Studio Self

How I Started a
Successful PR Agency

Self Logo

Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?

I am an award-winning Australian PR director, contemporary writer, angel investor and transgender woman. I am the founder of PR and communications firm Studio Self, and D&I consultancy QueerInclusive. My approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built my reputation as a writer. I have been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.

My writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. My regular work can be found on Pizza Party, sharing notes on growing as a creative, a founder, an investor and a human being. I am the creator of Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack, and the author of the book #DIY, a manifesto for indie creativity.

What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?

I launched Studio Self in the middle of the COVID pandemic, building on my 10 year background in startups and technology firms, where my creative campaigns have won international awards.

Joan Westenberg,Founder of Studio Self
Joan Westenberg – Founder, Studio Self

My focus has been on choosing technology clients that reflect my own values and a sense of authenticity driven by my identity. It’s a strategy that’s paid off, with Studio Self passing 6 figures in the space of 6 months.

“If you try to avoid the work by looking for all of their “keys” you’re only wasting time, procrastinating, and letting yourself down.”

What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?

On a daily basis I deal with clients and operations. The things that people don’t see is that while I’m doing that I’m getting death threats. Between meetings, there’ll be emails from trolls saying “I hope you die” and that’s the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. 

There’s no level playing field. As a founder, I don’t have normal startup issues. I have been sent 3 page letters of people fantasising about what they will do after they kill me. 

And as a trans woman you can’t just live your life. You are visible and become a role model for younger people growing up.

Who is your target market?

I am a developer and for me, I always felt that the people who do communications and PR come from a consumer point of view and don’t understand tech. People in tech speak a different language and we understand it because we’re in our own ecosystem, but other people don’t. My goal is to sit between tech people and normal people and communicate in a way that makes sense.

How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?

We believe that our personal brands and our content speak for us with a strength that no other marketing techniques could match. We share with a degree of authenticity and personality that we hold to without keeping anything in reserve. 

As a transgender founder, my identity is a big part of who I am and what I do, and I’m never afraid to be controversial. As a result of that, my clients choose me because the way I express my values and beliefs is firm and uncompromising. We use Substack newsletters, Medium, Twitter, podcast and newsletter sponsorship and our own product development to share and promote that content. At the start of each week, I sit down and write just 5 marketing strategies and tasks to commit to each week.

“By being an entrepreneur, by founding my own company and forging my own path, I can make sure I’m creating the most inclusive organisation and workplace possible for myself.”

Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?

As soon as COVID-19 hit, we went to our initial clients and said we’ve signed on to do work but your company is about to face a recession so if you cancel now, it’s without hard feelings. That contributed to transparency and also showed people that I cared about their business. 

Several clients took it on board and we lost heaps, but one by one they came back because I gave them space. The lesson is that you can’t treat customers as faceless entities, you have to treat them as people. 

Nothing is more important than people. 

If you show that level of respect and care, it makes a difference. People can tell when you authentically give a damn.

What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?

We’re online and in the office Monday through Thursday – but we take a 3 day weekend every week. Don’t worry, we keep our monitoring on, and if anything pops up, whether it’s an alert you need to respond to or a press opportunity, we’re on it. But we try and make sure we maintain balance!

What software, services or tools do you use within your business?

We use Press Hunt and Prezly as our PR software of choice, but most of our campaigns are run through our own in-house product, the Hacker PR Toolkit. It’s a Notion Workspace that lets founders execute and run their own campaigns without hiring an expensive agency. On top of that, we use Cyfe for client dashboards, Notion as our agency OS, ToDoist for task management, Freshbooks for accounting, and Squarespace for web design.

What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?

The fact is, no matter how many blog posts you read that tell you Richard Branson or Jack Dorsey’s “keys to success”, the reality is, both of them put the work in. They turned up every day and accomplished what needed to be accomplished, and got their shit over the line.

That’s what made their companies work. It sure as hell wasn’t just “believing in themselves” or getting up early to go jogging. That didn’t hurt, but it also wouldn’t have closed deals, managed projects, or run a company.

If you try to avoid the work by looking for all of their “keys” you’re only wasting time, procrastinating, and letting yourself down. And here’s the thing, I can’t guarantee that putting the work in will mean you’re going to succeed. But not putting the work in does mean you’ll fail.

What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?

I’m an outsider. I always have been, but coming out and transitioning has made that even clearer. By being an entrepreneur, by founding my own company and forging my own path, I can make sure I’m creating the most inclusive organisation and workplace possible for myself. 

What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?

Being a founder doesn’t mean you have no boss. It means you’re going to have the hardest, harshest boss imaginable. One who doesn’t let up. Who doesn’t stop talking to you when you go home for the night. Who never gives you any leeway and won’t take no for an answer. That boss is you. If you can’t find a way to work with her, you’ll crash and burn.

What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?

There is only one business book you need to buy. Just one. I pack it in my bag every single day. It’s called The Tiny MBA, by Alex Hillman. Basically, it’s a collection of tiny, bite sized and brilliant business notes and lessons that you will absolutely find incredibly useful!

The Tiny Mba book

Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?

I’ve never believed in growth for the sake of growth. I want to build a small, craft focused studio that exists to do great work and take pride in it. 

When I founded Self, I set a restriction – a maximum of 5 clients, with a maximum of 5 staff. I never want to be in a position where I have to sacrifice the quality and love of what we do in order to make ends meet, because we’ve thrown ourselves into growth.

In 2-3 years, we want to be exactly the size we’re at now – with a body of work that fills us with pride. 

Where can people go to find out more about your business?

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