This week I had the opportunity to interview an entrepreneur I have admired for a long time, Colette Ballou - President of Ballou PR. Colette has just been listed as part of the Inspiring Fifty Women in EU Tech. Ballou PR has offices in London, Paris and Berlin; each one opened by Colette herself. It was fascinating to hear her journey and PR advice for startups. It's an interview you don't want to miss.
Could we start by talking about how you started Ballou PR? What made you want to be an entrepreneur?
I’m a third generation entrepreneur, which didn’t occur to me until my dad pointed it out six years ago. It just seems normal, that’s what we do in our family so it’s nothing special. The reason I started my company is really simple, I saw other companies doing PR really badly! I realized that the offices of the PR agency I worked for at the time had teams of varying caliber, spirit and competency. I thought that if I could take the experience I had and build teams with the ability to go between the Germans, French, English, even Israeli and Russians, and understand a lot of different cultures, I really would have something.
I knew from an earlier career that it would be really hard to build a European PR firm - notoriously the French office is always a disaster. Most French offices in PR firms are money losers, if they break even it’s a miracle, so I knew that getting a French office profitable would be a huge challenge. That’s why I spent eight and a half years in France building our first office.
US independent agencies were trying and failing to grow in Europe, I noticed they never sent a founder to open each office. Maybe they acquired to grow their presence, but that doesn’t work well. You spend a ton of time trying to integrate and then the team that you bought into inevitably leaves. Once I finished getting France up and running, I got out of the way, brought in a French General Manager to head it up, and I moved to London to start that office. I got the UK office to thrive, brought in a general manager to run it and moved to Berlin to continue the cycle. I’ve gone to each market which has made a real difference in the connections that we have, the professional friendships with people that we depend upon. I think it’s incredibly important not to send a mid-level person over, you can’t make those CEO to CEO connections.
Growing the Business
What other challenges did you face as you were trying to grow your business in France?
Initially, not understanding French labor law, but also not knowing how to measure the business. I understood the basics but I didn’t know how to measure how billable we were, or how to build anything except the most elementary projections, or at which point we needed to hire. The really great thing is that I met up with mentors who helped me to ask the right questions and find the information/resources I needed.
How did the challenges of launching in London differ from those in France?
At that point we already had a thriving French business and it was profitable but London was very different. The challenge was finding good service providers - accountants, lawyers, who understood my business. Actually, a lot of the challenges are the same as starting a business from scratch. But we had money and resources and we had done it before in France.
Do you think all firms should be sending C-level executives when they open an office overseas?
If high-growth European startups are looking to expand to the States, a founder needs to go. A lot of times, companies hire a US general manager and think it’ll be fine for them to take care of it. If you want to be taken seriously, someone has got to go over there. You cannot rely on other people to do the work for you.
Mentoring & Advisors
How did you initially get involved with mentoring startups?
I was in France between 2002 and 2009 and that was a tough time for startups there. My heart really went out to the whole community because I’m an American, we celebrate startups and risk-takers, but it just wasn’t celebrated or supported in Europe in the same way. These guys were heroes to me. I started something that I knew there was a market for and tried to find the right formula, but these guys were just taking huge chances with new technologies and business models. I found that I was repeating my advice over and over again in one-on-ones, and I figured if I could reach a wider audience I could keep them from making mistakes that could be costly. In a best case scenario I could be helping them make their dreams come true. So I took the knowledge and presented it in seminars or through mentoring.
Do you think having mentors and advisors in place helped you to grow at the pace that you did?
I think it kept us from making some huge mistakes. A lot of people just think about the money that’s supposed to be coming in and their projections, but you really need to know client by client who is likely to continue and which one is likely to end the retainer. I look at our projections weekly with the team and each general manager; you just have to know if a client is wonky, if the relationship will go through to the end of the year. We’re terribly conservative in our projections. We run this company by heart and by numbers equally; I don’t think a lot of people know how to do that.
How did you go about building your network of mentors and advisors?
There were a couple of different ways. One of them came to me because his agency was looking to acquire mine and we just hit it off; we really liked the way the other did business. I think you really have to be consistent with who you are personally and professionally. You can’t have one set of ethics for the business and another for your personal life. Consistency will attract great people. I had people who wanted to mentor me and help me to drive the business ahead because we resonated; they liked the way I did things.
What would you say you feel your biggest achievement has been in building Ballou PR?
I can’t believe I sit on top of a multimillion pound business; I think that’s just amazing. We have a great team who are incredibly happy, not overworked, and we have lovely, inspiring clients. We’ve built a company that has such a good reputation and solid business that we can say no to people or clients that we don’t think are a good fit. It happens very infrequently, but if there is a client who doesn’t mold to the team, we just find a way to part amicably. That hasn’t always been the case, and I know agencies that scramble for every penny, they just have to have the money and who cares about what happens to the companies and the staff. We have such a low cost of acquisition for employees and new clients because people want to work with us. So, having built a multimillion pound business is number one but number two is the acknowledgement for what we’ve built, and as an extension, who I am in the industry, the work I am able to do as the result of Ballou PR. For example, being nominated one of the most inspiring 50 Women in Technology in Europe was such an honor. I didn’t even see it coming and I was delighted - the word ‘inspiring’ made me super happy because that’s what I would like to be.
How did you go about building your initial team and what do you do now to ensure that you get the right people for the culture of the company?
At first it wasn’t easy to get people to join our band of crazies because, in France especially, we didn’t have a reputation. French employees, on the whole, love big companies and they wouldn’t join small companies with no reputation, but we take risks on people who might not necessarily have the “right” profile. We took a chance on them if they showed a can-do spirit in the interview or maybe they hadn’t done the job before but they were willing to learn. As we became a place that people wanted to work, we started having very specific guidelines about the people we wanted. For example, now you have to be bilingual if you are in any of the non-English offices, you have to speak English fluently to be able to communicate with your peers. We also have certain schools that we prefer graduates to come from because they have a certain level of discipline and foster creativity. We want well-rounded people who are curious.
My advice to CEOs is to know that there are things that only the CEO of a company can do. Of course, that changes depending on how mature the company is, but know that there are things that only you can do and push the rest down and get out of the way. There are certain decisions that I will not be a part of anymore because I’ll just be a bottleneck; the team makes decisions without checking with me. I’ve seen some startups where everyone is cc’d on every decision, it’s a nice idea but it’s a ridiculous time-suck.
Advice for startups
When startups are looking at PR for themselves, is it the founders' responsibility to be meeting with journalists?
Yes, early on it is. Anyone who wants to look at my work on Slideshare or follow me on Twitter, I’m constantly giving tips for founders about things that they need to know about doing PR themselves. It’s absolutely their job, they shouldn’t be sitting around. They should identify a few key journalists who are going to really make a difference in their business. It’s not a vanity exercise, you’re not trying to get a pixelated picture in the Wall Street Journal. Think carefully about the people you really need; will Wall Street Journal readers want to buy your cloud storage solutions? Are they really reading the WSJ for advice on what cloud storage solutions to invest in? No. Don’t be vain and go after the vanity placement if it’s not going to drive what you want to get done; you need to sell your stuff.
What advice would you give to startups that are starting right now? What should they be thinking of in the next year or so?
There are actually so many things. Starting to hire people is not always the answer, usually the answer is just doing it yourself for a while. And you have to have ways of measuring your success - you ask any general manager of any Ballou PR office and they can tell you right now, this month’s break-even number and the forecasted revenue, they know exactly what it is.