Susan Hayes Culleton – “the Oprah of finance in Ireland” shares some of the stories of the marketing behind The Positive Economist and the Savvy Woman brands. Author, trainer, speaker, entrepreneur and innovator, Susan brings a refreshing approach to finance and business.
Here she is in conversation with Paula, generous and straight-talking in sharing her experiences, insights, and advice.
Paula Ronan: Susan, I have been an admirer from afar for many years. I first heard you speaking at a Women in Business networking event hosted by the Local Enterprise Office in Wexford. Everyone was so impressed with what you said, and how you said it. It left an impact on me, and I’m sure lots of other women at the event felt the same way too.
Susan Hayes Culleton: Thanks Paula, that’s a big compliment. To be told I’m admired from afar is certainly something that I don’t hear every day!
Paula Ronan: I think you’re “the Oprah of finance in Ireland”, that’s how I see you. This podcast is centered around marketing so let’s begin by sharing some of your insights, experiences, and stories about how you have marketed yourself over the years, starting with the creation of The Positive Economist brand.
Susan Hayes Culleton: I want to start by saying that I have come up with very few original ideas in my life. It’s a theme you’ll see pop up throughout our conversation. But what I have done very well is kept my ear to the ground. And I think that’s what marketing is all about – just listening to how your market describes you. I always listen carefully to how people introduce me, for example how you introduced me today to your audience. There’s real rich data in that for us as marketeers. And it’s how The Positive Economist came about. I used to have a slot on 4FM every Friday morning around 2009/2010, when Ireland was in the pits of recession. Some days the host Gareth O’Callaghan would introduce me as “The Recessionista”, other days it would be something different. And one day he said, “Today we have our Positive Economist”. It stayed with me and when I went home, I told Ardle, my boyfriend now husband, and he said, “Wow that suits you down to a tee, why don’t we secure the domain name?”. And we did.
Then I started writing a blog as “The Positive Economist”, back when blogging was much bigger than it is now. I also added “The Positive Economist” to my email signature. Then people started asking to interview me and invite me to speak at events as The Positive Economist. That’s how it began for me. I didn’t sit here thinking of how I would brand myself. I came up with the idea through listening to how others described me.
Paula Ronan: Fantastic! Listening is of course so important to everyone and to anybody doing marketing. Susan, my next question is what role does research play in your marketing efforts? Do you do anything formal to find out how your brand is perceived? Or do you just kind of listen out as you’ve described, and pay attention to what’s being said about you?
Susan Hayes Culleton: I do a lot of research Paula. Not in a formal way, for example bringing someone in to do a brand review. But I always listen to how I’m being introduced. There’s lots of ways that you can do this research yourself. For example, if I saw you at a networking event and somebody else was to walk up, I would be listening very, very intently to how you would introduce me, “And this is Susan, and she does x, y and z”. If I’m speaking at an event and someone else has written my bio from what I’ve given them, that’s very insightful. Also, if someone is buying a book from my website, there’s a question about how you heard about me. So, researching my brand, how I am perceived and where people are hearing about me, is something I do informally, but consistently all the time.
Paula Ronan: I agree, it’s very useful to hear what your clients and peers are saying about you. The other thing that struck me about you Susan is that you have a special affinity with women. I saw this in action because the first time I encountered you, it was at a Women in Business event. Is that just a coincidence or is it something you decided to do from the beginning?
Susan Hayes Culleton: I suppose there are very few coincidences in this world Paula. And I would say the affinity between women and my brand is something that has kind of found me. It’s been very welcome, and I’ve responded to it as well. As I said earlier, I have had few original ideas in my life. The reason I bring that up quite a bit is that people often think, “Well, if only I had an idea, I could start my own business”. I don’t think you need your own original ideas at all. I think you just need to listen to the market. It all started for me the day I was invited on RTE News to comment on a story the Financial Times was reporting. They wanted me to explain to their audience what it meant and could it work in Ireland, all in 30 seconds. The clip was repeated on the news at 6 o’clock and again at 9 o’clock. Penguin Ireland, as they were called at the time, were looking for a woman to write a book about finance aimed at women. They saw me on the news that day and rang me about the book. They were looking for a Suze Orman in Ireland, somebody who would be that go-to person on personal finance. Not every opportunity falls into your lap, but that one really did. I went on to write the Savvy Woman’s Guide to Financial Freedom. And that triggered a lot, from the Savvy Woman brand to the Savvy brand in general, to my work around International Women’s Day, and the area of women and finance.
Picking up on the theme of International Women’s Day, two years ago in March 2020 I was on my way to Belfast to act as the MC for the Institute of Directors’ Women’s Leadership Conference. I got a call from one of our clients in the US, who said, “We want to do something around women and investing for March”. I said, “Why only March?”. Everyone now gets behind International Women’s Day, which is brilliant. But it’s not just that month. And that was when they said, “Well, what do you think we should do?”. And I said, “Well, what I’d love to do is a show around women and investing”. That was what spawned the Fantastic Female Fridays, which is our monthly YouTube show run with that company. It’s broadcasted live to their global audience and to mine. I use it as a platform to talk to women and bring them back into the world of investing.
So that’s the story of how my brand’s affinity with women started. It was never something that I sat down and strategically aimed for. It happened in response to the reality that there is a minority of women in finance, whether that’s financial training, personal finance, writing books about finance, or interviewing people around investing. I’ve really listened to the market and responded to it.
Paula Ronan: That’s brilliant. I have both of your books here and I can’t wait to make my fortune after reading them! For me I have been on a financial journey for a long time. I think your practical advice really does lift people out of a certain financial perspective. It’s more than just the technical advice and the numbers. It’s about engendering a good attitude to money more than anything else. My next question is about your amazing content on finance, financial training and motivating people. Are the people that consume that content your customers?
Susan Hayes Culleton: The people who consume my content are not necessarily my customers. I think it’s quite short sighted to only create your marketing efforts towards today’s customers. I think you need to be keeping your eye on the future. I read an article once on how tomorrow’s opportunities, whether that’s the next year or the next five years, are more likely to come from your light touch connections, rather than the people that you know very well. So, I think it’s very important to put effort into creating content that is of use to people who may never be your customers – but might possibly be as well. For example, if you look at the analytics of my LinkedIn videos, they often go far beyond the people I’m connected to. I’m not concerned about creating something for somebody who isn’t going to buy from us. I’m far more concerned about only limiting what we do to the people that we serve today, to the detriment of those that we could serve tomorrow. Our approach is broader and more holistic than that.
There is also an altruistic element to what we do. I think anybody who is in business wants the business to have a positive impact on the world. Not just from the point of view of the people that we directly serve or the people we employ. But beyond that, we want to have a broader impact, where because of the business, the world is a better place. In my case that’s educating women on finance. The Savvy Woman budgeting video workshop took quite a lot of time to create, but along with our Fantastic Female Fridays’ content, it’s all freely available to everybody. The business is here to serve, more than just for a profitable purpose. We’re very much a believer in the triple bottom line.
Paula Ronan: So, who are your customers and who buys your consultancy services?
Susan Hayes Culleton: It might be helpful to explain exactly what we do. There’s a variety of parts to the business but I’ll focus on three. Firstly, I am an MC, interviewer, and a speaker in the areas of financial markets, economics, and entrepreneurship. That is how The Positive Economist started off, talking a lot about the economy, Ireland’s recession, the European debt crisis, and all that was going on with the Euro. But as time went on and the economy got better, people were less inclined to talk about that. I’ve also been a moderator of many conversations. There has been many, many conferences where the organisers, said, “Look, we really need a woman to come in here”. I wasn’t exactly delighted to be invited to speak at the conference because I was a woman, but I always thought there’s a lot of women who don’t get the opportunity to do these types of things. So, I thought if I’m asked as a woman first, I’ll be asked as myself the next time. And I really believe in that. Over time I’ve developed my own ability around how I MC and subsequently how I interview as well, whether that’s in person or online for a hybrid event. It’s a real skill you can hone over time.
Secondly, there’s also Savvy Teens, where we run work experience for students in companies around Ireland and beyond. We’ve put a lot of effort into developing content around that, from LinkedIn videos about engaging with the next generation, to Instagram Lives with tips for teenagers who want to improve their study skills or get an introduction into the market. There we need to distinguish our users from our buyers because our teenagers aren’t buying from us. But ultimately, they’re interacting with us and it’s the companies who want to give them work experience or their parents who want to interact with us – they’re our buyers.
Separately to that, we have Active Peers, the latest member of the family. It’s a peer-learning tech business where we’ve developed an algorithm to connect people based on what they know and what they want to learn. I saw a gap for what was missing in the education world, where a lot of effort is put into taking the thoughts and expertise from the person at the top of the room and imparting it to everybody in the room. Instead, I wanted to facilitate people to share the knowledge with other people in such a way that they can do it in a very structured, outcome-focused way, bringing tacit knowledge to make it explicit, so everyone can have it. And, where we can put science behind serendipity.
In each part of the business, my point is that we’re very clear about who our target market is. But we never know who our customers could be tomorrow. Also, sometimes our target market doesn’t know that they are our market. By creating content for everybody and making it accessible, that’s how we form relationships with people that can turn into customers in the future.
Paula Ronan: I was really impressed with the peer-to-peer learning aspect of your business. I tried to bring it into the Wexford Food Family, which we set up about 10 years ago. When we survey our members, they still say the most valuable part of being a member is what they learn from other members.
Susan Hayes Culleton: It’s a fascinating area. And there’s a lot of very tangible results that you can get from it. People often say that it’s great to have, but there isn’t a structure to guide them through it. So that’s what we’re here for.
Paula Ronan: Fantastic, well done. We don’t have a lot of time left, Susan. But I just wanted to ask what the audience might think is a very boring question, but it’s very interesting to me – do you have a marketing budget?
Susan Hayes Culleton: Yes, Paula. But that budget isn’t just money. And this is one of the key things that I would like to share. One of the things that I think can lead to a lower return on investment of anything, whether it’s time or money, is inconsistency. And that is what our budget is. It’s a plan to make sure for example that our newsletter goes out once a month; our LinkedIn video is done within a specified period of time; that in every single interaction with a certain client, we’ve talked to them about what we can do with them around promoting the work that they want to do. We make sure that consistency is at the heart of what we do, and that time and effort is allocated accordingly to meet that.
Now with that said, with some customers we can be very involved in the marketing budget and planning it. And of course, it’s not just planning it, it’s also holding it accountable to make sure that money is being spent in the right way. Some people in business listening might not have a marketing budget because it’s not their area of business or from a point of affordability. But what I would say is, everyone in business should consider a marketing budget – but it doesn’t always have to relate to money.
Paula Ronan: Thank you for that, Susan, I really appreciate your take on it. It’s a very complex issue, marketing budgets. And in my experience, a lot of businesses don’t want to face it at the beginning of the year. And if they do, they don’t check back enough during the year. As you say, consistency is key and it’s important to revisit, revisit, revisit. We’re running out of time now, but what I want to know is how do you find the time to do all the things you do? I’m very impressed by it all.
Susan Hayes Culleton: First, it’s quality and quantity of doing things. I read a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport, which was recommended to me a good few years ago. It certainly has been very influential because it really has trained me how to do the right things, and how to determine what they are. That is the difference between getting an awful lot done, and getting the right things done.
Secondly, I know how to be very, very present. I know how to put my sole focus into something at one time, whether that’s eliminating distractions or putting myself in the right mindset to do so.
The third thing is that I’ve always remained very true to myself. I only do what I enjoy. I’ve been trained in how to be an effective delegator and how to give tasks to other people in such a way that sets them up for success in achieving them. I’m very lucky now to have a team around me. I’m a strong believer in the things that I don’t enjoy, enables others to shine.
Those are the three big parts to my formula. So, you can see you can actually do an awful lot in a short period of time.
Paula Ronan: Thank you so much for your time, Susan. I really appreciate it.
You can sign up to the Useful Marketing Stories podcast here.
A few words on setting a marketing budget can be found here.