Starting a business in the compliance and ethics field

Kirsten Liston

By Kirsten Liston

July 1 will be the 8th anniversary of Rethink Compliance.

As we roll that much closer to the decade mark — with more than 130 clients using the 300+ titles in our training library in more than 60 languages — it’s fun to look back and see how we got here. Although both the destination and the journey seem obvious in retrospect, it wasn’t always so clear.  I started much like you would probably start, if you take this jump.

So, how did Rethink Compliance come to be?

By 2015, I had spent 15 years working closely with clients on their compliance programs. The products we were rightly proud of in 2006 or 2009 looked dated. You could just see the market starting to look for what was next. And I mean that literally. Clients would sit with us in meetings and say: “We’ve done this before. We’ve used this course format to death. What’s next?” Have you experienced those moments and insights?  It there some need you see that is not being met?

In our personal digital lives, we’d gone from the clunky hand-built websites of the early 2000s to smart phones in our pockets – and our expectations for online content had increased. There were cool digital communications everywhere we looked, including viral stuff that people were making at home for free….. and I saw that compliance training wasn’t keeping up. This was clear to me and customers were saying it loudly, but no one was listening.  Have you ever experienced this?

I stepped back and considered what was then a new look. First the opportunity was there to use modern tools and communication styles to, literally, rethink what compliance materials could be. So I called the company Rethink Compliance. 

I wanted to make things that were fresh and unexpected and engaging, to give clients a better chance of capturing their audience’s attention – whether that was a harassment video, an antitrust course, or a new digital format for the Code of Conduct (with built-in analytics to provide key program insights).  Have you ever done this?  Seen developments elsewhere that you knew could work in compliance and ethics? 

We knew deep compliance expertise was important, so we drew most of our leadership and more than half of our team from the compliance industry – including many people who started out with me when I was first brought into a then-industry pioneer, Integrity Interactive, close to 20 years ago.

But I wanted  to follow a new path – that’s what starting a new business is about. So I made an exception to this in our creative team. We purposefully recruited from fields like advertising, digital marketing, filmmaking, journalism, and print design. We wanted people who had never been in compliance before, who could approach these topics with a fresh eye, and who created materials with a high level of quality and impact.

I realized what was missing in the industry from listening to customers and seeing what was happening.  I wanted to restore a high level of service, recapturing the consultative approach that was standard in the early days of the industry. (I knew from listening that clients want and value this — and, frankly, it only disappeared when all the leading vendors were bought out by private equity who started looking for places to slash costs.)

What I am seeing now is that our profession is in the middle of a massive shift from a focus on checklist defensibility (“do you have these program elements?”) to a focus that reflects both a shift by government and by management.  Is what you are doing effective (“are these program elements working?” “do they have an impact?”), raising all kinds of new questions to figure out — and we knew from listening to them that this would resonate with customers.

As a startup business you may be tempted to go full speed and tackle all services in all areas.  We did not do that.  We took a slow and deliberate approach to building the company because we wanted to do right by our customers and build a solid foundation for significant growth. Starting with Codes and policies, expanding into custom training and short videos, layering in an Advisory Services department, and eventually launching a full and ever-growing compliance training library, we’ve listened closely to our clients and responded with new lines of business when we were ready, with the right people and the right approach. If you like listening, observing and learning, then even now you may be realizing things in the market that could spell success for you as an entrepreneur. 

It’s interesting: People assume that when you leave your job to start a company, it’s this giant leap. But, in fact, you can start and build a company in modest, deliberate steps — making what feels risky less so, and what seems unattainable actually possible, bit by bit.

Today, we’re not close to being done. We’ve grown significantly every year since our founding in revenue and people — by listening to customers who others do not hear and looking in directions that others do not see, and helping the compliance industry modernize its offerings and serving as a trusted partner to our growing client roster. We’re excited about what’s ahead!

Does this sound like something you could do?  Curious to learn more? You can read more about my entrepreneurship journey in the book I co-wrote with Joe Murphy and Kristy Grant-Hart and get other tips that can help you be what your talent and experience have destined you to be: “The Compliance Entrepreneur’s Handbook: Tools, Tips, and Tactics to Find Your Killer Idea and Create Success on Your Own Terms.

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