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Communicating Self-Employment

Darci E. McConnell is the President ,of McConnell Communications, Inc. located in Detroit, Michigan has been a NASE member since 2014. Darci joined the NASE after learning about its existence while conducting a search for grants for small businesses (The NASE offers $4,000 Growth Grants to our members). She was also excited to see other benefits for small firms such as growth tips and insurance discounts. As President, Darci is a publicist, crisis manager, entrepreneur, teacher, communicator and mentor. McConnell Communications has served clients large and small, ranging from Fortune 500 firms such as Feld Entertainment and Northwest Airlines to local non-profits such as 100 Black Men of Greater Detroit and the Detroit Branch NAACP.

What inspired you to enter the field you are in?
I’ve loved to write since I was a child, so I majored in English and Communication at the University of Michigan. I spent 14 years as a newspaper reporter at media outlets across Michigan as well as D.C. But as the industry was changing, it became tougher for me to do the type of journalism I wanted, and I decided that PR allowed me to use many of the same skills and connections.

When and why did you start your business?
I had a great meeting with the late, great Casino Magnate Don H. Barden. I was trying to decide whether to join an existing PR firm or to start one of my own. He said, “Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to work for somebody, or do you want to be independent?” Of course, I gave the latter response. He then became one of my first clients. The company was incorporated in May, 2004.

Did you open an office right away or do you work from home?
I’m proud to say that McConnell Communications is now entering its 11th year. The first two years I formed and built my business from home. As we began to prepare for growth in 2006, I moved the business into our current location in downtown Detroit.

What was the experience like transitioning from working from home to moving to your own office?
I actually was content working from home and wanted to delay the overhead as long as possible. But another mentor called me on it when I was visiting his office; he literally walked me up to the leasing office. One big change: It allowed me to establish better walls between work and down time, and I have to admit it made me a bit more productive. (Those ‘lunch breaks’ at home sometimes went on too long!) Having an office also helps with perception for a certain segment of the client base who don’t take you seriously if you’re based at home. I know telecommuting for workers and the age of the Internet has changed that some, but there are many clients who need to see a fully functional office. The cost was a downer when the economy tanked in Michigan in 2008-2009, but it has been great for growth, visibility and pride.

Do you have any employees or is it just you in the office?
Right now, we have 2 staffers and several contractors. We’ve had a little larger staff in the past, but have struggled with retention. Part of being a better business person was putting in a stronger process for onboarding/training, so that’s what I’ve been working on for the last 2-3 months. I expect to make 1-2 hires in the next 45 days.

What challenges have you faced in your business? How have you overcome them?
The biggest challenge was having the expertise as a communicator, but not as a businessperson. So I did a lot of things the hard way, including not charging enough for services, not understanding the difference between gross revenues and profit, assuming that initial discussions automatically mean a contract gets signed, I could go on. I’ve since worked very hard to be as good at running a business as I am at delivering the services that we provide. I’ve done that by getting good mentors, having an advisory board for my company and attending professional development programs such as the executive education program at Dartmouth as well as Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses. I’m still learning!

How do you market your business?
About 75 percent of our business is referral. But when the economy bottomed out in Michigan in 2009, I realized we had to be more aggressive. So, we’ve done a lot of online advertising and we also try to stay visible through PR. This year we will probably invest the largest amount to date in advertising.

Which types of advertising do you plan on utilizing? Why?
We will definitely do online advertising focused on SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and social media (since organic growth through some sites has gotten tougher), and are planning at least one print ad in a very targeted publication that reaches a client base we’re trying to grow. The increased investment comes after I, as a student in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business program in Detroit, designed a plan for growth, both with a specific service as well as with a specific clientele. We need to brand this service in an aggressive fashion and target in a way that gets the clients we want, and I think an online campaign will help do that. We also always do a level of sponsorships for charity and golf outings, so that’s planned as well. Additionally I have been applying for business grants like the one the NASE awards (NASE Growth Grants) and if awarded, the sky’s the limit with our advertising.

What's your schedule like, what's a typical day for you?
I live and die by a to-do list, so that’s the first order of business. Outside of that, there’s no typical day. I could be drafting news releases, doing media coaching or arranging a photo shoot….or I could spend the day “cold calling” for clients through networking events, emails or on the phone. Because we do crisis management, there’s always a chance that whatever is on the schedule just increased tenfold, because a crisis usually requires pretty immediate and intense action. So it varies, but much of it involves writing, calling and interfacing with either clients, potential clients or the press corps.

Do you work primarily in Detroit and Michigan? Do you have or accept clients nationally?
The bulk of our clients are based in Michigan, but we’ve also been involved in national publicity campaigns such as the push for comprehensive climate legislation and helping a Fortune 500 company based out of Houston when it needed some crisis management. We’ve had clients in Missouri, Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina and New York as well; I’m sure there’s more, but that’s what comes to mind.

Before we wrap up, three quick questions, what’s the best thing about being self-employed?
The flexibility is great, but even better is being in a position to empower others, either by telling their stories to get others to act; by hiring them on as staffers or by enlisting them as contractors.

What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received from a client?
“I know we would not be where we are without the work you’ve done.”

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to someone starting their own business?
Don’t be the business. Run the business.

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