This month, I’m celebrating 20 years as a Solo PR Pro. I can’t really wrap my brain around it, but there’s one thing I know for sure: that’s a long time! Since founding Solo PR Pro in 2008, I’m often asked how I got my own start as a communications consultant, so I’m going to mark this occasion with a little reminiscing – and the top 20 tips I would have given to the 26-year old version of myself.
In 1995, the first entirely computer-animated film, Toy Story, made a splash; OJ Simpson was on trial for murder; Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette won Album of the Year at the Grammys; and Crane Communications was born.
Up to that time, I’d made a point of gaining as many diverse experiences in high tech PR as possible. From the world’s first portable wireless data modem, the Mobidem from Ericsson GE (yes, wireless email was possible in the early 90s, though it was expensive and didn’t gain traction until more than a decade later), to Bellsouth’s sponsorship of the 1996 Olympic Games, I was fortunate to have had opportunities to work alongside and learn from some of the best.
But often it was really, really hard. These were boom years in the tech sector, and in the period leading up to the Olympics in Atlanta there was more PR work to be done in this town than there were PR people to do it. I saw some businesses treat their employees and vendors with respect during this time, and many others that didn’t. Though it didn’t feel that way at the time, looking back the immense workload and intense pressure was a gift – nothing the Solo PR life throws at me will ever top the level of misery my colleagues and I sometimes felt trudging through these 70+ hour work weeks (for pretty meager salaries, by the way).
After years of burning the candle at both ends, I told my (not terribly surprised) employer I was going out on my own and I’d love for them to be my first client – they accepted. Now, I was young but I wasn’t stupid – making this decision was scary! My well-meaning supervisor expressed concern that my career would halt right where I was (senior account manager-level). I was about to get married and move 3,000 miles (from Atlanta to Portland, Oregon), where I didn’t know a soul – where would my clients come from?
Leaping into a virtual agency model that would not have been possible just a few years before, I leveraged the Internet, FedEx and faxes (remember those?) to work with clients in both Atlanta and Portland, and beyond. This was another unexpected gift of happenstance: because of the cross-country move, from its earliest days Crane Communications has been national and not limited by geography – something that has served me well over the years.
I’m happy to say that Crane Communications client work has been extremely diverse, exciting and rewarding. Long-term engagements – often involving multiple subcontractors – with clients ranging from ADP (when online banking was new), IBM, Intel, Microsoft , and technology industry standards associations, as well as work in the healthcare and commercial design sectors, have kept me feeling challenged and content. When massive changes in the PR industry took place, brought about by the emergence of two-way communications via social media, my love of learning new things kicked in – and Solo PR Pro was born.
The advice I would give to a 26-year old Kellye holds true for those just starting out today, as well as for those looking to maintain and grow their Solo PR Pro practice:
- Life is too short to work with clients that are mean, pay late, and/or don't respect you. Don’t worry – there are plenty of good clients to be had.
- Get It in Writing. Always.
- Resist the temptation to work all the time. When people are waving money in your face it’s hard not to take it, but don’t forget to have a life!
- Don't let desperation creep in – you'll make bad decisions as a result. When people aren’t waving money in your face and times are tough, remember: this too shall pass.
- Get pep talks when needed (and we all need them!), and cherish your champions.
- If you miss being around other humans, be sure to go to networking events and/or try coworking spots. And don’t forget that online communities are often the best support you can find.
- You know more than you think! Things that seem easy to you are not to people without your skills and experience – never forget this, and charge what the market will bear.
- Network. All the time. Don’t wait until your biggest client is winding down to reach out to those who can help get your next contract.
- Don't forget to talk to non-work friends on a regular basis – they'll keep you grounded in the real world.
- Collaborating (through subcontract arrangements) with your fellow consultants is the key to bigger profits – and more fun!
- Know that some people are not who they portray themselves to be – an eternal truth that is even more true today (given our online personas). Always proceed in new ventures and collaborations with caution, and make people earn your trust.
- You must take time off. This is the #1 key to longevity as a Solo PR Pro – those who don’t typically burn out.
- There’s a universal truth: the clients who pay you the least amount of money also tend to be the most difficult.
- Take advantage of the flexibility and power of being your own boss to change the course of your business, as needed. You aren’t locked in to anything, and that’s part of your strength.
- Don't worry about being fair to clients – you look after your business, and clients can look after themselves. This one may sound harsh, but I’ve seen it time and again: you try to scrimp by on a meager budget, and then the client miraculously finds the money to do some other random project in a different area. This is my biggest “please do as I say, not as I did” lesson.
- Have a designated office space – no matter how small your home is.
- If you're a spiritual person, embrace it in your business. Whether you call it your gut, your instincts or God, listen to it. I don't talk about this much, but – though I'm not what would be considered a traditionally religious person – meditation/prayer is part of every major move I've ever made (sometimes thinking and obsessing over your options will only get you so far!).
- Understand how much revenue you must bring in for your household (not just what you want to be earning). Having this number in mind will help you make better decisions.
- Always embrace learning new things and continually update your skillset – this is how you command top dollar.
- This is the best career there is and, young Kellye, you'll never, ever be sorry you took the leap!
From nursing ill family members to Hurricane Katrina to my own health issues, my life over the past 20 years has been full of twists and turns that the young Kellye could have never predicted. But through it all, my love of independence and the business I’ve built has never wavered.
Thanks to everyone who has played a part in this fantastic journey, and I humbly look forward to many more!
To my fellow indies, what tips do you offer new independent consultants, and what do you wish you had known starting out? Please share your own lessons in the comments!
Great list, Kellye. I would add this advice about potential clients – find out early if the person you’re dealing with has the authority and budget to contract for your services. It may seem a harsh subject early in the relationship, but the only people who really are offended by it are those who are lacking authority and/or money, which means they’re wasting your time.
That’s an excellent addition, Mark! Most of us learn that lesson the hard way, unfortunately – thanks for sharing.