Rewards justify challenges of starting own firm

PR pros who have made the transition from being large-agency executives to managing their own boutique firms have some words of advice for peers contemplating a similar plunge.

PR pros who have made the transition from being large-agency executives to managing their own boutique firms have some words of advice for peers contemplating a similar plunge.

For one thing, be prepared to do everything yourself at first, from writing press releases to managing invoices, cautions Step One Communications' principal Tom Goodwin.

Though he's held senior-level posts at Porter Novelli, the Hawthorn Group, and Powell Tate, Goodwin decided seven years ago to trade in the large-agency lifestyle for his own consultancy. There was definitely a learning curve.

In the beginning, Goodwin says, generating revenue was a far more pressing concern than it had been in the big-agency world. Like many practitioners, he lacked in-depth experience in the financial aspects of PR, and had to learn a few lessons the hard way: Goodwin was stiffed by several clients when he didn't draw up contracts and he underpriced himself on jobs because he didn't do enough checking around to ascertain the market's going rates.

"I worried about money every single day," Goodwin recalls, adding that though he experienced the day-to-day pressures to sign new clients during his big-agency period, he never had to face the entire burden of ensuring his employer's profitability. "All of us who are either solo practitioners or run boutique firms always worry about money more than we did when we were at large firms."

About five months ago, former Hill & Knowlton SVP Don Meyer partnered with political advisor Michael Rubin to form boutique consultancy Rubin Meyer Public Affairs.

According to Meyer, he's already learned that for a startup firm, even seemingly simple tasks can take a bit more time and effort than expected.

"In retrospect, we spent too much on our Web site," he admits. "We didn't search hard enough for a developer and then ended up having to throw it out and do it over with someone else, who did twice as good a job for [less money]. We also agonized too much over logos and printing stuff."

Yet most PR entrepreneurs agree that the benefits of going into business for themselves solidly outweigh the disadvantages.

Philip Hayes, another one-time H&K executive who is now a partner at North Bridge Communications, notes that he still averages the same 70- to 80-hour work weeks he used to put in for H&K. The difference, he says, is that now more of the money generated by his efforts goes directly into his own pocket or back into his own firm.

Step One's Goodwin says he continues to put in long hours, too, sometimes even on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings. However, because he's in control of his schedule, he's always able to take his children to school and make them lunch.

He adds that the satisfaction he gets from knowing that clients hire him because he's "Tom Goodwin" - not just because he's connected to a big-name PR firm - gives him a real sense of pride.

More than anything, adds the recently transitioned Meyer, being in charge of his own practice is much more of an adventure than working for a large agency - and that alone makes up for occasional downsides.

"I've had more fun in the past five months," he says, "than I had in the past five years combined."

Key points:

In launching one's own PR practice, basic business tasks can take more time and effort than expected

Profitability can be a challenge, but revenue must go back into the firm

Work hours may be long, but the benefits of controlling one's own schedule, staff, and clients can be ample compensation

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