Starting a Communications Firm

Interview with Richard J. Atkins, Founder of Improving Communications

Dr. Atkins saw a lot of similarities between the high school communications course he was teaching and his friends' corporate communications work. He founded Improving Communications to take his expertise to the business world.

Richard Atkins founded Improving Communications in 2001 in Port Washington, New York.

Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?

Improving Communications provides business writing, public speaking, customer service, and leadership development training. Improving Communications also provides speakers for meetings, conferences, etc.

What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?

I was a secondary school teacher of English. Yes, this is my first business.

How did you come up with your business idea?

I came up with the idea to provide corporate training, when I heard relatives discussing their corporate training business. In speaking with them, I discovered that they were doing the same thing that I was currently dealing (teaching), however they were working with a much more willing audience and making considerably more money than I was.

Who did you hire to help you? Bookkeeper, Accountants, Lawyers ...? Would you suggest others do the same?

I have hired assistants in the past. They have been helpful in "duplicating" myself.

What outside resources were helpful for you?

It was very helpful for me to join a business development group. This was a group of people, all of whom were business owners, working with each other, giving unprejudiced opinions on how we should all run our businesses. This was facilitated by a longtime business owner who had great success in the field.

Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?

For the first few years, I operated by business from my home. The benefits of that were that I was able to be fully present for my daughter's first couple of years, and that I could work closely with my wife throughout the day. The challenges included, "always being at work," and having a toddler available to provide "sound effects" during some rather important business phone calls!

Have you hired additional staff? What is your greatest human resources challenge?

The greatest challenge in hiring additional staff is ensuring that they are aligned with the organization's mission, vision, values, and goals. Frequently, I have found that people simply want "a job." Pushing the organization to higher levels and greater success is not necessarily their priority.

Green business is all the rage right now. Has it really been practical for you as an entrepreneur to incorporate green business practices?

As a business owner, and as an individual, I practice green initiatives as much as possible. I reduce, reuse, conserve, and recycle whenever possible. In fact, the office printers are loaded with used paper (paper printed on one side only) for all of our in-house documents.

With the current economy in a slump, what cost saving tips would you have for a new entrepreneur?

To save money, check your expenses constantly. Take continuous inventory of what you have, and try to use--not waste--it. Avoid redundancy when buying supplies.

What have you done that has been very effective in helping to grow the business?

The most effective strategy I have used in developing my business is giving something away -- not charging for it. For instance, I have contacted rather large businesses in New York City and offered to provide training to them at no charge -- a sort of "try and buy." This has been quite effective in turning them into long-term, repeat customers.

How has your experience in running the business been different from what you expected?

It's different from what I expected because I expected the business to grow rather fast. I expected people to recognize that they needed communications skills training and would jump at the chance to get it. My finding has been, the people don't see it as high a priority as I do. So the growth has been slow, but steady.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

I wish I had gotten a coach earlier than I did. He didn't tell me to do anything that I didn't already know, but he got me to do things I wasn't currently dealing with.

Thank you, Richard, for sharing your story with us. It is always interesting to hear from people who have become entrepreneurs after succeeding in a very different field.

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