INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
Jo Weaver of JWA Shares with Us Her Entrepreneurial Journey and the Effects of COVID-19
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jo Weaver: We are lucky enough to have a house in Southern Spain where, despite the country having been one of the hardest hit, there are very few cases. We headed here in March, spent 100 days in lockdown, then went back to our home in Prague for some of the summer, and now we are back in Spain again, back in lockdown for the winter! But it’s fine – we have our computers and phones, and the lockdown this time around is relatively relaxed. The main advantage we have is that it is sunny and warm and we live most of the time outdoors.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded JWA.
Jo Weaver: I am British, but I have lived in Prague since 1990 – I arrived not that long after the Velvet Revolution, initially with the company that I was working for at that time. My first stint was for three weeks, and when I went back to London, I announced that I would never, ever, go back again! A few weeks later, I got sent back for six months and ended up staying! The main reason was that the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia then) at that time was a ‘land of opportunity’ and us few ex-pats that arrived early and were crazy enough to cope with it, had so many ideas of new businesses; start a recruitment agency (we couldn’t find good people), a sandwich shop (nowhere to buy lunch!), a hotel, an international restaurant, etc. Some tried and failed; some stayed and became enormously successful. Myself – well, my dream had always been to work in sports marketing, since I am sporting crazy and had competed in the sport at quite a high level all through my growing up years. So after lots of discussions with and encouragement by my friends, I decided to go out on my own in 1991 – to do PR/marketing, generally, but with an eye on sport as (if) I got going. I had about Euro 500 in the bank and a very cheap two-room flat (I lived in one room, and the other was the office), but I figured if I could earn enough to pay my rent, assistant (for translation purposes at that time!) and buy a bit of food and cigarettes (again, at that time) I would be OK. And if I failed, well, I would go back to London! That was my business plan, I am afraid!
However, while the sport was difficult to break into (there were, and still are, a lot of gangsters involved in the big-money sports), my ex-pat friends were all busy setting up real estate companies, and they became my first clients – I didn’t know too much about real estate, but soon learned! After that, the agency developed in the same way as the country itself – first specializing in real estate, then hotels (so many new ones opening in the early 90s as there had been so few before), then crisis management, as a lot of foreign companies ran into trouble doing business in the CR at that time as it was still very difficult, and I was an ‘expert’ by then! By about 2000, though, the agency had become fairly general. We had worked for many of the biggest investors in the Czech Republic (we ran the marketing campaigns for all of the Tesco shopping malls in the country, for Bass Brewers when they bought one of the main breweries, for many big-name hotels – the Four Seasons, Kempinski, etc. – and many others. At its peak, I employed about 30 people, which made us a pretty big agency!
Then came the financial crisis of 2008, when about 80% of our clients were involved in either finance, hospitality, or real estate. Over the course of about three months, I lost nearly all of them and had to make a decision whether to even try to continue; in the end, I kept just a couple of people on, and we turned ourselves into a small ‘boutique’ agency that worked for just a handful of clients, most of them, funnily enough, involved in sport – that wasn’t planned, but just happened naturally. This ‘new-look’ agency continues today, but now I work more as a marketing consultant for a few companies and individuals, plus now I am involved in a few other ventures that interest me even if they don’t make any money – these are SMEs where I can help with their business strategy and marketing, and/or have invested a bit into them. I also sit on the International Business Forum board in the Czech Republic (which I founded with a few others), and just now, I am an avid writer of blogs (and am having a book published as we speak!).
How does JWA innovate?
Jo Weaver: As I have said, I am no longer growing or looking at ways of innovation for the company, but over the years, it was definitely important that we stayed ‘ahead of the game.’ We lived through the arrival of the internet (when I tell younger people that I worked in marketing before we had the internet and/or social media, they can’t imagine what we did!), then social media, both of which had a major effect on our clients: some felt that they no longer needed an agency as they could ‘do their marketing themselves,’ some realized that they needed to manage it (we even had to handle a major crisis on social media for one client in the early days) some didn’t want to know. We had to learn all about online marketing as quickly as possible in order to be able to advise clients and ensure that we could include it in our marketing offer.
I have always looked at ways to do things differently or try new things, and now more than ever, I think everyone will have to adapt and change whatever it is they are doing if they are even to survive.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jo Weaver: Pretty much every day I think how lucky we are, ourselves, to be near the end of our careers rather than the beginning. For sure I wouldn’t want to have a large PR/marketing agency now as, unfortunately, the first thing everyone cuts when there is a crisis is the marketing and paying salaries, rent and so on without any clients paying fees is pretty difficult! And in the CR, where it is impossible to fire people, life is going to get very difficult for a lot of people. I have already lost the few clients that I had at the beginning of the crisis (hospitality and sport), in much the same way as I lost most of them in the 2008 financial crisis, as above. I am OK and have other things to do, but generally, I am pretty angry about the lack of support for SMEs and owner-run businesses at the moment (certainly in the CR and the UK) – everyone talks about how hotels, airlines, restaurants, and so on are suffering (and of course they are and I am trying to do my bit to support them), but what about all the small suppliers of products and services that those companies depend on? Frankly, I think that most small agencies and similar are not going to survive for much longer, if at all.
As mentioned, I am coping as I don’t have the big overheads that I used to have, and I have several other business interests – all are on hold, but they do not cost me anything. And luckily enough, we are old enough and have made enough money to manage without any income, at least for a while. I just have to manage, NOT having much stress or work to do at the moment!
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jo Weaver: I think I didn’t realize at the time what a difficult choice it was to give up my well-paid job and go it alone; I don’t think anyone realizes quite how tough and lonely having your own business can be. And along the way, I have made lots of other difficult choices – I set up a recruitment agency years ago, and that failed – it was difficult to accept that and close it down rather than pour more money into it. There were a lot of other difficult choices along the way. But I think that if you are going to start a business yourself, you have to be brave, and you need to remind yourself of that a lot. Learn that not everyone will like you (that was a tough one, and my one-time mentor warned me about it – sometimes people that you don’t even know will be against you because you are deemed successful). Accept that you will have to work harder than you ever imagined (I see many people wanting to start a business because they think that it will be easier than working for someone else – forget it!). And don’t spend all the money as soon as you start making it – try to always have some sort of savings for the ‘rainy day’ that you hope will never come – but they often do!
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Jo Weaver: The more stress or anxiety I feel, the more I turn to exercise and music. When I worked 12 hour plus days, six days a week, I was pretty irritated by people saying ‘how lucky I was to have time to go and play tennis/go to the gym/whatever’ but I made time (sometimes going to the gym in the dark at 6.00 am)). Basically, the stress of running my own business, even in the good times, would have given me a heart attack if I didn’t do something, and if it hadn’t been exercise, then it probably would have been drinking too much, which wouldn’t have been good! Even when we were locked down here in Spain earlier this year and were unable to go outside, we spent most of the day doing crazy things – I downloaded a workout App, which I started the day with (using just a mat). Then I did half an hour of dancing to a ‘Bollywood’ app at some point each day and bought an exercise bike through Amazon that I used all the time. My partner, Jan, who is a marathon runner, managed to do 10,000 steps a day just walking around the house and running up and down the garden path!!!!
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jo Weaver: Nowadays, as mentioned, I don’t really have competitors as such, but in the days when the agency was big, we mostly had to ‘compete’ with the big players – a lot of big companies will only work with PR agencies or other service suppliers if they are big enough and globally-known names – they feel it is safer to go with an international brand than an independent agency. But sometimes we could win one of these accounts precisely because we were independent – clients knew that if they came to us, they would get me being hands-on, not a faceless, nameless account manager…so that is what we pushed.
Your final thoughts?
Jo Weaver: It is difficult to say anything very concrete at the moment; I suppose I would just say that whatever is going on now, in a year or two, it will all be behind us. We need to be thinking about the opportunities that will arise then. And with my marketing hat on, I would suggest that it will be those companies that spend every penny that they can on marketing once everything gets going again that will succeed. Quoting my favorite saying (not mine, but a boss of one of the big global brands that I once heard), ‘in or after a crisis we increase our marketing budget significantly as we know that everyone else will be cutting back. And that means that not only will we keep our existing customers, but we will gain theirs too!’.
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