C&E: Anything else you all wish you had been warned about before you started your firms?
Russell: I don’t think there was anything I was totally blindsided by, but that was because I had already worked at a firm and had at least seen a lot of what firms have to deal with. I don’t know how you could do this if you don’t have that experience. From my standpoint, the responsibilities weren’t completely shocking, but it’s good to be prepared for that.
Hazelwood: When I was working on campaigns and at the committees, I had a lot of people working for me. But it’s different when it’s your own money. The psyche of employees is different. They’re not operating like you’re operating. Now it’s about your business and your name is on the line. You obviously hire people who are loyal and hardworking, but they come from a completely different perspective. That’s something I’ve learned over the years, but sometimes it has been a hard learning curve. When I first started I expected them to work 20 hours a day just like I did. It doesn’t work that way.
Russell: When did that all settle in for you? I ask because I had my first employee last year. He was a great kid and did a great job for me, but I just didn’t know how to employ him properly.
Hazelwood: It took a couple of years. I needed to get used to the structure that they need. I come from such an unstructured background—running campaigns—that it took a while for me to realize they need structure. So it took a few employees and a few different personalities.
Omero: It’s difficult because you’re working with these folks and they’re also in your space. You have to be comfortable with sharing physical space and sharing emotional space. I know this sounds sort of metaphysical, but you have to be willing to let your guard down a little bit with your employees. That’s what leads to a good working relationship.
Russell: The hard thing for me was figuring out how to get the person to care as much as I do. The answer is that they won’t. They shouldn’t be expected to. That was the hardest thing for me. I wanted them to match my intensity and that’s a very hard thing.
Omero: A lot of that is giving your employees some autonomy and asking them for input. You need to make them feel like they are part of the process.
Balduzzi: One aspect of my job now that I literally never had to do before is dealing with a client that may be late with payment. In my previous positions I would always say, “You need to talk to the president or the principle.” And then the problem was usually dealt with. I was never the guy who had to play the bad cop, but I have had to do that a couple of times at my own firm. That’s something that I would have liked to be better prepared for. It’s a perfect example of something that you don’t really anticipate having to do, but it becomes a reality when it’s your own firm.
Omero: That’s always a tough one. When do you start? How aggressive are you? How much do you push? You have to do it a little case by case. Ultimately, this is where having a small business can be an advantage. You can say, “Look, I’m a small business.” That can be helpful. With a bigger shop, the client may trick themselves into thinking that a bigger shop won’t notice.
C&E: How do you know when you need more staff and how do you balance that against what you can actually afford?
Russell: It’s a hard tradeoff. If the firm is doing well and you’re making some money, in order to hire someone to get to the next level you have to give some of that back. That’s the part that I still struggle with. Where is that line? How do you make sure if you hire someone they’re not going to be just a negative on the balance sheet?
Omero: I’ve heard people tell me that you can never go wrong by having more staff. I don’t know if that’s true, but there are people who have the view that if you have more staff it gives you the opportunity to get more work. I think it’s better to err on the side of caution and have more staff rather than less. When you have fewer staff not only are you struggling, but the rest of your staff is struggling.
Hazelwood: My husband has a mail firm and he just hires people for the last four months of a campaign cycle. He just tells them that they’re done on a certain day. It’s in the employee contract. I think that makes a lot of sense, but I’m not really set up that way so I don’t do that. There’s just the pressure that if you hire someone, you’re going to have to pay them in an off-year.
Russell: Unlike other businesses, your client being around in year two, three or four depends on whether they win in year one. A couple friends of mine also own small businesses and I always talk to them about this difference. As I get closer to Election Day I get more and more stressed out, because I start thinking, “These people have to win.” The cyclical part of it is very challenging.
Balduzzi: When it comes to short term hires, we all have dealt with that. If you’re working on a campaign, you know that you may not have a job the day after Election Day. People in the political arena understand that.
C&E: Has the new landscape of Super PACs impacted these calculations at all? What has it changed the most for all of you?
Omero: It doesn’t affect my day-to-day business. For others, I’m sure it does. I do think it affects how voters view politics. Voters say there is too much special interest influence and too many ads all the time. But the voter perception is worse to me and it adds to this real sense that Washington in particular has gone of the rails. When you see that voters are less engaged, it’s bad for the process. Forget about the political consulting industry, this is bad for politics. It’s bad for leadership.
Balduzzi: Personally, I don’t agree with [the Citizen’s United decision], but it has helped my firm financially. It’s a unique way to answer the question. If it wasn’t that ruling, it might have been something else.
Russell: Strictly from a business standpoint, there’s more work and more money. That’s a good thing for people who depend on work and money in this industry. But when we talk about voter participation, I sometimes struggle with that. Your job is not really to increase voter participation, it’s to win campaigns. During the time I’m working, I just cut that loose and ask, “What can I do to help this person who hired me get to 50 percent plus one?” I’ve had a couple of people who have known me for a while say, “You’re too cynical now.” Maybe I am. But I try not to let my personal beliefs on anything get in the way of doing the best job I can for my client. But we probably all struggle with that, because it is so partisan out there right now.
Omero: There’s always money flowing to campaigns. It’s just a question of how it gets there. I hear what you’re saying and I agree that it’s not always about worrying about the coarseness of the dialogue; it’s about winning your election. I don’t listen to focus groups where voters say, “I just wish campaigns would stop running ads,” and then go back to the campaign and advise the campaign manager to take the ads down. Nonetheless, getting people engaged and having a tone that people can appreciate, while still providing a contrast of information, are both goals that you can have. You can think about the public good and think about having your candidate win.
C&E: If you had to give one single piece of advice to someone about to start their own firm, what would it be?
Hazelwood: Have some business lined up before you start that firm.
Omero: Make sure you have some training in a variety of tasks, not just the discipline you’ve chosen. Get some training in marketing, pitching, accounting and setting prices. Try to get as much of that experience as you can.
Balduzzi: I would tell them to talk to people they know and trust, and solicit advice, even from outside the political world.
Russell: I would agree with all of that, and the only other thing I would add is that you have to like what you do. It’s going to be most of what you spend your time doing, so don’t be miserable.