This is a guest post by Solo PR PRO Premium member, Diane K. Rose.
Chances are one reason you love the solo PR life is the flexibility that comes with being one’s own boss. Instead of working on projects imposed by corporate honchos, you pick topics and clients that interest you. You also choose between flip-flops or fuzzy slippers, and whether to work at noon or midnight.
The reality, however, is that none of this freedom is possible without a business development plan designed to ensure a steady stream of current and prospective clients.
For some PR solos, the quest of discovering prospects, planning pitch strategies and closing deals is enthusiastically embraced. I, on the other hand, would rather spend my evening scrubbing bathroom floors than mingling at a networking event brimming with business prospects.
The good news for me and others who are similarly challenged is that the flexibility that comes with owning one’s business can also apply to how one goes about finding paid work.
In my case, suckiness at hustling for clients has led me to embrace a business model where I subcontract to other agencies that perform all the biz dev work, and then find themselves in need of a PR and marketing pro like me to help them deliver what they have promised.
If you think the agency subcontractor life might work for you, here are some realities to consider before taking the plunge:
You will get paid less as a subcontractor.
If you leave biz dev to another agency, that agency will retain a portion of its client’s fee and not pay you as much as if you had contracted with the client yourself. This tradeoff is one I’m willing to accept. I justify the portion kept by the agency as a sort of finder’s fee for the work I get and then focus on filling my time with billable activities.
You will have to protect the other agency’s business interests.
In most cases, the agency for which you’re subcontracting has signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to protect its client’s confidential information. Anyone that the agency hires—regular employees and contractors—should also expect to sign an NDA.
Chances are you also will have to sign a non-compete/non-solicitation contract in which you agree not to poach agency clients or accept a job offered by those clients, especially if the job would have you performing work that otherwise would have been done by the agency. Hint: To protect yourself for future opportunities, ensure the contract timeframe is not indefinite. A more reasonable expectation is one-year after you complete work for a particular agency client.
Also be sensitive to real or perceived conflicts of interest with any other work you might be doing, especially if any of the end companies could be considered competitors. You have an ethical and likely a legal requirement to disclose this information. Don’t risk reputations—either yours or the agency’s with whom you’re subcontracting—by not being upfront about the slightest possibility of any conflict of interest.
Finally, understand that if you communicate directly with an agency’s clients, that agency will likely want you to represent yourself as a member of the agency staff. I actually have email addresses associated with two of the agencies for which I provide services. This is another tradeoff I don’t mind in exchange for someone else doing the hard job of landing clients.
You will need to protect your business.
When you subcontract with an agency, consider that agency your client and execute a contract that spells out payment terms, ownership of materials and intellectual property, and all the other usual business details of a business-client relationship. Pay special attention to how you get paid. Some agencies don’t pay a subcontractor until the agencies themselves get paid. When I came up against this unacceptable condition, the agency and I compromised so it would have up to 60 days after receiving my invoice to show me the money. I also work with another agency that sends me a check within days of receiving my emailed invoice.
You will have more opportunities to work on big accounts.
Because I subcontract for some well-established agencies, I get the opportunity to work on national and international accounts with big budgets. These corporations are ones I could never take on as a solo business owner who doesn’t want the complications of hiring employees or my own subcontractors.
You will still get to cherry pick projects and clients.
Because I subcontract for more than one agency, I have options about what I choose to do as work. I produce content products such as marketing collateral, white papers and case studies for one of my agency clients. For another one I serve as an account lead and have more of a strategic planning and team management role. I also continue to perform work for clients who come directly to me via referrals from professional contacts.
For someone like me who prefers to hunker down and get to work rather than smooze for clients, a subcontracting strategy has kept my solo PR and marketing business’s balance sheet in the black since I opened the doors. I do the sort of work I enjoy, I pick clients and projects that interest me, and I rarely have to put on a pair of high heels. For this Solo PR Pro—and maybe for you—the subcontracting life can be mighty fine.
Diane K. Rose, owner of DKR Communications, is based in Florida so that she can wear her flip-flops to work 365 days a year. She offers clients 20+ years of real-world, hands-on experience that includes public relations, marketing, employee communications, executive and investor communications, social media, and content development in the United States as well as EMEA and APAC.
Diane, this is a great post! While I happen to love business development, your post points out that there are numerous ways to build a business your way. This is a great reminder that as solos we can leverage our strengths in every area of our business, including getting clients. I am sure this will inspire many other aspiring solos out there that even if they do not like BD it does not have to be a barrier to becoming a solo. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
You’ve raised some excellent pros/cons here, Diane. As you note, the key to earning the maximum is to contract directly with clients, but folks should not shy away from being a Solo PR Pro if the prospect of doing that is too overwhelming — subcontracting is a great way to earn a good living!
Often, after spending a period subcontracting to larger agencies, a consultant will feel more comfortable acting as the lead. In fact, this is the path I followed, myself! You’ve given those considering this business structure an excellent primer – thanks for this guest post.