The Secret of the Accidental Entrepreneur

July 18, 2016

It might surprise you to learn that, as a child, I did not dream of growing up to run a successful legal PR firm. 

I wanted to be president of the United States, writer of the Great American Novel, editor of The New York Times and a card-carrying member of the ACLU.  Also: tall.  I really wanted to be tall.  In adulthood, I have achieved exactly one of those goals.  (Some hints: I am still short and not seeking elected office.)

Along the way, though, I have managed to achieve a few goals I didn’t know I had.

I am, as it has turned out, an accidental entrepreneur.  And a pretty good one, if I do say so myself.

By almost no measure am I well-suited to owning a business. I am, for example, terrible at math.  I am also profoundly introverted, which seems like kind of a problem for anyone who has to sell anything.

I started this business mainly because I didn’t see any alternatives.  My journalism career was incompatible with my family life, as was working for a traditional PR agency that valued office “face time” and long hours.  I figured that if I worked for myself, at least my boss wouldn’t get mad at me for sneaking off to have dinner with my kids.

But five years on from that momentous and probably ill-informed decision to strike out on my own, this little agency has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.  And, in finding a way to build a business that makes use of the skills I built in my previous work lives as a management consultant and then a journalist, I have stumbled onto the secret of how to succeed in business even when you don’t feel like really trying.

In doing the media relations work that is the core of our business, I am not an aggressive or “sales-y” pitcher of stories to journalists.  I remember being on the receiving end of a lot of those pitches and I hated them.  Instead, I play to my own strengths, consuming an enormous quantity of business and legal media and identifying exactly which reporters and outlets would want exactly which stories.  I make fewer pitches than almost anyone I know in the PR business, but I have a much higher rate of success.

Over the years, this success has given me the opportunity to spend more and more time with some of Chicago’s very best lawyers, who have become my clients.  As I’ve met them, and their colleagues, I’ve come to understand that we have a lot in common.  Lawyers, too, tend to be non-mathematically inclined and, many of them tend to be introverts just like me, who’d rather write and read than “work a room” to develop business and sell their services.  Attorneys on the partner track in mid-size and larger firms often similarly find themselves in the position of being an accidental entrepreneur.  They got into the profession because they liked the work, but to be successful, they have to add sales and marketing responsibilities – precisely the responsibilities they were avoiding in choosing law school over, say, business school – to their work lives.

The model that has worked for me, finding a way around my fear, is the very same model that can work for lawyers who are struggling with business development.

Instead of forcing yourself to do things you hate, you find another way to accomplish the same goal.  Early in my career, when it was becoming clear that I was not actually going to be able to spend the decades of focus and development necessary to become a truly great novelist, I took a corporate, pay-the-bills kind of job and then proceeded to make clear to everyone around me that I hated it.  I was obnoxious.  A wise and patient mentor told me that, while I might not be able to do what I liked, I should at least be able to find a way to like what I do.

It took me a while to fully absorb that lesson, but I have, finally, come to embrace it.  And I’m making it my mission now to share that wisdom with others.

You don’t have to talk sports or troll the tradeshow floor with Jello shots to sell your services.  But you do need to do something.  You need to figure out what you’re good at.  You need to find the people who would benefit from your expertise.  And then, you need to get in front of those people and make sure they know what you have to offer and that they can count on you to be available when they need you.

Getting in front of people might mean speaking to meetings of professional associations or participating in an online forum.  It might mean attending seminars or alumni functions or panel discussions.  That all takes effort.  And then, to make sure that effort doesn’t go to waste, you have to make even more effort.  You have to nurture the relationships that come from those initial contacts and introductions.

This is work, but it doesn’t have to be awful.  Maybe you’re not doing what you like, but you can find a way to like what you’re doing.  If you don’t like late-night cigars, don’t smoke them.  If you don’t want to go on a golf outing, skip it.  But find a way to build the relationships that will become the basis for your book of business.  Maybe you’re the person who reads every industry journal and sends the most interesting, useful clips from them to the busy professionals who need them most.  Or perhaps you’ve assembled an incredible database of resources for fellow working parents and can offer referrals to needed services whenever you hear someone struggling to handle all their competing responsibilities.

The relationships you build when you are being your authentic self, doing what you’re comfortable with and what you do best, are the relationships that will be the most valuable in building your professional network.  That’s the secret of the accidental entrepreneur.