Founder of Paula Fray and Associates (now frayintermedia) and Regional Director: Africa of Inter Press Service

This is an extract from My Success, Your Success: Top tips from South African women entrepreneurs. It is reproduced with permission.

When Paula Fray decided to become a journalist in the tense days of the 1980s, she was motivated by idealism and a belief that the media had the power to change things. More than two decades later as a businesswoman at the top of her game, nothing’s changed.

She is as idealistic as ever about the importance and power of journalism, so much so that she has staked the rest of career on it. After 17 years of working as an award-winning journalists and editor, she founded an independent training company – Paula Fray and Associates (now frayintermedia) – in 2005 that is committed to growing the calibre and quality of journalists working in South Africa and Africa through training and other initiatives.

‘I passionately believe in the ability of journalism to contribute to change and its value as a pillar of our constitutional democracy,’ says Paula. ‘My business has grown out of this passion. I did not set out to start a business, I set out to improve the quality of journalism on the African continent, but along the way I seem to have found a workable business model.’

So how does a journalist become a business woman – of some success? frayintermedia now employs 15 people and offers an array of value-adding services both to the media and corporate clients proving that the business is no flash in the pan.

Paula’s first taste for business came when she moved from being a reporter with more than a decade of experience, to become first the news editor of The Star and then, in 1999, editor of the Saturday Star. She was the first black person and the first woman to hold this position, making her something of a female icon in industry.

Although she relished the challenge Paula admits that she was surprised by just how much she enjoyed the shift into a more business-focused role.

‘I found I was responsible not only for managing editorial but also had a role in implementing – and determining – business strategy and I really enjoyed the management challenges,’ she says.

A year later, Paula received a further boost to her management skills when she won the prestigious Nieman Fellowship. Established in 1938, the Fellowship is the oldest programme of its kind in the world and is awarded to working journalists of particular accomplishment and promise for an academic year of study in any part of Harvard University. Paula chose to study leadership and change management at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Governance. It was an experience that was to change her focus forever.

‘I got exposed to a whole lot of new ideas. Going to Harvard enabled me to operate outside of the usual frameworks I had set around myself,’ she says.

Of course she found out on her return that the strengths of the Fellowship were also its weaknesses. Coming back to the same old environment with a whole host of new and exciting ideas is difficult to do at the best of time and Paula found it extremely so. Her niche at Independent Newspapers no longer held the same attractions for her.

By 2002, she was feeling severely constrained by her role with Independent so that when she was offered an opportunity to join a media and PR company as its operations director she decided to try it out. Not being sure that the world of PR would suit her however, Paula only committed to working for a year at the company. It was a year of excitement and challenge during which time she was able to grow considerably as a businesswoman.

‘When you are thrown into a new challenge it really does test your skills and gives you the opportunity to discover things about yourself that you didn’t know,’ she says.

Despite the fact that she enjoyed her work there however, when the year was up, she knew without a shadow of doubt that PR was not for her.

‘My core is a journalist,’ she says simply. ‘And it’s a really, really strong core,’

So she left to return to her true love. Not wanting to go back into a newspaper environment she set up as an independent consultant offering her services in training other journalists to improve their skills and knowledge base. Before long she realised that she had stumbled onto a business opportunity. Recognising that clients wanted more than just ad hoc training, Paula saw that there was an opening to set up a more sophisticated operation that designed turnkey training interventions (including facilitation and logistics management). She also approached other talented individuals who like her were working on their own in similar fields, inviting them to join her in an association that would enable them to tender for bigger jobs together.

The result was Paula Fray and Associates and it was officially registered as a company and opened for business in 2005.

Right from the start, Paula Fray and Associates was branded as a dynamic training company that specialised in offering a different, more interactive, approach to training journalists than conventional chalk and talk training. At its core was Paula’s heartfelt desire to bring about an improvement in the quality of journalism and she knew she had to dig deep to come up with something that really worked. Part of this was not only training journalists in basic skills, like how to write a good news story, but also in improving their knowledge of key current issues like globalisation, climate change and poverty.

It seemed like a simple enough proposition, but getting going was tough. Paula threw herself into it and was working sometimes 18-hour days. ‘My stress levels were incredibly high,’ she reports. Gradually she secured a number of major media organisations as clients and started to attract more like-minded women (to date the business is still woman-owned and women led) to work with her. Bit by bit, the business began to grow.

‘Some might say it grew too slowly,’ says Paula. ‘But I wouldn’t change the way we did it. When I started the business we didn’t take out a loan. We started rather cautiously and the business grew according to how much money there was available to reinvest at any time. I know that if we had taken out a huge loan it might have grown quicker but at least now we have no debt.’

Paula maintains that the gradual growth process was also important for her personal development as a business owner.

‘Growing slowly allows you to grow your capacity alongside the business,’ she says. ‘You don’t start off with all the skills you need to run a business – you have to learn them as you go along. When you are one person dealing with one client it’s relatively easy to manage but as you grow so does your ability and you need to put systems and processes in place that will allow you to continue to deliver quality even though you might not be the person directly doing the job.’

Paula says that for her personally, getting to the point where she was no longer the person directly responsible for every job was incredibly difficult – and without having invested time in putting the right processes in place she might never have got there.

‘When you are starting out in business, because it is your reputation at stake, there is a real danger of stifling the management potential of people around you because you are overseeing and micro managing things,’ she says. ‘I had to have a big banner on my computer reminding me to take the time to delegate. As part of my learning curve I had to acknowledge that sometimes things wouldn’t work out the way I envisioned – and that is part and parcel of delegation. You have to be prepared to let go.

‘Having decent systems and processes in place can considerably ease this process of letting go,’ she adds. ‘Being able to delegate within a system is so much easier as you have more of a guarantee that the quality will still be there.’

Processes at frayintermedia include anything from a simple rule that nothing leaves the office without having been seen by at least two pairs of eyes to a comprehensive workplan underpinning each activity that lays out what must happen when and allows for regular checks and balances. Paula says there are also templates for everything and finance and training policies in place so that everybody knows where they stand in the business.

‘Putting processes in place upfront was definitely something that we did right,’ says Paula.

Another thing that she thinks they got right was making sure that the financial side of the business was secure right from the start.

‘Journalists are usually afraid of things like finances and numbers,’ she jokes. Recognising this she was careful to make sure that she had the right people (bookkeepers and accountants) looking after this critical part of the business. She says that, even although this can be a bit of a drain on finances, especially for a new business, it pays for itself down the line.

Certainly this has been the case with frayintermedia. Almost four years down the line, the company is in a very strong position to meet its objectives of empowering journalists, and operating as a profitable business to boot. It continues to train journalists across the country (its clients include Independent Newspapers, SABC and Media 24), but has expanded this to include training for NGOs, civil society and some corporate clients in how to interact with and communicate with the media more effectively. The company also runs a series of media conferences on narrative journalism, science writing and investigative journalism that don’t generate much profit but serve a very real need in the market, and a profitable editing and publishing service that helps provide the balance.

This is exactly as Paula wanted it. Although like all businesses frayintermedia needs to operate on the principle of making money, Paula has always believed that this is not the only thing that should be used to measure the success of the endeavour. For her, success can also be reckoned in the numbers of journalists their initiatives reach and the impact they are having. For this reason, one of the things she is most proud of is the Narrative Journalism Conference that she initiated in 2004. Although it is not a profit-making venture, the conference has been able to expose the power of narrative techniques to hundreds of African reporters thereby giving them the tools to tell the many stories that have never been told on the continent. The event, which is supported by the Nieman Fellowship, drew 80 delegates when it launched and the numbers have increased steadily year on year.

Another initiative which Paula is excited about is the Dialogues series hosted with the Mail & Guardian that allows working journalists around the country a forum to discuss issues affecting their jobs and the challenges they face, for example, how to report on race in South Africa. Paula says such initiatives play a vital role in building the calibre of journalists.

‘I think it’s quite critical that journalists have a voice beyond the newsroom and that they are thinking about their profession beyond it being a job,’ she says.

Paula is happy that frayintermedia is able to pursue such a philanthropic agenda alongside its business objectives, although she jokes that if left to her own devices, the business would not be sustainable because the idealistic side of her sometimes threatens to get the better of the business side. Fortunately, however, she took the precaution of surrounding herself with ‘people cleverer than myself’ who help to keep her in check.

‘I always advise entrepreneurs to surround themselves with complementary skills for exactly this reason,’ she says.

It is obviously a good balance that has been struck, because frayintermedia has managed to create a highly functional yet alternative environment. And this ethos does not just extend outwards to the community of African journalists, but also inwards to staff. For example, the business supports flexi-time working that is woman friendly and child friendly. As a mother of three children that she considers ‘her greatest achievement’, Paula is very sensitive to this issue. Having done the working mom thing for as long as she can remember she knows first-hand how difficult it can be to juggle a career and a family (and she has an ‘extremely supportive’ spouse).

‘It’s not that we don’t have the same pressures other companies have, but that what we try and do is look at values very differently because we are women,’ she says.

Although the company is still young it is policies like these that have helped to make it seem wise and established beyond its years. The business is now entering a new phase. For one thing Paula herself has been seconded away from the helm and is now working with one of their former clients Inter Press Service (IPS) as Regional Head for Africa. In her absence, the company has assumed its new name, where the focus is no longer exclusively on Paula, and has set up an Advisory Board. A share scheme is being developed for employees.

But while Paula may not be hands-on any more, her passion for boosting journalism on the continent is still very much in evidence in the business. It is the lode star that continues to guide it and everything contributes towards that end.

Paula maintains that every individual and every organisation needs such a thing to keep them moving forward through good times and bad. ‘If you don’t have something to shoot for it is all too easy to get derailed along the way,’ she says.

To look at Paula’s life is to appreciate the truth of this assertion. After 20 years spent in the service of journalism on the continent, she shows no signs of being deflected from her path.


Paula’s top tips for success

1. Make sure that you have someone who knows what they are doing looking after your books and finances right from the start. Make sure you are compliant and that your books are in order. This is vital to sustain long-term success.

2. Take the time to draw up a business plan. I had a deluxe 5-year business plan when I started the business and every year the team revisits and refines this in our annual strategy session.

3. Take the time upfront to draw up solid processes and systems for your business. Even if there are just one or two people to begin with, do it then as it is easier to manage the growth within a solid framework than to go about it in a haphazard way.  This has certainly served us well.

4. Take your Human Resources seriously. See your staff in terms of long-term possibility and allow them to participate in the planning and growth of the company. This helps to cut down on churn that can be very destructive to a young company. We have always operated on the premise that it is cheaper to retain staff than to retrain.

5. Always hire people cleverer than you, people who will stand up to you and who are willing to disagree with you as well as people who have skills that you don’t have.  In driving your own business you can get quite single minded about things and it is useful to have someone who can tap you on the shoulder and say ‘hang on a second if you look to your right you will see something huge looming that you hadn’t even noticed!’

6. Invest in the long-term sustainability of the company. The profits that we make go straight back into the business to help it grow.

7. If you have a dream to run your own business, go and do it. Failure is not a crime or even a sin – in fact it’s part of the process. Allow yourself to fail and recognise that it’s not failure if you can take away some lessons from it.

8. Learn to delegate or you will end up doing all the work yourself which is not sustainable. To delegate successfully you need to know what you want to delegate, then make sure the person you are delegating to understands what it is they have to do and then give them the space and the responsibility to do it their way – even if that means that they could fail.

9. Don’t be a lone ranger within your own company. Accept that you can’t do everything on your own. Talk to your people all the time, tell them what your vision is and ask them for their input. In small businesses there is a danger that all the ideas stay inside the founders head and never make it into the real world.

10. Recognise your own weaknesses and pull on the strengths of those around you to compensate. For example, I realised after a few failures that I was not strong in my ability to select and hire the right people. Nowadays, responsibility for this does not lie with me anymore which is good news for the company as when you are small your people can either make or break you.