This post originally appeared on Above the Fold, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s digital platform featuring analysis, commentary, and real stories about the intersection of government and business.
Welcome to Becoming the Boss, our series celebrating small business owners who are making the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer by hiring their first employee. Check back periodically for new installments.
Nearly two decades ago, on a train bound for the nation’s capital, Susan Apgood started jotting down notes and mapping out a business plan. Apgood, 27 at the time, had just completed her MBA and was working for a public relations agency. She had always wanted to start her own business, but she never thought the opportunity would arise so early in her career.
“I started writing down pros, cons, what I could do better, and what I could do differently,” Apgood says, thinking back on that train ride from New York to Washington. “When I got back I started to write out a business plan.”
Fast forward to 2015, and Apgood’s PR company, Bethesda-based News Generation Inc., now has a variety of clients ranging from media firms, trade associations, and large corporations. Her company helps them secure broadcast media opportunities throughout the country, from satellite media tours and radio media tours to public service announcements.
While adding to her client list, Apgood has also been adding to her payroll. She hired her first employee in 1997 and now leads a team of 16. In an interview, Apgood discussed the inspiration behind her company, the curve ball her first client (or so she thought) threw her way, and her favorite thing about being an entrepreneur.
What was your lightbulb moment?
I had been talking with a friend while in New York City, and she kept encouraging me to start my own business. I had always thought about opening my own business down the line, but it ended up being perfect timing. My mom is an entrepreneur who bought and sold different companies. When I came to her with my idea, she asked me to send my business plan to her and my dad.
Shortly after sending it, they wrote me a check that said “Good luck – Go for it” in the memo line. At that point, I could actually start to visualize it all happening.
How did you find and hire your first employee?
My first employee had worked with me at another firm and had worked with me from the beginning. I paid her from the start, even when I wasn’t paying myself. It was tough, but I knew a few months in advance that I was going to do this, so I prepaid my car, my mortgage and everything to get ready.
Tell me about your first few months in business.
I had a contact at Microsoft who encouraged me to start my business, and when I did, he promised us $100,000 worth of business – which is pretty good for someone just starting out. I started working, and soon after, my contact called me one day and said, “I’m really sorry but our holding company bought a company that does what you do. We can’t use you, we have to try them out.” It was devastating at that time but I knew I couldn’t rest; I had to find other clients.
I had a few other clients at the time but I was spending so much time working, I didn’t have time to market myself. I started calling people from a communications directory, and really, I called everyone I knew. Every association, every PR firm, every nonprofit, every think tank, and I sent them all our information. I would just call and ask for meetings, and that’s how we wound up getting a lot of great clients.
When did you start to expand your team?
When we started, I moved to Atlanta and I stayed about six months. When I was getting ready to move back to D.C., we needed to find someone who was there to help my first employee, Lynn. I’m very involved in PRSA (Public Relations Society of America). So, I posted the position on PRSA in Georgia and ended up finding our next employee from there.
How many employees do you have today?
We currently have 16 employees. I never want to get so big that not everyone knows each other’s names. I like the informality of a small company and how intimate it is to know everyone. I like that your second family is your work family. I like to know what makes people tick, and I like being a mentor to my employees as well as learning from them.
What’s your favorite part about running your own business?
My favorite part has been having creative freedom and not being told what I can or can’t do. I worked for the government on the Hill for a few years, and there, if you have a great idea or want to move forward with something, it would take forever.
As an entrepreneur, if you decide “Okay, we all want to institute this new signature on our e-mails,” or something simple like that, you can just do it.
What does it mean to not only have created your own job but create jobs for someone else?
It is a cool feeling, and it’s a great responsibility that I take very seriously. I once worked for someone who would let our paychecks bounce and didn’t contribute to our 401K’s, so I take everything to the extreme on the other side.
At the same time, it’s a bit nerve racking, because you feel so responsible. This person’s livelihood is dependent on you, and you have to make sales and good decisions. It puts pressure on me to continually do better.
What are your long-term goals for the company?
One of the cool things about media is that it’s not just turning on the TV but about the conversations taking place. Our goal is to get in on those conversations and capture those conversations and let other people be privy to them. For example, if you’re listening to your favorite talk show host on your car radio, and you’re feeling very connected to them, my goal is continue that connection no matter where you go and where technology takes us — whether it’s mobile devices, podcasts, periscope or whatever comes next.