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Episode 69: Be liked? Be tough? Be both

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

Meet Elvina Farkas, creative director and photographer at Anue Studios, a creative agency she co-founded with her partner, Lucas.

In what’s often considered a male-dominated industry, Elvina’s made a name for herself in the four short years she and Lucas have led Anue. Inspired by her father and grandmother, entrepreneurs themselves, she wholeheartedly embraces the triumphs and challenges of being a businesswoman in 2016.

Tune to Xero Gravity #69, and hear her thoughts on building the business in Singapore (by way of Australia) and adapting to the country’s cultural differences, especially with regards to banking and photographic license. And learn what roles her and her partner play in the business, how he helps balance her, the toughest part of being a boss, and her vision of what success looks like. It’s all that plus Photo Face Off and bum cheek ratios.

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Episode transcript

Host: Elizabeth Ü [EÜ]

Guest: Elvina Farkas [EF]

EÜ: Hi everyone. I'm Elizabeth Ü, and this is Xero Gravity.

In the male-dominated creative industry, Elvina Farkas stands out as a woman to watch. She's a creative director and photographer at Anue, an agency that she co-founded with her partner in Australia, though they're now based in Singapore.

EF: I mean as much as we try to keep everything business related and straightforward, there are occasional times when I think your personal life seeps into your business and you do get upset for no reason. Maybe cause you still had some dishes left in the sink and go to work quite upset. I'll be like, "I had to do it again."

EÜ: This is an experience that's also shaped Elvina's unique perspective on the role of women in the creative space.

EF: It's hard because I think for us there's a line of trying to be culturally respective and there is a line of trying to be a good business woman and good leader of your company. In a way you want your clients to feel comfortable using your company. And if that means that they feel more comfortable dealing with a man, so be it. I really don't care, so long as I know that I am doing a really good job and they will hire us again once more, and that my company stays afloat and has a good reputation.

Anue management is helmed by myself and my partner Lucas. I do mainly the business side. He does a little more creative.

EÜ: My understanding is that the creative space by and large is still quite male dominated. Was that true in Australia?

EF: Well I think that the creative industry is a very international kind of industry. I think it's really the same between Australia and Singapore; even in New York or Europe. I mean there are differences like the division in age for accomplishment, I feel. We have a lot of well known, recognized male photographers. But when you try to think of a lot of female photographers, they kind of fall short of knowing any household names. So I think proving ourselves as female creative, it takes a long time and greater accomplishments than a lot of my male counterparts. So I feel like that's kind of universal. I feel like that's everywhere in the world. I mean if you think about it, anything in creative business, whether it's a chef or an interior designer or a fashion designer, a lot of the known names are male names. I think as a woman we have a lot of fighting to do to try and get power with them.

EÜ: You also mentioned earlier that as far as how you divvy up the business responsibilities, that you are more the person that is handling the business side of affairs.

Are people surprised when they hear about that? How have you found that people have responded to you showing up as a creative team that is also a couple?

EF: I think it's surprising in a lot of ways. They are always quite surprised that it comes from my side as compared to Lucas. I was always growing up around business. My father was an entrepreneur and my grandmother was an entrepreneur. For me it was something that I really respected and that I really liked. The way of being able to handle my business entirely. I think it is surprising to a lot of people when we do go into meetings and me who is talking numbers and me who is negotiating contracts. I think that they just expect that it would normally come from the male side of business.

EÜ: What are some of the things that you have heard in that context?

EF: I think it's more taken back that sometimes when I am in a meeting, they generally prefer to talk directly to Lucas than prefer to talk to me.

EÜ: Even though you are the one who is initiating this conversation and you are the one doing the negotiating they still prefer to talk to him.

EF: Yes. I think that it comes from the sense of... there is a lot of cultural sort of tie backs to it. I think as women we are quite clever. We know how to use the situation to our advantage. I mean I wouldn't be upset that they don't want to take direction from me, I'm fine with that. I know how to use my team effectively to make sure that the job gets done. I think that's why you've got a team. You use it to make sure that your business gets to where it needs to go.

EÜ: Tell us about how you ended up in Singapore.

EF: It was just a gut feeling, really. I mean, my mother's Singaporean, so I kind of grew up between Australia and Singapore, so I had this really great diverse upbringing between the two. But we ended up in Singapore, just work-wise. We stopped over for a holiday for three months, and we thought, "Let's try to get some connections made. Let's meet some people while we're here," and yeah, in that three months, we met a great range of people, from magazines to businesses to all sorts of interesting people. Yeah, and then so basically, when we decided to head off three months later, we got emails going, "Are you guys coming back?"

EÜ: That must be great.

EF: Yeah, we figured there was a demand here, and yeah, then we came back and figured out how to launch our business.

EÜ: How long have you been together before you started traveling to Singapore? Was there anywhere else that you had traveled for work, or to explore possibly moving your business to?

EF: Yeah. We actually set up in Melbourne originally, so we've been together for almost seven years, I think, now. Oh, he's probably going to kill me for saying, "No. I think about seven years." Yeah, so we started our business in Melbourne originally. We traveled over to New York, and mainly to Europe. He's Italian, so we had a lot of time in Europe. Then when we started working in Asia. I mean, Australia and Singapore have very similar legislation and very similar sort of business plans and setups, so it was quite an easy transition.

EÜ: As someone who's looking at moving from the United States to New Zealand, I've been through all sorts of interesting shenanigans as far as shipping containers and visa applications. So did you have any trepidation or challenges when you were looking at shifting your professional and personal lives overseas?

EF: Lots. I think if anyone ever told me they didn't, I wouldn't believe them. Getting our visas and setting up our business wasn't so easy. I think that was the most challenging part for us. I think we are just used to the ease of banking. The banking system in Australia is incredible when you compare it to a lot of other places around the world. I think for us here in Singapore, we struggled a lot with the banking system.

EÜ: How so?

EF: I mean we still use cheques as our main form of payment here in Singapore. Which I think in Australia, bank transfers and cashless payments are very normal things. Whereas in Singapore trying to get clients to pay us through a banking system is almost non existent, everything is through cheque. The banking system isn't amazing. There is the occasional time when your cheque goes missing and you've got to contact people again and get them to reissue cheques. I've got to reissue cheques. It's a little bit backwards from that. Everything else is quite forward in terms of business. It's quite strange.

EÜ: In terms of the creative community, have you found that your clients are totally on board with the kinds of innovative, creative projects that you want to do with them? How has that been?

EF: Well the thing is, is that Singapore is still a very young industry, in terms of its age in the creative industry itself. So there is a lot of growing pains, typically when it comes to censorship or creativity. The marketing audience is really different as well, compared to Australia. Obviously it's like our footprint isn't making as much national exposure as Australia. There is a lot of challenges for being such a young industry. I think because we are still so young there is a lot of room for the new generation to make their own footprint in the way that they want to present themselves, even with a lot of challenges like censorship.

EÜ: Can you tell us a story about how you learned that maybe some of the censorship expectations were different?

EF: Yes. There was one particular editorial that we were shooting for WATCH Magazine. The concept that she was in sort of a nude lingerie. She was covered but there was a little more bum cheek than what was expected. When it was actually published, I was made aware of the... apparently there is a certain amount of bum cheek ratio that can be published.

EÜ: Oh my gosh!

EF: Which I wasn't aware of. And MDA, which is the media development authority, basically sent me a nice email, going "Please make sure to consider the amount that is shown."

EÜ: So what did they want you to do? Get out there with a ruler?

EF: Yes. I think in general they want us not to check that cheek. That was interesting. Singapore is still technically a Muslim country, although it's extremely western. Then you have places like Malaysia and Indonesia, which are much more in line with Muslim mentality. There are editorials in Indonesia that we used to shoot for that we couldn't shoot armpit. Its different. Its challenging and it makes you think in different ways that you can try and make the image as sexy as possible without jumping over the line.

EÜ: So it's still true then that sex sells?

EF: Yes. Of course. I think so.

EÜ: I mean that this is a really important point for people that are considering working overseas. How do you educate yourselves about the different traditions, morals, standards, expectations?

EF: The biggest issue is the cultural differences, the boundaries of what you can shoot and what you can't shoot. I think that comes from basically learning the industry organically through meeting people, though your clients. They will always let you know what you can do and what you can't do. There comes a lot of challenges that force you to think outside the box.

EÜ: I imagine that you and Lucas have worked out a bunch of things yourselves behind the scenes, so that you know when you are actually in that negotiating room with the client, you have the ways that you juggle.

The things that you present and how you present it. I'm curious. We did have a recent episode where we interviewed two best friends who were running a business called "By Grace." I am fascinated to hear more about the dynamics of running a business with your partner. Can you share some of the, perhaps, challenges that have been there through that particular structure?

EF: You have to have a very large respect for each other I think. It’s running business, running a company, living together, and working together, it's basically living with your partner almost twenty eight hours of the day. It's more than always, always, being together. It's a lot of negotiation as well. It's a lot of understanding. Knowing when to fight and knowing when to back down.

EÜ: What about how he complements your approach in the workplace? Is there something that he does that helps reel you in?

EF: Yes. I think I am a lot more, I guess, relaxed in terms of paperwork and terms of numbers. There is a lot of times when he will reel me in and remind me that it's all about the process and it's all about making sure your team is there. And that your teams are happy and you’re on track to what we are supposed to be doing. A lot of times I kind of forget that and I kind of really focus on making sure our clients happy or clients needs are met. Where he will be like what about us as well? We have timelines and deadlines and we need to take lunch. I think actually the great thing is he always reminds me to take lunch. That's probably one thing that I probably don't do for myself, I would probably just work through the whole day but him being Italian, foods very important.

EÜ: I am curious too. How do you think your staff would describe working with a couple? Do you ever have experiences where somebody will come to you because you are more likely to say yes about something?

EF: I think our staff are amazing. For us we feel like a family in general. I mean we love our team. We work with our team constantly for long hours of the day. So for us they feel like family in many ways, and I think that it helps to create a more open environment where we are able to kind of talk to each other and know that even if we say something that may be upsetting to someone, we say it with good intentions. In the creative industry all of us have ideas and all of us need to contribute and how to do we makes sure that everyone's voice is heard equally. There's a lot of challenges with in that.

EÜ: What was the last time that you had to step in and be the boss? What were other people trying to bring to the table when you were like "Nope, this is the way it's going to be?"

EF: I think the hardest thing for me as the boss — and I keep finding that's, and luckily I haven't had to do it too much — but there does come a time when you have to let an employee go. They are just not the right fit for your company and even to this day, even though we have been running this business for the last four years, I think that to me is the most challenging part as a boss. It's not something that I don't think comes naturally to anyone. I don't think anyone ever wants to fire someone or let them go. And it doesn't get easier. I've had a lot of advice from my father. I used to get "Okay, how do you do this. It's so difficult." And he has amazing advice all the time. It's always to make sure that what you do is right for the business and it's right for your company. You have to make sure that it’s first and foremost your priority.

EÜ: I mean what about what's right for you? I mean we have had so many conversations with people who have burned themselves out or found that they really needed to take care of themselves. So do you have other role models, in addition to Lucas? It sounds like that he is making sure at least that you all get fed.

EF: I think when you begin any business, I don't think anyone ever tells you how difficult it is on you. There's going to be tough times. There might be money shortages. There might be budget issues. But I don't think anyone really tells you the sleep that you will not be getting. I think it's difficult especially when you come from working in a normal nine-to-five job. For example, when you have a very structured, sort of timeline and way of working, then you go into opening your own business and your business is literally on your mind 24/7. You might be doing work at three am in the morning and that just becomes normal for you. You do fall behind on taking care of yourself I think. Even more so in a creative industry where I think we have a lot of strange deadlines. We do have a lot of clients who contact us at three am in the morning as if that's a very normal thing.

I think taking care of yourself is very difficult in those first years of business. You always have to make sure, no matter how tired you are, that you wake up looking like you have no troubles in the world.

EÜ: I mean here you are talking about starting your own business is tough on you but it's not just you. I mean you two started your business as a couple so it must have also been really hard as a couple. So I'm wondering what you and Lucas do to have time that is not on the clock?

EF: Yeah. I think it's important to take some holidays. I mean for us we have a dog who really helped to kind of reschedule us. I think nothing really makes you focus more on your life than having to take care of someone else. So for us that's our little fur baby.

He's always there to make sure that we have a schedule. That we need to stop and have dinner and we need to stop and take him out for a walk. Which is great because I think for a lot of tech-based companies and creative-based companies, there is a lot of time that we spend at our desk or at our computer. I think now we find it difficult to pull ourselves away from that screen.

EÜ: So when you and Lucas are thinking about the future and what success might really look like for your personal lives and for your business, what would be wild success for you?

EF: I think that we always want to do work that is pushing the boundaries or that inspires other people. I know a lot of people are money driven but I think I'm quite happy so long as I have a roof over my head. As long as my health insurance is paid. As long as I have food in the fridge. It’s pretty basic needs for me. I think I can live quite happily with that. I think success is something really quite organic.

If someone would have told me five years ago that I'd have a client list or that I'd have the opportunities that I've done today, five years ago I wouldn't have believed myself. I mean one big thing that I can't even believe is that I'm still a part of is that I've just recently been involved in a show called Photo Face Off, which is produced by the History Channel. I would never believed anyone if they would have told me that I was going to be in front of the camera as opposed to behind it. I think opportunities and success like that is very organic. And that just came naturally from knowing a few people and their encouragement to say, "Look I reckon you can do this, why don't you try?" I think that opportunities is just something that just come and go is the way that we do business. As your business grows and opportunities grows, its just goes hand in hand.

EÜ: Well it sounds like you already achieved your vision of success. So congratulations. And I love that you are doing work that you are proud of, and that you really love and that you are pushing boundaries. Although maybe not so much butt cheek next time.

EF: Exactly! Thanks.

EÜ: Awesome. Well what a fun conversation. We are going to finish up with our question countdown, which is five quick questions and five quick answers. Are you ready?

EF: All right. Go for it.

EÜ: What business book or idea made the biggest impact in your life and why?

EF: OOOOHHHH!!! I think as I said earlier, listening to everyone's advice whether it comes from the client, the coworker, or your mum. I think everyone thinks they are right. I think a lot of them might be, so you should probably listen to it

EÜ: What's the thing that you can't live without?

EF: My notebook. I always have my notebook. It's just there for inspiration thoughts and my everyday to-do list.

EÜ: Excellent. And what's the most useful app on your phone right now?

EF: Funny. You know, I actually really hate using my phone. But the one app that I probably use the most is my calculator. I do own a real calculator. It's just that my desk is always covered in paperwork and storyboards and that sort of stuff, so I can never find it.

EÜ: In one sentence what's the one lesson that you've learned throughout your small business journey?

EF: Resilience. You must be resilient when owning a business. You go through so many highs and lows and if you can't pull yourself through the lows there just no way your will survive your first year of business, definitely.

EÜ: And finally what skill do you want to enhance this year?

EF: Language. As I mentioned I live in a very culturally diverse city and my family itself is very culturally diverse. I think I really want to improve my language skills and maybe up few more language classes if it's available. If I have time.

EÜ: Well you've got so much going on. Its really amazing to hear. So kudos again to you and Lucas for managing such an amazing creative business while also living together and being partners in life and not just in business.

EF: Thanks. I think that in itself a great feat for us.

EÜ: That was Elvina Farkas, creative director and photographer at Anue. Thanks for listening to Xero Gravity. Be sure to join us next time as we'll be talking with Amit Mathradas from PayPal about the power of intrapreneurialism to transform business. That's intrapreneurialism. Have a great week and we'll catch you then.

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