Taking the Plunge into Freelance Work with Kristen Phiel

Thinking of taking the leap into freelancing or entrepreneurship? In this week’s episode of Rocky Mountain Marketing, we talk with Kristen Phiel and the steps she took from the world of pharmaceuticals to freelance writing. From agency life to freelancer to entrepreneur, Kristen has had the opportunity to experience them all and she shares some valuable tips she picked up along the way.

Visit Kristen online:


Katie Brinkley 0:02

Hey there. This is Katie Brinkley and you’re listening to Rocky Mountain marketing. This podcast is all about helping Colorado based small business owners, entrepreneurs and professionals discover the strategies and systems that take their marketing to all new heights. Let’s dive into today’s episode. Okay, welcome back, everyone. Today my guest is Kristin file. Kristen has a passion for science and medical communication. Her offerings combined both creative talent and scientific expertise. She has been providing medical direction medical writing and strategic healthcare marketing for more than 15 years, and has experience working in healthcare advertising, and medical communication agencies, as well as large children’s hospitals and research institutes. Kristin, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you on today.

Kristen Phiel 0:51

Thank you so much. It’s very flattering to be invited to join you.

Katie Brinkley 0:55

Some well. So Kristin, let’s start back at the beginning. Tell us where you grew up and what your life was like growing up.

Kristen Phiel 1:01

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. So on the East Coast, I’m pretty traditional childhood, my mother stayed home, I did all kinds of activities. Among Amongst them were a lot of outdoor activities. So I had a early interest in biology just from what was around me.

Katie Brinkley 1:22

Awesome. So I’m assuming that that definitely had an impact on your eventual career and professional journey.

Kristen Phiel 1:28

Sure, I thought it was going to be a marine biologist, when I grew up, who doesn’t love going to the beach?

Katie Brinkley 1:33

I know, marine biology. I think I had that aspiration for a little bit too, and then realize how much math and science was involved. And I was like, oh, maybe not?

Kristen Phiel 1:44

Well, I definitely learned the hard way, or maybe not the hard way. But I learned along the way that wasn’t going to be the right fit for me. But it certainly propelled me into not only taking biology and chemistry and other sciences in high school, but also into biology degree from college.

Katie Brinkley 2:03

Yet, can you take us through your career journey where you started out and the different professional stops along the way you had?

Kristen Phiel 2:09

Sure. It’s been a long one at this point. But growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania, as many people know, is a hub for pharmaceutical companies. And so I knew many people in the industry or who worked in the industry didn’t know what they did. But when I went to school, I had the opportunity actually get my first summer job working as a peptide chemist at one of those pharma companies, a small startup company. From there, I did many things. Like I said, I thought I was going to be a marine biologist. So the next summer in college I went to our school was one of the only undergraduate schools in the country who actually has classes at the marine biology lab in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. So we went and did classes there. And I spent the summer as the Howard Hughes Medical investigator, and one of the labs on campus. So getting my hands and feet wet, literally, in science and biology. As my degree progressed through school, I had other opportunities as a research assistant and to help out in various labs. And that launched me into laboratory work. So I graduated and got a degree in the got a degree in biology. wasn’t sure what I was going to do next that I want to go to graduate school or medical school. I didn’t wasn’t sure. So I got a job in another lab and I worked at various companies in it as a research associate at Princeton University. So if you’ve ever watched a house and see the beginning of House, the building that they call the Princeton Plainsboro hospital is actually the molecular biology department at Princeton University where I worked. That’s on there. Yeah. From there, I actually ended up with a more stable job at y pharmaceuticals in southeastern Pennsylvania and did drug discovery research for five or so years. So it was where I thought it was going to be. The problem was I knew I wasn’t really that passionate about science research, per se, I love science, but I wasn’t sure about research. And I’m still contemplating graduate school and some other things. And while I was at wioth, I had the opportunity to actually do my graduate work and work full time as a scientist. And so I did those together to get my master’s degree in microbiology and immunology from Temple University School medicine. So that was my large educational career in a nutshell, it involves a lot of work and schooling at the same time.

Katie Brinkley 4:55

How has that led to you where you are today with your professional

Kristen Phiel 4:59

Like I said, I didn’t, I knew I didn’t want to stay at the bench doing research in the lab. While I loved science and the investigational aspects of science and understanding science, I didn’t really like doing the bench work and the repetitiveness and I have a flair for creativity, that while you apply that to science, not so much till you’re at the bench and need to be very meticulous. So, um, my husband is also a trained biologist, and he’s currently at the University of Colorado as a professor. And he was in academia at the time and was finishing up his postdoctoral work and had an opportunity to take a job in Ohio. And so hyoe Isn’t the hub of pharma industry, just like Southeastern Pennsylvania is, so we ended up moving there, and I had to find a new job. I started out as a project manager, and I’m going to put that in quotes, because I’m not sure I did much managing of anything. And while I was finding myself with time on my hands, I found that I was writing. And that sort of mean, pushed me nudged me into helping out people at The Ohio State University, Children’s Hospital, the associated children’s hospital there in Columbus, Ohio, their research institute, working to communicate what the scientists were doing at the Research Institute.

Katie Brinkley 6:30

That’s awesome. So from there,

Kristen Phiel 6:33

I’m like, oh, you know, life changes started happening. I, we had a daughter, I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay at the Research Institute, I had put my resume out a number of places, but the opportunities are kind of small, and in the area for people who had science degrees. And I had, I got lucky in the sense that there was one healthcare advertising agency in Columbus, Ohio at the time, the medical director there, pulled my resume out of the trash can, and told the creative department that they were hiring me as their medical writer. Wow, that’s so I walked in. And the folks at the agency on my first week, were making puppet shows for pharma companies that I had, I went what, what is this I just got myself into, I had no idea that there was a world of communications out there, you know, scientists were built, they either you came out of school with a science degree and went to med school, or you went to graduate school, or you somehow otherwise practiced in the, in the professional realm, that either those sort of led to. So here was a whole new opportunity to apply science to something a little bit more creative. And it turned out, I was really good at it. And it was an aha moment in the sense that I finally found a job that I liked. So after 15 years of doing scientific research, I finally had come to, you know, a place where I really found some passion for what I and I was good at, and enjoy. So it makes all the difference in the working world. Absolutely. The problem was after my second child was born, and we were having some small issues that I needed some either work for part time or work from home for maybe three to six months till we could straighten it out. And the company I was working for said we really can’t set that precedent. And I had gone back to work and said, within the first week, I ended up quitting my job. I think they were done. Um,

Katie Brinkley 8:48

can you imagine right now, but working remotely right now, for people that are listening? We’re right in the middle of the whole Coronavirus, and everyone’s working from home. So I think that a lot of companies are gonna be rethinking when people do need to take that time away and work remotely a little bit. But sorry, I completely

Kristen Phiel 9:08

agree. And this was 13 years ago, and it was early in that we need people in the office, you need to interact with people, you’re not going to be involved. And I just said, Well, who’s who’s more important, my job or my family right now. It’s my family. There will be other jobs and well, it wasn’t comfortable. It was something I felt like I had to do and it was probably the best move I ever made. Because two weeks later, they called me back and said, We really need you to work from home and come back. We’ll take as many hours as you can get. We’ve got this project and we can’t do it without you. And I said okay, and my freelance quote unquote, life and consultancy life was born that day that they called in December.

Katie Brinkley 9:56

That’s awesome. I mean, can you continue a little bit about you know, Once you decided once you were freelancing, kind of just the opportunities they gave you.

Kristen Phiel 10:05

Well, clearly, it gave me an opportunity to pick and choose the jobs I wanted to do. It gave me the opportunity to go and expand the jobs I was doing beyond the role that I had been set, or given when I was hired at the agency. And people found that they could use me for all kinds of different things, and I was a help in many different ways. So in that sense, I it really blossomed. The other thing it did is I moved away from just doing marketing work and advertising into many other aspects of pharmaceutical promotional work and medical writing that has just bloomed since then.

Katie Brinkley 10:50

Now is listening right now that is aspiring to take that leap and leave their leave their their nine to five job and become a freelancer or, or start their own business, what’s the single biggest piece of advice that you would want to give him or her,

Kristen Phiel 11:06

that’s a tough one, because it is a big leap. Um, I had some insurance in place with some various things, my husband had a stable job, he had health benefits, and I was in the position to say, You know what, I already quit, it doesn’t matter if I don’t make any money doing this. Because we’re okay. So the advice I would give is, if you’re really passionate about it, and that you feel like it’s the right move, then leap, do your homework before you just jump in with both feet. You don’t want to be jumping off a bridge or the deep end of the pool and not know how to swim, right?

Katie Brinkley 11:44

Absolutely. Yeah. And I think that a lot of times, you know, to be deciding to become an entrepreneur, if you step into the water, you know, at the shallow end, and slowly, you know, swim out to the deep end, you’re gonna be set up for success, as opposed to making an irrational decision and being like, I can’t take this anymore, I quit. I’m just gonna freelance forever. It’s definitely if you can have one of the a couple, like one client lined up or anything like that, just to slowly ease your way in and being like, yeah, this, this is great, I got it

Kristen Phiel 12:16

well, and I didn’t even look at it. Like, I want to be an entrepreneur, or I want to set my own business, it just was happenstance. And for so many people, that’s important, take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you because they can really lead you far. And that has been some of what has happened over the last 13 years, as I’ve built my communications company,

Katie Brinkley 12:38

if you could go back and do anything differently in your journey to where you are now. What if anything, would you change,

Kristen Phiel 12:46

I would wish I’d had the opportunity sooner. But that’s not something that necessarily I changed because I didn’t know that the opportunity actually existed. So my advice to young people or people coming out of school is maybe investigate more, look to the opportunities, go to the career fairs and see if there’s other things out there. And how you can apply yourself because I’m a strong believer in liberal arts education. And while it’s really important to be well versed in any one degree area, you can’t neglect your communication skills, you can’t neglect your writing or your speaking skills and all the other things that go with it. If I know when I was going to take this path, I would have probably taken other classes that I didn’t even think about taking when I was in college, because that’s not what science majors did. But having a business class or having an economics class or an accounting class or some of these other business related classes, which there are many more of now. I wish I had done sooner. So

Katie Brinkley 13:54

absolutely. What I mean, what I’m, I’m sure that this ties right in with it. What do you think the biggest mistake business owners make when they’re trying to grow and sustain a successful business?

Kristen Phiel 14:05

That’s a tough one. Because I think there’s probably two approaches to making a successful business. I’ve been growing small and slowly as I’ve gained confidence, and I think some people go out there and make a big business plan and jump right in. And I think both approaches can can work. But you have to make sure that you fit that approach that you’re taking. So for me, I am not a let’s take huge risks and see what happens. We’ll bounce back in the end, I’d rather build my reputation, bring people along with me, and then build people up. And that’s what we’ve slowly been doing. You know, I started out by myself and now we have a small group of people, usually around five to six of us, sometimes up to 10. But we don’t go much above that.

Katie Brinkley 14:55

That’s great. You know, I know it’s always a really big milestone and In a entrepreneurs journey, when they are able to expand to being an entrepreneur, not just a solopreneur. Right, it’s always a big milestone to bring a team on.

Kristen Phiel 15:12

Well, but I think in some cases, don’t just count being a solopreneur, as you put it, because that may be where you best fit. And I’ve ebbed and flowed a little bit and and have decided there’s a sweet spot of a certain number of small people. What does

Katie Brinkley 15:30

your model look like for finding and engaging and selling to your ideal clients and customers these days?

Kristen Phiel 15:38

Well, I’m going to be one of those people who says I don’t have one. Um, the reason I don’t have one is I cannot keep up the demand in my field. Despite hiring people and keeping a staff, I do not market actively at all. In fact, I’ve been developing my website for five years now, because I never have time to finish it. Because we are so busy all the time. And that’s been built on reputation. So there’s so much value in making sure that what you say you’re going to do is what you do and what you deliver. And you do it with integrity, and you do it. You know, your reputation is everything in the business I’m in. And there’s lots of people who want to harm that. And so we’ve been fortunate enough to, you know, I had one client in the beginning, I think I have a stable about 25 Different ones at this point. And like I said, I can’t service everybody all the time anymore. So we’re, my, my challenge at the moment is really trying to hire good, and the right people and good people. So it’s been a very, very difficult one,

Katie Brinkley 16:49

it definitely can be difficult trying to find the people that have the same passion for your company and for your business and type of integrity that you want to bring to your name. And the company that you’ve created.

Kristen Phiel 17:00

A lot of people don’t they have a vision in their mind what this medical writing or medical communications company is, and then they walk into reality and realize it’s not the same thing. And we are not a brick and mortar we are we operate virtually, in fact, I don’t have a single client in Denver or Colorado, where we’re located all my clients are elsewhere. So we can really be flexible that way. And it’s just making sure that we maintain who we are and what we are, and find the people who will join you at that level as well.

Katie Brinkley 17:39

Now, I’m going to pivot a little bit and talk to you about Colorado. What do you what do you like best about living and working here? What’s the appeal to having your business and life here in Colorado?

Kristen Phiel 17:49

You know, that’s a really great question. And I think I’ll take it back to where I’ve come from, you know, we I lived for 30 years in the Philadelphia area. on the East Coast, we live for another 10 years, oh my gosh, I’m dating myself by saying this, but another 10 years in the Midwest in Columbus, Ohio. And then we came here. And I think what’s great about here, not only is the sun out seemingly all the time, which makes a great difference in attitudes for a lot of people, but the approach that many Coloradans have is exactly what I embody in my own life. They’re very passionate about what they do and how they do it. They work hard, they also know how to and prioritize how to play hard and relax and get the most out of life. And I’m not going to say that people in the east coast or the Midwest don’t do that either. It’s just the approach is very different here. And I feel it every time we go back to the east. There’s wide open spaces, people make room for both things in their lives, both work and play. And it’s really important.

Katie Brinkley 19:09

One passion that so many business owners and entrepreneurs have is to build a business around their lifestyle, not the other way around. How has that played out in your story and approach to running your business?

Kristen Phiel 19:20

Um, well, it’s played out in a couple of ways. Like I said, I could be as busy and working 24 hours a day if I really let myself and so making sure I control that. It’s driven me to hire people and make sure I have good people to help out. But importantly, I started out because it was what my family needed. And that’s what still is a priority. So I can mold my schedule around my kids schedules. I can make sure that we’re available when we need to be but also I can turn off everything and walk away from it. And that’s what’s so important about doing your own thing, so to speak. And I think people right now, in this time of the COVID, 19 pandemic, are really finding out that there are other ways to approach how they do business because they can manage certain things, without having to be in the office every day and sit at a desk. And, frankly, I can probably do in six hours with a lot of get done in three days, because I can manage my interruptions in you know, I’m not gonna say that I don’t get interrupted, but I can manage that better.

Katie Brinkley 20:39

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? And how has it impacted your business? Or your life?

Kristen Phiel 20:45

Oh, boy, um, did you put this one on the list of questions. Um, best piece of advice I’ve ever received. Gosh, I’ve received so many. Um, I think it just comes back to people making sure that you do what you want, do what you’re passionate about. And do it in the ways that you believe are the right way to do things that that always comes through is genuine for any of your customers. And, frankly, that’s what I value about small businesses, and one of the reasons I’ve been striving to keep mine small. So

Katie Brinkley 21:21

that’s awesome. Before we finish up, is there anything I didn’t ask you during today’s discussion that you think is important to share?

Kristen Phiel 21:29

Um, no, I think you’ve hit most of the main points. You know, I, every business is different. And every person who runs a business is different. So you have to bring that your own business. But making sure that you do it with your own values. And keeping that integrity is important. And it’s not always easy to do. There’s lots of people who want to get in the way of that, especially when they want to offer you lots of money to do a job. And so it’s always coming back to sort of that advice. The best way to put this, you know, saying no, is just as valuable as saying yes, and in a business environment. So making sure that you have the ability, and I’m not going to lie, it’s not one of my strengths, to be able to say no, and stop, when you need to is really, really important in making that decision will drive your business in the direction you eventually want to go,

Katie Brinkley 22:29

Chris, and this has been such a great conversation. Where can we send our our listeners to find out more about you and your business online? Well,

Kristen Phiel 22:37

you can always find out at fine med communications.com. But like I mentioned before, my website is not active. Because we don’t do a lot of advertising. You can also find me on LinkedIn or Facebook and find meds also on LinkedIn and Facebook. And so

Katie Brinkley 22:53

I’ll include a link to your LinkedIn in the description here if people want to find you, because I know that you have a tricky last name to sell out.

Kristen Phiel 23:01

That is true. And you know, like I said, finding good people is their number one priority right now. And so we have open applications if people want to go in and check it out.

Katie Brinkley 23:10

Awesome. Yeah, I will make sure to include a link to that as well. Thank you again for coming on the show. It’s been a pleasure. It’s been great. Thank you. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Rocky Mountain marketing. As always, I’d love to hear from you. You can visit my website at www.nextstepsocialcommunications.com or connect with me on LinkedIn. Just look for Katie Brinkley. Let’s keep taking your marketing to new heights.