The good, the bad, the ugly about being an entrepreneur in media

The good, the bad, and the ugly of being an entrepreneur in media

Robyn Foyster

So, you want to be an entrepreneur in media? Yes, I said brimming with unknowing confidence.

I had done my due diligence and assured the investor that short-form content was the future. With a background as Editor in Chief of The Australian Women’s Weekly and Group publisher at ACP and later Bauer for the Hearst Group and Woman’s Day, I had the media pedigree, the ability to build a top rate team, and was armed with my big idea and a burning desire to make my mark as my own boss.

The man sitting opposite me then asked how much I wanted to raise. I told him, and he said, ‘Well, double it. Going for a second round is always harder, and remember what you start working on now will change.’

While he walked away with his checkbook unopened, other angel investors did back my vision, paving my future as a media and tech entrepreneur. But before departing the man dressed in a pin-striped suit shared a few gems of wisdom that I often reflect on.

“You need three things to be a successful start-up. First, you need a good idea. Then you need money to put the wheels in motion. And you need balls of steel. Oh, and you need luck, lots of it.’

My initial takeaway was I’m a woman. Why do I need balls? Why are so many references to success focused on the male gender. No one says, you need boobs of steel. Harrumph!

But it was his final point that was the most pertinent. You might have all the ingredients for a business to take off but when it’s cooking you can’t always control the temperature of the oven. There’s always changing market forces at play.

Eight years ago, when I launched the women’s lifestyle site The Carousel, it included a wealth of snackable how to videos with a host of lifestyle experts including former Madison editor Lizzie Renkert, former Grazia editor Amy Molloy, former Cleo and Cosmopolitan Beauty Editor Nedahl Stelio, former Instyle Beauty editor Eleanor Pendelton and many more who walked out of the revolving door of Bauer’s Park Street into my office at the time.

Since then, Lizzie has launched her fashion label We Are Kindred opening shows in New York, Amy runs Lightwriter mentoring programmes, Nedahl created an all-natural perfume brand Recreation Beauty and Eleanor runs Pretty Gritty and is a digital influencer. All founders and owners of their own businesses. Clearly, the lure of being an entrepreneur is infectious and their drive to challenge the status quo is what revolutionises and transforms the world we live in. Still, most entrepreneurs often admit they never fully envisioned the reality of life ahead when they first took the plunge. Put simply, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Back to my unknowing confidence. While I was an early player in short-form media in 2014 with the firm belief that internet advertising would eventually surpass traditional advertising, the real winners when it happened a few years later were the big foreign-owned tech giants such as Google and Facebook along with social media influencers. The fight for the remaining marketing budgets were fought out among the traditional media players with the smaller independent digital publishers battling over the remaining crumbs. At a time when the need for a more diverse media was heightening, a raft of smaller independent media publishers closed shop. Who remembers Brand New Media? It also launched with a similar platform for snackable content, an arena where today YouTube remains the unrivaled leader.

Many of those independent publishers who have survived and thrived include Angela Priestley and Tarla Lambert from Women’s Agenda, Jody and Brendan Allen from Stay At Home Mum, Paul Hamra – the MD of Solstice Media who own the New Daily and Cathy Wagstaff from Signature Media, Australia’s largest travel media company. They continue to play a vital role in keeping our media healthy by ensuring a richer media landscape filled with diverse voices in the industry as well as growing and nurturing upcoming journalists who work for them. Over the years, they have generously shared their experiences with me and been an invaluable support network.

Time proved my pin-striped dressed friend right about the importance of luck and an elusive shifting market with ever changing consumer trends is what led to the first of many pivots.

Foyster Media acquired Women Love Tech and has since built on its mission to support women in STEM and created Game Changers, a video and podcast series championing Australia’s most inspiring entrepreneurs and leaders. Back then in 2016, few media companies were producing podcasts. In Game Changers’ first series, TV presenter Sarah Harris interviewed media icon Ita Buttrose, athlete Ellyse Perry, Taurus Marketing CEO Sharon Williams, Winmark Wines CEO Karin Adcock and later TV presenter Edwina Bartholomew went on to interview Nick Molnar in the early days of Afterpay. Another Game Changer host Melissa Doyle also interviewed NBN’s CIO Debbie Taylor, and TV presenter Natarsha Belling talked to Healthy Mummy founder Rhian Allen.

Six years on, Game Changers is continuing to unveil a new breed of leaders and disrupters, showcasing their business acumen, celebrating their innovation and success. And our latest presenter Ch7 Finance Editor Gemma Acton is scheduled to interview Equifax MD ANZ Melanie Cochrane and her team about the importance of financial literacy for women in what will be the 14th series of the show.

Showcasing so many mainly tech businesses led me down a different direction. It began with me being invited to join an ASX listed tech company called Thred as a Non-Executive Director. Before long, I was managing the company from its Surry Hills headquarters as we built the immersive media app for Vivid Sydney in 2018.

For the first time in its 10th year history, Vivid Sydney featured augmented reality (AR). The idea was simple – you unlock Hidden Art and discover artwork stories through the Vivid app’s AR camera. Fitzroy Gardens in Sydney’s Kings Cross played host to a secret art gallery with Hidden Art – an Augmented Garden. Using the AR camera feature, users were able to return to the site and unlock TAFE NSW student artworks each week throughout the festival. Later, we worked with TAFE NSW to launch the first immersive media art showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The new AR feature could also be used as a festival guide. When near an installation, app users could use the AR camera to locate a floating Vivid Sydney information icon. Upon tapping the AR icon, contextual information about the art was revealed, providing visitors with a greater understanding of the meaning behind the installation in front of them.

Working with Destination NSW’s ambition to educate and engage the audience in a new way, the addition of augmented reality and game mechanics in the 2018 app that we designed achieved just that. It also fuelled my love for all things tech and the endless opportunities it created, and I embraced my new world with gusto.

The Vivid app was the impetus for me to create Sweep, the world’s first community-based AR shopping app which I believed was set to revolutionise the world of shopping. It didn’t get the chance.

The immersive media app was built by Thred under the company AR Technologies and I became the majority shareholder through a management buy-out. Investing my own time and money and raising funds was not without its pitfalls. The first investor I visited agreed to invest $400k that’s when I learned that until it’s in the bank, it’s not a done deal. The same investor died tragically that year after he mysteriously fell from a roof in Sri Lanka where he was involved in property transactions.

Working on Sweep itself was a white-knuckle ride and at times felt like drinking out of a fire hydrant without drawing breath but for two years of heavily invested yet unpaid work, I persisted. The highs included Afterpay agreeing to a shopping treasure hunt collaboration where users were rewarded with AR experiences when they bought products via Afterpay. It was meant to kick off in Paddington but then the plan shifted to launching in a shopping complex, but the changing timelines meant it never eventuated, nor as a result did the much needed proof of concept for Sweep.

Sweep was also a finalist for the Best Shopping Innovation in the 2019 Finder Innovation Awards, and I took part in an accelerator programme, where I helped increase the medium age range by at least two decades.

There’s a reason, I discovered, women in their fifties launching tech start-ups, particularly ambitious ones, are as rare as hen’s teeth. In fact, rarely do women of any age achieve unicorn status like Melanie Perkins from Canva. Exiting the business was a tough pill to swallow, but I remind myself of the many rewarding moments such as working with an incredible tech team. And a geo-location shopping app during Covid was ill-timed.

I never considered my Sweep venture a failure, but rather an experience with tough lessons learned. The knowledge I gained from being at the helm of an immersive media tech start-up opened my eyes to the future of the metaverse. It was also pivotal when from May to December in 2020, I brokered and wrote the winning submission for Switzer Media to secure the licencing rights for Harper’s BAZAAR in Australia and New Zealand. The basis for it was an immersive media app that I’d previously presented to Bauer when they still published the Harper’s BAZAAR brand, but decided not to proceed, closing the magazine shortly later.

In the midst of COVID, I helped launch a positive news site called Happy Ali, which is owned and run by journalists around the world including former members of The Australian Women’s Weekly team including Deborah Thomas, Lyndey Milan and Michael Sheather – and is currently edited by Sooni Shroff-Gander. I also filmed a new Game Changer series which led to the launch of my new thought leadership agency InProfile, which is owned by Foyster Consulting.

Robyn Foyster with the Australian Women’s Weekly Editor in Chief, Nicole Byers, and former editor, Deborah Thomas

The business helps purpose-led clients, who are making a difference, craft their message into compelling multi-media content. We deliver campaigns that build credibility, drive the conversation, and grow authentic connections. Our award-winning team of journalists and data analysts are experts in strategic communication and provide targeted strategies and support to optimise and grow our clients’ online reputation as thought leaders.

We are on a mission to support people and companies making a difference. InProfile helps clients secure exposure they’d never thought possible. From helping them win national award programs, through to national media coverage and securing high-profile speaker events.

Our agency model is driven by storytelling. Each of the clients we work with has a powerful message to share, or an interesting story to tell, and we use new technology and strategic partnerships to create opportunities which amplify their impact and sphere of influence.

From helping an innovative aged care client launch an Unsung Heroes magazine showcasing stories which deserve to be told, to helping Taurus Marketing launch its own TV Channel online to showcase their team, clients, and alumni; InProfile has been a rewarding venture.

In less than two years, we’ve quadrupled our client base, and hired new talent, with a culture of mentorship and growth, where all team members and alumni are encouraged to follow their own career ambitions, and success is celebrated – at InProfile and beyond into future roles.

At the same time, I’m continuing to build the Foyster Media business, with a strong focus on Women Love Tech, which is now ten years strong with a growing global audience of predominantly 18-to-35-year older adopters of new technology.

My all-women team across both businesses is aged between 20 and 67, and they all work remotely with flexible hours with regular meetings at a shared office in either Manly or Neutral Bay. Recently, I qualified as a digital nomad working for a month in the UK and France. Whilst there, I interviewed Dr Claire Craig, who is the co-author of Storylistening and the first female Provost at The Queen’s College at Oxford University and then Ines Besbes, who had worked for me remotely from Paris, Tunisia and Costa Rica, before launching her own tech start up, Seedext. In the last six months, she has created the first AI tool for entrepreneurs that ‘helps them develop their company for free but continuously rewards them for it.’

Ines, whom I’d never met in person until we caught up in Paris despite working together for almost two years, has in the last six months built a team of six and created the first AI tool for entrepreneurs that will not only help them develop their company for free but continuously reward them for it. She is now supported by Google, Salesforce and SAP and won the SAP X Enactus and Salesforce X NQT. She told me that she was inspired by working at Women Love Tech where she realised the need to support the world of start-ups.

So, eight years along a windy road since leaving the security of staff role, the answer to my pin-striped dress friend who asked me ‘Do you want to be an entrepreneur in media’ with a slight tone of incredulity, the answer is still yes. Has it been easy? No, but I’d rather be counted among those women who put their head above the parapet.

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