Confessions of a “PR Guy”
For the past 20 years I have been a PR guy. I’ve represented members of the Forbes 400, Congressmen, non-profits and community groups, municipalities, developers, and all sorts of dealmakers and do-gooders. Banks, colleges, tech startups, energy companies, medical cannabis providers, political action groups, and transportation organizations have all been my clients. I’ve fielded media calls on family vacation and been woken by clients at 4am with whatever crisis they created. It’s been a phenomenal ride. I made my bones on Capitol Hill, in Lower Manhattan, and working the streets for candidates for city council and for U.S. President (I love the Iowa Caucuses and will always cherish my time in Des Moines).
I started my PR firm after having never worked for a PR firm. And, I created my new business just as the country entered one of the deepest recessions in modern times. Lucky for me, I choose to move home after a decade working in large cities, a place that doesn’t feel the busts, nor the booms actually either — Albany NY- the capital region of New York State. Since 2005, Gramercy has been a constant companion of mine and a constant grind. That first $200 fee has turned into millions in fees. I have been lucky to have the very best clients, and the great clients always drown out the misery the crummy clients bring with them (I also have no problem firing bad clients rather quickly).
Five years ago I felt like I had accomplished all I set out to with this PR business and things had been nice and steady. We were the right size for the Albany market. We had figured out industry norms for clients, staffing and finance. So, I considered expanding — first into complimentary marketing businesses that we were always farming out. We tried graphics, video production and marketing management. I bootstrapped the investment in a variety of staff as I tried to figure out how we might grow business in these areas. I worked with a recruiter to try to bring in a more senior-level marketing executive and held interviews in Manhattan. After a few years I scrapped the plans, and refocused on our core business expertise — public affairs. We found better freelance help and partnered with more talented startup creative agencies to help our clients when we needed other services. We kept the marketing positions we created and assigned staff accordingly as we brought on certain integrated accounts.
I then thought I might just expand our firm and public affairs expertise across the state, or even out-of-state, but quickly decided against an acquisition or a pioneer approach to a new market. I entertained a few conversations about being acquired and merging with other large firms and other similar sized firms. But no one was cutting me a fat check, and just wanted me to work for them. So I stayed the course. I focused on building and teaching my team. As staff developed, I was able to extract myself from job functions I never thought I’d be able to give up.
During the time we explored expanding to other markets we decided if we went that route we could set up operations in a coworking space. We thought it would be a good way to meet new people, and immerse ourselves into a new market. I visited a few. My team visited a few too.
The Albany, NY area had limited flexible workspace options at the time, and no incubation for creative agencies. The coworking industry didn’t even exist when I created Gramercy, so I worked from home, coffee shops, and a subleased office for the first five years of business until I had the courage to sign a 5-year lease (which I broke after 3 years anyhow because I was out of space). On a five hour drive home from one of the places I had visited and considered expanding, I called friends in real estate development begging them to take this idea I had to create a coworking space in Troy, NY where we had based our firm and I was invested heavily in downtown revitalization efforts. I promised to anchor a space and help promote it for them. About 45 minutes from home, one of my friends told me to “stop calling me about this idea. You should just do it yourself.” So I did.
By the time I got home, Troy Innovation Garage was born. I knew it would be a coworking space aimed at the growing creative economy and blossoming startup tech sector. I knew it would include serious programming in addition to cool furniture. I had a general idea about the buildings that might be available that had enough space to do this right. I knew some buildings that the owner might be willing to sell if given the right proposal. I looked for a real estate deal and development challenge. I wanted to gut something and rebuild it.
This page is a discussion of the journey thus far — developing, building, owning and operating Troy Innovation Garage the past two years, and my most recent coworking venture called Bull Moose Club, which opened last month across the street from the New York State Capitol building. I have visited 75 coworking, incubator and accelerator spaces and programs over the past three years as I work to improve our concepts and operations. I created a new development company called Aurelius Coworks that owns and operates Troy Innovation Garage and Bull Moose Club. I also still actively run Gramercy as CEO, and due to a mix of the team we have in place and developed for the firm, and the positive accolades we received building and promoting these two new ventures, last year was our best year ever.
I appreciate your interest in this journey and hope that it helps some people as they develop their own concepts and businesses.