How to Launch a Communications Firm in a Recession

Flat design concept of consulting, key account manager, business plan. Vector illustration for website banner, marketing material, business presentation, online advertising.

Launching a communications consulting firm while being bombarded with headlines like “U.S. on track for historic recession” and “companies keep laying off workers,” is not for the faint of heart.

Some family members expressed concern that we were making a mistake. (And doing so with an onion-inspired name.) But after spending years doing comms in politics, government (we met implementing the Affordable Care Act), and corporate America, we wanted to try something we suspected we’d enjoy.

As we approach the one-year birthday of Shallot Communications, we’ve been surprised by our extreme happiness in building a company. Many friends and former colleagues have whispered that they wish they could do the same—that they’re not happy with their jobs and want to create something.

It’s been hard but tinged with excitement—meeting with people across the country, throwing together scopes of work (SOW), learning terminology far out of our comfort zone (TAM! prorating!), and getting comfortable explaining why we chose our name (shallots make cooking better—just like good communication does for business!). 

About six months into starting Shallot, we realized that this might just be working. We’ve hired a handful of folks because there’s been enough work. We’ve felt good about the quality of the work we’ve done. We’ve liked (almost!) all of our clients. And our lives have been much more enjoyable.

Our hope is that this message will reach other people who are thinking about striking out on their own, and that they’ll be as energized as we are by building their own business. 

A few things we’ve learned about starting a firm:

Don’t lose sight of why you’re going out on your own. We’ve had moments where we pursue work that we’re not that into. Or where we fight to keep a client that doesn’t respect us or our time. In those moments, we push one another—“why are we doing this work?” It’s not to be treated poorly or do work that depletes us. We are constantly reminding ourselves that we started a comms firm because we want to find work energizing and meaningful—because we want to work for (and with!) people who we like being around and who respect us. Whether clients or co-workers...we've been fortunate to avoid assholes. At some point our luck might run out, but damn it makes coming to work better.

The people you meet early in your career—and how you show up around them—can make a big difference. Some of our best clients have come in through connections we made in our 20s—from first jobs where we did little more than pull news clips or take meeting notes. Take stock of your network—strong and weak ties alike. We’ve been surprised at how happy these people—both those that work in comms and those who do not—have been to reconnect and support our success.

Every job should have a three-month 'is this gonna work' period. Most of our contracts are structured as an initial three-month engagement. Often new clients didn't want to sign up to work long-term with an unknown company with zero track record, so we ended up initially getting several three-month contracts. In the end, this setup has worked in our favor— we get to see if the relationship works on both ends. Frankly, this is how every job should be—a three-month assessment period, where the shine of an interview has rubbed off, and there's a clear understanding of the work culture and expectations. We've been fortunate that in almost every case, these working relationships have morphed into ongoing work. And, let’s be real, humans are conditioned to operate in three-month long seasons!

Meeting in person once a month sure is nice. (Also: our location hasn't mattered.) Tim is in Chicago. Teal is in Austin. Yet none of our clients are in Texas and only recently have we added clients in Chicago. Instead, all of our early clients were hundreds of miles away from us. And it hasn't made a bit of difference. While big companies are increasingly pushing to have their people back in the office several days a week, most of our clients—especially startups—are comfortable with a mostly-remote approach. They prioritize meeting in person on occasion, but there are no mandates. Similarly, we meet as a team once a month—frequent enough where we feel connected and don’t have to wait too long for conversations that are best had in-person, while not saddling ourselves with huge travel expenses. We'll spend two days together in-person, get caught up, socialize, prioritize water cooler talk, and then disperse. It's the best of both worlds.

Entrepreneurship is inherently inequitable. We were able to start Shallot because both of our spouses have health insurance. That shouldn't be a factor, but we live in a world where healthcare costs are untenable, and health insurance is necessary. Neither of us likes this fact, but we don't know what to do about it. And the irony isn't lost on us that we met while working on Obamacare—which certainly made things better, but unfortunately hasn't solved the "affordable and quality health insurance for all" issue.

Stay on message…business is going great! People react to the energy you bring in talking about your business. Early on, we weren’t as sure about what we were doing. At parties, we would timidly say “yeah so we’re trying out this communications firm” and be almost timid about it—which, in turn, meant the person we were talking to wouldn’t take our business as seriously. But once we got more comfortable with what we were doing—and how we talked about it—and were energized in talking about our work, the person we were talking to would inevitably be energized by what we were saying. And—in our line of work—we needed to take our own advice to clients on the importance of how you show up!

The people who are our "competitors" have often been our greatest support and provided the best insight. Early on, we met with several people who also started their own communications firms. We were often worried they would view us as threats (which, in retrospect, is laughable given that we had no clients or track record). It turns out—these were the people most comfortable sharing what they’d learned, what they wish they’d done differently, and sometimes even client leads. We now love paying it forward. We’ve learned some things and want other people to know how great this work is. And that the pie is big enough for all of us to walk away full. 

Teal Pennebaker and Tim Granholm are founding partners at Shallot Communications.