Partnerships, especially in business, create such an interesting dynamic (Garance and I opened up about ours recently!) So when I met Erin in DC for our Pardon My French panel and told her I had to do a career interview with her, she asked if I’d be interested in sitting down with her and her business partner, Melody.
We’ve never done a joint-career interview, but I understand, especially for entrepreneurs, how important it can be to have a partner in crime to help you build your dream company. So today I want to re-introduce you to Erin Allweiss, and introduce you to her partner Melody Serafino, who have a communications and PR firm called The No. 29, which focuses on clients that are social-impact and innovation driven to make the world a better place.
Where did you grow up?
Erin: I grew up in New Orleans.
Melody: I grew up in Western Massachusetts.
What did your parents do?
Erin: Both lawyers. And I wanted to be an environmental lawyer.
Melody: My dad works in financial services, and my mom was a stay at home mom.
What are your earliest memories of the first job you wanted to have when you were a kid? What was your dream?
Melody: I was always very imaginative. I remember I would play school in my basement growing up. I was obsessed with my third grade teacher, and I wanted to be a teacher just like her. I think part of it was just because I like to control things, I’m a little bossy. So I loved that idea.That was one of my earliest memories. We would spend hours in my basement doing that.
Erin: You weren’t bossy. You just had a perspective.
Melody: Yeah. [laughs]
When did you move to New York?
Melody: As a kid, I used to come to the city a lot. I had family here and my parents’ best friend lived here. I came to New York far more than I ever went to Boston. I went to college in Southern Connecticut, and I had an internship in the city during college, so I got the experience of understanding the city a little bit. I moved here two weeks after I graduated.
Erin: I moved to New York six and a half years ago. I went to school in Boston and then worked in Washington D.C. for five and a half years.
I took an internship on a whim, hoping, since I worked for them throughout college, that would turn into a job. And two weeks later it did. It was such a good risk that I took.
Erin, where did you go to school, and what did you study?
Erin: I went to Tufts, and I studied Environmental Studies and International Affairs.
Did you have internships in college? Was that something that was important for you?
Melody: Yes, I did three internships in college. I worked at Late Night with Conan O’Brien when he was still based in New York. I worked at a local news station. And I actually worked at a PR Office at my university, which was an internship I took just because I had some time. I had finished a lot of my classes early so I just took it. Of all the things I had going on I thought it would be the least interesting but I got to do the most amount of work in that. I really got to write, I got to understand the media landscape.
It’s good experience, you know? You probably learned so much.
Melody: Yeah, in a way, I think it helps you determine what you don’t want to do. At least for me, I really thought I wanted to go into television, and as much as I loved working in television, it didn’t feel like the right fit for me. I felt like it wasn’t super cerebral. I was mostly a gopher, and I knew that was going to be the case for many years. And I didn’t think I had it in me to actually do that.
You graduated from college at the same time, so what were your first jobs out of school?
Erin: I had a similar thing – I had always wanted to move to New York. And I got a job in the city coming out of school in Boston but I turned it down. It was a paralegal job. Instead, I moved to Washington D.C. to work for Oxfam. I took the internship on a whim, hoping, since I worked for them throughout college, that it would turn into a job. And two weeks later it did. It was such a good risk.
What is Oxfam?
Erin: It’s an international development organization. It was founded in Great Britain… It’s… kind of how we know the Red Cross here. They do work on the ground and help people who are in need of upward mobility.
So even though I knew I wanted to be in New York, I took a risk by going to Washington. And I got a job on the side to support my Oxfam internship, but it quickly turned into a job. The first thing I got to do was go to the G8 Summit during the Live 8 concerts, like with Bono on the plane.
That’s pretty incredible.
Erin: It was remarkable, the group of activists. And then I was exposed to this whole other career I didn’t know about.
So was law school ever on the table for you?
What made you decide not to go?
Erin: I worked on Capitol Hill for a Congressman, and I started working in communications just because I really liked it. I like to write, working with press—specifically environmental and policy reporters. It was such a good experience.
Then I was working at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is an environmental organization, really known for its litigation. If you go to law school, it’ll always be NRDC versus – you study those. Lawyers I’d met would work ten years to change one piece of the Clean Air Act. I just don’t have that in me. I’m the most impatient person, which is great for what I’m doing now because I can get a story the next day, and hopefully change the way people see an environmental issue or look at a brand that’s doing something different. So, that’s why I didn’t go to law school.
I think before, there was a very particular stereotype of people who worked for these causes. And I don’t think that exists as much anymore.
Where did the interest in sustainability and the environment come from for both of you?
Melody: From the time I was very young, my parents always encouraged me to give back and be involved. I was always involved in community service. Social impact more broadly – I was working at Ronald McDonald House, working in homeless shelters. I did an after school program in college for children impacted by HIV and AIDS. I’ve done volunteer work abroad. So it’s always been in me to want to do that.
At the time that we were in high school and college, there wasn’t the plethora of jobs that there is now, where you can go to a company and social impact & sustainability are built into the company’s DNA because they have to be, because people expect that of the brands they love now. Back then, it was sort of like, well you can go work for an NGO or a nonprofit, or you can go work for a corporation. But if you’re interested in these other things, you kind of have to find a way to do it on your own in your own time. So I think part of what drove us to start No. 29 was that we both had this passion for sustainability and social impact, and we knew there was a way to marry it with our love of media and working with reporters.
Erin: And art and design.
Melody: And bring it all together into one company.
Erin: Growing up in New Orleans, I became obsessed with global warming when I was 9 [laughs]. That’s not cool.
How!? How did you find out about it?
Erin: I was a very dark child. I turned 10 and realized that I would probably not live to three digits, and I was never going to be anything but two digits for the rest of my life. Whereas every other kid is like so excited to turn 10. So I’m both an optimist, and a little bit of a pessimist. Look at the world right now; it’s a really scary moment. But environmental issues became my passion, which, again, wasn’t all that cool. My other one was to start an environmental fashion line, I was also obsessed with fashion, which didn’t work with environmentalism at the time. Or become an environmental lawyer.
Erin: Yeah, so I’ve always just had it in me and kept working on it. It’s really fun now that people are doing more in design and sustainability, and we’ve been able to create a business out of this.
Melody: Yeah, it’s become a sexier thing. I think before, there was a very particular stereotype of people who worked for these causes. And I don’t think that exists as much anymore.
One of the things we’ve always done is surround ourselves by people who do the things we’re not maybe the best at, surround ourselves by people who are experts.
Melody what did you do after college?
Melody: I started at a very small public relations firm, probably 15 people at the time; was sort of thrown in, sink or swim. I was super excited. I was just so thrilled to have a job and be living in New York and able to pay my rent, even though 90% of my salary went to my rent. And I couldn’t afford to do anything other than pay my rent. [laughs] Yeah, so I worked at a small agency. We did a lot of work in media and magazines. I was there for almost three years and then moved over to another agency, which is where Erin and I met.
Ok, so how did you guys meet?
Erin: So when I moved to New York, I took a chance on this – it was a small firm at the time. And the first thing I got to work on was TED, which was really exciting. Melody and I met working there, we ended up sharing an office. We immediately connected. It was just one of those things where we could read each other’s minds, but then also complement one another, and we decided to just go do our own thing.
I think right now, there’s definitely a movement of a lot of young people just wanting to come out of school and be an entrepreneur right away, but I’m definitely a strong advocate for gaining experience from someone – letting someone else teach you a little bit before you have to figure it out for yourselves.
Melody: I 100% agree with that. I mentor a lot of people in college, and that’s one of the first things I say to them. Because I think that everyone’s eager to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Everybody feels like it’s so much more tangible now to start a company and succeed. But the reality is, a very large percentage of people who start companies don’t last. And I think there’s something to be said for having worked somewhere else and be forced to have the tenacity and the grit, and sort of do the low man on the totem pole jobs to work your way up, and to work under someone who’s managing you so you learn a little bit about management skills. Because you can be brilliant and have a wonderful idea, but it doesn’t mean you know how to run a company. Which isn’t to say that we’re experts at running a company. I mean, we’ve had to really learn a lot of things on the fly, but I think one of the things we’ve always done is surround ourselves with people who do the things we’re maybe not the best at, surround ourselves with people who are experts. Whether it’s financials, or taxes, or the nitty gritty of running an every day business.
Erin: I would also add that you do figure out what you don’t want to do, which is just as important. I didn’t know this job existed. And the human beings I met along the way – I’ve worked at Oxfam, NDRC, one campaign on the Hill, at our old firm, that network still exists. So I would also say be kind and respectful to everyone you work with, because that ends up being your rolodex, so to speak. And you don’t get that, necessarily, just by launching your own thing. So, right now, it’s funny, given the way politics are going, I’m definitely returning to a lot of the people I worked with in Washington, and we’re working together. So that’s another reason to get some work experience and not just immediately launch something.
I would also say, keep your options open. I never wanted to work on the Hill. It was literally the last place I wanted to be. And something opened up for a congressman, who is such a phenomenal human being, and I did it. It was probably one of the most meaningful experiences in my life.
What was your role there?
Erin: Well, it’s funny. I applied for the staff assistant position, and I didn’t get it. And then a job opened up for a communications director. And I was 23? I thought, I’m never going to get this. And I got it. They hired me. I wrote a press plan for them, I applied what I had learned, and they took a chance on me.
Melody: I think the other thing to keep in mind is to keep open to working at smaller places, too. I mean, I’ve never worked at a huge company other than when I did an internship. But at the time, I think a lot of students coming out of school are driven by name and what they recognize, because that’s what lends credibility. I think being able to work at a smaller place, you move up faster, you’re not just a number. You get so much more responsibility. People actually know the value of the work you’re doing. You can’t hide, so you do have to work extra hard, but it is so much more rewarding in the end.
We have to feel like they’re leaving the world a little bit better than they found it, and that we feel good about telling their story. And that there is, in fact, a story there to tell. Because not everybody is ready for their media moment.
So No. 29, your business, is a communications firm. What do you guys actually do? What does being a communications firm actually entail?
Erin: I think my mom is still trying to figure out what I do.
It’s basically taking a look – say there’s a brand that wants to launch in New York and no one knows about them. You do research on the media landscape, you figure out where they might fit in and reporters that might be interested in writing about them. We’re really careful about representing things we believe in, for one, and then making sure that we’re writing thoughtful notes to journalists and saying, “Do you want this? Can you write about this?” We know what we’re sending to people.
Melody: Then thinking even beyond that, it’s, yes, getting great stories for our clients, that’s the bread and butter of what we do. But also thinking about, are there partnerships that make sense with our clients or other people in our network to help raise brand awareness? Are there conferences they should be speaking at? Is there an Op-Ed they should be writing on a particular cause, or –
Erin: It’s often trying to figure out how you translate someone’s message in a way that people understand. And given that we work with some really complex issues – if it’s working on policy or if it’s working with a space archaeologist, like we’re doing right now who’s the TED prize winner, how do you explain that to people who don’t know anything about the issue? We have to figure out how that translates, so you’re not compromising the science. We believe in facts. But you’re also putting information into the world so people can grow interested in it themselves.
So where did the idea for No. 29 come from?
Erin: We were in LA on a trip for work at TED. We just looked at each other, and we were like, we’re doing this ourselves. What if we created our own firm? And that was just it.
Melody: Yeah, I think we were having this moment when we were just trying to figure out what the next steps were, and it didn’t make sense to make a lateral move. We felt like we had built this network, and we really knew what we were doing at that point.
Erin: We wanted to be able to choose who we worked with. We’ve always both been so issue driven. Again, that doesn’t mean nonprofits, we work with clothing brands too. But we wanted to select who we could represent. Plus, we just work so well together. It’s been, in my life, probably the most effortless relationship I’ve been in.
The dynamic of a partnership in a business is one that is so crucial to its success. I feel that way with G. How did you guys know that you were the right partners for each other? Can you explain your dynamic?
Melody: We were fortunate in that we worked together and shared an office and were always bouncing ideas off of each other. We also had a friendship as a foundation. We were both sort of trained in the same way. We both understood how each other worked. And so, we also knew how we complemented each other in the work that we do. It was a seamless transition.
Erin: Yeah, we’re so similar and so different. But we were lucky because the friendship came out of a work environment, so we’d already tested it. I don’t think this happens for most people, based on what I’ve heard. But we’ve never, knock on wood, had a fight. Like, ever. I would never want to start a business by myself. It’s so nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of. Or to know that someone has your back –
Melody: Yeah, there’s a nice checks and balances. And trust. I would say that’s the number one thing. Like a marriage or any relationship, you need to have trust as your foundation. And if you don’t, then don’t get into a relationship with that person. Because there are certain things that we just have to trust that the other is handling. As basic as finances and taxes and boring things.
So what is The No. 29?
Erin: Ann Friedman wrote a column called The Power of 29. It’s about remarkable women throughout history who’ve started something at age 29 or 30. Then she wrote an article about not treating PR like the pink ghetto, which I loved. And the fact that it was the number, the age of 29, and that’s how old we were when we decided we wanted to started our own company. In numerology, 29 means honest, direct, truthful communication. And we were out for a run one morning and I saw the number 29 on an awning, very New York style. And that was it, it felt like it was meant to be.
What do you actually do?
Erin: We handle media relations for companies, individuals, and organizations. We also do partnership work, and a little bit of marketing is involved in that. So putting together strategies for people. We work with the TED Prize and TEDx. We work with Veja, which is a French sneaker company. We work with the artist Oliver Jeffers, the Natural Resources Defense Council…there’s more!
What’s your criteria for the clients you take on? What’s the most important to you?
Erin: We need to be excited about it.
Melody: We have to be excited about what they’re doing. And we have to feel like they’re leaving the world a little bit better than they found it, and that we feel good about telling their story. And that there is, in fact, a story there to tell. Because not everybody is ready for their media moment.
What are the different roles you each take in the business?
Erin: They’re similar – we both oversee client work. I mean, we run this, we put together the proposals, and we do a lot of the work together. Melody does all the financial work. [laughs]
Melody: Only by default, not because I enjoy it.
How many people do you have working with you?
Melody: We’re a team of four now. And sometimes five.
Our mantra is we don’t act like assholes and we don’t work with assholes. At the end of the day, life’s too short.
So what’s an average day like for you?
Melody: It always depends! Sometimes our day is laid out and our calendar is full of meetings, but then something happens and it completely changes.
Erin: I think we both always start the day with some sort of workout. Not for anything more than we would lose our sanity. So it starts with that, coffee, and NPR for me. Apart from that, I think it depends where in the world we are and then what we’re working on.
Melody: I just came back from Sundance because we have a VR client, Condition One, that launched a companion piece to Al Gore’s Inconvenient Sequel that takes you to Greenland where you’re seeing the ice melting. Literally you’re standing at the edge of the world and seeing climate change happen right in front of you. I was out there with one of our team members for four days showing press and reporters the film and setting up interviews and being on the ground, talked to people about the work that they’re doing.
Our work takes us all over the world, so we have to divide and conquer. As much as we would love to do these things together, we’re at a point where we can’t anymore.
How do you balance each other out? What’s the dynamic like between the two of you?
Erin: I think creative chaos is a good description of how I operate. And you have that too, Melody, but you’re far more calming.
Melody: Yeah, I think I handle anxiety in a much quieter way. I also think that going to the gym in the morning really calms me for the rest of the day [laughs] and allows me to tackle things that might otherwise really get me stressed out.
Sometimes you just have to have that perspective. It really helps me to – I try to go away once a year and take a vacation, on which I check my phone every day. But it really helps me gain perspective, to just take myself completely out of this environment. Most recently, I was in Ghana teaching in a school there, and allowed myself to just totally disconnect, partially because we had blackouts every day so I didn’t have an opportunity to. But it’s moments like that that remind me that everything’s going to be ok and that people deal with so much worse and so many bigger challenges every single day, that I just need to keep a level head about what I’m doing.
What would you say your biggest challenge is, both personally and professionally for the company, in your work?
Erin: Time management is something that I’m still learning. Especially because there are so many people who want different things, and that you have to really learn how to balance it.
Melody: For me, I think it’s letting go. We have a really great team right now; I’m in a place where I feel better about being able to take a step back and give ourselves some time and space strategically. We talk about it every year, it’s always our goal to set aside time, to think more strategically, to think ahead. What are our goals for the company? But it always falls by the wayside because we’re in the moment and we’re trying to do everything to deliver for our client.
What do you think your biggest successes have been since you started this?
Erin: We’ve made it over three years and I am so proud of all the clients that we have and all the people that we work with, and that we are still having fun doing this.
Focus on what you’re most passionate about. Find a way to work on that because it’s what’s going to drive you to work really hard and learn the most.
Do you have mentors?
Erin: I’ve had many mentors over the years, who I still talk to. My friend Laura at Oxfam, who is still there, is the reason I ended up getting into communications. Someone who is at NRDC and was most recently the Head of the Department of Energy’s Communications, who is still tweeting out facts from the Obama Administration Department Of Energy. I’ve learned from so many journalists and people in communications over the years.
Melody: I feel like I’ve had a lot of people who have helped me along the way, or just been great advocates for my work from former clients, who, to this day, continue to recommend us for projects, and also just check in with me every once in a while to see how everything is going. My dad has an entrepreneurial way about him, and he’s always been so encouraging. And I think he’s always believed that no matter what I wanted to do, I would be able to achieve it. And he’s also always encouraged me to do the things that I love and not worry about how much money I’m making or who I’m – you know just really pursue things, and all of the rest will fall into place.
He’s also been a great financial advisor in all of this, because I didn’t go to business school, and sometimes I get a little overwhelmed with all of the work I have to do. And I’m always scared that I’m doing something wrong when it comes to that, because it’s not intuitive for me. I’m definitely more of a writer and creative person than I am an Excel sheet and numbers person.
Erin: And my dad and mom have been our legal counsel from the start. It was really kind of like a mom and pop family shop when we first started with their support.
Melody: And I think that was important to us, we need to trust who we’re surrounding ourselves with. And of course, the people you trust the most are your family.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten from someone?
Erin: If we may give our own piece of advice that we made for ourselves…
Erin: Our mantra is we don’t act like assholes and we don’t work with assholes. At the end of the day, life’s too short.
Melody: We put together a manifesto when we started No. 29 we share with all new employees and that we really try to adhere to. It’s one page, and that’s one of the tenets of it among other things, like explore the world to change your perspective and be more creative.
What advice would you offer to people who are interested in working in communications, or are trying to get more involved in something that’s more social-impact focused?
Erin: I would say focus on what you’re most passionate about. Find a way to work on that because that is what’s going to drive you to work really hard and learn the most.
I would also say don’t worry about the money coming out of college. You need to pay your rent, you can always find a roommate. You can make it work. When you need to have a family or whatever, it will become an important thing. But money just doesn’t matter in the beginning. You need to be able to live, and then beyond that when you’re looking at a job and it’s like a $5,000 difference, take the one that you’re excited about.
Melody: And stay hungry. Remember that if you’re just coming out of college, no matter how many internships that you’ve had, you are still coming to the table with zero experience. Be the first person to volunteer to do something, because you will be noticed. That’s how people get noticed and that’s how people rise up to the top really quickly.
What’s your dream for your future?
Melody: I think we’re excited to continue to grow. I don’t think we have visions of being a thousand person multinational organization, but I do think we’re at an exciting moment where a lot of the work we’re doing is rising to the surface because of everything that’s going on in the world. And so there’s going to be a greater demand for the type of work that we’re doing. And I think to continue to expand the global work that we’re doing too.
Erin: I feel the same way. I am excited to grow, be in different cities, and only keeping the work that we want to do. So, ideally, we remain a small firm. We want to be involved in all the client work, and that’s part of what we build this on too is, we want to be an extension of people’s teams. It’s been such a reward – we learn from our clients all the time.