During a decade in campaigns, I worked legislative races, congressional races, and ballot initiatives all over the country. I graduated from the RNC’s campaign management college, served as senior state party staff, was one of the youngest operatives to ever manage a governor’s race, and taught campaign seminars.
But it was all under someone else’s banner, never my own.
After my son was born I needed to make my own travel schedule and work schedule. So I left the shop where I held a senior position and, in 2017, started my own firm.
After a good first two years, with a few bumps and bruises along the way, here are some lessons I’d like to pass along for those looking to hang their own shingle:
Don’t poach clients.
Three weeks after launching, I got a call from a consultant I’d worked with from Arizona. He asked me to help with a special congressional election. His candidate didn’t have the budget to hire my old firm, who he’d retained before. I called my old boss to discuss. Once he gave me the go-ahead, I agreed.
When launching from an old firm, unless you’ve totally burned a bridge, you’re going to want to maintain ties with your old shop — and every other shop you’ve worked with.
This is a small industry. Your competitor in a pitch one day is someone sending you overflow work, or clients they’re conflicted out of, the next day.
How you incorporate matters.
I’m not a lawyer. I’m not an accountant. I play neither on TV.
Having said that, the accountant and lawyer I did hire, both advised me to form as an S-Corp, meaning the firm’s profits are reportable on my taxes in addition to a corporate return. This is most relevant to a new business because, in the early days, I would infuse the business with cash to cover expenses, then take a draw. Compare that to a C-Corp, which only allows for officers to take salary-based compensation.
Don’t be afraid of growth.
When it’s your own money launching a business, probably using everything you’ve saved, it’s understandable to be pennywise. But too often that leads to being a pound foolish. It almost did with me.
One of our clients in 2018 was a state Senate race in Massachusetts. The manager who I’d been friends with for five years called me one day to say that if their account didn’t get more attention, they were going to fire us. At the time we were a company of two.
We hired more staff and got our first office within 48 hours. We spent a month in the red. That month allowed us to take on more clients, service them successfully, bring in more revenue – and build our reputation for the next cycle.
Invoicing and billing are your lifeblood.
Invest in an invoicing, billing and expense tracking system. In the early days, with four or five clients, I saw invoicing and expense tracking systems as unnecessary expenses. I knew all of our client's retainers off the top of my head, and I could keep their expenses in a spreadsheet. I would estimate that mistake probably cost me close to $30,000 in forgotten expenses. Because you can’t go back to a client six months later and say, “Hey sorry, I forgot to include this in your invoice.”
Once the invoices are out, billing and collecting is probably the most stressful time for a business owner of any kind. You’ve sent out payroll, now you’re praying the invoices get paid. In the political world, I’ve learned about a third of clients pay the day they receive the invoice, a third of clients pay the day the invoice is due, then there’s always the third that you have to call 10 times before payment is made.
Try not to sweat it too much. In hundreds of invoices, I’ve only ever had five or six seriously try to avoid payment.
Make it personal for your clients.
When you’re starting your own firm, you have the opportunity to give each race a personal touch. On an Arizona congressional special election, I drove to Phoenix for the last few days of the campaign. The night before the election, the candidate and I put up yard signs, then we prayed together.
I wasn’t considered a “consultant.” I was a member of the team.
That won’t always be the case with every race, but the early clients you help with that amount of attention can help spread the good word about your firm.
Don’t listen to fear.
As a new business owner, you’re going to spend at least a few hours a day making calls, sending emails, telling everyone you know you’ve started a business hoping to be connected to clients. It won’t be long before you hear the first “I don’t know, that’s pretty risky,” or “thanks, but we already have a consultant.” Soon thereafter, you’ll question whether it was all a big mistake.
My experience is right around that time you’ll get a call and a new client you never expected will land in your lap.
Keep going. Send your emails. Make your calls. Believe in yourself.
Rory McShane is the principal of McShane LLC, a political consulting and media firm based in Las Vegas, Nevada and Washington, D.C.