Political strategists who made the leap into firm ownership recall how the evolution in their professional lives was years in the making.
Sue Zoldak, founder of The Zoldak Agency, said she left her job at an agency on a Friday and opened up her own shop that Monday. But the planning prior to that move was extensive.
“I didn’t really have a transition time,” she said Sept. 9 during a panel at C&E’s Reed Awards Conference in DC. Zoldak had built up critical infrastructure in advance, including branding and digital assets. Crucially, she’d also developed strong relationships with clients she was able to bring with her to the new firm.
“To build a business is to have those relationships and those clients and those connections and they were a career in the making for me. It’s not just that I woke up overnight and decided to start a business,” she said.
Other firm owners agreed existing relationships were key to getting their own businesses started. Nick Passanante, founding partner at Boulder Strategies, recalled how he was coming off five years at a national PAC when he launched his shop: “We were able to walk in with a little bit of confidence that we were going to be OK for the first year,” he said.
After they launched, these newly minted firm owners recognized another challenge: balancing the backend needs of their business with serving their clients.
“You have to take a step back and understand that your team is here to help you and you have to rely on their expertise,” said Joe Corbe, president and CEO of 1631 Digital. Corbe said it was hard for him to go from being a “strategy guy” to being a “business guy.”
“Seeing that transition from day-to-day strategy to the backend — the infrastructure and everything that goes along with running a business — that was the most unique thing for me because I just envision myself as that strategy guy and now I’m that business guy,” he said. “It’s definitely something that you have to prepare for.”
Some owners said they quickly realized they couldn’t manage both aspects of their businesses on their own. For instance, Alicia Sisneros, founder and president of Sisneros Strategies, said she hired someone to manage her firm’s day-to-day business activities shortly after launching.
“I was able to take a lot off my plate by hiring someone to do that,” she said. “You can’t do it all. I figured that out pretty quickly.”
But even with a full team around you, it’s important to continue to block out time to focus on the backend of your shop.
“I personally actually love getting into the weeds of the business,” said Passanante. “Beyond the accounting side of things, [we meet to discuss] how we can offer the best benefits [and] how we can stay competitive in the space that’s close knit but also competitive.”
“We need to always be at the top of the game in terms of what we can offer employees and staff to keep them and show that they’re valued.”