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Letting Go in Order to Grow: Growing Your Practice Into An Agency

A recording of this teleseminar is available here.

This Sept. 30, 2015, IPA 12/60 teleseminar, offered in partnership with the Counselor’s Academy, featured three panelists who have grown their public relations practice from a one-person shop to full agencies, and a fourth who offers executive coaching to public relations and communications leaders, and provides consulting and training to agencies.

Participants learned through the experiences, including the growing pains and best practices, shared by panelists:

Why I took the leap
Greg Abel: I asked myself whether I wanted to remain solo and I realized I wanted the opportunity to work with people again. But that first hire can be daunting. You need to find good mentors. I asked friends and colleagues who have gone through something similar with their businesses. People are very forthcoming and are willing to share information.

Kate Finley: There were tasks I didn’t enjoy and so that’s what led me to my first hire. It’s important to realize you don’t have to hire someone full time, you can experiment with interns first. Know that things won’t be easy right away. The time needed to on-board a new person is greater than you think.

Training is an investment and you should expect a return. But it’s only true that you’ll spend less time and money on the first person you train.Ken Jacobs

Kate Snyder: I started adding staff due to a demand issue. I had to take notice of the distinction between work among contractors versus employees. I made sure to create job descriptions, hired a payroll company and a human resources consultant. Something new:  I had to watch closely my company’s brand and create a formal vision. It was a lengthy process.

Visualize the size you want your agency to be
Ken Jacobs: If you don’t invest in your agency, then why would anyone else? Don’t say, “We’ll do that when we’re bigger.” Instead ask yourself what you can do now that will help you move toward growth. What’s my scaled-back version of this?

Greg Abel: There’s a right size for you – you have to know yourself. I was tired of trying to get the next gig in order to put food on the table. I wanted to be able to go after high-value work. I took a long look in the mirror and talked to people. It was a process.

Kate Finley: It’s harder than doing things on your own. It’s not bad, it’s just more work. Hiring staff has allowed me to focus on client strategy and business development; the things I love. And I can take a real vacation with a real break. I don’t have to be available.

Kate Snyder: Sometimes I look back fondly on my days of being independent, when I worked only 40 hours a week. Your responsibilities shift and it’s a much larger time investment. I’m responsible now for six people, not just me. But I like being part of their lives, their families. It’s an opportunity for you to create a team environment.

Success leaves footprints.Ken Jacobs

Business tools
Kate Finley: We use Freshbooks to keep track of team members’ time on projects, and it allows our  clients to pay their monthly fee. To manage payroll and the Freshbooks system we use Columbus, Ohio-based Upsourced Accounting. Our virtual office is maintained by Sococo, on which we chat, hold video calls and share screens. Our daily communication takes place within Slack. We have a different chat channel for each of our clients, and for internal processes.

Hiring quality employees, benefits
Kate Finley: We compete with larger agencies, that are able to pay higher salaries, by offering unlimited vacation and the ability to work remotely.

Greg Abel: I offer a package of benefits, including:  401K with a 4 percent match, cover 1/2 of employees’ cell phone bills, offer three weeks PTO, and a flexible work environment. I did offer a group health plan, but now offer a stipend for employees to purchase healthcare on the market via a consultant.

Kate Snyder: I encourage you to look to industry experts in the areas of payroll, healthcare insurance, and retirement savings. You need to protect yourself and your employees. I survey my employees and found that it’s less expensive for them to buy healthcare in the marketplace, and it’s allowed me to set up a vision/dental plan.

Ken Jacobs: It’s important to remember the soft benefits. Creating an open environment where employees can work on multiple accounts. I recommend staying on top of trends for what’s important to the employees you are targeting.

Kate Snyder: Our culture is supported by the office environment. We have lunches and celebrations, team-building activities. It’s like a family. You can choose the type of environment you want and select employees who appreciate that environment.

Kate Finley: I have found it’s hard to balance brick and mortar with a virtual office. My agency works virtually but we do gather for team building.

The interview process and hiring approach
Kate Finley: We first have a candidate meet with the hiring manager, then me, then team members. When they’re further along, we do a reference check and then give them three personality tests: Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®, Shapes, and DISC. We also give assignments: write a blog post, read a scenario and troubleshoot a problem, write a social media post and a media pitch.

Ken Jacobs: Not only do you want to make sure a hire can do the work, but you need to imagine them a level or two above the role for which you’re hiring. It’s a cultural fit. Most importantly, follow your gut.

Kate Snyder: We have a robust student employee program.

Greg Abel: We only hire graduates for internships and pay $10/hour. I make sure on a new hire’s first day that business cards are ordered, the computer/desk are set-up, and that they are paired with someone.

Kate Finley: We assign account and administrative mentors.

Panelists are happy to connect. They can be reached as follows:

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