Founder of Piccolo PR Sarah Cichy eschewed all the entrepreneurial brouhaha when building her multimillion-dollar public relations agency, taking opportunities as they presented themselves and relying on a strong work ethic developed by cleaning offices at night to get through high school.
Going it alone without a business partner, Cichy has experienced many sleepless nights at the helm of her business, saying being a small business owner is “lonely and isolating” work. Today she has a team of workers under her, and Piccolo is pulling in annual revenue of more than $1.5 million.
Cichy spoke to SmartCompany about the struggles of hiring PR professionals who are trained to spruik themselves, plus the fine line between being a buddy and a boss.
I spent about 10 years in PR and communications. I worked at Tourism Australia, and before that, Mercedes Benz. The last place I worked at before starting Piccolo was a small boutique PR agency
I loved all my jobs as they were all in different sectors of communications, and they serendipitously evolved to me running my own agency. It was never a strategy I aimed for; I just went for opportunities as they presented themselves and here I am.
In this day and age, everyone wants to be an entrepreneur and everyone wants to be entrepreneurial, but the same movement can come from just having a great business.
You don’t always have to be ‘starting up’ things; I’ve had a creative drive and dedication to work in me from when I was very young, and I built my business off that.
I had to clean offices at night time to get through private school. This meant I knew what hard work was, and how to chase the opportunity, not the money.
The day I decided to run my own business was the day I asked my boss for a pay rise, and she said no. I thought I could either stay on this wage, or I could freelance and see what comes of it, so I took a chance.
From then on I had blinkers on. I was completely determined and it paid off, but it was also a lot of hard work.
I was talking to a friend and she was saying how amazing it was I had my own company, and people always congratulate me on that. But they never see the backflip of it — the sleepless nights and the isolation from friends and family.
I couldn’t go out because I had to meet deadlines, I would stay up all weekend writing press releases, no one was paying me my super. It’s sometimes lonely and isolating, and you have to wear a strategy hat all of the time.
If I knew how hard it was back then I don’t know if I would have taken the same steps I did. I was so innocent, and I don’t think I would have backed my self as much as I did.
When people register an ABN they think it’s all going to be amazing and everything will come to them. But every day is a fight, not only for clients but for staff too.
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There are so many things along the way you couldn’t even think of happening that do.
When you’re hiring staff, you want to find someone with the same qualities, loyalty and sparkle in their eyes, who you can still train and mentor.
It’s a frustrating process. You’re investing in their future with the hope they give you the respect to do right by you, and in turn, invest back in your future.
Hiring staff never gets easier, and it’s not an easy job to begin with.
Companies are specialising more when it comes to their communications, with many of them breaking away from larger companies towards smaller players like ours. They don’t want the huge overheads of larger agencies anymore, and they’re able to take more risks with smaller ones.
So far we’ve had a steady increase in revenue and clients, so we’ve been really lucky in that regard. It comes in waves now, and sometimes you’ll be looking at an empty pipeline, but the next day you’ll get a load of clients signing up.
My idea of growth is about being a better company than yesterday; I don’t think having 100 people on the books means it’s going to be a successful business. I want to be profitable, I don’t want ridiculous overheads, and I want to be able to manage my clients and, more importantly, my staff
There’s a fine line between being a buddy and a boss, being a mentor and being authoritarian. I try to tell the girls if it’s not brain surgery, back yourself, and if there’s a problem come to me with both a problem and a solution.
You’re not here to take your uni course again. It’s a fine line, but it’s something I’m learning how to manage.
I never had a business partner to begin with, and I didn’t even broadcast what I was doing until about a year into it. If the business failed, I didn’t want anyone to know, and I didn’t want any extra pressure.
Now that I’m here, I would love to explore partnering with someone so I don’t have to have all the answers, and I can have someone to bounce ideas off.
New business owners, make sure you get into it because of your vision, not your ego. Do your numbers and check your finances, but also make your decisions on your gut feeling.
Have a clear definition of success and what it looks like to you, otherwise you’ll just be jumping around in a hamster wheel.