Liz Steblay of ProKo Agency: “Empathy ”

…Last, when it gets unbearably tough, just keep going one step at a time. When I feel like I want to quit, I run one phrase through my mind like a mantra. It’s adapted from a Robert Frost poem: “The only way out is through.” To me, it means putting one foot in front of […]

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…Last, when it gets unbearably tough, just keep going one step at a time. When I feel like I want to quit, I run one phrase through my mind like a mantra. It’s adapted from a Robert Frost poem: “The only way out is through.” To me, it means putting one foot in front of the other, take one day at a time, break things down into tiny micro-steps and just keep going. You’ll get through it.


Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Liz Steblay.

Liz Steblay is the founder of two national businesses and a champion for solopreneurs. Her first company, ProKo Agency Inc, is the Creative Artists Agency for HR consulting talent, matching consultants with clients such as Nike, Facebook, and Google. Her second business, the Professional Independent Consultants of America (PICA), is an educational organization and community dedicated to helping people create the consulting career of their dreams. A frequent speaker and panelist on how to be successfully self-employed, she is also the author of the blog, Successful Independent Consulting.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

As the daughter of an entrepreneur, I always knew I wanted to run my own business, I just didn’t know what that would be. After grad school, I went into consulting, first as an internal consultant with Intuit and then with PwC Consulting. After a company downsizing in 2004, I fell into independent consulting and never looked back. I created ProKo in 2009 after being “parachuted behind enemy lines” — I had been hired by Clorox to help them implement a vendor compliance system that was going to make it practically impossible for self-employed consultants like me to contract with them directly. I thought to myself, “There’s got to be a better way for solo consultants to do business with the Fortune 500, and the companies also need help finding the best independent consultants.” The idea for ProKo started to take shape but it still took me nearly two years to actually start it.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

As a result of growing ProKo into a multi-million-dollar business, I became the person to call if you had questions about “going independent”. I was getting asked out for coffee a couple of times a week. I remember one week when I had coffee with a former retail executive on Tuesday and a former CIO on Thursday and they asked me the same questions about independent consulting. That’s when I realized that unless I wanted to spend my life meeting people for coffee, I needed to create a way to reach more people. That’s why two colleagues and I created the Professional Independent Consultants of America (PICA). Little did I know it would take over two years of work before we could even launch. It turns out that when you do something part-time, it takes twice as long as you think it will. Of course, that’s logical but we really thought it would only take a year.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

This is difficult to answer because my dad was an entrepreneur and three of my brothers are too, so maybe there was something in the water? But no, I was not a natural-born entrepreneur — I never even had a lemonade stand — and although I got my Bachelor’s degree in business and an MBA, I don’t recall taking a class in entrepreneurship. In fact, it took me several years after starting my first business to call myself an entrepreneur. I learned as I went along.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t inspired by my dad. He started as a one-man shop after World War II and grew his business into a national company, but fate also played a part. About the time I had the idea for ProKo, I started dating an attorney. On our first few dates, I picked his brain about employment law. Finally, he asked if I was interested in him or just trying to get free legal advice. I said both. Then I told him about my idea for a consulting talent agency. He nodded and said, “It’s a good idea. You should do it.” So, I started ProKo with $15,000 and his free legal counsel. I may not have been able to do it without him. Even better, he and I are still together.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think both of my companies continue to grow for two reasons. First, both were founded based on my personal experience as an independent consultant, so it’s second nature for me to see things from the consultant’s perspective. Second, both of my businesses live the values of trust and transparency. We tell it like it is so people trust us and refer us to their colleagues. We call this “the power of personal referrals.” It’s a slow way to grow a business, but it creates a strong culture and solid foundation.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Empathy — the ability to see things from different perspectives. The ProKo Agency is a two-sided business with two sets of customers: independent consultants and business leaders. To properly serve both I need to understand both. When talking with corporate clients I try to sense any hesitancy and gauge their stress. I listen to understand their situation and corporate culture. The one time I over-looked this, I matched a very-buttoned up, a process-oriented consultant with a loose, “just do it” company and it was like oil and water, they just weren’t going to be able to work together. We haven’t made that mistake again.
  2. Candor — telling it like it is. If ProKo doesn’t have the right talent, we straight-up tell the client we don’t have the right fit. Most consulting firms take the “square peg into a round hole” approach but we stick to our sweet-spot philosophy so people can play to their strengths. Sometimes candor is hard though, like the time we declined to represent a former Fortune 500 HR exec. She thought she was a shoo-in given her pedigree and rank but we got a weird vibe from her. It was a difficult conversation indeed when I explained that she wasn’t a fit for our collaborative culture.
  3. Stubbornness — the more popular term is grit, but in my case, it’s literally being stubborn. Instead of quitting, I double-down and figure it out. About three years into PICA, we were out of cash. The three of us co-founders had invested all we could so we went to our friends and family to raise money. We put together our pitch deck, forecasted our numbers, and honed our story. It was awkward to pitch my older brothers but I did it anyway. When one of my brothers declined to help, he said, “You know, Liz, not every business is meant to make it.” That ticked me off and I vowed to prove him wrong. The following year PICA turned the corner and started operating in the black. It’s been growing steadily ever since.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Branding is undoubtedly a vital part of marketing, but I wish we hadn’t followed our branding consultant’s advice to use a custom font as part of our brand. It makes collaborating with external partners a hassle because we have to convert our templates into a common font every time. It’s a small thing but one of those annoying hassles that annoy us every time we have to do it.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

Most people go into independent consulting because they want more flexibility and control over their work-life, but the drawback is that it can be feast or famine. Some weeks you have several things to do for a client, and other times you may be several weeks between projects. One tip that has worked well for me whenever I get stressed out is to do “micro lists.” Before I get out of bed, I tell myself the two or three things I definitely want to get done that day. They can be simple things that take 10 minutes, or something that takes a couple of hours but by focusing on my priorities on a daily basis, I feel I am making progress towards my goals. When you’re self-employed, it’s easy to spend your whole day doing a hundred tiny things but you don’t feel like you’ve gotten anything done. My “micro-list” tip is the cure.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

First and foremost, always tell the truth and be authentic. Never try to be someone or something you’re not. Second, be visible. This might be through blogging, public speaking, publishing a book, being a Forbes’ contributor, getting featured in the press, or posting on social media on a consistent basis.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

Just because you say you’re an expert doesn’t mean you are. People want to see some sort of proof or track record.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The most common mistake I see solopreneurs make is not charging enough for their services or expertise. If you’re basing your pricing on your old salary plus bonus, you’re likely undercharging by 30%. When you’re self-employed you have to cover your business expenses, self-employment tax, and your own health insurance not to mention the non-billable time you spend on business administration and vacation.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

As a solopreneur or entrepreneur, no two days are the same. There are always opportunities and challenges, for example, creating a new partnership or fixing a technical glitch. Unexpected things happen that you didn’t plan for, and it’s up to you to either take care of it or hire someone who can. It’s different than when you’re an employee because you don’t have a boss to go to for help. Plus, if you don’t take care of it, you have yourself to blame. The other way it’s different is because it’s your “baby” — you want it to grow and be bigger and stronger so you’ll make sacrifices and work extra hours. When you’re an employee, it’s easier to let something wait until tomorrow or the next day.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

In the early days of PICA (the educational org and community for solopreneurs), we reached out to Catalant, the largest online talent marketplace, about a marketing partnership. This was a big reach for us since we hadn’t even launched yet and Catalant had over $2B in revenue and over 60,000 consultants registered on their platform. We networked our way to an introduction to the head of partnerships, and we had a couple of calls to discuss the advantages to Catalant for featuring PICA in their resource portal for consultants. I clearly remember getting off the second call when Catalant said yes and realizing that PICA was going to make it. We were going to be seen as a go-to resource by tens of thousands of independent consultants! I jumped up and did a little dance around my office.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Three months before the scheduled go-live for PICA I was diagnosed with shingles which are usually triggered by stress. That was a painful wake-up call that I was pushing too hard. I realized I wasn’t just vulnerable financially after investing $100,000 into the business, I was physically at risk too. We ended up delaying the go-live by about six months.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

I’ve learned to pay more attention to my body for signs of stress and to recalibrate my mindset. It’s OK if I elongate my deadlines a bit so I can take time to exercise and get proper sleep. My businesses aren’t mission-critical — we’re not saving lives or averting world war.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. First, keep a sense of perspective and don’t wear yourself out. That experience I had with shingles was one warning sign but I still get others. My dentist told me this week that I’ve lost four fillings, probably from grinding my teeth. It’s another signal that I need to let up a bit and delegate more tasks.
  2. Second, remember your “Why” — Who are you serving or helping? This serves as your north star as you make decisions, and it will help you focus. For the first eight years of ProKo, we represented independent consultants from all disciplines — HR, marketing, finance, supply chain, etc. — but about four years ago I realized that the vast majority of our clients were HR leaders. That’s who we were really serving so we pruned our consultant roster to only represent HR-related consultants and project managers. Since then, the business has grown 116%.
  3. Third, ensure you have a strong support team. I don’t mean admin support (though that’s indispensable too) — I mean emotional support like your spouse, close friends, maybe even your children. My teenage daughter knows that when I’m short with her it’s because I’m stressed out. Instead of snapping back like a typical teenager, she often comments that I seem stressed and she’ll ask if I want a hug, which of course helps. Sometimes I’ll say to my boyfriend, “I just want to cry,” and even if I don’t, I feel better for just saying it out loud. Building your own business is a ridiculous amount of work. I can’t imagine doing it without support.
  4. Fourth, track your sleep and downtime. It seems silly, but anything measured can be improved. At one point I was worn out and I suspected I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I started using the SleepCycle app to track the duration and quality of my sleep. Sure enough, I was averaging about six hours but now I’m close to eight and that’s made a real difference. So has meditated for just ten minutes every morning. Better sleep and a clear mind allow me to focus and not over-react, which of course is critical to riding out the emotional highs and lows.
  5. Last, when it gets unbearably tough, just keep going one step at a time. When I feel like I want to quit, I run one phrase through my mind like a mantra. It’s adapted from a Robert Frost poem: “The only way out is through.” To me, it means putting one foot in front of the other, take one day at a time, break things down into tiny micro-steps and just keep going. You’ll get through it.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience is not quitting. It’s figuring out a way through it, whatever “it” is. The most resilient people I know are driven (clear on their “why”), focused, loyal, and dedicated. They also know their top values and strive to live by them.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

There were certainly times growing up when I had to find the strength to push through. I remember as a teenager locking myself in the bathroom, sitting on the floor with a razor blade in my hand above my left wrist. I thought it would be better for everyone if I just took myself out of the equation. But then I thought about my best friend and how my suicide would devastate her. I couldn’t bring myself to do that to her. She’s still part of my support team, decades later.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

Absolutely, I’m a “glass half full” kind of person. When bad things happen, I look for the silver lining, though sometimes it takes years to find it. It goes back to keeping that sense of perspective, realizing that whatever is going on in my life is not the most important thing in the world, though it may be in mine. On difficult days I tell myself that tomorrow is another day and I’ll press the reset button while I’m sleeping.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

By definition, a leader is someone other people look to for guidance, so of course, the leader’s attitude is going to have an impact. If I’m in a meeting or workshop and I’m downbeat, people aren’t going to try as hard, or even try at all.

Recently I was working with a client to find the right consultant and she couldn’t get the two program sponsors to agree on a candidate. After a couple of weeks, I realized it was likely to be an impossible task and we probably weren’t going to win the work. I kept a positive outlook though and made sure I did everything I could to help my client. We didn’t win the work but I strengthened the client relationship. Her latest email said, “You’re the best, you really are. Would love to work with you anytime!”. The next time she needs a program manager or HR consultant, I’m certain I’ll hear from her.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

It’s not my goal to pursue greatness, it’s to be all that I can be and to live my life to the fullest. One of my favorite quotes is by leadership guru Warren Bennis: “All in all, becoming a leader is the same as becoming yourself. It’s precisely that simple, and also that difficult.”

I’m still learning about myself and the more I learn — the more I “become myself” — the more I feel I’m living my best life.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Two ways. Follow me on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/independentconsulting) and/or sign up for my blog at www.SuccessfulIndependentConsulting.com.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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