Secrets they never tell you about starting up a PR shop

The Friday Street Club

This article first appeared in Marklives.

A friend of mine has finally made the leap and is leaving the big corporate world to start up on her own. She’s asked me for some tips on what I’ve learnt since I started my own PR shop, just over a year ago.

Looking back, it wasn’t the usual business tips about tax and company registration that have been the most useful. Instead, it’s the personal realisations I’ve made along the way, of how to behave and what to focus upon, that I like to think are the more valuable.

So, here’s my cut-out-and-keep advice on starting a new business.

If you build it, they will come

I decided to start a business and resigned from my job with no clients lined up and two months to get something sorted. My friends looked aghast at what I had done, but one wisely nodded and said “If you build it, they will come.” And she was right.

If you are good at what you do, offer something that people need or want, can be competitive in how you offer it, and works wholeheartedly to create a good and legitimate business, there’s no reason that it can’t be a success.

Another friend asked what my back-up plan was. I looked nonplussed, as I didn’t have one.
I still believe that is the right approach — because if you always have a Plan B, you are never committed to making Plan A work. And if you don’t believe in yourself and what you can offer wholeheartedly, then why would anyone else believe it and offer to pay you for it?

Network the hell out of your contacts

It sounds obviously, but this is so valuable in a country such as South Africa, where personal and word-of-mouth recommendations are the true drivers of business.

One of the first things I did when I started up was go and meet up face-to-face — for a coffee or a cocktail — with everyone I could think of even remotely linked to the industry, and told them what I wanted to do.

It doesn’t matter how random the connection is, it doesn’t hurt (and anyway, it’s always good to spend some time connecting with old pals over a drink and snacks).

My first piece of business, and first retainer client (a global brand), came as a result of a catch-up glass of wine with someone I knew from varsity — someone I hadn’t seen in ages — who recommended me to a brand manager who was looking around.

Act like a business from day one

Many people think that starting small and safe is the way to go — by hoping their freelancing will grow into a business; and by not wanting to invest in the business until lots of cash is coming in.

But I believe that you only have one chance to make a first impression — and that impression sticks. So if first impressions of you is of a fly-by-night freelancer making ends meet, it will be hard for them to start considering you as a legit business when you suddenly feel like you want to be one.

Invest in getting some proper branding (not a kak pixelated image you nicked off the internet). Print business cards out on decent paper. Get a website that isn’t covered with clip art and rainbow coloured Comic Sans.

And, for heaven’s sake, pay the people who design your logos and make your website — you are a business now, and if you don’t treat suppliers as businesses in their own right, why should anyone treat you as such?

Don’t try to please everyone

When people start a business, their focus is often on trying to get any piece of work possible — and that often means trying to be everything to everyone. But that leads to a lack of focus and a tendency to become vanilla — something inoffensive, but not memorable.

The best businesses are built around a unique and memorable offering — and customers and clients are attracted to something that sticks out and appeals to them.

My advice to start-ups would be to wholeheartedly embrace that which makes them interesting and different to what else is out there; it will attract the right business from clients who see that way, too.

Don’t be a dick

Well, you could be a dick. There are lots of people who are dicks who run very successful businesses. But you don’t have to be a dick.

I believe that people — friends, colleagues — are attracted to people they want to be around or whose lives they want to be part of. And this goes for clients, too.

The good ones are attracted to people that not only do good work, but who are decent people that they enjoy spending time with (and spending their money with).

There’s a misconception that you need to be an autocrat, a bully and a loudmouth in order to be a good business person. But I have found that doing good work, treating people well, having fun and making money don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). Previously, she was head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She contributes the monthly “The Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to