy and products and customer experience.

The reason I chose the word “audacious”—the word is a little controversial—is because I know from my experience running my different companies that almost every time I went and did something when everyone was stamping it and retweeting it and saying, “Good job,” it ended up being kind of a “meh” outcome. So, I feel like the more pushback I get, [it] tends to be an indicator to me that I’m on the right track. The truth is sometimes, [if you’re] doing something truly brave, truly new, not everyone is going to say, “Go girl,” they’re going to say, “No, girl!” How you process that feedback and how you choose to have unapologetic ambition and chase down what you know is [right] for you is the big differentiator between those who just talk about it and those that actually live it.

P: How do you respond to those people who might be prone to letting the doubts of others—or their own selfdoubt, keep them from following those big dreams?

K: I call that death by a thousand doubts. [Throughout the pandemic], our decision-making power, our confidence, our trust in ourselves and our ability to better manage our inner gremlin—I call mine Regina George, from Mean Girls— began to diminish. It was like a computer program was running in the background, constantly draining our battery. We had nowhere to plug in. One thing I talk about in my book is the different ways that we can begin to face our “fake news fears.”

An exercise that I talk about is called “Facts vs. Feelings”, where you try to determine a list of what you’re afraid is going to happen… and the hard, objective facts around the situation. The most interesting thing about this exercise is people see that the facts are so light, and the feelings list is so long. When you see the narrative that’s being created in your own mind, you can begin to find the bravery to authorize yourself to take that first step. Can you authorize yourself to know that some of your fears are fake news, and that if you look back through your failures, each one of those failure wounds healed, ultimately, into a success scar. We think of our failures as screw-ups, but they’re just cues for your most audacious destiny to unfold. In our failures, we discover our path and discover our passion. We’re better equipped to make better choices the next time. And each time we know more about what does not work, we know a little bit more about what does.

P: The pandemic has also given a lot of people cause to make bold life changes. Do you feel like this moment, in some ways, is ideal for taking those kinds of big swings?

K: It’s so true. I mean, if you think about it, we were forced into this great pause and the reality that even the smartest minds in the world have pretty much no idea what’s going on and are guessing as best they can with what they know. You can… feel completely paralyzed and frightened by [that] fact, but I find it to be extremely liberating that we’re in the middle of this great reset where the rules are being rewritten. The way that we do business, what we care about, even the language that we use in our marketing and our communications [has changed]. The messaging that used to resonate doesn’t resonate anymore. People don’t want to do more and be more because they’re pulling from an empty bucket. They don’t have the same reserves. They don’t have the same resources emotionally and physically. “Survive” became the new “thrive.”

The bar for success as you define it might be different than what you thought was going to bring you and your customers joy. It’s not like we’re being wishy-washy, we’re just in a period where the whole world has been given this chance to reinvent and become evolved versions of ourselves. Instead of being freaked out about it, or exhausted by it, how beautiful to sort of reframe and reset that lens and look at it as this unbelievable opportunity to step into who you’re meant to be on the other side of this. There are a lot of people right now that I know personally who are taking this time to question everything that has to do with going back to the way things were. It’s a really interesting moment that we can either feel overwhelmed by or extremely energized by. I’m personally going to choose the latter, and I hope anyone reading this does the same.”

P: You’re also leading a Knowledge Builder Session on digital persuasion at Conference, and you mentioned changes to the way we communicate. How have those changes impacted marketing efforts?

K: Prior to the pandemic, the “live your best life, go big or go home, rise and grind, hustle culture” vibe did very well online. Over the last few years, the language that attracted people was very “give everyone grace and space,” almost giving everyone permission to be a less vibrant version of themselves. There was definitely more of a softening of language. What’s interesting is now what we’re seeing is that there is new messaging, a new vibe that is attracting people. Brands aren’t telling people who to be, and they aren’t telling you what to do, they’re asking, “How are you feeling?” They’re checking in with you. They’re asking who you’ve decided to be as [part of] this shift from brands instructing to brands inquiring. The spa industry is uniquely positioned to capitalize on that messaging. I don’t think it needs to be a definitive unique value proposition but more just checking in, [saying], “I’m here for you. How are you feeling? Who do you want to be?” They don’t have to have the answers, [consumers] just seem to feel receptive to asking those questions.

We haven’t had potential and the future in our thinking for so long. We’ve been on Team Wait. Well, now it’s Team Run and Team Create. We’re creating our new reality, creating our new future, creating this new messaging, creating these opportunities, and hospitality—wellness, travel, spa—are what the world needs now more than they ever have.