Tuesday, 4 November 2008

An Interview With Judy Piatkus

The entrepreneur and founder of Piatkus Books shares the secrets of her success.

Judy Piatkus is a successful entrepreneur who sold her publishing company last year for £10 million. Here she shares the secrets of her success and urges anyone thinking of starting their own business to stop talking about it - and just do it.

It was in 1979 that Judy set up her second publishing company, Piatkus Books. The first she had started with a business partner when she was just twenty-four years of age, but she sold out her half when they wanted to go in different directions professionally.

Her acumen, entrepreneurial skills and tenacity ensured her success, but being a business woman in the '70s was not always easy.

“It was hard to set up Piatkus Books, but it is always hard to set up a company. I didn’t always think about it in terms of gender. I never thought, if I were a man it would be easier. But at the same time, if I contacted somebody or wanted to work with them, I think people who might have been dealing with the company may have been a little hesitant because they weren’t used to dealing with women in business.”

“I certainly experienced discrimination from the first bank manager I went to. I had gone to ask for an overdraft with a cashflow, and all the material you needed to set up a business in those days. He said he wouldn’t give me an increase on my overdraft unless my husband was involved."

"Now my husband wasn’t a part of the company at all and I was quite horrified, because at that time I had a track record of running a company with a partner, which had been successful, and I had sold out already for £50,000 which was quite a good sum of money. I don’t believe he would have behaved that way if I had been a man.”

Always an avid reader, Judy says that even as child she felt most at home surrounded by books.

"I was always reading, and when I was about ten years old my Mother came home and said she had found me a job in the holidays. The job was working in the children’s department of the local library, helping them put the tickets in the books and file them. I loved it, and have always wanted to work with books."

"I think the side of publishing I really enjoyed was the selling. Some publishers are more involved on the editorial side, working on type scripts but I was always very focused on how we could best market the book in the market place."

Being an entrepreneur is not for everyone but Judy always had high expectations for herself.

"I enjoyed being an entrepreneur and I loved the opportunity to meet really interesting people, so I was always very committed to getting their message out into the world, and I never really tired of doing that."

"I think being an entrepreneur is something that is in the blood. Neither of my parents were entrepreneurs, but I was the oldest daughter and there was lot of emphasis on me having a career because I did well at school. So I was programmed from quite an early age to expect quite a lot of myself - and it worked."

"I also think it is very much a matter of temperament. There was a period when my Father decided that he would like to work on a freelance basis, but it just didn’t suit him. The work wasn’t any different to what he had been doing, but he was much more comfortable knowing that he was going to get a salary at the end of the month. He is a good example of why some people are unable to be an entrepreneur, because he wasn't comfortable with the risk element, and wanted to know that someone else was taking care of the risk for him."

Always willing to take a calculated risk herself, what made Piatkus books stand out from the rest was the type of books they published, many of which were groundbreaking at the time.

“In the 80s we published alternative health titles, and one of the reasons for going into that area is that we thought there was a gap in the market. Over the next 15 years there was a massive explosion of interest, perhaps because people were looking for alternative ways of managing their health if they didn’t want to take drugs, or if they found that the health service hadn’t been able to solve their problems."

The company branched out into a new area in the 1990s and were one of the first to publish Mind, Body & Spirit titles.

"We took on an editor in 1990 and she was interested in mind, body and spirit books. Before she started at Piatkus, I hadn’t really thought of it at all. She began to bring in some books which we got very interested and intrigued by, and this coincided with the fact the public also became interested and intrigued by it, so it meant that we were prepared to take risks because we knew there was an audience out there."

"The only thing that stood in our way was the media, which wasn’t quite ready to support these type of books and in many cases didn’t take them seriously. But, after a few years had passed, it was obvious that this was a massive trend and we were selling so many books in this area that it had gradually become mainstream."

"I think they became mainstream because during the 80s, we saw a breakdown of a lot of the stable influences on our society, so the people and the organisations who we looked towards for guidance or instruction were gradually being seen to be less influential. As their influence eroded, people began to think for themselves more, and felt much freer to explore new ways of thinking - and I think we are going to see more of that over the next few years."

The ethos of the company also contributed to its success, by encouraging its employees to think creatively.

"When I started, I always wanted coming to work to be fun and enjoyable because you are going to spend most of your life in the workplace, so although we had systems that worked, it was never too bureaucratic or corporate."

"In my view, people always want to work well because they do have skills, they do have abilities, and they do have tremendous creativity - and they want to come to the work place and be able to utilise all their talents and develop these skills."

"If people are working well and there’s a good atmosphere in the company, then you are going to get the best out of everybody, and people aren’t going to waste their energy being unhappy and discussing it with each other all day."

There are three books which really altered perceptions at the time, and which Judy is pleased to have been a part of.

"I was always particularly proud of publishing Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup - an 800 page book which is all about how women’s feelings and emotions influence their physical symptoms and experience. The other day, a friend asked me a question and I actually looked something up in it, so even now, fourteen years later it is still as wonderful and useful as it ever was."

"Secondly my life was transformed by Living Magically by Gillian Edwards. That book encapsulates all that Piatkus was about - to encourage people to think about alternatives and think for themselves, and not just believe everything people tell them but to actually see if they really feel if that feels right for them. Gill’s book certainly gave me a very new and different way of thinking about what was actually going on and around me in my life."

"The third has to be The Optimum Nutrition Bible by Patrick Holford. When we published it in 1996 it was groundbreaking. Patrick’s views and ideas on nutrition have become so widespread, but at the time, were very new. Now of course it is widely accepted how important our food is in terms of our health, and I really feel it has changed the way we in Britain live."

Her decision to sell the company last year was fuelled by her desire to explore new avenues.

"I always knew I wasn’t going to be one of those publishers who wants to carry on until they die. There are some publishers who love the life and want to carry on forever. Now I loved everything that being a publisher involved, but at the same time, I thought I’ve done this the whole of my working life, and I never have any time for myself, and I would like that to explore what else the world has to offer before I am too old."

"Since January, I decided I was going to wait until I got really exciting about something. I’ve never had the time to get up in the morning and do absolutely nothing, but now I lie in bed and read the newspaper with my cup of tea; it is a real luxury."

"I know I will have another career. I’m sure there are many more things to do in life but I realised that if I didn’t give myself space and time, there wouldn’t be time for me to find out what I still felt passionate about."

"So I am in the middle of this sabbatical and it’s fabulous, really fabulous. Publishing is 24/7 because you always have piles of books to be read, and people wanting to know if you want to publish their books. There is a lot of pressure on you and the editorial team, so it’s lovely to have some time to myself, and I think I am sowing the seeds for the future."

Although still enjoying her sabbatical, Judy has found the time to set up her own website, with the intention of inspiring other people looking to set up their own business with her help and advice.

"I think there are a lot of women in their 50s and upwards who still have plenty of time to have an interesting career. There is a massive pool of tremendously talented women out there and the reason they aren’t in the workplace is that they haven’t got the confidence. So I think it is important that women actually look at what they have achieved and acknowledge their talents. So many women are wonderful organisers with many skills, but what they don’t realise is that these are transferable skills which they can use in another direction."

"The first thing is you have to believe in yourself, and the second thing is that, what you don’t know or what you need to know, you can go out and learn. So if you wanted to learn how to use a computer better, it is not difficult to find someone to teach you, and there are plenty of courses out there on almost everything. So, if you wanted to learn any kind of skill you could probably learn it in four to six weeks - you just have to track down the right course, get these things together in your mind and believe in yourself."

Judy says that one of the biggest barriers to starting your own business is procrastination.

"I was talking to two women recently who are fed up in the corporate world and one is thinking of starting her own business. But I can see that it’s a lot more fun to talk about it and fantasise about it, than it is to actually do it."

"But you don’t need a lot of money to start your own business, especially now we have the internet. It doesn’t cost that much to set up your own website and start selling something or offering a service. You haven’t got to get a second mortgage, you can experiment, jump in and get on with it. Don’t spend too much time talking about it. You don’t even need to give up your full-time job if you don’t want to - you can always run it on the side indefinitely."

A spiritual thinker, when asked about her personal philosophy Judy says it is vital we all become more aware of the effects of our actions, and treat others in a way we would like to be treated.

"It is important to set an example if you can. I think we go through life and it is a spiritual journey and we have to think about how we interact with the people around us, and with the planet we live in. We have to try and do our best and treat other people in the way we like to be treated and I think we ought to be aware of it more, and thinking about it in the back of our minds, in an effortless kind of way, so it becomes second nature."

"Lots of people want to live happy lives and give pleasure to others and many do that without even noticing it. I think if you can live in that way, lots of the little stresses of life often don’t seem that important."

You can also find more advice and inspiration on her website, www.judypiatkus.com

Rachael Hannan: Interview 2008

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