Lessons from the first year: Nicola Russill-Roy, Propose PR

At a glance

  • It can be easy to delay launching a business, thinking that you need to know everything before you begin. But Nicola Russill-Roy, founder of Propose PR and a St. James’s Place client, says lessons come quickly after you start.
  • When it comes to finances, Nicola recommends planning how you want to reach revenue goals for your business. Don’t neglect personal financial planning either; not paying into a pension in the early years of running her business has had an impact on Nicola’s finances now.
  • Carefully managing your time, being sure to work on strategy and the big picture as well as the day-to-day running of the business, is crucial for founders in the early months, especially with no other support.

Nicola Russill-Roy took what many would see as a big risk when she started Propose PR, a public-relations firm for the wedding industry, in 2008 aged just 25. Within a year, she was earning more than she had in her previous job as Marketing Manager at British Airways.

There were downsides, though. Nicola says she worked much harder too and sometimes neglected her work-life balance. But those early months of building a business in a tough market taught her some valuable lessons. “I found I didn’t need to know everything in meticulous detail before I started,” Nicola says. “You’ll learn quickly once you begin.”

Here are six lessons Nicola learned in her first year.

1.    Don’t be afraid to stand out

“Developing my niche was the best thing I did to build a sustainable, profitable business long term,” says Nicola. “I initially wanted to launch a fashion PR company. But when I started setting up in 2008, I realised there were hundreds of those already. Though things went well in the first few months, I couldn’t see how to make my company different enough to build longevity.”

Becoming engaged around six months after founding the business proved to be a light-bulb moment for Nicola. “I realised there were no English PR companies specialising in the wedding sector, [so] I switched from fashion to weddings,” she says.

“Some people ask, ‘Doesn’t niching increase your risk?’ I say it’s the opposite. Someone will always need what you do, so be the one everybody associates with that specialism. If many people do that already, think about how you can do it differently.”

2.    Crunch your numbers

One of Nicola’s most important early lessons was in how to budget. In the first year, there are many start-up costs, even for a small service business – including marketing, stationery, business cards and working-from-home costs.

“It’s easy to get carried away and let costs spiral. Budget all your start-up and running expenditure in a spreadsheet and stick to it,” says Nicola.

Another valuable tip she learned was to build, then keep, at least three months’ ready cash in the business account to help get through any leaner periods.

3.    Write your business strategy and calculate your worth

One key element of running your own business is setting the vision and strategy for the company – something Nicola wasn’t used to doing in her previous employment.

“I didn’t use any strategy tools,” she explains. “I just wrote down everything I hoped to achieve and how I would do it for the first year, then broke that into quarters. Many people go wrong by setting targets without knowing how to get there. It’s pointless saying, ‘I want to make £1 million in the first year’ if you don’t know how.”

She recommends planning how much you want to make and exactly how much of your product or service you need to sell to get there. For service businesses, that means finding out how to calculate your worth, which informs how much to charge for your time and how to reach your target income.

“Initially, I used market research, competitor analysis and spoke to people in the field to assess if my proposed price points would be attractive. Later, I worked with a business coach and did some work around ‘money mindset’ and charging your worth, which led me to increase my rates 25%.”

4.    Plan your time carefully

In the early months of running your business, you’ll have to execute your strategy as well as set it. That means you can easily find yourself caught up in the day-to-day. But it’s important to make sure you’re always working on the business – for example, developing the brand and marketing – as well as working in it.

Nicola is a big fan of time blocking, which means using a productivity planner and digital calendar to block out how long she plans to spend on daily and weekly tasks so that nothing gets missed. She says this discipline helps her hit financial forecasts each quarter by ensuring work always gets done on time. “I still manage my time like this in Google Calendar,” she says.

Nicola also gave herself monthly personal goals and regularly reviewed her progress to help her stay on track against certain performance indicators.

5.    Don’t neglect work-life balance

“I have no regrets. But if there’s anything I’d like to have done differently, it would be not working 18-hour days and keeping up with my friends more,” Nicola explains. “When you’re employed, you always get paid each month. When starting a business, you need to go and find that money. You have to throw yourself into it and make sacrifices. Lots of my friends couldn’t understand why I couldn’t meet them.”

In hindsight, Nicola says she should have found a better work-life balance. Be mindful of that from the start and step back when you get the chance. Owning a business is about more than just making money – it’s about having fun too.

6.    Plan your personal finances

“I became a St. James’s Place client eight years ago, and I wish I’d done that in my first year of business,” says Nicola. “When you’re employed, someone takes care of your pension. With your own business, you need to arrange it yourself. From the start, I hired a good accountant who helped me with tax returns, invoicing and expenses. But I didn’t contribute to a pension for the first two or three years and that has affected my personal financial planning now.”

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SJP Approved 23/06/2023