Hilary JM Topper
Hilary JM Topper

When I signed up for the NYC Triathlon in 2016, I felt like I was out of my element. I was nervous about jumping into the Hudson River and didn’t think I could make it up the Henry Hudson Parkway hills on my bike. The NYC Triathlon is an Olympic-distance triathlon, which means that you swim nearly a mile (.9 miles), bike 26 miles and then run 6.2 miles.

Several weeks before the race, I went out to breakfast with a client. “What are you worried about?” she said. “You’ve jumped in the water before, and you climb hills every day in your business.” Her statement put things into perspective. She was right. What was I afraid of?

Starting a business

I started my PR business in 1992. At that point, I knew what made a great story and how to pitch the media to garner a placement. What I didn’t know was how to operate the business. Like triathlons, I jumped right in. I had no idea what I was doing when it came to running a business; I went to school for PR and communications. I just did it.

I started training for triathlons in 2014. At that time, I simply signed up for an event. I had no idea how to swim freestyle, had no idea what shifters were on a bike, and the only thing I knew how to do was to run (and I could barely do that without walking). But I figured it out, just like I did when I ran my business.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Aug. Financial PR/IR & Professional Services PR Magazine
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Finding the right staff

I had no experience hiring staff and had to learn through research and joining various organizations. An entrepreneurial organization helped by providing me with the tools I needed to succeed. Hiring the right staff made all the difference when it came to growth. By having the right team in place, we were able to grow to a million-dollar business. I put in the time and the investment, and it happened.

When I started triathlons, my friend told me we needed to hire a coach. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just use an online training program. But she was more athletic than me, and I trusted that she was right. Hiring a coach was the best thing I could’ve done. I had great coaches through the years who have helped me grow and develop as an athlete and I could not have done it without them.

Surviving things outside of your control

There were at least three times in the last 30 years when we saw a downturn. The first was during 9/11, then in 2008 when the stock market crashed. We also lost staff and business during Superstorm Sandy. But we always thought about ways to reinvent ourselves and pick it back up. For example, when the economy went sour, we published our first book on social media marketing. Then we had a complete turnaround. Or after Sandy, we created Glasslandia, the first Google Glass Reality Show on YouTube. This again created attention and provided us with new clients.

Comparing this to triathlons, weather and conditions are out of our control. That’s why it’s important to train for any condition. There have been times when we had to train in torrential downpours and nor’easters, like when I ran the Suffolk County Half Marathon. Things will happen out of your control, and you just need to go with the flow.

When you lose a client

Triathletes get injured. When that happens, we feel defeated. In a way, it’s like losing a client. When you lose a client, you feel like you did something wrong. You tried so hard to keep them. You got them decent placements, and yet, they let you go. Most of the time, they won’t even tell you why. When that happens, you feel like your business is going downhill and you’re not sure when you’ll be able to pick it back up.

Learning new elements of the business

When social media became prevalent in the early 2000s, I became intrigued. I had to learn everything I could. I read books and articles and researched. This led me to write my first book, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Social Media.”

Since then, I constantly find myself reading everything about social media so I’m always up-to-date on the subject, especially since I also teach it at Hofstra University. I recently published my second book, “Branding in a Digital World,” which uses that research.

Triathlons are the same. I find myself entrenched in everything triathlon. I read, research and even write about everything from running apparel and bike gear to wetsuits and swim techniques. I started a blog, ATriathletesDiary.com, on the subject when I first started running in 2011. There’s always something new and exciting when it comes to triathlon training, and I’m always one of the first to try out new things.

When my SEO guy told me I needed to clean up my blog, I started removing stories I’d written about my experience. This led me to my third book, “From Couch Potato to Endurance Athlete–A Portrait of a Non-Athletic Triathlete.” The book takes you through ten years of business, personal experience and triathlon training and puts it all into a comprehensive overview with the theme that you can make anything happen if you really want it.

Landing that big client

There’s nothing better than landing that big client; landing a big placement feels the same. Your adrenaline pumps and you feel like you’re on top of the world. You worked so hard, late into the evening and on weekends. You did your homework, researched the market and put together a stellar proposal. You competed against many other PR firms, and you won.

Landing a new client is like finishing a race. It takes months to prepare. You train hard for all three disciplines. You learn about proper nutrition and hydration. You learn how to set up transitions and how to do them fast. Then, you’re at the start line of the swim. You swim as hard as you can with hundreds of other triathletes kicking and pushing you down. But you ignore them and try the best you can to get away from them. Once you finish the swim, you run into transition, put on your bike gear and run out with your bike. At the mount line, you clip into your peddles and take off. After miles on the bike, you come back to transition. You’re exhausted. You feel like you have nothing left, but you know you need to finish. So, you put on your sneakers and run for miles and miles. During that run, you’re tired. You feel like you can’t go on, but you know you need to get through that finisher’s chute in the distance. You know that now’s the time to step it up and turn on the accelerator.

Running a business is no small feat. It takes a lot of patience, persistence and due diligence to get it going and to be successful at it. Being a triathlete is the same. But if you have the patience within yourself, if you’re persistent and continue to educate yourself, you will cross that finish line.


Hilary JM Topper is CEO of HJMT Public Relations Inc., a 30+-year-old award-winning PR firm located in New York. She is the author of a new book, From Couch Potato to Endurance Athlete—A Portrait of a Non-Athletic Triathlete. The book is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For a book tour near you, visit https://www.atriathletesdiary.com/endurance-athlete-book/.