Young entrepreneur aims to break down job stereotypes

Mid Canterbury mum and businesswoman Janice McKay learned at a young age to grab opportunities.  Photo Laura Bagrie 101017-LB-254

Since the tender age of 22, Janice McKay has been pushing the boundaries when it comes to business development. Unafraid to take risks, an early start-up in the world of make-up distribution put her on the map as a young, up-and-coming entrepreneur of the future. She’s now raising a family in Mid Canterbury, and has set up another challenging venture, Heart PR. Janice spoke with YOU magazine’s Megan Gnad about bucking the trend, being a working mum and why it’s important we encourage young women into business.

Janice McKay has always had an entrepreneurial streak.

Right from when she was a youngster, she viewed the world differently, with bravery and a ‘go-getter’ attitude to grasp opportunities with both hands.

The founder of local agency Heart PR puts this down to an unconventional upbringing by her Filipino mother, who worked as a nurse, and her ‘Scottish-blooded Kiwi’ father who was the primary domestic caregiver.

“I looked at things from different angles,” Janice says. “I had that entrepreneurial spirit and Dad was really encouraged by that. It really fit in with his values of bucking the trend. Mum was quite pioneering herself. She was one of the first Filipinos to emigrate to Hamilton for that time. She wanted a better life for herself.”

The 35-year-old, who was raised in Cambridge, realised early on that if you worked hard, anything was possible, and, if you wanted to achieve something, just give it a go.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing however, and through experience, Janice McKay has learned that in order to succeed in business, you need determination, resilience and, ultimately, belief in yourself and your product.

The young entrepreneur

Janice’s first foray into the world of business and media happened at an early age.

She’d been interested in the world of make-up artistry from her school days when she would be employed to do the make-up for school productions. She even developed a signature look – winged blue eyeliner!

But, what started out as a fun hobby soon became a fledgling start-up company when she noticed a problem and a way she could resolve it.

“Being a student, I found my favourite make-up was too expensive and all the affordable brands were too babyish,” Janice says.

She saw an opportunity that would tap into the booming youth beauty market.

In her first year out of university, she landed a job in Rotorua for an importing company that supplied to Pumpkin Patch, Home Direct, Farmers, Ezibuy and pharmacies nationwide. It was there she learned how to design and import goods from China, after travelling there twice.

She soon had her own make-up brand and Starla Cosmetics was born.

Janice worked with companies to design the packaging and select the texture and fragrance of her products.

“It had the branding and colours I loved and a price point of $9.95,” Janice explains. “I eventually distributed it to 62 stores nationwide with Farmers taking the bulk of it.

“There was no AliExpress back then, so dealing with China was a huge deal. I would pitch to the stores and say, ‘I’m a young woman and I know what young women want’.”

The business took off at lightning speed and Janice quickly captured the attention of magazine editors across the country.
While she’s quick to point out she had no advertising budget, she met with beauty editors of teen and women’s publications, and “wormed my way into their magazines”.

Enchanted by her youthful enthusiasm and ability to turn a problem into a solution, Janice became a popular feature in almost 40-print placements, including teen bibles, Creme and Girlfriend magazines, as well as New Idea and Woman’s Day.

“Because I was fresh out of a Bachelor of Communications Degree with a PR major at the University of Waikato, the media interest was what I was best at,” Janice says. “It was my most comfortable domain.

“My message was to show young women they could be entrepreneurs.”

But, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the young businesswoman, who learned quickly the reality of success and rejection.

“The highs and lows were in the same place – the retailers,” she says. “Some stores supported Starla fully, wore the product, wore the t-shirts, and sold it like hotcakes. Other stores refused to put it on the shelf and, of course, it didn’t sell there.

“Like every 22-year-old, I didn’t fully realise my youth – I just felt really grown up! I was engaged to be married and the world was mine for the taking. I went full steam ahead. After two years, things came to a halt. So that was the lesson: Big ego had to learn to be humble.”

Moving south

In 2009, Janice and husband Ricky – a Mid Canterbury local – made the move to the South Island and settled in Rolleston, with plans to focus on their motorcycle store, Spring Lynne Motorcycles, near Methven. Janice was transferred from Hamilton to Christchurch, to open the Overland store, at Hornby’s Dress-Smart.

“I thought that down south was this magical, more intense version of New Zealand than the mild north,” says Janice. “I still think that, it’s so beautiful here. I couldn’t believe how close we were to a skifield with Mount Hutt. We were used to travelling three-and-a-half hours to Whakapapa on Ruapehu, from Hamilton.”

As they plugged away, focusing on their family, careers and businesses, things came to a crashing halt with the arrival of the Canterbury earthquakes.

With a four-month-old baby daughter, the constant shakes were too much and they headed south to settle in Ashburton in 2011 to be closer to the business.

“Adjusting to parenthood with thousands of aftershocks rattling your nerves was starting to take a toll,” Janice says. “Ashburton reminded me a lot of my hometown of Cambridge. It’s really uncanny when you think about it – the layouts of the towns are very similar with the bridge, lakes and supported by the farming industry.”

As she settled into town – soon welcoming another baby – Janice began to see another opportunity in Mid Canterbury, and a way she could use her skills to help other local businesses.

“I could not see anyone specialising entirely on PR in Ashburton,” she says. “I knew I could offer PR from the perspective of not just another consultant, but as a business owner myself.”

Heart PR

Trying to convince some locals what PR was, however, and how it could be applied to their business, was hard at first, coming across hurdles that made her question whether it would pay off in a rural area.

“I’m not a fan of putting energy into something that isn’t working,” Janice says. “So, when I hadn’t seen growth in my business over a few months, I began to weigh up my options. But, I pivoted toward a completely digital strategy to reach clients across New Zealand, and that has changed things dramatically. I’m so much more resilient now.”

She now works successfully with national and local businesses to expand their publicity, social media and marketing reach.

She says communication with the media is key and Janice has worked hard to encourage companies to provide more clarity in a bid to get their message across.

For many businesses, dealing with the media is a daunting process and Janice notices many untapped opportunities out there to celebrate local success.

She points out that people often think that by telling an advertising representative some ‘news’, it will magically appear as a story in the paper. Classic mistake, she says.

“People get really frustrated with that. Reporters need the stories, but so many people don’t think they have a story, or how to sell it. They forget they have fantastic human interest pieces, ‘how bizarre’, local stories … but they don’t know how to get that out there.”

Family-work balance

Running a business from home – while supporting a young family – is a tough gig and Janice has become well versed at juggling.

She’s the first to acknowledge how fortunate she is. Working for herself allows her to be flexible to her family’s needs.

But, she often jokes that the infamous BBC incident – whereby a professor was being interviewed live on Skype, only to be interrupted by his two boisterous children – could very easily happen to her at any moment.

Being a mum to two little ones and taking business conference calls are bound to collide at some point, but she loves the variety and challenge.

Janice and Ricky have been together since Janice was just 18, becoming engaged at 21, and married when she was 24. She says her “rock for 17 years” also bears the entrepreneurial gene and understands her drive to succeed in business.

“Family and couple time is super important for us to keep the bond tight,” Janice says. “Working out of the home, with employment commitments is much, much tougher.”

Her message to other mums wanting to head back to work is, if you are in a position to do so, “get as much help as you can. It will get easier”.

When Janice first made the step to head back into the workforce, suddenly being an employee again felt like a marathon. She knows she’s lucky to have support and understands the reality when extended family assistance is less accessible and grandparents, cousins and aunties do not live nearby.

“You finish your day shift and begin another shift at home,” Janice says, on being a working mum.

“I know a few mums who are doing night shifts, more than five consecutive days in a row, and farmers working super long hours.

“I think it’s recognised (in society) but, the reality is that it’s not easy to change things. I am really heartened by the amount of cool Dads – including my husband – who are doing the school pick-up nowadays. That’s a really good sign.”

Janice loves raising her young children in Mid Canterbury’s rural playground, saying they venture out on family walks and drives around the region, skiing at Mount Hutt in winter and wake-surfing at Lake Hood in summer.

Empowering young women

Using her own experiences, Janice now has a serious drive to help empower other young women.

As a mother, she’s passionate about exposing and encouraging her children to learn and practice STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths.

All of which, Janice says, will help break down unconscious gender bias and help young women feel leadership, or entrepreneurial roles, are possible in the future.

“We still unconsciously put women in certain roles and we don’t mean to do it,” she says.

“The more we consciously try to break out of this, the stronger and less vulnerable we appear and it gives women confidence.

“When other young women see a woman doing something out of the box and you identify with her, you can imagine yourself in that space, and make amazing change.”

Janice’s top three tips to business PR success

– One of the things I’ve learned pretty recently, that sums up my journey as a businesswoman, is take ‘imperfect action’. If you have an idea, just try it. Why not? Think of yourself as a scientist and experiment. Let’s test it, because you want to know the results. You will prove it right, or wrong, and it might take you down another route that works.– One of the things I’ve learned pretty recently, that sums up my journey as a businesswoman, is take ‘imperfect action’. If you have an idea, just try it. Why not? Think of yourself as a scientist and experiment. Let’s test it, because you want to know the results. You will prove it right, or wrong, and it might take you down another route that works.

– Pick a mentor and approach them. Gather people around who you want to learn from. Go into your industry and find a mentor in that industry. I found a mentor in Nelson, who ran a similar business, with similar clients. She was more than happy to help me out.

– Tell your story. People say, “I don’t have one, I’ve just had my head down working all these years and now I feel like I’m an imposter”. Really look back at your hardships and achievements, and how you have overcome them.