July marked the one-year anniversary of starting my own communications consultancy. I’ve read plenty of “lessons learned” articles marking 10 or 20-year milestones – life is good at that point and there’s usually a lot to crow about. So I’m going to share some of my early trench-work lessons instead.
Find your niche.
There are no major agencies in Charleston, just mid-size and boutique. Most are focused on supporting the food, hospitality and tourism industry here – that’s where the business is. I made a conscious decision to not play in that sandbox. It was too crowded and frankly, that market didn’t excite me. I chose to focus on the startup community. They desperately needed help and no other firm would touch them since they weren’t turning a profit. They might not be lucrative clients yet, but at some point they may be. But I am alone in my sandbox – so it is a calculated tradeoff.
Business development = meeting people.
I knew no one when I moved here so I had to do a lot of networking. A lot. I was having coffee with someone new every day it seemed, “Hey, do you know Fred? Yeah, you should talk to him too. Let me give you his email…” I never tried to pitch business, I simply wanted to make connections with people involved with supporting startups. I was always up-front about that. It was like LinkedIn – only in real life with real people. This is a step you can’t shortcut with social media or email. You have to be willing to get out, make eye contact, shake hands and listen.
Stay the course – if your finances allow – it gets better.
It was almost ten months before we had our first paying client. We had spent hundreds of hours networking, doing pro bono or in-kind work. It was satisfying, but exhausting and expensive. Eventually though, it began to pay off. People began to refer us. Prospective clients started calling us. Today we have as much work as we are comfortable taking on, working with small clients whose products have the potential to make big impacts. And I have learned a ton along the way.
Cautionary tale: You think you’re ready, but you probably aren’t.
Ours is an unconventional PR startup. We chose our niche market because we wanted to make a difference, not as a primary income generating venture. Our firm carries no overhead and everyone has other supplemental sources of income. That allows us to survive. I know some good, independent practitioners who are having a rough time making it. So while the allure of starting your own PR business can be tempting, make sure you think it through before you make the leap.
Paul Swiergosz is a retired PR professional turned stay-at-home dad, turned PR consultant, webmaster, coffee drinker, networker and perpetual student.