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AMA: Donna Airey, founder of HomeGrown PR

AMA: Donna Airey, founder of HomeGrown PR

As HomeGrown PR’s founder and sole employee, Donna Airey talks to us about the importance of determination, starting a business during a global pandemic and championing the underdog.

Hi Donna! What problem did you set out to solve by starting your own business?

I’m a big believer that ideas are usually generated via a catalyst. For me, it happened when I had my first child. During my maternity leave, I considered my career and the years I’d spent working in PR both in-house and agency-side.

I knew how much I enjoyed my job but I wasn’t convinced that I was helping those in need or those I most wanted to work with.

I always loved the energy, enthusiasm and innovation of startups yet these were the clients that were often given the least amount of time by agencies because they didn’t have extensive budgets to invest.

Despite these being the businesses that had new and exciting ideas and were most open to trying new PR tactics, money always held them back. I knew any agency I worked for would always prioritise clients in the same way, it’s the business model after all.  

It took me another couple of years to put it all together. I knew that the answer wasn’t to make services cheaper but it was only when I thought about combining practices from different parts of PR that I realised it really was possible to make PR more accessible and cheaper.

I wanted to make sure challenger businesses had a fighting chance.

By using agency training methods to upskill a business’s employees, scaling businesses would have senior support from day one while training their own in-house team members without having to pay high salaries until experience merits it.

Not only does the business slowly increase their PR costs in parallel with their business’ growth but as the individual is a direct employee, there’s the possibility to flex the role and add in other comms activity as and when the business needs it.

It’s a whole new model for the PR industry; I call it hybrid and it’s the foundation of the training programme offered by my agency, HomeGrown PR.    

What were the initial challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was changing mindsets. Everyone had an idea of how PR should be done, the way it always had been, obviously! So, suggesting a new model took people a minute.

Convincing them to give the model a chance meant not only getting them to trust me but to take a leap of faith at a very tricky financial time for their business.

I did extensive market research ahead of launching, speaking to people across the PR, Marketing and HR landscape, testing out my idea and using every conversation to refine it.

Through these early days of bootstrapping, with two very young children and limited childcare, I worked long hours but my confidence in the model, my ability to deliver it, and the support of my husband kept me going.

Do you plan to grow the team?

I’m HomeGrown PR’s sole employee and that’s deliberate. As the model is new, I want to have full visibility and control over the execution of the programme so I can see if changes need to be made, which they inevitably do for different businesses and needs.

That’s not to say that I can manage the full workload myself though, and I think it’s important to recognise shouldering it all is a fast track to burn-out, so I do have support that I can tap into whenever the workload becomes too much or sickness hits!

Once more businesses have completed the programme, I have every intention of employing more consultants to execute the programme. Ultimately, I aim to start a franchise so as many people as possible can benefit from the Hybrid model.

If you could only choose one metric to help guide your business success, what would it be and why?

I’d choose client satisfaction. You can hit every success metric you’ve agreed on and your client might still be unhappy, in which case, your metrics probably weren’t the right ones.

If you’re confident taking calls, meeting your clients, and having open, regular conversations to discuss and evolve your strategy as needed, you’ll always know you’re doing a good job.

Any facts that might surprise us?

HomeGrown PR will always celebrate Christmas in January.

Once all the family gatherings and other office parties are out of the way, when everyone’s getting back into work and feeling a little low and a bit poor after the pageantry of December, that’s when HomeGrown celebrates the achievements of the past year. It helps push aside the January blues.

That's not a bad idea! Was there a challenging moment or setback at the start of your journey that led to a real learning moment?

I launched HomeGrown PR hot on the heels of COVID-19 and the start of a long period of financial instability. Turning my back on a stable salary when I have small children was a big worry.

I struggled to decide if the timing was right and it wasn’t until I realised that all young businesses were facing the same struggle that I saw the timing was perfect.

This was my opportunity to help the businesses that had given me the idea in the first place and I knew that with careful planning and by really listening to what businesses needed in early-stage calls, I could make HomeGrown PR successful.

And, now, whenever I’m uncertain, I return to a phrase a mentor once shared with me:

What’s the worst that could happen?

What’s your dream dinner party lineup?

If I could invite anyone from anywhere, it’d be a mixture of very strong, intelligent women who aren’t afraid to speak their minds, who are all very successful in their chosen fields and are known for their sense of humour.

I’d invite Michelle Obama, Emma Thompson, Reese Witherspoon, Taylor Swift, Jacinda Ardern and Poppy Gustafsson.

If you could only listen to one album for the rest of your life, it would be...

I’m quite sentimental. If it really were the only album I could ever listen to again, it would have to be a homemade mix of songs that remind me of key moments that have happened in my life, highs and lows, everything that’s brought me to this point in time.

Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles reminds me of my childhood and the excitement of heading to new places and trying new things.

Thanks Donna, we wish you endless luck in the future!
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