Episode 15: Quenching the entrepreneurial thirst


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Hosted by Jeanne-Vida Douglas and Rob Stone

The entrepreneurial thirst is a crucial driving component of many successful small businesses. So how do you harness that thirst for constant knowledge and improvement and make it work for you?

When she launched her magazine back in 2013, Lisa Messenger found herself surrounded by sceptics. Today, with a rapidly expanding empire and a print magazine that is now sold across 37 countries, the founder of The Collective Hub is living the entrepreneurial dream.

In this episode, Lisa chats with Xero In hosts Rob Stone and Jeanne-Vida Douglas about her journey from horse riding instructor to queen of a growing business empire, what drives her, and the importance of entrepreneurial thirst.

Small business resources:

How to start a business – Xero Small Business Guide

Episode transcript

Hosts: Jeanne-Vida Douglas [JVD] and Rob Stone [RS]
Guest: Lisa Messenger [LM]

RS: Welcome back to Xero In, you are joining JV Douglas and Rob Stone here.

JVD: Hey, yeah, Rob how’s it going?

RS: Yeah, really well thanks. Exciting!

JVD: It’s always exciting and it’s particularly exciting today because we’re going to have a chat with Lisa Messenger.

RS: She is really one of Australia’s success stories.

JVD: And you know what? She’s successful because she fails and she’s not scared of failure and it’s something that so many small business people, so many entrepreneurs, so many people who would go out there and create a business don’t because they’re scared of failure.

RS: She’s got an overriding tenacity and this juggernaut of movement – I’ve just got to keep going, keep iterating, keep pivoting, and that’s what makes her so successful.

JVD: Yeah, riding the adrenaline. You know the thing I love is that she started a print magazine in 2013?

RS: Yeah, that is a horse end of the market.

RS: But then she had enough purpose and why in there to say you know, there’s a pain point here. I’m going to do something about it.

JVD: Yeah, and she figures out what the problems are and solves them first. You know, she’s going to talk too with us about a book that she published which is really early in her career and she solved the distribution problem before she came a cropper against it. I mean most of us will write a book and then try to figure out how we distribute it. But she went the other way around. It’s just so fantastic to have a chance to chat with a maverick.

RS: Sounds great.

RS: So, Lisa, thank you for joining us. We’d love to hear a bit about your story and where you started and where you are now?

JVD: Absolutely because you’ve been all around the world.

RS: Including Costa Rica.

LM: I have indeed. Gosh, it’s such a long journey. But I started my first business in October 2001, so 14 years ago I think that is now and I’ve had many businesses across a multitude of industries. Some with a little success, and others that abysmal failures. So I’ve certainly learnt a lot along the way. I was in real estate for a while and then I was in conference and event management, I was a horse riding instructor for a while…

JVD: Like you do.

LM: There were all sorts of things that really, you know, meant nothing in a way, but in a way they all came together to formulate my latest venture which is Collective Hub. So it’s been a really interesting journey. I can drill down on all sorts of parts of it, but essentially a lot of it’s been borne out of naivety. Really the publishing iteration of the business started about 10 years ago when I was incredibly unhappy and I ended up writing a book, having no knowledge of publishing at all, on happiness. I just sort of did the next logical thing in front of me and that book went on to be a roaring success.

Then I started publishing for other people. It’s just been about sort of working out what’s the next logical and lateral step and then going after it.

JVD: Why was happiness so important to you?

RS: Yeah, good question.

LM: What I always say – because it’s something that I get asked a lot now because I do between one and four speaking gigs a week, I write my editors letters and I write lots of books, and I get very real time feedback - one of the constant things is people say, you know, what’s their purpose or what’s their why and how do they find that? My answer to that is often find out what your own pain point is and what you’re really pissed off about. That’s a great place to start. Chances are that other people are also feeling that pain point and it’s something that you can come at from your own perspective.

So for me, happiness… Look, all through my twenties and thirties I drank too much, I had no semblance of who I was, I was living life according to other people’s expectations. I was in an unhappy marriage and my life was a bit of a train smash to be honest. So I was desperately unhappy and so just one day went “Ah! I’ve got to find out, what does happiness mean?”

So I literally started interviewing people about what does happiness mean. There was quite a surface level book called “Happiness Is…”. But the second piece to that which is probably more interesting from a business perspective is that because I’d never worked in publishing at all I came at it from a naïve perspective and what I learnt as I started Googling and picking up the phone was that the publishing model in Australia was extremely antiquated. A best seller in Australia at the time and I think people still say, is about 5,000 books and the primary distribution method was through bookstores.

I looked at that and thought well this kind of seems ridiculous. My logical thinking was corporates spend so much money on inanimate objects like, you know, squeegee balls, why wouldn’t they purchase a book on happiness to use as a premium incentive gift reward? So it was purely armed with that kind of thinking that I went out and I started to pre-sell the book.

Mercedes bought a whole lot to incentive test drive, you know, go and test drive a Mercedes and get this book on happiness. What happened for them was, people say “Oh my God I just went and test drove a Mercedes and oh, I got this book”, the surprise and delight factor and it got them talking about their brand.

Clinique had a perfume called “Happy Heart”, so they bought a whole lot of copies to use as an incentive with purchase and on and on it went. And so it really was totally borne out of being unhappy in my own life and searching for something desperately and then looking at a completely different business model which was based on naivety and also kind of just looking at what’s out there and where is there an opportunity. So I guess they’re the two lessons from how that all kind of started.

JVD: So tell me about entrepreneurialism because if you started your first business in 2001 I’m assuming that’s not where the seed for being an entrepreneur was started. When did you first think, “I’m actually going to go out and create my own business and be my own boss”? Why did you think that?

LM: Well it’s interesting because the word entrepreneurialism wasn’t really very prevalent back in 2001. Certainly it wasn’t really on my radar. I don’t think I, at the time, associated with being an entrepreneur and people say to me often, “Oh were you one of those lemonade selling kids on the side of the road?” And the answer is no I wasn’t. I grew up in Coolah which is seven hours northwest of Sydney in the middle of absolutely nowhere and there was no one to sell lemonade to.

So the answer is no. But I always had this hunger and this yearning to do something different and I think that manifests itself for a lot of people certainly through school as in being the rebel, and the odd one out and feeling kind of out of place and for me always asking why. Always questioning everything and not being happy with the status quo. I was always in trouble. I got carried out of my classroom once whilst sitting on my chair and put outside the door, because I was such a pain in the backside.

Now that same hunger and thirst and curiosity holds me in extraordinary stead as an entrepreneur because it is the only way that I keep moving forward and questioning all the time and, you know, morphing, changing, iterating, pivoting, whatever you want to call it, in the entrepreneurial world. That same thing that served to keep me small actually now is the thing that helps me expand.

RS: Is that attitude one of the most important things you need to be a successful entrepreneur? Do you think there’s other things that flow into it as well?

LM: Look, I think there’s a number of things that make a successful entrepreneur these days. One is definitely having an insatiable passion, knowing your purpose and your why, almost more than you want to breathe. You know, that’s a pretty big hunger. So that’s kind of number one. You’ve got to have an extraordinary tenacity and an extraordinary reliance. Because, you know, stuff comes at us every single day which is beyond our control and you’ve got to have pretty thick skin, you’ve got to be able to kind of deal with that. You know you don’t necessarily have to start an entirely new industry in fact, some of the greatest businesses are those that are disrupting an age-old industry.

So take the Collective, for example. I started a magazine two and half years ago when there was a market that already had 5,500 print magazine in the Australian market alone. I had three staff at the time, none of whom had ever worked for a magazine. I’d never worked for a magazine. We had no absolutely no idea, and I cannot stress that enough, yet we’re consistently sitting in the top ten and the print magazine is now in 37 countries.

That just doesn’t happen, that is a result of doing things differently and challenging the status quo and bucking the trend and all that kind of thing. So I think there’s a very exciting opportunity for people to do something different in that market. I mean Xero is a great example of that.

JVD: Let’s just jump forward if we can and talk to that point. Starting a magazine in 2012 sounds absurd. It sounds thoroughly, thoroughly absurd. What were you actually trying to achieve and what made you think you could get away with it?

LM: Yeah, well it actually was 2013, probably even more absurd, even more when people were saying print was either dead or dying. Look, for me it was pretty simple. It was a bit like when I wrote Happiness Is - I was sick to death of the media that was full of salacious gossip and vacuous content, and you know, just pessimism really. As an entrepreneur I wanted to read about other entrepreneurs, but the real stuff. The gritty stuff.

And so I wanted to create something that was the story behind the story and strip back the spin and hype and actually talk to people about the real stuff and the hard stuff.

JVD: Real people and real stories.

LM: Real people and real stories who were doing extraordinary things all over the world. There was nothing in the marketplace at the time. I didn’t know a lot about the digital space and I am so pleased I didn’t, because had I launched into the digital space initially it wouldn’t have given me something tangible and physical that people could touch and feel and that we could sample everywhere.

And we would have gone into quite a cluttered kind of space. As it turns out, I mean the print magazine will definitely within the next six months be sort of 10% of the overall offering and the digital space is very much where we’re going. But I will never give up the print magazine because it does something that digital just cannot do.

RS: So Lisa, you found a pain point, you wanted to address that. You then jump in an industry with naivety. If you’re someone who has a similar pain point and wants to move in, what advice would you give them in terms of where to start?

LM: Well, I mean there’s two places. One is, you know, people can now obviously go and crowd fund, or, you know, get investors and grow big from the start. That’s not how I’ve ever done any business. I’m all about just jump in. This is sort of counterintuitive and purposefully so to a lot of what is out there. You know, a lot of people will write the 100 page business plan and they’ll spend years kind of going through every single iteration of what could be. Whereas I’m much more from the Lisa Messenger school of ‘fail fast’ and this is how I run every single business and every single revenue stream every single day.

It’s literally just test the market quickly. So the simplest example I can give of this is where a friend said to me recently that he didn’t know what was his next move and I said, well what are you passionate about, what do you love? And he said well I love travel, I love food and I love Bali. And I said, would you love to have a travel, foodie tour to Bali? And he said that would be amazing and that’s like, what, six seconds or something.

At that point I then start to put some rigour around it and kind of go, okay, well I think it’s going to be about $4,000, are you still interested? I’m simplifying everything but literally this is really as complex as any of my businesses get. At that point then I will actually go and put the business case forward and run the financials and you know, work out how it’s actually going to happen.

But I think, that’s the thing about business, don’t overcomplicate it. Just work out what’s the problem, what’s the need, what are you passionate about and then just start to put it into the marketplace in the cheapest, easiest, fastest way because I guarantee what you put out initially will not end up being the finished result. I mean the Collective is so far from what it initially was.

It’s only through market feedback, and you know, corporate partnerships and that kind of thing that it’s turned into what it is. So, I say, sort of detach from the outcome as much as possible and just start to put something out there and then move with the market.

RS: That’s interesting, so you’re failing with the minimal amount of investment possible.

LM: Yeah, and I fail every single day at least 20 times a day. I kid you not. I doing that all day every day.

RS: That’s a great attitude, but you know, there’s a lot of people out there that are terrified of failure.

JVD: Yeah, why can’t we deal with failure? How did you learn to deal with failure and to actually turn failure into success?

LM: I freaking love failure. The more I fail the more I learn, you know. So I embrace it. It’s the level that you’re comfortable with risking and I suppose having had businesses for 14 years, I know how much I can push the limits now. There’s pretty much not a lot that I haven’t done in that time whether it be failure or success or testing things or whatever. I guess what I do is I go to the worst case scenario in my head and then go, okay, if this happens what is the absolute worst case scenario. Now in my head I don’t stay there for long, like it’s a two minute exercise and then I kind of wind it back and go, “Oh okay, well that’s achievable.” Then I know the level of risk that I’m prepared to put into it but I also certainly don’t have my eggs in one basket. The Collective as a brand now has about 18 revenue streams, and that’s from the print magazine to online to events to my speaking to books, to all sorts of other things so that we’re pretty future proofed.

RS: And diversified as well.

LM: And diversified. But what I’ll say about that is this, and it’s probably the single most important thing. I think when people launch a business they get attached to an outcome. So they say, I am going to launch a chair. Now that’s not a business. What I say is really get clear on your vision and your belief system. So mine as an individual brand is unwavering until the day I die and that is that Lisa Messenger is an entrepreneur for entrepreneurs, living my life out loud and showing that anything is possible.

Now what that means is that will not change, but the delivery mechanism is completely irrelevant. If I’m delivering that message through a print magazine or online or speaking or books or events or any other manifestation of it, it doesn’t matter. It’s about the bigger picture. Because if you’re stuck on a chair, then when something else comes into the marketplace as we keep seeing, I mean you look at a lot of the corporates and you look at the Ubers and the Spotifys and the Airbnbs, the Fintechs – there’s so many disruptors out there at the moment. If you’re wedded to a particular delivery mechanism then you are set up to fail, but not fail fast, you’re set up to fail in a big way.

JVD: Did you learn this all in one go or has it been something that you’ve gradually picked up on?

LM: No, this is like a lifetime of learning. Every single hour of every single day and this will continue for, I hope, the rest of my life. But the thing is as you grow, or as I grow, things have become much more systemised and process driven. So from an accounting perspective, every single day I look at reports and data. I mean data is absolute king now. When I started the book publishing business it was a very simple business. We did, you know, X amount of books a year but it was literally a client came to us, then we helped them write a book, we edit it, we proof read it, we design it, we print it. Finished. So, very few transactions, very easy to systemise.

In comparison, the Collective, the print magazine is in 37 countries. In Australia alone we have like 13 different distributors. We’re in 3,506 newsagencies, we’re in every single Qantas lounge, Virgin lounge, Emirates lounge. We’re in Coles, Woolworth’s, Big W, e-book format, all sorts of stuff. I literally now have hundreds and hundreds of data points – what’s the cost of goods and services as opposed to the revenue, what’s the profit – so every single day, I’m just looking at data. Which is a really funny place to be and an imperative place to be. I absolutely love it. It’s one of my favourite things of the job now because that helps inform moving forward, was that the right path to take or do we need to chop that off and try something different.

JVD: Is this something that you had to create a passion for?

LM: Yeah, it doesn’t come naturally to me. I am not a financial person and I’m sure a lot of people will relate to that, you know. You might love to make cupcakes and you’re an awesome cupcake maker, but does that mean you can run a business?

For me it’s just been surrounding myself with extraordinary people who actually know what they’re doing and then just learning what I need to learn and being unafraid to outsource the rest or hand the rest over to people who actually are good at what they do.

I’m kind of like the architect of the Collective, I guess, but I’m not the nuts and bolts. I’m not the person who implements everything. And so whether that is outsourcing initially because you can’t necessarily afford full-time staff, whether that’s doing some kind of contra arrangement where someone does something for you and you do something for them. I mean there’s so many different ways and I talk about that a lot in my latest book, Money and Mindfulness. You’ve just got to have that hunger and that tenacity and then it’s surrounding yourself with a great team.

JVD: So it sounds like you start off with this great change that you need to make, or that you want to make. But then you come back and you look at it through the lens of “why”. How do you actually pick up the ones that will make a difference and how do you then make them part of who you are as an entrepreneur and who you are as a company?

LM: So one of the biggest things is, you’ve just got to keep moving. I think one of the hardest things and why so many people do not succeed or move is that, you know, you will hear the word “no” a lot as an entrepreneur. You will get the door slammed in your face more times than you will know what to do with. And so it’s the tenacity and it’s the hunger and it’s just the ability to keep picking up the phone or keep knocking on doors and keep surrounding yourself with the right people. Because it’s easier just to kind of go, “Oh, this is all too hard”. Because it is hard every single day. I can’t even express how much.

When I started the magazine I had no concept of how to get content or where you would distribute it. I knew absolutely nothing. I just knew that I wanted to get this content out there and I just had to educate myself.

So all the answers are out there.

JVD: It’s just getting up and finding them again, yeah?

LM: Yeah.

JVD: What is that like when you get that “no” because that’s the pivot point that people really need to get insight into.

LM: Seriously I would be permanently catatonic in a ball on the floor if I took “no” to heart. You know when you start a business, I remember having to pay an invoice for $82, going “oh my God how I am going to make this work”.

And now last week my CFO said to me “Oh, we’re short $82,000 today” and I was like “Oh”. You’ve just got to keep going. I mean that’s the thing. We would be permanently paralysed by fear if we listened to the “no’s”. Because you will hear it so many times.

Even now, everything is relative. When I started with our covers we had Australian people on the covers who were my friends and then Lorna Jane Clarkson, and Layne Beachley and Mia Freedman and then I ran out of well-known friends and so that wasn’t a sustainable strategy. Then I actually started learning how to get in touch with celebrities. But then we’ve had Ryan Gosling and George Clooney and like amazing big global people on our covers as well, but still I get “no” from people. So everything is relative. Some people will beat down our door to be partners with us and then other people will go, “What? Never heard of it”. It never changes. It’s just different iterations of it and it’s just how much you’re prepared to keep pushing outside your comfort zone.

Like, is it easier now that we’re a biggish global brand? No, it’s harder every single day. Is it more fun? Yes, every single day.

RS: Yeah, thanks Lisa, I really appreciate your time. it’s really quite illuminating.

JVD: Fascinating chat. Thank you so much for joining us, Lisa.

LM: Thanks guys, thanks so much for having me.

JVD: Wow, isn’t it amazing what a girl from Coolah can achieve.

RS: She was a little bit of rebel at school and she’s gone on to be this incredibly successful business person in Australia.

JVD: That kid in the corner who’s maybe acting up and that person who can’t sit still and can’t comply with the rules, maybe they’re the people ultimately that end up being the entrepreneurs and end up being really successful. Maybe we should pay more attention to them.

RS: I agree. It boils down to that attitude, you know, I’m going to do things my way. We need more of that.

JVD: More tenacity.

RS: I agree. Thanks very much for joining us on Xero In.

JVD: Hope you can join us next time.

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