Entrepreneur magazine calls it one of the year’s hottest new franchises. PR Week put them on the front page next to some of the country’s largest established companies. One of the firm’s founders calls it a “love affair,” and the other says it will “revolutionize the industry.” It is PRstore, and it’s based right here in Charlotte.
The concept that has the public relations world buzzing: Marketing and PR products and services offered in a retail environment and tailored just for the small business owner.
Kathy Butler, a partner in the franchise company PRS Franchise Systems, LLC, and Mike Butler, owner of the Charlotte PRstore, explain that before they started their business, small business owners needing marketing and public relations help had only two options: the big box PR firm or the freelance contractor.
Large PR firms tend to be expensive and “typically don’t cater to small businesses,” says Mike. “They like the bigger clients, the bigger the better.” As a result, “they don’t really pay that much attention to the small business client.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the freelance writer or designer might offer personalized service and affordable pricing, but in order to get a complete product or all the necessary services, a small business owner might have to hire two or more freelancers; and when the business owner requires more products and services, the freelance professionals may not be in a position to deliver.
But now small business owners have a third choice: the store with big services, little prices, and dedication to small business. Customers can step into PRstore at any time during regular business hours and meet immediately with a PR professional, no appointment necessary.
PRstore offers a free one-hour consultation, during which they endeavor to learn as much as possible about the customer’s business and marketing needs. A 10-step system makes the process easy and consistent for business owners, ensuring all their marketing needs are met and their budget respected.
The process begins with corporate branding and identity – a customized and characteristic look for the customer; namely, a logo. PRstore offers three levels of branding to fit the varying budgets of business owners starting at $650 and ranging up to $3,500 for a top-of-the-line logo with custom typeface and distinctive mark.
In keeping with the retail approach of PRstore, each step of the process offers an array of standard products available for customization, each with its own trademarked name. So, for instance, at the “corporate information” step, PRstore provides business owners a selection of brochure styles including the Jumpstart, a single-page single-fold full-color piece including custom text, stock photography and quality printing, designed for the new business with a modest budget.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of customization and price, is the Executive Elite, a 12-page piece with all the features of the Jumpstart plus space for charts, graphs, product specs, photos and maps.
But PRstore’s services and products are not limited to the more than 50 standard trademarked products. Kathy Butler laughs, “There’s always going to be the guy who needs the 3-D house built for a tradeshow.”
Plus, they expect some of their small business walk-in clients to grow into full-service accounts, where they provide the same level of service that a large PR firm would. This is already happening at several of the franchises, faster even than they predicted.
The idea for PRstore grew out of Mike and Kathy Butler’s experiences working for, and owning, big box PR firms. When the two met, Mike was serving on the board of a company for which Kathy was handling the marketing. Kathy had spent her career primarily in retail marketing, while Mike’s background was in government, corporate and agency public relations. Their personal compatibility combined with their complementary backgrounds made for a perfect fit when they decided to open their first PR and marketing firm together.
While working together, they both noticed and regretted that their small business clients simply weren’t getting the service they wanted and needed. “What we kept seeing was the small business guy come in and need something,” says Mike, “but he really didn’t get treated very well in terms of priority and attention.”
Adds Kathy, “I just didn’t think that was fair.”
So, according to Mike, Kathy had the idea to start offering the marketing and PR services in a retail environment. The idea was so novel that even Mike was dubious: “I didn’t really see how that would work necessarily.”
But Kathy’s idea – and her persistence – won out, and they opened their first PRstore in downtown Charlotte in August of 2001. The timing proved to be inauspicious. Barely three weeks later, New York’s twin towers fell, along with thousands of lives and most of the U.S. economy.
“Basically everything just shut down,” recalls Mike. “For about three months after 9-11, there weren’t even very many people on the street; you just didn’t see a lot of people out walking around.” For a company whose business model relies on foot traffic, it could easily have spelled disaster. “We had a period there where it was really touch-and-go,” remembers Mike. “Nobody knew what was going to happen, what was going on. So we just had to wait it out.”
But even in those bleak post-attack months, the concept started to take root. “Almost as soon as we opened, we started getting inquiries from people from different parts of the country,” says Mike. “They would come into the store and they really liked the idea and wanted to talk about doing the same thing in their market.”
So although their original plan called only for the opening of company-owned stores in the Charlotte area, almost immediately they began to look at franchising the concept for wider application.
By July 2002, still in the middle of the terrorist-induced recession, PRstore had begun franchising. Today the company has sold a total of 14 stores, two of which are operating, and the remainder of which are scheduled to open over the next few years. Also in the works are dozens of additional franchises, mostly in the Midwest, including at least ten in Chicago.
For many marketing professionals and other entrepreneurs who wish to start a marketing and PR business, PRstore is a match made in heaven. With a little capital, some marketing or sales background, and the right customer service attitude, new franchise owners can take advantage of all the infrastructure and training available from an established company, while staking a claim on the enormous small business market in their own region.
“We’re very choosy with our owners at this point,” says Kathy. Once a franchise owner is “chosen,” the franchise process begins with planning and negotiation, followed by training and support. Says Kathy, the PRstore’s franchise agreement is more generous than most, and that helps attract new owners too.
With several new franchise agreements in the works and PRstore’s second Charlotte location opened at the beginning of this year, the future looks bright for the company – and for business owners who rely on their services.
“We have solved a problem for small business owners,” says Mike. “The thing that we’ve seen consistently is the appreciative response that we’ve gotten from the people we serve – the small business owner is no longer an afterthought; he is the reason we exist.”
Business owners are so grateful, Kathy adds, that “they send you flowers, they send you e-mails, they come by; when you do something for them, they really appreciate it.”
PRstore’s very first customer, who continues to use PRstore’s products and services, was so excited about the store’s opening that he walked in before the furniture was even assembled and the sign put up, anxious to know when they would be open so he could start using their services.
The Butlers return the love. “I feel like I have love affairs around the country with small businesses,” Kathy beams. “I like the embracing.”
Mike concurs: “We’re very passionate about this. I feel like we have an opportunity to change the way an industry does business. It’s exciting, it’s interesting, it’s challenging, and we really feel like we’re moving in the right direction to make PRstore a household name for small business owners all across the country.”
As the first to market with the retail concept, PRstore is poised to take advantage of a grateful – and enormous – market. But they do expect competition and, says Mike, “We welcome them. Our plan is to be the very best we can be and to be the market leader.”
PRstore currently employs four full-time staff, with additional talent available on a freelance basis. Their plan calls for more than 300 employees within the next five years, mostly creative professionals – writers and designers – plus two marketing professionals to staff each of the planned four Charlotte area stores.
The structure of the PRstore operation calls for a central creative center that provides the marketing products for the franchises. So, although the stores will be franchised all over the United States, most of the jobs will stay right here in Charlotte at DesignCentral, located in the Atherton Lofts.
Although not from Charlotte themselves, the Butlers chose our city for their business, says Mike, “because of the vibrancy, the energy of the small business market here. This town really seemed to be a place that encouraged business growth, and we felt there was a lot of opportunity here to demonstrate the concept. We wanted to show that this could be done.”
Proving the concept is enough for Mike, who plans to stay with the company until retirement. But Kathy says this is not the final note in her career. “I want to be the first woman to own an NBA team,” she grins.