I’m often asked to give advice to new entrepreneurs, especially those in the public relations field. After nearly two decades of owning my own companies – both solo and with employees – I have learned a little bit of what works and what doesn’t.
Basically, I have learned by failing.
And that’s something that every entrepreneur – especially solo PR professionals – needs to be prepared for. We all come to it for slightly different reasons and with varied experience, but we end up facing similar challenges.
In my own case, I often envisioned owning my own business, but ultimately came to that decision the same way that lots of people with a political background do: I was unemployed. During the 1998 election cycle, I held a campaign-oriented position and knew it would go away that November. Wanting to move from Washington, DC back to my native New Hampshire, it seemed like a good time to hang my own shingle.
And it always sounds better to call yourself a consultant than unemployed.
That began a journey that has seen me create more than a half dozen companies, all while continuing to do solo public relations work.
So after graduating from the School of Business Hard Knocks, what advice can I offer to public relations professionals who decide to go out on their own?
Accept that it will be stressful. There will be plenty of bumps in the road and worry about how you will make ends meet. You’ll sit on pins and needles wondering if that prospect liked your pitch enough to become a client. Oh, and once they are a client, they’ll give you plenty of heartburn, too.
Figure out what you’re selling. The easy route is to take on whatever work someone will pay you to do. And in the early days that can be really tempting, especially when you’re trying to figure out how to pay necessary bills. However, once you become known for something, it’s more difficult to reposition yourself in the market. Moreover, you may not be doing that which you are best at or that which makes you happiest. You may need to pivot at some point, but do so consciously and not just to sign a new client contract.
When you’re busiest, you need to sell more. One of the biggest mistakes a see solo consultants make is that once they finally gather a head of steam and fill their plate with business, they stop marketing themselves. It may be for lack of time or concern about the ability to serve more clients, but the end result is always the same: at some point the well runs dry and you don’t have a pipeline to replace it.
You can always handle more business. Turn away business because it’s not a good fit or because the client won’t pay what you’re worth, but never turn it away only because you don’t think you can handle the workload. This is what a business partner of mine likes to call “happy misery.” You’ll need to be creative, work a little harder, and perhaps even compromise margins (a little) by subcontracting some tasks, but you should never fear growth.
Pay yourself a “salary.” It is tempting to spend whatever you bring in, but you should figure out what a reasonable compensation amount is for you and stick to it each month. If you fall short of the revenue needed to pay yourself, book it as a debt to pay. If you have a surplus, don’t just pocket the extra. Instead, review the finances of your business on a quarterly, semi-annual, or annual basis and determine how much needs to be held in reserve and whether a bonus to yourself is appropriate.
Develop a community of support. It can be tough being out on your own for the first time, even if you have considerable experience in public relations. (In fact, the longer you have worked for someone else, the harder it can be to go solo.) You need mentors and people to bounce ideas off of. Having a community to share concerns with – and learn lessons from – will make you a better entrepreneur. The #solopr hashtag on Twitter is a good place to start, as is Kellye Crane’s Solo PR Pro website.
Use contract help wisely. You should be focusing your own energy on the things that only you can do as a solo entrepreneur – service clients and build the business. To the extent possible, you shouldn’t be wasting time on administrative tasks or things that you don’t do as well. Farming these tasks out to freelancers or other small businesses can be a great way to make you more productive. Similarly, you can supplement your client service work with other consultants – bonus points if they’re also solo PR pros – to allow you to grow without hiring your first employee.
The first employee is the hardest. Many solo PR pros will remain that way either as a lifestyle choice or because they end up focusing more on client service than business development. Others will see their ambition generate enough business that they can afford to hire a new employee. Making the decision to bring that first one on board is brutal, but it becomes incrementally easier as you continue to grow. Of course, then you’re not a solo PR pro anymore…
If you are — or have been — a solo PR consultant, what advice would you add? Let us know in the comments below.