Our latest Solo PR Pro success story is the fascinating and always engaging Shonali Burke, ABC. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, Shonali is the IABC-accredited, award-winning principal of Shonali Burke Consulting. She blogs at Waxing UnLyrical, under the watchful eyes of Chuck, Suzy Q. and Lola, her three rescue dogs. Much to her husband’s chagrin, Shonali can most often be found on Twitter.
How and why did you “go out on your own”?
I’ve been very lucky in finding great positions that allowed me to grow and experiment with new and different forms of communication, as well as measurement—an area that I’ve been learning a lot about the last few years. However, one of the things that often happens as you climb the job ladder is that the great positions, titles, etc., come with a lot of stress. I found that I was traveling frenetically (I’ll never forget going down an escalator in New York’s Penn station and thinking I was in DC’s Union Station) and was always tired. I didn’t like feeling that I only came home to sleep, or for the weekend. It was as if I had two lives and was constantly switching between the two. I knew something had to change—and since my husband would be practically impossible to replace, it had to be the job.
Initially I envisioned taking a few months “off” (we’re talking July 2008 here) before moving into another fulltime position. As time went on, I found that I was often perceived as “too young” for positions comparable in scope to my previous position, and I had no interest in making a lateral or downward move. After a few times of coming really close and then not getting “the” job, I had a great consulting project come my way (late 2008) and thought: why not? I had, after all, worked as an independent before moving to the East Coast as well as back in India, so I’m used to doing it. Working with a great client reminded me of how independent work can be fun as well as rewarding. So I decided that if I hadn’t found the kind of fulltime opportunity I was looking for by the end of the year, I would go out on my own in 2009. And that’s what I did.
How do you find most of your clients?
This will sound really clichéd, but it’s the combination of relationship-building and being active on the professional development front that brings work my way. I have little-to-no advertising dollars in my budget (though I did place an ad in HARO earlier this year, which brought me several interesting inquiries but none have so far converted into actual work), so I have to rely on networks and relationships. I’ve never cold-called for work—to date, at least.
The first consulting project I mentioned was to research and develop a social media strategy for BurrellesLuce. That came my way because I responded to a post on a LinkedIn group I belong to, and a good friend in their DC office followed up with a recommendation. One of my newest clients is the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, with whom I’m working on multicultural outreach for their Paralysis Resource Center. My relationship with them goes back to my days at Ruder Finn, where I helped get that very same outreach off the ground. Maintaining that relationship—which I did with no agenda whatsoever, but because I really liked the organization and the folks there—brought us full circle several years later.
I’m actively involved with IABC/Washington and started speaking at various conferences a couple of years ago. That helps people get to know who I am and what I can do. I’ve also found that starting to blog and getting active in social networks—particularly Twitter—has helped me tremendously. These have given me the chance to start finding my own voice (which is something PR pros struggle with, as your excellent post pointed out), as well as engage with and learn from my peers. That discussion and engagement has resulted in everything from new speaking engagements to client inquiries and actual business. And when people I know “IRL” see that I’m active both online and offline, they send leads my way.
What are some examples of interesting projects you’ve been able to work on as an independent?
I loved working with BurrellesLuce on their social media “embarkation.” Not only are they a great brand, but they have an extremely intelligent approach to the business of communication. And since I think research and measurement are integral parts of any communication outreach, it was like being a kid in a candy store to actually be able to DO the things I think smart communication involves. I also recently helped launch the Maryland Shore Pet Resort, an upscale pet lodging facility on Maryland’s Eastern Shore; with my animal welfare background that was a lot of fun. There were certainly social media aspects to that, but we worked traditional media as well. And now I’m really psyched about working with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation again, as well as a couple of exciting new clients in the pipeline.
What benefits of being independent have you experienced?
You can work in your pajamas…! No, seriously—the flexibility is great, of course, since you’re your own boss. I do have a “proper” home office, and make it a point to work from my desk, and maintain standard “office hours.” But if I need to take off for a medical appointment, for instance, I can work around that without any angst.
Since I’m “an agency of one,” my overheads are fewer and I can afford to take on the clients I really like and believe in. I can also fit in speaking engagements pretty easily; and since that’s something I love to do, that’s important to me. And I get to be around my three dogs (who greatly approve of the independent life, by the way).
What do you find to be the biggest challenges?
You’re the “chief cook and bottle washer,” so you have to manage every aspect of your business, including administration, accounting, etc. I like playing with numbers and processes, but I know that can be tough for some. The other major challenge is maintaining somewhat of a “normal” life; working from home, as many of us do, it’s easy to start work early, continue until it’s late, continuously check one’s BlackBerry, and so on. But since “having a life” is the reason many of us go independent, I think it’s important to keep that in mind, and not get sucked in to working crazy hours as a rule.
What’s your favorite “guilty pleasure” that being sol allows you to do?
Twitter! Whenever I need or want to, without worrying about anything/anyone else.
What are some important things to keep in mind to succeed as an independent consultant?
If you’re considering going independent I think it’s really important to identify what success means to you. Do you need to make a certain amount of money? What defines you—in your mind—as a success? Figure that out and work backwards. I think it’s important to be realistic, especially in your income goals. When I first started out, I kept thinking of all the money I was used to but wasn’t making. Then (with my husband’s help) I removed my head and put it back on straight by figuring out what I needed to make—and I was fine.
Don’t skimp on vendor solutions that will add professionalism to your work. I think one of the potential barriers to securing clients as an independent is being able to assure them they will receive the same level of service they’re used to with a larger agency, or even a boutique one. Depending on what kind of work you plan to take on, you should be prepared to reach out to vendors to see if they will work with you to provide products that make your work more efficient at a price you can afford, and work this into your budget. As independents, we often can’t afford the full range of services we may have grown used to while working for an agency or a company—such as media monitoring and distribution software, and so on. There are certainly creative ways to approach this—for example, if you can’t afford a media monitoring solution, Google alerts can often help bridge that gap. However, the paid services often give you more functionality and flexibility, especially in reporting back to your clients. Using such products—if they will add value to your services—is an investment in your reputation and business.
It’s really important to stay on top of your digital footprint and showcase yourself well. Chances are that if someone hears your name, they’ll Google you. What shows up? If you’re on LinkedIn, is your profile updated? Ditto VisualCV (which I think more people need to use) and anywhere you have an online profile. If you have a blog, are you keeping it relatively updated? Do you comment on and join relevant discussions online? Are you sharing your expertise among the networks you’ve built?
…Which takes me to relationship-building. Whether those are offline or online, they will be your single most important lead generator. There are several great consultants out there, and probably any one of them could get the job done. At the end of the day, people will work with you because they like you. However, if you have an “agenda” when building relationships—be it offline, or in social networks such as Twitter or Facebook—you’ll be spotted a mile off. Don’t use people for what they can do for you. Show them what you can do for them without any strings attached. Like I wrote a few months ago, it’s that whole social karma thing.
Finally, I think it would be terrible if you were a slave to your work. If you’ve taken the leap from employee to independent, remember why you did it in the first place. You are clearly entrepreneurial, which means you have a lot of initiative, are ambitious and are willing to take risks. But don’t let it rule your life. Don’t be tied to your BlackBerry because you have to be, but because you want to be. Live a little… that’s why you did this in the first place, remember?
Told you she’s fascinating! What’s your favorite tip or lesson learned from Shonali?