Jo Weaver of JWA shares with us her entrepreneurial journey in the marketing and PR space.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded JWA.
Jo Weaver: I was sent to the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) for six months by my former employers in 1990, just after the country’s velvet revolution. I didn’t want to go as I was happy working in London, and I hated every minute of the first five and a half months. But then, just as I was preparing to go back to London, I made one friend, and through that friend, I met a small group of ex-pats, all of whom were feeling the same as me…I then agreed to spend another six months in Prague. During that time, I realized, along with some of my new friends, that it was ‘the land of opportunity, and if one was crazy enough to try, there were so many opportunities for people to start up a new business.
To cut a long story short, I decided to try and go out on my own, initially to do sports marketing (which I had always wanted to do) and then, when that didn’t really work out (sports being a huge thing in Czechoslovakia, mostly controlled at that time by ‘mafia’ type people, I moved into general PR and marketing. Within one year, mostly because of the support of my ex-pat friends, we started to get very popular. Within a couple of years, we became very successful as a ‘business-to-business PR and marketing agency. Funnily enough, in the late 90s, we started working with Prague international marathon, and that led us to more and more sportspeople and events – with the result that I eventually set up a separate company focusing on sports agency activities – exactly as I had hoped to do right at the start.
Do you have small habits that made a meaningful impact on your life and business?
Jo Weaver: Yes, lots! I am almost ‘OCD’ about tidiness – I hate mess anywhere in the office or at home, which carries over into work and the people who work for me. I like everyone to ‘look good’ (I talk about each of us is a walking billboard for the company). I don’t like messy desks – as a PR and marketing agency, which is generally stressful with a lot of different clients requiring lots of different things, we need to know where we are with everything, and that is not easy if your desk/desktop is a mess. Another of my annoying habits is that I always insist that we respond to clients within an hour, even if it is just to say ‘yes, got your message and am on it’ – actually, I believe that is why we got so much work – sometimes we pitched for work with a deadline of, say, Friday. Then on Friday, we would be told that we got the job as none of the other agencies responded in time…I hate to be late for anything and don’t like people being late for me…I write everything down (even now, in the computer age, I still have a notepad on my desk/by my bed) – I don’t believe that I can remember everything. I don’t, therefore, believe that anyone that works for me can remember everything either! So I insist on them writing things down too…yes. Generally, I am a bit of a pain!
How does JWA market its product/services online?
Jo Weaver: We were lucky enough to be in the ‘right place at the right time,’ and work kept coming through our door. I used to worry that our clients, for whom I would be told to do all sorts of marketing, would ask me what we do, and I would have to say ‘nothing’! In the early days (and still now), Prague was a small village, and word of mouth was the biggest marketing tool that we could use. But we did have a website before most people (I had a big American client that insisted that we had emailed before anyone in the Czech Republic knew what that was), and I was an early joiner of LinkedIn. Today, though, if I do any marketing at all, especially online, it is usually through regular blogs (which I then post on our website, on Facebook, and LinkedIn), and I do use Twitter a bit…And for occasional, specific, and targeted marketing, I might use a few Facebook ads. If I am talking to other companies about marketing, though, while I am all for online marketing, I still do talk a lot about traditional marketing and PR – I still think that a good article in a national newspaper can be much more effective than any amount of online ads/marketing!
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to manage your online marketing?
Jo Weaver: If I do any online marketing (for clients, not for me) and they want to really focus online, then I use an online marketing specialist who is really excellent. Through him, I have learned that doing google ads and other targeted paid campaigns online is not as easy as it sounds, and he can get results that I don’t even understand. Actually, even now in the Czech Republic, people still underestimate the skills involved in marketing – if there is a way that they can ‘do it themselves, they will…With the result that, in my view, they often end up disappointed with the results…I don’t think that online marketing is any different – of course, anyone can do it, but there is a real skill in getting big results…and, as with everything else in marketing, the experts will get much better ones than the layman!
What is your hiring policy/process, and how do you retain your employees?
Jo Weaver: I don’t have a policy/process now as I don’t plan to employ anyone again. But in the past, my experience was that (a) while we might advertise for new people, someone that came recommended from a trusted friend/contact was always much more suitable than anyone that responded to an ad…(b) to go with my gut instinct about people more than what their cv said, (c) that I was more interested in people from a sports background (like myself and the rest of my then team) as they then had more in common with the rest of us, had the hard work ethic that we needed to have, were used to working in a team, and were generally ‘more my type’… as far as retention was concerned – most of my best people worked for me for ten years plus. We always worked very hard, but it was also fun – I preferred to throw people in the deep end than micromanage them (i didn’t always have time). We had a lot of ‘glamorous’ projects, so they enjoyed the work and met ‘famous’ people, and while we were working hard, we had a reasonably relaxed work ethic – generally, my concern was that the work got done. If someone wanted to go out for a long lunch and did everything they needed, that was fine. If they had worked late the previous night, I didn’t care if they finished early the next day, etc. I hope, too, that I was a nice boss, although even after 30 years of being one, I still felt that it was a very difficult job to sit in my chair!
How are you funding your growth?
Jo Weaver: Unfortunately, in the Czech Republic, banks would never lend money to SMEs, nor allow us to be overdrawn, nor give us loans…So I had to manage our money very carefully at all times. I never had a loan, and sometimes I had to go without paying myself anything for some time in order to make sure I could pay the rent, salaries, and so on while we waited for people to pay us. But we were successful, and within a short time, we were very profitable, so I never had to look for any sort of funding…
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jo Weaver: Right now, in the Czech Republic, there are thousands of PR agencies, and frankly, I wonder how they are managing after Covid. In my own ‘marketing consultancy world,’ just about all the marketing projects I knew about or was involved in stopped quickly once Covid took hold. And while some of my clients (hotels, restaurants, and sports clubs) received support from the government, we didn’t receive anything. I just thank god that I don’t have a load of people depending on me now. If I stay in the game at all (which is debatable…I still don’t see many companies looking to spend money on marketing, even though they should), I definitely will not get involved in anything that might require me to take on an employee or two again.
Tell us a customer success story of yours.
Jo Weaver: I think our work with Prague international marathon was one of our biggest successes. When we started, it was just a small event, and the owner wanted to make it into one of the biggest and best known in the world (as it is now). Only about 2,000 runners took part at the time, and they were mostly semi-professional/professional locals and a few marathon-mad runners from overseas – mostly all men. Plus, the locals disliked marathon day as all the roads were closed and their travel was disrupted. Our brief was to come up with campaigns that would persuade regular people to start running, to get more people to Prague to run (either from elsewhere in the CR or anywhere else) to get more women interested, and to get the locals to turn out to support it, rather than campaign against it.
We did all of that and more – we turned the publicity in the media around through having celebrities running, introducing a ‘family run’, having more non-running activities happening during the day of the marathon, starting a ‘women’s challenge,’ getting well-known doctors to talk about the need for people to get fit, etc., – and after about 3 years, we had the results that we had aimed for – and really this was all done through classic PR (we even set up the first Prague international marathon website as online was still a long way off!) And very little was spent on advertising.
Your final thoughts?
Jo Weaver: I have a few young entrepreneurs that I try to mentor and have even invested in; they all find life very tough, they had very high expectations of how much money they would make when they started (and then failed to met), they feel lonely in their position at the top, and in some cases, I think they are shocked by how hard they have to work. I think the big ‘start-ups’ that are in the news all the time, going through their second, third, or whatever rounds of funding for millions of euros, lead people to believe that it is easy to go out on your own, and raise loads of money, get rich. I tell everyone I talk to about this kind of thing that (a) it is really tough to set up a business and succeed – something like 90% of companies fail in the first year – there are many reasons for it! (b) If you go into something just to make money, you will probably fail. You need to go into it because you love what you do, want to live and breathe it 24 hours a day, and really believe there is a market for it. And (c) that you have to ‘spend money to make money, and while you might think you know everything there is to know about marketing, you don’t. So if you have any spare cash at all, pay for a marketing expert. If the product/service is right, the price is right, and the marketing is done properly, you will get your money back and more!