Vodafone xone Innovators Series: flossie.com's Jenene Crossan on passionate disobedience, seeing opportunity in opportunism and faster horses

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business acceleratorIdealog is interviewing heaps of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. In this edition, publisher and editorial director Ben Fahy chats with Jenene Crossan, digital evangelist, serial entrepreneur and the winner of the most inspiring individual gong at last week's New Zealand Innovation Awards. 

Ben Fahy: Jenene, you're a woman with many titles. How do you describe yourself? A condensed version, perhaps.

Jenene Crossan: If I describe myself versus somebody else, I'm sure it'll be different descriptions. Condensed, simply, would be: I'm a startup founder, but my day job is I'm the CEO of Flossie.

Maybe to go back to the beginning, what were you like when you were young? I imagine you were probably a bit of a troublemaker.

Yes, I've always been painful.

Or perhaps, as you call it on your website, passionately disobedient?

Yeah. You would have to ask my mother that question, to be honest, but I'm sure she would agree. Her stories of what she frequently laments me with are things like, having my brothers and sisters organized before school, before I even went to school. Forcing my way into the local kindergarten because they wouldn't let me in early enough by standing outside long enough until they let me in. I'd pretty much say that's been par for the course the rest of my life.

Has it helped you, those traits, in some of your business ventures?

Undoubtedly. The tenacity and inability to give up is absolutely probably what's the reason I'm still here 17 years in. There's a placard on my desk that says, "Never, never, never give up." I have a tattoo on my wrist that says, "More". I think if you just add those two things together, probably you described what I'm like as an individual.

Have you got that cat poster with, "Hang in there"?

I do often go ... Sorry, it's radio, you can't see that, but you know what I mean. The whole, claws hanging in there, I definitely have described business at times, particularly post GFC, as being a bit like that.

When you started off it was pretty early. You were around about 24, correct me if I'm wrong.

21.

21. What was that business and what were the circumstances of that business starting up, and who was there to help you through that?

17 years ago it was NZGirl, my baby that still hasn't left home. The circumstances were, I was working for a web development company. I was working as an account executive, which I thought was a pretty fancy title at the time, but basically there to help build websites. We built the original Yellow Pages, White Pages, those sorts of sites, pretty much brochureware as well as a little directory. I got an insight into how the web world was starting to work and what it looked like, and I was starting to see that internationally the teen market was really interested in the internet as a way to communicate with each other and provide support, and that's effectively where I started looking at it. It's changed, obviously, a huge amount since then, and teens actually really aren't our core focus, it's more in the mid-twenties. But what did I know then? Nothing. I was making it up as I went along. Help-wise, I just reached out to people who may know something about design, or web design, or copywriting, and to be honest it was lots of people making things up. Nobody knew the answers, nobody's ever done it before.

The world seems to be hanging on by a thin veneer of expertise. When your friends from university become doctors, you're slightly concerned about the information that you're getting.

I'm hoping they're getting slightly better training than some of the businesses that I was involved with at that stage.

There is, if I'm pronouncing it correctly, one of your philosophies, MIUAYGA. MIUAYGA, making it up as you go along.

Yeah, exactly.

There is maybe this image of the hero entrepreneur who has a vision, a very clearly articulation of what they want to do, and an iron will to get there. That doesn't seem to be the experience in reality though. Have some of your early failures led to revelations? Do you look back on them in reflection and say, "That was very helpful for where I am now."

Oh, undoubtedly. Every failure you have helps you in life, be it in personal or professional. In all honesty, Ben, I could say that today I have very, very clear vision as to what I'm trying to achieve. The Flossie business is a great example. I can break that down into a 5-point plan and bore you with it right now if you'd like. Amongst my team, I could tell you what their individual point plans they'd have to do, because it's all very much sitting up here, and know how that's going to roll out, and I can do that with a fair amount of accuracy based on my experience ­– experiences, not just the good, but also the bad and the things that we have learned along the way.

Yes, I could do that, versus, could I have five years ago, even ten years ago? Probably not, but mostly that experience wasn't just mine that was lacking. It was everybody's, collectively. No one really knew what was going on in this space, and so we were all trying to figure it out. I'm sure you've been a party to as many of these conversations as I have been over the years-

It's pretty early days, there's a lot of experimentation.

Are we still having the same conversation that we've been having for 10 years? Oh, we are. Are we still talking about display advertising? Oh, great. There's a lot of people just trying to catch up to the base. A lot of the space I've played in has been quite leading, a leading edge. That's been quite a hard place to live in in New Zealand, and to commercialise. It's taken a long time to have businesses that are commercially successful. Thank god, I'm there now. It would be boring otherwise.

You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette along the way. You mentioned that fixing problems, as innovators often do, doesn't always make you popular. What do you mean by that? Is it because people don't like change, or because you're likely to annoy those with a vested interest in the status quo?

Probably a bit of both, to be honest. Different hats in there for me. If I put a hat on of having sold advertising in the online space for a long time, you definitely come across people all the time who were not excited about the idea of us coming in with a medium that was going to put everything in question. That's a thing you have to go through, and recognise that it's not necessarily about you, but change. At the root of both of those questions is, people really aren't that particularly comfortable with change, the vast majority.

The other one, of course, if I look at say within the Flossie business, the salons recognising that the way things have changed isn't the way that they would like it to. They would love us to go back to the idea of, a customer books six weeks in advance and goes to the same hairdresser every single time. That time's gone. The audience today are last minute, they want it now, and that gratification is, how do you help them get that? Doesn't mean they won't be loyal, doesn't mean they won't keep coming back, but the mode in which they go about it has changed. For a traditional salon owner that's a lot to get their head around. That's an entirely, fundamentally different way of managing their business.

When the internet was first coming on stream, it was thought to remove middlemen. You'll be able to talk directly with brands. In some cases that's true, but it feels like there are more middlemen now than there ever have been. There's Uber, AirBNB, Facebook to a degree. Is that what flossie.com is all about, matching buyers with sellers? Is that actually one of the best things that the internet has brought?

Yeah, that's a really good question. Really good observation. That's exactly right, we're a marketplace. It's really easy to just write us off as a hair and beauty app at the front end, but in fact it's a very technical, very ... I mean, it's got about 8 different platforms to it. There are two sides, the salon and the customer. It's a very intricate piece of software, but our job is to curate and to bring people together who have time, both at a customer level and at a salon level, to be able to either buy or sell, and bring those two things together.

Should they be able to just do that themselves? I guess they could if they knew exactly where they're going, so you may well say, "I only want to go see Dry & Tea, I know I want to go there, I'm happy to go their website and see what they've got available." Great! I think what we're finding in the customer base today is they're going, "Because I'm not prepared to book further out, I'm most likely going to have to say I need 5 or 6 different places," in which case you have to have someone who's the curator.

The curator space is something we coined five years ago now, we started talking about the concept of curation. I think it's only starting to hit its straps now, where it's actually been useful for people and actually helping you get what you want, when you want it.

An era of opportunism, perhaps.

Yeah, that's a nice way of putting it.

A lot of experienced innovators know that sharing ideas is often the best way to create more of them. New Zealanders seem to be quite protective of their ideas, perhaps because we're more inventive than innovative. What do you think about that? Are you happy to open up to other partners, to share your ideas, to actually share your failures as well?

Yeah, absolutely. I think if anything I can be accused of probably being a chronic over-sharer for a long period of time, much to the chagrin of my other half who is complete opposite of me and keeps everything inside. Opposites attract, but that's so very true. I will share with anybody who asks, various questions. I've got a number of people I mentor. I do a lot of public speaking events, and I think I've probably developed a reputation for being incredibly candid through those, probably to the point of maybe slightly annoying. That's okay, I think that's good for us as general-

Good self-awareness as well.

Yeah. It's good for the general populace that we have people who are prepared to stand up and say, "Hey, I could have done this better," or, "I think this what we should be looking at."

As you've mentioned, part of being successful is being looked up to. As a successful female businesswoman that may even be more pronounced in this era. As a mentor, what kind of questions do you get asked the most, and maybe what's the one piece of advice you'd give to someone who has an idea who wants to replicate your successes?

I think you're right in observing that it's probably even more so from a female point of view. I think in general we haven't had wonderful female role models until recently. There's been a lot of, in order for a woman to survive in the business world is to act more like a man than a man does. It's nice to see that starting to change and people becoming a lot more embracing those maternal instincts as opposed to suppressing them. There's a lot we can do within that.

The questions I get from people are quite varied. I think it depends on what's surrounding me at that particular time. If I've been doing a lot of investment, it capital raising over the last couple of years, so I seem to attract people wanting to know how the hell to go about that. There's no right or wrong answer, I just tell them the experiences I've had and give them some food for thought.

The most important and consistent piece of advice I give people is, make sure the people you have come on your journey, can add value to where you're trying to go, and know how to exit those relationships or grow from them as required. I think that's quite a hard thing to get right, making changes at a board level or where your advisors are in, depending on the stage of your business. We spend quite a lot of time talking around this particular subject.

A lot of people seem to invest in a founder, maybe, more than an idea. Is that something that you've found, that drive and preparedness and willingness to maybe shift focus if the business isn't working right?

That's absolutely right. My first investor, Lloyd Morrison when I was 22, said to me, "I've invested in the verve of with the publisher." I didn't even know what it meant at the time, I had to go and Google it. "Oh, I think he's paying me a compliment. That's nice, isn't it?" It's actually been a valid thing ongoing, hearing from ... You know, I've got 40 shareholders in Flossie and it is a consistent thing, that they believe in me and they believe in the vision I’ve got and my ability to actually pull that off. That's a lot of pressure for a founder to have on them, and that can also be a really lonely space to play in. It's something that you have to really get to terms with and feel really comfortable within, and see who else you can put out around you to give you the support that you're going to need to have, so that you can deliver on those expectations. There's no doubt about it, everybody has good ideas. Your ability to execute them is a very personal thing.

The debate around gender bias in the workplace has flared up recently, with Kevin Roberts, saying he didn't spend any time thinking about it in the advertising industry and that it wasn't a problem. As a rich, white man he would say that, but there's plenty of research to show that having more females on boards and in positions of power is beneficial for society and business. What are the main problems that you still see around that in New Zealand, and what do we do to fix that?

I can only speak from a personal point of view, and I can assure you that it still exists. I've unfortunately seen far too much of it in the last years. I actually think it's got worse. That's really sad, because I'd like to think that by now we'd be seeing it get better, and I think it's because we're getting so much more change happening that the status quo are feeling that change, and so as a result we're seeing some bucking back from that too.

What do we do to fix it? I think we have to become far less tolerant of it and we have to actually call it, but we've got to pick our battles. I'm very particular about this one myself. It would be really easy to get up in arms every single comment that's made, or get defensive in every situation, but there are some that I call "the old school" which I know, to be honest, they just don't know any better. They're a like a ‘90s movie. It's incredibly homophobic, sexist, racist, and they don't even realise that they're doing it. It's just this casualness that surrounds them. There are things that I just let slide, and some things I'll just go, "Oi! Hey! No! Enough of that. Stop," and pull them up on it. Versus, to be honest, I think when you get it from a younger male, that's where you get really shocked. You should know better, you've been brought up in the world to know better and to act better. That's not okay.

I do think we have to get tough, but it's really hard to do because you put yourself absolutely front and centre in the middle of the firing line when you're the person that raises the flag and says, "This is not okay." It's not that comfortable.

Personally, you're a stepmother to three children.

Yes, three girls.

Obviously you're a sucker for punishment. Me too.

Yeah? Oh, great.

But adding that onto all of your responsibilities in business. Does that make it harder, and how have you managed to balance that? If you're being honest, do you have to sacrifice one side of that equation, or can you do both?

I think you can do both. I actually think that it's really important that you have balance in your life. You've probably, like me, seen lots of startup founders who've fizzled out from trying to just do so much within their job, that they're worried that if they're not seen to be doing a 20-hour day that they're not doing enough. That's just not sustainable, and you also can't bring anything new and fresh to the table.

One of the things that the board and my shareholders require me to do is obviously to increase our shareholder value, and the way to go about that is to be constantly thinking about, "How do we improve? How do we get bigger and better?" I can't do that by just turning up and doing the same thing every day. I've got to be able to turn up and think of new things to do. That's got to come from a variety of different places, and those inspirations are ... What we were talking about before, going for a bike ride. To me, going for a bike ride is clearing my head. Going for a run is clearing my head. Playing with the kids I see things and interact with stuff.

I set aside about a day a month working with other businesses that allow me to put my hands and get dirty into things that I otherwise wouldn't be exposed to. I've been in my own businesses for such a long time it's really easy to not get any professional development, so that gives me a moment to go, "Okay. Oh, gosh, and bring that back in." We have to have outside inspiration in order to bring it into the business.

One of our dear friends and a director at my company, Mike Hutcheson, tried to plot where good ideas came from where he was working at Saatchi & Saatchi. Got everyone throughout the week to say, "I had that idea in the shower. I had that idea at the restaurant. I had that idea at the desk." Lo and behold, all of the ideas seemed to happen at a restaurant, so that gave him an excuse to keep going back for long lunches. Excellent scientific research.

Mike Hutcheson doesn't need any excuses for that, but I love it. By the way, he is one of my favorite people to go on do this kind of stuff with, where you can just morph between a whole variety of subjects and at the end of it have one little nugget that you go on, "That's so true."

Your expertise is expanding into other areas now. You're advising mentors on an individual basis, but you're also working with Simplicity KiwiSaver. Can you explain a little bit about that? I know that it's set out to create more transparency around fees. It's also a not-for-profit. Is being good now a competitive advantage?

I personally think it is, and that's what drew me into this as well. I think we're in this really interesting time when the world is going to see a whole heap of change, and I sort of have it in the back of my head that I think that the pitchforks are coming for the 1%. There's going to be some significant change, and it's going to happen in the financial sector where there's been just enormous amounts of ripping off going to for a really long period of time, where the average consumer feels that they are completely unable to do anything about it. I love Sam Stubbs, who is the founder of Simplicity's, vision for what is possible here. It's grand, it's exciting, and it's completely feasible. It's really nice to be on this journey with him where I can add some value too, by bringing some of the expertise. He's come from an incredibly strong financial services background, which we all know I haven't, so I can come from the other side, of thinking about customers and how the consumer thinks and how we can put things in front of people to make them aware of the story and then take action. As you can imagine, apathy is our single greatest hurdle for making this thing work. At the heart of it the truth is really important. The consumer needs reason to believe that that truth is actually real because they've been fed so much stuff for a long period of time. This isn't a short-term, this is a long-term play, but I can tell you it's a fascinating one to be on.

Apathy is something you don't really suffer from. You're very active in the internet world and on social media. You're also very active in the social scene. I've seen you at probably hundreds of events over the years. How important is that intangible stuff to success? The networks you create, the noise that you make, the persuasive sales pitch you might give to investors for funding? Steve Jobs had, I think the phrase was, "the reality distortion field" around him, that unwavering self-belief. Is that something you have, and has it helped you?

It's such an interesting fabric of things together. It was never necessarily a deliberate strategy, with the exception of when I first started NZGirl, where I knew nobody knew anything about us. I had this view which was, I just got to go to everything and eventually they're going say, "Who the hell is this girl?" I did a really good job of that. I'd go to an opening of an envelope. Eventually that was exactly what would happen, where people would go, "Who is this person?" Then I went through a period of time of not wanting to go to anything. Now it's actually kind of hard to get me to go out unless I really, really, really, really want to.NZGirl, where I knew nobody knew anything about us. I had this view which was, I just got to go to everything and eventually they're going say, "Who the hell is this girl?" I did a really good job of that. I'd go to an opening of an envelope. Eventually that was exactly what would happen, where people would go, "Who is this person?" Then I went through a period of time of not wanting to go to anything. Now it's actually kind of hard to get me to go out unless I really, really, really, really want to.

I do think managing your reputation is critical, and how you do it today is probably quite different from, say, how I set about it 17 years ago. We got away with some pretty outrageous marketing stunts that you just couldn't do today, right? The pitchforks would come after you. The media storms, the way the media portray things has completely changed. It is really important that you do go and socialise within your community, whatever it is, the sector that you're getting involved with. I have to laugh, you know, ex-husband's going, "What are you doing in my financial services community now?" He was having that all to his own. I do think you just have to get and about, and meet more people and create more conversations, and do that as real and authentic as you possibly can. I guess that's the only thing that I try and strive for.

A mantra of my father-in-law, "Always say yes." Doesn't always work, but it's a good rule to live by.

It's very positive, I like that as an idea.

You mentioned Lloyd Morrison investing in you and showing some faith in you and your business when you were young. Were there any other formative moments in your life? I read that you had a year off school when you were 15 with glandular fever and tried to use that as an opportunity, a positive experience, rather than wallow in self-pity. Did that help you as well?

Absolutely. Look, I've never been a pity party kind of person, I like to hold them for very brief periods of time. Lots of Ps in that sentence. There's no good that can come from it other than a moment of self-reflection of what I could have done better. To be honest, I've used that mentality and ethos across a whole variety of different moments in my life, from being sick with a glandular fever to reflecting on Lloyd when he passed away a few years ago. That was a hugely emotional time for me. I've been divorced a couple of times and that gives you moments of pause as well. I've had businesses that haven't gone the direction that I had hoped that they would.

All those things could be moments where you suffer from enormous failure and unable to get yourself out of bed in the morning, but actually you have to be able to work out, "What can I take from this and therefore how can I make sure I don't make the same mistakes again or I can improve my outlook," whatever else, but I like to think that at 38 I've got much more robust understanding of myself and how I operate as a result of all those failures.

Maybe to finish up, what do you think you'll be doing in 20 years? What's your dream, maybe from a more macro level for New Zealand as a whole in terms of innovation, business and gender diversity?

Gosh. Okay. First question, what I think I'll be doing in 20 years. My god, no idea. Haven't thought about it because it's slightly frightening, 58! Hopefully looking after a reasonable-sized fund and helping guide a lot of really smart individuals. I don't say women, because I don't have any desire to just go down a specific gender path. I like the idea of helping identify people like myself, who didn't have a career in a traditional sense. I didn't go to university, I had somebody at a young age put money and faith in me that changed my life. That's what Lloyd Morrison did for me at 22, and I'd like to be able to pay that forward, it's always been one of my goals. That's broad sense brushstrokes, that's what I'd like to be doing.

In terms of where we're going, the one bent that I've got at the moment is around AI [artificial intelligence]. I'm really fascinated in this space of what's going to happen next. One of the key things that I've been doing at Flossie is building it into an intelligent assistant, as opposed to our competitors worldwide which are really focused on a directory-style, you know, Expedia of hair and beauty. We've gone with lessons learned from the likes of Pandora music about how data is taken into and then pushed back out to make an experience better and better ongoing.

[robo-voice] You need a haircut.

Probably in a slightly less monotone, but more interesting manner.

More like Alexa.

Yeah. Like for example, at the moment, the app pulls in your diary and can make recommendations about availabilities for you, but also based on previous things that you had done, these are the things that you can do. What I find fascinating about AI is, if we're going to be able to see a whole bunch of roles become digitized and looked after by, effectively, we'll call it robots for the sake of argument, as opposed to that being, "What happens to our workforce," and "Does it mean we lose all these jobs," I look at it and go, "What an exciting time, where opportunity to let the bulk of processes be taken care of, we can get smarter." Theoretically it means we should be there being creative, better managers, we should be able to be more innovative. Therefore this country's opportunity to be even smarter than we've been before, that stuff I get really excited by.

We just interviewed Kevin Kelly who's the founder of Wired magazine, and he's written a new book around technology that says, "Most of the technology is inevitable, it will happen, but the specifics aren't." You don't know what form it might take. He talked about the industrial revolutions of the past where a farmer can not conceive that there would be a job developing websites, or there's just no way to understand and comprehend when you take those jobs out what that technology will enable in the future. Maybe this is different, maybe there won't be enough jobs and that might lead to some terrible times, but I'm more optimistic.

Yeah, I'm with you on that one. I think it's a really valid point, because that's exactly the example I used, the industrial revolution. You couldn't imagine what happened to those jobs where they ended up working in a factories as opposed to on fields. Henry Ford, who's the one famously quoted as saying, "If you ask the people what they want, they'll say, 'Faster horses'"

He didn't say that, actually. I looked into it.

Oh, was it not him? Really? Have we all just been making that one up? Who actually did say it? Oh. Let’s just run with it, you know, it sounded good.

I think it first came out in 1991, apparently [nope, 2001].

Somebody just made it up.

Always check on quotes, I’ve discovered that in my time editing magazines.

That is good to know. Whoever said "faster horses" was probably accurate, though. It's probably what people would have said.

Jenene, thank you very much.

Absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me here.