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Alexandra Tselios sits down for tea (in fine china of course) and a long chat with one of her favourite women in business and media, Prue Macsween of Verve Communications. In Part One of their interview, Alexandra and Prue discuss how ‘not’ to succeed in business…
Alexandra: You’ve mentioned to me previously that when you started out in business you didn’t actually even have a mentor.
Prue: Yes. I was a journalist for quite a number of years and was approached by a guy called Brian Walsh who was the head of publicity at Network Ten. He said, ‘You should have your own PR company.’ I said ‘I don’t know anything about it, I never studied it’ and he replied, ‘Well I will give you Network 10 as your first client’ and I sort of quadrupled my income with that statement, so I thought ‘Ok, I will do it!’ And so I left my job as journalist, I was editor of TV Week at that time, and I started with a desk and just didn’t know what to charge but used my common sense. I had done a four-year Marketing course and a journalism cadetship and the business started, but I made a lot of mistakes from managing finances, running HR, understanding budgets, quarterly reports and understanding the business and the rules.
Alexandra: I like that stuff.
Prue: Yeah, see, I hate it. I am the world’s worst. I have that creative side and wanted to do all the fun stuff and then you have to employ people and you have to manage them as well as yourself and the business and it takes you away from what you enjoy. But the business really took off and my income quadrupled in a matter of three to four months and I was a woman obsessed with money and bought a Jaguar and antiques and a house and it was fabulous but not strategic at all.
Alexandra: Did you have a business partner at this time?
Prue: No, I did it all on my own. But again that was really lonely too, not having anyone to talk to about issues that came up or celebrating successes, and a level head saying, ‘Ok, do we really need to be spending this kind of money?’ So it was really more of a how not to do things. Sadly, it got to the stage where I grew my business to 30 staff and I thought eventually I have to get a CEO in there and I was paying her a quarter of a million dollars but she was so brutal in terms of treating staff and just wasn’t the right fit for the culture of my business and that ended up costing me a lot of good staff. So, business-wise I really had a terrible course and I made a lot of errors and I look back now and think, ‘Wow I need the kind of advice I should have gotten in terms of a personal coach’ because when you have such a change from being an employee to having your own company, suddenly you are lying in bed at night thinking ‘How am I going to pay my staff?’ as well as not paying myself for a while for three weeks in a row, particularly when you have big clients, they are the worst, they take ages to pay. The big brands, you know you are going to get paid but then they string it out. I was starting work at 7 am and finishing at 10 pm, working all weekend to just keep all the balls in the air and it was a tough time, I undersold myself.
Alexandra: But if you don’t know, you don’t know.
Prue: No, but how stupid! What I should have done is gone to work for a PR company for a year to understand the process and the billing system so that I could then use that knowledge to better my business and myself. I learnt to just be honest about your weaknesses and get advice.
Alexandra: But I have found that, as you said, you can’t afford to drop any balls or can’t afford to ever not ‘be on’ regardless of how I may be feeling.
Prue: And having the energy to do that too! It’s really hard to keep doing that especially when you are having adversity thrown at you.
Alexandra: I feel that I can take the hits but there is something to be said for not being deterred by what’s happening around you so you aren’t thrown off course easily, you know, always moving forward.
Prue: That’s the important thing, you have to have that confidence to make decisions and to just keep doing things and keeping to what you say you will do. I actually think it is a good sign when people don’t like what you do, because regardless of if they hate you, they will read everything you ever write and watch everything you ever do. I actually love it when people hate me, I am one of those polarising people where people either love me or hate me and I like that and would rather be like that than be grey. You just have to develop a thick skin. I didn’t always have one but you have to learn the hard way. And too late in my career I got a business partner, a former journalist I used to know and we were at Ita Buttrose’s one Christmas lamenting the life of loneliness from running your own business and the fact that you can never really ever have a real holiday because you just always have to be on all the time. But we were both so concerned about taking on a business partner and it not working and it stuffing up something so good. So she cohabited with me and brought her business to my office.
Alexandra: Was she PR?
Prue: Yeah, she was a journalist who went into PR. We have been going ever since. You have to know when to hold them and when to fold them…and have absolute trust. I know she would absolutely never dog me financially and she will always go in to bat for me. There will be times when we say things like ‘You stupid bitch’ but it’s more like venting. But you also have a person to help carry the weight and vice versa and there is no bitching or moaning, you just pick it up. The other thing I learnt came from a terrible decision I made a few years ago, based purely on emotion – no business plan, no nothing. I bought a country motel. I knew the person who owned it and thought ‘this is great! You just buy a bed and people pay you for it’, so I bought the bloody thing!!
Alexandra: It sounds easy, but wouldn’t there be significant insurance risks and liabilities??
Prue: Yes! Expensive, and I didn’t stop to think that I wouldn’t be there running it and keeping an eye on it and I would have to install managers. The profit margin was slim unless you were there yourself. But I didn’t think of any of this or get advice, so consequently I lost close to a million bucks because the GFC hit and people stopped travelling, petrol prices rose, things changed. The business and all the motels around the place were going down the toilet. And it took such a long time to sell the business, so I was just being crippled every month because I was topping it up financially and the turnover dropped so much.
Alexandra: Why do you think you didn’t ask for help? You didn’t ask for help when you started the PR company and then you didn’t ask for this business – why don’t you think you asked for help or advice in either situation?
Prue: Yeah, well I am a Pisces and I think the emotional side kicked in, because we are quite emotional. I did ask my accountant and all he said to me was, ‘Why would you want to be buying a motel in the country?’
Alexandra: And you thought…’that’s a good enough answer!’?
Prue: Ha, yeah and I thought ‘well you’re a dickhead and I think this is going to be a great business and something different and something to have going for the rest of my life.’ It was total stupidity and delusional. I don’t know what I was thinking, and my biggest problem is I seize on what I think is a good idea and I just go for them and don’t sit back and think ok, lets think about this and work out if this is going to fit in with my goals. I am always very quick with what I do.
Alexandra: It is both a weakness and strength to be that way; I tend to be the same.
Prue: Oh god, yeah I know!! And the sad thing is, all that wonderful energy and spontaneity is what makes you so special and a go-getter, but it can cost you a lot both physically and financially if you are not cautious…
Look out for next week’s instalment of this mentoring session in which Verve Communication’s Prue Macsween explains to Alexandra the importance of partners, how to deal with the haters and dispenses some invaluable personal business advice: Know when to hold them, and when to fold them…
Teacups: Melody Rose Ceramics UK