This post appears as part of our Driven profile series, spotlighting some of the hottest movers and shakers from all corners of the Boston tech and startup space.
It probably comes as a surprise that Keith Frankel, chief experience officer at Firecracker, host of Boston’s Creative Mornings chapter, and former head of creative and design at HubSpot, wouldn’t describe himself as “creative.”
It surprised me, at least.
The morning after the Boston Marathon, Frankel and I met up at a packed Thinking Cup. I was sure our conversation would be filled with anecdotes about how, from an early age, he showed all signs of creative genius. I imagined a miniature Frankel, creating Van Gogh-esque masterpieces in crayon.
You can imagine how shocked I was, then, to learn that Frankel - the son of a surgeon and school teacher - was instead a varsity athlete who believed he’d follow in Dr. Dad’s footsteps.
“As a kid, I would have described myself as smart, independent, and a bit anti-authority or anti-tradition,” Frankel explains. “But I never would have used the term 'creative'.
“These days, despite what my career might show, not much has changed,” he adds.
Hold up just a minute here. How can someone’s who has built his entire career on creative roles at a mega media company (hello, MTV) and a world-renowned startup shy away from the very word most of us use to describe what he does?
“Maybe it's a case of impostor syndrome,” he suggests. “Maybe I place unfair expectations on myself… But the fact is that, whenever people characterize me as 'creative', my gut reaction is always one of incredulity.”
Frankel’s honesty, though maybe a bit self deprecating, is impressive. And that’s no surprise, really, given the fact that the guy’s dedicated his entire year to being just that: honest. At the end of 2015, he publicly committed to being uncompromisingly honest. Since then, he has chronicled the endeavor here and there on his blog, Adventures in Honesty.
To be clear, his commitment to honesty is not to be confused with a commitment to “exhaustive detail.” Meaning, he’s not using it as an excuse to be a jerk.
“It means a commitment to not lying,” Frankel clarifies. “I’m not removing the filter. But when I speak, I am doing my best to not speak any falsehoods.”
THE TURNING POINT
On the surface, Frankel’s commitment may seem like the stuff children’s storybooks are built on. But dig a little deeper and it’s pretty clear where the inspiration for a more honest, transparent, fulfilling lifestyle comes from.
You see, while working at HubSpot in 2014, Frankel got sick. And we’re not just talking a quick case of the sniffles here. After having a violent cough for more than three months, he woke up on May 17 of that year to find his entire right arm paralyzed.
After being admitted to the infectious disease ward at Tufts, doctors discovered he also had borderline liver failure. He was having cognitive problems too, and remembers more than once having a hard time coming up with the right words when speaking. All this and Frankel was only in his mid-20s.
“I was traveling a lot. Working a lot of late hours,” he recalls. “But I also wasn’t taking care of myself. I was drinking a little too much out of the beer fridge.”
Despite a barrage of tests, doctors remained stumped. They insisted he remain on the ward to continue in-patient testing. Frankel resisted, though. He was still knee-deep in work at HubSpot, about to launch Creative Mornings, and wasn’t ready to give up the go-go-go lifestyle core to many startups’ culture.
The wakeup call came when one doctor advised him to “reevaluate [his] expectations for returning to a normal life.” She agreed to meet Frankel in the middle: she’d treat him as an outpatient if he’d visit the hospital every day from 1 to 5 p.m. With little choice, Frankel obliged.
After months of testing and physical therapy, his liver improved, his full cognitive abilities returned, and a limited range of motion returned to his arm. Though doctors never tacked down a formal diagnosis, Frankel was eventually discharged.
An experience like that leaves a big mark on a person, though. So it’s no surprise that, after coming out OK on the other side, he made some major life changes. He left HubSpot. He did a short stint at Tablelist. He consulted for a number of Boston startups. He embarked on the grandiose mission of living honestly.
FALLING TOGETHER AT FIRECRACKER
As so often happens in stories like Frankel’s, things have come full circle.
Today he’s at Firecracker, a Boston startup that aims to change medical education through a platform that helps students better prep for classes, exams, and their boards.
“Firecracker had this vision, this mission that spoke to me personally,” Frankel notes, referencing both his childhood aspirations and his health battle.
Working as Chief Experience Officer, he’s molding a new kind of role that straddles product design and client success, marrying each so that customer feedback more immediately influences how the product functions. (The approach makes so much sense that it makes you wonder, why isn’t everyone else doing it like this?) And it seems to be working: one out of six med students pay to use Firecracker, and together answer more than 10M questions each month, according to Frankel.
Ultimately, his role at Firecracker is about making a difference.
“The average Firecracker student scores a standard deviation higher on board exams than non- Firecracker students,” he says. “Their entire career depends on these exams, so that’s huge.”
Frankel says all of it - the mission-driven organization, the promise to live life honestly - is the “next stage of evolution” in his life. If there’s one point his whole story seemingly boils down to, it’s this:
“Our responsibility is to make the world a better place, and I believe we can all do this simply by being more honest and more candid with those around us.”
Images via Keith Frankel