15 Years. 15 Lessons.

It’s been 15 years since I decided to leave the “comfortable” lifestyle of having a secure, well-paying bi-weekly paycheck to enter the rollercoaster life of being self-employed. In 2003, becoming an entrepreneur and opening a startup was not a cool, hip trend as it is today. For many, I was insane.

A decade and a half later, I look back at the achievements, mistakes and challenges we have experienced. It hasn’t been easy. We have endured a long economic depression and a devastating hurricane. Despite these trials, the lessons learned have been valuable.

#1: Leave with the door open

It was July 2003 when I decided to talk to my bosses about my decision to leave the company to open my own business. They were shocked, but gracious and supportive, and I decided to give them the time needed for a smooth transition. I am proud to say that up to today, Jorge, my former boss is still my first client.

#2: Numbers are as important as ideas

Finance has never been my forte. In college I never took an accounting or finance course. Why should I? I was in communications – we just need to learn to write well, strategize and be creative. Big mistake. If you don’t master the numbers game, hire someone. I’m blessed that my wife is a financial and legal whiz and constantly reminds me that great ideas don’t come cheap, or free.

#3: Surround yourself with people smarter than you.

Something that I’ve learned the hard way is to understand that I don’t know everything; that it is OK to ask for help. There’s a saying in Spanish: “zapatero a su zapato” (shoemaker to his shoe). There are experts in various fields, within our line of work. Identify them, get to know them and collaborate with them. Become an eternal student.

#4: Value mentorship

In my 25+ years in the professional world, I’ve had the privilege of working with top-notch industry and business leaders. Some are former bosses, clients and employees. Mentors come in all ages and backgrounds. I treasure and look forward to my “lunch meetings” with Elliot and Raúl – my first and last bosses – and I continue learning from them.  Now the tables are turned, and I love to mentor start-ups, students and younger colleagues.

#5: Embrace millennials

Entitled. Self-centered. Uncommitted. I must admit this was my initial reaction when I began interacting with millennial employees and clients.  Generational differences shocked me, especially when it came to work ethics. Why are they leaving to hit the gym while I’m still stuck at the office?  Then I realized it was easier for me to adapt to them than to go the other way. Now I learn from them and embrace their “millennial attitude”:  they are multitaskers, tech savvy, open-minded and much more. (I’m still working on hitting the gym after work).

#6: Don’t flip out

This was one of the first pieces of advice I received when I announced my decision to open my business. It was given by Carlos, president of an advertising firm and most important, a friend. He said that no matter the chaos, the challenge, the stress, we can never lose our cool.  It’s easier said than done, but it’s something I remind myself of constantly. Because in this industry, almost every day is worthy of a true flip.

#7: No client is too small

We’ve been fortunate to have a client roster that includes everything from multi-national brands to smaller, local companies. They might have different budgets and resources, but they are all looking for the same value when they hired us. Budgets grow and shrink in the blink of an eye.

The same goes with journalists. Sometimes we tend to brush-off a writer of a small blog with limited reach. Time has taught me that today’s independent writer may become tomorrow’s editor of a national media outlet.

#8: Learn to say No

This is something I constantly struggle with. I want to please. I want my clients to receive superb service. I want to make sure that my employees have good working conditions. But I’ve come to learn the hard way that saying no is sometimes the best answer. You can manage expectations and keep your sanity.

#9: Trust your gut

I love the Edward G. Robinson character in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”. “The little man inside me that won’t let me sleep” he says when something doesn’t seem right. Whether it is a creative idea, a strategy, or a new hire, always listen to your little man (or woman). It seldom fails.

#10: Listen to your employees

Another lesson learned the hard way. Employees bring different backgrounds, aspirations and goals to your team. But they all have something in common: they want to be listened to, not just heard. We can’t assume that we know what they want because needs change, constantly. While I write this, I realize I must spend more time to sit, shut up and listen.

#11: Hire slow, fire fast

My last boss Raúl used this quote regularly. Finding a candidate that suits your business needs is no easy task. It takes time and patience. When I found my employees getting upset with me because of the time it takes for me to decide on a candidate, I began to engage them in the process early on. Now we share the frustration and the joy of hiring.

Terminating someone’s job is even harder. It’s emotional and gut-wrenching. I try to dig deep into positive qualities and ways to make it work. But when the “little man” hits me in the stomach, it’s time to pull the plug, early in the game.

#12: Clients come and go…and come back (sometimes)

Once I heard that this is an industry in which you win clients with great ideas and on-point strategies, but you lose them because of a wrongly installed banner. I’ve experienced it first-hand.  But I’ve also seen how, years later, the same client has changed jobs, or the company has merged, and we’re back working together. It’s too small of an industry to hold grudges.

#13: Expect the unexpected

Hurricane María epitomized a major, unprecedented crisis management situation personally, as an employer, for our clients and collectively as well.  But its aftermath brought many lessons and demonstrated the value of PR in times of despair. One of these include the importance of anticipation, preparing a plan B and C and at the same time, having the ability to react accordingly.

#14: Practice the virtue of gratitude

Throughout this article, I have included the names of some of the people who have influenced my career. I am deeply grateful for their advice and support. Giving thanks should be a daily ritual. I am thankful for my wife and partner, my family, my clients, my employees and many others who enrich my life in many ways. Gracias. Thank you. Many times.

#15: Do what you love and have fun

It’s simple. I always tell my employees that the day they dread to come to the office because they’ve lost their passion, to let me know, and I’ll be the first to help them find a new job. You must love the adrenaline rush that fuels our daily hectic workplace. You must laugh hard at the mistakes and grow from them, get pumped up with new projects and clients and cheer on everyday achievements.

As I wrote, re-wrote and revised this piece, I remembered so many other lessons.   Do any of these resonate with you or do you have any lessons you want to share?

Bernardo Fiol-Costa is President and Founder of The Big Think Group in San Juan, Puerto Rico – The laptop featured in the photo was “state of the art” in 2003, complete with floppy disk drive, Dial-in plug-in , and it weighed “about a million pounds.” 

Photo credit: Menchu Agueros, first employee of The Big Think Group 





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