What tips do you have for someone considering making the transition to being a solo marketing/comms consultant?
It’s a question I hear more than you might think. Partly because I am a solo. And partly because it seems like more people are considering this as a career path all the time (certainly more than when I made the jump eight years ago).
There’s so much to consider when making the leap. And, next Thursday, I’ll be talking about all of it as part of a panel on MIMA’s first ever “Career Development Series” around modern career management.
But, for now, I thought I’d tap into one of the best communities I’m a part of: The #SoloPR Facebook Group. I asked these fellow solo PRs what tips they would have for someone considering the transition. Here are the top 9 tips they provided:
1: Set realistic goals for the first year. “Focus on replacing your income first. Don’t take on any overhead like offices or expensive subscriptions. Put your head down for a whole year and only work on revenue generating things. No free stuff! Get a good lawyer to help you with a general contract. Hire a bookkeeper day 1.” — Maria Coppola Cummins, Maria Coppola PR
2: Find your first client BEFORE you leap. “If you are leaving an agency, check the terms of the non-compete clause in your contract. If you are in-house, discuss with you boss to see how your employer might become your first client.” — Janet Falk, Falk Communications and Research.
3: Network, network, network! “Find out what conferences/events there are in your field and attend them to learn more and meet new people. Get your social profiles going before you leave your new job. Be prepared to hustle and learn to accept disappointment – it won’t always work out the way you want.” — Tanya Churchmuch, MuchPR
Invite people in your network who have gone solo out to lunch. (Individual lunches, this isn’t a group thing.) It doesn’t have to be someone working in the same field. Ask them what works, what doesn’t work. Or, if not in the same locale, have a virtual coffee with a solo professional then send them a gift card for Starbucks. I conducted several of these advice-gathering meetings before I went solo and they were immensely helpful. — Jennifer Freeberg Frighetto, Frighetto Communications
4: Don’t underestimate your expenses. “You are now responsible for quarterly tax payments including an extra 7.2% hit for your employer share of social security taxes, health insurance, liability insurance, and consider getting disability insurance if you don’t have another source of household income.” — Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, Falcon Valley Group
5: Step outside your comfort zone. “Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Can’t freak out every time a payment is later than you want, work you want doesn’t come through on your schedule, or a client moves on. If you’re prone to that sort of reaction to circumstances that are definitely going to happen, this isn’t the right path.” — Stu Opperman, Impact Players
6: Crunch the numbers. Then, crunch them again. “Numbers are everything. From setting metrics for yourself in reaching potential new clients to the amount you charge to cover salary, overhead and your own marketing. You won’t survive “estimating” any number for your business.” — Ebony Grimsley-Vaz, Above Promotions Company
7: Trust your gut–even when you’re just getting started. “For example, don’t be afraid to accept low-paying work at first-it could turn into something bigger. Get good insurance-health and disability for example.” — Terri Thornton, Lampe-Farley Marketing Communications
8: You need to be a jack-of-all-trades. “How much passion do you have to learn the two dozen+ components of running a business like important areas of operations, finance, technology, human resources, business development, strategy rolled in?” — Kris Vruno Huson
9: Make sure insurance is locked up. “Get disability insurance before you leave your full time gig. Save up a small cushion to help you through cash flow challenges. Think through how to market your own business.” — Susan Stoga, Carson Stoga Communications
You know what’s scary? Knowing you’re on the downhill slide of life.
I’m 43–soon to be 44. Average life expectancy for a male in the U.S.: 78. That means, technically, I peaked at 39–it’s all downhill from here folks (but, it’s going to be a helluva ride!).
That also means I’m definitely in the midst of the back half of my career. Truth be told, my wife and I have designs on retiring early–real early (different blog post for a different day).
I suddenly find myself on the other side of my career arc.
And that’s kinda scary, for a lot of reasons:
1–The struggle to stay hip is real. I work a lot in digital marketing. Believe what you want, but that’s primarily a young person’s game. I don’t see a lot of uber-successful consultants in the digital marketing sector over the age of 45. I need to find new ways to stay fresh, hip and relevant. Or, I’m out of a job. And, I kinda want a job for the next 10 years.
2–Opportunities are more limited over a “certain age.” Once you reach a certain age (we’ll say 45 for sake of this post), opportunities are a bit more sparse. Why? Because at that age you’re probably looking for a director-level job or above. There just aren’t that many of those. And, people tend to stay in those jobs longer than specialist to manager-level jobs.
3–Health concerns start to become a risk. I’m healthy now (knock on wood), but once you cross the 40 barrier things start breaking in your body. Kinda like a car when you cross the 75,000 mile mark. And, I also have health concerns of others to worry about–my wife, my parents, my in-laws. I’m responsible (or partly responsible) for all those people in my life. And, they’re all getting older. And, if I or they get sick or hurt, that all takes away from time on the job.
Clearly, there are reasons to worry. And, I’m sure they’re the same reasons others consider who might be in my boat.
But, there are so many other reasons to be excited, too. It’s not all doom-and-gloom once you hit the 40 mark. There are numerous reasons to embrace this period of your professional life–and this is what I’m choosing to focus on for the next 10-15 years:
1–Working with people I enjoy working with. Michael Kraabel wrote a great post recently about this exact topic. And, I’ve been embracing it whole-heartedly for the last seven years. And, for the next 10 it will become even more important. I don’t plan to waste my time working with and for people I don’t enjoy. Even if it means making less money.
2–Seeking to LEARN from my younger counterparts. I’ve spent a lot of time the last 10+ years giving back to the younger generation. I road trip frequently to my alma mater in Winona to speak to classes. Do the same thing at the University of Minnesota (and for years, did at the University of St. Thomas, too). And, I really have enjoyed that work. But, I plan to flip that focus a bit in the next 10-15 years. Now is the time I need to learn from these younger people–because, let’s face it, there’s a lot I can pick up here. Not exactly sure how I’m going to do this just yet–thinking of a couple reverse mentor opportunities I’ve been kicking around. But, I’m looking forward to the challenge!
3–Evolve. Evolve. Evolve. If there’s one business mantra we all know to be true it’s this: Change is not optional. Translation: Adapt, or be left in the dust. This couldn’t be more true for a solo consultant. If you start treading water, you’re already 10 steps behind your competition. I’m constantly looking for ways to evolve and adapt to the constantly changing marketing environment–and I think I’ll be focusing even more time on that in the next 5-7 years. And, more often than not, it’s fun to evolve and challenge myself.
The last job I had before jumping out on my own was with Fairview Health Services. During my time at Fairview, we made the transition from more of a traditional office environment (with walls and doors) to an open office environment with no walls and very few offices.
It didn’t go over well (at least not with the colleagues I spoke to).
Almost seven years later, I’m fairly removed from the traditional office setting. I work from home many days. Coffee shops. My local YMCA. And, a local co-working spot. So my idea of an “office” is fairly non-traditional.
But, apparently, in those seven years that I’ve been away the whole “open office” trend has really taken off. According to the International Facilities Management Association, 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions.
And, not surprisingly, we’re starting to see more articles like this one from WaPo, which was shared all over the place last month. And, as a result, a lot more frustrated people (just like me and my colleagues at Fairview seven years ago), too.
The open office environment may be enjoying its heyday, but I’m here to say a different environment is the future of work in our industry.
The virtual office.
According to many of the articles I’ve read lately on open offices, the chief complaint is they typically hurt productivity instead of enhance it. That’s not surprising. What’s the one thing you typically hear from most people who work in an office environment? “I can get as much done in a few hours working at home uninterrupted than I can in a full day in the office.” In other words: Noisy office environments aren’t productive at all.
What’s another big complaint people have about the world of work, in general? The commute, right? If you live in NYC, Chicago, SF, Atlanta, DC or any other myriad of larger markets, you know what I’m talking about. The commute is a KILLER–depending on your location. Some folks are spending 2-3 hours a day in the car or on a train. That’s no way to live, folks. And, it’s not helping your productivity.
And finally, back to open office environments for a second. One of the big reasons proponents continue to back the open office environment: It’s ability to foster collaboration. OK, I’ll buy that (although I haven’t seen “proof” yet; but, on the surface, it makes sense). But, do we always have to be face-to-face to collaborate? Can’t we do some of that collaborating virtually?
Enter the virtual office.
The virtual office hits on each of these items–HARD.
#1: You’re typically far more productive when you’re working remotely. From home. From a coffee shop. From the gym. Your head is down. You’re focused. You have your list. No distractions (or, fewer distractions, at least).
#2: No commute! I don’t know how many winter mornings I’ve woken up to six inches of snow and said to myself, “Man, I’m glad I don’t have to get in the car today.” No commute=2-3 more hours of productivity per day.
#3: Collaboration is just as easy from my dining room table as it is in an open cube. OK, maybe not “just as easy”, but I’ll take the trade-off here given #1 and #2 above. Wouldn’t you if you were an employer?
And, you’re already seeing this trend in action with successful companies. Go ask anyone that works for Fast Horse here in Minneapolis how it’s working for them. FH was one of the very early adopters of the virtual office trend (way back). They call is “hot desking”, but essentially it’s giving employees the freedom to work where they want, when they want, on their own terms. In other words: Just get your shit done–I don’t care how or where you do it.
I think about my experience as an independent consultant. I don’t really even have an office. Sure, I have a “desk” at home, but it’s hardly an “office.” More often, I’m working in one of the following locations:
- On my porch (in the spring/summer/fall)
- In my bedroom from an easy chair (because it’s more comfortable and airy upstairs–we have a dormer with skylights)
- At my dining room table (easiest)
- At the coffee shop (frequently)
- At the YMCA (good wi-fi, very quiet)
- At CoCo (rarely; see “open office environment” above; but, I do like it every once in a while)
And you know what, I’m REALLY productive. When I want to be, I can PLOW through work at any of these locations (save CoCo, maybe). Why? Because I’m focused (no interruptions). And I’m removing “dead time”.
So, why aren’t more companies going this route? Good question. I’ve asked myself that many times. Trust issues are largely to blame. Older generations (those doing the “managing” right now, and serving in senior leader roles) still don’t trust the “virtual” concept. I think many still see it as an opportunity to “cheat” on work time, and get personal things done.
My comeback to that: Who cares? Sure, employees will get personal tasks done if allowed to work from home. But you know what else? They’ll be far more productive. So, why do you care if they get a load of laundry done as long as they knock out that TPS report by 3 pm. Really, WHY DO YOU CARE?
I feel like we’re going to hit a tipping point with this soon. The companies who get on board with virtual work environments will earn significant business advantages–you’re already seeing it in our industry (see Fast Horse). Those who don’t–I’m not sure they’re going to be able to attract and retain the talent they want. That’s just a fact. Go ask any millennial right now which option they’d prefer. And, as those millennials slowly have kids, I can tell you right now, that number is going to swing HEAVILY to the virtual side.
I know I’m not saying a lot here that’s groundbreaking. Nothing you haven’t heard before. But then why do we continue to hear so much about open work environments, and so little about virtual work environments?
And, why aren’t more companies adopting virtual work arrangements?
It continues to baffle me.
I’ve almost been a #SoloPR now for seven years.
That’s actually pretty crazy for me to comprehend.
And, according to recent articles and stories I’ve seen, I may have been ahead of the trend! In case you haven’t heard, the solo economy is BURSTING. Report after report touts the rise of the solo consultant. And, anecdotally, I’ve heard a lot more chatter about people going solo here in Minneapolis lately. A LOT more.
So, as I thought about that, I thought I’d share a few of the key questions I asked myself before I went #SoloPR. Just thought these might help those who are considering making the leap.
1: How will I get new clients?
A: Number one question–by far. And, for good reason. No clients. No #SoloPR. The realistic answer to this question will vary by person, but for the most part, you need a few key components in place to get new clients: 1) A good network. A leading indicator of success, for sure. 2) A good reputation. Do you know how you’re perceived among your peers? That will go a long ways to your success. More specifically, when people think of you, what services/offerings do they think of (i.e., what are your strengths?), and 3) A lot of hustle. New business, in my mind, is all about the hustle. The first two above definitely play into how well you’ll do when it comes to uncovering new clients, but without the hustle, it’s all for not.
2: Will I need an office?
A: Definitely not. Why add needless overhead to the equation? I’ve been solo for six-plus years now and never had an official “office.” Sure, I spend a bit of time at CoCo, but I really just use that for the conference room space. Now, I realize every situation is different. Some people need to get OUT of their homes (I’m almost there with my son coming home soon). But again, why add needless overhead that will just eat into your profits. Clients don’t care. Believe me.
3: Do I need a business plan?
A: No. This was something that was suggested to me multiple times during my journey to going solo. My though was always this: I’m not starting a scalable business. I’m starting a consultancy. Now, do I have business strategies I follow and operate against throughout each year? Definitely. But, do I need a 85-page business plan to tell me that? Nope. I have a one-page document. Six years in, that’s working fairly OK.
4: How much money will I make?
A: Sky’s the limit. Within reason. Here’s what I’ve found. Some people adopt the solo lifestyle because they want flexibility–almost like a borderline part-time job. Others go full-steam ahead and try to maximize their earning potential. I tend to fall heavily toward the latter. And, I can tell you, I’ve made much more money as a solo consultant than I ever did employed by others. It’s all about how you approach it and how much effort you put in.
5: How can I stay current with trends in the industry?
A: This is a challenge, for sure. But, not a insurmountable one. Attend local professional development events (PRSA, AMA or MIMA for Minnesotans). Line up coffee meet-ups with people you respect in the industry. Hit 1-2 national events a year. There are just as many ways to develop yourself professionally as a solo as there are when you’re working for the man. I see no difference here.
6: How do you keep up new business efforts when you get busy?
A: Big challenge–and one, quite honestly, a lot of us solos don’t do well. My theory: Treat new business like a client. I set aside X hours a week strictly devoted to new business. For me, that means: 1) My blog, 2) The Talking Points Podcast, 3) Coffee meet-ups, 4) The corporate communicator mastermind group I organize, and 5) A host of other strategic efforts I’m trying to uncover new business. By budgeting time for this weekly, it never gets cast aside. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received as a solo: “Only the paranoid survive.” Actually, I said that 🙂 But, it couldn’t be more true when it comes to making time for new business. ALWAYS make time. Or, you’ll be looking for a new job soon.
7: What should you name your company?
A: Don’t put too much time and effort into this. Some of the best consultants I know have fairly lame company names. Mine: ACH Communications. Not exactly the most creative name in the world, right? But, it hasn’t mattered. Why? Because as a solo, your clients are hiring YOU–not an agency. They care about your NAME–not the agency’s name. Again, don’t lose sleep over this. Keep it simple and don’t get too cute.
8: How much is it going to cost me to get up-and-running?
A: Short answer: Not much. Initial costs could include: A computer. A printer. A web site. Maybe business cards (although you could debate the relevance of these). That’s about it. No really. Getting up-and-running as a solo PR is almost too easy from a cost perspective. Believe me, my accountant is always asking me where all my expenses are at! The good news: That means more money in your pocket. Remember my suggestion above about the office: Don’t add meaningless overhead where you don’t need it. Applies to start-up costs, too.
9: What’s the hardest part of going out on your own?
A: Selling the concept to your spouse of significant other. If you don’t have a significant other, you’ve dodged a big bullet. This was one of the bigger challenges I had getting started. Not that my wife wasn’t supportive (she certainly was). But, I came home one day and told her, “Hey, honey, I’m going to quit my full-time job to try this solo PR thing! I know we have two kids under the age of 3, but I think this is going to be awesome!” Initially, I think that was met with a healthy dose of skepticism. But, if you have your ducks in a row and your talking points vetted, you’ll be able to have a good conversation with your spouse about the pros and cons and you’ll be able to make a decision that works for you both (which is obviously, the most important thing).
If you want to get under a consultant’s skin, call them a FREELANCER.
It’s been an ongoing conversation in the solo world for years. What do we call ourselves?
Some people call themselves a “solo PR pro.”
Some people call themselves a “freelancer.”
And some people call themselves a consultant (or, an “independent consultant”).
You’re probably thinking: “Who cares?” Why does it matter what people call you?
I’ll tell you why.
Whether people want to admit it or not in this age of visual and online marketing, words still matter. Labels matter.
When you call yourself a FREELANCER, here’s the connotation that’s giving off to clients and potential clients:
* I may not do this forever, so I wouldn’t count on me being around forever. You may have to find someone else eventually.
* I bill by the hour–here’s my rate. It’s much cheaper than what you’d pay at an agency.
* What do you need done? I’ll do it? Just let me know what you need from me.
Is that a bit unfair? Maybe. But, it is what people think when they hear you label yourself as a FREELANCER. They may not tell you that–but it’s what they’re thinking.
Now, let’s try something else. Let’s say you described yourself as a CONSULTANT. What would clients and prospective clients think then?
* She is professional and this is her full-time job.
* I trust her to give me the best, most informed and ethical advice possible.
* I have problems and need solving. My consultant helps me make those problems go away. And, she even solves problems I didn’t even know I had!
See the difference?
A FREELANCER is someone who’s focused on tactical work. Someone who takes orders. Someone who bills by the hour.
Now, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with that. If that’s what you want–there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
But, most of the solo consultants I talk with don’t want that kind of label–yet they continue to use that dirty word: FREELANCER.
On the other hand, consultants are people who advise senior-level executives.
They get invited to strategy and annual planning meetings (hello annual retainer budgets!).
They never share their hourly rate (or, at least rarely), because it’s all about solving the client’s problem.
See what I’m saying?
So, want clients to start taking you more seriously?
Start using the right language to describe yourself.