By Jay Morris
We all dream of being our own boss, having flexible hours and choosing the clients we want to work for. But what’s it really like to leave the security of a full-time job and start your own firm, especially in this economy?
Last month, four of D.C.’s top independent communicators gave an insider’s view of how they became successful PR consultants at a workshop sponsored by PRSA-NCC and the Independent Public Relations Alliance (IPRA).
Shawn Flaherty, president of Creative Strategies Public Relations, suggested that “it takes a leap of faith” tempered with a lot of planning to step out on your own. Flaherty is this year’s IPRA chair and made a case for tapping the expertise of her group before hanging out your shingle.
She also recommended getting advice from a local Small Business Development Center and trying to get a head start before you leave your employer such as pre-booking business, designing a logo and business cards, building a website and creating a database of contacts.
Sheri Singer, president of Singer Communications, gave some “nuts and bolts” advice on what it takes to fly solo. Using the acronym “START,” she advised that would-be indies need to have: Skills, Timing, Administration, Referrals and Tenacity.
Singer’s experience includes a stint at Ketchum PR, where she learned how to write proposals, make pitches and create timelines and communications plans—valuable experience that she says independents need to know in order to get business.
Other “musts” for independents, according to Singer, include good networking, marketing and time management skills, an understanding of contracts and pricing, business planning, bookkeeping, taxes and licensing.
Vicki Robb, APR, president of Vicki Robb Communications, has been independent since working in the Carter White House. Another long-time independent, Robert Deigh, principal of RDC Communication/PR, LLC, has extensive corporate communications, journalism and public affairs experience. Both talked about dealing with uncertainty and maintained that independents do well in a down economy.
Deigh noted that he has never been laid off as a PR consultant. He always has business coming in and has other clients he can fall back on if he loses one. Robb talked about reinventing herself in order to stay ahead of the curve. As she put it, “There are times when I’ve been under-employed and over-employed, but I’ve never been unemployed.”
Robb also described the various business models independent consultants use when working with clients. Solo practitioners, by partnering or subcontracting with other PR pros, designers, photographers and printers, can create a “virtual agency” every bit as effective as a traditional PR agency, she said.
Robb also suggested that beginning independents may want to consider taking on assignments from large PR firms or doing temporary in-house stints at trade associations or corporations.
Deigh said he believes marketing is also very important for indies. He’s created a monthly e-newsletter that he sends to clients and subscribers via ConstantContact. He also is the author of a PR primer for businesses called “How Come No One Knows About Us?” And he’s a big fan of networking groups like BNI and local Chambers of Commerce.
Robb added that solo practitioners need to spend at least two hours a week on prospecting. She recounted her early days when she forced herself to cold-call a list of prospects every morning in order to get new business.
Other valuable tips from the panel
Pricing – IPRA surveys show that those just beginning their own practice charge about $100 an hour, while those with three-10 years of experience are in the $150 range. At the extreme of the spectrum are those charging $50 and those charging $250.
Office space – Many independents work out of their home. It saves on rent and commuting time. However, if you do go that route, make sure you have a separate space that is truly your “corporate headquarters,” preferably away from interruptions.
Incorporating – It is not necessary to be incorporated, and panelists differed on the legal advantages to doing so or whether an attorney is necessary to incorporate. Regardless of whether you incorporate, you must have the appropriate licenses and pay estimated taxes and Social Security.
Budgeting – It’s important to have a cushion to fall back on as you get started, whether that’s personal savings or a spouse’s income. Also, make sure you are able to get health insurance if you are not covered on someone else’s plan.
Emotional rollercoaster – Be prepared for the inevitable ups and downs that come with starting your own business. There will be times of panic and anxiety, but also times of excitement and exhilaration. Enjoy the ride!