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April 20, 2015

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How to Start a Business When You Have No Idea What You Are Doing

When I got my first job as a publicist, I really had no idea what I was doing. It was 1996 and I was working as an Executive Assistant at the time to Bryan Gliserman at Cineplex Odeon Films. I was a terrible assistant. I think he kept me around for comic relief. I couldn’t file properly, I was not great with schedulers, but I could take a lunch order and work the phones like nobody’s business. I think that is what caught his eye – the fact that I was really good with people on the phone and clients who popped by. I was polite and funny and efficient. It’s the catch phrase People Person – what PR schools now call “soft skills”. I know they teach PR now but back in the day it was all about those soft skills and less about how to create a killer pitch. The latter can be learned, the former is fully personality.

So the day he came to me 9 months after I started working as his assistant and said, “Andrea, we have to talk,” I thought Oh shit. I’m done. What came out of his mouth next was not what I expected, “How would you like to handle the publicity for our theatrical releases?” What the what? “I think you have the perfect personality to do publicity and we are brining our publicity and promotional efforts in-house and I’d like you to run the publicity part.” I sat stunned for a beat longer than I probably should have. “Er, this sounds great, but what does being a publicist actually mean?” I had studied film and communications in University but a publicist for me was what Samantha did on Sex and the City and I knew I did not have THOSE skills. “You pitch our films to the media and you have them cover the films.” Sounded pretty easy. And I got a better salary, too. “Great! I’ll do it.”

My first day, week, months on the job are still a blur. No database, no Google, no idea what the hell I was doing. So I put on my big girl pants and bought the papers. I scoured through newspapers back then like they were my saviours. And they were. Oh thank God for the by-line and the telephone. I set my soft skills to work. “Hello, Mr. Kirkland, you don’t know me but my name is Andrea and I am the new publicist here at Odeon Films. I have no idea what I am doing so why don’t we start by you telling me what you need and I will do that for you.” There were many, many phone calls like that until I built up enough data for a database. I didn’t need to go out and get a PR certificate; I was creating the syllabus as I went along!

I have very fond memories of those early days. I felt like a bushwhacker. I had no mentor, no role model. All I had was my brains, my pen, my notebook and a lot of moxie.

Fast forward to 2009. I am working as Director of Communications for several years for what is considered one of the most elite film festivals in the world. I love what I do but I am starting to question my job. I am starting to wonder if I have hit the ceiling of my career growth and I slowly start to feel burnt out and unmotivated. For a person who studied what I studied I pretty much had the “dream job”. Do you know how shitty it is to realize that you have hit the pinnacle of your career and all you can muster up is … Meh.

I looked for other jobs. I interviewed for some interesting positions. All I could muster up was…. Meh. It was a crossroads for me for sure. I could stay where I was which on the outside seemed like a damn good place to be. Or I could make it up. Only now looking back do I realize I have been really winging it my whole career. I winged it back in 1996 and I was about to wing it again. Screw it, I thought. I’ll just go out on my own.

Scariest and most exciting words known to humans: Out. On. My. Own.

And so after some internal deliberation and crunching of non-existent numbers, Touchwood was born. The whole idea of “touchwood” is all about good luck, fingers crossed, keep the evil spirits at bay. Winging it once again.

A few months after leaving my “dream job”, I realized I was out in the wilderness with the wrong shoes and too thin of a coat. I didn’t have a plan. All I had were those soft skills and a considerably better database. So I got to work. Not by pounding the pavement, not by advertising, not by calling all my friends. No. I got to work by sitting quietly and asking myself some questions. Who are you? Who do you want to be? What kind of clients do you want? What kind of people do you want working with you? What do you care about? What are you passionate about? What are your boundaries? I spent a couple of months just with that internal dialogue waiting for the phone to ring, secretly hoping it wouldn’t. Because I didn’t have all the answers; I barely knew the questions. So I started attacking those one by one. And then the phone started to ring. The more questions I answered for myself, the more the phone rang. The more beautiful souls I brought on to work alongside me, the more the phone rang. The more I grew as a person, the more my business did. And that brings me to the present.

Touchwood is now a cozy team of 9. We may grow a little more but too much would mean moving from our great digs and we really love our home. In addition to all our awesome clients, we are launching this new site and blog and planning some cool, unique things for the future. My machete for bushwhacking is at the ready once I need to pick it up again. But for the moment I am way better than Meh. I am YES.