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Advocating for Self-Employment

Michael O’Brien, Founder and Principal of MOB Advocacy, based Fairfax City, Virginia has been a NASE member since 2013. Originally, Michael joined for the tax help (offered in our Ask The Experts benefit) as he hates taxes. As he is in the advocacy business himself, he also values the advocacy work that NASE does in Washington D.C. on behalf of the Nations Self-Employed. MOB Advocacy is a full-service, multi-state government relations firm that specializes in helping start-ups, small businesses and nonprofits navigate the complex world of state and local legislative and regulatory affairs, procurement bureaucracy and appropriations processes.

What inspired you to enter the field you are in?

I had originally moved to DC with the idea of wanting to do non-profit management. I was doing a back-end
grant project for a non-profit, and during some down time I wrote a proposal for the organization to get more involved with advocacy and launch a national online advocacy campaign. This helped move the organization from a dialogue and policy development organization to more of an advocacy and policy influencer organization. I knew then I had found my passion and I decided to make a career out of it.

When and why did you start your business?

I started MOB Advocacy after being laid off from a trade association. I wasn’t happy with the jobs I was being offered, and the companies I thought I could help didn’t think they could afford a full-time state and local government relations person. So I decided to go out on my own.

I started MOB Advocacy with the intent of focusing on start-ups and small businesses. Through my years of lobbying, I saw a lack of representation of small business and start-ups at the National Governors Association (NGA), the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the Council of State Governments (CSG) and other similar meetings. I started MOB Advocacy to be their voice.

Do your startup and small business clients have anything in common? Shared field of interests? What sorts of things are you advocating for them?

The main thing my clients have in common is that they usually need a change in legislative or regulatory policy for scalable growth. I also do a significant amount of procurement assistance for clients, usually focusing on trying to secure funding for pilot programs or buy-in for public-private partnerships. I’ve lobbied on issues ranging from e-bike laws, bail and probation rules, privacy issues in the education and healthcare industries, security standards, and environmental laws. I’m hoping to add online voting to that list of issues.

Two things I advocate on regularly are procurement reform and intrastate crowdfunding rules. These are two policies that can significantly impact a company’s ability to raise capital and compete in the government marketplace.

Are your clients clumped together in a specific geographical region or spread throughout the country?

My clients are all over; currently I am working in Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Tennessee and Virginia. Fortunately technology allows me to help clients all over the country.

Speaking of technology, have you found it to be a benefit in starting your own business?

Absolutely, technology has been a great benefit to my business. Video conferencing and screen sharing are essential. Advances in technology allow me to track legislation and regulatory changes happening in any state and some states will even allow me to testify remotely via video conference.

What is a typical day like for you? How frequently do you travel?

A typical day starts with checking state legislative and regulatory updates that impact my clients - and evaluate any immediate threats or opportunities. That is probably the only “typical” daily event that occurs.

I spend my day developing or implementing strategies for my clients. That might mean setting up or attending meetings in state houses or city halls, writing testimony, building partnerships or discussing strategy with coalition partners. I never know what each day will bring. I can say that about half is spent in front of a computer, about one-quarter of my time is spent on the phone, and about one-quarter in meetings or attending events on behalf of clients. Just the other day, I spent nearly the entire day in a planning session for a city in Virginia advocating for transportation solutions favorable to a client.

I try to spend one to two hours on business development. That can take the form of a networking event, research, meeting with potential clients, or preparing for pitch meetings. I don’t travel as much as when I was an in-house lobbyist, but I do expect my travel to pick up in 2015.

How do you market your business?

The main way I market MOB Advocacy is through sponsorships and participating in conferences and events with potential clients. I have also developed a strong referral network with other related, but not competing businesses. We refer clients based on project needs.

What challenges have you faced in your business? How have you overcome them?

It was a tremendous challenge breaking into the state government relations consulting world. There are some established firms with long histories and long client lists. And convincing people to switch their business when they are not unhappy is difficult.

I overcame this by targeting a different market, one that I saw was mostly untapped - the startup and small business market. When people see how hard I work for my clients and see the success we are starting to achieve, they start to take notice.

Working from home was another challenge. It is hard not to get distracted with competing priorities. I solved that by making a schedule and sticking to it. I also recently started using shared office space in DC. It is a great, cost-effective way to have a professional space. AN added bonus is that because it caters to startups and small businesses, there are a lot of potential clients.

What is your vision for your business? Do you have any employees? If so, how many? If not, do you like working alone or do you hope to grow?

My vision is to build a successful state and local government relations firm - meaning more than just me. There are a few pieces I need to make that happen. First and foremost, I now have the right technology partners for me to provide state legislative and regulatory tracking and grassroots advocacy solutions for clients. I am working with my tracking provider on a local tracker that I think will be far ahead of anything on the market today. Second, I am in the process of building a formal network of independent state lobbyists to act as a referral network and provide insight and advice to clients when needed.

Once those two pieces are in place, the third piece is to focus on internal growth. What that is going to look like I am not sure. Will I need to focus on client management or more firm management and business development? How big and how fast depends on clients. Right now, I handle resource needs through partnerships, but I would like to eventually bring those in house. I would love to be in a position in 2015 to bring on one or two associates.

What’s the best thing about being self-employed?

The best thing about being self-employed is the ability to develop a vision for where my business can grow - and then making that happen. I also love that it is something different every day.

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to someone starting their own business?

It is hard. Be prepared to work harder than you may have ever worked before. But it is more rewarding than any other job you have ever had.

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