Christine lays out challenges she's faced both in day-to-day operations and in growing her company from small business start up to...
Between 1997 and 2011, the number of women-owned businesses increased by 50% and today solely account for the employment of more than 7.5 million people. Contributing to this growth is Christine Perkett, founder and CEO of PerkettPR, Inc., a social PR, marketing and digital communications company. In 1998, Christine saw the opportunity to start a small business and differentiate her services from other traditional firms by putting special emphasis on providing senior-level talent to all clients, all the time.
Christine gave us some insight on the wonderful experiences and opportunities she's had as a small business owner, including increased flexibility and the ability to work with talented people throughout the country (her staff is entirely virtual). She also lays out challenges she's faced both in day-to-day operations and in growing her company.
Tell us about your business.
PerkettPR is a social PR, marketing and digital communications company that provides services to companies worldwide, across industries including tech, higher education, healthcare and consumer products and services. We've serviced clients around the world, including Mindjet, WebEx, Constant Contact, Photobucket, Sermo, St. Louis Children's Hospital, Conduit, Tumri, Life is Good and many more brands. Founded in 1998, we're a boutique agency offering a senior-level team, all the time, for all clients.
Why did you start this company?
I saw a fundamental flaw in the way that traditional PR firms were servicing clients. One of the most common complaints about agencies is that they conduct what's called "Bait and Switch" -- which in our industry means sending in the senior account team to pitch the business, and, once won, staffing it with junior executives. When senior executives plan a strategy and junior executives execute it, there is always a breakdown in solid execution. At our agency, we don't hire entry-level account executives and we don't put prices on our employees' heads. Instead, our pricing is based on the tasks we conduct. In order to service clients at our agency, you must have a minimum of five years experience. And, the majority of our staff has an average of 10 or more years of experience, so clients always have a team of seasoned professionals -- both in the pitch meeting and on their day-to-day account team. This model makes a significant difference in the timeliness, breadth and consistency of our results for clients.
What's your favorite thing about running your own business?
The independence, which allows me to take chances, push innovation and take risks that you can't always do when employed by someone else. If I have a crazy idea, I can tell the team I want to try it. Of course, if it doesn't work the onus is on me as well...
What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced in growing your company?
HR is always the biggest challenge. I'm a natural people pleaser and it's been a challenge to me over the years to realize you can't keep everyone happy. It just doesn't go with running a business. However, we do strive very hard (and have been nationally recognized in being successful doing so) to create a positive and fun culture -- one that survives ups and downs. One of the things I'm most proud of is the positive relationships that I've maintained with employees who have come and gone (both voluntarily and non voluntarily). They can't all be maintained, but most have and that makes me proud.
There is, of course, always the challenge of dealing with companies that break contracts. I'm stubborn and I don't take kindly to those who don't keep their commitments. I always pursue what's owed to us (it's my job to protect my staff and company and fight the uncomfortable fights) and I've always come out on top. It's a pain to have to take the aggressive and long route, but I will, and I do.
Another challenge is when a client fights your counsel. Isn't that why they hired you? For example, in 2007, we brought Chris Brogan in to a major client meeting to help train the client on the power of social media for not only their marketing efforts but for their product development (they sell marketing software). They looked at us like we had three heads. They argued with us that social media was not for business. It's five years later, and they've not only worked directly with Chris and other social influencers, but they've written a book on the power of social marketing. If they had trusted our counsel to begin with, they would have been light years ahead of their industry colleagues in social marketing. If you hire a PR or marketing firm, you are saying you believe in their expertise and counsel. Sometimes you find clients competing with you rather than working with you -- and that's frustrating.
The best part of growing my company has been the collective success we've built as a team to stand out in a very crowded market. PR firms are a dime a dozen, so when we are recognized by journalists and influencers -- with awards such a PR Source Code's Top Communicators, Hubspot's Most Powerful Women on Twitter, or TechCrunch Crunchies -- it's a pretty cool feeling. I know it's my team that's constantly getting results and working hard to create positive buzz not just for our clients, but for our agency overall.
Funniest or most interesting customer story?
One of our startup clients was acquired by WebEx. We had to go in and pitch the marketing team and we hired an actor to be a silent WebEx mime in the pitch. I'm not sure what we were thinking, but it was pretty creative. I also loved the time we won a very long RFP over about a dozen other agencies. We went in with a Lego model of their logo as part of our pitch.
Where do you see your company in 5 years?
Still a small-midsized agency delivering superior customer service and innovating in the PR and social marketing space ... as well as related products. We're developing our first product now, and I'm excited to unveil it to the market soon.
Of all the ways you're marketing your business, what has been most effective?
Networking, networking, networking. That's never changed: it's only gotten better and easier with the advent of social media. But you have to be smart about it, not spammy. It's about building relationships and maintaining them when you don't need something. (We've had amazing luck with marketing events, Twitter and Linkedin.) And, of course, the absolute best way to market our company is through delivering consistent and amazing results for our clients. Not only do they come back to us when they move to new companies, but they tell others who then also become clients.
What's your must-have office product / service / tool and why?
Mindjet. Granted, they're a client, but the visual collaboration -- exchanging ideas, assigning tasks, designing project workflow -- is a must have for a virtual environment like ours. It brings us closer and makes our brainstorming way more powerful.
How did you get the idea for your business?
I worked in a traditional PR agency and I saw client after client frustrated with the business model. I also met with a lot of startups who couldn't even get PR agencies to call them back (it was the mid 90s and agencies were turning away business). I thought, if I can put together an agency that immediately stands out (through an all-senior team), I can help these clients who have money (VC money then!) and need help but can't even get on the radar of credible agencies. So I quickly built the credible agency that would service them from startup to acquisition or IPO.
Did you put together a business plan? If so, what did you learn from doing it?
I had a loose business plan, but it wasn't as thorough as the one I helped write for my then-husband's startup. He founded a sales software company (later acquired by RightNow Technologies) and I wrote the business plan with him and his founding partner in a tiny apartment in Beacon Hill. I learned that VCs like business plans, but not as much as they like a working product with customers. It's the whole chicken and the egg conundrum. Today, startups are lucky with things like Kickstarter and AngelList around as funding options.
What mistakes have you made along the way?
Mostly, not moving fast enough on the tough decisions. Waiting too long to fire people and clients that I knew had to go. Caring what they think. Worrying too much about competitors instead of focusing on our own business. Not taking care of myself first: just like parenting, you have to be happy and take good care of yourself first in order to lead the clan successfully.
Is there anything you would do differently if you were starting over again?
I wouldn't hire as many family and friends as I have. And I'd treat myself better -- then take care of everyone else. But overall, I've had a pretty good run so far, and I'm nowhere near finished. I'll continue to learn and to grow, both from successes and mistakes. That's the great thing about entrepreneurship.
Final words of wisdom for anyone wondering how to get started....
Trust yourself. Take action. It's like that old saying about taking a multiple choice test. Trust your first instinct and don't overthink it. Nike sums it up best with "Just Do It." Also, remember that everyone has an opinion. Again, like parenting, you can listen to all the opinions but in the end you have to make the decision based on what's best for you and your company. You know what that is better than anyone.
Photo source: PerkettPR, Inc.