Starting an Independent PR Practice: 5 Keys to Success
In November 2016, Ami Neiberger-Miller talked about starting our business for the Independent Public Relations Alliance (I.P.R.A.) which is part of the Public Relations Society of America – National Capital Chapter. The presentation was part of “How to Start and Grow an Independent PR Practice.” She co-presented with Sandra Wills Hannon of the The Hannon Group. In her presentation, Ami highlighted five keys for success and offers insights helpful for many small business owners. Here is the copy from her drafted remarks.
I’m going to begin by describing how I started my business and then I’m going to talk about five keys to success that have helped me along the way.
I started my business thirteen years ago, after getting married and moving back to the D.C. area. I was telecommuting for my old job but that was coming to an end, and I was job hunting. I got offers from friends for project work while I was looking for a traditional nine to five job – and my husband said, I don’t know why you are looking for a regular job, you already have work coming to you. Why don’t you start a business? Hearing him say that, is what made me really seriously consider starting an independent P.R. practice.
At the time, my husband had a full-time job with health insurance. So we moved an old dining table into the basement, and set up a little office for me. Then I began to dream a bit. What would an independent P.R. practice for me look like? What kind of work would I do? Who would I want to work for? It was exciting. I initially thought i would work in P.R. and focus on nonprofit organizations and youth development, as that was where i came from. So I went to the Loudoun Small Business Development Center and got a checklist of things to do. I set up my business checking account and deposited my first check. I was on my way! Three years after starting my business my husband quit his job and came to work for me, after we won major curriculum writing and design contracts (and it was clear more creative and design work for him would be coming our way). So how have I made it work all these years?
My first key to success is – network with people – not with computers or Twitter handles – with people. You should strive to never burn a bridge or lose a good contact. When I started my practice, I began contacting old colleagues. Those contacts led to referrals. I also joined P.R.S.A.-N.C.C. and became a charter member of I.P.R.A., which was just getting off the ground. I found in I.P.R.A. – my water cooler crowd – the people who would celebrate success with me, give me advice when i needed it, and even be a support when life didn’t go well. I have done business over the years with people I have met through I.P.R.A. Sometimes they are one-time projects, other times it is an account that we are sharing together. Sometimes it’s long-term. Someone I met at an I.P.R.A. lunch, called me a few years later and invited me to have lunch. She had followed me online over the years and wanted to talk about doing business together. She hired me, and I subcontract to her virtual P.R. firm. I work on a team, and we’ve had a very successful collaboration now for a few years. Whether reinventing yourself or reentering the workplace, a coaching service can help a lot, too.
My second key to success is to learn from others the things you don’t know, and to keep striving to improve. One of the challenges I faced is that I didn’t come from a P.R. agency background. So I had to learn how to market myself, compete for business, and service clients. And that was a big learning curve. I learned through trial and error, read a lot of advice online, had coffee with wonderful people like my co-presenter Sandra Wills-Hannon, and partnered with others who knew things I didn’t know. One experience that raised my proposal game – was when I was asked to be part of a proposal by one of the larger P.R. firms in D.C., who thought having a Loudoun county sub-contractor would help them win a new account. They found me on LinkedIn. I went through the proposal process with them, rehearsed presentations with them, and helped pitch the account. It ended up we didn’t win the business, but seeing how a larger agency managed that process and what they put into it, was eye opening and made me much more competitive. And I have another example – as social media took off – I had a client ask me to help them strategize how to build a social media presence. At the time, I was just learning this arena myself, so I invited another I.P.R.A. member to work with me on the account who knew more than me. My client got great advice, and I learned a lot too. Sometimes people who are new to business worry about others “stealing” their ideas or clients – but I have never found that to be the case. And you can protect yourself by signing no-compete agreements if needed.
Now we come to key #3 to success: be shrewd about your time. I did a lot of networking early on. But as time went by, I became more shrewd about how I invested my time. We were members of the Chamber of Commerce for a few years, but we let our membership lapse because it didn’t lead to the types of clients we wanted and took too much time. I did find networking events for women fruitful, and I found that PRSA events helped me make contacts and grow professionally. I also like events I can tweet from and use for blog fodder, so I get multiple returns. Being shrewd about time should also extend to how you work. You become more aware of time when you are working for yourself, billing hours and focusing on deliverables, and you know you have to deliver to get a pay check and meet your commitments. So efficiency is key because your time spent marketing, networking, etc. is not billable. When I’m downtown meeting clients, I need to get a lot done, so I have a membership in a co-working space. I have a quiet place to work when I’m in D.C. and I’m not working in noisy coffee shops.
Key to success #4 is to invest in building a public persona and good systems. My first website and business cards were awful. I made them myself. Luckily for me, my husband is a graphic designer and three years after I started my business, he joined me in my practice. So he designed a new logo, ordered me new business cards, and built a new website. Today I have a website, a well-developed blog, a linked-in profile, a business Facebook page and a very active twitter feed with around 7,000 followers. I find that new clients have often already read my twitter feed and blog before calling me. And current clients also read my blog and tweets. It is a challenge to keep information flowing out, as we balance client needs and limited time. It’s also important to have good financial tools. After many years of struggle – I finally found the financial management tool that works for me – I use Quickbooks for self-employed and I love it. I review transactions as they come in – often on my phone – and categorize them for tax purposes.
Success key #5 – persevere and keep a cushion. We have faced some challenges in our business over the last thirteen years – and there are times it has been hard to persevere. I always advise people who are self-employed, to keep a cushion – a cash reserve. It gives you options. In 2007, while we were on vacation, my brother was killed in combat in Iraq. Some of my clients found out about it from news reports and I was managing press while trying to help my grieving family. We buried my brother at Arlington National Cemetery, and a day later, on our wedding anniversary, my husband had emergency surgery for a condition that could have killed him. All of that happened in just eleven days.
Some of our clients evaporated. So did some of our friends. We had to rebuild our client base. I was invited to submit a proposal to a higher education association through a referral, and another firm asked us to bid on a curriculum job. I remember sitting down at my desk, three weeks after my brother died, and my husband’s surgery, and thinking ok, I am going to write these proposals as an act of therapy. We probably won’t get them, but it will do me good to write and dream. And we got both of those jobs.
You need a financial cushion and you will also need the will to persevere even when life hands you unexpected blessings. Three years later – the adoption agency called – a year earlier than we thought they would – to say our baby was on the way. And our daughter, Gabrielle Miller, was born the very next day. We had no car seat, no diapers, no baby clothes, and no childcare plan. We quickly got all of those things. Because we had our financial cushion in place and our business built back to a healthy level – we could afford the adoption costs and for one of us to go part-time.
Today our practice continues to evolve. Having an independent practice, has allowed me to balance my work life and home life. Our practice supports our family and we are on the leading edge of the new economy – one where people work for multiple clients and on their own terms. We have our own clients – sometimes people hire only me but a project requires my husband’s talents too. Sometimes we hire others, and sometimes we are subcontractors to others.
At times, we have considered expanding into more of a traditional agency model. What has held me back from that is that I enjoy doing the work with my clients and I don’t really want to give that up to grow into a larger firm. That might change someday, but for now, I am content with my practice.
Talk to Us: Have you started your own business? What worked for you? What are your keys to success? Post a comment to let us know your thoughts!
Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, an independent PR practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media engagement, writing services, and creative design for publications and websites (contact to discuss your project, review our portfolio, sign up for our e-newsletter). She blogs about media relations, social media, public relations, and work-family balance. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.