Martha McCarthy Krueger and Emily Pritchard met like many first-year college students – in the residence halls. In 2007, they both moved in early to Dowling Hall – Krueger to be part of the Tommie Ambassador program and Pritchard to play on the volleyball team.
The two laughed when recalling their first St. Thomas encounter.
“I moved into this dark basement and there was no one around. About an hour later I saw someone down the hall and virtually ran to go introduce myself!” Krueger '11 said.
Pritchard '11 added: “I think what also clicked is that we were both athletes and from out of state. Our floor had a lot of people from out of state, too. We were there on the weekends. We didn’t have a lot of family around. We made our group of friends faster.”
Fast forward a few years to their final semester at St. Thomas when the two entrepreneurship majors launched The Social Lights, a social media marketing agency. A lot of attention was paid to their startup story and rightly so – they started a business while in college, during a recession and without any outside investors.
Seven years later and The Social Lights has shed that startup label. With more than two dozen employees who are as passionate about social media as Pritchard and Krueger, the Minneapolis-based company has worked with brands that have anywhere from 5,000 to more than 190 million social media followers. Taking on accounts of all sizes, including Fortune 500 companies, The Social Lights shows no signs of slowing down. Since 2016, the company has more than doubled its revenue and its staff has grown 35 percent.
“When it comes to social it’s changing so fast, it’s a very even playing field,” Pritchard said recently from The Social Lights’ bright and welcoming office. “We feel the opportunity is just as much ours as it is an agency’s that’s been around for 100 years, if not more so because we have figured out a new model that is agile. What we can take from being founders and entrepreneurs and starting a company is that mindset to always be nimble, always be innovating, always be breaking things and making it better; that’s the part of the startup story that’s in our DNA and we get to that carry forward.”
The Newsroom caught up with Pritchard and Krueger to find out how their business has evolved over the past seven years and what’s in store for the future.
What are some of the changes The Social Lights has gone through since you founded the company during your last semester at St. Thomas in 2011?
Krueger: “I remember in 2013 being at the Forbes Under 30 Summit and I heard the Rent the Runway founder talk about her business. It’s a global company, so it’s logistically very challenging. She reflected back and said, ‘If I had any idea how hard this would be to pull off, I never would’ve started building it. But I’m really glad that I didn’t know, because here I am.’
“Similarly, if we knew how difficult it would be to develop and scale an agency, we might not have taken that initial leap. Looking back, each six-month period could be defined as a different chapter in the book or a different challenge or opportunity. Agency life, social media and startups – they all inherently have a lot of highs and lows. It’s like riding a roller coaster. We’re really proud of navigating all of the change and recognize that we’re still navigating as we continue to grow. We have 25 full-time employees now. In 2011, it was just the two of us. There have been many iterations along the way."
Pritchard: “I don’t think starting a business out of college is for everybody. We’ve had a lot of friends who went into the work world who are now entrepreneurs or were entrepreneurs and decided that it wasn’t for them. You have to figure out the right path for you. I think we are both called to be entrepreneurs – it’s in our blood. The last seven years have taught us that we’re meant to be doing this. You go through a lot of changes in your 20s. It’s a crazy decade and your friends are going through changes, too. I think we’ve both struggled with relating as an entrepreneur to some other people who aren’t entrepreneurs. They don’t get why you bring things home with you and never really shut off. You have to figure out your own way to deal with that. I surrounded myself with other entrepreneurs to have a support network. St. Thomas has been huge in that respect. Our St. Thomas network has been extremely valuable to us.”
Why did you decide to stay business partners and settle in the Twin Cities after graduation?
Pritchard: “We were having a lot of fun with it. That’s something our professors always challenged us on, ‘Is this still fun? Do you guys still want to do it?’ That was always our gut check – ‘Do we still want to do this?’ The answer was always yes. The opportunity is still there and there’s a lot of interest.
“It also comes back to our value systems. We are both from family businesses, we both have similar foundations of what it takes to be successful. Both being athletes, we have the drive and the perseverance to keep going.”
What makes The Social Lights different from other marketing agencies?
Pritchard: “Culture is something we talk about a lot at The Social Lights. But we don’t just talk about it, we live it and our team helps us form it. A couple years ago, Martha and I went through an exercise as the business was growing beyond the two of us – to set what the vision was and what the core values of our organization were. But we don’t write our core values on the wall. We set up all our processes and procedures internally to demonstrate that that’s who we are and that’s how we do what we do.
"In terms of what sets The Social Lights apart from other agencies, in particular in the advertising and marketing world, is that we are social only. We are social first. That has been in our DNA since the beginning. That’s been a differentiator because there’s been a lot more emphasis put on specialty and specialization within marketing, especially as it becomes more segmented. We need to be really specific in what we focus on, but go very deep and very thorough with the services we provide. We see social as the future. The future is here, but it’s constantly evolving. We’re able to evolve with it and help our clients evolve, too, which is unique. We’re not just tacking it on or selling them something else along with all the other things we do. That’s why we are the trusted partner when it comes to helping our clients prepare for the future.”
I hear you’re involved with the Super Bowl. What can you tell us about what you’ll be doing?
Pritchard: “We are working with the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee to help them power a social media command center for the Super Bowl. We’re helping them structure how to manage the flow of conversation on social to ensure that Minnesota residents and global international visitors alike have a positive experience here in the Bold North.”
If you could give your college-aged selves advice, what would it be?
Pritchard: “Don’t take yourself so seriously, because then that puts all the pressure on you to make sure you don’t fail. They talk about entrepreneurs being scared of failure. I think that’s crept up sometimes in our business, but then we’ve always caught each other and shifted the mindset to be opportunity. Risk is OK. We’re comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s when we know we’re doing something right.”
Krueger: “Be more confident. Own it. It was hard that last semester when people would say, ‘What are you doing after graduation?’ I’d tell them we’re starting a company. And they’d say, ‘Oh, OK.’ There’s a lot of pushback and people thinking they’re steering you in a better direction. People saying we’re in a recession, you’ve never done this before, social media is a fad, the list goes on. There were a lot of naysayers and some days you would let it get to you. The advice I’d give myself would be to own it. It’s your decision. That’s what you’re doing with your life. Be confident in that decision because it’s going to be OK.”
What’s the future look like for The Social Lights?
Krueger: “The future is very bright. There’s a lot of growth opportunities in our future. We know there are global companies that need what we do. For the ones that align with our core values and what we are trying to do, we want to help them. We also want to keep employing talented people because it’s so gratifying for us when people come here and say, ‘I love working here. I’m able to be client-facing, and publish my content and ads on brand pages for some of the world’s largest brands.’ We like being able to create jobs that are different than what’s out in the marketplace and take pride in the work we’re doing for our clients. At this stage, we’ve gotten over the startup thing and now we’re business owners and consultants ready for the next growth phase.”