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Slingshot Entrepreneur's Advice For Women

Annette Presley is co-founder of Slingshot and CallPlus. Jake Millar interviews the woman who famously offered to do Theresa Gattung’s job for $1 when Gattung was the chief executive of Telecom.

19 October 2021

Annette Presley rose from a humble South Auckland upbringing to become one of New Zealand’s most inspirational entrepreneurs – and earned a New Zealand Order of Merit.

Presley is a co-founder of CallPlus, which she sold for NZ$250 million in 2015. She now mentors businesswomen through the Lightning Lab XX business accelerator.

By 25 years old, she was the founder of IT recruitment firm Stratum, and making over NZ$300,000 a year.

She went on to found many other companies, taking on the telecommunications big guys, like Telecom, and tearing down anti-competitive barriers.

The Jake Millar interview

Growing up, if someone had said to you that you were going to sell your company for NZ$250 million, what would have that felt like?

I just envisaged getting out of South Auckland. Owning a flash car was my dream, and having a house on the beach. The things I dreamt of were what I just said, but also a life of choice, and as I’ve got older, I dreamt of making a difference. I was just a normal 16-year-old girl who was afraid, but inside of me, I also believed that the more I believed in myself, the more successful I would be.

You switched from accounting to computer science?

They were only taking the top 2 per cent of people in New Zealand based on a computer programming IQ test. I missed out by one. One person cancelled, so I went to the course. Computers were not in companies and certainly girls weren’t in the computer industry.

When you were studying, you worked a couple of jobs to get yourself through. What did you learn?

I worked two computer operating jobs and I’d get a bus from Papatoetoe out to Otara and in between Estée Lauder and Mazda Motors at night. I learned that job descriptions are a suggestion rather than a role. When we write job descriptions, there’s always a point in there at the end that says, “And anything else that the job requires.”

I’ve had people working for me that say, “That’s not part of my job.” They don’t last long with me. You do whatever it takes.

You started your employees in reception?

It’s true. When we started up Call Australia, we always needed a receptionist, so I’d hire a young girl. What I cared about was how good were you at thinking on your feet, how great were you at making rules and breaking rules. How quick do you think? What can I see in you? Can I see a spark? If I can, I’ll hire you. The receptionists would either last three weeks, or I’d promote them.

At one point we wanted to go on a holiday, and I’d hired a young girl as a margin analyst. I said, ‘Right, Linda, you’re in charge of everything while I’m gone.’ She completely freaked out, said she couldn’t do it. I said, ‘I’m sorry. I booked the tickets, so you’re in charge.’ I went away and she ran the company. I got back and not one sale went through that wasn’t on point for margins, for good-quality business, and she ran that company exceptionally well.

One of my challenges was getting the women to accept that they were better than they thought they were. Women aren’t always great at putting themselves forward, even accepting promotion. I had several of my key staff refuse promotions, so I would just make them do the job until they realised they could do it. And they’d refuse pay rises. Isn’t that crazy? Can you imagine a man doing that?

What are the main reasons you see that so many start-ups fall over?

To be a successful entrepreneur, the percentage of effort that you have to put in is huge. If I said a million per cent, it would still be too low. I remember years and years of lying in bed at night and doing and redoing financials and presentations. I don’t always see that in entrepreneurs.

One of your businesses, Call Australia, was growing at about 500 per cent a month for a while.

I had to learn how to train hundreds, thousands of salespeople across Australia. I went and trained all these salespeople. Within three months, our growth was 500 per cent.

What are the common factors that you think the best salespeople do differently?

Preparation. Don’t go out with a presentation that isn’t going to work. Understand your customer’s business. Ask questions all the time. It’s all about the quality of the questions that you ask and listening to the answers, and then putting together what your customer actually needs. If you can provide what your customer needs to reduce his cost, to increase his or her productivity in his company, you’re always going to make a sale.

I know you have two kids. What’s your advice to parents?

I had several miscarriages and that was, I’m sure, because of how hard I worked. I took a lot of time to be with my kids. I’ve gone to pretty much all the school camps. Balance is not a word that I believe exists when you get involved in a start-up. I don’t believe in work-life balance. I believe that when you’re focused on something, you’re focused and it’s focus, focus, focus, focus. But at different points in my life, when I had children, they were my focus and I did manage to find some form of balance in there.

Having sold CallPlus to M2 for NZ$250 million, what advice would you pass on about negotiating a good exit?

I think most entrepreneurs exit too early. You don’t go looking for buyers; they come to you. I believe most entrepreneurs undersell themselves. If you know what your business is worth and people are telling you it’s too much, who cares? If you believe that that’s the number, stick with that number.

What is one of the biggest challenges you think women in business face that men don’t?

I think that women don’t put themselves out there. They don’t put their hand up enough and say, ‘Yes, I am actually good at this. I want to take that promotion.’ ‘I want double my salary and I’m worth it.’

I think that women have a fear of failure. Women don’t put their hand up, don’t celebrate themselves, don’t celebrate success and lack confidence. Whereas sometimes I just believe they should fake it until they make it, as I have done.

This interview was recorded as part of the Unfiltered Game-changer series. To see the full interview and other inspiring entrepreneurs, go to www.unfiltered.tv.

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