Whistle While You Work: Storytelling in Action

Getting on board isn’t always as easy as you’d think. Learn more about how Karen Althen went from reluctant entrepreneur to Station K & Co.’s owner and agency principal!

Station K & Co. is a marketing and advertising agency that combines the expertise and experience of their diverse team to deliver compelling, thoughtful, and robust marketing and advertising strategies to their clients.

What is your story?

I started Station K & Company about 6 years ago and it’s kind of a marketing and advertising agency. How I usually describe us is that we’re a little bit different from most ad agencies, we are a small team of people and we do everything a full-service agency does, but we don’t have creatives on staff. So we don’t have any art directors or graphic designers, and that was really by design.

When I started this, I’d been working for eighteen years or so, and what I really found was that Minneapolis was very rich with creative talent. There’s a nice community of creative folks and having never hired or managed those types of people, I realized I would be better off focusing the business on what I was good at first and then find creative people to supplement the projects once I had them.

Met up with Karen over coffee!

Throughout my whole career people always told me I should have my own agency. I never really considered myself an entrepreneur, while growing up this was not something I thought I would end up doing. But I started to think that maybe there was a reason that people kept telling me this.

In 2009 I was at Target, and I was part of the layoffs of about 150 people in the marketing department. I found out the day after I got home from my honeymoon that I was losing my job and I was devastated because I loved it at Target. But I thought to myself and I talked to my husband, and I said that I feel like if I’m ever going to do my own thing, then this is it. I never would have given up what I had at Target to just go out on my own. I didn’t feel that I had that burning entrepreneurship thing but I thought that there might be something there. I couldn’t think of another job or another company that I could feel just as passionate about and I’m very much driven by what I’m passionate about. And sometimes that doesn’t always make sense between your head and your heart, but I try to follow my instincts on it. So I took a couple of months off and I decided I was going to do this.

How do you choose who you want to work with?

I do a lot of networking, I meet with a lot of different people. I usually will not turn down a chance to meet with somebody over coffee because I always think you need to know who your talent is before you need them. So even though I meet you today and you’re a designer, it doesn’t mean I will have a job for you tomorrow, but if I get a phone call three months down the road, I need to know pretty quickly who my team is because I need to put together a proposal and estimate pricing and make sure they’re available. So getting to know your potential partners and finding out what kind of work they like to do helps you get there faster. I like to call it my bench of talent.

One of the first things I did when I started was write out my agency tenets. It was basically like, if I’m going to have an agency, what do I want to stand for? So I wrote down all the good things I had from all my good bosses and my good jobs and all my key learnings, and none of the crap. Because if you’re going out on your own twenty years into working, then you know what you want and don’t want.

“So I have tenets like Courage, Deliver, Authenticity and Coach. And I wrote all ten of them down at 2 am one morning and I haven’t changed a word since.”

What is something someone has said to you that’s forever changed your way of thinking?

I can think of a few examples. One was that boss of mine at Northwest who really encouraged me to go back to school. I knew I wanted to go back to school but I didn’t know what for. And he said,

“You’re extremely talented in these areas but if you’re going to be in any sort of strategic marketing or you want to have your own agency one day, you’re going to need stronger business acumen because that will help you better use the information you’re given to grow your business.”

So that was a game changer for me.

How would someone who dislikes you describe you? Do you agree?

I think people may sometimes think I’m abrasive. I usually tell things like it is. I try to be diplomatic and polite because I don’t want to be mean. But people usually know where they stand with me, so I can see why other people would think that. I try to be more aware of different personalities and perspectives before I state my opinions. I think about that a lot, actually. How am I coming off? What questions am I asking? What can I do better to be less critical? Because it’s my job to understand where the other person is coming from.

If you could do anything to change the way you were raised, what would it be?

My dad is an engineer so he’s very science and math. And I was never really great at math, but I’m better now! But I feel like those types of jobs were always considered more important, and I think it’s very important to let kids follow what they’re good at without judgement. Because it was sometimes like, “a journalism degree, what are you going to do with that?” And I think I’ve done pretty well and I’m very passionate about writing. Of course they’re fine with it now and we laugh about it, but I wish they’d embraced it back then too.

Who do you follow on social media, if any? Why?

I’m obsessed with Huffington Post. I follow thought leaders like Richard Branson, Guy Kawasaki, Seth Godin and some former colleagues on Target who have gone on to do other things. I follow a lot of companies, the different Apples of the world. I typically follow inventors and thought leaders, regardless of the industry or what they do, because I love being inspired. I used to have a business book club, which is really dorky, but it was a good way to connect with my fellow business students and keep up with certain trends.

Food for Thought ← P R E V I O U S

N E X T → Jetsetting in the Valley

Make sure to check out Station K & Co.! If you want more stories featuring entrepreneurs and their quirky, fun and deeper sides, follow The Lemon Scope on Medium. We interview really cool people like Karen and write about them for you all to see!

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