Last month, I invited Ami Neiberger-Miller and Sandra Wills Hannon to speak at our Independent Public Relations Alliance meeting about what it takes to become a successful independent practitioner.
Both Ami and Sandra are long-time members of IPRA and have built thriving businesses. Ami’s company, Steppingstone LLC, provides communications and graphic design services to nonprofits, associations and small businesses. Sandra’s The Hannon Group LLC helps clients engage consumers through research-based public information campaigns.
The points that Ami and Sandra made were good advice for anyone thinking about starting a business—or wondering how they might take their business to the next level.
Here are the five main takeaways from Ami’s presentation:
- Network with people, not with computers or Twitter handles. “Find a water cooler crowd. I my case, it was IPRA—people who would celebrate success with me, give me advice when I needed it, and support me when life didn’t go well.”
- Learn from others the things you don’t know and keep striving to improve. “One of the challenges I faced is that I didn’t come from a PR agency. So I had to learn how to market myself, compete for business and service clients. I learned through trial and error, read a lot of advice online and had coffee with wonderful people like my co-presenter Sandra. I partnered with others who knew things I didn’t know.”
- Be shrewd about your time. “I did a lot of networking early on. But I became more shrewd about how I invested my time. I’ve dropped my membership in organizations that don’t lead to the type of clients we want or take too much time. I’m also shrewd about my work time. I’m aware of the time I spend on deliverables, billing or marketing. So efficiency is important.”
- Invest in building a public persona and good systems. “My first website and business cards were awful. I made them myself. Lucky for me, my husband is a graphic designer and he joined the firm. Today, I have a much better website, a well-developed blog, a LinkedIn profile, a business Facebook page and a very active Twitter feed with about 7,000 followers. It’s important to have sound financial management tools, too. I use QuickBooks Self-Employed, and I love it.”
- Persevere and keep a cushion. “I always advise people who are self-employed to keep a cushion, a cash reserve. It gives you options.”
About four years ago, Sandra started landing large contracts and needed to staff up to stay competitive. She now employees 50 people and has done work for NIH, General Motors and the White House, among others.
Sandra advises solo practitioners to identify their niche, i.e., what they’re good at, and to develop that market. By creating a virtual agency of specialists who complemented her skills and experience, she was also able to offer more to her clients than she could possibly offer on her own.
“Collaboration is important in growing a business,” she says. “By collaborating, you can expand your subject expertise, extend your capabilities and enlarge the scope of your business. You can attract new clients and offer them more.”
She credits the success and growth of her practice to building good teams, sharing the work and delivering superior customer service. She has taken as her business model the PR agency approach, assembling teams based on client needs and projects, and focusing on client satisfaction and retention.
“I am constantly looking for new ways of partnering,” she says. At the same time, she has become selective in responding to RFPs, mindful of what her niche is and what her firm can offer prospective clients.
Both Sandra and Ami believe in giving back and have been active members of IPRA and other professional groups. They have made the indie life work for them and are good examples for others who might want to take the plunge.
Says Ami, “Having an independent practice has allowed me to balance my work and home life. My husband and I work mostly from our home office on the third floor of an old house we are renovating in western Loudoun County. Our practice supports our family, and we are on the leading edge of the new economy—one where people work for multiple clients and on their own terms.”