Despite an ailing economy, Heather Whaling left her steady job at a public relations agency in fall 2009 to launch Geben Communication. Dec. 1, 2009 was her first “official” day as a business owner, on Christmas Eve she signed a New York Times best-selling author as one of her first clients, and work hasn’t really slowed down since.
When The Metropreneur profiled Geben about a year ago, Whaling had just hired an intern and a part-time contract employee, and was working out of her home. My, how things have changed in just a short amount of time.
“As a new business owner, I purposefully decided to keep my overhead as low as possible for as long as possible,” she says. “Working from my house was an easy decision. But, as the company grew and I hired employees, working from a home office became logistically difficult. The Geben team now includes me, two full-time employees and an intern, so it was time to find actual office space.”
On Tuesday, Geben relocated to 539 S. Fifth St. in German Village. At one time, the space housed Yosick’s Artisan Chocolates.
“The openness of the main room is perfect for our collaborative approach to work,” she says. “And now we have a conference room– perfect for brainstorming new campaigns with clients!”
Read on to learn what Whaling has been careful about while growing her business, why she isn’t shy about going after higher profile clients, and how social media has impacted her firm.
The Metropreneur: First, how did you find your new space?
Heather Whaling: My friend, Nate Riggs, first introduced me to this space. When I committed to finding an office, I researched a few locations, but I didn’t overanalyze. The winning location had one major factor going for it: it’s less than a block from where I live! After working from my house for so long, I couldn’t stand the idea of commuting every day. I love being able to walk to and from work. I’m spoiled and grateful that I found the perfect office practically in my backyard!
[M]: You have two full-time employees. When did you start hiring?
HW: Jeana Harrington, my first employee, has been with me for almost a year. Hiring her was easily one of the best decisions I’ve made as a business owner. We work really well together and having her on board enables me to spend time nurturing client relationships, working on business development, setting client strategy, and making sure we’re exceeding expectations during implementation.
Most recently, I hired Megumi Robinson, who brings a complimentary skill set to the table, thanks to her previous experience working for a local agency and the state. I’m biased, but I think the three of us make a great team.
[M]: How did you know it was time to hire people?
HW: As a PR and social media agency, we’re in the business of selling our time– and there are only so many hours in a day! The company grew pretty quickly, and it wasn’t too long before I realized that I was spending all my time implementing tactical, day-to-day stuff and not doing the things that I really wanted to be doing, like setting strategy and business development, as well as some of the administrative tasks that come with owning a business.
As the business owner, I’m sensitive to the fact that it’s my reputation on the line, so I’ve been careful about scaling the business. Having the right team in place has allowed me to continue bringing on new, interesting clients, while maintaining a high level of work quality.
[M]: What lessons have you learned since becoming a small business owner?
HW: Not every client is the right fit for us. I want to work with clients who are looking for a partner, not just a vendor. Our clients see us as an extension of their internal team. By building those kind of strong relationships, we can be much more effective. I’ve learned to say “no” to prospects that don’t seem like the right fit for us.
I’ve also learned to highlight the things that make us different. We take a very different approach to PR and social media. I like to say that network size alone doesn’t equal success. So, while some people are busy collecting fans and followers, we try to be more targeted and strategic, maintaining a strong focus on what we need to do to get from Point A to Point B.
Also, I’ve learned that small firms like ours can compete with the bigger agencies. I don’t shy away from going after higher profile clients now. Small isn’t a bad thing. In fact, for us it’s a positive. Our rates are a lot more affordable. Plus, because we’re small, we’re nimble and can move fast– characteristics that appeal to our clients.
[M]: What would tell an entrepreneur who’s just starting out?
HW: Your reputation is everything, so do what you need to do to protect it. A quick story: In the early stages of the business, I was working with client who I discovered was doing some things “behind the scenes” that were beginning to damage my relationship with a high-profile media outlet. I wasn’t willing to risk my reputation or relationship with that reporter, so I ended my relationship with that client. At the time, I was unsure about whether I should really fire a client but, looking back, it was absolutely the right decision.
Take great care to surround yourself with the right people. Know what you’re good at and do that. Then, build a team to help with the rest. For example, I was spending an inordinate amount of time in the early days tracking expenses, invoicing– tasks that were taking me away from the core of my business. So I decided to hire a freelancer to help with some of the business admin duties. It was a small monthly expense, but something that saved me hours and hours of time.
[M]: Is there anything else you think we should know?
HW: I’m a big believer in integrating traditional and digital PR. Technology –and social media specifically– has had a major impact on PR. We love working with clients, like Madison Electric in Cleveland or the Columbus Marathon and Thurber House locally, who look to us to help them understand how PR and social media should work together.
Something else that people find interesting: I can trace 75 percent of all our business back to relationships that began via social media, and most of those were initiated on Twitter. It’s proof that social media, when done well, can drive real business results.
We’re not just talking about how to use social media; we’re using it every day to fuel company growth. As a result, we can translate many of those lessons and best practices to help clients connect social media back to their own business goals, too.
To learn more about Geben Communication, visit GebenCommunication.com.