Q: I am at an idea stage for a digital-marketing firm. Right now, the only thing I have is a vision for company culture and the approach to the way we will be conducting business. I really want to know your experience during the first few years of your PR firm.
A: This is a great question. The first few years of any business are challenging, because you are building every aspect of it all at once from the ground up: hiring the right people, creating a culture, establishing infrastructure and process, winning business, servicing clients and more. It’s hard for one person to be great at all of these things. But if you put everything into a few buckets and compartmentalize what your priorities are, it can be easier to manage, delegate and achieve.
In the first few years I focused on four essential things.
1. Winning business. I learned the hard way about bringing on a client that did not have a clear business plan, or most of its assets in place.
I also learned the importance of initially focusing on a certain client size. With my team, we developed a profile of the ideal client. We identified that company by market sector, revenues, stage of growth, executive team, financing and what they were looking to achieve. We stripped out companies that were either too large or too small, or that wanted services that we could probably provide but might be a stretch for us.
2. Servicing clients. In a digital-marketing firm, your business is ultimately your people. The way you service your clients comes down to your team and managing the relationship. How often are they touching your client? Are they just doing what your clients want or are they pushing back, coming up with new and different ideas proactively? What are you doing to stay fresh and to add value?
In the first few years, I also learned (the hard way) to make sure we had relationships with multiple levels of executives inside the organization. While we had a day-to-day contact, we also needed access to the C-suite including the CEO and chief marketing officer for strategy, vision and direction.
3. Establishing infrastructure and process. To ensure I had a solid business model, I had to do a lot of number crunching. This included establishing a solid budget for the first two years and what I thought would be realistic. How much business could I realistically bring in, how many and what level of people would I need to support it? How much would I need to set aside to account for bonuses, taxes and how much profit would I need/want to generate to reinvest back in the business? What sorts of processes and systems would my employees need to be fully functional and productive? What could I outsource and what would need to be managed in-house? What sort of training would I need to provide new and junior employees? What were other costs and business expenses I wasn't thinking of?
4. Building a culture and a core team. Hiring my first core team was essential to getting the business off to the right start. I thought carefully about the attributes I needed in my first employees. Hiring people who were resourceful and self-starters was key. People who could find their own answers and who enjoyed the excitement of doing something new. I also established a core list of values that I wanted my core team to embrace and uphold. And I thought about the kind of working environment that would be motivating to them. Things like fun events in and outside the office, employee recognition and professional development were all important to me.
Related: Are You Ready for a PR Firm?