Julija Jegorova of Black Unicorn PR: “Invest in accountants”

Invest in accountants, but know your numbers — You may have accountants that do all the nitty gritty for you, but unless you take responsibility for understanding your financials, you will be in the dark when it comes to your finances. And that’s not good for multiple reasons — you need to at all times understand your financial situation because that’s what tells you how you budget, how to price your product and whether your business model is working or not, and whether you can invest in tools and new hires.

As a part of my series about the things you need to know to excel in the modern PR industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julija Jegorova.

Julija (JJ) is Black Unicorn PR’s founder and CEO. JJ is a trained journalist and counts with over a decade of experience in Public Relations and communications, and has worked both in-house and agency-side internationally. Julija’s professional journey began working for some of the world’s most renowned brands, until shifting her focus towards the world of startups in 2015. From then on, Julija headed PR for one of the most successful London tech startups and worked with independent PR agencies for a wide range of technology clients.

In 2018, JJ founded Black Unicorn PR to bring something new to the market — a PR agency that would put itself in the shoes of startup founders and support them as a true extension of their team. Since then, Black Unicorn PR’s team has grown strong with professionals across different fields and worked with a number of companies from across Europe. JJ is a regular speaker at various conferences across Europe about the role and importance of PR and communications. She can also be found jet-hopping, delivering workshops and mentoring sessions for ecosystem facilitators, established companies and startups.”

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I wasn’t really planning to work in PR and communications simply because 15 years ago this concept didn’t seem to exist in its current shape or make much sense to me. My dream was to become an international journalist: one that makes a difference, meaning strong ethics and investigative background.

My home country Lithuania seemed to be a little too small for these big dreams of mine (as well as my ego!), so I moved to the UK and went on to study Journalism and International Relations as soon as I finished school. I was planning to become a war correspondent, as was my role model and inspiration Anna Politkovskaya, but when the time came and I was invited to join a group of journalists from a very reputable broadcasting team to go to Palestine in 2010, when I was still at university, unfortunately, I had to reconsider my life choices. Funny enough, a few weeks later — absolutely devastated and not knowing what to do next — I was attending a talk by investigative journalist Nick Davies (who uncovered the phone hacking scandal of 2011 related to Rupert Murdoch). I had a chance to have dinner with him and a group of PRs, and it was actually him who advised me to join a PR firm as my skill set seemed to be a perfect match. Since then, I’ve been on a PR mission!

I’ve been working in PR across the world for just over a decade, having had experience both on agency and in-house sides. My journey started working with well-known brands such as VISA and TomTom, and since 2014 I started gradually moving to the world of startups and scaleups.

Working in-house for known brands is somewhat easier as the messaging and legend are already there (half the job is done!). Also, you are known to the media, meaning the public interest in the story is more obvious and placing a story takes less time. Moreover, big brands have a fantastic infrastructure in place and you are working in-sync with other teams (marketing, production, sales), meaning that your campaigns are always amplified. Even though still a lot of strategic planning is involved, PR spins around media placement and throwing events.

Working in-house for startups is often ‘a one man job’ as you do everything: from general comms strategy to media placements and everything in between (social media, product descriptions, attending / organising events, etc.). Often startups have very limited funds, so they cannot afford to boost their campaigns with marketing or advertising. Being featured in desired publications is not easy, as you have to work for your name and it is rarely an ‘overnight success’. Journalists have standards, so you can’t simply buy space for your stories.

In my opinion, the biggest downside to working in-house, whether it is a big brand or a startup, is that the messaging remains the same: the tech can evolve and it may have new features, yet the story around it tends to remain the same. This can be somewhat one-dimensional over the long term.

This was one of the main reasons I started working as a freelancer for different PR agencies in London. It came to me as a surprise that their main ‘selling’ point was only media placement. Obviously, it is the end goal for any PR campaign, however, having spent most of my career working in-house, PR is so much more than just getting in front of the journalists: there are events, speaking opportunities, creating your general strategy and vision, etc. Hence, Black Unicorn PR was created as a hybrid between agency and in-house PR for our clients: they get the best of both worlds. Moreover, my team consists of people who have experience in other areas of business — market research, eCommerce, marketing and sales, which gives us an advantage as we bring a lot to the (business) table.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The beauty of working with startups is that they all have interesting stories to tell. They are built for scalability, which means they tend to have bold, ambitious targets and build products with a huge transformational component, if not disruptive of industries. Working with such types of companies and adapting on the agency side, which is normally a completely different ball-game, is what I consider to be the most interesting thing to have happened to us. It’s fast-pace and high-intensity, but at the same time super rewarding. You see your client go from making their first moves in the market to changing people’s lives across countries. And it’s also a resilient sector. While the pandemic debilitated traditional businesses, startups saw an acceleration of growth and technology adoption. More and more funding is flowing to startups, startup failure should not be considered as a negative — they are failed experiments in an overall picture of advancing innovation.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Prior to specializing in tech startups, we were working with a wide range of businesses. One of our clients was a law firm in the UK. This industry is very traditional and conservative. We put together a fancy launch event for the firm in a traditional London private business club and invited judges, lawyers and also high profile journalists. Although we live in a digital age, we decided to send out high quality, handwritten invitations to those that would confirm their attendance via email. Unfortunately this backfired. The most important stakeholder for us, a well-known journalist in the legal space, was not at home when the handwritten invitation arrived via the post. He was so irritated by the fact that he had to pick it up at the post office after having already confirmed his attendance via email, that he wrote us saying he would not attend the event and that he would not be considering writing about our client anytime soon. We got fired immediately as the news came out. We still held the event, and it was a success, everyone was happy. We parted ways in amiable terms, but we were more convinced than ever to specialize in tech startups.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

It might sound cliché, but all of our clients are doing incredible things. That is the beauty of working with startups — by nature they need to be ruthless at planning and executing and extremely ambitious at scaling and making an impact. Despite their emphasis on scalability, we find that social impact and sustainability are not left behind. In fact, it’s the opposite. Memby, for instance, is an edtech startup that empowers tutors to help with after-school classes that make a huge difference in the lives of students. Usually there are no standards in the elusive after-school tutoring market, and prices for one-to-one classes are high. Not everyone can get them. Another startup we work with, Foros, is allowing people to get involved in the forestry sector, investing in the maintenance of forests and ensuring the long-term improvement of carbon sequestration. No other company has ever done this before. Finally, Planet42 is helping people who need a car access one through a subscription, even if banks in their countries don’t accept them because of their credit rating. And this is in countries where public transport unfortunately doesn’t always cut it. Even if we’re just a small part of their operation as an outside extension of their team, we feel we’re contributing to making that positive impact.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Patience is a virtue! I recently discovered Warren Buffet’s quote, which I wish I’d have known when I started my professional journey: “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago”. In theory, we all know that it takes time for things to happen, but in reality you can get very impatient (especially if you are dependent on external factors). Especially, when you are building a business and living this rollercoaster entrepreneurial life, it seems that everyone around you is making things better and quicker (whilst you are doing an all nighter writing proposals, some people your age are raising children!). But in the end, all the hard work always pays off.
  2. Know how to price your value. It is important to be able to price your services and products well. Having said that, do not expect that you’ll be able to do it at the first try! It takes time to finesse your services as well as the pricing for these.
  3. Competition is fierce, but everyone can find their customer. You can’t look around and worry about competitors too much. You need to stay aware of their moves and adapt, yes. But first and foremost you need to focus on your own customer. Delighting and making your customer happy is the most powerful differentiator for an agency, and the rest is secondary. This leads to what they call word of mouth. And that is when the fun begins — growth. We spent our first year looking too much at what other, bigger agencies were doing and trying to cover all areas. When what we truly needed to do was focus on doing the things our clients valued.
  4. Find the right team with skills which will complement each other (you cannot do everything alone). If you want to build a successful business there is no way you will be able to do it solo. Finding the right people — with the same values and ethics as yours — is one of the biggest challenges any entrepreneur encounters (and trust me, we had a couple of bad apples on the way!). It took us a couple of years to bring together some of the best talents out there, but it was totally worth the wait. The business as it is today wouldn’t have been the way it is without the team. Everyone has something to bring to the business growth and I would definitely not be here without everyone’s support.
  5. Invest in accountants, but know your numbers. You may have accountants that do all the nitty gritty for you, but unless you take responsibility for understanding your financials, you will be in the dark when it comes to your finances. And that’s not good for multiple reasons — you need to at all times understand your financial situation because that’s what tells you how you budget, how to price your product and whether your business model is working or not, and whether you can invest in tools and new hires.

You are known as a master networker. Can you share some tips on great networking?

There has never been a better time to network. There are so many ways to connect in person or virtually. It’s the mix that allows you to leverage networking to the maximum.

A lot of people struggle with networking, but that’s usually just because they are going in with the wrong mindset. There is no point in feeling pressure, it’s highly unlikely you will close a deal on the spot. Don’t take yourself too seriously, get to know people casually, have friendly conversations. Apart from a brief introduction, don’t start talking business. If someone asks, feel free to reply, but don’t overdo it with information. Be curious about others in the room. And ask questions, but remember it’s not a sales conversation.

You can also do networking online, by being active on social media. Reply to posts from people in the industry. It’s called reading and reacting. Maintain a polished presence and be active, so others can see you and do the same. Do not connect with people on LinkedIn without a valid reason, and always include a message in your connection request.

Whether online or offline, make sure when you speak that you add value. Understand how you can be helpful and give, without asking for anything in return. Share your opinion and react to other people’s opinions. They will value your unique take and having thought about what they said. It sounds obvious and straightforward, but it’s easy to overcomplicate it if you are new to networking.

Finally, as an agency you will want to secure speaking opportunities to give value not to one person at a time, but to entire audiences. There are venues and events for every type of business that act as fora for exchanging ideas and advice. Again, add value and don’t sell, but do encourage people to have a conversation with you later on. They will remember you fondly and reach back at the right time.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

For PR agencies it should be quite clear — build your reputation. There is no point in cold emailing or calling at all, and forget LinkedIn messaging. Start by giving value. If you start a PR agency, you will most likely have relevant experience that puts you in a good position to help others. So do that! Go to different networking opportunities, speak at events, start a blog or a newsletter, share your tips on social media. But the most important one of them all — deliver an excellent job for your clients. Once you land your first clients, you want to delight them to the maximum. Founders, marketing directors and other executives socialize frequently and exchange recommendations, including what agencies they’ve worked with and results they’ve gotten.

Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?

There are so many books and podcasts useful to marketers and startup enthusiasts. The Lean Startup, any Seth Godin book, the Masters of Scale podcast, Acquired podcast. Today, you have a podcast for most niches, and great books unpacking concepts and paradigms.

One book that I really enjoyed is “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup” by The Wall Street Journal John Carreyrou. It’s the story of one particular startup and its meteoric growth and subsequent downfall, where it’s proven that ‘fake it til’ you make it’ can go wrong, totally wrong. Even with startups there are rules. Breaking things and moving fast is best understood in the context of building great products that the world will benefit from, and not building valuation based on promises you have almost no chance of fulfilling.

Because of the role you play, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe in the importance of mental health at the workplace. Counting employee time down to the minutes and being inflexible when it comes to family emergencies are just the tip of the iceberg. I believe businesses need to completely rethink leadership and management and work to make employees engaged and motivated in ways that promote happiness, growth and recognition more.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

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