Barb Oakley, founder of Firefly Flashcards, in Utica, Mich., can't afford a full-service public-relations firm. Because FireFly is a one-woman start-up, Oakley's only leverage is her time, so she writes her own press releases -- and pays a PR agency just for the essentials: brainstorming for ideas, editing releases, and targeting publications.

When she approached Sandy Hermanoff of Hermanoff & Associates, a big Detroit agency, Oakley had just begun shipping her educational animal flash cards. At first Hermanoff quoted the price other agencies had: $19,000 for a six-month campaign. Then, Oakley says, Hermanoff "took pity on a growing company" and agreed to do consulting by the hour.

The women meet every two months to think up new angles. Once Oakley mentioned that her retired father mentored her through FireFly's start-up. Hermanoff suggested a press release that garnered FireFly a mention in USA Today. Brainstorming also produced Oakley's pitches to veterinary magazines, which led to several magazine references and a new market.

Oakley drafts the releases, Hermanoff edits them, and then Oakley types and mails them. The cost of a six-month campaign: about $250 for mailings and follow-up calls, and $500 for Hermanoff's time. "It gives us a far more professional effort at a reasonable cost," says Oakley.

-- Michael P. Cronin