Kristin Carroll launched her 20-year-plus career in New York City first at a big ad agency and then at the Partnership for a Drug Free America, a non-profit that worked with ad agencies to create social impact marketing campaigns. For her, New York was incredibly vibrant and professionally rewarding, but she found herself leaving every weekend in the summer for the beach and in the winter for the mountains.
The one place that offered the young professional and athlete the ideal year-round climate was San Diego, where she could enjoy the great outdoors every day. So, in 2001, Carroll moved out west and joined Active.com, a hot startup that was pioneering online race registration.
“I was an avid triathlete and used Active.com to sign up for races, so when they were looking for ad sales executives to sell to east coast agencies, it was the perfect fit,” she said.
Over the next 13 years, Carroll helped build Active’s media and marketing division from scratch to a $40 million business unit by selling ad inventory on Active.com to agencies and building out event marketing business to help clients like Toyota, General Mills and PepsiCo reach active lifestyle consumers.
“As Active grew through acquisitions integrating technology for team sports, summer camps, park and recreation departments, campgrounds and more, our marketing offerings also grew,” Carroll said. “Then, as we headed towards our IPO in 2011, I was able to bring my marketing experience inward and took over both consumer and corporate marketing helping the company shape its value proposition, handling investor relations, and growth of our Active.com platform.”
Between 2012 and 2013, she led a global rebrand process to bring together all 20-plus acquired and still fairly disparate companies under a single Active Network company story and go-to market strategy.
These days, Carroll is running San Diego-based Rescue Agency, which helps government agencies and nonprofits create marketing campaigns that drive health behavior change. Below, she harkens back to the life-changing and career-building experience she had at Active.com and how she ended up at a world-renowned and top ranked social impact agency (and even corralled a few Active alumni along the way).
Love at First Sight: Carroll first fell in love with Active.com because of the entrepreneurial spirit and overall lifestyle. “People were passionate, open-minded, and excited about growing the activity space. So many of us enjoyed the sports we powered that they naturally became an important way for us all to connect in and out of the office. As the company grew, the passion remained, while the business became more and more complex. We went from a few offices to over 20 locations and from 100 employees to over 3,500 during my tenure. This created a lot of amazing opportunities if you were willing to work hard, tackle challenges head on, and focus on results. It was like a choose-your-own adventure book where new learning was around every corner.”
Career Prep: “Active prepared me in so many ways – it was a living, breathing MBA program that lasted over a decade,” Carroll said. “We were young but hungry so we all learned by doing.”
So, what exactly did Carroll learn while at Active? Here’s a long list: sales and negotiation skills; marketing automation and consumer engagement; P&L management; corporate finance and budgeting; how to evolve a go-to-market approach in a dynamic space; acquisition and integration best practices and pitfalls; investor relations; technology and product development lifecycles and limitations; employee engagement and culture; leadership training; change management; public offerings and private equity buyouts; working with different personalities and competing priorities; and how to manage through different executive tenures, just to name a few.
“There were as many mistakes as there were successes which was a challenge. But, learning from what didn’t go right was often more valuable – as long as you never make the same mistake twice,” she said.
Career Coach: Carroll shared that some of the hardest experiences at Active provided an education that became clearer over time. “Here are three universal lessons that I still think about. 1) There is incredible power in managing a company with the long versus short-term view. 2) Focus is a competitive advantage. Doing fewer things well is more valuable than being average at many things. And 3), people are their best when they work towards a clearly communicated and common purpose.”
Rescue Mission: After Active Network was sold to Vista Equity Partners in 2013 and made the decision to move to Dallas, it was time for Carroll to move on – in the form of the CEO position at Rescue Agency.
“I had some time to explore the San Diego market and met some amazing companies, but Rescue Agency was a perfect blend of my background in advertising, public health, and my time at Active scaling a company,” she said. “Rescue had just been awarded a large federal contract from the Food and Drug Administration to create its first ever national tobacco prevention campaign and needed to grow quickly while still maintaining the high quality of our work. I was able to join the Founder and President, Jeff Jordan, and we very quickly launched Fresh Empire and This Free Life nationally, two groundbreaking public health campaigns – check them out. And, lessons learned at Active have helped me build our event marketing and media operation, our work in after school programs, and our expansion into nutrition and obesity prevention with clients like the California Department of Public Health and Special Olympics.”
Healthy Business: Rescue is a nationally recognized behavior change marketing agency whose mission is to make healthy behaviors easier and more appealing. The firm supports over two dozen state and federal government health departments, including the FDA, California Department of Public Health, and the Vermont Department of Public Health as well as non-profits like the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth in creating innovative marketing programs that reduce tobacco and e-cigarette use, increase the consumption of healthy foods, promote physical activity and after-school programs, and support mental health and substance abuse education, among other issues.
“We operate much like an advertising agency with client service, strategy, media, social and creative teams, but work to promote positive health behaviors instead of selling fast food, clothing or cars,” Carroll explained. “Our work is always founded in research and we have a team of Ph.D.’s on staff to ensure we always start with a deep understanding of a specific health behavior.”
Making an Impact: “Social impact is built into Rescue’s DNA, but after seeing Active lose much of its purpose-driven focus through the company sale, I vowed to make sure Rescue’s mission was kept intact for the long term,” Carroll said, adding that Rescue became a certified B Corp in 2014 shortly after she joined, which, she said, means the firm has committed long term to producing a meaningful social impact through its work and balancing the interest of shareholders, customers and the community.
Rescue was recognized as a B Corp “Best for the World” organization in 2016 alongside Patagonia, Revolution Foods, Kickstarter and Warby Parker, and a Changemaker in 2018. This year, Rescue was ranked #1 on Real Leaders inaugural list of Social Impact companies and also named a Forbes “Small Giant.”
“This social impact focus has kept steady even as we’ve been on the INC 5000 list of fastest growing private companies for 12 years running, growing from 50 to 185 people since I joined five years ago,” Carroll said, adding that Rescue has 185 employees with offices in San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Atlanta, Washington, D.C. and Albuquerque.
The Land of Opportunity & Sunshine: When asked why she has stayed in San Diego, Carroll said, “While San Diego is sometimes seen as a sleepy business town, looks can be deceiving. I have continued to find challenge, smart people, and lots of opportunities in San Diego. There isn’t another place in the country that offers such a dynamic business community combined with a sunny, outdoor playground 365 days a year.”
Startup Scene: Carroll said the San Diego tech startup scene is certainly stronger than it was when she arrived back in 2001, but there is still more work to do in developing our talent pool.
“Through years volunteering with TEDx San Diego, I’ve seen its Innovation Alley grow. Speaking at Startup San Diego this year was a great chance to see new, young talent interact with more established companies. And, now as a part of San Diego Workforce Partnership’s Technology Council, we’re trying to better map the San Diego tech ecosystem and bridge some of the talent gap by promoting tech skills among students in all corners of the county. As a marketing agency, we hire developers, analysts, social media gurus, and designers who need strong technology skills and I’d rather hire local than import talent from other major cities so I’m happy to help contribute to talent development in any way I can.”
Active Alumni: “We have some amazing Active alumni at Rescue. They have all been with us for several years and have helped us grow, just like Active grew. I feel so lucky to have them as leaders at Rescue.
- Steve Andrews, VP Finance at Rescue & former Finance Manager at Active.
- Dina Weldin, Group Management Director, Nutrition & Obesity Prevention at Rescue & former Account Manager, Promotions at Active
- Bryce Guiterrez – Senior Project Manager, Rescue & former Account Manager at Active
- Carli Smith – Sr. Director, Marketing at Rescue & former Digital Media Planner at Active
- Dean Lipkovicius – Sr. Director, Media at Rescue & former Head of Ad Operations and Media Planning, Active
I recently caught up with Steve Andrews, who reminisced about the Active.com days and why he loves his job at Rescue.
Active Attraction: Before starting his eight-year tenure at Active in 2006, Andrews worked for a local wholesale mortgage bank, which at the time generated a consistent revenue stream, “but wasn’t all that exciting. I’m a tech nerd at heart so Active and its technology infrastructure spoke to me.”
The Buzz: “It’s tough to look back and refer to Active as a ‘hot online company,’ Andrews said. “The company was centered around creating connections to healthy activities. If you lived an active lifestyle then you were probably familiar with Active. Otherwise, it would be a mouthful trying to explain the many facets of the organization. That said, internally there was plenty of buzz around our growth and expansion. The San Diego headquarters couldn’t lease floors quick enough to support the influx of staff.”
Controlled Growth: When Andrews joined Active, he said the culture felt very entrepreneurial in spirit. “It was like a place where ‘everybody knows your name,’” he said. “From there you could feel (and see) an evolution as the leadership framework, business units, and financial systems were further defined and put into motion. Explosive growth across the organization created a new atmosphere – an atmosphere that required a fresh but conventional way of thinking to advance the company’s profile.”
Active’s biggest accomplishment, Andrews said, was its controlled growth spurt. “Active was able to harness momentum across all verticals by focusing on what it does best. It made the right resource and R&D investments at the right time.”
Career Prep: “The finance team at Active was collaborative in nature. We worked closely to not only report out on our respective business units but to create synergies across verticals in how we gathered, interpreted, and presented financial data,” Andrews said.
“Active was dedicated to providing the finance team (and many others) with the right tools to effectively do their job. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s to invest in the right systems. Data can help or hinder an organization’s ability to make informed decisions. Do yourself a favor and hire the right people to make your systems and data work for you.”
Next Step: There was some uncertainty following Active’s decision to move its headquarters to Dallas, and Andrews entertained the idea momentarily, but then realized he was not prepared to continue the journey out of state.
“Fortunately, Kristin reached out to me regarding a new opportunity (Director of Finance at Rescue). I hadn’t worked directly for her in years as there were periodic management shifts at Active as business units matured. Needless to say, I was eager to hear what she had up her sleeve. She wooed me over coffee at her house, an architectural dream if I might add, and the rest is history.”
Passion & Profits: When asked about what he loves most about his job at Rescue, Andrews described how the agency fosters an environment of exploration, innovation and trust.
“I have a boss/mentor that allowed me the autonomy to build out an incredible team and invest in essential financial systems. At its core, Rescue is about promoting healthy behaviors. This type of social responsibility and impact is something I have always stood behind and is why the love for my job endures.”
Success Scale: During his time at Rescue, Andrews has witnessed +400% revenue growth and the more than doubling of staff. “With growth comes growing pains and Rescue’s original footprint needed to adapt and expand in order to be successful,” he said. “Rescue was quick to rethink strategies around business topics, staffing, and how various members of the organization interacted with clients and one another.”
“It takes time and a concerted effort, but I believe Rescue’s success is purely defined by the leaders and teams who have faith in the mission/vision,” he added. “It didn’t matter if you were in finance, research, creative, etc…, we are all driving towards the same goal.”
Because, San Diego: “Who doesn’t want to live in San Diego? It’s an active work hard, play hard community that is relatively affordable – you essentially live where most come to escape,” Andrews said. “A melting pot of talent, perfect weather year-round, beaches as your backyard, some pretty amazing breweries, and culturally rich eateries – all signs point to yes.”
Editor’s Note: This is part six in a series about the early pioneers of online race and activity registration, the subsequent companies they went on to create and run, and how they are still “active” in the San Diego tech ecosystem. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 & Part 5 & Part 7.