Neil Patel, whom I respect a great deal, wrote a blog post in July of last year called, “Why You Shouldn’t Hire a Marketing Consultant.”
Because of how much I like him, I decided not to just pass it off as another start-up guy who had a bad experience and now thinks he knows how every consultant or PR firm works (though there are plenty who give the rest of us a bad name).
Here are the points he makes:
- Consultants aren’t miracle workers;
- You can’t build a skyscraper without laying the foundation; and
- You need to walk before you run.
And here’s what you might not expect: I agree with him.
Don’t Hire a PR Firm Until You are Ready
No, I’m not trying to work us out of a job, but there is a certain stage in a start-ups life that a consultant or PR firm won’t work.
His points are not—contrary to his headline—that you shouldn’t hire external help.
His point is that you should not do it before you are ready.
Case in point: We have a former client whom we all adored. We loved his business. We loved working with him and his team. But he couldn’t make time—not even an hour a week—to address some of the issues we saw with us. And, when he did show up for our weekly meeting, he’d brush off some of the operational issues as just our opinion.
I finally flew out to California to meet with him, with the intent of firing him, and he told me they were about to file for bankruptcy. He didn’t have a product that was ready for primetime so all of the work we were doing was just making it worse (which is exactly what I was going to say when I gently told him we could no longer work with him).
Today he works for a big bank…he went back to what he knew and he blames marketing for the failure.
Of course, there are always three sides to a story: His side, our side, and the truth, but it was not marketing that was the failure. Though people wanted to buy his product, there were issues internally that made it impossible to do so.
Imagine if you found something you really, really wanted, but the shopping cart kept timing out after you entered your credit card. People, on average, tried six (!!!) times before giving up. This is how badly they wanted what he sold.
Alas. They couldn’t get the ecommerce fixed and it was that that caused the failure of the business (which, to this day, makes me want to cry because the technology is so easy to obtain).
Entrepreneurs and PR Pros May Not Get Along
They weren’t ready for us and we had no idea this was a problem until about 90 days into the relationship. Then it took us another 90 days to try to convince him to fix it.
It had nothing to do with marketing or communications, yet I’m fairly certain he still, to this day, blames us.
Jason Keller wrote a nice rebuttal piece to Patel’s post called, “Why Don’t Marketers and Entrepreneurs Get Along?”
In it, he argues a different angle.
- Engineers are not great communicators (which many start-up entrepreneurs tend to be);
- Entrepreneurs tend to be type A and want things done they way they want them done; and
- Timing can be off (particularly for those who think you can work miracles with only two weeks’ notice).
He, also, is right.
Now it’s Time to Hire a PR Firm
Here is where I net out.
If you are a start-up entrepreneur, do not hire external help until:
- Your product is viable and the work the consultant or PR firm does will help you sell, not cause more headaches.
- All of your operations are set: If you sell online, people can get through the shopping cart and actually give you money, you have customer service who is trained and ready to treat every person like they are your only customer, and you have a plan for scale.
- You have a process and people know what is expected of them.
- Your strategy is not we’ll figure it out when we get there (lots and lots of entrepreneurs behave this way—myself included—because your main goal is to sell), rather you know how to add 10 or 20 or 100 jobs at once because you’re growing so quickly.
Think of it this way: If it were 10 years ago and you were to have your product featured on Oprah, would that kind of awareness hurt or help you?
What I mean is, will it crash your website or will you run out of product…or are you ready?
If it’s the former, you’re not ready to hire external help.
For a PR Firm
If you are a consultant or work for a PR firm, do not work with a start-up entrepreneur until:
- They are willing to commit showing up for a weekly meeting and answering your questions with thought and honesty.
- They give you access to all of their back-end data (analytics, marketing automation, project management, customer relationship management software) and to their business plan (that should be updated quarterly).
- They are honest with you about their challenges and shortcomings.
- They are willing to fix any issues you uncover while doing your job.
- They treat you as a partner, not just some vendor there to do their bidding.
Of course, even with everything as perfect as it can be, there are still going to be relationships that just don’t work. Who owns that failure is probably on both sides. But that’s a story for another day.
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