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August 1, 2019

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Andrea Grau on Ten Years of Touchwood PR

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Ten years ago I made a decision that would change my life in more ways than I could imagine. Having been an employee, and a pretty good one at that, for most of my adult life, I made one of the scariest and boldest decisions of my life: I bet on myself and launched a little one-person company and called it Touchwood PR. “Touch wood” because my South American mother had been doing that all my life to fend off bad juju. I had made bold and scary decisions before but none of them had the feeling of free-falling that came with choosing to leave a job people coveted for the complete unknown of entrepreneurship, while still supporting a growing family. 

I had never had a vision of running a business, or climbing a ladder, or killing the competition – that was never in my DNA. Still isn’t, really. When I left a secure and status-filled job that I was in, it really was for two reasons: 1) I wanted flexibility to be with my (then) small children and be a more present mother and 2) I wanted to do the work that I love and leave behind office politics. 

Shortly after starting Touchwood I had my Come-to-Jesus/Ah-ha/Holy shit moment: when you are on your own, you are… well, on your own. I found myself with no office to go to, no built-in structure to fall back on, no teammate to commiserate with, and honestly, when the kids were at school, no real reason to get up. I spent the first three months of being an entrepreneur in complete paralysis of not knowing where to start. I didn’t have a business plan, but I had a lot of hope. So, I got up. I started not by going out and securing clients, but by sitting down and writing. What is this company about? What is your vision? What makes you different/special/any good at all that would make it reasonable for someone to hire you? I called this the “deep exploration of self.” It was the beginning not just of my company, but also of becoming more enlightened about my purpose in the world (still working on this, FYI).

Any entrepreneur will tell you about the scary parts about not knowing if/when/how you will get paid. But few will share with you the soul searching it takes to truly understand what you are offering in the first place. I have always been very good at selling others, and less so in promoting myself. If this was going to work, I had to be honest with myself about who I was, why I was good at what I did, and what I had to offer. I had to find my voice in it all. I started to say YES to myself and to the small opportunities that started to trickle in. I started to trust that I had made the right choice and although I could not see the road ahead, there was one. This is work that I continue to do as the business and I age as gracefully as possible.

What I learned early on is that I am better in a team. Within a team, I am a great cheerleader and I really love supporting someone else’s ambitions. There were some close and beloved people that came out to help me in the beginning as I was getting my feet wet. Big love to Judy Lung who was my very first contract hire and together we did Touchwood’s first TIFF. Soon thereafter, I snagged Alma Parvizian – a ride or die person if ever one lived. Full of passion and tenacity, she remains one of the most loyal humans in the world and the irreplaceable engine of Touchwood. The incredibly creative and whip-smart Susan Smythe-Bishop joined shortly thereafter and together we started a very rad team of people who had left what others perceived as “dream jobs” to explore what else could be out there.  

I started to see a trend. Really smart people, mostly women, who wanted to do amazing work, had a true love for arts and culture, and who wanted to not only work in a place with a positive and nurturing culture, but wanted to help that culture grow. 

We started to hire talented and spirited people as the work demand grew, first in drops, then in waves, and eventually in a steady stream. The brain capacity in the office is tangible and any success we have had and continue to have is fully credited to the stellar group of people that show up every day. Around year five, when the staff grew large enough to require proper office space, I stopped worrying that we wouldn’t make payroll. Even in the leanest of times, I kept the trust that it was all going to be OK. And, touch wood, it has been. 

What I have learned over the past 10 years is more than I can write in a blog post. Besides learning the intricacies of the CRA, IRS, ADP and my favourite, HST, mostly I have learned about trusting my instincts, trusting the universe and knowing that rejection is protection, as painful as it may be at times. There is a true letting go that needs to happen when you work in the world of clients and people. Like most things, it’s always changing. Sometimes the goodbyes sting hard, but most times it makes space for other wonderful people to come into your life. I feel honoured to have shared this journey thus far, with such a kick-ass group of people. 

Ten years in, we finally have a business plan: to continue to support the best and loveliest team we can afford, to work with kind and creative people, and personally, to give the best of myself as often as I can. That is the only recipe I know, and I am sticking with it. 

Andrea Grau, Touchwood PR