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28 Observations from 28 Months as a Solo PR

Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

In 2014, a whopping 581,000 businesses started up in the UK. One of them was me, Zude PR.


According to Bloomberg, a staggering 8 out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months. I don’t know what the figure is for Glasgow PR firms, but I imagine it’s similar.


Twenty-eight months on I’m still here, fighting the good fight.


Here are 28 top observations from MY first 28 months as a solo digital PR pro (just in case you ever need them).



You Should Read This If:


  1. You’re considering setting up your own (in my case solo) PR firm.

  2. You’re working for “the man” and wondering what going it alone is like (don’t let your big boss catch you reading this).

  3. You’re a fan of honesty.

Who Am I?


But first, you need to know who I am. Do you have anything in common with me?

My name's David and for the past 28 months I've been a one-man PR band.

I’m a 43-year-old traditional-media-relations-guy-turned-digital-PR.

I’m a Fellow of the CIPR, and #PRStack contributor. When I’m not doing a good job for clients, I write about digital PR/marketing for publications including Social Media Examiner, SEMRush, PR Daily, PR Moment, MuckRack, and Business2Community.

I’ve always been very competitive; obsessively so. Striving to be the best I can – at work, family, hobbies (my marathon PB is 2:42, aged 42) – is important to me.

I’m married to my wonderful wife, Rachel, and have two adorable young kids Zak (8) and Jude (5).

I live in the UK’s fourth largest – and Scotland’s biggest – city, Glasgow. Greater Glasgow has a population of 1.2M.


What’s a One Man Band?

“A one-man band or one-woman band is a musician who plays a number of instruments simultaneously using their hands, feet, limbs, and various mechanical and/or electronic contraptions.The term is also used in a general sense to refer to a person who runs a small business alone (a sole-proprietorship business), particularly if the operation requires that person to assume multiple different roles, in a manner akin to the way a musical “one-man band” performer plays different instruments and sings at the same time. In some small businesses, the owner also produces the product or service, markets it and delivers it to clients.”



Spot on, Wikipedia. I have no intention or desire to “grow the business”. After 18 years working for organisations (excellent ones, I may add), I appreciate the freedom that solo working brings.


And, as a child saxophonist and pianist, I enjoy playing ALL the instruments (I'll leave Eric Morecambe to complete the analogy).


Here’s what I’ve learnt:

28 Observations for Would-Be PR Solo PR Businesses


#1: Make Technology Your Friend


When you first set up as an independent PR consultant, you’re bombarded with an array of decisions.


None irreversible, but you save yourself a lot of time down the line if you make the right ones, straight off the bat.


The best decision I made was throwing off the Microsoft shackles and going all in with Google. Embracing the cloud. I pay £6.58 per month for Google Apps for Business.


That’s everything I know/own, digitally, stored in a familiar electronic filing system. Accessible from any computer, wherever I am in the world.


#2: Discover What Space Works For You


You have no idea how much time you are wasting (in terms of productivity) chained to your desk. No idea.


Since setting up on my own, I’ve worked all over the place. At home, in hotels, in coffee shops, sports centres, museums, trains, soft plays. You name it, I’ve worked there.

man remote working solo pr businss tips post

But I always like an office space I can call home.


For the first almost-two-years, I hung my hat at a coworking space in Glasgow. There I met loads of people from all sorts of different industries, trying to make a go of it.


This support network was invaluable for me, and still is.


Now though, I have my own office, which I share with a fellow senior solo PR. It spokes off a coworking space, and has communal areas where the businesses meet.


The best of both worlds.


#3: Get a Routine. Constantly Monitor and Tweak it


I talk about my daily routine at the foot of THIS post. If you want to achieve, daily rituals are super-important.


It’s the little things you do every day, over and over, that mark the successes from the failures.


What those little things are depend on what you want to do. Have a look at my daily habits for inspiration.


#4: Get Involved in Communities


I’m a runner. I’ve been running for three years now. For the last year I’ve been injured. But even before that my race times had plateaued.


I think that was because I was doing the same races year-on-year, and starting to measure myself against others in my locale; a self-limiting pastime.


And maybe that’s the same for you in your work? You’re never going to beat XXX’s time because he’s better than you. Or so the thought process goes.


But the thing is, in 2016, geography shouldn’t limit you.


Since flying solo, I’ve made friends from around the world, virtual and physical, by getting involved on communities/forums etc. Actually, scratch that...just “getting involved”.


I’ve learnt through discussing. Sharing, and doing. It’s the best way to learn. And I’m a much better PR to boot.


#5: Freeagent

Freeagent homepage solo pr businss tips post

Freeagent’s like your best business friend. It’s a cloud-based accountancy package that allows you to file your VAT, monitor time, do estimates, send invoices, keep a track of your P+L.


It has an excellent support line (based in Edinburgh) and I honestly don’t know where I’d be without it. If your business isn't in the UK, try Xero.


#6: Get a Circle or Two


No, in fact, get two.


One circle’s the people you meet/message/chat with every few months, share information, shoot the breeze.


The second circle’s your close confidants: your wife; your best mates; people who work in your industry who you trust implicitly.


Both are important (and they move around periodically). No man is an island.


#7: Commit to Lifelong Learning


This is not a trite statement so you can pass your IIP or CPD or tick a particular box (CPD’s important folks, I’m not knocking it:O).


This is a real belief that comes from the heart.


Two ways of looking at this: Knowledge is good because it increases your understanding of the world around you, and allows you to make linkages between often disparate sources of information.


Or...the more you know, the better you are as a practitioner and the more you can charge for your labour.


I’m in camp one but without this commitment there is no way I’d be at the top of my game. And that would NOT be good for business.


#8: Read Blogs


I know so many people (the vast majority of the PR industry and wider society) who regard blogs as teenage scribblings.


Wrong. Blogs contain the latest thinking from some of the best writers and trailblazers in the world.


Get it first, hot off the Press, rather than waiting for it to come out in paperback a year down the line.


Yes, there’ll usually be some subtle salesmanship in there but hey, that’s fine with me. A small price to pay for whoever I’m reading sharing their knowledge freely.


#9: Read Books

full bookshelf solo pr businss tips post

As well as blogs. And read with intent. Take notes (yes, write in your book). Underline stuff. Read what the book’s about before you read it. Read the Amazon reviews.


You’re trying to learn stuff, right?


And work out whether you agree with the author’s premise. Much easier to do that if you have a grasp of what they're saying in the first place.


When I’m done, I flick back through the book again and write up what I’ve learnt from it. Every month or two I send out a reading list email. You should sign up for it here.


#10: Set Goals for the Year


Every morning I have a green reminder in my Google Calendar. “2016 Goals,” it says. I have eight goals. They help me focus.


#11: Drill into Topics; Riff


I’ve lost count of the amount of tangents I’ve gone off on over the past 28 months.


Finding out one piece of information, tracking its source, riffing off to speak to someone else. Getting to the heart of the matter.


But having the flexibility to do this has allowed me to become expert on a variety of topics; and their sub-topics.


If I’d known I’d be billing more on SEO than traditional media relations when I first had the idea of setting up my own business a few years ago, you could have slapped me on the forehead and called me Deirdre.


#12: Try Stuff


What’s the worst that can happen?


The beauty about working for yourself is there’s no supertanker to turn around.

"You're a little sea kayak, changing tack at the flick of a paddle."

Click to Tweet

sea kayaker solo pr businss tips post

So if you want to modify your website homepage, rip up your positioning, tweak that customer you’re trying to work with, Bob’s Your Uncle.


And by the end of that afternoon Fanny’s Your Aunt.


#13: Take Action When You Have the Bit Between Your Teeth


One thing I’ve learnt to do when I have a good idea is act on it as quickly as possible. While I’m still enthusiastic.


#14: Profile and Authority


I spent most of the first 18 years of my career believing that a good PR man keeps a low profile...don’t become the news.


But that all changes when you strike out on your own. You have to put yourself out there.


If you’re not comfortable with this, carefully consider whether this is the right career decision for you.


As a one-man band, again, you have an advantage over the big players, in this online world.


The old adage that people buy people has never been truer. But people also buy brands that speak to them, and it’s far easier to speak in an authentic voice if you’re the sole representative of your brand.


Easier in the sense of humanising your brand, and easier in terms of consistency of tone and quality.


Whether it’s webinars, podcasts, speaking gigs, blogs, guest blogs, newsletters...you need to be contributing, and building your online presence.


For a variety of reasons.


But, commercially, it boosts you that much further along the buying cycle than your competitors.


When you finally do meet the prospective client face-to-face they’ve been able to glean an awful lot about you through the power of Google.


#15: Protect Your Day Rate


I sell my time. I charge a daily rate, with each day being 7.5 hours. Sometimes I charge my time hourly.


Don’t, whatever you do, drop your rate. Unless you’re not confident in the service you provide.


Just don’t. You’re worth it.


#16: Don’t Call Me a Freelancer


And while we’re on don’ts…


I remember a conversation with a potential client a couple of years ago.


She was seeing a few agencies and for some reason thought she might get a deal from me…


“Have you considered dropping your rate? That’s quite a lot for a freelancer.”

Click to Tweet

My answer was nice, but internally I was seething. It’s not the word; it’s how it’s used.


Don’t badge yourself as a freelancer.

I’m a high value consultant. When clients buy me they get 100 per cent of me. There’s a value in that.



#17: Be Nice


Of course, I didn’t say that to her. I was nice. And that – as a one-man-band – is your secret sauce.


It’s what can mark you out from your competitors, a genuine commitment to being nice running through you like a stick of rock.


You might want to read my post on the subject.


And if you think this is all a bit “hippy dippy” read Cialdini’s seminal text Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion.


Particularly the “principle of reciprocity”. Give and you shall receive, or something like that.


#18: The Power of Thirds


For the majority of my career, a great deal of my time was spent on client work, even, for the past five years of salaried employment, when I was managing an eight-person team.


Strike out on your own and this will change. Immediately.


Get used to: one third client work; one third admin; one third new business (and I’d lump marketing into this last section too).

third birthday cake solo pr businss tips post

#19: Don’t Entrench. Become a Digital PR


I’d always fancied setting up my own PR company. So I’d been doing my homework, increasing my skills, doing my usual levels of research.


But the easiest thing to do when setting up would have been to focus on traditional media relations with a few social media bells and whistles.


I chose a different route.


Said path has been boulder-strewn and, to return to my previous analogy, it’s not all been plain sailing, but I’m so glad I did.


Retraining yourself is hard work. But it’s worth it.


And if you’re truly committed to providing a stellar PR service to clients, there’s no other long-term option, unless you really target a lucrative niche.


#20: The Loneliness of a Long Distance PR Man


lonely runner solo pr businss tips post

See what I did there?


I love running; but I prefer running with people. I’m a sociable soul.


But don’t set up your own one-person PR consultancy if you’re not happy in your own skin.


You can surround yourself with as many confidants and co-workers as you want. Then there’s your accountant, your parents and good old Freeagent.


But when it comes down to it.


When you’re sitting in your office wondering which of 100 things to do next. When you’re sweating over that late payment. When you’re wondering why that woman’s persistently trolling you. You’re on your own my friend. It’s all down to you.



#21: You Know Who Your Mates Are


It’s a funny thing; business. Your profession. It’s when you go solo that you really find out who your mates are.


Who was just nice to you cos you were the boss. Which former competitors can cross the path to mate-dom?


Who was it you thought was a passing acquaintance but turns out to be more than that.


"It’s like you strip away the artifice around your business relationships and find a new equilibrium."

Click to Tweet

It’s been a revelation for me. In a wholly positive way.


#22: Don’t Focus On Your Competitors. Choose Your Own Path


You can learn from your competitors. It’s important to know what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.


But if you spend too much time watching your back, you don’t know how to put your best foot forward.


#23: Be Different


On a related point. If you focus on aping your competitors, customers are faced with a homogenous mass of service-providers, as all the players in said product category naturally spend too much time beefing up their weaknesses and too little focussing on their strengths.


Don’t be afraid to be different. It works for me. And you’ll drastically reduce your time spent pitching for work.


#24: Learn from Related Industries. They’re the Experts. It’s Not Our Job to “Own” Them


As a PR, if you want to learn how to do SEO, or how to do content marketing, how to do email marketing, or about web strategy, find out who are the experts in their fields.


And learn from them.


Widen your fields of influence and rather than seeing these industries as a threat to the traditional PR agency model, gorge yourself on their knowledge and expertise.


As PRs we have three advantages over other disciplines: writing skills, comms strategy nouse, and knowledge of what makes a story.


We just need to learn/hone a new set of tactical skills to go with them.


#25: Buy the Most Expensive Laptop and Mobile You Can Afford


I recommend Lenovo ThinkPads (T440S) and high end Android phones. Add in reliable high speed Internet access and you have all you need.


#26: There’s Never Been a Better Time


Yes I know there’s a lot of uncertainty about. But I know my industry.


There’s never been a better time to start your own (digital) PR company.


And that word in brackets is key.


Digital PR is an ill-defined term. A melting pot of traditional media relations, SEO, content marketing, blogging, web strategy, link-building, email outreach, crisis management skills.


A relatively new industry finding its way.


Or (minus the bit in brackets) a mature industry that thinks it has a birthright to pivot. Depends on your point of view. Perhaps it’s both.


Whatever, there’s a huge demand for a one-man-or-woman band with these new PR skills.


Certainly among small businesses and startups where demonstrable results and ROI coupled with a strategic understanding of what the business is trying to achieve are key.


A demand that is largely being fulfilled by digital marketing and SEO firms, or a plethora of niche suppliers, often leading to incoherent comms strategies (and hence, tactics) for SMBs.


NOW’s the time.


#27: No Such Thing as a Selfless Act (Don’t get Carried Away with your Niceness)


I talked about “being nice”. But you need to keep your wits about you too. Every act is selfish. Even decorated surgeons who spend sabbaticals in war zones admit that part of the attraction is “the buzz”. Feeling a heightened sense of being alive.


In your business life, keep your head on.


Any PR who’s been around as long as I have will have faced their fair share of crisis management situations during which a sceptical, inquiring mind comes in rather useful.


Yes, be nice. Enjoy sharing what you know. But don’t be a mug.


#28: Enjoy the Hidden Benefits


I work 50-hour weeks, on average. Sometimes more; sometimes less. Not dissimilar to most people in agency land. But here's what I get back:

I’ve attended most of my kids’ school plays/harvest festivals.

I make and keep numerous health appointments.

I take my boys swimming on a Friday afternoon.

I work when and where I want.

Sometimes I’ll pull a 15-hour day and work a half day the next.

I’ve learnt more in the past 2.5 years than I did in the previous 18.1

I get to indulge one of my primary passions in life: writing. And I don’t mean press releases.

I love going into work on a Monday.

Hell, sometimes, on the odd occasion I work from home...I work in my pants!

All of the above makes me feel very happy. And you can't say fairer than that!

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3 Comments

  1. Reply

    Chris Lee

    July 20, 2016

    Cracking read, David. I went 'independent' (shan't say 'freelance'...) for the second time earlier this year and taken those learnings from previous ventures with me. I feel far more able as an independent to stand up to a client and say "this won't work, but this could..." without the office politics and niceties that often hinder creativity and effectiveness in the agency world.

    On loneliness, I find that social media - Twitter, in particular - becomes the new office banter. Peers, if not often colleagues.

    Keep up the good work!

    Chris @CMRLee and @SilFinch

    • Reply

      David Sawyer

      July 20, 2016

      Cheers Chris, glad you got something out of reading it. Like the idea of Twitter chats as the new office banter, too. Keep in touch, Dave

  2. Reply

    Harini

    September 14, 2016

    this is really too useful and have more ideas from yours. keep sharing many techniques. eagerly waiting for your new blog and useful information. keep doing more.


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