September 25, 2016

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Chats with Chip: Karen Swim of SoloPR Pro

Chats with Chip: Karen Swim of SoloPR Pro

In this episode of Chats with Chip, Karen Swim, President of SoloPR Pro and Words For Hire, joined me in discussing a wide range of issues related to independent public relations practitioners.

Among the topics we discussed were:

  • The benefits of being a SoloPR Pro member
  • The difference between being an entrepreneur and a PR practitioner
  • Achieving work-life balance as an independent consultant
  • The impact of technology on solo PR pros
  • How vendors can help one-person consulting shops
  • Deciding whether and how to grow beyond a single employee

Transcript

Please review the audio before quoting to confirm accuracy of this unverified transcript.

Chip Griffin: Hi, this is Chip Griffin and this is another episode of Chats with Chip. I’m very pleased to have with me today Karen Swim. She’s a strategic public relations and marketing consultant at Words for Hire and the president at Solo PR Pro. Welcome, Karen.

 

Karen Swim: Thank you, Chip. Good morning. Thank you so much for having me.

 

Chip Griffin: It is great to have you. Before we dive into our conversation, can you tell folks where they can find you online?

 

Karen Swim: Absolutely. My name is Karen Swim, like swimming in a pool. No, it’s not a reference to my athletic abilities, it’s my name everywhere: LinkedIn, Twitter, Periscope, Facebook, it’s all at Karen Swim.

 

Chip Griffin: That is fantastic and easy to remember. Let’s start our conversation, if we could, by talking about Solo PR Pro. You became president of Solo PR Pro earlier this year. What brought you into the mix, what attracted you to it, and what are your plans for the future of it?

 

Karen Swim: I have been a part of the Solo PR Pro community since the wonderful and amazing Kelly Crane founded it almost a decade ago. It began as a Twitter chat, and Kelly really, really tapped into a need in the marketplace to have a community of independent practitioners, because there was no community geared towards solo PR pros. All of these people came together and were able to create this community of like-minded colleagues practicing all over the country with a diversity of practice but with their needs being met as independent practitioners. I have long been a participant in the community and a huge fan of Kelly’s, and over the years I have worked with her on and off behind the scenes at Solo PR Pro. When she was ready to retire from that role and just move into a founder role and kind of expand some of the other parts of her life, it seemed a natural fit for me to step into the shoes and purchase the company. I am loving every second of it.

 

Chip Griffin: That’s great. It’s an excellent resource. As someone who has been a solo PR pro on and off over the last, gosh, almost 20 years now, I understand a lot of the challenges. Can you talk about how the challenges have shifted over the years, as far as what it’s like to be out there on your own vs. part of a larger agency?

 

Karen Swim: Absolutely. Some of the fundamental challenges in starting your own business remain the same. It takes a lot of hard work; it’s not just about pursuing your passion, which some people mistakenly believe, that they’re passionate about something and, wow, wouldn’t this be great to do it full time, but then there’s a whole business administration side to starting any type of business. I think what’s made it more complex in modern times is technology. Technology has opened up a whole new world of access to data and even more analytics and metrics and of course more tools for PR practitioners and communication consultants to utilize, and so staying on top of all of the things that we can leverage in our work with our clients, staying on top of technological tools and trends can be very difficult when you’re a business of one, but having a community that supports you that you can go to, that you can help to vet different resources and technologies and ask questions is so beneficial, and, I think, more important than ever today.

 

Chip Griffin: One of the things that strikes me too is as you have this number of tools you have two concerns: one is the manpower issue which I think you’ve touched on here; you also have, frankly, just the bottom-line cost issue. I remember when I first started out doing solo PR back in probably 1998, one of the things that I needed because I did a lot of research as part of my communications tool was to subscribe to LexisNexis, and at the time, subscribing to that was a huge decision on my part because it was not an insubstantial investment, because, frankly, they were targeted more towards selling to larger organizations. How have you seen the marketplace evolve? Are more companies making opportunities available for solo PR or just solo consultants generally, that you think are helpful?

 

I know that’s something I’ve always been concerned about at Custom Scoop since I founded it, and as a solo guy I said, “Hey, we have to have some way to deal with this,” and so we tried a number of different creative approaches over the years and ultimately settled on just flat pricing for solo PR’s, which I think is our part of trying to help out, but as an industry how does it work today?

 

Karen Swim: It’s funny, I was going to say that we’re so appreciative for partners like Custom Scoop and what you guys have done in making it accessible to small businesses as well as the larger agencies. Unfortunately, all of the companies don’t have that same viewpoint. You’re right. Cost is a huge factor for us, and it’s one thing that we try to advocate for our members. You know, our members are not freelancers working in their basement making $500 a month; they’re handling major brands and major accounts. For the most part our membership community, very seasoned professionals with the ability to make decisions on behalf of their clients because they become trusted strategic partners, and so they’re able to direct buying decisions because their customers turn to them for that.

 

Yet, I feel that the marketplace still devalues in some ways the solo practitioner and prices their products way out of range. A lot of the media database services are a great example that the price ranges just, they don’t make sense for the solo practitioner. As you noted, when you’re a small business, every financial decision has a major impact on your business, so you really have to be strategic about what you pay for to get your work done. You have to really prioritize, and when you have tools that are 20,000, 15,000 dollars a year, that’s a major investment for a small business. My hope is that the industry would wake up to that and start to make things more affordable and accessible for all, realizing that it’s a benefit overall for them, rather than kind of shutting us out with their price points.

 

Chip Griffin: I would absolutely agree with that, obviously. I think as you look at most folks who go out and become solo PR consultants or, again, solo consultants in almost any industry, I take myself as an example: when I first did it, it wasn’t with the vision of, “Hey, I’m starting a business,” it was with the vision of, “Hey, I’m moving from DC where I lived for a decade back to New Hampshire where I was from, and, gee, it sounded a whole lot better to call myself a consultant than unemployed.” I was fortunate to acquire a client just before I made the physical move, and so therefore I could actually call myself a consultant with a straight face, but my point is that a lot of folks come to this from an environment where perhaps they had access to all of these tools and now they’re left saying, “Okay, I used to use a CRM and now I have to use just a spreadsheet.” That feels like a big change and, frankly, on the client side, the clients expect the same level of service from a solo as they do from an agency, and so to tell them, “Sorry, I can’t get you that particular list; I don’t have that platform to use,” is problematic.

 

Karen Swim: That’s very true, and you’re right. Coming from that agency or corporate environment, whether you’re working in public relations, marketing, social media, or any communication form, or as any type of consultant, you’re right, there’s an adjustment. There’s that adjustment to not having an IT department anymore and not having access to the tools that you’ve used for years. For some, they learned on these tools, it’s all they knew, they don’t even understand what else is out there, which, again, is another benefit of our community is that when you’re looking for replacement tools or looking how to get something done, you can pose a question and within minutes usually you’ll get an answer from people in our community. We support one another by saying, “Hey, use this.” “Hey, Custom Scoop does that,” or, “Here’s another tool that does that,” or, “Here’s the way that I figured that out.”

 

Again, even though you’re not part of a large agency, being a member of Solo PR Pro, you really feel like you have office mates, because there are people that you can tap into and you can figure out how to get things done, because I think that we’re even more passionate about our clients than when we were in the corporate world because we’ve earned them. Our reputation is on the line, and so we want to deliver. We never make our size an excuse. Clients, if anything, are going to get more work from a solo consultant than they will from an entire agency of people.

 

Chip Griffin: Yeah, that’s absolutely true; and a lot quicker decision making as well.

 

Karen Swim: Absolutely.

 

Chip Griffin: I think the community aspect that you touched on of Solo PR Pro is so valuable, because quite often folks go into the independent consultant role and they don’t necessarily think of it as being an entrepreneur and starting a business, they think of it as taking on their own clients. There’s a subtle but important difference between those two things, because there are all the things that you need to be thinking about that perhaps you didn’t have to, particularly if you were a part of a corporate world, and even in some cases as part of an agency. Things like managing PNL’s and handling taxes and licenses and whatever you need from that perspective, taking care of building an actual sales and marketing plan for yourself, and understanding that the busier you are on the service side, that’s when you should also be busy selling, because typically that’s when most consultants let the ball drop, and then when the inevitable dip comes you’re not prepared for it. I imagine that’s a huge benefit of your community and the kinds of things that you all are talking with each other about.

 

Karen Swim: It absolutely is. I’ve done some business coaching as well with organizations and with individuals over the years, and the one thing that is common, no matter what industry you are in, is business development and selling. That’s a big thing because, again, people are really good in their skill sets and their specialties, but you’re right: a lot of people don’t think of it as starting a business, and, quite frankly, for some if they thought of it that way it may scare the pants off of them. They don’t really think of themselves as entrepreneurs, but, as you said, they think about taking on their own clients or replacing their income or choosing a different way to work, but it never really clicks initially that that’s exactly what they’re doing. Let’s face it: for some people thinking about it in that way would be completely overwhelming, and so it’s probably best. I’m probably one of those people too. I didn’t realize how entrepreneurial I was until I started my own business. Fortunately I had the business expertise part of it as well, which was really helpful, so I knew about the number side of it and the operational side of it, but it probably took me about a year to really accept that, oh my god, I’m an entrepreneur. I completely understand that.

 

You’re right: our community is so helpful in so many regards to that, because we share tips, and obviously Solo PR Pro provides a ton of resources to our members. We produce guides and cheat sheets and tips, and we do podcasts and webinars to keep our members on top of things and to help them to get their work done better. Again, it’s one of the things that attracted me to the community. I felt a little bolder, because I felt like, you know what? If there’s something that I feel that I need help on or I’m not as skilled in, I’m still confident that I’m not all alone. That feeling is pretty amazing when you have been operating on your own and having to figure things out and all of a sudden you have this entire support system that you can not only turn to for advice but you could partner. Lots of our members, including myself, partner with one another, and so we form these strategic partnerships where we work on accounts together or we bring in other expertise for client projects and it’s wonderful.

 

Chip Griffin: I think that having those kinds of partnerships allows you to take on clients and projects that perhaps would be challenging to do on a pure solo basis, right? Because you have a certain set of expertise and someone else, while they’re still just a solo PR consultant, may have a slightly different set, and if you bring them together then that’s where the real magic happens.

 

Karen Swim: Absolutely. From partnering with other people to back you up when you’re on vacation-

 

Chip Griffin: Vacation? You can’t take vacation when you’re solo, can you?

 

Karen Swim: Hey, some of our people actually do, and I haven’t quite mastered it on a regular basis but yeah, we have people that actually take vacation.

 

Chip Griffin: They need to teach the rest of us about that because-

 

Karen Swim: Oh my god, I could use a lesson in that.

 

Chip Griffin: One of the things that I think is an issue for a lot of Solo PR’s is the selling aspect. In some cases it’s just a dislike of the sales process, in some cases it’s a fear, but I think it also in part is contributed to by the not necessarily enemy status but the competitive status between PR and sales within many organizations, right? They often view themselves as competing for the same resources and disputing who was responsible for what, and sales guys, marketing people, are like, “Look, we have these concrete numbers; I can show you exactly what my revenue is,” PR, oftentimes companies resort to silly measurement standards to pump up their credibility. Does that whole cultural thing play into it at all, or is it really just that they don’t like doing it?

 

Karen Swim: It’s a little of both. One of the great things about using solo PR’s or small businesses like those that are part of our community is that we tend to be a bridge across departments. When we’re hired, we’re coming from an external viewpoint and we really don’t care about the internal politics. Our job is to get everybody working in alignment toward the same goals. That’s one advantage that I see of working on the outside vs. working internally. For the sales piece, again, this is not specific to our community, but something that I found in working with consultants across all industries is that I think the language is what’s scary. People have this view of sales and it’s not the real view, which is building a relationship with people, understanding what their problems are, and then working with them to solve them. That’s all that sales really is, but unfortunately we often have in our mind this hard line view of sales, it’s aggressive.

 

Then a lot of people who go into these service oriented businesses are doing it from a pure joy of working with other people to solve their problems, but they have a hard time talking about themselves. That’s another aspect. It’s hard for them, and so they personalize the sales process rather than thinking of it as, again, problem meet solution, they think of it as selling themselves. That’s hard. They have to sort of get past that and understand that it’s really not about you, these are not personal decisions, these are business decisions, and that’s the way that you need to approach it. It takes a little bit of sometimes coaching them through that and getting them to get past those barriers.

 

Chip Griffin: Apart from sort of the sales and business side of things, if you look at it from a substantive standpoint, how do you basically take a look at a solo PR and say, “Here are the steps you need to take to take it to the next level.”

 

Actually, let’s step back. How do you figure out what the next level is if you’re a solo PR? I think there are different mindsets: some people are looking at it as a lifestyle so that they can take a vacation once in a while, some people are looking to grow an actual business. How do you make that decision?

 

Karen Swim: That is such a great question and one that we address. You hit the nail on the head: I think it starts with first understanding what your own goals are and not allowing your business to be directed by outside pressure but about what really fits you, which is the great thing about being a consultant. You can decide. You can say, “You know what? I want a small business that I can run where I can really manage all of my clients and I have time to go to the kids’ soccer games and go on vacation, and so for me that means a stopping point at X amount of clients, and it means that I’ll only take clients in these industries or I’ll only take clients in this region.” You have to really have a plan for yourself that works for you, and that’s your first starting point.

 

I would say, look short term and look long term. Think about, “Are these the goals that I want today?” “Will these be the same goals that I want in five years?” Because you still need to plan towards that and be building. There are a couple of tips for growth. You can grow your revenue without actually growing the number of clients that you serve. By changing your prices and serving clients at a higher value level, you can grow by serving different industries, and some consultants want to do that. They may have started out in an industry and now they’re interested in sort of expanding that. You can grow by taking on partners.

 

Some keys to growth are if you are feeling stagnant and still and your work is not exciting you, maybe that’s a key that maybe you need to make a shift and expand and take on some new challenges. If you are working a ton of hours and the money is not matching up with your hours, that’s a key that you need to grow your revenue, so you probably need to scale back your clients and start to target higher value clients so that the math works out a little bit better. If you find yourself at capacity and you’re turning people away and you don’t want to, that’s obviously a tip that you want to grow too, and you can do that. A lot of our consultants are not independent, meaning that it’s just them. Some of them have assistants, some of them my have a junior employee, and others use the strategic partnership model to expand to become a virtual agency.

 

Chip Griffin: One of the things you touched on there was the importance of liking what it is that you’re doing. I think that piece is so overlooked, because there’s a tendency if you’re on your own and trying to just make things float and trying to meet payroll to yourself, that you just take on whatever work that you can, you suffer through clients that perhaps you should fire. It just strikes me that solos really need to be committed to liking what they’re doing, because otherwise there are so many different options out there available to them so they don’t have to endure what they don’t like.

 

Karen Swim: It’s so true. That’s big. That’s why I’m a huge fan of writing things down. It doesn’t have to be a 20 page business plan, but I think having something in writing that you can refer back to can keep you on track. Yes, sometimes in the beginning you sort of have to be a little scrappy, and you may take on some things because you’re building up your reputation as an independent, but I think you need to learn very quickly to be very strategic, and there’s some work that you shouldn’t take. Don’t take work that doesn’t make you happy, don’t take work that doesn’t allow you to give your best. For me, that means that I don’t work with clients that are not collaborative, because I’m not a vendor, I’m a partner, and if you can’t partner with me, then we’re going to have a battle. I don’t take on clients that are media relations only. I prefer to work with people that see the broader picture and want integrated campaigns.

 

Knowing what works for you in your work style is really important. It’s your business, and so you don’t have to be miserable. You shouldn’t be. I mean, it’s going to get old really quick and you’re going to burn out, and so I always advocate be very strategic and know that it’s okay to turn down work, but the key to that is you need to know what to turn down but you also need to have your business development machine, that engine needs to be running all the time. Even when you’re busy, you need to do business development, because business development in a full pipeline gives you choices. As a independent consultant, you always want choices. When you reach the end of a road with a client, you want to be able to transition them to someone else and have something else waiting in the wings. If you need to fire a client because it’s not working out, you want to have the choice to do that, and you don’t have choices if you don’t have a pipeline and you’ve got to start all over from ground zero every time you need a new client.

 

Chip Griffin: Absolutely. I think when you referenced writing down a plan even if it’s not super fancy, I would really underscore that. As someone who’s started a number of different businesses and grown them, some successfully, some less so, putting together a plan is incredibly valuable, not so much for the plan itself, I very rarely refer back to the plans I write, but it’s the process that you go through and the research and the thinking and just the logic of it. You sit down and, okay, let me build a budget; okay, this is what I would have to generate from a client revenue perspective in order to get where I want to be. Is that realistic? Do I need to change my prices to get there? Do I need to target different clients? All of those different things. I think it’s that process that’s at least as valuable as having something to refer back to.

 

Karen Swim: I love that word that you just used: realistic. That’s exactly why I advocate writing it down. You’re right. Even if you don’t refer back to it, going through that whole process of getting there where you’re writing things down clarifies your thinking and it crystallizes what’s in your mind, so at least now you know. It’s not just something that you’re hoping, it’s real, and you have a realistic goal that you’re aiming towards because you’ve done the work. Maybe what you were thinking tends not to be realistic, but by going through that exercise of putting it on paper- I mean, it could be a posted note, it could be the whiteboard in your office, it could be on Evernote; it really doesn’t matter, whatever works for you, but it’s that whole process of getting there that keeps you focused, and when you know in your mind, “Hey, I need to do X, Y, Z to get to where I want to be,” it keeps you on track mentally, so when things come your way that kind of don’t fit in that plan, you’re able to quickly evaluate, “Okay, is this the right move? Do I need to do this in the short term? Should I not do it at all?”

 

Chip Griffin: Then of course you can turn to your friends on Solo PR Pro to bounce things off of them and see if they agree with your decision making and if they have any additional advice.

 

Karen Swim: Absolutely. I can’t say enough. It’s interesting, our community, I think, is different than a lot of membership communities in that people say that they feel a very personal connection to it, and I agree. It’s like a family, and these are exactly the kind of questions that our members share with one another: “Hey, I was approached by a prospect today in this industry, here’s the situation, and I’m feeling not sure about this and need to bounce it off of you guys,” and so there’s a real thoughtful discussion that helps people to kind of go through that process and not go through it alone, and, honestly, I hate to sound like a commercial, but our community is so fantastic and so tight-knit. I haven’t found that in other membership communities and so it’s something that I value as well. We can thank Kelly Crane for starting the community and for forming this bond, and my job is to keep that alive and keep it thriving, because it’s definitely one of the most valuable benefits.

 

Chip Griffin: Assuming that people have listened to this podcast and say, “Aha, I’m not part of this community but I want to be,” where can they go?

 

Karen Swim: I would love that. We’d love to have everyone that’s solo be a part of Solo PR Pro. You can go to soloprpro.com and learn all about us. If nothing else, please visit our site. We have blog posts that are available to the public, we try to tackle issues that are of interest and that will help independent consultants, but you can also learn all about the premium membership community by clicking the join tab. If you are a business that’s listening and you have projects that you think might fit a solo consultant, we also have a tab where you can list your project for free or you can search for consultants by industry and specialization, so I invite everybody to go check out our site soloprpro.com.

 

Chip Griffin: Excellent. I would encourage our listeners to do that. I feel like we could continue this conversation for another hour, but unfortunately we have reached the end our allotted time. Karen, it has been great to have you with me on the show.

 

Karen Swim: It’s been great to be here. Again, Chip, thank you so much for all that you do for the public relations community big and small, and thank you for creating Custom Scoop. It’s an amazing product.

 

Chip Griffin: Well thank you, I really appreciate it.

 

Karen Swim: Well thank you. Have a great day.

 

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About The Author

Chip Griffin is the Founder of CustomScoop. He writes and speaks frequently about data-driven public relations. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.

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