In early 2012, just a year after Michelle King started her business, she had more work than she could handle on her own. Reputation Capital, her Jacksonville, Fla.-based B2B public relations and communications firm, was continually growing through King’s relationships and referrals from happy clients and required more and more of her time. She was working long weekdays and every weekend, and because she had worked as a consultant for years, managing teams of PR consultants and their workflow for other agencies, King knew that the billings and hours were too much for just one person.
While she enjoyed the flexibility of working from home without managing employees, she realized that she had reached the point where her only choices were to turn down new work or hire someone and grow the company.
It’s a dilemma faced by many solo entrepreneurs at some point — to keep the business small and easily manageable or to expand the business and hire employees for greater growth. In King’s case, the opportunity for exponential growth was difficult to pass up. “I’m naturally very ambitious, so it would have been pretty hard to turn down the new work I was getting,” she says.
On the other hand, as a solo practitioner, King had full control over the work product. “I worried about giving up some of that control with my ‘brand’ still stamped on the work,” she says. “With employees, you are doing less of the PR work and more general managerial work, and I love having direct contact with clients and doing the actual PR consulting. I was worried I would just become a manager and not a consultant.”
King was also concerned about having enough business over the long term to keep her and her employee busy. “It would have been devastating to hire someone and then lose an account or two and not have enough income to pay them,” she says.
King knew that growing her business would require a financial investment on her part as well. To hire a senior professional who wouldn’t require the majority of her time in training, she’d have to pay senior-level salaries. Having employees also meant moving the business out of her home and into an office, which represented additional expense.
But as a solo entrepreneur, King’s says her biggest concern was, and continues to be, maintaining the quality, reputation and relationships she had established. “When you start a consulting firm on your own, your clients are hiring you. Any new people you bring on must offer the same quality and be as dedicated to doing a good job as you are. That’s really hard to find,” she says.
Ultimately, King took the plunge to hire someone. She was relying on help from freelancers at the time and doing a lot of the extra work herself, so she was confident she had enough work to support a full-time employee by moving work from the freelancers and lessening her own load. “However, it’s an ongoing challenge with growing a consulting business,” she says. “You are never going to have enough work just sitting around for an entire new full-time position because you would never sleep. You have to pull the trigger on hiring just when the extra work gets too much for yourself or your current team and you’re confident you’ll get more work to fill up the new person’s plate.”
Today, King’s business is booming. She employs two full-time professionals, plans to hire a third full-timer soon and continues to work with several freelancers for additional support.
Making the shift from a self-employed service provider has been significant, just as she thought. “There is an entire new set of skills needed: human resources, financial, legal and more,” King says. “And by far, HR is the most difficult, especially finding and retaining high-quality people. When you get extremely busy, it’s tempting to hire quickly and not take the time to ensure it’s the right fit. But I’ve learned not to do that; recruiting is the single most important thing I do now.”
While King still undertakes a lot of client service work, she does spend much of her time reviewing others’ work. As important as anything else she does is her effort to “create a work environment that [her employees] really enjoy and that will continue to motivate them,” she says. “I am trying to learn how to better coordinate and manage workloads, budgets and timelines for the entire agency; it’s much easier to do when it’s just you doing the work. The more people you add, the more complexity you add.”
Although adding employees has made her work more complex, King has realized that creating a great place to work has become part of her business goal. “I don’t have a specific growth goal in mind,” she says, though she has doubled her revenue each year as she has added employees. “Overall, I want to create a business staffed with smart, interesting and likeable people, do work that is stimulating and fulfilling, have control over my day-to-day life and give my employees the same control — and make some money in the process.”