Maris Callahan

Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started a PR Business

By: Maris Callahan | January 12, 2017 | 
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Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started a PR BusinessIn 2011, I was barely a senior account executive on the brand marketing team at a fancy public relations agency when I quit to start a PR business.

I wasn’t unhappy.

But I wasn’t excited about going to work in the morning, either.

Plus, I’ve never been especially good at faking my feelings.

The previous year, I had met a group of solo PR practitioners and I couldn’t stop thinking about the passion they had for their clients.

I liked the lifestyle flexibility that self-employment offered and the creativity they put forth in their work every day.

After resigning from my job (mid-December), by the time I turned 27, on January 10, I launched my PR business and had two clients lined up.

I also had a part-time job to fall back on in case the whole PR thing didn’t work out as planned.

(Spoiler alert: I’m not currently waiting tables, so it worked out.)

I did make some pretty significant mistakes along the way.

In case you’re considering launching your own PR business, here are three things I wish I knew before I started.

Think Taxes

You need to save 30 percent of your income, at minimum, for taxes.

I’m pretty sure people think I’m completely kidding when I say no one ever told me this, but it’s true.

People don’t like to talk about money, and my closest mentors advised me to make sure I was saving for taxes.

No one ever told me 30 percent is the number you should aim to save each quarter.

I certainly didn’t know there was an annual self-employment tax I would be required to pay, simply for the privilege of working to earn my own living (Thanks for that, Uncle Sam!).

When I started my PR business in early 2011, I hired an accountant referred by someone I barely knew, having lived in Chicago just about a year.

PR Business Mistake No. 1

My first mistake was to take advice from someone I did not know or trust at face value.

I vividly remember meeting the accountant at Starbucks.

She said to me:

Be sure you’re tucking money away to pay your taxes since it isn’t coming out of your paychecks.

She did my taxes for the previous year, when I’d been employed full-time, and I went on with starting my PR business.

I tucked away money, but not even close to enough to cover my bill that first year.

She also suggested that I pay quarterly taxes “if I could.”

She never explained the IRS doesn’t want you to pay them in one lump sum every April.

They want their money as you make it.

It will also make your life tremendously easier if you’re dealing with three months of financials at a time instead of 12.

PR Business Mistake No. 2

My second mistake was failing to ask the right questions—you don’t know what you don’t know.

If I could turn back time, I would do more research about the financial implications of being a small business owner.

I thought I was doing the right thing relying on an accountant.

At the end of the year when I sent her my 1099s for my first year of self-employment, she returned my email with an abrupt note that she couldn’t do my taxes because she had health issues.

I have some conspiracy theories, but after literally years of dwelling on this, I’ve concluded that she likely assumed I knew more than I did, so she didn’t educate me.

The bottom line here is to save more than you think you need to pay your income tax, and to meet the quarterly deadlines set by the IRS.

The People Who Are “Going at it Alone” Are Rarely Alone

When I started out doing PR for myself, I quickly realized the majority of the solo practitioners were far from independent.

Most practitioners have strong referral networks.

Others partner with associates to pitch bigger and better businesses that offer more stability than the aspiring entrepreneur.

(And I love working with those business owners, I truly do, but they’re often riskier than working with established companies.)

PR is an industry largely dominated by women.

Many of these women have financial backing from a husband or partner.

Others have the safety net of knowing there is someone at home to pay the bills if business slows down or in some cases, screeches to a halt.

Some people have trust funds, family funding, or inherited assets to help them get started and stay solvent.

Of course, I know some really talented women (and men) in PR who jumped without a safety net.

But before you look at someone and think “I can do it if she can,” consider you need to have a backup plan to support yourself during slow periods.

Working in small teams of freelancers is a great option for someone who is young and entrepreneurial.

It lets you experience the best of both worlds: The flexibility of managing your own schedule and client workload.

Also it ensures a steady (well, steadier) stream of business.

If you can help it, do a little homework before you make the leap.

In addition to lining up clientele, start reaching out to other independent freelance PR pros and marketers before you start your PR business.

I knew a few–and believe me, they were my lifeline for the four years I was self-employed.

But I was also only a year in a brand new city and if I could do it over again, I’d have built a stronger referral network and established my reputation before launching.

Invest in Yourself

You need to invest in your business skills before you can do anything else.

I’m going to invite our friend Hubris into the room for a moment when I say this: I think I’m pretty awesome at PR.

I’m great at writing content, thinking of a creative way to get it in front of the right journalist or publisher.

And I’m great at finding creative ways to help brands find their identities, build credibility, and increase their public awareness.

What I’m not great at?

Well, for starters, accounting.

I also missed the “writing and negotiating legal contracts that are enforceable in an actual court of law” lesson in PR 101 class.

Like many left-brain creative types, I’m not an operations person.

Sometimes Excel spreadsheets make me want to hide under my bed.

I had no sales experience when I started my business six years ago.

Though I’d hear women at networking events sing the praises of sales and leadership training classes, I couldn’t afford to take them.

Running a Business is an Expensive Lesson

I’m sure I left tens of thousands of dollars on the table because I was naïve and hadn’t invested enough in myself.

An investment like that helps you become a confident and capable business owner.

Even though I have always been good at what I do, I wasn’t as good at running a business.

Sure, I eked along, and I had some really great successes along the way.

But I lacked the expertise or experience in so many of the fundamental elements of business operations.

I wound up spending as much time learning how to operate my business as I did doing the work I was actually great at.

I felt like I was stuck in a constant cycle—always working on my business.

It ate into the time I could have been serving the people who were paying me, so I was always running to catch up.

Because I was also building my network, I was lucky enough to receive free advice from the people around me who were kind enough to dispel it.

People such as my freelance PR friends, former colleagues who were still climbing the ranks at agencies, fellow small business owners, and even my clients.

In early 2015, I went back to work for an exciting and innovative tech startup.

I wouldn’t have landed this dream job if I hadn’t learned to be creative and come up with ideas on the spot as a solo practitioner.

(So yes, I once again work with people who get paid to make sure I don’t do anything embarrassing.)

If I ever do go into business for myself again, you’d better believe it would be with a financial plan, a strong professional network, and a few new skills in my toolbox.

About Maris Callahan


Maris Callahan is the director of communications at @properties, where she manages public relations, digital marketing, and social media. She lives in Chicago with Brad, her significant other, and their chihuahua Henry. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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