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Entrepreneur Vanessa Stoykov with her husband and creative director Woody.

Smoke, lasers & storytelling: Vanessa Stoykov on her business success in the finance sector

Over the past two decades, Vanessa Stoykov has carved out a successful career in the finance industry as a storyteller, TV host and entrepreneur. Her first business, Evolution Media Group, has become a multi-million-dollar production house off the back of demand for its educational video content about wealth. Meanwhile, No More Practice – Stoykov’s e-learning service for financial advisers – has attracted more than 20,000 subscribers and counts the likes of Westpac, AMP and CBA amongst its clients.

Stoykov spoke to Dynamic Business about entering the world of business, amidst smoke and lasers, and her desire to see more Australians, especially Gen X, take a vested interest in their financial wellbeing. She also discussed the difference between being the visible face of business and running one, the mistakes she’s made in finance that business owners can learn from, and the second season of her TV series, Learn From The Money Masters: The Investment Series. 

DB: What motivated you to launch both of your companies?

Stoykov: At the age of 21, I landed my first journalism job at Investor Weekly Magazine. Although the people had an incredible depth of knowledge, the way they communicated finance was really, really boring. I decided to dedicate my career to making it easier for professionals and consumers to understand – and engage with – finance through storytelling. I’m achieving this through Evolution Media Group (EMG) and No More Practice (NMP). I launched EMG in 1999, at the age of 26, using $14,000 in personal savings. Eight years later, I launched No More Practice. As of July, this year, they are separate companies with separate workforces.

DB: So, you had $14,000 to launch EMG. How did you invest it?

Stoykov: You want the truth? This might sound like the worst answer but I spent a majority of the funds – $10,000 – on the EMG launch party! I hired lasers and a smoke machine, guests drank purple cocktails and Wil Anderson, who was my flatmate at university, was the MC. If that tells you anything about my business style…it’s that, at the very least, I like to make an entrance! I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach to others…but you know what? It worked! I knew how to market myself to a room full of finance people, many of whom decided to give me a chance.

DB: What about the remaining $4000… where did that money go?

Stoykov: I hired a book keeper and an off-sider. I knew I couldn’t do it alone and wanted to focus on building the business, including our client base.

DB: Can you give a sense of the company’s evolution since launch?

Stoykov: Playing to my strengths in journalism, I initially did PR for finance companies, including fund managers and super funds, because I wanted to help them get their story out to the world. I then moved into print and digital advertising when a creative director named Woody, who is now my husband, joined the business. However, it wasn’t until 2007, when EMG started making content for television, that our message started to resonate with a mainstream audience.

DB: What circumstances led you to launch your second business NMP?

Stoykov: About ten years ago, as a number of financial planning practices were being bought out by the big banks, I thought to myself, “Why don’t we document the stories of financial advisers seeking to exit their businesses?” Seeing a great opportunity to show financial planners how to build better businesses and support their growth so I approached a friend – who was pregnant and looking to sell her practice – and she agreed to get involved. We ended up filming her all the way up until the birth of her baby by which time she’d sold her practice for $3.5 million. Off the back of that show, we gained 8000 online. Due the success of this project, I established NMP as a means of providing advisers and accountants with educational video content. Today, the likes of CBA, BT Westpac and AMP license our video content as it assists their advisers to communicate finance concepts to their clients in an accessible manner.

DB: How would you quantify the success of The Investment Series?

Stoykov: The Investment Series has now aired on Channel Nine for two consecutive years. In addition to attracting 1.7 million live viewers on television, the first season had a digital audience of 2 million – so, we’ve had 3.7 million all up.

We don’t have the final figures for season two, which is titled ‘Learn from the Money Masters’, because the finale doesn’t air until Saturday, 2 December… but I can say our numbers are bigger. Since it first began airing in October, season two has had 3 million views digitally.

The focus of season two, Ex-Neighbours star Blair McDonough, has been a real boon for the show because, unlike many celebrities, he’s an everyman and he been very open about his finance. He’s talked about his cash flow, shortfall and lack of financial planning – like many Australians, he’s trusted that it will all work out.
DB: Why host the show instead of remaining behind the scenes?

Stoykov: I am a storyteller and I believed that putting a face to our industry was a critical to the story I wanted to tell.

DB: Has being a TV personality involved a steep learning curve?

Stoykov: Being the visible face of my two businesses, through The Investor Series, has been a massively different experience from running them, behind the scenes. By putting myself out there, I’ve left myself open to potential criticism. Due to a strong sense of self, however, I’ve learnt to take things on the chin.

Building my personal brand has assisted my businesses because I’ve become someone who people can relate to and, hopefully, trust. They know that if I put my name and face to it, it’s going to be a reflection of my ethics and what my purpose is – which is to help people make the pension irrelevant.

On the topic of building my personal brand, I recently launched my own website VanessaStoykov.com. It features a free financial wellbeing diagnostic I’ve been working on for a long time that assists people to identify behaviours they need to unlearn in order to succeed. At the heart of my diagnostic are my five unlearn pillars, which are designed to people become aware of behaviours around finance and work on change over time.

DB: Is financial illiteracy a big issue for Australian businesses?

Stoykov: It is. It’s held me back too. If your passion is not accounting, then it’s something you have to stretch to understand. If you don’t, it continues to cost you money. Through my two businesses, I’ve tried to get more people interested in their financial wellbeing. My throwaway line is money is sexy finance is boring.

DB: What are some bad habits business owners must unlearn?

Stoykov: As I’ve made all of these mistakes, I can speak from experience…

  1. Spending all their time putting out fires instead of pursuing strategies for sustainable, long-term growth – For example, allocating capital based on immediate need, rather than having a strategic long-term view. It’s important to think about where you want your business to in 10 to 20 years and to set goals. This relates to first of my five unlearn pillars, Focus.
  2. Acting without having a plan in place for what’s next – What is your exit strategy? Who would buy your business? If you can’t see the end at the start it’s going to be a lot harder to point the ship in the right direction. It’s important for business owners to not only document – but also benchmark their performance against – their strategies? Otherwise, how else will they know if their strategy is working? This relates to my final unlearn pillar, Action.
  3. Equating what they want in their business with what they need – Things like a new company car or a laptop are nice perks but they can erode your cash flow, causing you stress down the line if it’s money you can’t spare. This relates to desire, one of my unlearn pillars.

DB: What are some of the mantras you live by in business?

Stoykov: I have a few…

  • “Never give up”It’s something entrepreneur Mark Bouris once espoused to me with great passion…but it’s also something I learned from the example set by my father who’s originally from Serbia. Like many baby boomers who immigrated to Australia with nothing, he has an incredible story of perserverance – and that’s what you need when you’re running a business. Running a business is ridiculously hard, so if yu’re not resilient you won’t make it.
  • “Cut your coat according to your cloth” – In other words, don’t spend more than you can earn. Being entrepreneurial with growth without getting into a lot of debt is the advice I would give.
  • “Cash flow is king” – We manage our cash flow on a daily basis still and we’re now a multi-million-dollar business. I always want to know where we are at and what we’re spending so I know we can afford to execute our strategic plan

DB: What have been the defining moments in your career?

Stoykov: Spending a day with author Bryce Courtenay, through EMG, for an interview we’re proud of.  He was a master story teller, the trait I admire and aspire to most.  The highlight with NMP has been reaching over 3 million Australians about a subject they haven’t previously engaged with.

DB: What’s next? Where will you be focusing your efforts?

Stoykov: I’ll be doing a lot more book writing and hitting the road speaking to people about their financial wellbeing. We only have 20 years to help Generation X prepare for retirement. If they don’t utilise the knowledge and tools at hand, up to 80 percent of the entire generation could retire uncomfortably. By telling stories that people can relate to I hope to help them find their way.

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James Harkness

James Harkness

James Harnkess previous editor at Dynamic Business

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