Solo PR Pro successes come from all walks of life, and everyone's story is unique. Since each PR and MarCom consultant makes his or her own rules, there's much we can learn from the experiences of others. To that end, I'm thrilled to unveil our first interview in what will become a regular Success Stories feature on this blog.
Jennifer (Jen) Wilbur, principal of Rockstar Communications, is a seasoned communications executive with more than a dozen years of experience providing strategic public relations and communications programs for consumer and technology companies. Jen holds unique experiences spanning the agency world, small startups and Fortune 500 companies. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and at her Dog Beach Blog.
How and why did you “go out on your own”?
After working for agencies, a Fortune 500 company and a digital media startup, I was ready for my next challenge. Consumer technology is a passion of mine, and at the time (nearly 5 years ago), my choices were limited if I wanted to stay in San Diego (and boy, did I!). I knew a couple of other successful PR consultants, so I started asking them about the pros and cons and figured out pretty quickly that my next step would be as a “Solo PR Pro.”
Once I made up my mind (which didn’t take long), I read and inquired about everything I could that pertained to self-employment. I bought a computer, created a business plan with objectives and then jumped right in. I shared my plans with my employer and let everyone know I’d be available soon as a consultant. My supervisor even had fun with it. My going-away email to the company was a press release announcing Rockstar Communications (I will keep that email forever!)
How do you find most of your clients?
I have always been good at keeping in touch. I didn’t realize it when it was happening, because it wasn’t the catalyst, but I managed to build an incredibly strong network of friends and colleagues. Just about every client I’ve worked with has been referred to me from someone in my network. That used to consist of family, friends and colleagues; all people I had physically met and/or worked with in the past. Now, through my involvement with social media, that network has grown. We’ve never met in person, but we’ve grown to be friends and trusted colleagues. Business is starting to flow in from this avenue, as well. I’ve cold-called a couple of companies here and there, and not one of those attempts was successful in winning business.
What are some examples of interesting projects you've been able to work on as an independent?
One of my first clients was Veoh, an online video company. I was introduced to the founder when Veoh was just a twinkle in his eye, and I was able to watch the business plan develop, and help the company launch and grow. Veoh launched just before YouTube use exploded. The idea of democratized TV and online video was just beginning. It was great to still experience the rush of a startup, but without being in a cubicle all day.
Since much of my focus has been with helping technology startups launch, I’ve had the opportunity to be part of a wide range of new business ideas, running as a PR agency, managing and executing marketing communications and PR campaigns. Some were successful, some failed, and the jury is still out on others. Everything from digital music to email marketing programs, to online video to mobile food ordering and digital imaging/animation.
I also had the opportunity to work as a member of a larger PR team by contracting with other PR firms. This gave me the ability to work with larger, more established brands in consumer electronics and entertainment.
What benefits of being independent have you experienced?
First and foremost, a work/life balance I’ve never had before. I’ve always enjoyed my job, worked hard and traveled often, and there often wasn’t much of a line between home and work. I was never home, leaving the house around 7 AM, and not getting home until the wee hours. Work, lunch, work, more work, drinks after work, work again, bed. Not much room for anything else. I love dogs, but that wouldn't be fair to either of us.
Since going solo, I actually get more done and managed my day better. I exercise, eat right and find time to sleep. Heck, I even go to the beach nearly every morning and dabble in my hobby of photography.
I only attend necessary or beneficial meetings and am not distracted by office gossip and politics. I see some of my clients’ calendars and cringe. They are in meetings from 10-4 most days. When do they get actual work done?
All this, and I still find time to have fun with my husband and my good friends.
What do you find to be the biggest challenges?
My biggest challenge is drawing out information from my clients. While it’s a huge plus to not have to be in the office all day, every day and attend needless meetings, you have to find other ways to get your client to tell you what’s going on in a timely matter. Creating a system that works for both of you can be tough, but it’s important.
Another challenge is saying “No” to work that isn’t right, especially when going through a dry period. It’s great to have days where you find yourself with extra hours to do personal things or relax, but sometimes those days become weeks. Sometimes a job comes by that you’re not excited about or is too small. I’ve learned that there is always a better one right around the corner if you’re just patient. Learning to turn down work so you’re available for the project you’ll love can be taxing (but very much worth it).
What's your favorite “guilty pleasure” that being solo allows you to do?
I refuse to call it a “guilty” pleasure, but I have two things that have enhanced my life immensely. I’ve always wanted a dog, but never saw it as fair to either of us to have one, since I was never home. Now, not only am I home with my two French Bulldogs most of the day, but I take them to the beach nearly daily. This spurred me to spend time on a hobby of mine, photography, with my photo blog, A Dog’s Beach.
What are some important things to keep in mind to succeed as an independent consultant?
- You have to be self-motivated. Very rarely will anyone set deadline for you.
- You must find ways to feed the social bug. It’s not as easy to pick up lunch with a coworker, so set up monthly or weekly lunches with friends and colleagues.
- Create a routine (even if you’re like me, and it’s not in your nature). If you do non-work related items around the same time and frequency each week, it’s easier to manage your schedule and workload.
- Be available, but not TOO available. Yes, you should be available for emergencies, but you must set boundaries or you will be tied to your machine 24/7. Then you might as well go back to getting a salary and benefits along with it.
- Get used to talking about yourself. Don’t expect work to come to you without effort. Even if you have a strong network, like I do, you have to remind people that you’re still there, about your successes and that you have time for more business (when you do). Don’t give anyone a reason to forget you when an opportunity arises.
- Make sure you and your client sign a contract. It’s certainly not a fun part of the job, but you have to protect yourself. A contract doesn’t guarantee you will receive full payment or continue working, but it sure helps.