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The six biggest PR business mistakes I’ve made

Updated December 10, 2021

I always tell budding entrepreneurs that you learn more from failure than success.

I have learned a lot.

Several years ago, I was asked to speak to business school students about failure and mistakes.

The topic came naturally to me.

I do enjoy talking about the mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Or as I told a friend of mine who proudly owns a Harvard MBA: I earned my MBA, too, but I was paid to do it!

Naturally, there are key themes to these mistakes, especially in my PR-related businesses.

Let’s look at some of the biggest.

Business Mistake #1: Not Hiring

My first PR firm was doing well.

It had a good mix of retainer and project revenue.

I was almost ready to graduate it from a solo consultancy to a “real” agency.

Then my “sideline” business took off.

I knew I needed to spend time on CustomScoop because it was growing like gangbusters and needed my full attention.

But what to do about my PR firm?

Smarter people than me said I should hire someone to do the client work while I managed the business.

I didn’t listen to them. I sold the clients off to another consultant for pennies on the dollar so I could free up my time.

I should have listened.

I was afraid of the responsibility of taking on an employee—not to mention the loss of control it meant.

Today, I know I should have hired someone.

Lesson learned.

Business Mistake #2: Not Firing

Most entrepreneurs have a healthy ego intertwined with a measure of self-doubt.

When it comes to employees, I sometimes find myself believing I can transform a mediocre team member into an excellent one.

This rarely works for me.

Perhaps I’m not a great coach (I’m not especially patient).

I suppose on some level, firing someone I hired suggests I’m not a great identifier of talent, so maybe this holds me back.

Or maybe I am a softie after all.

Whatever the reason, I often find myself sticking with mediocre talent too long in the hope that it will turn around.

This never bodes well for the firm—or the employee.

It’s better to part company as soon as it is obvious that the fit isn’t right.

Lesson learned.

Business Mistake #3: Over-servicing Clients

Just about every PR agency owner and employee I know over-services clients.

(If you’re a client reading this, I’m sorry, but it is true.)

There are two reasons for this.

First, as an agency owner, you want to retain every last cent of revenue.

Losing a client is painful, so you provide service to the max and convince yourself this is the key to retention.

Second, agency employees who service clients directly develop something akin to Stockholm Syndrome.

They know they take the brunt of an angry client’s ire, so they do everything they can to prevent that from happening.

Heck, when I was a young agency employee years ago, I would record client time using the “agency administration” code so I could keep the client happy without my bosses being upset about time being spent keeping them that way.

In both cases, over-servicing is a mistake.

It dilutes your prices, reduces your profits, cheapens your offering, hinders new business development, and builds a morale-deadening atmosphere.

Be sure to set clear expectations with clients—and don’t be afraid to flag instances when requests fall outside of scope.

Lesson learned.

Business Mistake #4: Under-servicing Clients

The flip side is I have occasionally had clients that I have under-serviced.

It’s not that I was trying to take advantage of them, it was simply a result of circumstances.

If you’re over-servicing one client, you will be quite content not to hear from another one for a while.

It helps balance the scales.

But then that client is too quiet—and you’re not proactively servicing them.

You’re busy on other things, so you rejoice in the quiet.

And then you celebrate your new effective hourly rate being higher because the requests have dwindled.

After a time, it becomes a pattern.

After a while, the client calls you to cancel because they find they don’t need you as much as they thought they did.

They’re probably wrong, but it’s your fault because you didn’t do enough to maintain the relationship.

The short-term spike in profits comes back to bite you.

Fortunately, this is something that hasn’t happened too often throughout the years—but even once is too much.

Lesson learned.

Business Mistake #5: Not Diversifying Enough

Who doesn’t love the thrill of signing a major new client?

It’s like finding a date for the big dance. The glow lasts a while.

When you land your first big client, you soon realize you need to diversify.

“Never depend on one big client,” you hear.

Of course, when you’re starting a business, you almost always start with just one client.

But now you have that big one, and you spend time growing your client base.

Soon you have three or four clients.

They’re all smaller than the big boy that got you started, but you’ve got more than just one client, so you’re happy.

You add a few mid-size clients, and you’re happier still because the big revenue generator is now less than half of your total revenue. Or at least that’s what you’re telling yourself.

But they’re still nearly half of the total revenue, so then you finally snag another big one.

Now, none of these clients account for more than one-third of your annual billings, but that’s still a third.

You get the idea.

I finally learned you want every client to measure in the single digits as a percentage of yearly revenue.

It’s not easy. And sometimes it’s not feasible.

When you have a client who funds 25 percent or more of your business, sometimes you make bad decisions when servicing them.

And when they go away—and every client leaves eventually no matter what you may believe—it is a major hit, especially for a human-intensive business such as a PR agency.

Lesson learned.

Business Mistake #6: Lacking Focus

I’d like to call myself a Renaissance Man, but that sounds supremely arrogant.

Let’s just say I have many interests and do a variety of things well enough professionally to be paid for doing them.

Jack of all trades, master of none.

Even without that mindset, every PR agency founder wants/needs to grow their business quickly out of the gate.

The habit is to take on whatever work comes along.

At first, it’s a necessity to pay bills, so you do it.

But then it becomes addictive.

Who wants to turn away business? (Or at least the money that comes along with it?)

Unfortunately, on several occasions, the business necessity has collided with my wide range of interests and caused some of my PR businesses to lack focus.

If I could do it, I did.

If it seemed like a problem worth solving, I tried to come up with a solution.

But then it became harder to describe what the focus of the business was.

Not just to myself, but others.

It turns out there’s a difference between a business “pivot” and a total lack of focus.

Mea culpa.

I have learned that while I may not be able to focus my professional energies as well as I should, I must not let that happen to my businesses.

I can avoid sleep and vacations to indulge my passions, but I can’t expect employees to do the same.

Focus matters and it helps dictate success.

Lesson learned.

What About You?

Now that I have shared some of my biggest PR business mistakes, won’t you do the same?

Let’s learn from our shared mistakes, just as I have learned from my own.

A version of this post originally appeared on Spin Sucks.

Picture of Chip Griffin

Chip Griffin

Chip is the Founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance and a longtime agency leader and entrepreneur. He helps PR and marketing agency owners build businesses they want to own.

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