Lessons from founding a PR firm, ten years on

After ten years of running her own agency, BenchPR's Jocelyn Hunter looks back at the lessons she's learned in building her independent practice.

Ten years ago this week, I set up my business BENCH PR. I’d recently finished working at a large PR agency in Melbourne, my fifth, and thought there was an opportunity to set up my own PR agency, providing counsel for both for global and local tech companies. It was 2008 of course, when the rest of the world was going through the GFC, but undeterred, I thought it’s now or never.

Jocelyn Hunter is the founder and managing director of BenchPR

I learnt quickly that you really do have to be an optimist to give up a regular salary and start a new business. Otherwise, you’d never do it. You certainly don’t need to know that 60 percent of small businesses fail within the first three years in Australia. And you can do all the reading you like about how best to run a business, but nothing prepares you for the real thing.

I’ve learnt so much in the past ten years, countless lessons, but in ‘top six’ fashion (who has time to read ten?) here are mine:

1.     It’s never about you
It’s never about you or your PR agency. Awards are great, but like it or not, customer service is a huge part of your business. Customer loyalty, referrals – it’s all based on the quality of service you provide.

It’s about your client and the challenges they’re facing. How can you help? If you can’t help, do you know someone who can? Keeping your current clients happy is just as important (if not more so) than chasing new business.

2.     Let go of control
Something many small business owners and founders struggle with, but I’ve had to learn, is to ‘let go’.

For a business to grow, you have to delegate and trust the people you hire. Done is always better than perfect. There are so many decisions I make every single day, but I try and delegate as many as possible, otherwise you just become a bottleneck, and nobody is empowered to get the job done.

3.     Share the karma
Get to know other PR agency owners. What type of work do they like to do? Refer leads to them that might not be right for you and your business.

I picked up the phone to a ‘so called competitor’ a few weeks ago about a potential new client and asked them what they were like to work with. Doing your due diligence can save you a world of future pain.

Offer your services pro bono for social enterprises and charities you believe in. We’ve loved supporting organisations such as Fitted for Work, Code Like A Girl and Yume – all female led social enterprises.

4.     Choose your clients carefully
Your reputation is everything. Everything. So, choosing who your clients are is incredibly important.

Of course, I didn’t have that luxury in the first year or so of business, but as our reputation grew, we started declining business. Today we turn down far more than we take on. We always ask, ‘Can we add real value to this client?’ ‘Are their expectations realistic?’ ‘Are we passionate about their business?’ If the answer is no, walk away.

5.     Constantly review your processes
Being open to new ways of working is something I’ve learnt over the past 10 years. Use tech tools that help you work smarter, not harder. We love Slack at BENCH, Asana for managing our task list and Zoom for calls with our clients. For me, it’s about taking the time to work on the business, not in it – so I ask, ‘What can I delegate?’ or ‘Am I spending my time on the ‘right’ things?’

6.     Get a grip on your numbers
Yes, we’re a team of professional PR consultants. We spend a lot of time writing – pitches, media releases, opinion articles – we do words, not numbers. But as a business owner, this will send you under. Cash flow is so important. You have a team to pay, they may have families to support – there is a whole world of responsibility that comes from running a business.

These are only some of the lessons I’ve learnt from running a PR agency in Australia, but I’d say if I were setting up a PR agency again today, the best piece of advice would be to focus on the fundamentals.

One is getting money through the door, I’ve seen so many people start businesses over the years spend big on advertising, endless revisions of logos or time on websites, but ultimately, you need to know there is a market for your service.

Understand what problem you solve and whether companies are willing to pay? I had money coming into BENCH from a large global tech company after three weeks of trading.

I also had to spend time building a new network so I could understand the new media landscape and build new relationships in a country I’d just arrived in.

And relationships matter. Yes, we’re all time poor and for us, we work with teams and senior leaders in different countries and time zones every day, but I’ve learnt it’s so important to take the time for coffee or lunch and really get to know people and what’s important to them.

Some of the clients we work with today, we’ve worked with in previous roles. They’ve taken us to their second, third and even fourth company – because they want to work with us again. That’s something I’m incredibly proud of.

And finally, it may be a cliché, but you’re nothing without a good team around you. You can choose to work 18 hours a day of course, without the support of a team, but then all you’ve done is bought yourself a job and you’ll likely burn out in 2-3 years? For me, I consider myself very fortunate to work with a super smart, savvy group of women who give their best, every single day and as a PR agency owner, that’s all you can ask for.

Jocelyn Hunter is the founder and CEO of BenchPR


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