Kristen Elworthy: “Trust your gut”

When you’re starting your own business, it’s natural to feel competitive. But over the years I’ve found that collaboration is so key to success. I belong to a couple of great virtual groups and have in-person friends and colleagues that run similar businesses who I can go to both for support and just to vent. As […]

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When you’re starting your own business, it’s natural to feel competitive. But over the years I’ve found that collaboration is so key to success. I belong to a couple of great virtual groups and have in-person friends and colleagues that run similar businesses who I can go to both for support and just to vent.

As a part of my series about the things you need to know to excel in the modern PR industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristen Elworthy. Kristen is the founder of Seven Hills Communications, a PR and marketing consultancy that works with small and mid-sized businesses, nonprofits, and personal brands and authors. Kristen has been a PR and marketing consultant for 10 years, and her background is in journalism. Her clients run the gamut, from consumer products to mission-based nonprofit organizations to B2B companies. Kristen specializes in telling their story, working hard to find the perfect fit for it, and rising to the challenge of being nimble when it comes to PR for small businesses.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was a little kid, my dad brought home a computer from work, and I started using a desktop publishing program to write a neighborhood newspaper (I believe it was creatively titled “Neighborhood News”). I loved writing and reporting — I was an avid reader and my favorite book was Harriet the Spy. Child spies and reporters have a lot in common!

But I loved more than just writing about neighborhood happenings: I also liked thinking about who might advertise in my paper (I solicited the street’s babysitters for classifieds) and whether people might pay 5 cents for a subscription to it.

I went on to get degrees in Communications and then Journalism. I spent time working in marketing and PR and then went on to be a community newspaper reporter and work as a freelance journalist. During this time, I absolutely loved writing and telling stories, but I found myself continuously drawn to the business side of things. Eventually, I decided to leave journalism and cross to the “other side” as a PR person. Starting my own consulting business seemed like a great way to fuel my entrepreneurial spirit while also putting my talents for storytelling to great use.

I was young when I started my business, just 27 years old, and so a lot of bigger companies were going to go with more established, expensive consultants or agencies. But I quickly found that smaller businesses were willing to hear me out and give me a chance, and I discovered I love to work with founders and to make a real impact on small business. I also get to know the business really well and working with smaller clients helped me learn to be nimble and client-focused. What started as a way for me to launch my business quickly turned into my niche: I love to work with smaller businesses, nonprofits, and individuals and feel that I can really make an impact for them.

I also found that I had the temperament for client services, which I don’t know that everyone does. I love building relationships with my clients and take their trust in me very seriously. It’s been satisfying over the past decade to help them succeed and to receive referrals from them as a result. When I started consulting I wasn’t sure if I would continue or eventually find a new corporate job, but these factors all came together to keep me consulting, and I’m still doing it 10 years later!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

This wasn’t at my company, but rather when I was in journalism for graduate school and it remains a memory that sticks out to me today. I was helping to run a journalism conference at the school and “Dear Abby” (yes, she likes to be addressed that way) was the keynote speaker. I was talking with her before she went on stage — something I assume she probably does weekly. This was a woman who would speak her mind every day in a newspaper column syndicated to millions. And she looked at me and said, “I always get so nervous before I do these things.”

It’s been about 15 years since that moment but I remember it all the time. It’s OK to get nervous or feel like you might fail, or worry what people think, whether you’ve been doing something forever or you’re trying something new. It has often given me the courage to push past that fear and go for the next big thing in my business because I understand that being nervous about doing something doesn’t mean you’re not qualified. It just means you care.

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?

I’m not sure it’s funny, but the biggest mistake I made at the start — one that I almost never make now — was not listening to my gut when it came to a client being a good fit. One of the absolute joys of owning your own business is choosing the clients you work with. But when you’re starting out, you just want to make sure you have a client roster, and you’re less confident in your ability to get that next client.

There were several clients who I just knew were bad fits when I was taking them on. My gut has never been wrong on this, and I’ve since learned that listening to it saves me a lot of time and aggravation, and puts me in a place to love working each and every day as opposed to dreading a call or email exchange. And there’s a fit for everyone — it’s like dating! When something comes my way that’s not right for me, I often pass it along to a colleague who is a better fit.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I am so lucky to be able to work with some fantastic brands that have strong missions. It’s a passion of mine to find companies, people, and nonprofits with great stories to tell. I’m currently working with an app for caregivers called CareZare, which was developed by a teenager whose grandmother has dementia. I absolutely love working with young entrepreneurs — I have worked with several teen and 20s founders.

I am also working with a kids’ subscription box, Wonder Crate, which bases learning on role models. I have three children and my oldest daughter and I just completed the Ruth Bader Ginsberg crate. It’s a total joy teaching a 7-year-old girl about the Notorious RBG and an even greater joy to be able to pitch the product and help them move their business forward.

I also work with nonprofits, including ones dealing with financial security and drug and alcohol addiction, and I’m helping launch a new school, among other projects. It’s an incredible mix and keeps me learning brand new things each and every day.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. Trust your gut. When you’re striking out on your own, especially in a client service business, it can be easy to tell yourself that you need to bend to the needs of your client or do anything to bring in the next project. I’ll never forget sitting in a meeting with a new hospitality client and hearing the way the owners spoke about their staff and competition. I knew that these were people I wouldn’t normally want to be around, but I pushed down my feelings to be “professional.”

A few months later, I found myself “firing” the client, parting ways because I didn’t like the way they talked to me, either. When someone tells you who they are, believe them, as the saying goes. It took a few more false starts, but I quickly became confident in my gut feeling about people and whether they were a good fit for me.

  1. Do the work and the rest will work out. There’s a lot of distraction when it comes to running your own business, but my biggest strength is the fact that I focus and I grind. These traits have meant that I deliver for clients by working hard, and they see how dedicated I am. Because I work with small companies, I understand that money they are giving me is a direct sacrifice to them, and I take that commitment seriously.

Most of my work these days comes from referrals, often from clients I haven’t worked with in ages, and even clients coming back after a hiatus or for repeat projects. This is because people know that whatever they hand me, I’ll focus and get it done — and that if I’m not the right fit for their project, I’ll tell them so.

  1. The story is the most important element of a pitch. Relationships are quite important in PR, but a lot of people will have you believe that there are magical PR unicorns who can snap their fingers and have top tier journalists write about anything they want.

It’s just not true — not that I have ever seen, anyways. The story is the most important element of any pitch, and the second most important element is hunting down the perfect person to pitch it to. The absolute best pieces I’ve ever placed for clients have been completely cold pitches, including placements like The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Inc., and Fast Company. They’ve been good pitches, targeted to the precisely right person.

  1. Be confident in what you have to offer. It’s easy to feel a little intimidated when you’re starting out in PR, particularly if you’re striking out on your own and competing against other agencies or consultants. Understand what you have to offer, and be confident in that. I’m always transparent that I am not an agency, which means I may not be a great fit for every potential client. But for the most part, my clients understand I can get them the results they need, even if my strengths are different.

I had a client leave me once to go to an agency: they’d been very small at first, and they’d grown and thought that now they needed a larger agency to manage PR and social. Within a few months, they returned. They realized that a person dedicated to their success and personally invested in it was worth several of the junior people the agency had put on their account. Certainly, there are things I don’t do and I tell people they need an agency for them, but I understand what my strengths are and stand confident in them.

  1. Collaborate, don’t compete. When you’re starting your own business, it’s natural to feel competitive. But over the years I’ve found that collaboration is so key to success. I belong to a couple of great virtual groups and have in-person friends and colleagues that run similar businesses who I can go to both for support and just to vent.

When you are a solo consultant like me, having other collaborators to bounce ideas off and ask questions is invaluable — you need to be OK showing your weaknesses and helping other people with your knowledge. This attitude will bring you new business and will bring opportunities to collaborate when projects call for it.

You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?

I am a mom of three young kids and while in my early, childless years of consulting I did a lot of traditional networking events, my lack of time for them has made me more focused. I try to be really productive in the way I network, and by that I mean I want to walk away feeling like I’ve helped people or been helped by others — which is what I consider an authentic connection.

So, some ways I network may not be as traditional as other people’s ideas. I think these are especially good if the idea of putting on a name tag at a cocktail hour horrifies you. I am quick to offer or ask for advice in Facebook groups (Word to the wise: these can be a time suck. I try to only participate in groups that really make sense for me) and will also jump on an email or call with people to help them with free advice or ideas whenever I can.

Prior to COVID, I had a series of workshops scheduled to help small businesses with their PR initiatives. I hope to get back to that once we can meet in person again — it makes me feel as though I’ve given back but also provides me with new connections.

I’ve also done “Speed Consults” at coworking spaces or coop kitchens, where I provide quick 30 minute consults on a company’s biggest marketing or PR conundrum. Again, it’s a structured conversation without too much pressure.

Finally, in normal times I work out of a coworking space, which is something I just started last year. I love it and I think it creates a lot of authentic connections and chances to network without feeling forced.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

Referrals are always the absolute best source of leads — it’s always better to have someone talk about you than to talk about yourself! The networking options I mentioned above are also great ways to connect with potential clients.

Other than that, my best way of finding new clients is to keep my eyes and ears open for people or companies that resonate with me and reaching out to them to introduce myself. I do my best work when I’m passionate about a brand or message, and so by reaching out when something catches my eye, I keep my pipeline filled with interesting potential clients. And, if I just hop on the phone and give them ideas for 30 minutes, I feel like I’ve been helpful to a brand or person that inspired me, and that is a great win-win feeling.

Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?

I am a huge fan of Laura Vanderkam, the author of I Know How She Does It, and the co-host of the podcast Best of Both Worlds, which focuses on how working mothers can have a career and a family that they love. Laura is the mother of five kids and has a successful career as an author and speaker. I have three children, ages 7, 5, and almost 2, so I had my first daughter pretty early on in my consulting business, and work/life balance is a constant challenge.

It took me years to figure out how to quell the mom guilt — particularly because I have a ton of control over my time. Sounds great, but leads to lots of guilt no matter what you are doing at any time. When you’re working, you feel like you should be parenting and vice versa — there’s no official boss to tell you that you must be doing either of these things at any one time. Laura’s book and subsequently her podcast has given me a point of view about time, about understanding the importance of focusing and about putting a new perspective on the time you spend working and with your kids. I find her point of view really empowering and always enjoy hearing advice from the guests on her show as we readjust the balance in our house on a regular basis.

Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

There are a lot of very serious issues around racial and economic injustice that take up a lot of space in my brain and the brains of everyone else right now, and I want to acknowledge that before sharing my thought, which is very specific and small in comparison — but I think important as well.

I think that one area a lot of people struggle with is effective communication, particularly written communication. And by this, I mean just being able to break down their thoughts in a meaningful way and address the needs of the person on the other side of the screen, to make things readable and simple, and to strike the right tone so you’re not misunderstood.

I’d love to see more strategies for effective, authentic communication shared with young people — it should be a part of what they learn very young. It’s difficult to do anything well if you aren’t a great communicator who knows how to get your point across quickly, effectively, and in a way that your audience will take the time to read.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

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