Joan Westenberg launched PR and branding firm Studio Self at the end of 2019. Despite Covid-19 setting her back before she’d barely begun, she’s come back stronger than ever, with Studio Self passing six figures in the space of six months.
Mediaweek spoke to Westenberg about starting her own business, launching in a global pandemic, and transgender inclusion policy.
Starting Studio Self
“I’ve been working in media and PR for coming up on 16 years now,” said Westenberg. “I started out as an intern back in the MySpace days before I’d even graduated from high school and just fell in love with it. I loved tech, and I loved media.
“I was working in various high-growth tech startups, eventually reaching the point where I was director of communications at various companies. Then I decided to do the great big scary thing and come out and tell the world that I was actually transgender, which is an interesting conversation, let me tell you!”
Coming out is a major moment for anyone, but for Westenberg, the decision also has had a major impact on her work life.
“Once I did that, once I came out and leaped over that hurdle, I found that because people didn’t know how to respond to me anymore, my career was tanking. Where before I was being headhunted for positions, suddenly I was being told that I wasn’t a culture fit.
“I decided the only way I could really control my career and control my destiny was to own it completely myself. So I started my own company, with the idea being that I will always be a culture fit at my own company.
“What I found is that once I had my own company, once I launched Studio Self, people were more than willing to work with me because they could see the work speaking for itself.”
Launching During Covid
Westenberg launched Studio Self at the end of 2019, which meant the business was just gearing up once Covid hit. Despite how new Studio Self was, Westenberg found her way through the pandemic in a unique way.
“A lot of my clients were tech startups and tech entrepreneurs and so on, and so I turned around to everyone and I released them all from their retainer contracts. I said ‘look, I know Covid is playing merry hell with your business and it’s more important for you to be able to pay your staff than pay your PR agency, so you don’t have to continue with this contract and you can come back to it another time’.
“People appreciated that. I lost all the clients that I had, but it enabled me to draw a line in the sand and say ‘this is the kind of business I want to run’, I run things by my values and I do the right thing as often as I can.”
The choice has paid off for Westenberg, and a year down the track she has a six-figure PR company.
“There is some level of distrust that people have for media / comms / PR folks because it is a bit hand-wavy, it’s publicity, and people don’t know if they can trust it. So when you do something like that it shows that trust factor and people appreciate it.”
The Keys To Success
There are two main aspects to Studio Self that Westenberg attributes its success to.
“Number one, it’s been pretty niche targeted. I never set out to build a PR firm for everyone, I specifically said we’re going to be a PR firm that helps tech companies communicate with humans. When you just laser focus down to one niche audience and you serve them to the best of your abilities, it really enables you to grow a lot faster.
“The second thing is really just focussing on doing good work for good clients. My goal has never been to grow a huge business, it’s always been to stay small and stay agile and stay fun. I have not been chasing every single client I could possibly get. I look at a client and I question whether I could really do good work for them, and if I can’t I don’t take them on, and if I can I do.”
As well as running Studio Self, Westenberg has launched a side project for the agency – a website called transgenderinclusion.com.
“It’s an open-sourced transgender inclusion policy. We’re treating it like a client of Studio Self because we want everyone to be able to use this policy to be able to make a better workplace for trans people in whatever industry they’re in.
“It’s already being used by hundreds of companies in Australia who adopted it at launch, but I want to keep on building it so it’s a part of the toolbox that every company in Australia has. That’s the big goal. Because trans people don’t want a whole massive wish list of things, they just want respect and love, and that’s what you can give them if you have a policy in place that says these are your rights and here is how we’ll work with you and help you.
“My big business goal overall is that I want to run a successful, profitable company and show other people that that’s what trans people can do. There is no limit to what we can do.”