The general consensus from the sixty plus interviews I’ve recorded now, is that by and large, the majority of business owners are for want of a better phrase, winging it.
Be it that business plans are tweaked as new opportunities crop up (that is of course if they were written in the first place), products are abandoned as new trends emerge and offerings are honed as they work out what’s sustainable; being flexible, learning from mistakes and pivoting in the direction of what works, seems to be the common recipe that keeps most business owners moving forward.
And Rochelle White’s story is no exception.
In fact, it’s fair to say she’s been winging it since day one.
With a just-turned three, self-named PR agency to her name, Rochelle’s business is in her own words “an extension of her” and more-often-than-not comes with zero filter! Specialising in fashion, beauty and lifestyle brands, her journey as a business owner hasn’t always been easy since launching but with that, it’s forced her to learn some valuable lessons along the way.
Over trusty coffees in our local Starbucks, the now thirty-two-year-old opened up about her story so far…
RW. I never actually intended to have a PR agency! I started freelancing first because what I was finding when I went off to London to try and get a job was that the big agencies didn’t care too much about your qualifications in PR; they cared much more about who you know. They’d say things like, “who do you know at OK Magazine? Who do you know at Grazia?” and I’d be like, “err…” so I was losing straight away!
That’s why I went freelance initially so I could look at how these people work, how their magazines work, get those contacts and build up my experience. So, I set up a Twitter and Instagram account, didn’t put too much thought into it and just made myself sound busier than I actually was whilst working full-time in contract roles..!
SC.SD. Fake it till you make it?!
RW. 100% fake it ‘till you make it! But then I got my first fashion client via Twitter so clearly my BS was working! She messaged saying, “I really want to work with you!” and straight off the back of that we got product placements in Grazia, we worked with them on a pop up in Carnaby Street, we had a few celebrities working with us etc… and that’s when I had my first taste of securing really good press and collaborations. That just made me think, ‘well if that’s what it’s all about, I want to do more of this!’ and it kind of snowballed from there.
I put more time and effort into Twitter and Instagram which started to attract more people, current clients and friends started recommending me and then before I knew it, my last contract role was ending and I thought, ‘right, I’ve got enough freelance work to keep me going for a while but I’ll still look for a ‘proper job’ just in case’ but that ‘proper job’ never materialised because I got to the point where I got too busy freelancing. That’s when I thought, ‘I want to be taken more seriously, I might as well start an agency’ and just like that Rochelle White PR was born!
Having just celebrated her third business birthday, I was keen to find out more about the experience Rochelle had before launching her own company.
SC.SD. Let’s go back to the beginning when you realised you needed to build up your contacts… What kind of freelancing were you doing exactly?
RW. Always contract roles and so varied! So I started out doing press and PR for The VW Group (Skoda). Then I did web content and PR for the Foreign Commonwealth Office so that was a massive change! It was during the swine flu crisis, so I was dealing with all the correspondence from the Chief Executive’s press releases, TV interviews and I got to work on the Global Summit where I was working with William Hague, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt! It was my first taste of media relations and looking after ‘proper’ VIPs…
SC.SD. I remember following that in the press at the time and thinking, ‘William Hague must be loving life right now!’
RW. I know! Not a bad day in the office! That role taught me a lot though and was just a completely different tone, it was all very corporate, top-level…
SC.SD. A bit of a change from how you communicate now then..?!
RW. Definitely! It was such a fun team to work with and I loved it but obviously the way we had to communicate online was so corporate and censored and that’s so not me!
When her contract at The Foreign Commonwealth Office came to an end, Rochelle moved to a digital marketing agency working on a broad range of PR and marketing activity for GSK brands like Corsodyl and Sensodyne. Managing everything from their consumer launch campaigns, brand awareness campaigns, print advertising, TV campaigns and social media, it was her first taste of managing large brand campaigns from start to finish and provided, of course, a few extra perks…!
RW. I learnt loads about teeth!
SC.SD. You must have so much random knowledge?!
RW. So many random facts in my head and random experience! In doing those contract jobs though, two things became apparent! 1) I’m not corporate (!) and 2) I don’t like working on things that I’m not interested in personally because it’s hard to promote! Anyway, my last contract role was at a housing association and it was there that really became apparent. I was so sick of contract roles, starting, ending, starting again, ending again… I wanted something permanent, I wanted to enjoy working on it and I’ve always loved beauty, hair and fashion (but not the typical high-end fashion, more sports luxe and street style)…
Having toyed with the idea of being a hairdresser and beautician whilst at uni, and running a successful Avon/beauty business as a student; after graduating Rochelle did her level 2 and 3 in hairdressing, working at a luxury salon in Milton Keynes thereafter. With beauty and hair experience under her belt, in 2014 she added to her skillset, qualifying as a fashion stylist from The London School of Styling. Working at London Fashion Week for two years on various designers’ brand launches, campaigns and Lookbooks thereafter, the experience confirmed that it was these industries that she wanted to get into.
RW. I guess I took those contract roles more for the PR experience and learning how the processes work than for the knowledge in those industries and then used that experience along with the qualifications I had and knowledge from my mini beauty business and decided to apply it all to the industries I loved and was skilled in.
With this realisation, Rochelle volunteered to launch her friend’s barbering academy for free, which has since gone on to achieve great success…
RW. It gave me a taste of the kind of jobs I wanted to be doing all the time. I love creating a buzz, writing the press releases, meeting people and talking (!) so I quickly realised, ‘I need to do this all the time’ so I did!
In 2015, Rochelle White PR was born.
RW. Don’t get me wrong, there was no business plan, there was no set criteria; I just thought, ‘after this role is done I’m going to see what happens’ and I’ve been winging it ever since!
SC.SD. Everyone does right?!
RW. I know! My older sister plans everything and I remember her saying, “how exactly are you going to wing this Roch?” and I said, “I don’t know but if it doesn’t work, worst case scenario, I’ll get a new job!”
SC.SD. So, you put your energy into acquiring more clients… Talk me through what that process involved in reality and how you got them to trust you without an established brand behind you…
RW. Haha! Well obviously it wasn’t always easy but luckily, two of my good friends were effectively free case studies. I said to them, “let me help you with your social media and brand presence” so at least I can say to people, “I’ve got two clients on my books already and these are the results of my work.” Then when my fashion client approached me on Twitter, that helped other brands to realise I knew what I was doing.
At the same time, I was also doing a lot of outreach to local businesses and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t! It definitely wasn’t always easy and at the same time, my prices at the beginning were stupidly low so I wasn’t really getting paid for the hours I was putting in. Then of course, when I re-shifted that, people started saying, “oh I don’t want to pay that much…” so I lost some. The ones that did stick with me though are still some of my core clients and they recommended me to other people too so I suppose it’s grown via recommendations, doing a good job, reaching out and a lot of winging it!
SC.SD. You’ve got a very distinctive brand voice in my opinion so let’s move on to that… It’s your business, you have control over how its perceived, the company voice, its look, its message… how did you approach it and has that evolved along the way?
RW. That’s a really interesting question! I get a lot of influence from London so initially I was looking at other agencies and they had some really cool names but everything I liked was taken! In the end, I thought, ‘this agency is effectively an extension of me’ so I just used my name and added PR! I can’t get sick of my own name and I just had a feeling that if I’d chosen a random name, I would’ve got bored and wanted to rebrand at some point!
In regards to the branding itself, I wanted it to be quite edgy and casual but still professional. The tone is very personable; I do swear in captions, yes, and some people like that and some people don’t (!) but it’s an extension of me so that means swearing is included! In my head, if people don’t like it, they’re not my target audience. I’m very honest and I’ve always wanted to be true to myself!
I’m also very proud of the fact that I’m an MK- based business because it’s where I’m born and bred but I was very aware that I didn’t want to have a local presence. A lot of people ask, “are you based in London?” and I always say, “no but if it looks like I am then brilliant!” So yes, locally based but not local in nature.
SC.SD. I couldn’t agree more. Just because you’re not based in London, it doesn’t mean you have to limit your ambition in any way…
RW. Exactly! So many people said to me, “but there’s so much competition in London” and to that I say, “yes there is but there’s also so many opportunities and brands in London!” Not everyone wants to be represented, nor can they afford to be represented, by one of the giant agencies! RWPR happily fills that gap. That’s why our strapline is: ‘We have the look, feel and results of a London agency, but without the price tag’.
SC.SD. Let’s move on to the challenges you’ve faced so far…
SC.SD. That many?! Talk to me about the challenges you face running your own business on a day-to-day basis and then we’ll move on to the big headaches you’ve faced along the way!
RW. Great question. You can put *inserts laugh and eye roll!*
SC.SD. I will actually type that..!
RW. Crack on! It’s got to be honest right!?
Right low points… I think initially when I transitioned from being a freelancer to an agency was hard. I was working with a few other freelancers and not all of them were that nice when I said I wanted to focus on my own business. Also, when I had to readjust my pricing for the first time, that hit me hard. I used to take things personally and towards the end of 2016 and start of 2017 it was really, really hard. I questioned whether it was worth it? Whether I was worth it? My own value? My skills, experience, website, contacts… you name it, I questioned it. I even cried a few times and I don’t cry!
SC.SD. I feel like we all have a cry here and there!
RW. I’m glad it’s not just me! Thank God for my family though because my Dad kept saying, “Roch, just keep pushing through.”
Another low has been dealing with non-paying clients. I swear people don’t understand! If you’re going to invest in a small business, the impact of not paying them on time is so, so bad and has huge implications. I know I’m not the only one that faces it but there have been days where I’ve felt like all I’m doing is chasing invoices instead of focusing on my business and clients and that is so hard because you need the money but you also need to do your normal job…
SC.SD. You’re definitely not the first to say that so what steps have you taken to deal with that reality?
RW. Well it made me realise firstly that I didn’t have terms and conditions in place! I had no set policy or procedure at the beginning so even if I chased them, I had nothing legal to back me up. It was just a case of chasing and chasing though because all I could think about was, ‘oh my god, if I don’t get this money, how am I going to pay for things?’ The minute you start worrying, you get caught up in a negative spiral. I wasn’t sleeping properly, I had headaches… It was just impacting on my life so yeh, that was a real low point.
SC.SD. It suddenly doesn’t become fun anymore when money problems creep in…
RW. Exactly! It taught me a lot though. Even things like deposits, I was just going on people’s goodwill but now I’m like, “no, no! Deposit first please!”
SC.SD. You mentioned that raising your prices was a challenge too… Let’s talk about that experience more. How did you approach putting a value on your time and work?
RW. So I spoke to a few business coaches who helped a lot. I met Jessica Rogers in the Hub (Southwood Social Hub) and she said something really interesting that I’d never considered which was, “if you are charging less than you used to earn a month working full-time, then you’ll always be at a loss” and that’s stuck in my head since. I’m lucky enough to have six amazing mentors in total too, two of which I was introduced to by my sister. One owns a creative media agency and the other works high up in a global agency and they have both been invaluable. I’d been basing my prices on local prices and just guessing the rest but they broke it down and made me realise that it’s not just my time I’m putting a price on but my overheads, my staff, my future plans etc… They also said, “if you don’t want to be a local agency, why are you comparing yourself to local prices?” I was giving conflicting messages where the clients I wanted would think, ‘she’s too cheap to be any good’ and then I’d be too expensive locally.
Everything used to be a flat fee too but now it’s getting clients to understand that if you want to work with influencers, you need a budget and that budget can range from £100 to £10,000. I don’t cover advertising so if you want me to cover advertising, that comes with an additional cost etc…
So yeh, it was really scary and yes, not all of my clients stuck with me when I raised my prices but once I’d raised them I felt so much better. I’d covered my costs, I’d covered my time, I knew exactly what they were paying for and why I was worth that amount and the stress and tension went. But it took three of my mentors and coach to get me to that point..!
SC.SD. You got there though and that’s the main thing! You mentioned the Hub, so let’s talk about networking… What has your business support network looked like along the way?
RW. Well when I first started I didn’t really have a network and wasn’t part of a networking group so when I joined a few, I heavily, heavily relied on them for all of my questions. I still belong to two now and dip in and out every now and then. To be honest though, I lean on my business mentors and people in the PR industry for more support nowadays. Through running this company, I’ve built my own network of people I can speak to and for me I’d rather put in the leg work myself, go for coffee or dinner or even drinks with someone I can really learn from in person and chat about life and their experiences… That’s not to say I’m not grateful for networking groups though! They really helped me at the start of this business but for things like funding, positive thinking, books to read etc… my mentors are great now.
SC.SD. I don’t need to tell you that there’s a whole lot of competition out there in PR so what’s your approach to other agencies and how has your outlook towards them evolved since the early days…
RW. There is so much competition! To be honest though, I didn’t necessarily see them as competition. I looked at them for inspiration and used them to work out where I wanted to sit within the industry and I still do.
SC.SD. Let’s be honest though, every new agency says they’re putting a new twist on PR…
RW. Haha! I love that you said because it’s so true! I always say that we’re PR rebels. We’re not doing PR differently because the fundamentals of PR and marketing are the same whether you are a luxury agency or working for yourself in your flat! It’s how you adapt them to suit your style that makes you different and I’ve always been a bit of a rebel…
SC.SD. I can tell that from your posts..!
RW. See I don’t like the term ‘rebel child’ but…
SC.SD. I can imagine you were a handful..!?
RW. Perhaps.! I got my nose pierced at 14, I went through the mohawk stage… I’ve always broken the rules a bit so for me, it’s not always just about sending your standard press release and it’s not always just about holding a nice press event. I believe there is much more people can do in what can often be quite a faceless job.
I take the time to meet people and network as much as I can and whether they work with me today or they work with me a year down the line, if they’re the right fit I won’t forget them and I’ll make sure we work together. So yes, like everyone else we create content, we do social media, we organise events, we send samples, we work on creative campaigns and launches and we have a nice little team; nothing seems all that different but we’re not afraid to say what we think and swear a little on Instagram! Or in person! Haha!
SC.SD. What about the high points? What makes all the hard work worth it?
RW. It’s an interesting one. For me it’s a mix of everything. Knowing that something I’m doing is helping brands to get seen and heard and reach places and people that they didn’t think they’d be able to reach feels amazing. For me it’s now about quality over quantity and effectively, my clients become an extended member of the team or as I say, they join the RWPR family. We celebrate their successes and anything that doesn’t work, we re-evaluate and try a different approach.
Everyone knows reputation is everything and I won’t lie, there’s probably been times where I could have done a better job when I took on brands that didn’t really set within my remit and I’ve learnt from that now…
SC.SD. You just had to learn the hard way?
RW. Exactly but that’s a high for me now as I can hold my hands up and say, “yes ok, I’ve done things in the past that weren’t right but I’ve learnt from them and I know that all of our current clients appreciates what we’re doing now.” So for that small little blip in my reputation, I’m so happy and proud of where I am right now. I think because people see us as a London agency, we must have done something right somewhere down the line (!) so it’s now just making sure we build on that…
SC.SD. I think it says a lot that you can hold your hands up and say, ‘I haven’t always made the right decisions but I’ve learnt from it.’ Everyone makes mistakes don’t they and part of the parcel of launching a business is having to learn on the job…
RW. Exactly. If you keep making that mistake then more fool you but I know now that you have to stick to your target audience. I’m so much more particular now about who I work with, who I collaborate with, who I network with… I just got so absorbed with trying to meet as many people as I could and get work in as quickly as I could and be everyone’s friend at the beginning but you soon realise that if you’re surrounding yourself with the wrong audience and taking the wrong jobs on, you end up ignoring your gut instincts and it doesn’t work out. Now unless I genuinely feel like I can help someone’s business, I won’t take the work.
SC.SD. I’ve known you for what, nine months now? You seem so much more confident and in control and clearer in your role now than when we first met…
RW. I’ve definitely got a clearer vision now. Before I felt like I knew what I was doing but didn’t and was contradicting myself a lot. Take my mentors for example, they’d say, “so you want to work with the hair industry but what part? Hair salons? Hair extensions? Hair accessories? Hair treatments? What?” They’ve just really helped me break everything down and get a clearer vision. Ultimately, until you work out what part of the industry you’re going to focus in on, there’s no point saying you specialise in it.
I just had to take a giant step back and it’s been a massive learning curve but I feel very clear now on my brand and where I’m taking it. This is exactly who my brands are, this is exactly what they need, this is exactly what we can deliver.
SC.SD. It’s easy to think about long term dreams and it’s easy to sit back and reflect in conversations like this but what keeps you motivated on a day to day basis? When it’s just you, your laptop and your ‘to do’ list…
RW. A mix of things to be honest. Music motivates me so much… even at The Foreign Office, even though we weren’t supposed to, I always had a headphone in one ear..!
SC.SD. It’s that rebel in you Roch!
RW. Exactly! Music genuinely keeps me going though. Old school, 90s, early noughties, any defected house or soul or Motown… it all keeps me going.
And it sounds a bit weird because I know a lot of people hate Mondays but I love them. For me, they’re a clean slate and anything can happen. In PR there can be slow days where you feel like you’re constantly pitching, calling, following up and researching and no one is getting back to you but then 5-6 emails from my press contacts can come through in one afternoon saying, “Roch we need a quote! Roch do you have client who has this? Roch can we have a sample of X?” and it suddenly turns around.
Then it sounds really corny but just working for myself is motivation enough because I know that if I don’t put the work in and if I don’t get up, this business is never going to grow and I won’t achieve anything. I have managed to grow a small team who are amazing and take on an intern who has really changed the services that I offer and I couldn’t be more grateful for that. Some friends say, “oh my god, you’re so lucky, I bet you just lay in each morning” and the reality is my alarm goes off at 5am three times a week to be at the gym for 6am and then 6am for the rest of the week. I work harder and longer now than when I was working full-time for sure.
SC.SD. Was there ever a moment where you thought running a business would give you the freedom to be laying in until 10am?!
RW. Erm, to a certain extent yes! I’m not blaming social media but when I first started freelancing, you’d see freelancers working by the pool or in a park or they’d be off to the gym at midday and I’d be thinking, ‘mate, that’s BS!’ I didn’t stop to think firstly, how long have they been in business to get to that point and secondly, what is their workload actually like in reality?! For all I know, they could have worked from midnight to 9am so deserve that down time in the middle of the day or they could have zero work coming through the door and are struggling behind the scenes.
When I first started, I went to the gym in the middle of the day but quickly realised you come back to so many emails and people needing things! The dream that social media presents working for yourself….
SC.SD. Is not the reality?
RW. Is no way the reality! AT ALL. So I’m motivated by the fact that I want to be better and I want to be bigger so I need to get my arse in gear!
SC.SD. How have your relationships with family and friends evolved since launching this business?
RW. Touch wood, I’ve been so lucky! My family have been amazing, even when times have been really tough and I think it goes to show how important good relationships are because they’ve been there to pick me up every time.
With friends, I’d say there have been some that have questioned this business along the way and to be fair, I hold my hands up and say I probably haven’t been the greatest friend to some people since launching too. When you’re on your phone and laptop all day every day, I don’t really want to be on my phone again in the evening so when I say, “I’ll call you back” it could be that night or it could be in two weeks’ time.
My best friends have been amazing though. They’re constantly reaching out to check how I’m doing, whether I need to escape and go for a tea to vent, do I want a cuddle?! Do I need anything!? So I’ve been so lucky! But yeh, there’s been a few that haven’t been as supportive as I suppose you’d like them to be, haven’t got why I’m so busy and can’t always do things straight away but there’s just not enough time in the day to please everyone!
SC.SD. It can be a case of preserving your energy can’t it?
RW. Exactly! Sometimes I just can’t be arsed (!) and sometimes I feel like I can’t relate to some conversations anymore. I don’t have kids, I’m not married, I’m just focused on my business and the gym! The gym could be my boyfriend, haha! We’ve all got different priorities and if people aren’t career driven and you are, sometimes you naturally drift apart…
SC.SD. Favourite quote?
RW. I have two! “Your vibe attracts your tribe” is number one. My sister got me a plaque with that written on it because apparently, I say ‘vibe’ a lot! And the second one, “trust your vibes, energy doesn’t lie.”
SC.SD. For me, gut feelings speak volumes in business…
RW. Absolutely and at the beginning, I used to ignore my gut feelings but now if I feel like something is going left real quick, I cut it off asap!
SC.SD. Rounding up then, let’s talk long term goals… How do you want this business to evolve going forward?
RW. This is going to sound slightly drastic but I’ve got big, big goals and I feel like I’m putting the legwork in now for them to hopefully pay off (!) but for starters, I want to have a presence in London, be it an office space or showroom…
SC.SD. Why so?
RW. My mentors basically said, “no matter what, every big agency has a presence in London, New York, Paris and Milan.” Ideally long term therefore, I’d like to be global but I will never lose the small, boutique family feel. I’ve got big, big dreams, I’m quite creative and I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to work on some really cool campaigns, so I want to just keep working with more and more brands that I love and continue growing my team.
SC.SD. Very last questions then… What’ve you learnt about yourself throughout this whole process and what’s your advice to anyone reading this who is currently thinking about launching their own business?
RW. Right, to your first question, I’ve learnt that I give off a tough exterior but I’m not as tough as I probably once thought I was. I feel like where I’ve been too nice in the past and said “yes” to things I shouldn’t have agreed to, in turn that’s let my reputation down and I’ve got upset so I’ve learnt to toughen up. I’ve learnt that sometimes you have to approach things through a business lens as opposed to, “let’s be friends!” I’ve learnt to understand my own worth and that if they’re not prepared to pay that, it doesn’t mean I’m not worth that, it just means that they’re not in my budget. I’ve learnt that I need to be more strategic and organised and set aside days for focusing on just content or just outreach. When you have a normal job, it’s so much easier to be organised because you have a job description and you stick to it whereas when you’re a business owner, you suddenly have to think about accounts and taxes and marketing and diary management and managing a team and pitching and getting clients on board and cash flow before you even get to the actual PR role…! I’ve learnt what clear communication looks like and how vital it is you have procedures and T+Cs in place…
Genuinely, I’ve learnt so much throughout this whole experience and it’s made me more aware of myself, the people around me, their intentions and what they expect. I’ve taken the time to build and invest in a really good team which means I can delegate things now too which has helped. I definitely went in to this so blindly and naively, thinking that I can do it all on my own and still do a good job for clients, but I quickly realised I couldn’t…
SC.SD. And your advice to anyone reading this?
RW. I would 100% say follow your gut instinct. If you genuinely believe in your business idea then go for it because the worst thing that can happen is that it will fail or it’s a lot harder than you think! If that’s the case though, you always learn from it and you tweak it to make it successful. From my experience, I winged it, and yes that led to mistakes but it also led to a lot of achievements and great successes…
SC.SD. And I think it also makes you interesting as a person… it’s all a story to tell isn’t it and as long as you learn a lesson, there’s such a value in that?
RW. Exactly and even though I am now, I was never a big planner back then. All I knew was 1) I loved PR 2) I love being creative and 3) I wanted to work for myself so I went for it. Don’t hold back. There will never be a right time to start. The only thing stopping you is yourself and you shouldn’t let that be the case. It sounds very cliché…
SC.SD. But I love it!
RW. Me too!
If there’s one thing that stood out about Rochelle when we met late last year, it’s that she has always and will always, wear her heart on her sleeve and for that reason I’ve wanted to interview her from day one.
It takes a lot of courage to admit that you launched a business without any kind of plan and because of that have learnt a lot from mistakes made along the way but in my opinion I’m yet to find a business owner who knew everything from the outset and has breezed through the journey without learning as they go.
From volunteering to help friends’ businesses in the early days in order to build up a portfolio; learning to add layers to her pricing structure instead of offering to do everything under one flat fee; building the confidence to say “no” to brands that don’t fall under her remit, all the while remembering that trying to appeal to anyone and everyone can often backfire; there are so many valuable takeaways from Rochelle’s experience so far and her frankness when sharing them highlights (tough exterior aside) how sincere she really is.
And whilst she knows full well that her style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, love it or loathe it, she gets results for her clients and highlights the freedom as the boss to brand your business in any way you please.
A big personality with big ambitions to match, yes, she doesn’t follow every rule in the book but for that very reason, she stands out from the crowd.