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Karen Murphy O’Brien launched her innovative public relations and marketing firm 30 years ago which is an impressive feat considering most businesses started today only last two to five years. She has survived market crashes, cultural shifts, and new technological eras while scaling her business. So what is the secret to staying in business for over 30 years? Murphy O’Brien shares her best pieces of advice on how she grew her business.
Yola Robert: What is the secret to staying in business for over 30 years?
Karen Murphy O’Brien: While the business of public relations is a centuries-old one, it is surprising how many businesses don’t make it past the 10 -year mark. We’ve seen a lot of firms come and go over the years for a variety of reasons. In the small to mid-sized agency arena, I would say the number one reason is burnout. PR can be an all-consuming, 24/7, thankless job where you are only as good as your last feature article. Now, with the plethora of social media options available, the demand is even greater for instant and constant gratification. We started with just the two of us, my co-founder/partner, Brett O’Brien and I, and now have nearly 60 full-time team members who are predominantly women. The secret to our 30-year success lies in the belief that you can actually build a successful service business that doesn’t revolve around or depend 100% on you. The management team at Murphy O’Brien collectively has decades of hands-on experience in public relations; their unprecedented longevity at the company ensures stable, seasoned leadership of client accounts and agency operations.
Many of our senior team members have built their careers at MO, growing into industry leaders and reflecting our agency’s commitment to professional development. As entrepreneurs, Brett and I are change agents and are dedicated to being on the forefront of the evolving media landscape, yet we allow our employees to pursue excellence without fear of failure while following their passions outside of the PR arena, be it in technology, wellness, philanthropy or the like. One of the biggest secrets is sticking with what we know best and not deviating into areas of the business outside of our wheelhouse merely in pursuit of revenue. We are the leaders in hospitality having represented The Peninsula Hotels for over 25 years and Auberge Resorts for over 15 in addition to successfully launching and promoting well-established consumer brands including See’s Candies, The Cheesecake Factory, Dunkin’ Donuts, and BJ’s restaurants, among others.
In my senior year of high school, I received the award for being “Most Dependable.” I would say that, of all attributes, has served me well in maintaining the integrity of our business. The bottom line is . . . We do what we say we are going to do! That is the secret sauce for just about everything.
Robert: What piece of advice would you give your younger self on starting a business?
Murphy O’Brien: I am passionate about entrepreneurship. As it relates to starting a new business, my advice would be to follow one’s dreams and just do it. By combining passion and a relentless work ethic, with foundationally strong business practices, anyone can bring their dreams to life. One book that was particularly helpful in starting and operationalizing our business and that I highly recommend for first-time entrepreneurs is the “E-Myth” by Michael Gerber. It is also critical that you find someone, if not a partner then a business resource, who will complement your skill set. No entrepreneur can succeed all alone.
Robert: You have incorporated philanthropic efforts as a major part of Murphy O’Brien. Why is it vital to give back to your community as an entrepreneur?
Murphy O’Brien: Our company attracts the best and the brightest in the business. Our young professionals are talented, dedicated and result driven, but they also want to change the world for the better. Being able to give back in a meaningful way is as important as doing a great job for your clients. I met the CEO of Chrysalis, an organization dedicated to helping formerly homeless and economically challenged men and women find a pathway to self-sufficiency through jobs, nearly 20 years ago. I was amazed by their business model and an unprecedented success rate. We immediately began doing pro-bono PR for them and I joined their board of directors in 2003 and we have been committed ever since. Many of our staff volunteer for their annual Women’s Empowerment Program mentoring women and in other areas such as promoting wellness through mindful meditation and job readiness. Other non-profits we support via pro bono work at Murphy O’Brien include Visionary Women, an organization dedicated to advancing the status of women, both locally and globally,
and the National Children’s Chorus. We not only allow, but encourage paid time for volunteer efforts so our employees can feel like they are contributing to causes that are meaningful to them without having to sacrifice the level of service for their clients. Clients also heavily support our philanthropic endeavors by donating getaways for our non-profit fundraising events!
Robert: You offer your employees unique self-care benefits such as the breakup care package. How has taking care of your employees help scale your business over the last 30 years?
Murphy O’Brien: We have a “Director of People” who is dedicated to ensuring our company culture is always at the forefront. By offering such perks as flex hours (a big draw for recruiting), work-from-home Fridays, companywide lunches, birthdays off, over-the-top holiday parties and more, our team members feel loved, fulfilled and appreciated. To commemorate our 30th Anniversary, we are rolling out a suite of experiences under the banner “MO Happiness Project “aimed at keeping employees happy and healthy. These include CBD massages, puppy showers, beach meetings, happiness Yoga and more. The breakup package is designed for team members who have experienced a recent breakup and it includes two work from home days, delivery of ice cream, chocolate, tequila, and a face mask! Murphy O’Brien has consistently been named one of the “Best Places to Work” in the Annual Los Angeles Business Journal’s rankings. This is truly meaningful as the survey is based exclusively on employee feedback and endorsement. This is a testament to the culture we have created at the company and also helps with recruiting and retention.
Robert: What can we expect in the next 30 years?
Murphy O’Brien: Over the next 30 years, we can expect to see a digital-first media landscape and innovative new communications technologies. Breakthrough creative ideas, exceptional results and meaningful relationships with our stakeholders (clients, team, media/influencers) will still be at the heart of our business. However, the ways in which we communicate, and the nature of the media and social platforms, will change dramatically, as will Murphy O’Brien. In an environment of constant change, a business is either driving the steam roller or part of the pavement. We embrace the Japanese philosophy of “Kaizen”, which translates into continuous improvement and change for the better.
Robert: What is one setback or failure you have been able to leverage into a success?
Murphy O’Brien: Our burgeoning real estate practice was gaining traction prior to the catastrophic 2007/2008
recession. We had incredible momentum yet also significant financial resources invested. What happened next was unprecedented: With the market crash, many of our real estate clients disappeared overnight and many were unable to pay what they owed us. As a prime example, Lehman Brothers was a big investor in one of our luxury resorts in Palm Desert.
It was a devastating and pivotal time for our company as we had to decide whether to let over a dozen people go or take a collective pay cut until we could stabilize the business. We chose the pay cut but it also taught us the serious lesson about what can happen when the going gets tough. We lost a lot of revenue and some of the lesser committed team members fled out the door. The bright side was that we were forced to recalibrate and hunker down for the duration of the downturn.
The opportunities that awaited us in the real estate sector post-recession were nothing short of miraculous. The foundation we had built prior to the downturn was intact. Since that time, we have positioned Murphy O’Brien as the leading PR, marketing and digital agency in the real estate community and represent over 20 clients including major players like Howard Hughes Corporation, Talisker Club, Greystar, etc. We recently won two Hermes Creative Awards in Real Estate for our Timbers Kauai and Line Lofts clients.
Robert: What do you hope to see in the next generation of female entrepreneurs?
Murphy O’Brien: There is no better time to be a female entrepreneur than the present. As a result of the #Metoo movement and the arrival of organizations like Visionary Women (visionarywomen.com), the conversation has changed and, not only are we being taken seriously, women are going to have more opportunities than ever in areas of business that were once predominantly male-dominated. What I hope to see, however, is a generation of women who are empowered but also recognize that nothing should be handed to them as there is nothing like hard work and perseverance to prove your worthiness, both beyond the glass ceiling and in the board room. I also hope that female entrepreneurs will continue to exercise their social conscience by supporting and creating new causes that benefit, not just women, but all of those who are less fortunate and suffering. It is also important to mentor those who aspire to be like you. I have always firmly believed that, in order to get, you have to give. The giving of one’s time, talents and resources pave the yellow brick road, not just to success but to happiness in all endeavors. Paying it forward is the only way to go!
June 3, 2019 at 06:12PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs