Helen Holland is the founder and CEO of The Reptile Group, parent company of Chameleon PR and Komodo PR. Chameleon PR concentrates on B2B public relations campaigns, while Komodo focuses on the consumer side. Helen spent eight years working for other companies before setting up Chameleon in 1998. Komodo followed in 2009.

Q: Why did you decide to start your own business?

A: Well, I never set out to start my own business; it was never part of my plan. It was a bit of an accident, really.  After living in Japan and having worked in PR for a while, I went freelance and two clients decided to follow me. As you can imagine, this was fantastic and very flattering as it demonstrated their faith in me to look after the reputations of their business. Time passed, my client base increased, and here I am today running two expanding PR consultancies.  

Q: Have you always worked for yourself?

A: No, I worked for other companies for the first eight years of my career before establishing Chameleon. So, I have spent the last 13 years running Chameleon and the last two years running both Chameleon and Komodo. Watch this space for other reptilian hatches!

Q: How did you come up with the names of your agencies?

A: Actually, I have a very good friend to thank for naming Chameleon - our first company. I just happened to be out with a friend and we were discussing potential names and together we came up with Chameleon as for me it is all about changing colours, particularly corporate colours in this case.

Komodo reflects nicely what is required to address consumers with aggressive communications campaigns that really stand out in a mass market.

Q: Did you consult with anyone before starting a business?

A: Nope. I didn’t ask anybody! I just went for it, which I think is the best approach. If you thought about it too much you wouldn’t end up doing it. One thing I believe is absolutely necessary to succeed is passion and wanting to make a difference. Passion will motivate you and push you through the peaks and troughs of building a business and being able to see your work making a difference is hugely rewarding.  It’s also important to maintain a sense of perspective - the more fun you have doing it the better your results are likely to be.

Q: What is the best business advice you have ever received?

A: I believe the best business advice I have ever received is always to employ people that are better than you are. Build a team around you that can help drive and deliver against the vision and goals you have for the company, because the reality is  you can’t do it all yourself.  And often other people do know better, but at least as CEO you get to decide and even have the final word!

Q: Your two agencies target different audiences – consumer and B2B. What are the biggest differences in dealing with the two?

A: From an operational perspective, there are not that many differences in terms of the processes and systems that are required to support those businesses. However, the approach of our employees in each consultancy has to be in line with very different client challenges and opportunities.

But what both have in common is the need to be flexible and the ability to constantly change their mindsets to mirror their client’s target audience. For example, the Komodo team may need to think like a busy mum in order to get the strategy right for the launch of Puzzler World 2011 on the Nintendo DS and Tesco.com’s shopping app, or a teenage boy for the launch of GEAR4’s StreetParty range of docking speakers.  The Chameleon crew need to think like healthcare professionals or lawyers when working with drugs testing company, Concateno or like PRs of many nationalities when handling the European coordination for Citrix.

Our approach is to always be thinking about our clients business, and understand the unique challenges they face, which makes it paramount that we recruit the right people to ensure that we are meeting and exceeding the objectives of our clients.

Q: Have you ever had any major differences of opinion with clients over how campaigns should be run? How did you reach a solution?

A: We’re a consultancy where frank discussions are the bedrock of our business both internally and with clients. It’s all about being able to have a business discussion with the client about what their real challenge is and how it can be solved through communications programmes.

No matter how heated our discussions, they are very much at a business level in terms of really getting to the heart of the problem and therefore creating the right client campaigns. Sometimes it may take a number of discussions to really iron out their objectives but we work together to achieve this and tick all the necessary boxes. Sometimes the route to the targeted result is different from that which the client imagined. Many are not au fait with what social media campaigns can achieve, so we need to help them understand the possibilities  of what is to them, may seem a strange and often contradictory new world.

In both Chameleon and Komodo, we work with many organisations that are facing change. It’s what we are really good at. Whether they are entering new markets, using new channels of communication, going through a restructure or recovering from a crisis, this change can be daunting and as you can imagine, can cause differences of opinion within their company. It is our job to ensure that all stakeholders are on the same page and that our campaigns work for everyone involved.

Q: Looking back, is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

A: There are probably three things I would have done differently initially, all which we are now doing. Firstly, having an absolute focus on recruitment to identify, hire and retain the people that will build the sort of reputation that ensures that success is a given.

Second point would have to be recruiting an experienced board and management team to support me which may have accelerated the growth of the company. Having said that, we have had steady growth over the years we have been in business, but you never know where we might have been by now should I have had the managerial support that I needed right at the beginning.

Finally, and this is typical of people starting up a business - they tend to have all their industry experience from the same discipline. So in my case, being a PR professional, that is where I put my focus and so I don’t believe I became engaged enough in the operational and financial side of things early enough. I think this is one thing that gets easily missed, as you are so busy focusing on delivering to clients that you don’t focus on the bigger picture of the business, which after all is the framework that allows you to deliver the client service in the first place!

Q: You now have about 20 employees – how did you go about finding the right staff?

A: We have a very rigorous recruitment approach in terms of sourcing the right people and we devote an enormous amount of time and effort to it, but it’s the best investment you can make if you want to have a successful business. The recruitment process is threefold.

Firstly, there is an initial interview, where we gauge 13 different competencies that we know are those required to be a successful communication consultant. The second meeting requires the potential candidate to complete a number of exercises where we hone in on the candidate’s marketing savvy, their ability to remain coherent under pressure and the quality of their use of English.  The third step in the process is joining the rest of the team in the pub to make sure that everyone is comfortable with each other.  It’s just as important that a potential candidate wants to join us just as much as we would want them to join.

The whole process is designed to ensure that we get the most out of the potential candidate and they also get everything out of us.

Q: What are the best and worst things about running your own business?

A: Best things are the fact that you are helping people to grow in their careers. It is definitely one of the most exciting things, especially when you see people that are hungry for success and want to grow and progress, and then seeing that actually happen. It’s very rewarding to be able to create an environment for people to succeed in.

I know it sounds contrived but it is difficult to think of many bad aspects of running your own business. One thing I would say is that it does consume your life as I am constantly on the go and thinking about Chameleon and Komodo from the minute I wake up to the moment my head hits the pillow at night.

Running from client meetings, internal meetings, brainstorms, industry conferences, client drinks, the gym and calls with our global partners can really be exhausting, but being passionate about the business really does see you through - and will make you want more. 

Q: What is the most important thing you can do to be successful in business?

A: To be successful in your business, you need to have a clear vision about what you are trying to achieve and the time horizon in which you want to achieve it and then remain focused on that throughout. You need to ensure that everyone in the company is clear where the company is going and therefore share your vision. Transparency is key and something I am very proud of at both Chameleon and Komodo.

It really isn’t rocket science but having monthly company meetings, weekly team and account team meetings are essential to ensure everyone is up to speed and knows what is going on. Many companies put these in place but don’t have the time to implement them.

Everyone at Chameleon and Komodo gets on really well and I have no doubt that this is not only a result of the recruitment process but a culmination of numerous Friday nights we spend as a team in the pub and plenty of fun nights out – from supper clubs, to pub quizzes, to comedy gigs and everything in between.

And one other thing, take your business very seriously but never yourself - leave your ego at the door!