Last week, some of my favorite people at Prezly released a seven-step process for starting your own PR firm. While it’s focused on starting a PR firm, the process and tips work for anyone looking to go out on their own—either to build something gigantic or to give yourself control over your own destiny.
This also works for those of you who freelance on the side and provides tips for helping you decide when and if it’s time to go full-time on working for yourself.
So if you already run a PR firm (or any other company, for that matter), already have a side gig, or are thinking about going out on your own, this is for you!
Why Do You Want to Start a PR Firm?
Ask yourself why you want to start a PR firm or go out on your own. The Prezly webinar described it as going solo, but you may or may not want to be a solopreneur. So think about it from the perspective of why you want to leave your job and do your own thing. Or, as Simon Sinek would say, “Start with your why.”
When I started my PR firm, I thought I wanted to build the next big, global agency. Thirty-five employees in, though, and I realized I really hated that kind of business. All I was doing was financial planning, dealing with HR fires, and recruiting new candidates and new clients. I lost my “why,” which was to change the perception that people have of our industry by measuring the work we do to real business results.
Because I was focused on things I just am not good at but also didn’t enjoy doing, I was miserable. I took a step back and realized I was happiest when I was doing the work. So I hired someone to handle the financial planning and the HR fires, and I now get to do the work.
Had I started with—and stuck with my why—I wouldn’t have spent several years being miserable.
Start with your why, and stick with it. It’ll be better for you in the long run.
Learn from Others
Step two, according to the Prezly assessment, is to learn from others’ experiences.
Oh my heck, yes! Why make mistakes that cost you a ton of time and money and angst if you can learn from the mistakes of others? This is why you hire a coach or find yourself a mentor or join a community of like-minded individuals (you know, like the Spin Sucks Community, cough, cough).
Also surround yourself with people who have strengths where you do not.
When I started my agency, I had no idea what P&L stood for, which is super embarrassing to admit, but I really didn’t know. To better understand financials and how to set goals that were achievable, I joined the board of an accounting firm.
Now let me tell you, being on the board of an accounting firm leads to some really dull board meetings. But I made a commitment to myself that I would learn as much as I could. For the first year, I took notes furiously about all the stuff they talked about that may as well have been in a different language. Then I’d go back to my desk and Google everything, read all I could, and I taught myself.
By year two, I could at least understand what they were talking about. And, by year three, I was able to contribute to conversations outside of marketing and communications (which was the reason I was there). I also ended up getting some equity out of the deal when they sold, so I got paid to learn everything I could about financials for my PR firm.
Know the Industry and the People
Step three, know the industry and the people. I LOVE this tip from Jenni Field, founder and director at Redefining Communications. She said, “I wish I’d known the importance and power of a network. This was invaluable to me when I started and I probably didn’t realize how much it helped me make the start of the business a success.”
When I started my agency, I joined the board of the local PRSA chapter—and eventually became president. That volunteer work fueled our revenue growth for the first five years. And, because I had relationships with some of the higher-ups at the big agencies, they always sent new business to us that was too small for them, but was huge (think $200K-$500K/year) for us.
Networking is important, no matter what you do.
Get the Right PR Firm Tools
Step four is to get the right tools. This makes me laugh because, when I started my PR firm, I did invoices by tracking hours in an Excel spreadsheet and then creating an invoice in Word. That was miserable! Get yourself a bookkeeping tool (we use QuickBooks) and automate your invoicing. Accept credit cards. I know there is a lot of debate about this, but the fee you’ll pay to the credit card companies is significantly less than the time you’ll spend chasing payments.
But you don’t need tools just for the financial end of things. Think about the tools you’ll need for project management, file storage, video conferencing (though I’m so tired of looking at myself on Zoom, I might start wearing a new wig every day, just to mix things up), social media management, public relations management software, and even email management.
From there, you can start to think about using artificial intelligence to help you with scheduling meetings and basic administrative tasks—and then a virtual assistant for the more complicated things.
The world is your oyster, but without the right tools, you’ll be stuck doing mundane things that don’t make you any money.
Be Ready to Spend Time on Non-Comms Stuff
Step five, get ready to spend a lot of time not doing comms stuff. Ug, yes. When I started my PR firm, I had a coach who said to me, “You have to decide if you want to be a kick-butt business grower or a kick-butt communicator.” At the time, I thought I wanted to do the former, but I really missed doing what I was good at.
I was not good at HR issues and bookkeeping and negotiating the rent for the office lease. I hated dealing with the arguments about how cold or hot it was in the office, who ate whose lunch out of the fridge, and whose turn it was to do the dishes.
I also will admit that I hated planning the team outings and making sure everyone felt like they were coddled and taken care of. I just wanted to do really good work and keep clients happy.
After I realized I hated all the non-comms stuff, I hired someone to deal with all the stuff I hated or was not good at doing—and suddenly life became much more enjoyable for me. And there are lots of people who enjoy that stuff so I say, more power to them! I’ll stay with doing communications.
Take Care of Yourself First
Step six is one I don’t agree with. They say, “Be prepared not to receive a paycheck for a good, long while.” But I don’t think that’s true. When I went out on my own, I made sure I had one client that would cover my salary, benefits, mortgage, and car payment. Sure, you’ll have down years where you don’t make as much. And, if you’re not careful, you’ll have years where you pay your team more than you make. But you should always, always take care of yourself first.
My Agency Leadership podcast co-host, Chip Griffin, always says that you have to pay yourself what you would pay someone to come in and run the business for you. Many, many agency owners don’t pay themselves, or they pay themselves last. This is the absolute wrong thing to do.
This is the advice I always give: if you were to go back to work for someone, how much money would you make? Now double that. That’s what you should pay yourself. Don’t leave your job until you can take care of yourself first.
Keep Your Chin Up!
And the last step, step seven, is don’t let any of these steps get you down! I always say that the hardest part about going out on your own is deciding to do it. But once you’ve made the decision, the rest is easy.
Well, not easy, but it’s easier to control your own destiny after you’ve decided that’s what you’re going to do. But do take care of yourself first. Just like in life, you’re no good to anyone if you don’t put yourself first. Do the work that you enjoy and outsource the rest (or eventually hire internally). Don’t overanalyze and don’t allow yourself to get paralyzed with decisions.
It’s not the easiest thing you’ll ever do, but it’ll be one of the most rewarding.