A couple of years ago, my big sister Fiona and I decided to set up our own healthcare communications agency, called Skin and Blister. Having worked in the industry for our entire professional lives, we thought the time was right to head out on our own.
Kelly has asked us to talk about the experience of starting our own agency, in the hope that it will encourage more women to take the plunge and do the same.
As we started to write down notes for this article, we were struck with how much we’ve learned in the last 30 months – and how little we knew when we first decided to head into the great unknown of start-up life. Here is a list of top tips to help prepare you for what is to come.
Focus on what drives you
Our agency was born from a point of shared frustration. We felt the care and attention was not being put into every project we were being asked to work on. We started Skin and Blister to bring back the care that healthcare communications deserve. When times get tough, remember the reasons why you are doing what you are doing.
You will feel tired like never before
And even when you do sleep, you’ll be dreaming about your business.
You will almost certainly be happier
If you’re thinking about starting your own company, you probably aren’t completely happy with what you’re doing now. Setting out on your own is scary, but it’s worth it. We have never been as excited to get up and go to work as we are right now. There is nothing like building your own company from the ground up.
Forget about structure and work-life balance
Move over, Dolly, there is no 9-5. The days of long boozy lunches on a Friday afternoon are long gone. And for us, there is no fixed office. We’ve always been inspired by working in different spaces, and felt OK with a lack of routine. If you prefer a regimented schedule, you might be in for a bit of a shock.
Have unashamedly high standards
Think carefully about who you want to work with, and do everything you can to work with those people. Don’t go for the easy option. Identify a team who share your vision and don’t settle for second best. Recruit people who can do things that you can’t. They will bring fresh perspectives and ideas to push your business forwards.
For poorer, for richer
Starting an agency is like restarting your entire career. You might make some money down the line, but in the short term you are going to be poorer than you ever have been in your professional career. Equally, you will never be as driven. It’s like the old saying goes – “better to be poor and happy, than rich and sad.”
Distance yourself from negativity
Surround yourself with optimistic people. Positive people will rub off on you. Negative people will too.
This is easier said than done. Generating business takes time – getting to pitch, hearing back from a pitch, procurement negotiations and feedback. Everything happens slower than you’d like, but it’s usually out of your control. Worrying about it won’t help.
Ask people for help
We have been bowled over by the people who have stepped up to help us. Industry friends who are always there for us. To answer questions. To help us find suppliers. To offer words of support. To open doors for us. We’ve had a lot of help from a lot of brilliant humans. It’s amazing who will help you if you ask them to.
There will be ups and downs
The downs will feel worse than you can prepare yourself for. The highs will be like nothing you’ve experienced before. Be prepared for them, and ride them out. As (the philosopher) Ronan Keating once sang, “Life is a rollercoaster, you’ve just got to ride it.”
Failure is not a bad thing
Early in Skin and Blister’s lifetime, we won a huge pitch, beating three other high-profile agencies. We were chuffed and it launched our agency. Roll forward 2 months and the whole business was cancelled. For no fault of our own, but it was a brutal situation to be in. However, you regroup. You find other opportunities and you move forward. Some would even say, it happened for a reason. Don’t let failure hold you back.
Network your socks off
We know networking can be daunting. But always tell yourself that everyone in that room is there because they want to meet other people too. A smile and simple “hello” is all you need to get started. The WEConnect network connects women-owned businesses to buyers around the world who want to work with more diverse companies, just like yours.
Leaders are readers
There’s so much to learn and a lot of great agency thought-leaders out there who have shared their wisdom in books. If you struggle to find reading time, audiobooks are a great way to learn on the go. Listen while you’re travelling to client meetings, or while you go for a walk, or are unloading the dishwasher.
You will be under intense pressure. Make sure you prioritise time for space, thinking and reflection each week. Your mental health is important. Be realistic about what you can and can’t do. Be kind to yourself. And make sure you regularly take a step back to breathe.
Believe you can do it. Believe it will work
And then do everything you can to make it a reality.
Good luck out there. You won’t regret it.