Interview: How To Start a PR Company
At 22 years old, where were you in your career situation? Where did you think you were going to go? Where were you working out of college? What was the deal?
Okay. So at 22 I was just graduating from Northeastern University. My major was journalism. They had a five year co-op program, and part of that experience was three separate work study jobs. Internships if you will. Paid.
The first one was with the New York Times, where I did a lot of copywriting and editing and things like that. Then I worked with two successive radio stations. One in Greenwich, when I was 19 or 20, I was on the air 5 times a day doing news and sports. Then I also hosted an hour long monthly talk show. That was an amazing experience for me.
After that I was at CBS news radio in Boston doing all sorts of breaking news. Writing, reporting, etc. It was a great experience, but it told me that I didn’t want a future in journalism. So I went back to some of my professors and said what else is out there. Because I loved the whole, I’m a news junkie to this day, I love the whole experience of breaking news, but I didn’t like journalists per se. They seemed very jaded and down on things. But I really liked to write and I really liked the whole news thing.
So they suggested pursuing either advertising or public relations. So at the age of 22, I started putting together my resume and networking to see if I could find something in the advertising or the PR world.
Did you ever think then that you’d be where you’re at today?
No. Not in my wildest dreams. It’s interesting because I wasn’t stressed out about it at all. Maybe because it was a different world or whatever. But I wasn’t too concerned about being successful or where I would end up. I was more short term focused in terms of ‘Let’s find something that I liked to do.’
The good thing about the co-op program is that I had a good feel for what the workplace had to offer before I ever entered the workforce full time. So a lot of schools did not have that back then. So I graduated in ’77, and when I went in for the interview that I eventually got the job for, for a PR firm called Billen Alton, I was against Dartmouth and Cornell and Yale graduates. But they didn’t have any work experience. I had the equivalent of almost two years of work experience. So that made a huge difference.
Once I got into the job, it wasn’t a big deal for me to succeed because I had worked under deadline pressure already. I knew what news reporting was all about. Luckily I was able to succeed almost from the get go.
So you started Peppercom in 1995 out of a one bedroom apartment?
Right. My partners apartment. The two of us. No clients. I borrowed $7500 from my mother in law. $5000 from my older brother. We basically went six or seven months without a dime in terms of money in my own pocket.
We just went all out to try to get business and create awareness of ourselves to get the firm going. But again, with no expectations of what it might become. Just a confidence that I had worked for a bunch of other firms. I had worked for them, I had meet a lot of people, so the network was already established in terms of who I could call. People knew who I was. It wasn’t like I was a superstar or anything, but they knew who I was.
So there were no expectations there either in terms of starting Peppercom and making it successful or not successful. We basically said, ‘Let’s give this six months and see what happens.’
And then you stuck with it for eight.
Well, this is our twelfth year. But it took off from the get go. Within the first year we did a million dollars in billings. End of the second year we had two and a half. Then we went to five, seven point five, then 9. Then we hit the dot com crash and 9/11. We had a lot of tough years. Now we’re back up to about 12 million this year. With London, San Francisco, Chicago offices in addition to the one here in New York.
So I was reading in one of your blogs that you were hired as a successor to the CEO at the time and that didn’t pan out.
That’s why you started this. This is your open door.
That’s interesting because a lot of entrepreneurs fail before they succeed. And that particular experience was a failure. I went in as a hand picked successor to the CEO of a division of J. Walter Thompson. The guy had no intention of ever stepping down. He made my life absolutely miserable for about fifteen or sixteen months while I was there.
It was a great experience in terms of learning about an organization I didn’t want to be part of, and the way I didn’t want to manage my people. But it also served as a great catalyst to prove this guy wrong, that I did know what I was doing and I could be successful by running my own business.
Now, they’re in the dust. We’re light years past those guys. But he is still a catalyst for me. I still get angry when I think about the way he treated me and the way he treated people at that firm. It’s like an ongoing motivating factor for me.
That’s funny because I’ve talked with so many people that have had that same driving force behind them. Someone told them no. Someone told them they couldn’t do it and now they’re out doing it leaps and bounds further than they were told they wouldn’t be doing it.
It’s very satisfying to say the least.
So you also do a little stand up comedy?
I went to a show last night. It was the first time I’d ever been to a comedy show. It was pretty entertaining.
Oh yeah they’re wild. I’ve always loved comedy. It was one of those things like learning a second language or playing the piano. I just said I was going to try it. So I studied it. I took a course about nine months and now perform every other Saturday.
It’s very cool. I actually get paid for it. $35 a gig.
Nice! So I was talking with Dandy, your assistant. I do this every time I go into a company. I ask someone there about what’s a good question to ask Steve. She said that with all of your entrepreneurial success, growing this firm into one of the greatest places to work, how do you keep the whole thing fresh for yourself? How do you not hit that wall that a lot of entrepreneurs hit when they start their business?
With you, it’s your twelve year anniversary. So how have you remained fresh, innovative, and kept this thing going?
The thing that turns me on is coming up with new ideas, new services, new products. So I don’t necessarily stay involved in a lot of the account work that I had done in the early and middle years. So I still have client contact and still will deal with a client crisis, for the most part I’m getting out and giving a lot of speeches, doing a lot of webinars. I sit on a lot of panels. I’ve been on CNBC and things like that.
But the real turn on is coming up with completely new service ideas that outflank and outwit our competition. So that’s what keeps it fresh for me.
If I had to come in and do more or less the same thing, from 9-5 that I was doing twelve years ago, then I would totally be burned down and be asking what’s next. But the nice thing about Peppercom is that we have such a great next level of management who can do that day to day business that I can focus on creating a breakthrough web 2.0 product. Or how do we create this, or how do we create that?
That’s what keeps it fresh for me.
So you’re a social media guy.
I am. Big time. And if you would have talked to me two or three years ago, I would have asked what that is.
So that’s the challenge. Learning about all new things. So if we were just a public relations firm, or just the confines of still doing public relations, then probably not. But we branched off onto so many other really cool things like all the web stuff. The crisis work we do is really cool. We do a lot of simulation over a day and a half with senior management of a corporation. And we simulate everything from a hostage taking situation to an earthquake.
We actually did the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the ice hockey team. We worked with the entire team and their management to simulate an earthquake at the Pond. That is just so cool to be working with the players, the coaches, the management when an 8.2 earthquake just occurred. Now what do you do?
How do you get the fans out? How do you deal with the sponsors? What do you do with the other team? How do you deal with the media? Local hospital, police, fireman? It’s really cool stuff.
All of those things keep me fresh.
A couple small business owners I’ve talked to, I’ve actually walked in on them, when I was going to the interview, and they’re cleaning their restaurant. Cleaning the grease bays or something like that. The business owners are doing that. I saw in your blog that you talked about cleaning the bathroom well. I was hoping that you could elaborate on that. On focusing on the little things to be successful.
I’m really concerned about everything from how our receptionist treats people to how she answers the phone. I’m concerned with how our people interact with one another. Right down to if there is a spill or stain on the carpet, if the men’s room is not clean. It drives me nuts. Things outside of my control.
I don’t know if you noticed, but they’re just finishing a sidewalk in front of our building. There was a big accident and the subway platform was knocked down. A lot of the tile and pavement was torn up. So literally for the last four months it’s been a work zone in front of our building. So you try to bring in clients or prospects, and they have to walk past all sorts of debris and construction workers and dust. You’ll be in a meeting and you’ll hear jackhammers. That just drives me completely nuts.
I want the customer experience to be flawless. So that comes right down to making sure that the light bulbs are replaced all the time. We’re trying to become much more green conscious. So we’re getting rid of as much paper as we can. Paper cups are no longer available in our kitchen. Newspapers are being cut down. So we are really conscious of all that stuff.
So how do you avoid micromanaging?
I’ve never been a micromanager. One of the things that I like to do, and the beautiful thing I think about Peppercom is that we give people a lot of leeway. If you prove yourself to me in a short period of time, I’ll just assume that you’re running accounts A, B, and C, and you’ll let me know if you need me or have a crisis. But otherwise, I don’t want any surprises.
If there are surprises, that’s going to limit your growth at Peppercom. And the people who succeed are not the ones who have surprises for me and my partner Eddie.
I’m not a micromanager. I look more at what’s next. I’m all about what’s next.
I was just pointing it out because with me, I don’t consider myself a micromanager. But I got three degenerate guys living in this RV, who are my friends, who I’m trying to lead towards this vision that I have. It’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve had on this whole trip. Definitely one of the things I’ve taken away from this whole journey is that a lot of people ask me what I’ve learned from talking with people. I’ve learned more living in the RV trying to get these guys motivated.
As a leader yourself, how do you get people motivated to share your vision and work towards that?
You motivate by example. I like to joke around a lot, and that’s why stand up comedy was a natural extension. I like work to be a good time. So I’m very irreverent. I’m sometimes politically incorrect. But I like to see the humor in business. So if you’re laid back and enjoy joking and having a good time, but working hard, that’s the environment that’s going to attract and keep top people. So what I’m doing is I’m recognizing and I’m telling these people that they have to work really hard in an environment that’s not uptight. It’s a very flat, come in and fool around for a little while if you want to. Don’t take yourself seriously at all. That’s another thing. We’re constantly poking fun good naturedly at one another. That’s another thing.
You spend more time with the people at work than you do with your family at home. So you have to get along with that workforce population. We attract people who take a client’s business very seriously, who will work very hard here, but like to have a lot of fun. So we talk about work hard, play hard. A lot of events, a lot of fun things like outings to let people blow off the steam.
We have unbelievable amounts of people who have been here five, nine years of the twelve. There’s a real cool camaraderie here. At this point, I really don’t have to do anything to keep people charged up. It’s taken on a life of its own, which is really cool.
That is pretty cool. Do you think a lot of people in the workforce today take themselves too seriously?
I don’t know about a lot. But certainly there’s any number of people who don’t have a sense of humor. Who think that what they’re doing is rocket science and is going to change the world when it’s not.
I recognize that what we do, public relations, is important for our client’s image and reputation. But is it going to end world hunger? No. It’s not. Is it going to bring peace to Iraq? No it’s not. So you have to take that in perspective. No matter how big the crisis, no matter how important the client, you get to also recognize that this is really important for them and really important for us, but so is life. It’s more important to enjoy the time you’re here than it is to be all alone and grumpy and worth millions of dollars that you’ve made by hurting everybody. You haven’t had a good life.
This is all about enjoying the time that you’re here. It’s a different perspective than a lot of businesses have. There are a lot of businesses that manage by fear. We don’t manage by fear. It’s self policing. If someone isn’t performing, the group will reject that person. That person will know that he or she is letting down their peers. Sometimes it will involve me getting involved, but the Peppercom body is so intense and cool and knows what it wants and where it’s going that you either get into that and move along, or you leave or you’re asked to leave.
So in one week I have to deliver some sort of speech to sixty entrepreneurship students at the University of Delaware. I was wondering what message I should give them from you because you’re a well known entrepreneur and I figure that I could use some kind of advice you could give me.
The advice is expect to fail and not to let the failure derail you, but to look at failure as a learning experience. Because there’s the Youtube guys, the Google guys who hit a homerun out of the park right away. But more often than not, most of those people have failed once or twice. So for me, entrepreneurship is all about getting better and better over time and learning from success and learning from failure.
I think too many people aren’t willing to accept that. They aspire to be entrepreneurs but they’re not willing to go through that pain period of either going without a significant salary for x number of months or longer, or something goes wrong and the business doesn’t pan out. And they say, ‘Well, I tried. Now I’m going to go back to the corporate world.’
That’s a challenge for a lot of people. It takes a certain, special type of person to be an entrepreneur. I’m almost dealing with that myself. I’ve put in a lot of time, I’ve quit my job to do this, and now it’s like, ‘Is it really worth it?’
It’s interesting. We did a survey for Entrepreneur magazine where we surveyed their readers on whether they thought they were born entrepreneurs or they learned it over time. It was 50/50. But I am definitely not a born entrepreneur. I needed to go through any number of larger organizations to learn the ropes and to get established and build my own network. I wasn’t an entrepreneur until I hit 39.
My other advice would be, and it’s not for everybody because there are those exceptions who become an instant, successful entrepreneur out the shoot. But for me, I would argue that getting with another group of entrepreneurs or joining a larger organization to get two or three or four years under your belt so you understand the business world from a practical standpoint before you set out on your own.
But again, I’m not saying that hasn’t worked for some people because it has. It’s just my personal take that I never could have been an entrepreneur at 22. I was clueless at 22 as to how business ran. I understood journalism. I understood how to write, news, all that stuff. But as far as running a business, operating, overhead expenses, human resources issues and all that? Forget it.
Would you say that was your biggest failure so far in your business career was going to be that successor?
Oh yeah. Far and away. Absolutely. Yeah. Because that was crushing. I thought I was going to stay and be set for life. I was going to be taking over this major division at J. Walter Thompson. Stock options with a blue chip company, ‘It doesn’t get any better than J. Walter Thompson.’ I have a wife with two kids and a mortgage with two car payments. What am I going to do now?
So I thought it was the end of the world.
Geez. So you had all those responsibilities and you still started Peppercom?
Correct. I still started Peppercom. That’s because my wife said absolutely. Because she knew that at that point and time I really wanted to try it.
And the other piece of advice is, ‘Don’t wait until you’re 60 years old and look back to say ‘What if.’’ If you think you’ve got the entrepreneurial bug in you, definitely explore it. Definitely explore it.
Because the worst thing is to go through life and have a regret. And look back and say what if I had tried an entrepreneurial venture.
It’s a matter of doing it and being willing to fail. Be willing to learn. And pick yourself up again.
I was also reading on your site that you do a lot of reading of non fiction and history and biographies. If there was one person you could go back and meet, who would it be?
Winston Churchill in a heartbeat.
What’s the one question you would ask him?
When the entire world was crashing down around you in 1940, and England was all alone against what appeared to be a global powerhouse in Nazi Germany, how did you keep it together? How did you personally keep it together? That’s what I would ask him. By far and away, I think he’s the most outstanding figure in history. Just personally.
You can’t really make a comparison of his situation to anything that you’ve experienced, but was there a time in business where it was all crashing down around you?
Totally. When the end of this Walter J. Thompson thing was clearly happening, I thought my entire world was coming down. I didn’t know what I would do. This was clearly a failure. What will people think of me? What do I do? Go to another big agency? Do I want to be seen as that guy that failed at J. Walter Thompson? I was just definitely down and out for a couple of months in terms of ‘What am I going to do with myself?’
So how did you hold it together?
It was really my wife who said do it. She said to not worry about the money and that’d we’d get by and we’d succeed. It was also knowing that I could get a job somewhere at another agency. I could always do a fallback or take a stepback. There would always be some sort of employment for me. So I guess that’s what kept me going.
It was really knowing that my wife was cool with it. That was the biggest thing.
That’s good. I got a girl back home. She’s very supportive for me doing this.
Oh yeah. Material. I mean, if you have the wrong mate, there’s no way. It’s not going to happen. So having that person there is not only an emotional support, but understands financially that it’s going to be really tough for a year or so. That makes all the difference in the world. My wife is what got me through it.
Cool. You’ve given me a lot of advice, but a question I always do ask at the end is if you could go back to when you were 22 years old and just give yourself one piece of advice, what would you say to the 22 year old Steve?
That’s a great question. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to stretch. Don’t wait to stretch. I’m doing a lot of stretching now in terms of stand up comedy. Improv. I’m doing mountain climbing. That’s just in the last year I’ve been doing all these things. I wish I was doing a lot of those things much earlier in life.
I’m also running a half marathon soon. I’m going to try to advance to a full marathon. So a lot of these things, even though I worked out in my 20’s, I didn’t try to do any of those extracurricularly. So don’t wait.
And just stretch yourself just outside of sports.
Stretch yourself in terms of all different kinds of passions. The more the stretch yourself, the more you challenge yourself, I think the better person you’re going to be. I think the more respect you’ll get from others. That would be the number one thing I would do. Because at 22, I was very conformist in terms of what would other people think and what I should do. And what’s the right thing to do.
All of my passions were put on long term hold. So what I’m saying is to follow your passions from the get go.
And why don’t people follow their passions from the get go? Or why don’t they stretch themselves?
I don’t know. It’s a good question. They get so caught up in the here and now. They get so caught up in the job defining who they are. And most people see themselves based upon what their job is. Whenever you meet people, one of the first questions you get at a cocktail reception is ‘What do you do? What kind of job do you have?’
Now when people ask me what I do, I start with my passions.
‘I do stand up comedy, improv, I’m training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in December. And I also happen to be in public relations.’
‘Oh really, what do you do in PR?’
‘I’m with a New York city PR firm.’
‘Oh really, which one?’
‘Oh I’ve heard of Peppercom. What do you do there?’
‘I own it.’
So I back it up. Whereas if you tried that ten years ago with me, I would have said I’m an executive at J. Walter Thompson. And that defined me. I don’t define myself that way anymore. And what I’m saying, if I could give myself advice at 22, it’s not to let the job define who you are.