Her Story, Her Success: An Interview with Janet Falk
No woman is an island. We need each other to learn, grow, and thrive, especially as small business owners in a crazy world! Her Story, Her Success is a Sunbird blog series that features the stories and advice of female entrepreneurs.
PR and Communications professional Janet Falk opened up her own business, Falk Communications and Research, in 2009. Her clients, an eclectic mix including both nonprofits and Wall Street corporations, have appeared in the New York Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
We reached out to Janet to learn about her unexpected path from Spanish professor to PR specialist, her five tips for marketing yourself, and why she calls herself an “octagonal peg.”
Can you tell us a little bit about how your career in Public Relations started?
I have a PhD in Spanish Literature, and started as a college professor in Spanish, but it became clear to me that I would not get tenure because of bias at the state college where I was teaching. I attended a program at New York University called Careers in Business. It was an intensive program for PhDs in the Humanities and Social Sciences to enter Corporate America. From there, I got a job as a securities analyst and I worked in that field for 3 years.
Then I took a class in Investor Relations, and from there I decided on a 4 part strategy. I would learn the material, I would develop a portfolio of writing samples, I would dazzle the instructor with my brilliance, and I would network with the other students in the class, because they would be the gateway to my next job. I was able to get a job with one of my classmates’ employers, and I kept in touch with the instructor, and he subsequently hired me from time to time as a consultant.
I had been working in Public Relations, therefore, since 1989. I have worked for agencies, I have worked for Wall Street firms, I have worked for nonprofits, and in between, I have hung up my single shingle, and I have worked as an independent consultant.
And how long have you been working as an independent consultant?
At this time, it’s 8 years, but if you add it up over the course of my career, it’s much longer, because I have been without full-time employment close to 40 percent of my working career.
What motivated you to start your own business?
I had young children and I had a housekeeper who was helping me to take care of the children when I was working, so if I wasn’t bringing in some income of some sort, then, we were not going to be able to live the same lifestyle that we had. So, I had to set up my own business in order to make a go of it. Periodically I would work while I was looking for my next job. And it could take a few months, or it could take a year, or in one case it took me 2 years and 10 months to find my next job. So all that time I was working, I was treading water, as I say, a single shingle.
Now it’s 8 years [of owning my own business], and this is the longest I’ve held a job, so you would think I would be a very loyal employee to myself. I very sporadically look for jobs, but there aren’t many in the field where I would like to work, so I continue my work as an independent consultant.
Do you prefer being an independent consultant or would you rather have the security of a full-time job?
I think about this from time to time. This week, my mother called me and said, “I have theater tickets for Wednesday matinee, would you like to come?” and I said, “Yes.” Now, of course, if I had a full-time job, that could never happen.
On the other hand, I’m not making money as I would if I had a paycheck, and so that’s affecting my retirement plans. My husband has a good job, so we manage on the dual income, as long as I make a certain amount of money, which I’m able to do.
How have you developed your brand over time?
It’s interesting that you ask that question, because I wasn’t aware that I had a brand. A few weeks ago, I went to an event and I met someone who remarked on what I was wearing and how it was so consistent with my brand. When I go to events where there are going to be a lot of other people, I always wear a color jacket. I have white, I have red, I have pink, I have a striking blue, I have lilac; I don’t wear black or navy when I go to an event because everyone else is wearing black or navy. This way when people meet me, they remember meeting me.
So, when this person said, “You’re so true to your brand,” I wasn’t sure what she was pointing towards. I consider myself consistent in that I’m clear, I’m forceful, I’m enthusiastic, I’m direct, and perhaps that comes through in other ways.
You call yourself an “octagonal peg” as opposed to a round or square peg. Can you explain what this means and how it sets you apart from other people in your field?
Many people who work in Public Relations work in a certain kind of Public Relations. They focus on tech, they focus on finance, they focus on lifestyle, what have you. I’m a generalist, and I’ve worked in many different corners of the economy. I’ve worked in financial services, I’ve worked with law firms, I’ve worked with nonprofits… and so, I consider myself not round or a square peg because I don’t fit in the traditional opening. I have seen the world from so many different angles, and so that’s why I call myself an octagonal peg.
Some people say that to stand out you really need to specialize in something more narrow, but what you’re saying is sort of the opposite.
I think it actually works in a positive way. Because I have been in different environments then I understand different mindsets and how someone looks at a situation. For example, in looking at how law applies to business, the issue is not the intricacies of the law, the issue is how it’s going to impact operations on a day to day basis and on a long term basis. If you’re narrowly focused on your niche, you’re not considering the broad impact that something is going to have. Being outside of the industry means that I can look at who is on the other side of the table, and what is the ripple effect going to be for all these different players.
How do you maintain customer loyalty while still marketing yourself to potential new clients?
I think I give very high-touch service, so I keep in touch with my clients. I think as long as you know where the ball is, in terms of whose court, then, you’re able to be responsive, and I am responsive. I’m in regular communication with my clients, so they feel they’re being paid attention to.
That said, I have to add that it’s important to always be marketing yourself, and marketing should be part of your routine. I know one person who says that you should do your marketing at 8:00 in the morning, because that way you’ll know that it gets done. And I do have on my calendar every day at 8:00: marketing. Whether I keep that appointment with myself, that’s another question, but it reminds me through the course of the day that I should be doing some marketing.
What’s marketing to you? What tactics do you use to market yourself every day?
I take this from another consultant, David A. Fields, and he says there are 5 kinds of marketing that will get you business.
The first and most productive is networking, and that means meeting people in a variety of settings.
The second most powerful way to get clients is speaking to groups. I speak as often as I can to groups, and my current newsletter is about why you should lead workshops for free. I have spoken to the New York City Bar Association and the New York County Lawyer’s Association because I want to work with more attorneys, and that’s where I’m going to find them. I am not getting paid, I am reaching out to them and offering my services, knowing that they’re not going to hire me right away. But, they’re going to think about me, and when the time comes, and they need a Public Relations professional, they’re going to call the person who gave the workshop.
The third is writing. I have a monthly newsletter, I occasionally contribute articles to other publications.
The fourth is trade associations, which is similar to what I’ve been saying; getting involved in an association that’s not for your profession, but it’s for your prospective clients and your current clients. You are fishing where the fish are.
Then the fifth is being active in the digital sphere. Whenever I have a newsletter, I share it on LinkedIn and Twitter. It’s also in my email signature, so every time I’m writing to someone, they’re being reminded of the things that I do.
What surprised you the most about entrepreneurship?
I wouldn’t say it has surprised me, but working independently, I don’t have someone to bounce ideas off of. And when something good happens, and I can jump out of my chair and be excited that something good has happened, I don’t have anybody else to tell either.
I belong to a private Facebook group of independent Public Relations consultants called Solo PR Pro. One of the benefits is that we can ask questions of each other. “Has anyone tried this particular software?” “What do you recommend for doing this?” “You won’t believe what just happened with my client.” “I’m so excited I got a new client.” And so, we are each other’s watercooler. That makes my office, so to speak, a little bit bigger, because I have people that I share with and them share with me.
Do you think it's important to find people that are also solo entrepreneurs… or can you include other people in your network?
I think it can be anyone. It doesn’t even have to be in person. During a period of April, when I couldn’t do much work because I was recovering from my wrist surgery, I made an offer to the members of the Solo PR Pro Facebook group, and I said, “If anyone wants me to look at their website or their LinkedIn profile, I’m sitting here on my couch, so I’m happy to do that.” And, it must’ve been six people who got in touch with me.
Doing that evaluation for them made me go back and look at what I was doing for myself. I’m convinced then, it comes back in some other intangible way later. If only that you take a leaf from what you just did for someone else and say, “Gee, I’ve been doing that too. I should take a closer look at that.”
Is there anything else that you want to add?
I would remind people that I am in the Janet Falk business. We are always promoting ourselves in every way. You are always on camera, you are always on mic, and so everything that you do, you have to be open in how people are going to perceive you and how you are projecting yourself. If I am not out there, promoting myself in a variety of ways, nobody else is going to do it for me.
I would remind every entrepreneur and every employee, that you are in the YOU business. And, I think it was Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn who said, “Everyone is a startup inc,” and you really have to carry that through, and market yourself in the five ways that we were talking about.