Small Business. Big Vision. @THINK_Lyndon
20 Jan 2014
Listen to most startup entrepreneurs and commentators on the industry and you’ll hear them talk about the importance of things like “the hustle”, the importance of the investor pitch decks and the pivot. Funding is, it appears, the holy grail for the majority of startups: everybody is looking for somebody else’s money to enable them to build the next Facebook, Google or Apple, yet few are able to find it. The startup “experts” talk about authenticity in the same breath as they do about the importance of faking it until you make it – two things that are, surely, incongruent.
I’m coming to the end of my first full year as an entrepreneur and, if I’m honest, it’s not been any of the things that I expected or intended it to be. They say that starting a business is like jumping out of an airplane and building a parachute on the way down – and they’re not wrong. I am perhaps old enough not to buy in to the hype but I had no idea just what I was starting. I’m not interested in venture capital – I would rather build a sustainable business based on customers and reputation than I would somebody else’s money – and I’m not looking to build the next billion dollar business. I am trying to do what many have failed to do over the past few decades – I want to make the PR industry credible, accountable and about, what it should be about: building mutually beneficial relationships between businesses and their audiences.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t prepared for the year that has passed. Not prepared at all. That said I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’ve learned a lot about me, my business, my value proposition and what I need to do in 2014 to turn my idea in to a financially viable and sustainable going concern. Perhaps the best piece of advice I heard all year is that entrepreneurism is a lifestyle, not a profession. You have to embrace it fully to get the most out of it the speaker said. I’ve not embraced it as fully as perhaps I might have over the last twelve months through a combination of fear, skepticism, my personality and a lack of belief – in myself as much as anything else. When I started I also didn’t really understand what the “lifestyle” looked like. Every day there is a new article on “7 things that successful people do” or “How successful people start their days” and, from what I’ve read, it’s all nonsense – it’s like trying to group car drivers or football players… every one is different and so is the entrepreneur’s experience of the “lifestyle”.
See, that’s the beauty of being an entrepreneur. I have the power to make the lifestyle whatever I want it to be. What has made one of my peers a billionaire won’t do the same for me. That realization has been one of my biggest learnings all year and I’ve learned to stop beating myself up because my experience wasn’t the one I’ve been reading out. I’ve also realized that it’s not the experience of any of the entrepreneurs I’ve encountered over the last year – there’s a lot of bravado amongst the startup community, but when you sit down and talk openly and honestly it’s a very different story.
There are two quotes that I keep written down on my notebook. The first is one about jumping out of a plane and building a parachute; the other talks about entrepreneurs being the only people crazy enough to give up a 40 hour a week and a pay check to work 80 hours a week for no pay check. I can relate to both of those in the last twelve months. I gave up a steady contracting job with a long-term colleague because I was disillusioned with my industry and thought it needed to change. Sounds crazy right? You’ve got to be crazy to think you can change a leviathan that is worth billions of dollars a year. But I have a clear plan over many years: it is based around trust, honest advice, transparency, clear and flexible pricing and treating every customer as an individual. After all, every entrepreneur is unique.
Prior to moving to Canada I’d worked as a public relations ‘guy’ for a series of agencies for the best part of 15 years. As a broadcast journalist I said I’d never go over to the dark side of PR but found myself tempted by the regular pay check and stability. I had, however, always struggled with the way in which the industry worked: the first question most agencies ask talking with a potential customer was ‘what’s your budget?’ If the number wasn’t large enough then the agency wouldn’t help. I also struggled with the idea that all businesses’ problems could be solved with the same mix of strategy and tactics. Public Relations consists, at least in the minds of the agencies of research, press releases, media outreach, interviews, coverage… and, increasingly, social media. Often for the sake of it. All with the end goal of awareness. But, as many companies find out, awareness doesn’t automatically convert to tangible business outcomes. It’s like trying to find a partner by walking in to a bar with a megaphone… everybody will know you’re there, but it’s arguable how many will want to talk with you! It’s been clear for many years that most businesses don’t trust their trusted PR advisors and are looking for an alternative.
How do I make my point in a culture where the accepted norm is to listen to the people with the biggest egos or the ones that shout the loudest – irrespective of whether they really understand what they are talking about. Irrespective of whether they are credible or ‘authentic’. That’s not my style. I may not be gushing in my praise for my those working in my industry but I am honest to a point about the state of my industry and some of the players within it. Some people may not like my point of view, but they do at least know it’s an honest one. I’m also starting a business not trying to make friends. My customers deserve the best advice I can give them and, right now, the majority of small businesses don’t get that from their PR companies.
I used to think that the only way to tackle the problem was to shout louder than them, but if this year has taught me anything it is that the key is to work smarter than them. Some in my industry – especially the self-titled social media ‘experts’ will always shout louder than me… but I’m cool with that. My approach – whether it’s helping customers build mutually beneficial relationships with their audiences, building my business or becoming the entrepreneur I want to be – is about being smarter not louder. It’s about reputation, not hype. It’s not about hustle; it’s not about shouting about how great I think I am; it’s not about being a big deal on a fairly irrelevant social media site which inflates my self-importance either. It’s about doing work I can be proud to say I did and feeling good about helping entrepreneurs and small businesses to better understand how to use public relations to meet their next milestone. Anybody can make a lot of noise that delivers little commercial value if they’re locking customers in to minimum contracts lasting three months before they actually demonstrate they know what they are doing…
I always knew the business wouldn’t establish itself overnight – and anybody that tells you otherwise has either won the business lottery, or isn’t being completely honest about the work that went in to it. While I’m not where I hoped I’d be at the start of 2014, I am convinced that it is going to happen. Slowly but surely. Day by day. I’m impatient and I was ill-prepared for the slow motion roller coaster of a journey that I’ve been on this year. I’ve become more patient in the last twelve months and I’ve gone from believing I can make it happen faster, to accepting that, in some cases, there’s nothing I can do to make it move more quickly. And that’s OK.
I am certainly more realistic and, to a large extent, better able to manage the gap between vision and reality than I was a year ago. I’ve held off of most PR and marketing throughout 2013 because it wasn’t the right time and I wasn’t sure I had the message where it needed to be. As a PR ‘guy’ it’s been hard to do nothing, but I’m not one for making noise for the sake of it. Anybody that knows me personally knows I can talk – usually quickly – but it’s because I get excited about stuff and I love a good discussion. The lesson of patience, and knowing when to listen will serve me well in 2014 I know.
In the last twelve months I’ve also learned that this journey isn’t about money. I want to make enough to survive and to provide for my family but I have no illusions that this is going to make me a fortune. I’ve earned less this year than at any point since my early twenties, which has been tough. But, it is OK. My wife has become my accidental [at least for her] investor and she’s looking forward to seeing the return in the years to come. Her support is important and over the last year she’s come to better understand the vision that drives me. It makes the conversations easier when I’m doing email or on my phone late in to the evening. It’s also made her understand my frustrations better… often she just looks at me and says, ‘patience’.
The last year has also given me something that very few PR professionals have… I have an appreciation of what it is like for the people that pay for their PR counsel. I understand more than ever before, the importance of a return on the investment in everything an entrepreneur does. I understand the challenges facing an entrepreneur better than most PR people, because I’m living and breathing them every single day; I’ve ridden the ups and downs every day this last year. It’s an experience I would never have had otherwise and it makes me better able to help my customers.
I’ve also learned – or perhaps it is more accurate to say that I am learning – the important of taking a break. It’s a truism that you’re never off the clock as an entrepreneur but you never stop trying to get some down time. My business model runs in my head constantly – figuring out whether I can tweak it to make it work better for my customers and prospects. I think about my value proposition every available opportunity [I keep it in a notebook, open on my desk to enable me to look at it when I have a moment or two]. I think about my messaging, financial model, business plan, creative ideas, marketing and public relations for my business, taxes, business development, the visual look and feel… I question every part of my assumptions and operations. Every moment of every day. It can be tiring. Sometimes I wonder whether it is worth it. But, then I come back to my vision. I want to change my industry and help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.
Public Relations. Differently!
As I start another year – my second as an entrepreneur, I have big plans for THINK | DIFFERENT [LY]. I plan to learn from the mistakes made in 2013; I plan to work smarter; I plan to have more belief in myself and my vision; and I plan to work harder to change my industry – helping one entrepreneur at a time to deliver the right message to the right audience, at the right time and using the most effective delivery mechanism.
I’m building my business as I help other entrepreneurs build their businesses and it is what will get me out of bed every day for the next twelve months.
A recovering broadcast journalist that vowed never to work in public relations, Lyndon has spent the last 15 years helping businesses to deliver the right message to the right audience at the right time and using the most effective delivery channel. He is the founder of THINK DIFFERENT [LY], a public relations company that makes PR affordable, effective and accountable to entrepreneurs and hopes that one day all agencies will work this way.