By Adam Ritchie
Today’s PR students are part of an entrepreneurial generation which sees self-employment as a viable and fulfilling career path. Independent agencies are doing some of the most exciting work, and the tools they use have never been more accessible.
It doesn’t take a large up-front investment to start a PR business, but it takes a lifetime of investment to build one that lasts and lets you to work to your potential.
Here are some lessons for starting your own practice after graduation:
Work somewhere else first. You may want to do your own thing, but your initial few years out of college should be spent helping multiple account teams accomplish their objectives, using everything as a learning opportunity and establishing relationships with practitioners you respect. This will all come into play later.
When it comes time to leave that agency, don’t take any clients with you. Clients come and go, and none are worth sacrificing relationships with team members who fought alongside you in the trenches. Do the right thing, and those colleagues may even refer work to you.
Give yourself years of runway. Don’t give it a year and see how it goes. Have the mindset that you won’t let this fail. Assume you’re in it for life, take the long view and know it can take years to hit your stride.
Have a separate office that is not your home. Preferably, find shared space in a major city. This gives you skin in the game, a place to go every day and access to the best young talent when you need it. We’re in the perception business. Clients perceive an agency in the heart of the action has a finger on the pulse.
Give yourself a reasonable title. There’s nothing wrong with “principal” or “owner.” Don’t stretch for “president” or “CEO” until there’s a complex organization under you.
Chase the first request for proposal (RFP), then stop chasing. Worry about doing exceptional work for existing clients and turn them into your advocates.
Have a separate credit card and bank account for your business. This helps keep your paperwork straight. Try using “mullet organization” on your wallet: business receipts in the front, party (personal) receipts in the back.
Protect your time. You can’t make more of it. Welcome prospective clients to your office or have a preliminary phone call, but keep free advice to a minimum and make planning a billable project.
Never let your business have downtime. If it does, fill it with revamping your website, building case studies, writing articles and giving talks to build your reputation.
Fight the “small agency means small work” stereotype. Doing something at the local level and doing something at the national level often takes the same amount of effort, but the return on national is so much greater. Create signature national campaigns. Keep the team lean and the work big.
Have at least two clients at a time, to maintain your independence and objectivity. Don’t let one large client dictate the terms of your business.
Limit the number of clients you can handle on your own before bringing on additional hands. It’s about the number of people you need to keep happy at a given time. You can’t control unanticipated demands from the media, but you can control the number of clients you’re accountable to.
Get outside input. Have an informal advisory board that can give you gut checks and be on the lookout for well-fitting work.
Keep your overhead low. Don’t take out loans and don’t make costly moves until the money is already in your pocket. Be able to sustain a significant client loss. Invest in infrastructure when the work demands it.
Price out projects externally, and track the time internally. Establish a minimum monthly fee and commit to not accepting work below that threshold.
Save time for promoting your business. Treat it like a client. Enter your work into national competitions when you solve a client’s challenge in a unique way.
Pay for your clients’ products. Request one sample to understand how it works. Beyond that, pony up. Don’t spend relationship capital on free product. Buy the product, support the brand, invest in the business that drives yours and use that capital on more important things like the next contract renewal.
Don’t build a machine. A lot of PR agencies prioritize growth above doing boundary-pushing work. Clients see them as interchangeable. Build a practice you can be proud of. And then articulate the unique process which makes the practice successful. That’s the clock you’re building.
Invest in non-work relationships. Have a few people in your life outside of PR to talk to when certain campaigns don’t catch on right away. It gets dark. Keep going.
Be inventive. Surprise people with work they wouldn’t believe could come from a boutique shop. Use your unencumbered position to move the industry forward.
Let yourself laugh and have fun. Nobody’s looking over your shoulder.
A day will come when a dream client decides they want you and not your agency. That’s when you find out if you’re for real. Convince them to become your client. Opportunity and money can be offered; total autonomy can’t. If you value independence over everything, nothing will make you compromise that core value.
Remember a PR sharpshooter with well-placed bullets can outmaneuver a PR army. Never consider yourself small. Consider yourself sharp.