What if this goes wrong?
What if I go broke?
What if I fail?
They’re questions that plague the thoughts of business owners, a heavy weight to bear for anyone wanting to start their dream venture.
But for Fleur Madden – a titan of business in Brisbane with a resume as long as her impressive legacy of running and selling successful companies – one of the biggest risks she could have taken was not going into business at all.
“I had worked in a PR agency for 12 months and I was also doing a little bit of freelance work for another PR agency,” she says.
“One of the agencies I was working for was meant to pay me commission for the work I brought in. And then after I brought it all in, they told me they weren’t going to pay me the commission.”
While many might cop such news on the chin, swear under their breath and move on, Madden saw an opportunity to do things better, differently and, well, bigger.
“I was 23, with absolutely no business experience. And I remember I went home and told my parents I was going to start a PR agency,” she says.
“So the business was effectively launched on the 20th of October, 2003. That’s very specific.”
Interestingly, being extremely specific appears to be one of Madden’s many business superpowers.
Madden, who is now the co-founder and CEO of women’s freelancing platform Freelancing Gems, saw a chance to change the public relations game in Brisbane. She launched Red PR (now known as The Red Republic), with the consumer market firmly in her sights.
“You have to remember, this is 20 years ago. PR was an industry that was very much in its infant stages. And especially from a consumer perspective. There were a lot of corporate PRs, government PRs, but there definitely wasn’t a big consumer agency in Brisbane.”
Red PR went on to become the leading PR agency in Brisbane – and expanded to Sydney and to the US while the GFC was in full swing during 2008. So successful was Madden that Red PR caught the eye of marketing agency behemoth McCann Australia, which acquired the business in 2016.
When Madden reflects on that wild ride, she says fear – or a lack thereof – played a huge part in her success.
“I remember when I first started the business I went and leased an office in Central Brunswick for five years,” she laughs. “I think being young, I didn’t have the fear that you would now have in terms of the responsibility you’re taking on by leasing somewhere for five years. I was just like, ‘Oh yeah, of course it’ll work.’
“I’d never had my own business. I had never run a PR agency. I’d worked in one for a year and I was a journalist. So I opened that office. I started employing some staff. We were winning every job we went in for and all the business was coming to us.”
Calculate the right risks, uncover the real gems
The lesson, Madden says, isn’t to be completely fearless. But she does implore business owners to understand when taking the plunge is not just the right option, but the best option.
“I think I understand more now what the risks are, especially when you have staff. I see it as a real responsibility, every time I take on somebody in their salaries,” she says.
“And at one stage I probably had about 35, 40 staff across the company in Brisbane, Sydney, the Gold Coast and Los Angeles. And I take that responsibility seriously. They’re providing for their families. So I do think now I probably am not as fearless as I used to be.
“I’m not risk averse. I definitely still take the plunge, but I weigh things up a lot more than I used to. And I think that’s also because after 20 years in your own businesses, I’ve seen what can go wrong. So I’m still all about fearlessness, but I guess I can take more calculated risks.”
Taking calculated risks comes with the territory, as does the ability to see niches before they emerge.
Enter Madden’s latest venture, the perfectly positioned and beautifully branded Freelancing Gems.
A technology platform that connects businesses in need of staff with female freelancers across any industry, Freelancing Gems isn’t just a jobs platform. It actively helps businesses correct the ledger with female staff by paying women what they’re worth and supporting them through their own businesses, no matter the stage.
As Madden says – it’s a community, not just a place to find work.
“With Freelancing Gems, it is a moment in time where we have so many women out of work in Australia,” she says.
“There’s also a real awareness around diversity and being a supporter of women at work and the challenges that women at work face. So I guess we’re talking about things that in a community sense are really important right now. And people can resonate with that.
“It’s really important to have an authentic voice and to really understand what’s important to your audience. And I think some of the things that are important to Freelancing Gems and that are part of our mission, are universal to women around the world.”
Build a business community with Brisbane as your ally
Brisbane has been a welcoming and rewarding home for Madden, though there have been casual and longer stints in Sydney, New York and Los Angeles along the way.
But she says the thing that has helped her to see and do things clearly and with effectiveness has been having a strong business community around her.
Her allies, so to speak.
“I think whatever city you’re in, it’s about building your business community and network. After two decades, I definitely have a strong business community around me. People I can call on. People that know I’m a good operator, so they’re happy to work with me,” she says.
“So I think it doesn’t matter what size business you’re in, building your business community is essential. And I think there’s lots of different ways you can do that.”
Case in point, Freelancing Gems is basing part of its business in the Brisbane Business Hub – allowing women freelancers from across Brisbane one day a week to work alongside the team. They can gain insights, help and ideas from a crew of businesswomen who have the connections and the will to make good things happen.
“We’ve really seen Brisbane businesses get behind supporting women at work. And if you’ve got a job that is a contractor, part-time or freelance consultancy gig, you should think about putting it on Freelancing Gems,” Madden says.
“Because we can only get women back to work if everybody in our community is making it a priority and having the important conversations that need to be had in their businesses around change and driving diversity.”