Stuck at a large firm? Don't be afraid to strike out on your own.
If you take the time to thumb through the Federal Election Commission reports of some top-tier candidates from the past couple of election cycles, you’ll notice a trend—boutique consulting firms are getting hired on more and more large races.
An increasing number of political consultants are choosing to go it alone, and they’re keeping things small after forming their own shops. New firms with a small number of employees are popping up throughout the country, and these firms are doing some great work and winning some big races.
My firm fits with that trend, and I think it’s good for the future of the campaign industry.
Running a boutique firm comes with its own set of challenges, but the benefits can be very rewarding. There are a number of things to consider if you’re weighing this route, but the most important piece of advice I can offer: Don’t be discouraged.
Learning On the Fly
Many of us came through the political ranks the same way—volunteering on races as young adults or in college, eventually landing a paying gig and working our way up the ladder. Most of us don’t have corporate business experience or even an MBA. We get the political game. It’s growing a business that’s more difficult.
A focus on being business savvy may sometimes fall to the wayside given the need to keep up with today’s political realities, but it’s absolutely necessary for long-term growth. Before I started my own shop, I ran a top-tier U.S. House race. That meant I was managing a million-dollar venture, yet I still felt overwhelmed by the number of components needed to start, then successfully run, my own shop.
When you’re running a campaign, you have a team to fall back on. When you go it alone, you have to learn on the fly. Like any successful CEO, I chose to surround myself with smart people who had a personal interest in my success.
Some of these folks were fellow political consultants who I could call and get “in the biz” advice, but more importantly, I consciously chose to work with other business professionals who were not political at all.
My website, for example, was designed by a small firm in Rochester, N.Y., which mostly handles online strategy for small businesses and startups. They had never worked with anyone in politics before, but I loved their youth, their drive and the fact that they thought differently than I did when it came to business. The individuals who helped push the initial marketing of my firm were a duo who branched off from working PR for a Fortune 500 company to start their own firm. What I learned from these business professionals outside of the political arena proved invaluable.
If you’re thinking about starting your own boutique shop, I encourage you to think outside the Beltway and find an eclectic mix of business and political professionals to help you get that initial jump start.
Battling Expectations and Client Growth
Some consultants start their shops by bringing clients with them from a previous firm. Others start from scratch. The latter means a ton of hard work and it often involves constant networking and relationship building.
When I was a low-level political campaign staffer, I dreamed of opening up my own firm so the thought was constantly in the back of my head. As I advanced through the ranks, I stayed in touch with old political friends and coworkers, made new ones and always made sure I checked in from time to time. I had to constantly remind myself that I needed to stay on the radar of certain folks, or my small but growing firm would hit a roadblock. There are a lot of consultants out there and countless political consulting firms. To this day, I have to make sure I play an active role in staying relevant.
Growing a client list is a daunting task, but your product should lead the charge. During a pitch, my shop is often up against firms much larger than mine, so I make sure my product is the big equalizer. Once a potential client understands that an ad from the small shop is as good, if not better, than an ad from the big firm, the advantages of a small firm win out.
Stronger Leadership Role
It’s not a shock to any of us that candidates are raising and spending a ton of money. And as someone who has run a few races in his day, I know candidates want to be certain the consultants they are paying are really working for them. When my clients call my firm, I answer the phone. That goes a long way in developing trust and showing how active a role I want to play in their success.
You would be surprised at how much political clout you have with a candidate and their campaign when they know the consultant working on their team is the person whose name is on the door. Candidates have taken a big risk by running for office, and there is a mutual understanding and trust when a client knows that you’ve also taken a risk by starting a small business.
Once you have developed trust with a candidate, you’re in better position to play a general consulting role in their campaign, and with that will come even more opportunities to grow. The world of political consulting is small, but you would be amazed at how quickly you can build a great working relationship with other consultants by overseeing a team from the get-go, or playing a strong leadership role in a race.
Most large firms are in D.C., bustling cities or state capitals. Our firm has an office in D.C., but our main office is in Upstate New York—two hours from Albany and four hours from Manhattan.
My partner and I have a wealth of experience in New York, and have evolved to be one of the go-to firms in the Empire State. We know what works, what doesn’t and can chart a path to victory that our clients know is grounded in proven results.
If you’re starting small and you open a shop outside of D.C., wherever you choose to turn key, aim to become a perennial player in that region. We are using our regional expertise to our advantage, and we’re starting to see the fruits of our labor. The first batch of clients we helped elect in 2011 recently went through their reelection campaigns, and the cycle of recurring client work has begun.
Try New Things
Opening a small shop gives you the freedom and opportunity to branch out in different directions, but in a controlled way. When I started my firm, I was convinced I would only provide opposition research and direct mail for the next few decades.
But last cycle, I found myself under a television camera, directing a television spot. Unless two larger firms that provide contrasting services merge, you would never see this sort of business dynamic unfold. Starting a small shop gives you this opportunity.
Admittedly, I always believed that firms should stick to providing one type of product, but my thoughts on this have evolved. After reading “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, I started to think differently about politics as a business. Steve Jobs proved that if the hardware and the software were excellent, one company could do both.
When a friend of mine left his two-man television and radio shop, we joined forces. Our clients understand the model—my partner and I both collaborate on the creative, but I handle the bulk of the mail work and he fronts the TV and radio division. He also handles the media buying.
Typically, we’re brought on to handle either the mail or the TV, but in instances where we provide both services, we like to think clients get significant bang for their buck. Again, candidates want to make sure their campaign cash is being spent wisely. Our size allows us to provide some accountability to ensure that happens.
If you’re thinking about starting your own shop down the road, consider the pros of keeping it small.
In an era where the mantra “bigger is better” seems to be the flavor of the day, you’ll find some consultants running firms who have shattered that conventional wisdom. They are producing very effective ads and winning key races. These types of firms are going to play a large role in the future of our industry.
John Balduzzi is the president of The Balduzzi Group, a Democratic TV, radio and direct mail advertising firm with offices in N.Y. and Washington, D.C.