About two years ago I met Steve Sims, the founder of luxury concierge service Bluefish, through our mutual friend Garrett Gunderson. His accomplishments struck me as the stuff legends are made of—an underwater tour of the Titantic. Private dinners in the Academia at the feet of Michael Angelo’s David in Florence. So I held my breath and waited for the inevitable question I tend to get from the accomplished people I meet: “So what would you think of writing a post about me?”
The question never came. It still hasn’t.
It’s not that Sims doesn’t understand the value of media exposure. Rather, he “gets it” to a level few executives do. A glance at TheBluefish.com website shows exposure galore. WSJ. New York Times (twice). The Robb Report. Entrepreneur, Forbes, NPR, Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Fox News, NBC. All achieved without the help of PR agencies or agents (though he has a humorous story or two about prospective agents to tell). In a nutshell, Sims approaches PR in the same way he advances his business. He’s 100% authentic. He conducts his life and business by being the “kind of guy I’d want to know.” The approach has been highly successful, as he now supports just under 2,400 clients worldwide. Some 75 customers do business with Bluefish every 1-2 weeks. He is also sharing his strategy in the book Bluefishing from Simon and Schuster, premiering today.
Although I’ve had no involvement in Sims’ public relations to date, I am digging his methods and will share his strategies here.
First, though, the story of how his business began. Sims grew up in a down-to-earth construction family in East London. He met his wife, Clare, when she was 16. Now married 25 years, they share three children (two sons and a daughter), adopt dogs and enjoy their life together from a spacious home in L.A. Hoping for a better destiny than laying bricks, Sims talked his way into a stockbroker job in the 80s in London. After six months, he cajoled his way into a “job I had no credentials for” in Hong Kong, but his luck was short lived. “I got drunk on Sunday, went to orientation on Monday morning; on Tuesday a.m. I was fired.” So he started working the doors of the Hong Kong nightclubs as he plotted his strategy for getting into the circles of the rich as an avenue to getting a job. His hook: As he worked to expand his own connections, he began to gain a following as a reputation for being the guy who could make a connection. He became “the man that can.” Concert tickets, events, introductions, all with an eye towards eventually landing a high-level job. But wife Clare suggested that perhaps he should expand the things he was doing to create his own job. “We’re making good money here,” she said. “Maybe we should give it a go.”
Rule One for PR: Would I want to meet me? Fast forward a few years to Southern Florida, a fairly booming business, and the experience that became the genesis to Sims’ eventual approach to PR. The South Florida Business Journal came to call. They wanted to do an article about his business. And given the nature of the clientele, they insisted on a photo shoot of Sims in a full jacket and suit, on a private jet. “It was so unnatural,” he says, as he visibly shudders. “Nothing like the whiskey-drinking biker from South London. I left the interview and it was like an out-of-body experience. So not like me. I wouldn’t trust me.” His fear: “If I’m putting out this image of the stiff fake British guy, who am I going to catch? Nobody I resonate with. I knew I didn’t want the clients who’d be responding to this.” On the spot his primary rule for public relations was born: “I didn’t want to do media where I didn’t want to meet me.” Out of curiosity, I searched for the article and found it. Sadly (or not), however, the photo is no longer there.
PR Agencies? A probable no. Next came Sims’ exposure to the field of public relations. His perspective made me laugh to near tears, despite my occupation.“We had a very nice office in Palm Beach,” he says. “Then I started getting visits from publicity and advertising agencies. Publicists, PR agents, concierge—I pretty quickly realized that any little tart could go to a few night clubs and all of a sudden she’s a publicist to the stars. Or some guy at a jet company can put himself out to the world as an expert. Instant titles.”
“Email lists are the latest phallic symbol,” he says. “But for my business, I want less people. I just want the ones with the bigger buckets.”A particular agency walked in and started talking about what they could do. “It was a lot of sound and nothing I could grab onto,” he says. “Two of them looked like they hadn’t even hit puberty.” The agents said they would need $10,000 to design an ad. Then the other shoe dropped—with the ad in hand they would need to discuss his “media spend.” The PR agency was not an earned media business at all. It was an advertising agency. The only visibility they could offer was pay for play.
PR discovery: Provide the media with the things that it needs. It was following the agency discussion Sims made what he calls “a fairly arrogant discovery.” The media is an animal, and like any kind of living entity, it needs to be fed. “They don’t need junk food. The media needs to be fed properly. They aren’t a business if they don’t have something to write. They need something new; something fresh.” Thus the Steve Sims approach to public relations. He thinks about story opportunities as “the three E’s”: Engage, Entertain and Educate. In my opinion, Sims is right on in viewing the work of PR and journalism as a job of finding synergy. “They need something good, and I need them for visibility,” he says. “So I find the win/win.” This means a different approach for different publications. If it’s an entertainment show or magazine, provide them with celebrities and events. If it’s Forbes or WSJ, the education element is important. “It’s almost like a different accent and language you need to find for each magazine.”
“You can have one Chinese, an Indian, a Russian and an American all in the room and all speaking in English,” he says. But that doesn’t mean they’re receiving it in the same way. Each is receiving from a different mentality. So, in a nutshell, you don’t speak to the Hollywood Reporter the same way you talk to the New York Times.”And as for why he doesn’t jump to request coverage, he notes wryly, “I’m street smart and educated, but school had nothing to do with that. I don’t like to jump. When I meet somebody who’s got something, I think to myself let’s build on this discussion and relationship before I go forward. What will be, will be.” Be transparent enough people can understand who you are and build a relationship from it, Sims advises. Give them the evidence they can use to work out whether they want to engage you or not on their own.
One thing leads to another in successful PR. In his early days of do-it-yourself press, Sims did a lot of local press (think Boca Raton News, South Florida Business Journal), but none of the big publications would take him on. His first big break came in the form of the Palm Beach Post, which was part of a bigger affiliate network. Now the news was getting picked up in other jurisdictions, which resulted in coverage for Bluefish in Denver, Washington, San Francisco and New York. A New York TV show approached Sims about appearing. “It wasn’t one of the big shows, but now I was biting at the heels of the bigger publications,” he says. The appearance on NY television resulted in a mention in the NY Post. “A mention in the NY Post made it ‘okay’ for the WSJ to say something,” he says.
Then the biggest break of all came through in the form of coverage in the Worth edition of The Robb Report. “When that happens, all the little magazines want to write about you from there,” Sims says. “Now you’ve gotta be careful. They’ll call you up perpetually, asking ‘Anything new?’ Now your press becomes a self-growing monster you’ve got to continually feed.” Thus the eventual consideration of outsourced PR. While I advise founders to use agencies in the early days for their savvy and connections as opposed to full programs, Sims has another perspective—get the press machine going in the early stages by yourself, with authentic and transparent initiatives, he advises; then use outsourced PR in the later stages to handle the additional work.
“You can fix your own bike,” he says. “But sooner or later…”
To my knowledge, Sims has yet to outsource his public relations. But the need for greater leverage in communications has provided the impetus for his book.
Let’s write a book. So how did a first-time author land a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster? As with many of his business experiences, the win came about as good fortune that emerged from a seeming mistake. Now living and working in L.A., Sims planned a trip to New York in 2016 to meet with investors for his newest project (a bit more about that endeavor to come).So he made a several day trip to New York. Clare came along. Two of his advisors in publishing, Scott Hoffman & Frank Weimann from Folio, said they had several publishers in New York they wanted him to meet. “Sure,” he said. He’d already be in Manhattan, so why not? Ideas began to formulate. Could he write about his clients? Absolutely not, he realized, noting there are some that “if I mentioned them, I’d be dead before cocktails.” So he arrived at the thought of a strategy “how-to.”
The date of the trip arrived. Sims, with his mind on his investor discussions, had given little thought to who the publishing contacts would be. The first was Simon & Schuster, whom he “didn’t know from Adam,” as he recalls. “Being unintelligent can make you ignorant to fear.” Without a doubt, he says, it was the worst interview of his professional life. The woman he met had just been fired and was wrapping things up to leave the company on Friday. Her other colleague, having experienced a death in the family, was out of town. Already out of sorts, the woman asked what the outline of the book would be. “Are you important?” she asked. Put off, Sims became combative. Then he left.
“I sure hope the next two meetings aren’t like that,” he said. Thankfully, they were not. But upon his return to L.A., Sims received the surprise of his life when he learned that Simon & Schuster had loved his proposal. What? The woman had recorded the disastrous interview for her absent colleague who had listened later and loved what she heard. In hindsight, Sims recalls the snowstorms had caused the cancellation of his investor meetings. The only meetings he’d successfully completed were the publishing houses. They were meetings he wouldn’t have conducted if the scheduled investors had been available. If it hadn’t snowed, he’d have never met them at all. Then he received the retainer agreement. “Holy s**t.”
On the phone with expert and author Jay Abraham, he acknowledged having a book deal with … “I think their name was Simon and Shuster?” Abraham, of course, was in shock. “Come down here, right now, and bring a bottle of whiskey,” he said. “You have no idea what’s just happened, do you?” So the next step, Sims says, was to hire a ghostwriter. Six months later he read the resulting draft, in dismay. “I would not have bought it.”
A part of him realized the retainer he’d received doesn’t go back. He’d bought a new bike…his wife had some money…they could just let it ride. But ultimately, his better thinking prevailed. “I felt I had a liability,” he said. “If someone was going to waste $24.95 on my book, I’d better give them something.” He dumped the first manuscript and re-wrote it, completing the new draft in January 2017. In March, while on site for a project with Elton John, he received a text. “Your release date is October 17.” “Release date? But we haven’t finished!” he exclaimed. From here it was a process of hurry up and wait; hurry up and wait. “So what we are releasing is actually my second book, but only the first we decided was worthy,” he says. The book, Sims promises, draws a set of lessons from his business and life experience that others can draw upon for miraculous results of their own.
His newest project is an app that offers a more accessible route to unique and luxury outcomes that he calls Taste of Blue. As of this post, “TOB” is in the final stages of beta and will be available to consumers within a couple of weeks, he reports. So stay tuned.
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