In October 2019, I left my long-time job as a senior vice president at a global public relations firm to become a full-time PR consultant. I’d paid my dues at agencies small, medium-sized and large for 28 years. The time had come to go solo.
Five months later, the pandemic hit. Talk about a launch well-timed.
As it happens, going into business for myself has turned out to be easier than I expected. It’s also proven to be much harder. What’s gone right and what’s gone wrong? Here are 10 key lessons picked up so far:
- You’re truly on your own. Forget about enlisting your social media go-to in Minneapolis or your crisis management whiz in Milan. All the responsibility is yours alone. You get credited for wins and blamed for losses. Say hello to independence.
- You always deal directly with clients. No longer does your finely nuanced counsel have to be filtered through a pipeline, only to get lost in translation, or shoehorned into a conference call along with your 10-member team. The days of playing telephone are officially over.
- You choose which prospects to pursue. Nobody can force you to represent a South American dictator anymore. Hallelujah! You can take on whichever sectors you feel equipped to serve. You can also go big or go small. For example, some of my most valued clients are small businesses who could never afford attention from an agency.
- You control your marketing strategy. Go ahead, network however you wish, through whichever channels you deem suitable. Define yourself based on your background, specialties, whims and idiosyncrasies. At the outset, I cast my net to anyone I supposed could help me. People often came through with advice, a referral or even a project or retainer. Since then, I’ve relied almost exclusively on word-of-mouth.
- You can drop clients. Yes, withdrawing your services from a client whose checks routinely clear is regarded as the highest heresy. But maybe the swooning honeymoon period ended earlier than anticipated. I recently excused myself from handling a financial services firm because my relationship with the CEO had soured beyond salvaging. He had second-guessed me into a coma. Weigh, in the context of your portfolio, whether or not a client sucks up too much oxygen.
- You can deliver freebies. Investing in any pro bono, least of all for too long, is often taboo. But you have to make long-term ROI your priority. A client of mine wanted an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, but the submission was turned down. I recommended a revision, but the client declined. I volunteered to redo it free of charge. The WSJ published the piece and the client stuck around.
- You decide how service is delivered. You can now make every client feel like your only client, or at least your top client. Any time a client asks for anything, your standard response—said with the utmost sincerity—can be “At your service.”
- You should embrace your anxieties. If I take anything for granted, either in life itself or in PR in particular, it’s that nothing should be taken for granted. Ever. Going solo is definitely a gamble. You’re daring to establish a thriving practice from scratch. Here’s my theory: feeling vulnerable can ultimately build strength.
- You should brim with confidence. Hey, look in the mirror. You’re highly seasoned. You’ve finally achieved a hard-earned expertise. Plus, you know more people than you realize, sometimes occupying positions of power and influence. You also discover, much to your surprise, that you’ve somehow developed that special something we call a good reputation.
- You can finally be you. Never again need you try to be the square peg wedged into a round hole. For example, I still practice earned media relations. But now, I’ve expanded my focus on helping clients publish op-eds and personal essays.
Two years in, business is good. My clients have ranged from pharmaceutical companies and universities to medical centers and the Italian government. I feel lucky. And what’s worked for me just might work for you, too.
Bob Brody is a PR consultant and veteran of Weber Shandwick, Ogilvy and Rubenstein. He is also the author of Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes Of Age and an essayist who contributes to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post.