I had a 20 year long career as a newsman. Climbing the newsroom ladder relatively fast; going from journalist to chief editor of the newsmagazine of the leading media group of Mauritius in five years. But I was an employee. As one, your freedom is limited: Follow orders or leave. I left when I started disagreeing with the group’s new top leadership.
I still wanted to be a journalist. So with a trusting, like-minded and hands-off partner from a tech background, we cofounded the first news pure player of Mauritius, which subsequently reached a large national audience.
Even with a team of dedicated reporters, the business was tough. The news pure player business model is an elusive one, especially when you operate in a small market where advertisers and – to a large degree – main media buyers reward larger more established brands.
As editor in chief, only opinion writer, managing editor, director and marketing face, I battled on all fronts. There is a known risk associated with operating in such a demanding context: BURN OUT. It did happen. Soon afterwards, the Covid-19 pandemic hit with devastating effects on the business.
I was not ready or willing to keep battling. If I did so, I would probably be dead from a stress-induced heart failure by the age of 45. I’ve seen it happen to friends!
When you are taking such an irreversible decision, you feel like you are betraying all people who have trusted you: Partners, advertisers, the audience and, foremost, the team. But I did what I had to do. From voluntary administration, the company went into liquidation. The brand and website were taken over by a highest bidder which totally changed its editorial line…
At the same time, I came to the realisation that I had no desire to remain in journalism. I was not ready to launch another media operation and go through the whole rollercoaster of running it. Neither was I willing to sacrifice my freedom by being a well paid editorial executive within a media house.
I knew I wanted to leave journalism and be on my own, but I had no idea what to do next.
Going solo is intimidating. So the first step is to overcome the fear and apprehension stemming from that choice. You have no partner to rely on; no staff to share the company’s tasks. Good or bad, whatever happens is YOUR doing alone. The imposter syndrome also lurks in the dark: I am a good newsman, a journalist, how can I be good at anything else without faking it?
However, my confidence was irrepressible. Whatever I did next, I was going to be OK, I thought. So end of June 2020, I went solo, by founding Relate Inc. I would offer few and very specialised services: Media Training, Crisis/Strategic Communication Advisory and Thought Leadership Advisory.
One year later, I am OK; actually more than OK. Treading this new path, I learned some precious lessons, here they are:
1. Relationships that you nurture are your main asset
Twenty years spent in journalism yield a large and powerful network. Especially when – and that was my case – you specialise in business, economy and politics/public policy. As such, over the years I have been in a position to meet, engage thoroughly and at times quarrel with the movers and shakers of the country: Blue-chip CEOs, heavyweights of civil society, high ranking civil servants, respected lawyers, opposition leaders, lawmakers all the way to the Prime minister.
Being known to influential people rids you of one chore: Not having to shoot the establishing shot of your profile and value for a lot of people with whom you will eventually have to discuss a business opportunity.
By spending less time on who I am and what I did previously, all my interactions with potential clients were focused on what their challenge/issue was and how I could help them figure out strategies or tactics to navigate around those challenges or altogether overcome them.
In a few cases, contacts that I had known for years actually reached out to learn about my new professional path and enquiring about how we could still work together.
The relationships built previously thus helped convert a greater number of discussions and informal information-gathering meetings in actual collaborations without losing time into endless observation and acquaintance rounds.
When I left my employee chief editor position in 2013, I was apprehensive about the network I had gathered. Would I have the same access and relationship, now that I was not the influential editor of Sunday publication? The truth is the network remained and grew stronger.
This led me to a simple conclusion: People in your network do not primarily care about who your employer is, but what value they ascribe to the relationship you’ve built and maintained with them over the years.
2. Do not reinvent the wheel [totally]
Sure, certain career paths take some radical turns: From CEO to farmer or doctor to movie actor. I had no intention of being radical in my new activity though. For that, I was very thankful to a good entrepreneur friend who nudged me into a mind-mapping exercise late 2019.
Simon Sinek insists on “Finding your Why”. With the help of my friend Gilles, I had a moment of great clarity on my sense of purpose. I was able to determine very aptly why I had established myself as a respected journalist and balanced opinion writer. I would not howl with the wolves, strive to look at the news from a different perspective and avoid explaining complex issues in a binary and oversimplified manner. That way of approaching my mission in journalism had won me regular positive feedback from a lot of quarters.
Reflecting on my sense of purpose and how I could use if differently in my new career path made me realise that a lot of clients in the corporate world and public policy sphere actually need outsiders to either explain complex issues to them from a different perspective than theirs or help them convey those very same complex issues to their stakeholders. They also need experienced and trusted people with a print/radio/tv news background like mine to help them perform and convey their message in a totally new mediascape.
I did not reinvent the wheel, I merely gathered, reformatted and repackaged all the skills, knowledge and experience acquired over 20 years for another purpose.
3. Ask and your network will guide you
When you are fortunate enough to have a network of people who take an interest in your career and your new endeavour, it is a curiosity worth leveraging on. After all, who, other than actual decision makers, would be in a better position to tell you what is required on the market and in their organisations and how your specific skills may or may not meet those needs.
With my “Why” figured out, I had a few offerings in mind, they included Media Monitoring and a basic offer in Lobbying etc. I laid out a neat one sheet draft presentation of my offers and sent it to around 50 influential people in my network. More than half replied with feedback. A dozen had more than valuable input.
Thus, I received crucial insight that helped me shape my final offer. “Media Monitoring is time consuming, labour intensive and low value, are you sure about this one?” offered one contact from the tourism sector. “Why don’t you include an offer on thought leadership, you can shape and add value to what CEOs or public figures have to say on LinkedIn for example. We really need that!” suggested an executive from a leading bank.
All the feedback provided me with key information on what was being sought after by business leaders and policy makers. I considerably closed the gap between my offer and trending needs after this exercise.
Through the guidance of some of the members of my network, I also built a unique proposition in Media Training. This detailed programme is still in high demand and is refunded by the HRDC, the public organisation catering for professional training in Mauritius.
4. Stick to your personal brand
Spending 20 years in the media and being an opinion leader does entail the perk of having a brand image. As I explained above, I leveraged it to tailor my offer. I however also felt the need and importance of preserving it.
I am no longer a journalist but by no means do I shy away from sharing my opinion in an articulated way whenever I feel the need to comment on what is happening in the country or even how my former colleagues in the media report on a particular news cycle.
I post regular articles here on the Relate Inc website, on LinkedIn, give interviews when I am asked to and participate in radio talk shows focused on public policy and politics.
I feel no need to play a low profile or sanitize what I want to say or write for fear of losing a current client or a future one that may not like my outspoken nature and habit of calling a spade a spade. LinkedIn has been a useful platform to measure how crucial it is to actually keep the very integrity for which you have been known for.
Sticking to your personal brand also entails knowing what you do not want to do. The Public Relations/Communication field is very competitive in Mauritius with a lot of small, medium and large players who have had past experience in the media. In a slumped economic context, the temptation to take all and any available offer is a strong one, for the sake of financial security.
I however chose to remain focused on a very limited set of offerings, declining a few client requests now and then. Preferring the low volume (of clients) and high value (of contracts/retainers) model to that of high volume, high stress and not necessarily high value. One year after founding Relate Inc, I have not yet regretted this choice.
5. Accounting is your friend
Like many, I loathe accounting. I hate dealing with and handling financials. But going solo and keeping costs as low as possible did entail coming to terms with running one of the established accounting software on a regular basis.
Seeking advice from an accountant from the onset is however probably the most reasonable decision that anyone should take. So did I. My solo business model being low volume high value, my accountant cousin insisted that invoicing and accounting would not be tedious or complicated tasks. They actually aren’t and also provide a valuable dashboard on expenses and future revenue of the business.
From hating accounting, I might even have stepped up to almost enjoying it. Especially when I process way more client invoices than payments.
One year in, through Relate Inc, I have worked or am working with clients in the FMCG, Education, Banking, Property Development, Financial Services, Logistics, Legal, Hospitality, FinTech and Policy making fields.
The other thing I’ve learned since I started is this: The future is promising for those who learn the right lessons along the way.