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CWC 8: Karen Swim of SoloPR Pro

Karen Swim, President of SoloPR Pro and Words For Hire, joined Chip in discussing a wide range of issues related to independent public relations practitioners.

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In this episode of Chats with Chip, Karen Swim, President of SoloPR Pro and Words For Hire, joined me in discussing a wide range of issues related to independent public relations practitioners. Among the topics we discussed were: The benefits of being a SoloPR Pro member The difference between being an entrepreneur and a PR practitioner Achieving work-life balance as an independent consultant The impact of technology on solo PR pros How vendors can help one-person consulting shops Deciding whether and how to grow beyond a single employee The post #8: Karen Swim of SoloPR Pro appeared first on FIR Podcast Network.

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The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

You’re listening to Chats with Chip on the FIR Podcast Network.

Chip Griffin: Hi, this is Chip Griffin, and this is another episode of Chats with Chip. And I’m very pleased to have with me today Karen Swim. She is a Strategic Public Relations and Marketing Consultant at Words for Hire and the President at Solo PR Pro. Welcome, Karen.

Karen Swim: Well, thank you, Chip. Good morning. Thank you so much for having me.

Chip Griffin: It is great to have you and you know, I guess before we dive into our conversation Can you tell folks where they can find you online?

Karen Swim: Absolutely. So my name is Karen Swim Like swimming in a pool and so no, it’s not a reference to my athletic abilities so it’s my name everywhere linkedin twitter periscope Facebook it’s all @karenswim.

Chip Griffin: That is fantastic and easy to remember.

and, so, you know, let’s start our conversation if we could, by talking about Solo PR Pro. You became president of Solo PR Pro earlier this year. And, you know, what, what brought you into the mix? What attracted you to it? And, and, you know, what are your plans for the future of it?

Karen Swim: So I have been a part of the Solo PR Pro community since Kelly Crane, the wonderful and amazing Kelly Crane founded it.

almost a decade ago, and it began as a Twitter chat and Kelly really tapped into a need in the marketplace. To have a community of independent practitioners because there was no community geared towards solo PR pros. So all of these people came together and were able to create, this community of like minded colleagues practicing all over the country with a diversity of practice.

But. with their needs being met as independent practitioners. So I have long been a participant in the community and a huge fan of Kelly’s and over the years I had worked with her on and off behind the scenes at solo PR pro. So when she was ready to retire from that role and just move into a founder role and kind of expand some of the other parts of her life, it seemed a natural fit.

For me to step into the shoes and purchase the company. And I am loving every second of it.

Chip Griffin: Well, that’s great. And it’s an excellent resource. You know, as someone who has been a solo PR pro on and off over the last, gosh, almost 20 years now, it’s, you know, I understand a lot of the challenges, but, you know, can you talk about how the challenges have shifted over the years, as far as, you know, what it’s like to be out there on your own versus part of a larger agency?

Karen Swim: Absolutely. I think one of the I mean, some of the fundamental challenges in starting your own business remain the same. It takes a lot of hard work. It’s not just about pursuing your passion, which some people mistakenly believe that they’re passionate about something. And while wouldn’t this be great to do it full time, but then there’s a whole business administration side to starting any type of business.

I think what’s made it, More complex in modern times is technology. So technology has opened up a whole new world of access to data and even more analytics and metrics. And of course more tools for PR and Practitioners and communication consultants to utilize. And so staying on top of all of the things that we can leverage in our work with our clients, staying on top of, you know, technological tools and trends can be very difficult.

When you’re a business of one, but having a community that supports you, that you can go to, that you can help to vet different resources and technologies and ask questions is so beneficial. And I think more important than ever today.

Chip Griffin: And you know, one of the things that, that strikes me too, is, you know, as you have this number of tools, it’s, you have two concerns.

One is the manpower issue, which I think you’ve touched on here. You also have, You know, frankly, just the bottom line cost issue. you know, I remember that when I first started out, doing solo PR back in, probably 1998, you know, one of the things that I needed because I did a lot of research as part of my communications tool was to to subscribe to LexisNexis and at the time subscribing to that was, you know, a huge decision on my part because it was not an insubstantial investment because You know, frankly, they were targeted more towards selling to, you know, larger organizations.

How have you seen the marketplace evolve? Are more companies, you know, making opportunities available for solo PR or just solo consultants generally that you think are helpful? Or, I mean, I know that’s something I’ve always been concerned about at CustomScoop since I, you know, I founded it. And as a solo guy, I said, Hey, We have to have some way to deal with this and so we tried a number of different creative approaches over the years and ultimately settled on just, you know, flat pricing for solo PRs.

you know, which I think is our part of trying to help out, but as an industry, you know, how does it work today?

Karen Swim: You know, and it’s funny, I was going to say that we’re so appreciative for partners like CustomScoop and what you guys have done in making it accessible. to, you know, small businesses as well as the larger agencies.

Unfortunately, all of the companies don’t have that same viewpoint. So you’re right. I mean, cost is a huge factor for us and it’s. One thing that we try to advocate for our members that, you know, our members are not, you know, freelancers working in their basement, you know, making, you know, 500 a month.

They’re handling major brands and major accounts. These are, for the most part, our membership community, very seasoned professionals. With the ability to make decisions on behalf of their clients because they become trusted strategic partners And so they’re able to direct Buying decisions because their customers turn to them for that yet, I feel that the marketplace still devalues in some ways the solo practitioner and Prices their products way out of range A lot of the media database services are a great example that, you know, the price ranges just are not, they don’t make sense for the solo practitioner.

And as you noted, when you’re a small business, every financial decision has a major impact on your business. So you really have to be strategic about what you pay for to get your work done. And so you have to really prioritize. And, you know, when you have tools that are, you know, 20, 000, 15, 000 a year, that’s a major investment for a small business.

And so my hope is that the industry would wake up to that and start to make things more affordable and accessible for all, realizing that it’s a benefit overall for them, rather than kind of shutting us out with their price points.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, no, I would absolutely agree with that, obviously, you know, I think as you look at, you know, most folks who go out and become solo PR consultants, or again, solo consultants in almost any industry, you know, I take myself as an example, when I first did it, it wasn’t, you know, with the vision, hey, I’m starting a business, it was with the vision of, hey, I’m moving from D.C. where I lived for a decade back to New Hampshire where I was from. And, gee, it sounded a whole lot better to call myself a consultant than unemployed. and I was fortunate to acquire a client just before I, I made the physical move. and so therefore, you know, I could actually call myself a consultant with a straight face.

But I guess my point is that a lot of folks come to this, from an environment where, you know, perhaps they had access to all of these tools. And, and now they’re left saying, okay, you know, I used to use a CRM and now I have to use just a spreadsheet, you know, that’s, that feels like a big change. And frankly, on the client side, The clients expect the same level of service from a solo as they do from an agency.

and so to tell them, you know, sorry, I can’t get you that particular list. I don’t have that platform to use is problematic.

Karen Swim: And that’s very true. And you’re right. Coming from that agency or corporate environment, whether you’re working in public relations, marketing, or social media, or any communication field or any, as any type of consultant, you’re right.

There’s an adjustment, you know, there’s that adjustment to. Not having an IT department anymore and, and not having, you know, access to the tools that you’ve used for years. And, you know, for some, they learned on these tools. That’s all they know. They don’t even understand what else is out there, which again, is another benefit of our community is that when you’re looking for replacement tools or looking how to get something done, you can pose a question and Within, you know, minutes usually, you’ll get an answer from people in our community.

So we support one another by saying, Hey, you know, use this. hey, CustomScoop does that. Or, you know, here’s another tool that does that. Or here’s, the way that I figured that out. Or, so, you know, Again, even though you’re not part of a large agency, being a member of Solo PR Pro, you really feel like, you know, you have office mates, because there are people that you can tap into and you can figure out how to get things done.

Because I think that we’re even more passionate. about our clients than when we were in the corporate world because we’ve earned them. These are the people that we, you know, our reputation is on the line. And so we want to deliver. And so we never make our size an excuse. clients, if anything, are going to get more work from a solo consultant than they will from an entire agency of people.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, that’s absolutely true and a lot quicker decision making as well. Absolutely. You know, but I think the community aspect that you touched on of Solo PR Pro is so valuable because quite often folks go into the independent consultant role role and they don’t necessarily think of it as being an entrepreneur and starting a business, they think of it as, you know, taking on their own clients.

And there’s a, there’s a subtle but important difference between those two things because it is, you know, there are all the things that you need to be thinking about that perhaps you didn’t have to if you were part of Particularly if you were part of a corporate world, and even in some cases as part of an agency, things like, you know, managing P& Ls and handling taxes and licenses and whatever you need from that perspective, taking care of, you know, building an actual sales and marketing plan for yourself, and, and understanding that, You know, the busier you are in the, on the service side, that’s when you should also be busy selling because typically that’s when, you know, most consultants let the ball drop, and then that, you know, when the inevitable dip comes, you’re not prepared for it.

So, you know, I imagine that’s a huge benefit of your community and the kinds of things that you all are talking with each other about.

Karen Swim: It absolutely is. And of course, you know, I’ve worked because I’ve done some business coaching as well with, with organizations and with individuals over the years.

And, and the one thing that is common, no matter what industry you are in is, business development. And you know, in selling, that’s a big thing because again, people are really good in their skill sets and their specialties, but you’re right. A lot of people don’t think of it as starting a business. And quite frankly, For some, if they thought of it that way, it may scare the pants off of them.

They don’t really think of themselves as entrepreneurs, but as you said, they think about taking on their own clients or, you know, replacing their income or choosing a different way to work, but it never really clicks initially that that’s exactly what they’re doing. And I mean, let’s face it. For some people thinking about it in that way would be completely overwhelming.

and so it’s probably best. And I’m probably one of those people too. I didn’t realize how entrepreneurial I was until I started my own business. Fortunately, I had the business expertise part of it as well, which was really helpful. So I knew about the number side of it and the. Operational side of it.

but it probably took me about a year to like, really accept that. Oh my God, I’m an entrepreneur. so I completely understand that. And you’re, you’re right. Our community is so helpful in so many regards, to that because we share tips and obviously, solo PR pro provides a ton of resources to our members.

And so we produce guides and cheat sheets and tips, and we do podcasts and webinars to keep our members on top of things and to help them to get their work done better. So, and again, it’s one of the things that attracted me to the community. I felt, I felt a little bolder because I felt like, you know what, if there’s something that I feel that I need help on, or I’m not as skilled in.

I’m still confident that I’m not all alone and that feeling is pretty amazing when you have been operating on your own and having to figure things out and all of a sudden you have this entire support system that you can not only turn to for advice, but you could partner. lots of our members, including myself, partner with one another.

And so we form these strategic partnerships where we work on accounts together, we bring in other expertise, for client projects, and it’s wonderful.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, and, and, you know, I, I mean, I think that having those kinds of partnerships allows you to, Take on clients and projects that perhaps would be challenging to do, on a pure solo basis, right?

Because you have a certain set of expertise, and someone else, while they’re still just a solo PR consultant, may have a slightly different set, and if you bring them together, then that’s where the real magic happens.

Karen Swim: Absolutely. I mean, from having, partnering with other people to back you up when you’re on vacation, or,

Chip Griffin: Vacation?

You can’t take vacation when you’re solo, can you?

Karen Swim: Hey, some of our people actually do it. I haven’t quite mastered it on a regular basis, but yeah, we have people that actually take vacation

Chip Griffin: They need to teach the rest of us about that

Karen Swim: because oh my god, I could use a lesson in that

Chip Griffin: you know one of the things that that I think is a an issue for a lot of solo prs is the the selling aspect and You know, I in some cases it’s a just a dislike of the sales process in some case.

It’s a fear you know, but I think it also in part is contributed by, contributed to by the sort of the, not necessarily, enemy status, but the competitive status between PR and sales within many organizations, right? They often are, view themselves as, competing for the same resources and disputing, you know, who was responsible for what and sales guys, marketing people are like, well, look, we have these concrete numbers.

I can show you exactly what my revenue is. Okay. PR, you know, oftentimes companies resort to silly measurement standards to try to, to, to pump up their credibility, you know, so does that whole cultural thing play into it at all? Or is it, is it really just that they don’t like doing it?

Karen Swim: You know, it’s, it’s a little both.

And so one of the great things about using, solo PRs or small businesses like those that are part of our community is that we tend to be a bridge across departments. So when we’re hired, we’re coming from an external viewpoint and we really don’t care about the internal politics. Our job is to get everybody.

working in alignment toward the same goals. And so that’s one advantage that I see of working on the outside versus working internally. for the sales piece, and again, this is not specific to our community, but something that I found in working with. with consultants across all industries is that the word, I think the language is what’s scary.

So people have this view of cells and it’s not the real view, which is building a relationship with people, understanding what their problems are and then working with them to solve them. That’s all that cells really is. But unfortunately, we often have in our mind this you know, heartline view of cells.

It’s aggressive. and then a lot of people who go into the service oriented businesses are doing it from a pure joy of working with other people to solve their problems. But they have a hard time talking about themselves. And so that’s another aspect is that they really, you know, it’s hard for them.

And so they personalize the sales process rather than thinking of it as You know, again, problem meets solution, they think of it as selling themselves and that’s hard. So they have to sort of get past that and kind of understand that it’s really not about you. These are not personal decisions. These are business decisions and that’s the way that you need to approach it.

so, you know, it takes a little bit of, you know, sometimes coaching them through that and getting them to, to get past those barriers.

Chip Griffin: So, you know, apart from sort of the sales and business side of things, if you look at it from a substantive standpoint, you know, how do you see, how do you basically take a look at a solo PR and say, you know, here are the, The steps you need to take to take it to the next level and actually let’s step back How do you figure out what the next level is if you’re a solo pr, right?

I mean it is you know Because I think there are different mindsets some people are looking at as a lifestyle so that they can take a vacation Once in a while some people are looking to grow an actual business, you know, how do you make that decision?

Karen Swim: That is such a great question and one that we’ve addressed.

And so you hit the nail on the head. I think it starts with first understanding what your own goals are and not allowing your business to be directed by outside pressure, but about what really fits you, which is the great thing about being a consultant, right? You can decide, you can say, you know what, I want a small business that I can run where I can really manage all of my clients.

And I have time to go to the kids soccer games and go on vacation. And so for me, that means, you know, a stopping point at X amount of clients. And it means that I’ll only take clients in these industries or, you know, I’ll only take clients in this region. So you have to really have a plan for yourself that works for you.

And that’s your first starting point. Now, if you, you know, and I would say, look short term and look long term. So think about, you know, are these the goals that I want today? Will these be the same goals that I want in five years? Because you still need to plan towards that and be building. I think one way that you could, there are a couple of, of tips, you know, for growth, you can grow your revenue without actually growing the number of clients that you serve.

By changing your prices and, you know, serving clients at a higher value level, you can grow by serving different industries. And some, some consultants want to do that. They may have started out in an industry and now they’re interested in sort of expanding that you can grow by taking on partners. and so some keys to growth are, you know, if you are feeling stagnant and still, and your work is not exciting, you want, maybe that’s a key that maybe you need to make a shift and expand and take on some new challenges.

if you are working a ton of hours and the money is not matching up with your hours, that’s a key that you need to grow your revenue. So you probably need to scale back your clients and start to target higher value clients. so that the math works out a little bit better. And if you find yourself at capacity and you’re turning people away and you don’t want to, that’s obviously a tip that you want to grow to.

And you can do that. You know, a lot of our consultants are not independent, meaning that it’s just them. Some of them have assistants. Some of them may have a junior employee, and others use the strategic partnership model to expand to become a virtual agency.

Chip Griffin: So, you know, as you, one of the things you touched on there was the importance, I think, of liking what it is that you’re doing.

And I think, I think that piece is so overlooked. Because, you know, there’s a tendency, you know, when you’re, if you’re on your own, and, and trying to just make things float, and, and trying to, you know, meet payroll to yourself, you know, that you just take on whatever work that you can, you, you suffer through clients that perhaps you should fire, and, you know, it just strikes me that, that, that solos really need to be committed to liking what they’re doing, because otherwise, there are so many different options out there available to them, so they don’t have to endure what they don’t like.

Karen Swim: It’s so true. I mean, and that’s big. That’s why I’m a huge fan of writing things down, having it in writing and referring back to it. It doesn’t have to be a 20 page business plan. But I think having something in writing that you can refer back to can keep you on track. So yeah, sometimes in the beginning, you sort of have to be a little scrappy and you may take on some things because you’re building up your reputation as an independent.

But I think you need to learn very quickly to be very strategic. And there’s some work that you shouldn’t take. Don’t take work that doesn’t make you happy. Don’t take work that doesn’t allow you to give your best. you know, for me, that means that I don’t work with clients that are not collaborative.

because I’m not a vendor, I’m a partner. And if you can’t partner with me, then we’re going to have a battle. I don’t take on clients that are media relations only. I, you know, prefer to work with people that see the broader picture and want integrated campaigns. And so knowing what, you know, You know, works for you and your work style is really important and it’s your business.

And so you, you don’t have to be miserable. You shouldn’t be. I mean, it’s going to get old really quick and you’re going to burn out. And so I always advocate, be very strategic and know that it’s okay to turn down work. But the key to that is you need to know what to turn down, but you also need to have your business development machine that engine needs to be running all the time.

Even when you’re busy, you need to do business development because business development and a full pipeline gives you choices. And as a independent consultant, you always want choices. When you reach the end of a road with a client, you want to be able to transition them to someone else and have something else waving in the wings.

Or if you need to fire a client because it’s not working out, you want to have the choice to do that. and you don’t have choices if You don’t have a pipeline and you’ve got to start all over from ground zero every time you need a new client.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, when you referenced, you know, writing down a plan, even if it’s not, you know, super fancy I would really underscore that as someone who started a number of different businesses and grown them some successfully some less So, you know putting together a plan is incredibly valuable not so much for the plan itself I mean, I very rarely refer back to the plans I write But But it’s the process that you go through and the the research and the thinking and just the logic of it.

And you sit down and, okay, let me build a budget. Okay, this is what I would have to generate from a client revenue perspective in order to get where I want to be. Is that realistic? Do I need to change my prices to get there? Do I need to target different clients? Yes. You know, all of those different things.

So I think it’s that process that’s at least as valuable as having something to refer back to.

Karen Swim: And I love that word that you just used, realistic. That’s exactly why I advocate writing it down. And you’re right. Even if you don’t refer back to it, going through that whole process of getting there where you’re writing things down clarifies your thinking and it crystallizes what’s in your mind.

So, At least now, you know, you know, it’s not just something that you’re hoping it’s real and you have a realistic goal that you’re aiming towards because you’ve done the work. And so maybe what you were thinking tends not to be realistic, but by going through that exercise of putting it on paper, I mean, and it could be a post it note.

It could be, you know, the whiteboard in your office. It could be on Evernote, it really doesn’t matter whatever works for you, but it’s that whole process of getting there that keeps you focused. And when you know in your mind, okay, Hey, I need to do the, you know, X, Y, Z to get to where I want to be. It keeps you on track mentally.

So when things come your way that kind of don’t fit in that plan, you’re able to quickly evaluate, okay, is this the right move? Do I need to do this in the short term? Should I not do it at all?

Chip Griffin: And then of course you can turn to your friends on Solo PR Pro to bounce things off of them and see if they agree with your decision making and if they have any additional advice.

Karen Swim: Absolutely. I can’t say enough. It’s interesting. Our community, I think, is different than a lot of membership communities in that people say that they feel a very personal connection to it. And I agree. It’s, it’s like a family. And these are exactly the kind of questions that our members share with one another.

Hey, you know, I was, you know, approached by a prospect today in this injury. Here’s the situation. And I’m feeling Not sure about this and need to bounce it off of you guys. And so there’s a real thoughtful discussion that helps people to kind of go through that process and not go through it alone.

And I honestly, I mean, I know I hate to sound like a commercial, but our community is so fantastic and so tight knit and I haven’t found that in other membership communities, and so it’s something that I value as well. And, you know, we can thank Kelly Crane for starting the community and for forming this bond.

And, you know, my job is to keep that alive and keep it thriving, because it’s definitely one of the most valuable benefits.

Chip Griffin: And assuming that people have listened to this podcast and say, Aha, I’m not part of this community, but I want to be, where can they go?

Karen Swim: Ah, I would love that. We’d love to have everyone that Solo be a part of Solo PR Pro.

So you can go to soloprpro. com and learn all about us. you know, if nothing else, please, you know, visit our site. We have blog posts that are available to the public. We try to tackle issues that are of interest and that will help, independent consultants. but you can also learn all about the premium membership community, by clicking the join tab.

And you know, if you are a business that’s listening and you have projects that you think might fit a solo consultant, we also have a tab where you can list your project for free, or you can. Search for consultants by industry and specialization. So I invite everybody to go check out our site, soloprpro.com.

Chip Griffin: Excellent. I would encourage our listeners to do that. And you know, I feel like we could continue this conversation for another hour, but unfortunately we didn’t reach the end of our allotted time. But Karen, it has been great to have you with me today on the show.

Karen Swim: And it’s been great to be here. And I, again, Chip, thank you so much for all that you do.

For the public relations community, big and small. And thank you for creating CustomScoop. It’s an amazing product.

Chip Griffin: Well, thank you. I really appreciate it.

Karen Swim: Well, thank you. Have a great day.

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