Survive and Thrive: How Carla Vallone Is Doing BothEvery Friday in Survive and Thrive, we talk to communicators who are not just surviving, but thriving. Between COVID-19, reopenings and then rolling back, kids home from school…maybe forever (?), working from home, and not touching another human being for months, most of us are surviving, at best.

But what about those who are surviving AND thriving?

Perhaps they added a new revenue source or followed a passion or are taking a sabbatical or discovered they actually love homeschooling or completely changed careers. Today we talk to Carla Vallone, the founder of Portavoce PR, about how she’s making the best of the worst crisis in a century.

It’s true, I’m surviving and thrivin’.

But before you read on—FULL DISCLOSURE—I have a full-time babysitter! And without her, I wouldn’t be writing this, because I’d be too damn busy!

Yes, it takes a village—or draining your bank account to pay for someone to the run the tribe. 

Since March 13, 2020—Freaky Friday as our family calls it—I’ve continued to work from an office. And in these life and times, that’s been a real privilege.

It’s one of the key reasons that I am thriving, but there are many more.

My agency is doing well because of decisions I made during the last six months. But more so, because of changes I made to my business, or changes that happened to my business, before the pandemic. Some of those changes seemed crushing at the time. Now I realize there were  a blessing.

In the Pandemic Year of 2020 Portavoce PR is:

  • Projected to grow income 5%
  • On track to quadruple profitability 
  • Generating passive income
  • Expanding its service offering 
  • Has the best account team ever!

The journey to this success started 14 months ago when I started to work with Gini Dietrich, in an Agency Jumpstart cohort.

Just Say No

Nancy Reagan was right. Just say no… shitty clients.

Wait, that was Gini who said that. And she was right. 

The first thing I implemented from Agency Jumpstart was their business development process. 

Whereas learning SEO and doing agency marketing (always a weakness) overwhelmed me, applying my natural consultative skills to the new business process was a no brainer. I was able to be consultative to my existing clients, it wasn’t a leap to take that focus with prospects.

In the beginning, it was painful. I was saying no to a lot of prospects who weren’t the right fit, weren’t ready to make the investment, or weren’t following through on their intentions. I was saying no all over the place, and the yeses were few.

Now, six months into COVID, I reflect on all the times I said no. Had I said yes to any of those clients, they’d be gone now. I’d be overstaffed, missing my financial goals, and stressed out. 

We made the tough decisions to say no to the quick money. As a result, we have solid, quality clients who might have trimmed or paused during the pandemic, but not a single client left. 

Passive Income 

As Gini emphasizes in Agency Jumpstart, one key to agency growth is expanding ways to drive income, without requiring more womanpower.

Or, as Gini calls it, passive income

Lessons and instruction weren’t attractive to me, but expanding the services the agency offers and generating new lines of income did.

Becoming part of the Spin Sucks Community and seeing the broad-based service offerings other agencies were offering inspired me and motivated us to do the same. 

We found specialists, many from the Spin Sucks Community, in pay-per-click advertising, search engine optimization, and website development—and started folding these services into our offering. 

In the last 12 months this increased our income by 6% and I expect that to grow to 10% in 2021.

Expanding Services

Bolstered by the confidence of adding the passive income and services, when a longtime colleague, client, and friend, Perri Richman, invited me to become certified in personal leader branding I jumped at the chance.

The method she designed, The Brand Promise, is a behavior-based approach to building and protecting personal leader brands and reputations.

I trained with her in December 2019, and by May I had sold my first leader branding experience with a CEO of a privately-owned company to align his leadership with his goals for the company.

I folded in The Brand Promise corporate branding for small and mid-size companies, and immediately sold in a complete corporate branding for a new start-up client. Subsequently I used subsets of the framework to help existing clients fill gaps in their brand work. 

These services added another 5% of income. The residual benefits are that as an individual professional in the agency, I now have a new service I can personally offer to clients. 

I’m working directly with CEOs, strengthening my relationship with the clients from the top down. I’m  in-the-know about the company’s most inner workings, strategies and goals.

After many years of doing the same PR stuff over and over, in the sunset of my life (45 years old), I’m learning how to teach others what I’ve been learning for the last 25 years. This has been incredibly invigorating and really makes me feel like I am thriving.

I have more purpose. Not just bossing people around and nagging my employees. I’m contributing personally to the agency and client output in a way that is very fulfilling.

Luck Was a Lady

No one can survive and thrive without a little luck and good timing! 

In July 2019, I made a valiant effort to break my office space lease and move into another space that was LARGER, but only slightly less expensive. But after mis-reading my lease, I got into a terrible pickle. Stuck in two leases and unable to break the lease on my five-room office suite. 

It was a miserable experience. It ended up working itself out. I stayed in the five-room office suite and said, “Ho hum, I’ll wait until July 2020 when my lease really ends and figure out what to do.”

Fast-forward to July 2020 and ALLELUJAH my lease was ending. Never was there a time to be happier to end a lease than in the time of COVID! And it was just sheer luck of timing. 

Listen to the Millennials

I’m a child of the 80s and I love my stuff.

As I mentioned, I love going to the office and escaping my beloved husband, fabulous children, two cats and three-month-old puppy.

Downsizing felt weird—and it made me feel unsuccessful. 

In ‘Merica we’re all about biggering and biggering, as Dr. Seuss would say. And here I was smallering and smallering.

But my sweet Millennial coworkers don’t care about stuff…or space. They just kept telling me how cool it would be to work in a shared office space. 

This was completely counterintuitive to how I felt as I gave away thousands of dollars of furniture, spent weeks cleaning out the office, and figured out how to fit six years of stuff into a 12×12 foot micro-office. 

But they seemed completely confident. So, I just followed their lead and we toured all the spaces.

Thank goodness I listened. Millennials! They get the job done! 

For two months I’ve been working in my new private, micro-office space within a shared office space. 

The hipster kombucha and nitro cold brew flows freely from a tap keeping productivity high. There is free fizzy water, beer, and wine. 

And the weirdest thing is that everybody who works at a co-working space is a man. I’M IN HEAVEN! 

(Seriously, on most days I’m the only woman there other than the receptionist. You know why? ALL THE WOMEN ARE AT HOME HOMESCHOOLING!)

The move has saved me at least $1,000 per month in overhead. WiFi, VOIP phone, and no utilities. No worries about whether we have enough K-cups or if the printer is out of ink. 

The other perk is that the move bolstered our corporate culture. Our company culture has always been very flexible. I started Portavoce PR because I wanted to be my own boss, and volunteer at the 2nd grade class Valentine’s Day party if I wanted. 

And if that’s what I got, that’s what my team would get, too.

So, although I expect demand, a 40-hour work week, we’re flexible how you do the time.

With approximately 100 square feet of office space we were already moving to a 2/3 work week when the coronavirus moved into America.

Employees come to the office two or three days, and work from where they want the other days. This also creates more synergies with employees who work remotely in other cities and states, which had been more challenging previously.

The only serious consequence to the move was I had to leave behind my beloved Ricoh copier/printer: a two-tray, duplex printer, with 100-sheet bypass tray, 50-sheet automatic reversing document feeder with a finisher and punch kit that output 35 pages a minute. TRAGIC! 

I still think of her every day. I feel like I’m cheating on her when I come home at night to print my PowerPoints on the HP Color LaserJet MPF M577!

Getting Truthful about Time

I haven’t escaped the Pandemic unscathed. There was no avoiding the time crunch for me, either. 

A large part of my identity is my volunteer work.

For nearly six years I was on the board of Girls Inc. of San Diego County, a girl empowerment organization that supports girls of color from underserved communities. 

I sustained my volunteerism by working late two nights a week while my babysitter was with the kids.

Once the pandemic hit, we changed her schedule from part-time (afternoons and evenings) to support the kiddos 40 hours during the school/work week. Working nights were no longer an option for anyone.

I had known for a while it was time to close my chapter with Girls Inc. I had leaned too far in and my 12-year-old turned to me seriously one day and said, “Mom, you really do work ALL the time.” 

Survive and Thrive: How Carla Vallone Is Doing Both

The pandemic ripped the band-aid off because I could no longer stay late and do the work. Bringing my board service to an end was a very difficult decision, particularly during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt I was abandoning the girls.

I regularly have to remind myself that my philanthropy is only on pause. And I’m giving myself permission not to jump back in. When the time is right I will.

Our family has also taken a financial hit. Paying for full-time childcare for two children was not sustainable. We had to make choices. And the choice was to defer the mortgage. 

As a Midwestern girl, I play by the rules when it comes to money and I felt like I was breaking them. I let my pride down and got resourceful. 

We are still paying the babysitter instead of paying our mortgage so that both my husband and I can work full-time and keep our businesses running. 

Next week, I start working from home one day a week to save some money on the sitter. I’ll finally get a taste of what so many of you have all been enjoying for six months!

We All Take a Hit Sometimes

If you are reading this, and your experience has not been the same, I empathize. I didn’t take a big hit from the pandemic. But in 2019, I lost $200,000 of income from one client. That was my hit. 

I had to lay off an employee. Fortunately someone left the agency to relocate, or I would have had to lay off a second. We shrunk from a five-person team down to three.  

The agency had long been over-leveraged in the manufacturing sector—up to 60% of our client income was tied to manufacturing (which was already going down, pre-pandemic).

The upside of our 2019 retraction, is that when the pandemic hit this year, and manufacturing dipped more, we were much more diversified. Which is also why we have whether the storm.

As the manufacturing industry paused, our clients in automation software, AI and robotics were thriving and they needed more of our time.

Not If, When

In the epic year of 2016, I was at the height of my Cub fangirl craze. In the run up to the World Series, my brother bought me a birthday gift. A Cubs shirt that said, “Not if, When”. 

Survive and Thrive: How Carla Vallone Is Doing Both

It’s my lucky shirt. I was wearing it the night the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 100 years.

The Pandemic will end. Not if, when. 

Be well, my friends!

Carla Vallone

Carla Vallone is a marketing and communications strategist for business-to-business organizations and leaders who are commercializing highly-technical, mission-critical products and services. She builds marketing communications strategies that are approachable for companies that don’t yet have mature marketing practices and leads her team of specialists to create and deliver content that generates leads in the AI, technology, robotics, manufacturing and industrial sectors.

View all posts by Carla Vallone