Scott Allison wants you to know that public relations firms can be small businesses, too.
Allison & Partners, the 92-employee firm that Allison co-founded, has had to deal with the same challenges that any technology start-up has to face, from staffing to infrastructure to cash flow. It’s just that instead of making silicon chips, PR is his product.
“That’s why it’s always fun when you meet with potential clients and they say, ‘Oh, you don’t realize what it is to be a start-up entrepreneur,’” he says. “Well, yeah I do. I understand all too well.”
Allison, who serves as president and CEO, has overcome those challenges to grow his company’s revenue to $11.5 million for 2007, and he anticipates posting 2008 revenue of about $13 million.
Smart Business spoke with Allison about how taking a financial hit now can lead to a big gain later and how to know if you’re wearing too many hats.
Q. What are the keys to effective leadership?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from watching others, watching clients and then learning the hard way with my own company as it evolves is that you’ve got to communicate and then overcommunicate. You can never take for granted or assume people understand what you’re doing or where you’re going with the company.
The real key is communicating to everybody on the team frequently about the direction of the company, what the goals are, what the aspirations are, so people have a real clear vision of what you’re trying to do.
Q. How do you communicate your vision to the company?
One thing we do is an annual retreat where we bring the whole company together for two days. We have six different locations, so it’s tricky to shut the company down and bring everyone together, but we do that to really give an update on where we’re going, our goals and direction.
Then we do a monthly conference call with the entire company. We spend an hour just hearkening back to what the annual goals were for the company and then really breaking it down month by month, with where we are.
The other piece is we have our senior team, which is the office heads and a few other senior folks. We do biweekly phone calls to really talk through all the challenges and issues that are going on.
Q. How do you measure your progress toward the long-term plan?
It’s not just about revenue. It’s about quality of clients. That was the big metric for us. When we first started the business, you had to work with any client you could. We were just trying to survive that period.
Then our focus was could we add larger regional clients. That gradually led us to winning larger national clients.
At the beginning of each year, we would clearly articulate how we were looking to grow, like, ‘We want to increase revenue by 15 to 20 percent.’ But then the other, more intangible things are, ‘We want to launch into this market; here are some of the new client prospects we’re interested in going after.’
Approach (progress) from some of those intangibles, as well.
Q. How do you manage business growth?
You definitely see growing pains. Back when we launched the company, we had two small offices and about 15 people. You really feel like you know people on a more personal level. When there are only 15 people, it’s not hard to get to know folks. As the company grows, you get into different offices, different regions.
Take my Washington, D.C., office for example. I haven’t made it to that office in about four months now. There are two folks in that office that I haven’t even met. You have situations where it’s not as personal as it was when it was a smaller company. It’s a big challenge because you’re not interacting with the same level of frequency.
Another thing is the financial challenges. As your company gets bigger, your benefits cost more. Your office space requirements go up. When you have 100 people, that’s 100 computers that can potentially break.
Q. What lessons have you learned from your company’s growth?
Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to take a step forward. In 2006, we realized we’re going to have to go hire two or three top senior people. For instance, we needed a GM for the San Francisco office because I had been wearing both hats. It got to the point where I couldn’t be the CEO because I was also trying to run the San Francisco office.
We made the decision that we were probably going to have to sacrifice some of the short-term profits because, in some instances, we had to use recruiters, bigger salaries, all those things. Our margin actually dropped in 2007, but once everything started flowing, we grew and it freed me up to do more things. It really paid off this year when we actually saw not only an increase in our top line but a really nice increase in our bottom line, as well.
HOW TO REACH: Allison & Partners, (415) 277-4900 or www.allisonpr.com