Heather Whaling graduated from the University of Toledo in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in communication and spent the next five years working for various public relations agencies in Toledo and Columbus. Then the Westerville native did what so many young professionals in the Buckeye State do− she left Ohio.
However, the next chapter of her story is likely to put a smile on the faces of elected officials who frequently lament the state’s “brain drain.” After working for yet another PR agency –most recently in Orlando, FL− Whaling returned to Central Ohio in December and founded her own firm, Geben Communication. Almost immediately, she signed a New York Times best-selling author as a client and she hasn’t looked back.
“Now that I am an entrepreneur, I couldn’t imagine going back to working for someone else,” Whaling says. “I’m on pace to earn more than I did at my previous job and with nine clients on retainer, I just hired a local intern, as well as a part-time contract employee.”
Ultimately, Whaling says she helps Geben’s clients –located in Columbus, Chicago, California, and even the United Kingdom− “understand technology’s influence on communication and how to integrate traditional tactics with online communication opportunities.”
Yesterday, we spoke with Whaling, 30, about the main resource she used to get her company off the ground, which local PR industry insiders have helped her along the way, and why she’s thankful to be living and working in the Columbus area again.
Melanie McIntyre: First off, why did you decide to start your own business?
Heather Whaling: Being an entrepreneur gives me the freedom and flexibility to work with clients and causes I believe in. I do a lot of work with startups, small businesses, and nonprofits– the types of organizations that can’t afford traditional agency fees. But I’m able to keep my overhead low, which makes my rates much more manageable. My clients receive agency-quality experience without the hefty agency fees.
MM: Why start a communications firm, specifically?
HW: Thanks to online technologies, the public relations industry is evolving. I saw an opportunity to help businesses understand how to use these tools to achieve their goals. There are lots of people who consider themselves “social media consultants.” However, I don’t think that’s what most small businesses need. Instead of suggesting clients go to one extreme or the other –all traditional PR or all social media, for example− I work with them to integrate the two. The idea is to use the right mix of tools to communicate the right message to the right audience. This approach is a bit different than what many other people offer, which has helped me carve out a niche for myself.
MM: What resources did you utilize to get up and running?
HW: Interestingly, Twitter has been invaluable to my business growth. About 75 percent of my new business comes through people I’ve met via social media. Even before moving here, I started to connect with Central Ohio residents. Then, I was able to extend these relationships beyond 140 characters by meeting up in real life– either at events, or over coffee or lunch. I was amazed how welcoming people were after I moved here. They were very generous with their time, which was incredible.
MM: Did you have any local advisers, role models or mentors that you relied on for advice and input?
HW: Sarah Irvin Clark, of Irvin Public Relations, has been wonderful. She’s such a connector, helping to introduce me to people and offering advice about her own experiences as an entrepreneur. She’s amazing! Also, especially when I was in the moving process and getting settled, Lara Kretler, with Fahlgren Mortine Public Relations, was so kind. She provided lots of good advice and helped connect me to a variety of local PR and social media groups, as well as Ohio Web Leaders.
MM: How have your previous jobs influenced the way you do business today?
HW: Previous experiences helped me understand what kind of company I wanted to create– and what I want to avoid. With Geben, I’m focused on delivering top-notch customer service, creating strong, productive client relationships, and fostering an innovative, collaborative environment.
I learned a lot from my former boss, Linda Costa, who showed me that a woman could build a successful company in her own vision, while selflessly giving back to the community and making her family a priority.
MM: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it?
HW: Figuring out how to scale the business was a bit of a challenge. For me, the answer was assembling a team of talented people so I can deliver strong results, while still paying enough attention to the business end of things.
Like all entrepreneurs, I had to learn my strengths and weaknesses. Administrative tasks, like tracking expenses, aren’t my strong suit; nor is that how I want to spend my time. It took me a couple months, but I realized that I just needed to ask for help. So last month I started working with a business manager. That simple step means I can focus more time and effort on serving my current clients and growing the business.
MM: What advice do you have for someone who is thinking of starting their own business?
HW: Peter Shankman −@skydiver on Twitter− once said, “The only way to silence the voice of self-doubt is to cross the start line.” When I heard him say that, I was already debating entrepreneurship. Right then, I decided to launch my own company.
If you’re thinking about starting a business, you have to know how you’ll monetize your product or service. There are lots of people with innovative ideas, or people really passionate about something, but that alone isn’t enough. A good idea doesn’t make someone a good business owner.
MM: Are you glad to be living and working in Columbus again?
HW: I’m so thankful that I returned to Columbus to launch my business. I love having the opportunity to live in an affordable downtown− German Village, an active central city with a variety of sports, arts, culture and nightlife activities, and the chance to live close to my family.