Going Solo in the New Year? Tips to Make Your Independent Practice Work
January 2, 2014
While there may be a PR professional who had a classic “take this job and shove it” moment on their way from employee to business owner, for most, the transition to sole practitioner is not as dramatic as a country music song.
That’s not to say that the decision to leave an agency, nonprofit, government or corporate job isn’t filled with memorable moments — just that the road to self-sufficiency is usually paved more with gut feelings than flashpoints.
No two people are exactly alike, and striking out alone isn’t for everyone. You must factor the ever-changing dynamics of the business economy, family and personal responsibilities, and an individual’s preferred work habits into your decision-making process. Having said that, unless you believe that a direct deposit is mankind’s greatest achievement, starting a consultancy can be the best choice you’ll ever make.
I say this with the benefit of experience, as someone who left a good-paying, stable, senior-level position during the recession to become an independent PR pro. I didn’t even have six-months salary in the bank, a written business plan or a specific niche that might guarantee future clients.
But I had a desire for entrepreneurship and the ability to see that business challenges were really opportunities in disguise. I craved the freedom to select my own clients and determine what working hours and conditions best fit my life. I didn’t want anyone else to determine how much money I’d earn or be the dispenser of job security.
In short, I was ready to take full control of my professional career.
Assessing the situation
But before giving notice to your boss, it is important to assess your situation honestly. Are you willing to trade the current downside — goodbye direct deposit — for the potential upside of freedom and personal satisfaction? Can you work alone and be comfortable being the public face/voice of a company?
If your answer to those questions is ‘yes,’ then you’ve cleared the first hurdle. Here’s what you should do next:
- Determine your niche. What services can you personally provide to potential clients and what will they realistically pay for them? Is it likely that you can live comfortably?
- Improve your communication skills. Writing, speaking and presentation are critical to selling yourself, which — despite whatever services you may have to offer — is now your main product.
- Utilize social media/networks. Follow, learn from and connect with those who are entrepreneurs or subject experts.
- Identify who is a decision-maker or influencer in your real-life network. Reconnect with them, share plans with those you trust and ask for feedback.
- Network with a purpose. Don’t just randomly distribute your new business cards. Make strategic connections that can benefit your business or clients.
- Save money. If possible.
Starting out on your own
Here are other important things I’ve learned in the last four years:
- Understand that it isn’t realistic to separate “personal” from “business” now. Your next client is as likely to be a fellow parent on your child’s soccer team as someone from a networking event.
- Establish and maintain your brand. Reinforce expertise in places and through channels that have potential clients or influencers.
- Utilize social media networks. It’s free and it creates exposure opportunities that lead to top-of-mind awareness among audiences. Interact with others you value in their forums.
- Develop an elevator speech. Be able to describe, in 20 seconds or less, what you do, its value and who benefits from it.
- Schedule time for phone, coffee or lunch with senior-level contacts. Have a sense of their business. Offer to assist their efforts (for free) by providing perspective, making an introduction, or doing something that has value but doesn’t require considerable time or effort that you’d charge for otherwise.
- Avoid turning down projects or short-term opportunities. Just because it isn’t exactly what you envisioned for your business doesn’t mean that it can’t pay dividends — or help pay the rent.
- Don’t feel the need to accept every assignment. If it doesn’t pay what you are worth, has a steep learning curve or comes from clients with unrealistic expectations, then you are better off politely declining or referring someone who might be a better fit.
Having an impact
There isn’t a magic amount of time that passes and determines when a business is successful. Most solo practitioners, though, understand that it is about the time that monthly revenue is stable enough to consistently cover expenses and provide a comfortable lifestyle. Once you pass that hurdle, the game isn’t over. That’s when the real fun — and the opportunity to have additional impact — begins:
- Be a go-to person. Be someone who your contacts know can help them, connect them with someone else or provide an educated perspective on what they are hoping to do.
- Seek exposure that reinforces your expertise. Public speaking opportunities and media coverage are good examples.
- Be a resource to media contacts. If their beat is your niche, then suggest story ideas that aren’t about your business, connect them to people who advance their agenda and be available to provide an expert opinion.
- Create a professional network. Include people with a variety of skills — different from yours — who you would feel comfortable collaborating with, recommending to others and getting referrals from.
- Be careful what you post, say and do. People who disagree will hold your views, opinions and actions against you when making decisions on service providers. Remember: The Internet never forgets.
- Prepare for opportunities when they arise. When you wing it and try to fool people with smoke and mirrors, it’s obvious, and it’s exactly the image that you don’t want to project.
- Know when to take on a new client/assignment. Do this, if: They compensate you fairly for your time and expertise; the money isn’t exactly what it should be, but you are confident that the relationship will lead to other opportunities with that client; or the money isn’t exactly what it should be, but the work or relationship is high-profile and you can parlay your involvement into other opportunities.
Two more pieces of advice: Your time, abilities and experience are likely the only things that you have to sell, so don’t give them away.
Also, your reputation can work for or against you — so treat it well.
Stu Opperman, APR, founded Impact Players (www.impactplayers.com), a PR and communications consulting firm that specializes in media relations (traditional and social), crisis communications, and the creation/enhancement of audiences, content, and relationships. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @stuopperman.