Overcoming Fear, Staying Positive, And Reinventing Your Business With Gini Dietrich

by Tim Jahn on July 16, 2010

I first interviewed Arment Dietrich CEO Gini Dietrich a little over a year ago on a crisp April morning in her Chicago office.  We had previously been chatting on Twitter about whether or not it was beneficial for small companies to appear small.  Gini was interested in the conversation because her PR company Arment Dietrich was a small company that often competed for big business.

Her company was also gradually transitioning from traditional PR into more communications based practices.  But the biggest transition was yet to come.

In November of 2009, with the economy in a less than ideal state, some of Gini’s employees feared possible layoffs.  This simply wasn’t true, so Gini reassured her employees in an all staff meeting that nobody would be let go.  Unfortunately, over the holidays, a few of Arment Dietrich’s key clients cut back their budgets and Gini had to make a tough decision:  either let some people go and cut costs or keep everyone on staff and worry if they could make payroll next month.

Tough months followed for Gini and Arment Dietrich.  For a long time, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to make payroll the next month.

But today, Gini and her company (and their amazing blog Spin Sucks) are regarded as one of the leading authorities in the PR and communications industries.  Spin Sucks was named PR Blog of the Year this year and Gini has been traveling frequently speaking to all sorts of audiences about digital communications.

So what changed from a year ago until today?

Gini reinvented her business model.  And the reception from her peers, colleagues, clients, and community couldn’t have been more supportive.  Gini’s at the top of her game now and the future is only looking brighter for her and her team.

I wanted to learn from Gini herself how she got to where she is today, how the past year of ups and downs has affected her personally and as a creative entrepreneur, and what she’s learned from the past year.

Transcript

Tim Jahn:
I was here last April.  What’s changed since then in terms of you and Arment Dietrich?

Gini Dietrich:
Since last April…a lot!  Pretty much everything.

In January, we kind of drew a line in the sand and said we don’t do PR anymore.  I wrote the blog post to say we’re transitioning the business model from very traditional PR to more digital communication, lots of marketing, kind of stuff.  I wrote it and then I sat there with my finger on the mouse and was like “I can’t hit publish!”

Tim Jahn:
It was that scary?

Gini Dietrich:
Yeah, it was that scary.  So I did a couple of other things and I went back to it, reread it, and I was like “Nope, still can’t do it!”  I think it took me like three hours to finally hit publish.  And I think if I had known – no, I know if I had known the response that I was going to get before I wrote the blog post, I would have done it a year ago.

The outpouring from the industry was phenomenal.  People were commenting congratulations, this is great, what innovative forward thinking, all this kind of stuff and I was thinking, really??  And it was funny, because as soon as I wrote that, all of a sudden it became clear to clients and prospective clients what we do.

Before, they knew they wanted PR and they knew that they needed PR, but they didn’t really know what that meant.  And as soon as I wrote that blog post, everybody was like, “Oh, I now know what I need!”

Tim Jahn:
You mentioned before it was scary pushing that button.  What other times in the past year has fear played a big role in being an entrepreneur?  I know you had some really hard times where you had to let people go and think twice about hiring.  Were there any other specific times where fear really played a role?

Gini Dietrich:
Honestly, it’s hiring people full time again.  It’s managing the cash flow so that we have enough cash to cover at least 4 payrolls.  I went through 15 months of “am I going to make payroll this week?”  I never want to go through that again so I’ve been piling up cash so I that I don’t have to go through that.  Now it’s, is now the right time to hire another person?  We need to hire another person, is now the right time?  Do we have enough cash?

It’s that whole cash is king, managing the cash flow.  It’s really scary for me.  Because 15 months of not knowing, I don’t want to do that again.  That’s not fun, at all.

Tim Jahn:
How about you personally, over the past year, through those ups and downs?  How has that affected you?

Gini Dietrich:
Last year was really tough.  I had a really hard time personally.  I spent a lot of time wondering what I could have done differently, what I did wrong.  I spent probably way too much time keeping people employed when I really shouldn’t have.  Because I get really attached to my staff.  I spend 12 hours a day with them, 5 days a week, sometimes 6 days a week, so I get really attached.

You know, I think the lesson in that is that you need to cut your ties as soon as you know, instead of hoping, because hope is not a strategy.  So, I had a really hard time last year.

But I read a quote from Confucius that said, and I’m paraphrasing this: “It’s not in that you fail but it’s in how you pick yourself up and go again.”  That really changed my mindset.  And that’s when I started thinking, how do we compete, how do we stay ahead of trends, how do we grow in a recessionary year?  I mean, this isn’t going to be the last time that a recession hits this business.  How do we stay ahead of that so we don’t have to go through what we went through last year?

Tim Jahn:
What’s the biggest lesson where you just right away think, oh, last year taught me that?

Gini Dietrich:
I think last year really taught me to always remain positive, there’s always a way out, and be thinking about the future, not just the here and now.  I’m a Vistage member and one of the things they always say is, what’s going to happen 2 to 3 years from now?  I never really understood that until I went through the recession.

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