At this point in the cycle, consultants, managers and ambitious staffers start day dreaming about their own firms. It’s partly a product of the hours they’re putting in, the travel that’s adding up, the candidate egos they’ve had to sooth. They’re looking around the office and whispering to themselves, “It’d be different if I ran things.”
The entrepreneurial spirit is alive in most campaign professionals. It’s just a matter of brining it out. For those willing to act on it, here are some tips I’ve learned over the past decade that hopefully help you avoid some early mistakes and hack some growth to quickly make your new firm successful.
Get The Business Basics Right
Whether you’re opening a retail shop or a general consulting firm, nothing works well unless you get the basis of business right first. Start a separate legal entity — most people elect to set up a limited liability company (LLC). Get a separate bank account — never commingle personal and business funds. Hire professionals: an accountant and an attorney are not luxuries. Get business owner’s policy (BOP) and errors and omissions (E&O) insurance. It’s worth the cost and will protect you from unwanted liability.
After this is all done, then you can think about a logo, website, advertising, and what Restoration Hardware couch you want in your expansive 30th floor corner office. On that note, don’t get hung up on a name. No one will ever not hire you because you’re Smith & Associates.
Define Your Vision And Mission
One of the most common mistakes new political consultants make is being a jack of all trades, master of none. Been there. Done that. Still struggle with it.
It’s easy to take every opportunity that walks in the door. Before you start selling yourself, take one to two hours to write down, with a pen and paper, where you want to be in five years. What do your clients look like? What does your firm look like? What are you famous for? What are the three most important things you do for your clients? What is your firm’s personality? Write your company vision in narrative form as if it has already happened.
Next, develop your mission statement. Think of this as the guardrails for your business, or better yet the bumpers on your bowling lane. Your mission statement should clearly state what your firm does, which by inference also says what you don’t do.
Cygnal’s (in progress) mission statement is: “We uncover answers, grow influence, and win battles using innovative research, marketing, and communication strategies learned in politics and business.”
Stick to Your Specialties
Yes, you might be able to do mail, handle digital, create TV ads, place media, build canvassing programs, write phone scripts, setup press conferences, draft campaign plans, and record radio spots. Sorry to break it to you, but you cannot do everything well. Trying to handle it all will also hinder you from becoming great at one or two things. Look at the firms winning awards and raking in the big bucks, nearly every single one has a very narrow focus. (I bet they have a mission statement and a vision, too.)
If you really want to have your hand in all aspects of a campaign, become a general consultant and partner with the best and brightest in each vendor/service category needed to win a race. Otherwise, start a media firm, or a direct mail firm, or a phone firm instead.
Identify Your Targets
Once you know where you want to go (vision) and what you do to get there (mission statement), the next step in starting your political consulting firm is to clearly identify who your targets are. Hopefully you’ve already made the first target market decision by determining whether you’ll do Republican, Democrat, Independent, or nonpartisan work. What size races in terms of dollars do you want to handle or work with? Is there a specific region of the US? How about a particular type of candidate (ex. conservative businessmen challenging establishment incumbents)?
Write down the results of this brainstorming so you can build an actual profile of your ideal target(s). This exercise will help you when prospecting campaigns, businesses, or independent expenditures for new work. As Zig Zigler said, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.”
Assemble Your Vendor Network
Even if you are bootstrapping your new firm, you need good vendors. Hopefully you’re not designing your own mail pieces, unless you’re starting a direct mail firm. Key to putting together your vendor network is to find potential partners that will make you a priority. If you’re just another number to their business, keep looking. Also, don’t confine yourself to political vendors.
Ask for references; the company they keep will tell you a lot about them. Ask for discounts; you have to maintain margins to stay in business. Ask for help; good partners will impart knowledge on you to help you succeed. And if things aren’t working out, let the vendor go.
Build The Processes
Unless you want to work by yourself forever, written processes and systems are a must. I’ll be the first to admit that my default mode of operation is: “I’ll handle it.” Why? Because I know it will get done the right way (or how I perceive something to be right) in the right amount of time. That is not a scalable approach.
Taking the extra bit of time required to write down the steps to a process as you do it will yield significant dividends in the future. Imagine only having to review something before it goes out the door that used to take you 20 minutes, and you did it 8-10 times per week. You just gained three-plus hours back of your time to work on higher value tasks and projects.
Set Reasonable Goals
Goal are the measuring stick to define success (or failure) and the carrot-and-stick to push you where you need to be. Most people are motivated by money at some level, but how can you double your revenue in six months? Write a SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-bound) goal and look at it daily. Being each day by writing down the most important task (MIT) that will move you toward that goal today.
You’ll be amazed at how much more you can accomplish if you know where your time and energy is aimed. People who set goals are nearly always more successful than those who don’t.
I know this sounds like a whole lot of work, because it is. But the reward is worth the risk. Being a skilled political practitioner and being a successful business owner are two very different things. It’s my desire that you will combine the two and dominate your world.
Brent Buchanan is a managing partner at Cygnal, a GOP communication, digital, and data/research firm.