I have a young colleague who is starting a new business. So far, she's done well: Her customers love the product, they come back for more, and her distribution is increasing. She's confronting the challenges of growth: When does she move out of her home? How much growth is needed to absorb the increased overhead? She's smart and I feel confident she will figure these things out. But when she suggested getting a public relations firm to spread the word, I panicked.

I remembered making this mistake. When I ran a young company, I was flattered to win the attention of a top flight PR company. The executives made me feel brilliant and were eager to tell me what mountains they'd moved in the past. The monthly retainer they wanted (a special discount, just for me!) was $5,000. This was a fortune to me. But to them, it was nothing: just a modest contribution to help cover their costs. As a client, it turned out, I was so small that of course I didn't get much time, much talent, or (once the deal was done) much attention. Results were negligible.

Afterward I realized I'd been duped. Just because the retainer was meaningful to me didn't mean it registered with them. So the next time, I was sure to go for a tiny boutique firm and was confident my retainer did mean a lot to them. Only this time, it still wasn't enough for the shop to acquire the resources it needed to have any impact.

The great news for my colleague is that I don't think she needs PR at all. For one thing: The word is spreading just fine on its own. She understands social media. Her business is local, in a community where people do talk to each other. The word will spread. And fortunately she can't afford a retainer of any kind. She thinks this is bad luck. But as every entrepreneur knows, sometimes it's often the bad luck that saves your bacon.