Pow Wow Events founder Suzi Dafnis shares her secrets and insights into the power of marketing, and where the right approach can take your company. By AMANDA GOME.
Suzi Dafnis of Pow Wow Events talks to Amanda Gome. Suzi is 40 years old, a marketing guru, and burst on to the BRW Rich List with a worth of $14 million. She flies between her Australian and Phoenix, Arizona, marketing businesses, and she can tell you how to improve your own marketing.
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Amanda Gome: Now Suzi you started your company Pow Wow Events in 1994 and you got your big break promoting books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad and..more recently Donald Trump’s web seminars and DVDs in Australia. Tell us about how you built your company.
Suzi Dafnis: My background was in marketing and I’d worked in a couple of small fashion houses and then for Virgin Retail, which was a wonderful way to learn about marketing. Then I fell into marketing in a more serious way.
I’ve travelled to the US, to Canada, to Hong Kong, to Singapore to study how to be a good marketer, so over the last 12 years I’ve built my business by continuing to focus on marketing, innovation, networking and hard work.
While Pow Wow Events started off as an events company, what really worked to grow the business was a focus on innovative marketing and using the internet and websites and newsletters way before most businesses, certainly of our size, were doing anything like that.
Tell us briefly how you expanded.
We started in the spare room of our apartment in Sydney and we started with very little savings. I was in business, and still am, with Peter Johnson, or PJ, who’s my partner in life as well as in business. He had a radio background, I had a marketing background in the music industry, and we really started with nothing. Neither of us knew how to hire staff, grow a business, certainly not grow an international business or a brand that is recognised very widely.
We wanted to bring to Australia motivators and educators in the area of personal development and business development. The first person we approached was an author in Phoenix, Arizona. We brought him out to Australia, put a whole lot of money on the line and lost $60,000 within five weeks. So our first step in growing our business was going backwards by about $60,000. But we got out of our hole.
Who helped you?
One of the key things in building my business has been the mentors that I’ve had access to, and one of my mentors is Robert Kiyosaki, who is the author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad. In 1995 we invited Robert to come out of retirement to come to Australia to teach.
We combined what we knew about creating events with Rich Dad, Poor Dad material, and what we also did, which a lot of people didn’t know, is that while we were, and continue to be, event producers – we also went suddenly into the world of publishing and, under licence from the Rich Dad Corporation in America, published Rich Dad, Poor Dad and the whole Rich Dad series in Australia and New Zealand. And that was a huge, huge success story. We weren’t publishers, we weren’t event producers, we were marketers, so we started to use the book as a lead generator. We started to use it as a communication tool to build a community of people who were then interested in attending events so it was very … it was a very different way to approach that.
You were building communities.
Exactly. And that is my passion. A lot of businesses overlook that. They look at the next transaction or the next dollar that’s going to come in rather than the lifetime value of the customer and the power of creating a community.
When building your business, what was your biggest challenge in the last 10 years and how did you overcome it?
Starting with no money was the biggest hurdle because we were under capitalised and so we could only grow as quickly as we could bring money in through the door. We worked out of our spare room for 2½ years until finally getting some office space.
The other big challenge has been the changing market. When I started in business, my goal was to grow a business as quickly as possible and for me I was always looking at the revenue.
The first year we brought in $1 million I felt like the queen of the castle. The next year it was $5 million and then $10 million, and we continued to grow and the reality kicks in after a while.
But you can grow yourself broke if you’re not looking at the profitability and how you’re managing your expenses. We opened an office in America when the Australian dollar was US48 cents, so it was very expensive.
Another big challenge was the market changing. We rode the personal finance education market, which coincided with a wonderful real estate boom in Australia, so we had the right product at the right time. We had the best presenters from around the world in the area of money and investing, but then it plateaued. So we had to then quickly find other talent, other areas of interest that Australians were interested in learning about. The interesting thing is that people are prepared to spend more money learning about money than they are about sales skills or presentation skills or the internet.
We also focused so much of our energy in the States that we took our eye off the ball in Australia and so our statistics, or daily stats, our numbers on people in seminar rooms, all started to decline and then we were playing ping pong between the two countries to try and keep it all up. We had never grown a management team before so we experienced the things that a lot of business owners do when they’re growing – having to wear different hats but also develop different skills.
So did you end up pulling back from the States?
No, we ended up pulling back on growth and we just said, ‘OK, what can we manage while being in two countries?’ Because we are still relatively a small business we don’t have the infrastructure of a large corporation, nor have we figured out the magic formula for leveraging ourselves to be able to be in one place, so we travel back and forth. We work very long hours.
What have you learnt about marketing your own company? What is a fantastic way that you now market your company?
Build a community. So we’ve been building a database and finding out who our customers are for 12 years so … and when we first started doing that very few people did that. Some sales representatives had index cards with their customer names but most companies didn’t capture their customer details. We did two things: one was capturing who our customer was so we caught their details by doing things like a free e-newsletter and then building a community that was already interested in that message.
One of the mistakes that a lot of people make is that they are always going out cold. They’re advertising or they’re trying to do PR but they don’t have a community, a database of clients who already want their product. It’s really only the very large corporations who can really afford to do institutional or brand-building exercises with their marketing dollars. The rest of us must have direct response. There must be a way to measure every single thing that we do because if we’re not measuring it we don’t know what’s really working.
Are there any other big mistakes that people make marketing their products and services?
A lot of times people don’t test. In the old days if you were going to send out a direct mail piece it was pretty expensive to test to a small group before rolling out, but with email it is a no-brainer to test a small part of your database and try a couple of different things. Will this headline pull better than that headline, or this offer pull better than this offer? Technology has allowed us to do things that were impossible a while ago.
The other thing is people think that advertising is marketing and it’s not. PR is not marketing. The biggest mistake people make is that they rely on one way to market their business rather than looking at multiple ways to do that.
And what are some of the multiple ways you market your business?
Well for me, regardless of which business or what the product is, it’s also always multi-stranded. There will be a direct mail piece, direct email piece, what’s new on our website. Do we have ways of promoting, any promotion, on our website? Are we capturing information all the time. Are we tracking what people are buying or expressing interest in so that we can specifically target what it is they’re doing and then … do we advertise?
We’ve done back-of-bus advertising for books, which is unheard of. We have done billboards and instore competitions, so partnerships with other people who have clients of a similar ilk and then paying them a commission to sell tickets to our events so there are myriad ways. The average business owner needs to be looking at multiple ways and a number of different applications.
Well what do you think of Australians’ marketing? Have they caught up with the brilliant marketing on the internet that Americans are doing?
I think the gap between countries is lessening because of the advent of the internet and technologies and one of the benefits that I have by travelling between the two countries is that I do get to see a bunch of things first. I was actually just in San Francisco at the Macworld Expo because I wanted to see Steve Jobs of Apple speak, and there’s a lot that someone can glean from being in the presence of someone who’s grown such a big business and is a great marketer. You just have to look at Apple’s marketing – and I’m a big Mac fan – to see some really innovative use of technology. Visit their website and see what they’re doing.
One thing, though, is the use of corporate blogs to build community and to generate interest. And I’m not talking about using a blog as just a marketing tool but as a way of building community and communicating with your audience.
The other thing is, and I’m reading a book right now called The Long Tail by the editor of Wired magazine, and you learn it’s not just the blockbusters that make you money, it’s also the ones and twosies sales that you get over time, but with new technology it’s not taking up any physical space.
The lesson for that is to have a way to deliver products to lots of different niches.
BRW magazine says you’re worth about $14 million …
How have you built that wealth and have you got any tips for young entrepreneurs?
One of the great things about having a business is the ability to not have a cap or a ceiling on what you can earn. When business is good you can make a lot of money. We put our money into other assets so I invest in other businesses. I invest extensively in real estate and so …
Is it mainly houses?
A lot of commercial properties. I’ve also invested in start-up businesses and the reason we did that is because businesses do have cycles. By the age of 35 I was in a position, because of my assets, not my business, where I didn’t have to have my business. I could live off of the earnings from my real estate. I could see that the business will go through cycles and maybe I don’t want to work forever and maybe I want to be able to take a break. The other tip is education. The only way I learnt what else I could do with my money that would give me a return was through travelling around the world studying investment.
It’s exhilarating but demanding being an entrepreneur. Have you got any regrets over the last 10 years?
No. Absolutely none.
So how are you going to have a break Suzi, if you love it so much?
One of the things about being in business is that it’s a big personal development program, and while sometimes I feel trapped in my business I remind myself every day that I’m totally sovereign. That I can close the doors and walk away if I want to, and what’s important for me is continuing to have fun with it. Our way of doing events has traditionally been you fill a seminar room and you bring a speaker from the other side of the world and you put on an event.
We’ve just developed an online, six-month mentoring program for women in business through the Business Women’s Network, which uses social software. People just using technology to be able to participate in the mentoring program from around the world. I’m working with partners from the US and the UK and Australia to develop it and I’m very passionate about education. I’m very passionate about small business owners and so it’s not whether I will stop or I won’t. It’s having the choice and most people don’t have a choice.
Now tell us what is next for you. The Australian Business Women’s Network group is a membership of how many?
There’s almost 18,000. I checked last week.
Women who are part of the Australian Business Women’s Network community, yet most of whom are in their own business, so for me it’s my passion. I supported the organisation and been sort of the driver of it for 11 years and so one of our new things that we’ve done is develop this mentoring program which, you know, my next focus is to grow that and really be able to have women in all parts of Australia in the most remote areas be able to access mentoring from successful entrepreneurs in other parts of the country, and the Business Women’s Network I have very big goals for.
The other thing I’m doing, which is for fun, is I’m part of a panel on a new TV show that we’re forming in the US in March on women and money and my area is going to be on talking about women in small business, which is really fun, and I’m always open to new opportunities. We’re raising capital for one of our other businesses.
So what’s happening to Pow Wow Events?
Pow Wow Events is continuing on as normal at the moment. It’s changed from being a live event company to really being a distributor of educational [webinars], DVDs, books and tapes and things. We have partnerships with Trump University, which is Donald Trump’s educational arm, with the [Richstate] Education Organisation out of the US and so it continues to go on. It doesn’t take as much of my energy or efforts as it once did. A lot more of my time is spent on the Australian Business Women’s Network. We’re developing some properties, so I’ve got my finger in a lot of pies.
Thanks for catching up with us, Suzi. Hope everything goes well and we’ll check in with you next year.
This is an edited transcript of the interview which is available by podcast