October 29

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Bootstrapping Your Dream with PR Maven Sarah Robarts

By Mimi MacLean

October 29, 2020


sarah robartsSarah Robarts, Founder and President of Ballantines PR

Bootstrapping your business is something many have to do and it is a fantastic way to start a business without giving away equity from the get-go. Today, Sarah Robarts is the president and founder of the award-winning, woman-owned business, Ballantines Public Relations (BPR). Along with her team of talented PR professionals, Sarah has worked with numerous internationally renowned companies and corporations over the past 20 years in Los Angeles. Sarah loves long-distance running and compared starting a business to going for a run. “I don’t set off on a run and think, what if I don’t make the run? Who’s going to pick me up? How am I going to get home? It’s just like, this is my plan. I’m going on my run. It’s going to take this long. And I think you just have that faith.” As an entrepreneur, you can’t doubt yourself. You will figure it out along the way.

With the perfect combination of grit and grace, Sarah makes running a PR agency look easy. Her advice: be authentic, confident, humble, grateful, and hard working.

Find Sarah Robarts and Ballantines Public Relations

Episode Contents

  • Diving Into Sarah’s Career and How She Started in PR
  • When Do You Switch Off As An Entrepreneur?
  • Building Company Culture During Remote Work and COVID
  • Bootstrapping Her PR Company
  • Right Now is A Great Time To Get Into PR!

Diving Into Sarah’s Career and How She Started in PRpr business logo

Mimi MacLean

Thank you, Sarah so much for coming on today. I really appreciate it and so excited to hear your story. Can we first dive into just like your background and how you got started? It’s kind of interesting. So I’d love to have everyone hear about that.

Sarah Robarts

Yeah. And thank you so much for having me on. I’m thrilled to be on and I’ve listened to so many inspiring podcasts of yours. So thank you.

Mimi MacLean

Thank you!

Sarah Robarts

Yeah, no, I think there’s some amazing ones. Brilliant. And you said my background. It’s interesting and very diverse. So I was born in Uganda, raised in Kenya, I went to boarding school in England, and then I went to University in Canada, came back to London and was working in London. And from London, I then came on a visit to Los Angeles, I was gosh, 28 at the time 29. And really just went back and packed my bags, quit my job and moved. So that’s how I came to be here. And I have a background, I have a degree in fine art, and was painting, you know, professionally in London and actually before that in Manchester, because it was cheaper to live in Manchester than in London. And when I moved here, so my ex husband and I sold our flats in London. And we pulled our resources and bought the most rundown Hotel in Palm Springs. So it was right at 2000 when the market was so depressed people weren’t really going to Palm Springs. And we saw that gorgeous mid century modern architecture. And there weren’t sort of mid century modern hotels. So we thought, right, we’re going to do this. So we jumped in lock stock and barrel, did this massive refurbishment, and we took a gay clothing optional sort of 70 bucks or 60 bucks a night hotel and turned it into. I mean it really did very well. And that was sort of $400 a night and packed all the time tiny 14 rooms. But it was a labor of love such a gorgeous Noguchi furniture and eons of everything that you could pick up from in Palm Springs then, and that’s a big answer.

Mimi MacLean

Did you have background in hotel? Or did you kind of just go into it first?

Sarah Robarts

So it’s so interesting. No, I never run a hotel before I literally was like doing the bookings in my giant sketchbook like drawing out the days carrying around a portable phone and people were ringing and I was like drawing it and I was like we need to get a booking system. But we learnt that the hard way. So no, I did not have experience in hotels. I had luckily worked for two incredible women in London who were PR gurus really hard working incredible entrepreneurs. Everyone in the UK and probably here know them Ana Hindmarch and Nicole Hindmarch that was the Hindmarch family. And their father was fantastic mentor as well. But it was great to be in that environment. And I learned so much.

Mimi MacLean

And that’s great now so how did you pivot from the boutique hotel to owning your own PR agency?

Sarah Robarts

Out of necessity! So this there’s no fabulous strategic business plan. Let me tell you, it’s called survival No, so we sunk everything into this hotel refurbishment and we got ripped off by you know, contractors left, right and center that they saw us coming in these newbies from London, who’ve never done this before. And so literally, we are opened and, and every penny had been spent. There wasn’t $1 left for marketing or PR or doing and we just naively thought people will come you know how you do. And it’s so interesting because I now see this with clients and they invest so much in the product and the company and don’t have a marketing plan. I mean, I’ve lived that and done it right all the wrong way. So I thought, hey, we’ve got this hotel, we’ve got this massive overhead. And now we’re ready and open. How are we going to get people here? How are we going to fill this up. And thankfully, that is where my background in PR and having done what I did in London, I got on the phone to my girlfriend’s in London who were incredible at the likes of Vogue, and the Times and the Daily Mail. And they were incredible. They covered the hotel, they wrote about it, they loved the story, and connected me with incredible women in the press in New York and in LA. And so it began. And I was just really busy doing the PR for the hotel. And it it really took off. We were on the cover of the LA Times, New York Times travel sections, you name it, Vouge Conde Nast Traveler, this tiny hotel. So from that, luckily, the city of Palm Springs were like what is going on with this little hotel, getting all this international coverage. And they were great. And they became friends. And we talked a lot to them. And we would share the press leads and the press coming in with then visit other hotels and properties. And soon I was working for the city doing PR and I love the city. I love the architecture and the history of the place. And so it began and people were like, Oh, can you promote my book and my film or my clothing line my hotel. And that’s how it began, I thought right, I’m going to start charging these people. And so it began. And I had, you know, two babies under it straight away in Palm Springs, they’re under a year apart my two children. And it was just like, we’ve just got to make this work. There was never a choice. It’s just, I mean, I’ve literally have on my desk because this amazing card that my mom sent me and says proceed as if success is inevitable. And it’s just that you don’t question. This is gonna work.

Mimi MacLean

Right? You just go for it and just figure out how to do it.

Sarah Robarts

You know, I mean, I was thinking about it the other day. It’s like running in a way like I love long distance running. I don’t set off on a run and think, what if I don’t make the run? Who’s going to pick me up? How am I going to get home? It’s just like, this is my plan. I’m going on my run, it’s going to take this long. And I think you’d like you have that faith. And you know, I’m going to go and do it and have a great run. You sort of have to take that to this spirit of business as well.

When Do You Switch Off As An Entrepreneur?

ocean prime event with ballantines pr

Mimi MacLean

Totally, I totally agree with you. What have you found to be the hardest part about either starting the hotel or starting the PR firm?

Sarah Robarts

I mean, it’s such a good question. I think being an entrepreneur, and also running a company, it’s almost like when do you switch off? I think that is so hard. I think you feel so, I feel so responsible. I’m definitely a workaholic, and very driven. So my thing is, how do I how do I stop and not feel guilty? Like how do I take time off and a holiday? and not feel guilty? I don’t have you know, my laptop was glued to me. I mean, literally the first 10 years, I didn’t take a holiday. I just felt so driven and guilty taking time off. Now. I absolutely love it. And I enjoy it. And it’s a whole different, you learn to live with the fear. There is that fear of failure. What if and it’s like, well, if I just keep working, it’s that thing, kind of like when you got started, like you’re being told to breathe. You know, it’s just like, Okay, I’ve got to pace myself, and not miss the moments. And just, I and you know, it’s like really being centered and calm. And working on that is so important. As much as working on, you know, on the business. My advice, really, if I could start again, would be like those qualities that you need to run a company are so important to develop, like, invest more in that than the actual hours of emails, you know, it’s just like, if you can have those qualities that it takes to be a leader, that is the best investment. I mean, amazing. If you can have an MBA, I wish I did, I wish I had more of a communications background. And all of that is so helpful. But at the end of the day, I really think it’s those qualities of you know, having humility and strength and endurance and honesty and trustworthy, all those things that get you through and knowing yourself. Time Off is so important,

Mimi MacLean

Yes to being able to turn it off and turn it on. But a lot of those qualities that you talked about, I was just actually having this conversation with my 12 year old this morning. Do you learn those qualities? Or are you born with those qualities? Right? Is that something that you really actually can’t perfect? Until you’re actually in it? You know, and acknowledge it? And like you gain grit as you have adversity in your life? Or are you born with grit? Are you born with humility? Or do you learn humility?

Sarah Robarts

Such a good question, isn’t it I mean, my kids, it’s interesting, they grew up doing this thing called the virtues program I grew up Bahai. So Bahai is really core to everything in my life. That’s my faith. And they have this incredible children’s program, and they teach them virtues, all these virtues. And I think children really can be taught. And I think we need to try and model them as much as we can. But I think you’re right. It’s one of those things you learn by doing them. You can be taught all day, how important it is to be trustworthy. But until you implement it, you know, it’s like going for a swim, you can be taught how to swim by sitting on the sidelines, but you’ve got to get in that pool to practice.

Mimi MacLean

Exactly, exactly. So you make it look very easy. I gotta tell you, like, just hey, I launched and I had all these great customers come Have you had trouble finding clients, or they kind of just kept coming since you started.

Sarah Robarts

So that is interesting. And I think that goes back to this thing about an attitude of gratitude. Like I remember very early on this incredible yoga instructor said to me, and His name’s Adriano Samento, adji. He said to me, if you practice gratitude, what you have is enough. And I’m so driven, and it’s just like, I want more and more and more and more of everything, you know, be better at this, I’ve got to acquire more of this, I kind of do more for my children, go go go. And I was just like, okay, hang on. I’ve got enough clients, this is incredible, and be grateful. And you know what, when you do that they come. It’s not the chasing, you know, you don’t have to chase it.

Mimi MacLean

Right? That’s a good way to look at it.

Sarah Robarts

Maybe I’m getting across the wrong idea. That doesn’t mean I didn’t work incredibly hard at networking and bidding on RFPs, etc. But I think it’s that balance.

Building Company Culture During Remote Work and COVID

Mimi MacLean

Exactly, no, I totally get what you’re saying, I get your say. So I see that you have an amazing group of women on your team, you have a lot of a big team. I find when I’ve talked to other people, and just for myself, managing people is one of the hardest part of running a company. I would love for you to talk about that. Like do you find that hard? And then also, is there anything that you do with your team to especially while we’re in COVID? And working remotely? Is there anything that you do to foster a team environment even though we’re all kind of remote? And you know, I can, how do you find these great women?

Sarah Robarts

I mean, they are a joy, that we have an incredible team of women. But you know, like you said, it’s so difficult. My greatest weakness in business is running a team. So I get it, but it’s taken me a long time to accept Sarah, you’re not good at this. So hire people who are good at it. I thought and another misconception that I had for the first 10 years was I had to be good at everything. And, you know, if you can’t do it, hire the right people. And then I didn’t want to hire the right people, because they’d be expensive, right? No, I can do it, I’ll just sort of pull it all together. And it’s so stressful when it’s not your expertise. So I really the management thing, I mean, I have read and read and read as much as I can, you know, I really, and I keep trying to improve and learn and look at other people and how they run their companies, etc. But now, we really have great people who run it and women who are hiring incredible people, and they’ve created this fantastic culture. So it really is about being surrounded by the right people. But at the beginning, you know, it was me and one, then two, then three. And, you know, it really was my weakness. I’m not great at managing a team. And I’m learning that with, with time and age and having the right people around, right?

Mimi MacLean

Because I find that too, like when you’re driven, it’s kind of hard to slow down. Yeah, to explain and to make sure people are on the same page as you are in this town. You are definitely how I am that I’m kind of like I’m going 10,000 miles a minute. And so like, I just assume everyone’s keeping up with me. And it’s hard. Like we I didn’t explain that shoot, I thought you could just like osmosis, you would have gotten in from what I was thinking.

Sarah Robarts

Yeah, that’s actually how I thought and you think everyone is going to be the workaholic that you are right. And it’s disappointing. I used to really struggle with sort of the lifework balance and people wanting to take time off and and I have now learned and love it. I’m learning from my team, you know that it’s one especially now June COVID. We’re working from home right but before that it was you know, Fridays, they didn’t come into the office. We had Flexi time we don’t count holidays. I mean, if you told me this 20 years ago, I would have been no never and we have such a different culture. And I love it. I mean, that’s the greatest thing, you can also create what you want this way, right and attract like minded people. So during COVID, and during lockdown how to cultivate a sense of team. I mean, we talk a lot. I mean, there’s very good communication. And this has been a test because it’s fine to sit down for nice lunches and communicate or be in a nice meeting room at the office, but to be, you know, with kids learning at home, and this and that, and people being worried about getting sick, and then still have good communication is really a test of you know, how good these relationships are. So, I mean, I just think we have communicated well, and often the team have. I mean, I haven’t been on a lot of the activities that they have, you know, they’ve had independent ones, which is great. You know, I haven’t been on necessarily on zoom calls where people have had a chance to do more of a social thing. And then we have had, it’s interesting. So my kids taught me this thing during lockdown. called Hello, Buffalo. Have you heard about it, you go around the table, we will do it every night. And it was like the best thing that’s happened to me today, the worst thing that happened to me today and something I really want to share. So it might be a fun fact, who knows? Sometimes it can be really deep. And we did it every night for months during lockdown. It was so interesting to hear from the kids and say we did it a couple of times with the team. And it was just a great way you know, I can icebreaker and let’s get

Mimi MacLean

Why is it called Hello buffalo though?

Sarah Robarts

You know, I should find out. So no, I thought you’d know it’s an American thing.

Mimi MacLean

I’ve never heard that. I’ve heard that like high low in that. But I’ve never heard it called that.

Sarah Robarts

Yeah, I did that for the kids.

Hiring the Right PR Person – Sarah’s Thoughts

Mimi MacLean

That’s great. That’s great. No, it’s definitely great to kind of have a conversational piece either for your family or for the team just kind of outside of work right to come to personal connection. So can you give any advice to anyone who’s listening? who happens to be starting their own company right now, for PR, either PR advice, they might not have the money right now to hire a PR agency, which tends to be a little bit on the expensive side? Is that a mistake to avoid hiring a PR person if they don’t have the financial resources? Or is there something they can do on their own? without hiring?

Sarah Robarts

I mean, yeah, there is a lot you can do on your own, of course. And I know that an agency retainer might be daunting, but there are independent, amazing PR execs around who are doing that working from home might just be one person or two, and that might be way more affordable. And this is something I really want to develop. It’s like a how to do your own PR, because there’s so many principals. And that really is a project for me down the line, I really want to do that and do more teaching and mentoring and being able to help people, you know, so you are starting a little restaurant, you’re not going to take on a big PR retainer, although I will say is the best investment, even if you can commit to, you know, a project a shorter timeline than like an annual retainer. Really, if you get the right PR because that’s how you get the word out. You know, unless you have a big advertising budget, doing it with PR is so valuable if you have something newsworthy, okay? Because your PR is going to connect you and your product or whatever it is that you’ve created, that you need to get to the consumer, they are going to connect you with the journalists who are your third party endorsement. Right? And if you want to reach millions of people through journalists conveying the news, that is such an important investment. I mean, I so believe in it. I mean, I have lived it and seen people’s lives and businesses transformed. I mean from when we were in the Palisades to amazing mums that have remortgage their homes came up with an incredible hemp line of clothing, the first one and they came to us and they were like, this is it. These are our boxes of samples. We have spent everything to get this far now. Get us out there. And you know, these case studies out so we took some samples to Vogue, for example, I’m trying to sort of give you really concrete example so people can see like how Why should I invest in this? So we took the samples to Vogue. They had an incredible photoshoot with Amy Smart, who you know, environmentalist, vegan, etc. And they had 40 distributors reach out to them. Fred Segal the likes of Ron Herman. I mean, amazing Barney’s.

Mimi MacLean

That’s amazing.

Sarah Robarts

Yeah. So I mean, I have seen it over and over and that I mean suppose in a way that is sort of the addiction, what you get up. That’s why we do what we do that transformation in people’s lives, which enables them to hire more people grow businesses. And a lot of these businesses have amazing giveback components if we’re working for a huge corporate it’s great to be able to see that or if it’s a nonprofit, it’s way more direct, we can see the instant impact. It’s so rewarding.

Mimi MacLean

It’s great. Now, how has your business changed now that it’s more driven towards social media? Have you been using that more than just print and magazines?

Sarah Robarts

Yeah, so I think I mean, so much of it is online, of course, as you’re saying, as opposed to the ink. But you still need to reach journalists who are writing online and digital publications. But I do hear you about social media, and the social media side of our business is hugely growing, and goes hand in hand with much more of a traditional PR approach. Ideally, if you can have both, and you’ve got the strategy of a PR plan, you’re getting the incredible editorial that comes with the likes of The Wall Street Journal on the Financial Times, etc. So you’ve got that, and that credibility, which is what we call earned media. And then you have your own social media, which is what we call owned media your own. If you have those working hand in hand, and you’re able to use the content from the PR editorial on your social, that’s huge. And when they feed each other, it’s really rewarding.

Have the Confidence To Be Authentic

pr queen sarah robarts

Mimi MacLean

Oh, that’s great. That’s great. Okay, this has been amazing. Is there any other tips that you would give either to working moms from home right now with their kids home, that are trying to grow business, or anybody who’s thinking about starting a business, anything that you’ve learned that you want to just kind of a good takeaway?

Sarah Robarts

Thanks, I think that thing is having the confidence to be authentic, so if you’re at home, and you know what the kids are crying, or whatever, I used to be so afraid that it had to be really polished and perfect. And I think people really relate to your authenticity. And it’s fine to say, you know, this is the reality of life. We’re all juggling this. And I think don’t be afraid to convey that and be truthful with your clients, team, everyone that, you know, I’m learning to practice, and I love and it’s just a nicer way to be and live and to encourage people to be like that. And I would really, say, have grit and faith and go the distance. If you’re going to start your own business, there are going to be days.I mean, I honestly felt like I had a startup for about 19 years, we’re in our 20th year. And he’s to look around, I see other people they sold after four years, and it was just like, Why is it taking me so long? You know, I still feel like I have a startup this is 19 years in you know. And now I really feel it’s in a different place. And I’m so grateful. You know, I’m grateful for the people that I’ve met along the way, the culture we’ve created. Itt is so rewarding, but just don’t give up. You know, I really mean, just hang in, there it is up and down. You know, that’s like the symbol of you know, when your hearts going up and down, that’s a symbol you’re alive. And boy, as you know, running a company, there are lows that are so low, you’re like, I don’t want to get out of bed, I can’t do this. And then the highs are so high with the successes. I think just ride it out. Don’t you know, it’s like a wave, don’t let knock you down and take your breath away, like, use it to just keep going and pace yourself. Right? Just that sticking with it is so important. It will come right.

Right Now is A Great Time To Get Into PR!

Mimi MacLean

Right. That is really important. So what one other question I was thinking of, like, while you were talking? So if somebody you know, has been doing PR for a couple years, and now they’re like, at what point can someone go out on their own? Or is it kind of already saturated? And you can’t do? Or does everyone want to try it and which ones succeed and which ones fail.

Sarah Robarts

And she asked me about this PR earlier and I didn’t I we talked about fostering the team, but I didn’t address that piece, which is, this is a great time to get into PR. It really is. If you can do it, whether you’re doing it at home on your own, or you want to be part of a small team or a big team. I think this industry is only going to grow. It’s doing well. People need communications more than ever. If you’re good at it. Don’t worry, don’t even look at how many other people are doing it. How many independents how many agencies? I never stopped to think do I have too many competitors? I mean, I really believe in that prosperity, belief. There is enough for all of us. There is plenty. This is an abundant universe. There is plenty for all of us. And if you’re going to do what you do well, there’s absolutely going to be a need for you in the market. Just have faith in that.

Mimi MacLean

That’s great. That’s great. Thank you so much. This has been amazing. I really appreciate your time and if anyone wants to find you they would find you at your website which is Ballantines Public Relations?

Yes. Ballantinespr.com This has been great. Thank you so much.

Mimi MacLean

Thank you for joining me on the badass CEO podcast. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please leave a review and see you next time. Thank you.

Where To Find Sarah and More About Her Businesses

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