10 lessons start-ups can take from Oprah

Following months of hype, the Oprah publicity bandwagon has finally hit our shores.


The talk show host, whose worldwide fame often negates the need of a surname, has undertaken the obligatory koala cuddling shots to fuel the media feeding frenzy (the only slip-up thus far being an embarrassing ‘welcome’ video by Channel Ten personality Carrie Bickmore).


Winfrey’s media persona, however, occasionally obscures the fact that she is one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs. Forbes estimates that she earned $313 million this year, primarily via her company Harpo, which has TV, magazine, radio and film interests. From an impoverished childhood, she is now a billionaire.


There may be only one Oprah, but there are many lessons start-ups in Australia can take from her success. Here we give you 10 of the best.


1 Look to inspire those around you


“There’s almost a cult of personality to Oprah, she has huge influence,” says Erminio Putignano, MD of Futurebrand. “She’s very smart and an incredible organiser.”


Winfrey has a huge influence over others, ranging from who they vote for to what books they read. She inspires staff and viewers alike with an approach that is a mixture of down-to-Earth and aspirational.


She has a fairly simple brand proposition and encourages others to buy into this by clearly demonstrating the benefits and relevance it has to their lives. She carries people with her by identifying herself closely with her target market.


2 The art of communication


Winfrey’s on-air interview technique may be rather bland, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that she is a supreme communicator.


She picks out themes that are of interest to her audience and presents them in a way that is easily digestible yet impactful. Much like any good business, she speaks the language of her target market.


“She is warm and nurturing but not soppy, and can tackle the hard topics,” says Michel Hogan, principal of Brandology. “People feel safe when she communicates with them and she speaks to them on their own terms.”


3 Personify your brand


When building a business, it’s advisable to imagine what would happen if you were suddenly incapacitated. In Winfrey’s case, her company is so entirely based on her persona that it would struggle to continue.


However, in certain circumstances, becoming the public face of your business and taking on its branding yourself can pay off.


“Oprah centralises everything under her personal brand,” says Putignano. “It’s advisable for some start-ups if you’re appealing as a person and want to consolidate a certain feeling or emotion within your business.”


“Some have done this successfully, such as Richard Brandon. Dick Smith used to do this for his company 20 years ago but found it hard to change as his company evolved. If you put all your eggs in the basket of yourself as a person, you may find it hard to reinvent yourself. It’s easier to reinvent a business than a person.”


4 Have strict control of your brand


Winfrey may appear to be everywhere – on TV, beaming from magazine covers, popping up in South Africa to work underprivileged children – but this doesn’t mean that she lacks strict control of her own brand.


She’s turned down the opportunity to join the boards of Ralph Lauren, AT&T and Intel. She has also turned down countless product endorsement requests.


Everything she does comes under her own auspices – she owns 90% of Harpo’s stock and her agreements with the TV and magazine companies are effectively distribution deals. She controls every aspect of her brand, which reduces the chance of the business going off-kilter.


The lesson for start-ups is to make sure that you are the brand guardian in everything you do, even as you grow the business.


5 Insist on loyalty


This tight rein extends to every aspect of Winfrey’s hiring and people management. She insists that every member of staff doesn’t ever speak about goings-on at Harpo, for the rest of their lives. One employee challenged this in court – and lost.


Such actions are probably a little extreme for a start-up (unless sensitive IP is involved) but there are several lessons here for small businesses. Implement non-compete clauses, make sure that ideas stay within the business and try to engender an environment where staff are committed to the cause rather than a pay cheque.


6 Have a story


Oprah Winfrey’s rags to riches backstory is well known and regularly referred to in an attempt to strengthen her brand.


“People empathise with her,” says Putignano. “If she didn’t have that story, she wouldn’t be as big as she is today.”


While you don’t need a tear-jerking account of how you rose from poverty to launch your own business, your start-up needs an authentic story in order to give it substance.


In order for customers to interact with your brand on more than just a transactional level, they need to feel they know a bit about you, as well as the roots and ethos of the company. Don’t be afraid to tell them.


7 Diversify in an area you have knowledge about


The Oprah brand is so popular that you would be forgiven for thinking that she could slap the image of her face onto a sub-standard fizzy drink and sell it to the hordes.


For her most fervent acolytes this may be the case, but Winfrey has been savvy enough to know her niche and stick to it. She has stuck to the entertainment industry, dabbling occasionally on the fringes of other elements of popular culture.


“Oprah has a diversified business but it has a core focus,” says Hogan. “The big lesson is that you need a clear sense of purpose and you need to stick to it.”


8 Delegate where needed


Winfrey has a sprawling media empire, but little is known about the company apart from its eponymous leader. That doesn’t mean that Winfrey is there until the small hours editing her show and printing her magazine – she has more than 400 staff at Harpo.


If you choose to personify your company’s brand, don’t be afraid to hand over the nuts and bolts of your business to others. As your start-up grows, you will need to learn the art of delegation. This doesn’t dent your influence as a leader – in fact, it can enhance it.


9 Be genuine


The Oprah brand has rarely, if ever, been tarnished by any kind of public backlash. This is mainly down to the fact that Winfrey strives to give the appearance of authenticity at every turn.


“She centralises everything on herself and people see her as a reassuring figure,” says Putignano. “It’s manipulative in a way, but it feels authentic and genuine.”


Pick your business partners, suppliers, marketing and staff carefully if you are to achieve the same kind of trust in your business.


10 Create brand ambassadors


Oprah Winfrey isn’t the televisual equivalent of a door-to-door salesperson, flogging her content to countless uninterested consumers. She creates brand ambassadors by knowing exactly who to appeal to and letting them do the rest.


“Consumers respond to things they like and Oprah knows what to give them,” says Hogan. “Oprah doesn’t do it for me, personally, but she doesn’t care who she doesn’t speak to, she cares about who she does speak to.”


“This extends to the staff you hire. You need people who believe in the core proposition of your business.”


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