How I Got Here with Lauren Edwards

This is the latest in a weekly feature called “How I Got Here,” where I ask people in NASCAR about the journeys to their current jobs. Each interview is recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed on Up next: Lauren Edwards, founder and CEO of Reine Digital.

Can you explain what you do and what Reine Digital does?

So Reine Digital, I founded it at the beginning of 2017, and it is a social and digital consulting agency. I work with a lot of athletes, and especially drivers in our sport and media personalities in our sport. And then I have a couple other small clients on that are more business- and brand-focused, but we really focus on kind of the athletes and personalities.

So Jimmie Johnson is among your clients?

Yes. Jimmie was my first client. I originally worked with Jimmie for five years, helping him with his social and digital and then kind of stepped out on my own and he signed on as a client. Steve Letarte is another client, which has been so much fun. It’s a very different side of things, kind of getting into the broadcast side of things as opposed to a driver.

And then I have a couple other people I’m kind of just starting to work with this year, which is really exciting and new and I’m very thrilled. I’ve actually randomly gotten into wineries and distilleries, kind of the alcohol side of things, which is very different and the laws are crazy — it’s nothing like sports — but it’s been really fun.

Let’s talk about how you got to this point. So you went to William & Mary. Was racing ever on the radar for you?

No. So I went to William & Mary because I wanted to do international economic development.

That’s different than this.

You probably couldn’t get more different of a career path. So I went there to study international relations and economics as a double major. I took both those majors and I was feeling great.

I grew up right outside of Philadelphia. So (former Pocono track president) Brandon Igdalsky’s mom, Looie, lived not far from where we lived and my parents were friends with her. I’ve been really close with that whole (Mattioli) family for years. And so when I was in college, I went up to do a marketing internship with them (at Pocono), just because I felt like it would look better on a resume than being a lifeguard or a waitress or something like that that all my friends were doing.

I was like, “OK, I’m gonna go do this and at least just check the boxes, get some marketing experience.” And I fell in love with it. I was like, “This is amazing. I love it. It’s fun, it’s exciting, I’m good at it.” And so my junior year, I went back to William & Mary and added a marketing degree so I could get into sports.

Some people go to an internship based on the path they want to follow. You did the internship thinking it might help your resume, but then being inspired by that led you down a completely different road?

One hundred percent. My entire high school career and the beginning of my college career was 100 percent focused on government, international politics, economics, that route. And I’m still passionate about that and I love it — and my friends will tease me because I read these really nerdy books about world politics and economies. But for me, just working in it, just being there in the summer and kind of experiencing what the sport was like, I just knew, “OK, now I have a passion for this and I want to do it.”

So what happened next? What was your next step?

When I graduated college, started applying for jobs and there was a position at Octagon (sports marketing agency) that was available. It was actually on the DLP account, back in the day when DLP was on the 96 car. So I took that position.

Hall of Fame Racing!

Yes, Hall of Fame Racing, absolutely. Yeah, that was a really fun account and it was crazy to come into the sport and kind of be with a team, with a car, kind of be with a sponsor, and so I did that for six months. And then that team went away and stopped racing, and so I moved over to the Sprint account.

When I was first on the Sprint account, I was doing more customer relations or customer experience kind of things with Sprint and Sprint customers at the track. And then they literally sent out an email, pretty much company-wide to everyone at Octagon, and they were like, “Does anyone have experience in social media? Miss Sprint Cup needs to be on social media.”

What year was this?

That would have been the end of 2008, beginning of 2009.

So it was pretty early on in the Twitter days.

Very, very early on. And that’s kind of why they sent the email. There were a lot of very smart, amazing people at Octagon — just not a lot of people knew a lot about social media. I mean, Facebook really only started in 2003, 2004, like kind of gaining traction. So I basically was like, “I’ve been stalking people on Facebook for years, I got this.” I kind of fell into it that way and started a lot of the social side of things with Miss Sprint Cup, and just loved it and enjoyed it. It was just kind of my niche that I fell into.

It’s not like you had a bunch of Twitter experience — because nobody did. So you were sort of learning on the go?

One hundred percent learning on the go. It was a lot of on-the-job training. As new platforms would come…it was “Oh my God, is this gonna be the next big app? Is this gonna be the next big social media platform?” So there was a lot of research in the beginning days of what made sense and how things should be.

I remember the very first time Miss Sprint Cup ever tagged someone in a tweet using the @ symbol and it was this big to-do with our clients and we had to have this big meeting about it. And now I mean, it’s just commonplace, that’s what you do. But I distinctly remember the first time we did it, we tagged Juan Pablo Montoya. He had done something, said something in the media and we tagged it, just kind of like a cute little, “Oh hey,” and it turned into this huge thing of, “Can we do this? Is that allowed?”

Lauren Edwards, right, poses with Monica Palumbo during her days working with the Miss Sprint Cup account. (Courtesy Lauren Edwards)

We all look back now and say, “Well Facebook’s big, Twitter’s big, Instagram’s big,” but you didn’t know back then. I remember when Google Plus came along and things like that, people were like, “This is gonna be huge,” and it was a total flop. So is it all trial and error that you sort of taught yourself all these methods with all these various platforms?

So I think one of the things that kinds of helps me is I do love learning, so I’m constantly reading and kind of researching and listening to what people are talking about. For me, I mostly look at the data. So we did dabble in Google Plus when I worked for Jimmie, we had done some things for Google Plus. And while it was a really great platform, it really was awesome, we didn’t see the same numbers that we saw everywhere else even though worldwide.

I’m just a big numbers person. So John Lewensten works with Jimmie, kind of manages everything day-to-day Johnson-related, and when I first started working with Jimmie, John told me, “Yeah, we can just get off Facebook. Facebook is dead, we don’t need it. We can just get rid of it.” And I was like, “No, that’s a terrible idea. Facebook is not dead.”

It’s funny, because you just don’t know. It seems like the trends are going a certain way and we’re used to like MySpace dying and things like that, and against all odds, some of these have stuck around.

Totally. For me, I look at each platform differently, so I look at Facebook and I see Facebook is such a strong click-through platform. So regardless of where your followers fall across, almost all my clients’ click-throughs tends to be higher on Facebook than anywhere else. A lot of that has to do with more people use Facebook on desktop than Twitter or Instagram. So you’re more likely to click-through on a desktop than you are a mobile phone.

It’s changed a little bit since Apple has created the ability to go back to the app that you were on. When they didn’t have that ability, we saw significantly less click-through from any mobile-based thing. I’m getting nerdy on you, but I’m a big numbers person; I’m constantly looking at the data to see what’s working and where our strategy needs to go.

That’s fascinating. So when you were with Miss Sprint Cup, when you’re working on that stuff, why did you feel like trying to work for Jimmie was the next step for you?

Jimmie got a lot of pressure to get on social media and realized very quickly that it was gonna need a full effort between that and building his own website and things like that. And while I loved Octagon and I loved the Miss Sprint Cup program, I just felt like I needed the next step, to do something different, to take something more on. And I liked the idea of working directly with an athlete. With Miss Sprint Cup, she was more of a spokesperson for Sprint and it was more kind of brand-related. I liked the idea of building someone’s personal brand and still working with partners through them.

So that’s really what a lot of my job with Jimmie was, was kind of working with him on the personal brand side of things and opening up these platforms to him and coming up with cool ways to utilize them. And on the flip side, working with all of our partners and everyone that related to the car, his personal sponsors, those kinds of things, and making sure that everyone is super happy and sees the return on the investment that they’re getting from him.

How much of the lessons you learned doing the Miss Sprint Cup stuff applied to the Jimmie stuff? Were you having to re-teach yourself different methods or different ways of conveying social messages, or did a lot of it transfer over?

The big thing, and where I’ve really kind of found my niche in the NASCAR world with Reine Digital, is it’s very different when you’re not the one posting. So a lot of people are running team accounts or brand accounts or things like that within our sport, and they are the voice of the brand; they’re just sending the message that they want.

For me, I’m not the one sending the messages — it’s someone else. And I’m trying to help guide them and say, “I noticed you’re not posting a lot of this; we need to see more of this on your channels,” and things like that. It’s just a different kind of conversation you’re having as opposed to just picking up your phone and being like, “OK, I know I need to send this today.”

At some point, you get to the point where you want to start your own thing. That had to be a big leap — having started my own thing myself, I know that’s very scary. What was the process like to go out on your own? Was there a lot of thought, or was it a clear vision to you that you wanted to do it? How did that evolve?

It was a lot of conversation. Jimmie was the one that encouraged me to do it. He called me from a gondola in Aspen one day and he was like, “I’m on the gondola, and I really think this is the direction you need to go in life.” And we had talked about it with Jimmie a little bit before. Jimmie definitely saw the value and what I could bring to working with individuals, and he had me work with some of his friends, just kind of helping them with their social media throughout the years that I had been with him. And then we just kind of came to this point where we were like, “OK, this can work. This can really be something.”

I was completely terrified. I am very much a behind-the-scenes person. I kind of love my job because I am not out there, and so the hardest thing for me was kind of realizing that in order to be very successful in this business, I have to do a little bit of promotion and kind of put myself out there because I am my business. So that’s been the hardest part of it I think, which is crazy, but for me, that was definitely the hardest part.

But yeah, I think having Jimmie’s support, there’s no way I could even explain how much that means knowing that he has the faith in me that I can do it. I’m like, “OK, well then yes. Of course I can.”

Lauren Edwards poses with Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus after Johnson’s seventh championship.

It’s not like you were breaking it to him and you’re going to leave. Where if he wants to keep the business with you, he’s gonna have to do this. It’s more like him saying, “You’re doing a great job, I have faith in you, I believe you can deliver for other people aside from just me, go do this.” That’s quite a phone call to receive.

At the time I was 29, and I was kind of at that point where it’s like, OK, I need more. I want more. I’m just craving more involvement in other things. I think everyone hits those points a couple times in their career where they’re just like, “Where am I going, what’s my trajectory? What do I have that I feel like I rock and I own?” So that’s kind of how the conversation started. It wasn’t totally out of the blue where Jimmie didn’t just call me up.

I never wanted to leave him, but I was also like, “I know I need more for my own self-fulfillment,” and that was kind of the path that we went down. So it was a really quick process. He called me in January, and by the middle of February, I had the business up and running. So it was fast.

Being on your own now and not only doing all the social stuff you’re doing but being a business owner and having to worry about that, has that all been self-taught?

One hundred percent. I’m sure you can commiserate when it comes to things like accounting that I’ve never had to do before. Like, I don’t know this. So luckily, there have been some really amazing people that have kind of given me some advice and some guidance and kind of helped along the way, and so that’s been awesome. But yeah, it’s completely self-taught.

Luckily, I’m so passionate about what I do and I’m so passionate about the clients that I have and the work that I’m doing with them that it kind of keeps me going. But yeah, as far as running a business, it definitely was never something I had seen in my future — it’s not something I studied, it’s not something I knew a lot about, so I was just learning as I go.

It’s not like you have to go to school and get the degree to learn how to run a small business or something like that. It sounds like if you have the passion and you have the drive to do it, that stuff can sort of make up for it.

One hundred percent. I think finding good people who can give you some advice and can help you along the way, I think that’s really important. I think if I didn’t have the support system that I have with my husband, Jon Edwards, who works with Jeff (Gordon), and John Lewensten, and kind of those people who really give me some support and advice, I would have been lost.

And then a little trial by error, I mean, there are decisions I make and I look back and I’m like, “I don’t know that I should have made that decision,” but at the time, I made the decision based on the facts that I have.

For me, the most important thing is that all of my clients are really happy — and they are — so that matters the most to me. And it’s something that I’m like, “OK, well, the other stuff, we’ll figure it out.” I’m not the only person that started a small business, but I want to be the best in my space in this small business because that’s the only way I’m gonna grow.

Let’s say somebody’s reading this and they’re like, “Wow, that’s a really cool job, I’m good at social media, I feel like I could help people with social media.” Where would they start? What path would you recommend they go down?

It’s crazy because the social media world has changed so much in the past five to eight years. There weren’t jobs for social media really 10 years ago, and now there’s tons. I’m still really involved in the William & Mary alumni system and still work with students there, and I tell people that are looking to get into sports: Working for agencies is great. There’s so many agencies in our sport, and the great thing with agencies is that you get to experience a lot, so typically when you’re working on an account, you’ll have your specific role, but you can always help out other people on the account. So I think that’s really beneficial and you learn so much.

I also think with the way teams are growing and the way teams are managing social media, those are positions that are opening up more frequently than we’ve ever seen before. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there.

I would say the best thing to do is personally, even beyond like where to start, is to become really well-rounded. I think I excel in the strategy side of things and kind of how you best take the content that you have and distribute it, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t not be good at capturing content. So taking photos, taking videos, editing videos, doing graphics, things like that. Yes, that’s not my strong point, but it’s something I really worked to teach myself so that I’m well-rounded for whatever need a client may have.

A couple times on these “How I Got Here” podcasts, people have mentioned agencies. For people who don’t know, can you explain what agencies are and what they do for somebody that has no idea about marketing or anything like that?

Absolutely. So agencies are a fantastic way to get into the sport because basically what they do is they work with a lot of the brands that are in our sport and do a lot of the brand activation. So there are some major brands that want to get involved in NASCAR, that want to be a part of it, but there’s really not anyone on their business team and their marketing team that knows intimate details about our sport. So it’s easier for them to go hire an agency that has a ton of that knowledge and can really help them get the most out of their sponsorship dollars.

There’s small agencies, there’s large agencies, it kind of runs the gamut, but they’re really valuable because it’s a lot of people that are super knowledgable about the sport and can help the brands who want to be involved but may not know anything about it.

Now your agency right now is social media specific, so somebody could hire you looking, “We have a weakness here, we need to pick this up,” and you would help them with that strategy or help guide them in that way, right?

Absolutely. So a lot of the bigger agencies do tend to have every part of the business in NASCAR that you can imagine, so they do everything from displays to signage to activation to hosting and all of that. For me, my agency is much more focused on kind of the social and digital side of things, so anything related to your online presence is kind of where I would fall. And then there are some other agencies that are more focused on just display units and agencies that are focused on hosting and things like that.

So it all kind of depends on where your personal interests lie, but I always recommend people kind of start out at an agency. I also think it’s really important in our sport for people to understand the brand side of things and the sponsor side of things before maybe going to a team or working for NASCAR, doing some other role in the sport, because as we all know, our sport is so heavily sponsor-driven and it’s such an important part of our sport that I think intimately understanding that is important before taking on other roles.

Where do you go from here? You’ve already accomplished a lot and come very far and made a name for yourself in the sport. Where do you see it going?

That kind of changes a little bit day by day as my business continues to grow. For me, I would like to really grow into a smaller agency that really focuses heavily on the social and digital side of things. I don’t foresee this growing into kind of a one-stop shop agency side of things.

I look at a lot of the athletes in our sport and I do a lot of research on athletes in other sports and media personalities, celebrities and I think we do an awesome job in so many ways, and then there are other things we fall short on. And that’s true of any sport, but for me, that’s what I’m passionate about, is saying, “OK, let’s get a lot of our drivers up to speed and let’s help them be the best that they can be,” because these guys are cool and they’re fun and they’re awesome, and we don’t always see that on social. That’s really a passion for me, so continuing to kind of sign drivers, work with sponsors in our sport, work with a lot of industry members and continue to grow into a well-respected small agency.

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