Debbie Smith looks back on nine years as a freelance, including five years as a member of the Comms Crowd.
It seems like only yesterday that I was weighing up what felt like a massive decision. Should I swap my senior role in a national PR agency, with too much travel and time away from home but a guaranteed salary at the end of every month, for the life of a freelance? As I swam lengths in the hotel pool in Turkey on our autumn break, I calculated the sums in my head. If I charged £x per hour, how much work did I need every month to pay the mortgage and bills?
With the encouragement of my partner and my friends I decided to go for it! Nine years on, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I work with interesting clients and encouraging colleagues (who knew that being freelance didn’t mean working alone?) and have discovered a wonderful and supportive small business community in Cheltenham that I never knew existed when I was commuting around the UK.
Here are three unexpected things I’ve learned which have been key to going from zero business to happy freelancer.
1. I really enjoy networking!!
Everyone talks about networking as though it’s incredibly daunting – and sometimes it can be. But when you work from home, it’s important for your mental well-being to get out and about regularly. You also need to keep improving your skills and knowledge, and what could be better than a networking meeting with a speaker on a topic that interests you? If you treat networking as an opportunity to meet like-minded people and learn something new, rather than a hard sell, it immediately becomes something to look forward to. Of course networking groups vary massively; it’s important to be selective and pick the ones that are right for you, but there are plenty to choose from.
I also discovered Local ‘Laptop Friday’ co-working sessions. These continue to provide a weekly opportunity to chat to other freelancers and small business people and bounce ideas around, all for the price of a good coffee.
2. Be bold and reach out to strangers – many of them will help you
When I first started freelancing, I took a deep breath and contacted everyone I thought might be able to help me. One former client put me in touch with two freelancers he used, as he thought they were part of a network I could join. The one I knew wished me luck; the one I’d never met referred me to someone who ran a communications consultancy. Before long I was meeting her for an informal chat, which swiftly led to a fascinating and lucrative project for an international bank.
My work with The Comms Crowd began in a similar way. After reading an interview with Sam, I cheekily emailed her suggesting a coffee. She politely replied to this stranger saying “not yet”, but a year later decided the time was right to meet. As I hobbled into London recovering from a broken toe, I wondered what on earth I was doing, but we immediately hit it off and the rest, as they say, is history!
3. To enjoy media relations, you just need the right clients
Media relations has never been my favourite aspect of PR. It’s partly based on being forced to do the dreaded ‘ring-round’ when I first started and didn’t know any better. And if you’ve worked for an international agency, you’ll know the stomach-churning moment when you’re told that a US executive from a client is coming to the UK in three days’ time and wants you to arrange for him/her to meet key journalists, including national press, even though s/he has no news whatsoever.
However, it’s a completely different situation when you’re pitching thought leadership for clients who are experts in their field and have something interesting to say. You also have the freedom to decide which organisations to work with. If it’s not your area of expertise, or they want the impossible, you can politely say No (and ideally suggest a better approach).
So as I move into year ten, I’m still enjoying media relations and still reaching out to strangers, including those I’ve met when networking – most recently the IP expert I sat next to at a cyber event in early March who turned out to be the ideal person to help a new client in April.
Of course I’m looking forward to when I can actually meet people for coffee again, even though no doubt it will be at a 2m distance!
Sam Howard looks back on the ninth year of The Crowd
So when I first drafted this blog it was along the lines: last 12 months have seen our clients weathering a second year of political faffing, and we saw a fair amount of short-termism and turmoil. But on the upside it did give us the opportunity to assess our strengths and tap into them while developing new services designed to deliver hard returns to the client’s bottom line in such uncertain times. And round about December I was thinking, everything is looking calmer now, we’re in great shape and all set for a steady 2020!
Er yeah about that…
For sure, our remote business model means we are no strangers to the joys of self-isolation and virtual collaboration is not a novely for us but a way of life. But for the industry as a whole, with global travel cancelled and social distancing restrictions wreaking havoc with every family, every community, and every business, let alone the marketing plan… I’m already looking back on those halcyon Brexit days with nothing but a warm nostalgia.
Here’s our year in numbers as more words fail me.
Founder Sam Howard reflects on how it’s easy to forget to talk the talk when you’re so busy walking that walk.
Simply put, our role at The Comms Crowd is to help companies best articulate what they do, how they help their customers, and why they do it better than their competitors. Once we have that position defined, that’s what we roll out in varying engaging formats across the most appropriate comms channels for their target audiences: website, content, PR, social media, etc. We have all built our careers focused on this and only this, so we have become really rather good at it, and as a result we have enjoyed eight years of strong and steady growth.
But then we made the CLASSIC MISTAKE:
We were so busy looking after our clients we fell behind on our own positioning and comms – fairly embarrassing for a comms agency!
Just like the firms we work with, our strengths have evolved over the years, which means our competitive advantage has shifted, and as a result, the type of clients we work with.
In the early days we sported the start-up vibe of, ‘we are small, agile and affordable’ and of course we were, and still are. However, over time we attracted and retained some of the best independent talent in the industry and developed a deep pool of sector knowledge, as well as a wider skill set. And, as a consequence, we have enjoyed working with a much wider range of companies, so alongside our first loves, the start ups, we find ourselves increasingly working with larger firms too.
Yet our website did not reflect this evolution at all… nor our blog content… nor our social feeds.
Having identified the problem, there have been a few long weeks at the keyboard as we overhauled everything from the ground up. Now, our website and all our social content clearly articulate our core value and how we are best able to help our clients. We have created the space to demonstrate our fintech and tech/cyber experience and our comms expertise, and made sure we have lots of lovely client stories to go with.
So now we are all set! Bring it on 2020, we’re ready for ya!
It’s eight years since Sam Howard set up the freelance collective that is The Comms Crowd. This year she learned the real value of belonging to a team, and it doesn’t have a price tag…
Running a firm, however funky, is always a blur of highs and lows, and this year was even blurrier.
Highs: new team babies, client weddings, discovering a brilliant junior (yes Marcel – who knew there was more than one of you!), finding a prime pitcher, winning another ‘tech for good’ client and so doing some good ourselves, getting to work with some of my favourite PR people now holed up in-house and chucking some great projects our way, and even the odd trip to Belgium.
Lows: personal life was rubbish! When fate dealt her hand this year I almost folded.
But when I had to take a step back from work, the team stepped up and said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got this.’ And they had.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that freelancing encourages propagation of the self-centred gene. After all, every day you wake up and in theory you don’t know where the next pound is coming from, and even when you do you don’t know when you are going to actually get it.
But somehow, even though we are freelance and virtual so don’t even hang out in the same office every day, we are a true team. And we are there for each other – not just to cover high days and the holidays but when the kitchen floods, or the car breaks down, or we have one child freaking out, or two children screaming, or three of them fighting, or when we get sick, or our parents get sick, or our dogs get sick -and all in all we are just too distracted to work.
2019 is already shaping up to be a brighter year in so many ways, not least with the addition of our latest recruit, Dill a Mastador pup, a girl this time.
I have always been so proud of the Comms Crowd and what we have achieved but this year I am also thankful.
Sam Howard writes:
Seven years ago when I gave up my ‘proper job’ running the PR division of a large London agency, the primary motivations were to get back to doing real PR, spend more time with my son and to finally, finally have a dog.
After serving a six month probation to prove I could hack freelance life, I ‘rescued’ Moby – a five month old Labrador cross (crossed with ‘something huge’ was all the charity could tell me). So that was it – no going back. Moby was my insurance policy to make sure I never took a proper job again!
In the early days it was fortuitous that my skills were not so much in demand, as Moby, it turned out, wasn’t sure he was best suited to being a PR hound. As vocations go I think his early preferences would have been to be the companion of a side-order chef, a WWE wrestler or a clown.
He was a turbo-charged Labrador. Owners of bull breeds would put their dogs on leads when they saw Moby tearing across the field in their direction. On an early foray, an experienced dog walker eyed him with reservation as he tussled a Rottweiler to the ground and chewed affectionately on its throat. “Hmm,” she said as we discussed potential heritage, “I’d say he’s part black lab part something awful.”
Whatever he was, he was not office material. He chewed my chair, my shoes and my arms when nothing else was available and only interrupted his endeavours to work out how to open the fridge door or to bay loudly like a Baskerville hound if he noticed I was on a conference call.
Eventually shamed into admitting we had the worst behaved dog in the park we registered for duplicate dog training classes in two boroughs as one class didn’t seem to be enough to quell his, er, enthusiasms. Thinking back I should have expensed this as ‘staff training’.
But in our own way life began to settle down into some sort of freelance fashion; mornings began with Moby pinning me down in my sheets and barking into my face. After breakfast, and Pilates in which he insisted in partaking, a very long walk and then lunch, Moby would finally concede to have a power nap while I got on with some work. On waking it was no rest for the busy with a full on training session, again with hindsight not sure who was training who given how many sausages we got through. Finally a few more hours of focused napping until Elliot came home and Moby could torment him for a few hours while I finished off. End of work was announced by my streaming The Archers as I pottered around the kitchen, and on hearing the theme tune Moby would be ecstatic and parade round the house for at least half an hour with a cushion in his mouth to celebrate the imminence of meal time.
By now Moby was enormous, he towered over proper Labradors, and with his domed head, golden eyes, heavy jowls, velvet ears, sleek coat and beautifully muscled physique, he was a real head turner, the office Romeo if you will. For he was, it turned out, a Labrador Mastiff cross. Here, in the UK that’s a happy accident but in the US it’s a deliberate combination and they are called Mastadors, a breed much prized for their impressive physical build and also their wonderful temperament.
We still had to wait a bit longer for the temperament…
But after a somewhat protracted adolescence, Moby was around two when the fog finally lifted, there he was, the most majestic, most level-headed, dignified dog, an absolute ambassador for the breed – he went from being the worst to the best behaved dog in the park.
And Moby excelled as an office hound, a perfect patient companion, and accordingly went on to receive employee of the month every month for the next five years. He was excellent on and off the lead, in cars, on trains and buses. And thanks to flexible working, he got to go to the seaside every month to dig in the dunes and paddle in the sea by day and lay by an open fire and dream of sheep while I worked in the evening. He regularly went to business meetings where the techie boys tried so hard to not lose their thread, and to uni lectures, where his Barrack Obama good looks and Bill Clinton charisma had the USC girls swooning in unison. He was even the inspiration for our brand identity – how many dogs can say that?
And in return Moby made sure that every working day was a pleasure: that Mondays were no biggie; that office politics were no more than an insistent stare if I had the temerity to sit down at the laptop before finding him a treat; and that in seven years, I never once knew the loneliness that others talk of when working from home.
So as my former agency colleagues continue to climb the corporate ladder and now have every right to look down on all they survey from truly impressive heights, I am jealous not at all – for they may have the power and the glory, but I had Moby, Moby the Mastador.
It’s seven years this month since Sam Howard walked away from the big West End PR agency to set up office in her dining room, buy a domain name, and a dog.
|You got you a seven-year itch goin’ on?|
In that time working life has evolved from lone PR, to freelance collaborator, to creating a collective and now to running our (cloud-based) PR agency that continues to grow at around 25% a year.
So what does the seventh year herald? Am I going to get itchy feet and chuck it all in to become a landscape gardener, a masseuse or apply for Bake-Off? Or should I consider taking a back seat and let the team take the strain?
I think not. After seven years of being my own boss I still love the buzz of running a business and the challenges our kind of work brings. Still love my team and nearly all of our clients, nearly all of the time. I get a huge thrill when a campaign goes well, and I feel the pain if ever it doesn’t. I am alive to it.
Although I get to take a fair few holidays, I never have the blues on my return, and Monday mornings are much of a muchness to me. Among all my friends I never have one moment of work envy, not even when they are essentially paid to get plastered at Ascot under some vague notion of corporate hospitality. They are welcome to it – it’s small recompense for those inhuman early morning commutes, petty office politics and stingy levels of annual leave.
As for taking a back seat now that we are way up and running… Our clients have bought into the whole team and while there is no ‘I’ in team there is a ‘me’. We’re not going to become one of those agencies where you only see the founder on pitch day. Instead we’ll keep our growth to manageable proportions so we can continue to be an all-in kind of crew, as therein is where the happiness lies.
Turns out for me a seven year anniversary is less about an itch more an affirmation of vows.
Sam Howard celebrates six years of not having a proper job, unless you count running your own little agency as a proper job…
The evolution continues: from lone freelancer, to collaborator, to creating the collective to now (albeit cloud-based) looking like a proper little PR agency with around eight retained clients and working with a regular crew of four senior and two junior PRs.
We all had a team meet a few weeks back and a common thread was the lack of stress around the job. (And yet when you go freelance it feels positively perilous, I still remember the early weeks lying in the dark staring at the ceiling mentally muttering g ‘oh god I think I’ve ruined my career’).
But what the crew were referring to is the complete lack of that type of stress that distracts you from getting the job done: someone checking on your timekeeping, the commute, the juggling of personal appointments, the annual leave quotas, the pre-occupation with promotions, job titles and perks, the jockeying for position, the vying for the boss’s favour – there is none of that.
The only stress is that of doing a good job for the client.
But here’s the thing – when you work for yourself the sense of ownership and personal responsibility is absolute, so every project, without exception, has to go well, in fact better than well, it has to be the very best you can get it.
So that client stress goes deep.
And even though we share everything, it’s still all too easy for perfect storms to occur… Like when in the space of one week we had not one but two of our beloved start-ups announcing funding, which in our world is a huge deal and requires an immense amount of logistics and planning, working with all the financial PR agencies, the fund providers and pitching to media in multiple sectors. And as luck would have it, in the same week it was end of module live assessment time for the class I teach at Uni… Nothing to be done but to disappear under the strain for six weeks and know you aren’t coming up for air until every stone is turned. And possibly I was a bit over emotional at the end of it.
So yes, freelancing can be stressful, but the sense of ownership, and of personal pride in work well done without any of the friction that comes with a ‘proper’ job, continues to make the freelance life entirely net positive.
Sam Howard On how we are growing (albeit vicariously).
When you go freelance, you quickly realise the limitations of what you can competently do and therefore the nature of the projects you can take on. So then, if you’re smart, you collaborate playing to your strengths working with others similarly smart but with complementary skills. Here at the Comms Crowd we have been sublimely happy in that phase for the last few years – steadily adding interesting clients that appreciate the hands on approach and building up the merits of the crew in a wholly organic stylee, even getting nominated for an award along the way. But what does our next iteration look like?
When I founded Comms Crowd it was not to become the next Edelman or even to get into the PR Top 100. In my experience bigger does not correlate to better – not for the clients, where more can buy you less; not for the staff, unless your job satisfaction depends on the length of your job title; nor even the bottom line, impressive offices and charismatic receptionist do not come cheap.
For me, small is truly beautiful and that’s the way we are going to stay. But that said who can deny the global nature of comms and the tech start-ups we work with, have global appeal and we need to secure them global attention without busting the budget…
So we have joined as a founding partner, globla network, The First PR Alliance courtesy of Swyft Communications in the US – a great fit for us and our clients as all the agencies focus on tech and start-ups so little will get lost in translatio. All the partner agencies are boutique independents like ourselves so we know all the work will be done by senior, accountable and personable teams and the buck stops with the founder,
Between us we can provide PR support from Peru to Poland, Singapore to Sweden, United Kingdom to the United States and stopping off in Belgium, Columbia, France, Germany, Italy,The Netherlands, Morrocco, Portugal, Spain along the way.
In tech comms at least, you don’t need to be big to be clever… just clever.
Sam Howard reflects on five years of being freelance…
A lot can happen in five years. Five years ago my 11 year old little cutey baked cakes and gave freely of his cuddles and enthusiasm. Five years on and my ‘little’ cutey looks down on me in disdain while raiding the fridge and giving freely of his criticism. He loves me really – it’s just a phase right?
And so too has the business side grown up. As a team we have really found our niche now – tech startups, the way we work combined with our business model make us a great fit for the nimble and ambitious startup. None of us have the appetite for long meetings or long emails – we all just want to get stuff done!
Most recently our client work was short-listed for an award, for a PR campaign we ran in the public sector. And I confess it feels good to be ranked up there alongside the more established agencies.
It’s gone from being just me to a tight little collective of PR Pros, our AR guy, a designer or two and a trio of copywriters, working together and playing to our strengths. And it’s grown bigger in all the right ways, while holding onto the core freelance premise, which is no premises at all!
Proud to say CommsCrowd HQ is still my former dining room and therefore we still have no need for a receptionist, an IT team, an office manager, an HR team or an accounts department. Just outlook, dropbox, google docs, and some wicked spreadsheets (a personal forte).
In addition to the bulking up of expertise, the other fantastic side of forming the freelance collective is that it offers the opportunity for each of us to develop outside of the world of comms. Whether it’s renovating a 300 year old cottage, bagging munros or learning to surf.
I’ve really got into the talent development element of PR and I’m now an associate lecturer for Westminster University and The London College of Communication. College days are the best days, I get an enormous amount of satisfaction nurturing the next generation of young ones and helping them prepare for the world of work.
And when you feel supported by a brilliant team; when you genuinely warm to your clients and get a kick out of every campaign that delivers; when your pockets are over flowing with psychic income and you’re still learning and still evolving – well then there’s no reason to stop. Here’s to the next five years!
Sam Howard is hitting her prime
Perhaps freelance years are like dog years, for I’m starting feel like I’m in my freelance prime! Four years in, and, as they say on those talent shows, ‘it feels like this is my time’! Oh why’s that then? Well I’ll tell ya.
Tech in general and FinTech in partciular is finally hot!
After some 20 years of apologizing for working in a sector of which nobody has ever heard; countless conversations explaining what I do to those whose eyes glaze over in the time it takes to say ‘enterprise-wide trading systems’ – all of a sudden our sector is hot!
Not only is our sector hot, my home town for some 30 years, London, is fit to burst with Tech Start-ups and I do love a Start-up – always have! Not for me the 200 page branding guideline bible, the 83 slide PowerPoint on our ‘core’ USPs. Where’s the opportunity to add value to that (other than rip it up)?
I love the pace, the energy, vibrancy that comes with young Tech companies. They are brave, bold and, my lot at least, quite audaciously brilliant. But it’s always struck me, that at the point a young company needs the most care, nurturing and attention to its comms, is just when it can least afford it. Sometimes, that’s not a good fit for a standard agency, where there can be an expectation mismatch, (a big PR budget for a small company is still a small client for a big PR agency). But it’s a great fit for collaborations and small networks of specialist freelancers like us. Freelancers by our very career choices have often rejected the status quo and defined ourselves as fellow disruptors.
Another great thing about working with young Tech companies is the absolute lack of formality. This suits me down to the ground, I want to use my time helping that company do smart comms, not validating how smart I am. Decisions are quick, turnarounds fast, reporting is a spreadsheet in google docs and emails are brief, often littered with typos from both sides. Witness recent email exchange, informing client CEO that we had secured media interest from a noted publication.
ME – OMG We’ve got Forbes!
CEO – F*** yeah!
And of course when you work in a hot sector, in a hot city, with hot clients, you get to talk to media that you have never had the temerity to approach before, but that, it turns out, are really just like us, if you have a decent story to tell. And call me a easily impressed but for a long-toothed B2B fintech PR to be suddenly talking to the nationals, is just really rather cool!
So yeah, in this the fourth year, I find myself, in the right place, with the right business model at the right time – happy freelance birthday to me and the crew, being four rocks!