13 Rules from the Mae West School of Business for Self-starters and Entrepreneurs
Krazy Fish just turned 6 and, let me tell ya, it’s been a rough ride. Back when I founded this quirky, little boutique consultancy, I was 32, a bottle blonde, and a woman working in a mostly male environment in the Balkans. Also, I didn’t have a college degree, much less a degree in contemporary corporate communications or digital marketing, two industries still in diapers. What I did have was international experience and a frightening knowledge of target groups and consumer mentality.
I had, if you will, a Master’s degree from the Mae West school of business. If you don’t know who Mae West was and exactly how she influenced the male-operated world of Hollywood’s golden era, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, kid.
I am still often asked “What’s it like, being a woman in a male-dominated industry?” I wouldn’t really know. If anyone has ever had an issue in working with me because I’m a woman, either they’ve failed to show it or I’ve failed to notice. And, if I’ve learned anything over the past 15 or so years in this racket, I’ve learned my golden rule – in any negotiation, always think like a woman and always behave like a gentleman. It works.
But back to business, Mae West style. I’m somewhat of a film and history buff, so here’s what I’ve learned from the legendary Hollywood diva and business woman.
1. “I see you’re a man with ideals. I better be going before you’ve still got them.”
For starters, if you aim to succeed in any line of real world business, toss ideals aside. Sure, we all want to, ideally, give back to our communities and be better people. I’m not saying you should be unethical or unscrupulous. But to be able to give back, you must first accomplish something for yourself and your business.
Get ready to seriously compromise your ideals. Most days you’ll be choosing the lesser of two evils (we’ll get to that too later) and you’ll need to stare them square in the eye to figure out which is which.
And let’s mention that whole company culture bug going around these days. Sure, it’s always great to get along with the people you work with day in and day out. But not getting along with your colleagues is no excuse not to get the job done and done well. It wouldn’t kill you to be nice about it too.
2. “I’m no model lady. A model’s just an imitation of the real thing.”
Don’t be a jack of all trades. Agility and multiple talents are certainly admirable qualities, but you absolutely must figure out what you’re really good at and what you suck at. Build on the first daily and forget about the latter. And do try bringing a little originality to the table every once in a while.
There are things you’ll never be good at. Try them, but if they don’t work for you repeatedly, drop them. No one expects you to be perfect. And people tend to really dislike those who constantly try to be perfect. Don’t be that guy.
3. “It is better to be looked over than overlooked.”
Now that we’ve gotten ideals and any notion of perfection out of the way, let’s move on to better, bolder, and infinitely more interesting things – like making mistakes.
Another woman also put it well, “It is better to apologize than to ask for permission.” These ladies didn’t exactly always behave like ladies. And that’s how they got ahead.
Be prepared to get dirty looks and indecent proposals. Be prepared to be criticized from head to toe and knocked down. Be prepared to get noticed, as you stand up, brush the dirt off of your tailored business jacket, and move right along. They’ll enjoy watching you and you’ll enjoy getting ahead. It’s a win-win situation.
4. “Cultivate your curves – they may be dangerous but they won’t be avoided.”
Point being – you can’t always cover your ass and you shouldn’t. Have that second helping of dessert and don’t be afraid to try something new on for size every once in a while.
Recent studies have been looking into the reasons behind the gender pay gap in the IT industry. Know what they’ve uncovered? That female developers tend to be paid less than their male counterparts simply because they don’t ask for bigger salaries or raises. Because girls and young women strive to be perfect, to be better than their male counterparts for the same amount of approval and positive attention.
Stop career dieting. Go for the big projects. Pitch a bold idea. Call someone out. Ask for more vacation time. Ask for a damn pay raise.
The worst that can happen is your bosses will eventually watch you sashay your sweet curves right out of their company if they don’t appreciate your hard work enough.
5. “One and one is two, and two and two is four, and five will get you ten if you know how to work it.”
This is a special class in the Mae West school of business curriculum for anyone who plans on being an entrepreneur. It’s all about taking calculated risks.
Now there’s an enormous difference between just risk and calculated risk. The first is driven by plain stupidity or a gut feeling that could just be something you ate earlier. The latter is the result of a lot of research and contemplation, combined with that gut feeling. Be sure to check your facts first. But, if the numbers add up in your head, ante up and go for it.
6. “A dame who knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up.”
Or, as we prefer to put it, it’s tough to catch a fish who knows these waters better than you do.
If you want to get ahead, you’re going to have to keep learning. Constantly and endlessly. The minute you think you’re an expert in your field and that you know “more than enough” is the minute you begin to suck at your job, whatever it is. You don’t have to be the best. You do have to work on being better every day.
7. “To err is human, but the feeling is divine.”
Back to those sinfully lovely little things we call mistakes. Let’s be clear though. If you run an entire project or company into the ground, that’s not a mistake, it’s a tragedy. Mistakes are all the other things that might do damage, but that we recover from.
Without mistakes, innovation, progress, and growth are simply not possible. To build muscles, we must first damage those muscles. What strengthens them is the repair job our body does to the damaged bits. Hence, collateral and sometimes deliberate damage is a natural must. And the feeling of doing some constructive damage and then watching what comes of it, indeed, is divine.
8. “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”
As previously mentioned, whether you’re running a small business or trying to make a name for yourself in an industry, picking between two (or more) evils will be a daily exercise. A lot of the time, the lesser evil might achieve less results and the larger evil might do more damage. So try something new. Pick the not-so-ideal solution that no one has tried before.
9. “I like restraint, if it doesn’t go too far.”
Since we mentioned taking risks and letting your employees and consultants do their thing, we feel compelled to touch on the subject of restraint as well. In this case, restraint means more calculation, research, great organization, and clear basic rules for you, your employees, and your colleagues.
I, for example, take the first two hours when I get up every morning to spend with my family and organize my day. I don’t respond to business-related emails past 6 p.m. unless they’re truly urgent. I make sure I eat dinner with my kids, at the dinner table every evening, working it around my business events when necessary. I ask my employees not to email clients or colleagues late into the evening. I ask them to take breaks or days off. Actually, often it’s an order, not a request. Because this sort of discipline and organization is exactly what allows us more flexibility. If your restraint and discipline are hampering your flexibility, that’s when you need to loosen the ropes a bit.
10. “Don’t marry a man to reform him – that’s what reform schools are for.”
This applies to consultants and corporate communications trainers in particular. When you are invited into a client’s company to either train them or help them become more efficient in their everyday dealings, don’t try to up and change them entirely. You’ll run into some, perhaps terribly outdated, systems and ways they do things, but if it works well for them, just leave it. A true expert knows when an old part of the business machinery needs replacing and when they should just let it be.
Let’s say your client’s sales team is closing most of its sales over the phone. Introduce them to sales software like Salesforce or Hubspot Sales and show them the ropes, but don’t even think about getting them off of those phone lines. Instead, try integrating email as a new sales communications channel slowly and see how that works. For some sales teams, it might even take years to fully switch over to email. What’s more, as a consultant you’ll learn more about and maybe even create entirely new sales systems that work.
We understand that you have a ton of experience and that you might know a few things better than most. But don’t shove it down your client’s throat. The task of a consultant or an agency is to couple with a client’s business to achieve long-term results, not to change them into the ideal 21st century business.
11. “Give a man a free hand and he’ll run it all over you.”
This is an advanced class for future leaders and employers. Give your employees (and colleagues) space to grow and develop. If they run with it, you will profit. If they don’t, let them go and find those who will know how to make use of the opportunity.
This is also good advice for decision-makers who hire consultants or outsource work to experts in any field. If you’re already spending money on resources that your business doesn’t have in-house, make sure to hire a good fit and then let them do what they do best.
12. “Ten men waiting for me at the door? Send one of them home, I’m tired.”
If you possess an inherent fear of long hours, sleep deprivation, and hard work, you probably gave up on reading this post halfway through. Provided you’re still reading these lines, I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’re tremendously interested in how to build a business or an outstanding career. So here’s a secret – no one gets it all done. In fact, every day for the rest of your career is going to end with loose ends and a couple of failures along the way. The secret to minimizing the failures and leaving as little as possible for the next day is in prioritizing work and meetings.
Weekly meetings with your team are a great way to start. If you’re a freelancer, find someone to bounce ideas off of regularly, perhaps another freelancer in your field. We have our meetings on Friday afternoons and we try to set up our priorities for the coming week and then delegate those tasks across the team. We also set up weekly meetings for any projects we’re involved in, with the respective outside or client teams. Some stuff gets put on the back burner and our master organizer Milica makes sure we come back to those items during our next team meeting. Then there are items that come up unexpectedly every week, but the prioritization helps us to either immediately tend to those or put them on our list for later. Find a prioritization scale and system that works for you and then stick to it. And don’t forget to include your family and friends in there. Your business is no excuse to forget birthdays or skip major social events.
13. “It’s not what I do, but the way I do it. It’s not what I say, but the way I say it.”
Whatever you do, you must be unique in how you do it. If you’re a business owner, you must stand out, in one way or another, from others in your line of work. If you’re an employee, do keep in mind that you’re not “working for” a company. You’re always working for yourself, you just happen to currently be employed at a certain company. Take pride in your work, whatever it is. Make it your own. Leave your mark on everything you touch. Soon enough people are going to remember your name and give you a leg up, wherever it is you’re headed. Guaranteed to work or we ain’t bona fides graduates of the Mae West School of Business.
Mae West was a 20th century American playwright, actress, singer, screenwriter, comedian, sex symbol, and activist. At the age of 30, in 1927, she wrote, produced and directed her first play, titled “Sex”. As a result of the play, and it’s great popularity in certain New York City circles, Ms. West was arrested and sentenced to ten days in jail for “corrupting the morals of youth.” Over the next 40 years, Ms. West continued to challenge societal norms and “moral codes”, particularly as a screenwriter and producer. While she was an activist in the area of freedom of expression in motion picture arts, she also had a tendency to, surprisingly, support some decisions made by strict censorship in her industry at the time. Ms. West famously said, “Censorship made me.” As a savvy business woman, she was fully aware that the fact that she walked the fine line of censorship and was constantly questioned by censors meant that her films would garner more attention and make more money. Ms. West became a Hollywood powerhouse by her mid-forties, both in fortune and name. Her decisions and business sense saved the likes of Paramount Studios with the 1933 film adaptation of her 1928 play Diamond Lil’, renamed She Done Him Wrong, which launched Cary Grant’s career and grossed the bankrupt studio over $2 million.