Last weekend I had the honor of being part of an entrepreneurship panel at the annual Student Career Conference hosted by the New York Women in Communications Foundation. Some 300 students of media, PR, and communications gathered to network, learn, and be inspired by women who’ve made careers in the field. My panel featured an amazing lineup – life stylist and author Harriette Cole, beauty and style expert Jenn Falik, and Techlicious founder Suzanne Kantra. It was a terrific discussion and a good time.
The conference also forced me to think about what I’ve learned in 15 years running my own firms, both with a partner, and, most recently as a sole owner. Here’s my list:
Know your business before you start it. Particularly in a creative service like PR, experience really counts. It pays to put in time at similar firms to gain experience and build contacts before starting your own. And why not learn on someone else’s dime?
All you really need is a client. I’ve talked to aspiring business-builders in PR and media who are very hung up on their own branding and marketing. Those things are important, and they’re fun. But in the beginning, you’re selling yourself. Just concentrate on getting one client to start.
Learn the business of business. As in, how companies make a profit. How products get to market, how a website is monetized, and, for PR, how brands are built and marketed. Just because you’re creative doesn’t mean you don’t have to understand your clients’ business. In fact, it’s all the more reason.
Ask for what you’re worth. It doesn’t pay to be shy about fees, or shrink from conversations around budget matters. Ironically, it’s often easier to stick to your fee levels when it’s not your own business, since the decision is out of your hands. But it’s even more important when building your own business.
Hire up. Never be afraid of hiring people smarter, better, or more talented than you. This is one thing I learned when at Edelman, which is today the largest independent PR firm. At times, it felt like they hired some individuals based purely on talent, then figured out later what to do with them. The point is not to be overly impulsive in hiring, but to look at talent as a long-term investment.
Take the long view. And not just when hiring. I used to gnash my teeth about losing a big pitch. But I can’t tell you how often a client who didn’t hire us has called back within the year to say things hadn’t worked out as they expected, and could we talk about working together? Try to learn something from every setback, and, above all, never burn bridges.
Manage your own reputation like you do your clients’. In the agency business we often become aligned with our clients. That’s why a sketchy company, or one who truly doesn’t understand your services, is nearly always a bad bet.
Ask for help. When I founded my second firm, I realized just how willing people are to help. The trick is in being specific about your needs (“could I ask for an introduction at X company?”) , and in doing so with the spirit of reciprocity.
Do it wrong (maybe), but do it quickly. Mike Moran‘s famous call to action (Do It Wrong Quickly) is about experimentation and risk-taking. But, it’s become a mantra for me on prompt and proactive decision-making. Generally, it’s better to commit to something and regret it later than to never try something new, or worse, let key issues drift. And, after sharing responsibility with someone who had a painfully deliberate style on high-priority matters, I learned that a non-decision is a decision in itself. Usually a poor one.
“Fake it ’til you make it.” This was uttered by Jenn Falik and reiterated by nearly every panel member at the NYWICI Student Conference. The point is not that new business owners should be false or misleading. It’s that when an opportunity comes, we should grab it, especially if it can push us to a new level of skill, challenge, and visibility. If the prospect scares you a little, maybe that’s a good sign.