Early to rise: Career Guide 2009

Craig McGuire speaks to a quintet of agency heads to uncover the rationale, along with the risks and rewards, of starting a firm while in your twenties

Youth has its advantages. However, for intrepid 20-somethings launching their own agencies – especially those lacking deep pockets and a full Rolodex – it takes more than talent and temerity.

Those interested in making their own hours should consider stepping out on their own, recommends Dan Lyons, president of Lyons Public Relations.

“As long as those hours include 70-hour work weeks,” notes Lyons, who launched his eponymous broadcast PR specialty shop from his basement in 2005, armed with a computer, telephone, and not much more. “If you like a good night's sleep, I don't recommend it.

“After two years, I moved the company to a small office space,” he adds. “Then, about a year and a half ago, we outgrew that space and moved into a larger suite. We've got a plant now, so it's pretty official.”

Approaching its five-year anniversary, Lyons PR now has six staffers, but, from the outset, many daily tasks fell to the man with his name on the door.

“Performing the roles of project manager, accountant, administrator, account executive, human resources, producer, and publicist, all while keeping up our marketing efforts, was definitely a challenge,” he says.

Still, such a grueling schedule and intense multi-tasking may suit the lifestyle of a 29-year-old. “I'm not sure I could have launched a business and begun a family at the same time,” Lyons admits. “This is a demanding job. There aren't enough hours. I was either too dumb or stubborn to think otherwise.”

Battling preconceptions
However, common perceptions associated with age may also be an obstacle, as Carrie Fox found when she launched in her mid-20s.

“Heading into meetings, there was an immediate need to prove my worth,” she notes. “I was once asked if my boss would be joining us. I was being mistaken for an employee of my own company.”

Today, C. Fox Communications, based in Silver Spring, MD, is a thriving integrated communications agency with a staff of five full-time employees and a network of subcontractors.

For those mulling starting their own firms, Fox advises first dipping a few toes in the water. In fact, she did not initially intend to strike out on her own. Fox was content to work as a subcontractor to her previous employer, Washington, DC-based Prism Public Affairs, while seeking a full-time post.

“It was during my job search that I came across an agency which really surprised me,” Fox says. “They had an impressive roster of clients, but their level of service and communications style was so below what I was used to and how I had been trained.”

Convinced there was a place for her in the market, Fox first reached out to her network of contacts and former colleagues, even landing her first account, specialty food retailer Balducci's.

As Fox found, however, networking and prospecting are only two ingredients of a much larger recipe.

“I had majored in PR at Loyola, not business, so there was definitely a bit of a learning curve,” she admits. “It was a new experience to go through, setting up my company's legal structure, billing, invoicing, and everything else that comes with running your own company, while balancing my billable time.”

Be prepared to do everything, adds Adam Segal, who founded Washington, DC-based PR/media relations boutique The 2050 Group while in his 20s.

“Nothing should be below you nor above you,” he adds. “Never feel you can't land a massive hit for a client and never feel it is below you to send out invoices.”

Segal cites apprehension over securing and sustaining an adequate number of clients for that critical first year as the greatest pre-launch anxiety he faced. Ultimately, however, he found those first two major clients, which quickly grew to three and then four.

“At that time, I knew this business would be able to sustain itself during those critical first years,” he says.

Previous corporate experience is invaluable, as Dion Roy, then 25, learned in launching AMP3 Public Relations five years ago. AMP3 is a boutique agency specializing in arts, entertainment, and lifestyle PR.

“I had a corporate background and expertise in ac-counting and technology,” he notes. “Without that, I never would have been able to launch without blowing a ton of money.”

While some corners can be cut, Roy advises against skimping on legal ones. Any upstart needs the expertise of a lawyer specializing in PR, with knowledge of contracts, insurance, and other industry-specific nuances to ensure long-term viability.

Age, though, has been less of a factor for him. “Of course, if you're in your 20s, then you can't claim to have had 20-plus years of experience,” Roy adds. “For some potential clients, that factor is a must.”

However, he is finding more clients seek a younger shop's services. “Older clients, in particular, tend to see the value in a group that was born in the Web 2.0 era,” Roy explains. “Our clients take comfort in the fact that we are not having to readjust our practices.

“There is never a dull moment running your own business,” he continues. “There has been a sleepless night or two, but I wouldn't have it any other way.”

Following your own path
Michael Bilello knows all about stepping outside his comfort zone. Before serving as an SAE at MWW Group in Los Angeles, Bilello was a public affairs officer for the US Marine Corps, taking part in the invasion of Iraq, even escorting CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta throughout combat operations.

“No one opened their doors to me, so I opened my own,” says Bilello, who founded Centurion Strategies, a Tampa, FL-based agency at 27 with the slogan “Always on the offensive.”

“I am so glad I did,” he claims. “I would have never been permitted to take on as much responsibility, nor learn as much as I am learning on a daily basis at my age. It's very expeditionary, much like the Marines.”

An independent consultant since 2007, Bilello specializes in press management and media strategies for professional athletes and Internet startups.

“Like most things in life, my main obstacle was myself,” he admits. “Mentally, I had to commit to taking that first step, and since have convinced myself to not stop running.”

While limited in terms of startup capital and contacts, Bilello credits his ability to create and implement his own style of service and freedom from cookie-cutter groupthink and looming micro-management.

“My age also puts me at an advantage when dealing with startups and athletes,” Bilello notes. “We see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and there is a mutual respect and understanding as peers.

“This experience has been full of surprises, but that is why those of us who have gone out on our own have done so,” he adds. “Life is way too short to wake up to the same thing every day or hate your job.”

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