Meet AJ Stanning, Founder of Sharp Relations and PR Toolkit Who Speaks About Her Business Startup Journey.
First things first, tell us what your business does in 100 words or less:
Sharp Relations provides affordable public relations (PR) consultation to food and drinks businesses. We work hard to support our clients to manage reputation, grow sales but predominantly increase awareness of their brand or product range. This might mean setting up an interview in a business publication or negotiating a client’s product to appear in a top five feature in a magazine. PR is not just about “coverage – i.e. how many column inches you can fill talking about your own product range”, but about putting the right messaging in the right publication to reach the right audience.
Where did your idea come from?
Honestly, I have always wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and work for myself, it was a case of getting some experience working in London for a few years first. I have always admired the flexibility and satisfaction of knowing something was only as good as the work you put in. My father – Martin Sharp – took over the family retail business in his early 20’s – locals may remember Sharp’s Menswear on Gabriels Hill in Maidstone – and he spent many decades growing and developing it into a thriving manufacturing business. He sold the business in 2001 and, not ready to retire, he set up a property management business which he still manages today, well into his seventies. I can’t imagine my father ever not being interested in business and he has passed on that passion to me.
The idea to start a PR agency, or indeed any service-based agency, is not necessarily innovative. It is a tried and tested formula to offer a service to a person or business that needs this service. Like an accountant or graphic designer or plumber, you offer something someone doesn’t necessarily have the know-how or the time to do themselves and you should have a successful formula for a business.
I started Sharp Relations in 2010 and I was going to launch a generalised PR agency offering to support any type of business industry: I didn’t want to pigeon-hole my offering by being too niche. It wasn’t long before I had a breadth of clients, all of them food and drink, and I realised that I was fighting the inevitable. Businesses were actually choosing me for my specific niche experience in food and drink and what I thought was a weakness was actually a strength.
Why did you start the business?
I started Sharp Relations because my work at a big corporate food and drinks agency in London was taking me further and further away from the product and the passion. Increasingly, the contact meetings I attended were in marketing departments and surrounded by spreadsheets and graphs. My passion really is food and drinks. I love to see these artisan businesses succeed. I like working with real people making really good products. I am lucky to be able to choose my clients and I only work with products that I really believe in.
What did you do before you started Sharp Relations?
I worked for three different food and drinks PR agencies in London to gain experience and finished up as an Account Director in one of the most successful London food and drinks PR agencies. I managed a team of around 15 and was responsible for the delivery of five large client accounts, billing well over £1m in total.
What did you find was the biggest barrier for you when starting the business? How did you overcome it?
The biggest barrier for me then and now, is working in an office by myself. When you are used to a bustling office environment, socially and professionally it is really hard to sit alone and keep the motivation levels high. Having been so relieved to work for myself, I used to find myself wishing I had a boss to tell me what to do next, and that was when I got a business mentor.
The first mentor I ever had was provided by the Kent Foundation, a local lady with a background in client account management and she was helpful. Once someone talks you through a process, whether that’s taking on new clients, employing someone or getting VAT registered, the requisite steps don’t seem nearly so daunting.
What’s your proudest moment in business (so far)?
Encouraged to enter by the Kent Foundation, I was nominated for a KEiBA Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2012, and I was proud to be a finalist. I sat on the table with the rest of the Kent Foundation team and they took the time to introduce me to a number of important contacts from across the county.
More recently, I was really proud to launch PR Toolkit in 2017. PR Toolkit is off-the-shelf DIY PR solutions for small and growing businesses. It is genuinely entrepreneurial; the first of its kind. It’s been a real leap of faith.
Funniest thing that’s happened to you in business?
I can’t think of any one particular thing that could be the funniest but I have had a lot of laughs over the years, even over the last few weeks. Some of my longer standing clients have become genuine friends and we have a great giggle. We’ve had meetings hilariously interrupted by all sorts over the years including escapee litter of puppies, a teenage son in a towel in the school holidays, excited toddlers, tractors and an artist group lost off the public footpath!
What advice and support have you sought whilst on your business startup journey?
I have been really lucky to get a lot of support from many people over the years. I received some grant money from the Kent Foundation back in 2011 and in return I helped another start up enterprise with PR.
But the main source of advice and influence for me has been my father; he really supported my business dreams from the get-go and helped me to set SMART goals for Sharp Relations; ways to identify if it was succeeding at every stage. Not only that but we shared an office for the first two years after I started my business which helped me to keep costs manageable as well as offering an in-house business advisory service! He showed me how to realise my worth and the value of the service I was offering, and always offered a second pair of eyes for the occasional difficult correspondence.
Over the years, I have also sought the professional help and advice offered by accountants, business mentors, designers and solicitors.
What’s the BIG idea? Your plans for the future.
Now I’ve launched PR Toolkit, the plan is to make PR much more affordable and accessible to more businesses, growing organisations and entrepreneurs. I want to take away some of the mystery and help everyone to enjoy the business benefits of PR at an affordable rate.
Name the best and worst thing about being in business?
The best thing is being in charge of your own destiny. You think the business needs to go in a new direction; then you can take it there. The worse thing about being in business is finding down time; the ‘to do’ list is never complete; there is always more you can do.
AJ’s business startup journey tips:
Do what you do best and out-source the rest. It is so worth spending money on web designers, accountants, PR and marketing, sales managers and/or business mentors. Not all at once, and not in the very early stages of growing your business. When you are starting out you can usually find almost everything you need to know using Google, but once you are established, do not waste your valuable time on things you aren’t so good at. I promise you will save money in the long run.