Joan Westenberg

‘If you launch a company during an uneasy time and you don’t fail, you know it’s good’: Joan Westenberg

Joan Westenberg is the founder of PR firm Studio Self and D&I consultancy QueerInclusive. Joan has written for the SF Chronicle, Wired, the AFR, the Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. She is also Australia’s first openly transgender woman to run a PR and communications firm, one of only five globally, and Australia’s first transgender angel investor.

We chatted to Joan about starting and running a PR company during COVID-19, her entrepreneurial journey and reinventing how we look at diversity & inclusion.

What is Studio Self and why did you start it?

Studio Self is a PR and brand studio that helps tech companies. 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. 

What makes you different from other PR companies? 

I take a no bullshit approach. We are transparent on everything: we are transparent in the way we charge, we sit with clients and constantly communicate and are part of their team. We make sure that people see every task that gets done and see the results. 

The only way to differentiate yourself is to tell people what you’re going to do, do what you said you would do and then show them you’ve done it. 

How did it feel launching your company just as COVID-19 hit?

COVID-19 was an opportunity. If you launch a company during an uneasy time and you don’t fail, you know it’s good. 

What were the biggest lessons you learnt from starting your own company?

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. 

How do you build authenticity into your company’s culture?

I have a policy of only hiring people that I want to hang out with. Companies are a group of people with a job and they need to get along well enough to do it. 

We’re not a basketball team or brothers and sisters. We’re people you have hired and may have to fire – you cannot be bullshitting your level of relationship. You need people you like, who are capable and who understand the company. 

When hiring, your company should not become your employee’s life. Your company shouldn’t be the focus of their existence, it should be something they like and let’s them live their life on their terms. 

I’m a transgender woman, so people self-filter from my company. People who see me and resonate with my values will want to be a part of my team. 

How do you avoid groupthink when hiring people with similar values?

It’s about not hiring people who look like you and agree with you. It’s about hiring people who you believe have the skills, or potential to develop skills, and come in with a unique perspective and dedication to grow. 

Something I’ve always done in interviews is ask what job they want to have after they finish working for me. The job you give them isn’t the be all and end all. So I want to be able to help them learn the skills they want to learn. You want to invest in people so they will continue improving. If you keep doing that you’ll foster a sense of collaboration inside the business. 

What do you think businesses often get wrong about PR and marketing?

The biggest misconception is that if you spend money you can get a story placed. 

It’s not the case. Journalists are not coverage machines. You don’t just give someone a story and they publish it. You have to view journalists as people and send them stories that make sense and that they’re passionate about. Their job isn’t to support your company, their job is to publish good work. 

Sometimes there’s a perception in tech that the media is the enemy. But journalists have a responsibility to share content that they care about and that they think people should care about. It’s a responsibility. If they harm a company it’s not because they want to cause harm. You need to respect the media – they’re not out to get you.

What are some experiences specific to being a transgender entrepreneur that people are unaware of? 

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. 

What should businesses do to be more inclusive?

Something we’ve done is written an open-source trans inclusion policy that businesses can take on board. We’ve made that publicly available and people can add it to their company. 

I think the vast majority of people are open to trans people and just want to know how to be more helpful. It’s the minority who are ugly and evil and so we’ve created these tools as an easy step to get started. 

Hundreds of companies have taken this up. Most recently, I did some work with Linktree and in the first week their CEO adopted this open-source trans inclusion policy.

There are a lot of structures we’ve been trying to fix. We keep talking about giving people a seat at the table: queer people, people of colour, women. But we’re talking about a table that wasn’t designed for us. 

Instead of changing existing systems to make them more friendly, we need to ask why we have these systems in the first place and what systems we can build instead. There’s room for a lot more intersectional work. 

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