Caroline Siler, founder of Melbourne-based boutique agency, Keep Left PR gives her entrepreneurial insight on how she came to provide a service SMEs can afford.
“I’m going out on my own. Would you like to come on board as my first client?”
It’s the question that defines entrepreneurs as those who take their destiny into their own hands. But how many would think to put that question to their employer at the time? Lack of job security and an evident need for high-quality PR services at a price SMEs could afford, was what led Caroline Siler to do just that.
“It was a leap of faith, but after I made the decision to start my own PR agency, I sent an email around to everyone in my network notifying them of my plans. From that point on, I knew I was committed, and not being one to give up, here I am today!” Siler’s Melbourne-based boutique agency Keep Left PR, now provides personalised public relations and marketing support to corporate and consumer sectors such as IT, recruitment, media and leisure. Backed by a team of six other professionals, she has managed to take on some of the bigger agencies dominating the market and doubled the size of her business over the past 12 months. With new recommendations through the door each week, approximately 95 per cent of the agency’s business is derived from recommendations meaning that Siler has made her proud mark in the industry by the age of 29.
DB: How did you progress to director of Keep Left PR?
CS: I was one of those fortunate people who knew what I wanted to do from an early age and in year 10 I decided I wanted to work in PR. During my third year at university, I began work at Coles Myer in their media relations department, but decided after a year that I wanted a bit more diversity.
I made the move to an agency environment and began working for Hill & Knowlton where I worked across their marketing practice before being transferred to IT. When the Melbourne office closed down, one of their clients, Ingena, approached me directly to come on board as their communications manager. Over a short period of time, I was lucky to have received experience across a diverse range of environments across in-house, agency and small business. After about nine months, the role at Ingena simply wasn’t a full-time job and there was no job security at the time. I began to see the need for Ingena, as a small business, to have a structured PR plan that would differentiate them from their competitors and didn’t require going to a big agency with huge fees or having someone in-house. So, I began freelancing and approached my boss to become my first client. When they accepted, I negotiated some space within their office. This was prefect, as at just 23, I had a Collins Street address and landed my first client straight away.
DB: What advice did you seek in starting out?
CS: For me, it was actually more a case of not listening, rather than actually listening to people. At the time (and this was probably fair enough), people thought I was crazy to be starting my own business at age 23 when the technology market was so volatile.
But, I came to realise that people are quite often conservative in nature and very risk averse, stifling the entrepreneurial spirit. I believed that if I actually applied myself then there was no reason I couldn’t do it and sheer determination saw me through.
Of course, that’s not to say that I don’t readily take advice, it’s more a case of ensuring I remain true to myself and do what I feel is right. Currently, I have a team of advisors I use on a daily basis, such as an HR consultant, a business coach, and legal and financial teams. More often than not, you get conflicting pieces of advice from people, depending on their immediate circle and priorities, but I believe that talking to people and getting multiple opinions is essential in making your own decisions. Networking with others in similar roles to you also proves invaluable.
DB: Who are your main competitors? How do you differentiate yourself from them?
CS: Our competitors range from other boutique agencies to large multinationals. Our methodology is based on getting under the skin of the business and becoming part of their team or extended family, rather than simply providing an add-on service. My previous experience working in hospitality has helped in developing a service culture within Keep Left PR. This is about ensuring a great experience for clients by extending our service to reach above and beyond what is expected. As a boutique agency, we conduct our business in a very personalised manner. Our business model is not volume-based, it’s based on working with a small number of clients in an intense fashion.
We’ve also had really good feedback on our strategic approach as we invest heavily in getting to know our clients and their business right from the outset to develop campaigns that strategically hook back into their broader business objectives.
DB: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made so far (and how did you rectify it)?
CS: The biggest mistake I’ve made is starting work without a signed contract. Clients are always in a hurry and want things done yesterday. When you’re so service-orientated and used to saying yes, you tend to forget about ensuring you dot the i’s and cross the t’s. You really need to be quite vigilant with all the housekeeping. Not investing in a good accountant earlier proved costly. Having no background in business made it hard to discern between a good and average accountant, and I learnt that things such as accountants and doctors should always be based on a recommendation from somebody that you trust, as opposed to the Yellow Pages. Taking advantage of that learning curve has resulted in enormous dividends for us now.
DB: At what point did you know you had made it as a business owner?
CS: I definitely don’t think I’ve made it; this is only the beginning of the journey. As a business, we will constantly challenge ourselves to do things better, differently and more effectively. Anytime you push yourself (or others) to do something out of that comfort zone is a proud moment and that’s what being in business is all about. Sydney is now in our sights. I’ll know I’ve made it when I can go on a six-month sabbatical to Tuscany without any impact on the business, but that’s a while away, so right now, short breaks suit me just fine.
Wise words from a 20-something
• Don’t be afraid to start young – there are pros and cons for everything
• Invest in a robust HR system and your people. Culture and retention of key personnel is vital for business (especially one in growth mode)
• Say thank you to people (it’s amazing what this does). Genuinely appreciate their efforts and set up a structure that gives your staff ownership/buy-in
• I once heard someone say you get the staff you deserve and I think this is true
• Don’t be afraid of rolling up your sleeves and doing the hard work
• Understand the figures; in particular the difference between profit and cash flow
• Have a laugh and, during busy times, always make sure there’s a light at the end of the tunnel