C&E: Do you feel like you need a business background to succeed with your own firm?
Omero: There are a few components to that. There’s the business and operations side of things, there’s the staff management side, and then there’s the marketing piece. You also have your main job, which is providing services to your clients. Those are not necessarily the same sets of skills. You could be really good at one, but not so good at the other. There are people who are great marketers, but they aren’t very good with staff. So when you start your own firm you need to have a personal accounting about which of those things you’re actually good at. Can you get to the point where you outsource some of this stuff? Sure. But you still need to get to a point where you’re comfortable with all of those things in order to really run your own firm well.
Russell: When you start your own firm, you come to the table knowing you’re an expert in your own particular area. I know the direct mail piece, but the business side is effort and trial by error. That’s the biggest challenge. The politics part feels like it comes naturally.
Balduzzi: That was my biggest worry going into all of this. I did have the luxury of running a U.S. House race. With a budget of a million-and-a-half dollars, it’s like running a business. I had to get healthcare for the campaign staff, manage the staff, set the schedule and monitor money coming in and out. That’s great experience. I’m still learning more about the business side of things. I can get you elected to the Senate, but I have a little trouble with accounting.
C&E: Is there a way to know that it’s the right time in your career to hang a shingle?
Omero: It’s important to understand that working on a campaign doesn’t necessarily train you to be a pollster or a media consultant. There are some people who work on a campaign, decide they’re good at messaging and then go into TV. But you need to know about video production if you want to do that; you might not have learned that as the communications director. There are definitely people I have spoken to who say, “I’m really good at message so I want to go into polling.” Well, that’s great. But it’s not that simple.
Russell: You need to learn success and failure in this business to be good at what you do. Some people jump into this without having learned that. Some kid interns on a campaign for six months and then all of a sudden thinks he’s the next James Carville or Karl Rove and is ready to hang a shingle. Good luck.
Balduzzi: The mistakes you make along the way are probably the best learning experiences. When I started my firm, I did have enough experience. I had made some great decisions; I had made some bad decisions. But I knew that I had enough experience to give my candidates solid campaign advice. Anyone who wants to go into business needs a track record of success.
C&E: What surprised you the most after starting your firms?
Omero: One thing I hadn’t really thought about is how quickly word spreads. Word gets around quickly and you know everybody’s business in a way that’s quite remarkable. I think it’s just the nature of this being a pretty small industry. Eventually you either meet or work with everybody. It’s amazing just how much everyone knows each other’s work and personal life.
Balduzzi: It was really humbling to me to see how many people reached out about working on certain races and projects. Having friends and former colleagues bring me onto their races was really gratifying.
Hazelwood: I know I’m about to sound like the cliché Republican, but the cost of running the business becomes a reality—especially when you’re budgeting for the off-years. How much are your taxes? You have to take all of that into account. I would have loved some business experience. The one thing I regret is majoring in political science. Why the heck did I do that? The business side was something I just wasn’t fully prepared for.
Russell: I was thinking the same exact thing. The first real wake up call for me, outside of doing the work, was the first year that I had to file my taxes. I remember talking to my accountant about how daunting that was.
Omero: Well, we don’t like the bill either. (laughter)
Russell: But that’s what made some of this come home to me more than when I was an associate. It’s a totally different feeling when you have something that’s yours and you’ve built it. It’s a neat feeling, too.
Omero: Someone gave me that advice when I first started out, actually. They told me to prepare myself for how much I was going to have to pay in taxes. Just try to prepare yourself. People warn you that you won’t be prepared, but you don’t really believe it. I remember talking to my accountant when I first started out and asking him how I could lower my tax burden. He told me, “Get married and move to Maryland.” I could have called my mom and gotten that advice for free.