As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Walker.
Ryan Walker is the founder of R.J. Walker & Co., a public relations firm that works primarily with small, medium, and early-stage companies in the tech, fintech, and financial services industries. He has represented companies both large and small and has a passion for developing compelling storylines, which communicate his clients’ strengths to the media. After noticing several consistent trends in the industry that reveal a wasteful and antiquated PR agency model, he started his own firm to offer companies a more effective way of building credibility and name recognition.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s less about one specific story, and more about a ton of small ones over the years. As most people know, when you spend too much time in the corporate world, it can be very draining… I hated feeling like I was collecting a paycheck and doing a job that didn’t have much material effect on the companies who were paying us. Not to mention, I thought the traditional PR model was antiquated and deeply in need of a fresh approach.
It wasn’t for me, and I felt that I could be happier, more financially successful, and more liberated by starting my own operation.
So, I went off on my own a little over three years ago. At that point I had spent much of the previous 10+ years in corporate PR — most of that time at Edelman but working for a mid-sized agency as well while also getting my MBA. There were some consistent themes I noted in nearly everywhere I worked — PR agencies are not driven by a clear ROI, most don’t have the best interests of clients in mind, pricing models are opaque, and they aren’t driven towards actually increasing sales.
It was all of this together that pushed me towards my current career path of running my own firm — issues with the industry, the politics of corporate life, and a realization that I could have a bigger impact if I ran my own company.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I first started, I had no clients and practically no money. My wife and I had just had our first baby and just bought a house — starting a business was not something that probably should have been done…
And it was hard in the beginning, adjusting to not getting a paycheck. I hustled like crazy just telling everyone I knew what I was up to — that I started my own agency, that I was taking on the traditional PR agency model and looking to work with small, medium and early-stage companies who were doing interesting things. Funny enough, nearly everyone I talked to who had worked with an agency had lived through the frustrations I highlighted — which was pretty vindicating.
It was difficult building up a client list before having any financial backing or name recognition. I think I dropped as low as having $1,000 in my savings account, so we didn’t have much room for error. I either needed to learn how take on clients or abandon ship and go back to a dull corporate job.
When your bank account gets low, things get a bit scary… But for me, it was motivating.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I didn’t see another option. I wasn’t approaching it as having one foot in the door — it was all or nothing. For me, that was the kind of mentality that was needed. I had started small side projects in the past but never believed in them enough to quit my job. And when that’s the case, it’s hard to put the work in that’s required.
If starting my own company didn’t work out, I was going to have to find a job, again, and take the risk of getting sold something in an interview while later finding out it wasn’t what you were expecting. This had been the case too often before and the thought of going through life like that was too depressing.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going phenomenally well! I hustled like crazy for the first 2–3 months and then, one by one, clients started signing. I began signing one new client a month and kept at it for the next 6 months. By mid-2019, I had a completely full roster and was already looking for contractors to help support.
Since then, I have spent almost nothing on new business or marketing and have spent probably a grand total of 2–3 hours on prospecting and selling. The quality of work has been high, and our clients have continuously sung our praises and introduced us to new prospects.
We have six people on the team now, a strong pipeline, and a great formula that helps the companies we work with get media exposure without being charged an arm and a leg.
I certainly don’t envy my colleagues and peers who spend so much time in cattle call RFPs, and always chasing new business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Yes! When I began reaching out to everybody I was connected to on LinkedIn, I was sharing a version of the same note regardless of how well I knew the person. Sometimes I was sending LinkedIn messages to people that I had no idea where I met them.
One of those people responded and offered to get together for coffee. This was a bit nerve wracking as I didn’t want to be asked how we knew each other. It would have been awkward.
But we met and through the course of the conversation, the person made it known just casually. I breathed a sigh of relief. Several weeks later, that person invited me in to meet with his company. I met the CEO, who signed that day and became my biggest client!
So, the lesson is, you never can tell how these things will happen. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people if you can’t remember where you know them from. If I had, I wouldn’t have gotten a big client from it!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think we stand out because of our authenticity and transparency. Too many people take life too seriously and are so stiff. As if they’re afraid to be seen as inadequate. That’s not to say that mistakes should be embraced… But it’s ok to do things as you think they should be done, even if bumps in the road happen along the way.
So, we take a different approach. We are very transparent about our pricing and how our retainers are formulated, we work only with experienced practitioners who understand PR and our clients’ businesses, we keep overhead costs very low, and most importantly, we focus only on the activities that matter.
Too many PR firms get caught up trying to do too many things. And when they do that, they have no choice but to charge a lot of money. This leaves clients feeling like they’re only actually getting value in a fraction of their overall budget. It’s super frustrating. Instead, just focus on the activities that actually matter and you’ll be more efficient and provide better results.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s a tough one… when you care about what you do, it’s easy to spend a lot of time on it and begin to feel burnt out. I think the best thing I can say though is to get the support and resources you need early on. I spent much of last year working around the clock and having little quality of life. Only when I started to bring on more people and trust them with the work, did I feel better.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have definitely had help along the way and drew inspiration from a lot of people. But I would say none more so than my wife. She is the one who seemed to believe in me from the beginning, pushed me to go off on my own and gave me the confidence to do so. She has helped guide my career and answer my never ending questions. Without her, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve been able to donate more to causes that I believe in and offer my professional experience to those who need it, free of charge. I hope to do a lot more of this in the future as well. But having kids, managing a home, and running a business doesn’t leave room for much else. So, I would also say that some days, the most I can do is just be a good person. Be nice to people, respect others, don’t take advantage of anybody, and do all you can to offer support and guidance when possible.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
This is something I feel very passionate about! I’ve spoken with a lot of people who have created successful companies and I’ve asked many times how they did it, what they prioritized along the way, and when they had to make certain decisions, etc. It’s been hard to find consistent advice that can be applied to different situations.
I by no means have all the answers… but here are a few thoughts that would have been helpful for me so far:
1. In the beginning, only spend precious time on activities that will bring in sales.
- There are so many ways to spend time that feel like you are “building a brand,” but many of them won’t actually yield any real results. Instead, focus relentlessly on finding clients and bringing them on board, and learning new things about your industry and what you offer. This makes the whole process much faster, more efficient, and worthwhile. If you’re spending a lot of time on social media but not getting paid for it, try something else… Start selling to people directly and be honest about what you are creating and why.
2. Don’t be afraid to connect with people who you think can help you.
- It took me a long time to actually start reaching out to people that I thought could help me. When I did, I started to learn a lot and gained some new perspectives. For me, it was easy to spend time selling and connecting with friends and peers as I was just getting going but I was less interested in sharing my experience with mentors and asking for advice. I think I could have gotten to where I got to faster if I did.
3. Create a model that can be replicated and teach people you trust how to carry it out.
- This is a challenge, but I think is necessary for scaling a business. There are only so many hours in a day and you need to realize you can’t do it all yourself. If you have a certain way of doing things, show others what that is, why, and have them do it for you. From there, you can sell a productized service that you know is effective.
4. Find the business first, then the support staff.
- I remember thinking I needed to put a team together early on when I barely had 5 or 6 comparatively low-paying clients. I scrambled to find people and teach them when I hadn’t even figured out much on my own yet. I also didn’t have the confidence that I could keep them on long-term, which added to unnecessary stress. In retrospect, I should have spent more time building the right client base and getting my formula together, then knowing what I needed from a support perspective.
5. Work with clients and customers who are the right fit and support what you are doing.
- In the early days, I was taking anything I could get — including clients that I had no business working with but who said they needed PR support. They were outside of my interest area and my specialties, and many of these experiences were more challenging than rewarding. While I made a few bucks in the process for work that was done, they were ultimately a distraction from getting into the rhythm I eventually got to.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
I think it’s important to identify what motivates you and then make sure you put yourself in a position to be reminded of it daily. For me, being able to spend more time with family (and maybe retire super early…) is a big motivator and that has helped me ride the highs and lows. Also, as silly as it sounds, my favorite quote is from Steve Harvey, who said “the dream is free, the hustle is extra.” I got a wood burned piece of art with the quote that I have on my wall, and I see it every day. It reminds me to keep pushing through even on days where things don’t always go your way.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I am a big believer in reducing climate change and supporting the right to life. There’s no reason we shouldn’t embrace technology that provides energy in a clean and efficient way. Why choose to live with pollution if we don’t have to? I also think that every human being at every stage has a right to live the best life they can. This should never be cut short. I don’t think either of these things should be politicized, and in my next life, I’d like to devote more time to helping more people make rational decisions on issues like these.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can find us at www.rjwalkerco.com and on LinkedIn!