Very Fine Day #5: Joan Westenberg
"If you just stick it out, even if it's shit, eventually you get to do something good because you're who people remember."
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Very Fine Day • Season 1 • Edition 5
Joan Westenberg is a writer, creative, and award winning Australian PR director. She is published regularly across the internet and is the creator of Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source tech focused transgender inclusion policy. She is a proud champion of young talent, particularly LGBTQI+. In 2020, she became the first trans woman in Australia to found an advertising and PR firm.
We spoke on January 15 at 2PM AEST, for about 45 minutes.
Catch up on previous editions of VFD:
Very Fine Day #4 w/ Sara Yasin
Very Fine Day #3 w/ Rusty Foster
Very Fine Day #2 w/ Taylor Lorenz
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VFD: I think that's recording now. I might have to deal with café noise but that’s alright. I guess the first question – because I know we met, what… six months ago now?
Joan Westenberg: I have no concept of time anymore.
Joan Westenberg: It’s really just broken down with no linearity to it. Anything that happened in the last year has just gone into one box.
VFD: Yeah, that’s probably good.
Joan Westenberg: It’s like when you clean up your desk by sweeping all the papers into a box and you’re like: fuck it. That’s my timer now.
VFD: Yeah, OK. Well let's just say we first met like six months ago. And we kind of connected through other contacts – let's say we knew about each other tangentially through the internet – but I realised when I was googling you before this, that I didn't actually know much about, like, your career leading up to the point of now. So, tell me. How did we get here?
Joan Westenberg: Yeah… So I've done a lot of different things in the past 16, almost 17 years. And there's been not a lot of cohesive direction to any of it. When I first started out I was going to be a rock star. And the entire reason for that was so I could be best friends with Benji and Joel Madden.
VFD: Of course.
Joan Westenberg: And I think that was just because I was a little bit in love with Joel Madden because I was a really queer teenager. So I was gonna be a rock star. And I was really into punk and hardcore music. And so you know, age 16. I went on tour. I spent most of my -
VFD: You had a band?
Joan Westenberg: Yeah,
VFD: What were they called?
Joan Westenberg: Oh, so many different bands. I was in “Airborne Avocado” and “Money Shot,”
VFD: Money Shot… that’s good.
Joan Westenberg: I know, I know. “More Metal Than Your Mum’s Kettle” was one of them. And I was very briefly in a band called “Anal Seepage”, which was like, grindcore.
VFD: Yeah, I can imagine the poster.
Joan Westenberg: No, it wasn't great… but the music career culminated in making the jump to electronic music, because I figured there was more money in it.
VFD: Because you were obviously already making money.
Joan Westenberg: Oh, yeah, totally… No I was losing money on every single show, y’know, every single show would cost me money to play. It was expensive, essentially. But it was the music industry. And so there was drugs, drinking a lot, partying a lot. And I made the jump to electro and started producing Aussie hip-hop for a bit, and I worked with some guys called Pez and 360, and we did a whole bunch together. And then I signed on to the record label they were on, released an EP, did some remixes for Tinie Tempah and Phoenix and those kinds of bands, and then burnt out. Y’know: completely burnt out.
VFD: Why’s that? Just because of work?
Joan Westenberg: Yeah I mean I was working full time in marketing and comms because I've been doing that since I was 16 as well. And so that'd be my day job – I’d start work at 9' o clock and then stop and 6’ o clock, and then I would go to the studio and record until 3AM in the morning and then do it all again. Just wired all the time. And it was… it was really unforgiving. And my body just couldn’t take it anymore and so I burnt out. I had to stop. It was like: this music thing, it was fun for a while, but if I keep on going down that road I’m pretty sure it’s going to kill me.
VFD: Right – and how old were you when this happened?
Joan Westenberg: I was 23-24. So from 16 to 24 that was pretty much what I was doing.
VFD: Far out.
Joan Westenberg: And I had been working in comms and marketing because at 16 I realised that people didn't really get Myspace, and didn’t know what the hell to do with it.
VFD: I miss Myspace so much.
Joan Westenberg: Oh I miss Myspace every day, because I miss when you could have, like, your Top Four, and then you could tell somebody that you're pissed at them by taking them out of your Top Four.
VFD: Or that you liked them.
Joan Westenberg: Or that you liked them! Yeah, I swear to God, my entire teenage sex life was based on putting people in my Top Four and then taking them out again.
VFD: There’s a soundbite.
Joan Westenberg: And so yeah, I was doing some Myspace consulting and that turned into working in tech. So when it came time to burn that music bridge, I sat down one morning – terrible hangover – and I deleted two hard drives worth of music that I had created. They were works in progress…
VFD: Is that a decision you have always been happy with?
Joan Westenberg: Yeah, yeah.
VFD: You’ve never been up late at night like: I wish I had those demos from when I was in “Anal Seepage”.
Joan Westenberg: No, no, I’ve got the memories. Honestly, those demos are better left alone. There’s actually demos of me rapping and you don’t want to hear that.
VFD: Oh, I think I might.
Joan Westenberg: No you don’t.
VFD: Are they online? If I looked hard enough would I -
Joan Westenberg: Look, you might, but I’d beg you not to. If you look hard enough you’ll find my LiveJournal as well, and you don’t want to see that. It’s very emo.
So at that point I was like: I’m gonna switch to marketing and content and comms and PR. And I love technology. I've always loved tech and that seemed like the right place to be and I have done it ever since. And now at 32 I’m an angel investor, I run my own tech comms and consulting firm, and I’m a writer.
VFD: Yeah, I did read about, like – I know you wrote a thing last year, talking about how COVID essentially threw the guts out of what you were running. How are you doing now?
Joan Westenberg: Really well.
VFD: From when? When did it start to kind of -
Joan Westenberg: Well the thing I've kind of learned over the years is that, basically, you don’t even have to be that good to get somewhere – you just have to be the person who doesn't quit when everything goes to shit. Because everyone else will quit. And I learned this in music, because the bands in Sydney and Melbourne that really took off weren't actually the ones that were the best bands, they were the ones who had the longevity to stay together for more than 18 months.
If you just stick it out, even if it's shit, eventually you get to do something good because you're who people remember. So when everything went to hell and COVID hit, I went to all my clients, and I said: Look, things are going badly. You’re all signed onto retainer packages. If you need to cancel that right now you can. I'm not gonna hold you to anything, let’s just have a handshake and walk away because your business is important.
And all of them took me up on it. So I lost every single client.
VFD: How many?
Joan Westenberg: There were five clients involved in that. And that was rough. But what it meant was that people remembered me doing it.
VFD: How about immediately after that decision though?
Joan Westenberg: Oh, I was crying. Because this was in March and April. We didn’t know how things were going to be yet. We didn’t know how bad the economy was gonna be, how many people were gonna die… We thought Australia would just be completely fucked in the way that a lot of other places were.
VFD: And still are.
Joan Westenberg: Yes. I was like: What am I going to do right now? How am I going to get through this? And so I did what I always do when things fall apart: take a couple days to cry and lose my shit. And then I get back on the horse because there's nothing else you can do.
VFD: And then it started to rise again?
Joan Westenberg: And I built up a lot of goodwill by letting people out of their contracts and operating in that way.
Joan Westenberg: And so people respected that. And because I didn't fold the business and go get a job somewhere, I stuck it out, it showed I had some longevity there so people could recognise that I wasn't going anywhere. And that gave me some trust.
VFD: So did you realise anything within the industry – within what you do – like, major changes that have happened now? Because of obvious reasons…
Joan Westenberg: A lot of people who were full of shit have dropped off the planet.
VFD: You wanna name them? We can just do that for the whole thing.
Joan Westenberg: Oh yeah, I mean you’ll know this already: there are some people in tech, and startups and so on, who are just all hat and no cattle. And once things got really hard, and they suddenly realise there’s no easy money here, they all kind of folded. And now that things are working out they're coming back out of the woodworks, but everyone knows who the people are who disappeared. I think that's been interesting. Beyond that, I am concerned that because Australia had it really easy, people here and companies here, and policymakers here, aren't necessarily going to be appreciating the way the rest of the world is thinking in the next few years. Because we are in a bit of a bubble,
VFD: You mean in terms of, like, innovation?
Joan Westenberg: Pretty much anything, right? Even just the way people interact and communicate and want to do business or socialise. And that's gonna be changing all over the world in ways that won't change in Australia and New Zealand. And so I think that's something that we need to be very wary of. We will be out of sync a bit. And we're very lucky. But how can we be sympathetic to people outside of our little bubble and make sure that we are communicating with them in the way they need and not missing out on opportunities because of that?
VFD: Yeah, I hadn't thought about that. Like, I’m trying to make it a personal mission not to be that person. But it's tough, right? Why do you think Australians revert to the norm and get comfortable? Whereas in Silicon Valley, and everyone's trying to be innovative. And Australia has it’s own version of that but it’s much tinier, right?
Joan Westenberg: I think that the more problems you face, the more you innovate. The less problems you have, the less need you have to go build things. And so if all your needs are met, you will do cool things that you love, that might not fill an immediate, urgent need.
Certainly, in Australia, we have an imperfect system to be sure, but we do have health care and we do have a safety net and we have all the tools needed to have quite a comfortable life. And so we don't need to push the boundaries as much because our cost of living is good.
But then in the US, they have an incredibly wealthy country and so on, but they have a shit system where people are dying because they can't afford not to work because they can't afford to look after their health because even having a baby can bankrupt them.
And so in a system like that, where you have that level of desperation and desperate need, you also have a need for innovation that can solve these issues. Now, I guess the way of thinking about that perspective – on the one hand, you could say, well, this is not good, because we have less innovation. And so therefore, a comfortable lifestyle in Australia is not good, because there are less amazing companies and products being built. And that's one perspective. The other is that all innovation and all technology should actually be about improving our quality of life. And if you have a good quality of life and don't need it, then having it and building more of it doesn't serve a need. So why innovate for the sake of innovation? Why build technology for the sake of technology, why do things that aren't going to improve?
VFD: Yeah. It’s so depressing – well it’s not depressing. It’s just… how it is.
Joan Westenberg: And I like to think of it in that other way. Because I think having a system that people aren’t desperate and on the streets and sick is a wonderful thing.
Joan Westenberg: And I think more places should be like that. And if it means that we fall behind in this era of innovation, then that's all well and good. We can still build things that we love, and we will still build things that people need, but we just don’t have to do it because little Jimmy's gonna starve to death and not get his diabetes medication. Which is basically what’s going on in the US.
VFD: Yeah I wanted to ask you about that, like building things that we love thing, because I know last time we talked I felt like afterwards: wow I just ranted the whole time. And I felt really bad.
Joan Westenberg: No a lot of what you said really resonated with me
VFD: I had just come out of… just having this terrible conversation with terrible people who had the wrong idea, I thought, about the way things are online.
But this idea of, like, making what you love, and the content that you love… The thing that I've felt internally as well is like: how do you approach making what you love for a system and an environment which - correct me if you don’t agree - that doesn't really reward making what you love? Which is quite transparent? Which is quite, it's not physical… It's lacking real measurement?
Like, I feel like the measurement we are asked to look at, to quantify what we've made – shares and views and social spread – is not real in my mind, because it is, in a lot of cases, bullshit metrics.
And so when it comes down to making what you love, personally, I found that like: how do I keep doing this when it's only for me? And I guess maybe that's a personal problem. But how do you keep just doing what you love, in spite of the fact that everything's bullshit,
Joan Westenberg: I think it comes down to setting the right metrics to measure what you're doing.
So a couple years ago, I came out as transgender, and I transitioned and went through that entire process. And when I first started, it seemed really impossibly hard to transition. Because you look at the world around you, and you look at who has transitioned, and you think to yourself: Well, I won’t have a successful transition unless I meet X Y Z requirements – if I hit X, Y, Zed milestones – you know, like, going and having all these surgeries, going and doing all these things.
But somewhere along the journey I kind of realised that, in actual fact, the only way to measure a successful transition was by whether or not I was happy. Whether I was living as myself and feeling like myself and being comfortable in my identity and in my life. And as soon as I reached that point it was like everything snapped and I said: You know, I have a new metric. And that metric isn't all these hallmarks of transitioning. The metric is simply: has this made me happy?
VFD: And how long did that take?
Joan Westenberg: It took me about a year to get to that. Which doesn't sound like a long time. But it was a year of intense soul searching and, pretty much, living raw. Transitioning is a very vulnerable thing, and I did it quite publicly. And so having that new metric, it really changed absolutely everything. And a couple years on now I'm the happiest I've ever been.
And the same principle applies to whatever you build. If you set metrics that are going to actually reflect what you want, when you want to, why you want to, where you want to, and not just go by other people's metrics, you have a much better chance of being happy with what you've done… So the metrics that we’re encouraged to think about are, like you said: x amount of likes, x amount of shares, attention online,
Joan Westenberg: All that stuff. How much money you have raised, how much money your company is valued at, where you’re at in your career. All this stuff. But these metrics are pretty much vanity metrics. Because they’re meaningless, y’know?
VFD: To a point, right? Because what if your job is tied to those metrics?
Joan Westenberg: If your job is tied to those metrics it may actually be that you're in the wrong job. Because those metrics don't really measure the thing that you're doing in the job.
So I've worked in marketing for a while, obviously, and if my job is: go and get these numbers, then I will always say: well, what do you actually want when you say get these numbers?
Do you mean that you want to have an engaged community for whatever you're working on? Or do you mean you just want to see some statistics, because the two things don't always go hand in hand.
And you have to have the right metric to understand this. You can go and get so much engagement on any platform without having people who actually love your product.
There's the old article by Kevin Kelly, which was talking about getting 1000 true fans. And the idea being that rather than having a million likes, on any kind of social platform, if you have just 1000 people who are really dedicated and really care, it's worth so much more than all those high numbers, statistics.
Joan Westenberg: So if your goal is to get a high CTR, great, but… what if you could get more engagement in a more meaningful way from people who are more dedicated to what you do?
VFD: Yeah I guess that’s like Patreon,
Joan Westenberg: That’s it. And if you think about it there isn’t actually a limit to what you can build if you work that way.
Y’know, companies like MailChimp. MailChimp was originally a web design agency. And they wanted to build a product themselves to use to do email, and they built MailChimp, and they sold to the few people who liked the product and they built out customers one by one and never took on investment and they built an incredibly valuable company where they can get pure profit. And they did it their own way.
Or for the folks over at Basecamp, who were a web design agency who built a product for themselves to use and people loved it. And they sold it bit by bit by bit and now they have all these other products that they adore as well, and people love, and they have this huge community. And they have this small amount of staff who do a really good job and who are really happy.
And I really think that these companies haven’t gone by the metrics that we think are the right metrics. They didn’t try to raise money and be the fastest growing companies ever. They grew gradually over ten years. They grew profitably: their metric was always happy customers who love the product and I think that’s worth more.
So I guess this is my roundabout way of just saying that if you want to love what you do then measure it the right way and don't try to measure it by metrics that aren’t yours.
VFD: I don't think that's a bad way to live.
I want to – I read… I don't want to keep sparking all these things that you wrote, just being like: this is your life! But I did read your piece about when you did transition, and how your job prospects fell apart. And you weren't even getting job interviews for very entry level positions…
Joan Westenberg: Yeah, that’s true.
VFD: How did you – I don't want to say cope – because that's not the right word. But what was your response to that? And do you think… to what level do you think that’s still happening? Do you think that maybe, even because of your profile, it wasn't as tough? I guess, like, what I'm asking for is about the pressure of that piece and how you feel now looking back on it now, probably a year later,
Joan Westenberg: That piece still rings true. You know I did have a pretty solid career going for me that I spent a lot of time building up. And I was getting headhunted by all these different tech companies who wanted me to work for them. And once I announced I was transitioning I couldn't even get an interview. And that’s something that had never happened before. I was suddenly in the too hard basket.
And people would say things like: you don't have enough experience for that role. And I’d be way more experienced than they were asking for, or they would say that I wasn’t a culture fit,
Joan Westenberg: And so it was… it was quite brutal. But what I found was that I kind of faced a fork in the road, y’know, like, on the one hand, you could say: well, this really sucks and this is shit and I'm not okay with it. Going down that road, feeling sorry for myself and whinging about it. Or I could just say: well, this isn't an ideal situation, I’m going to speak out about it openly, try to build something for myself, try to take personal responsibility for it, and try to affect change in some positive way. And that's the path that I tried to walk down. So looking back in the past year and a bit I've done a lot of work to reach that point.
VFD: Was there a pushback? Did you get any response that was -
Joan Westenberg: Oh, yeah, yeah, there was a massive blow up in like, the Sydney Startups Facebook Group. People talking about the meritocracy. And how I might not be showing merit. But ultimately, I'm happy with what I did. And what I said.
Joan Westenberg: And I've done the work to try to help other people in that position.
So in the past year I've been connecting trans people with some friends of mine who work in HR who can help them with their resumes and job applications and get through an interview process and respond to problems that come up. I founded a queer consultancy, called Queer Inclusive, where I've been working with some companies to refresh how they do job interviews just to try and make things a little bit more open minded.
And I released an open-sourced transgender inclusion policy that companies can just adopt and make that part of their lives as well and make things better for them.
So I did some work with Linktree last year, and the first year working with them their CEO was like: y’know we have seen this policy you have and we want to implement it. And stuff like that… It's really rewarding.
VFD: Do you think there's anything like, uniquely Australian. No, not unique, but unique about being trans in Australia?
Joan Westenberg: I think we're very lucky.
Joan Westenberg: I mean, that might not be the perspective of all trans people.
VFD: Yeah, I guess that's something we should say ahead of time.
Joan Westenberg: I’m definitely not speaking for all trans people. And it's different in each state.
Joan Westenberg: Y’know… so I'm actually born in South Australia. So my birth certificate is South Australian. So for me, the process of legally changing gender was just sending through a form to the SA Birth Deaths and Marriages. And they rubber stamped it and sent it back to me and it was all done. Whereas in New South Wales, you have to show evidence that you've undergone genital surgery. And so I think it's different state by state.
But we do have legal protections, we do have a strong advocacy community, we do have like, a fair amount of public support. So I don't think there's…I mean I think we're in a terrible position in many ways – we still have violence against trans women, they're still getting murdered. That's absolutely the case. So there is a lot of transphobia. But I don't think it's as bad as people might perceive.
I was talking to another journalist last year about some of this stuff. And he brought up the fact that in some survey of Australians there were numbers like: a high percentage of people believe that you should use whatever pronouns people want you to use.
But at the same time: a high percentage of people believe that there are only two genders.
And so we ask, what do we think about that disparity? And my take on that was just that – I don't think people in Australia are actively transphobic. They just might not be educated about what it means to be transgender or anything else.
So if you sit down across the table with, like, an average Aussie bloke in their ‘40s and say: hey my pronouns are they/them, they will probably go: OK cool, I don’t really get that but sure.
And if you say to them: how many genders are there? They’d probably say two, because that's how many they were taught in school.
But they're not actively saying, fuck no! There’s only two genders! It’s what they learned.
And if that's what they say at school you probably never encountered the idea that there are more genders outside of that, because it's not in the mainstream media, you're just living your life, doing your thing, hanging out with your family and with friends, enjoying the footy… whatever it is.
So these ideas are not coming into your radar. If they did, and you sat down with them, you might actually be fine with them. And I firmly believe that most people would be fine with it. Because most people, according to the statistics, will be happy to respect anyone's pronouns. It's just they’ve never had access to that education.
VFD: Do you think – and I hate blaming everything on social media – But do you think that has a part to play in this, in that it’s easy to look at the way people are commenting and talking online – which is generally, I think we can all agree, way freer. And, y’know, people are generally more racist, more offensive, more outspoken than they would be in front of someone.
Do you think that has a role to play where then a journalist or someone who does understand the context of LGBTQ rights looks at Facebook and goes: Look at all these people that hate me or hate what's happening. I'm not sure where I’m going with that… I guess there isn't a fix for it really.
Joan Westenberg: Yeah look I don't think social media is a universal good. Yknow, I don't have any social media apps on my phone.
VFD: That’s very brave.
Joan Westenberg: I just figured, like, nothing is going to happen that is world shakingly important. I don't get my news from social media. I subscribe to printed editions of newspaper and I read them in the morning with a cup of tea with my partner. And the thinking behind this is just that I've been too connected for too long. And it's all too much. Too much of anything's bad thing.
VFD: When did you feel like that at first? That it had been too long? That you had been too connected? If we start at 16 , making Myspaces for people…
Joan Westenberg: Um, I had this realisation – and this is the wankiest thing I'm ever gonna say, and I'm sorry,
VFD: Love it. This is going to be the actual soundbite.
Joan Westenberg: I hiked 100 kilometres through the mountains in Nepal without any access to the internet or my phone or anything. All I had with me was a Kindle and a notebook. And when I got back to reality… the world had not ended without me having access to Twitter.
VFD: When was this?
Joan Westenberg: It was… 2017. The world had not ended and everything was fine. And it had not killed me that I was offline for a bit. And I suddenly realised I had put so much stock in this tech… for what? I used to wake up every morning and the first thing I would do is check the stats on my blog and on my social media, and if the stats were shit I would have a shit day. And that's how my entire morning would start and it would continue throughout that whole period. I was not healthy at all. Obsessively scrolling through Twitter and so on. And I still have days where I binge on Twitter, because I still have days where I binge on Ben & Jerry’s, or anything else that I like, because… it’s something I like! But it’s just not an everyday thing anymore.
VFD: So what advice would you give to someone that doesn't have the resources, or can’t go to Nepal and just log off in that kind of way? Like, say we're talking to someone who is 22 years old, feeling burnt out, they’re a Social Media Manager for someone and their job is to be online. And they're realising that it's taking them apart. What can you do?
Joan Westenberg: I'd say there are three things that would really help. The first is recognising that social media is entertainment. It’s entertainment in the same way that Netflix is, or the movies is, or listening to podcasts is. And if all you do is spend all your time on one form of entertainment it's really not great for you and you're missing out on a whole bunch of cool stuff out there. So try to change up the type of entertainment that you’re consuming.
The second is: recognise that technology is a tool to be used to do certain things. And it can be used to entertain you, or to get work done, or to communicate with friends and families. But if you're not using it for specific reason when you pick up that tool, don’t pick up that tool. If you think to yourself: Well, I need to get in contact with this person… Then do it, for sure. Go do it. But don't just pick it up because it's there.
Joan Westenberg: And I guess the third thing is: recognise that there is still a lot of beauty in doing things the analogue way. Cooking from a cookbook instead of from YouTube. It lets you cook in a very different way. Reading a book on actual paper means you can get absorbed by a story without getting distracted. Writing by hand lets you say what you actually wanted to say, in a way that you wouldn't get if you were writing on screen. Because we write by hand, it's permanent. And you can see it there in front of you taking shape.
When you spend time doing things in an analogue way I think it brings it closer to what you were trying to do. In the same way that us having this conversation face to face, we both prefer this way of communicating. Because visual communication is easier. And so therefore it's meaningful, and here we can enjoy each other's body language in a way, and respond to each other while we’re talking. And it gives us more context. So I think emphasising the analogue way of doing things is important.
VFD: So, OK… I’m going to do a few questions I want to ask everyone because I want to get the context of the world from different people. What scares you about living in 2021?
Joan Westenberg: Oh… So I have a four year old stepson,
VFD: And they scare you, right?
Joan Westenberg: Ha, when he wakes me up, like getting right up in my face at three in the morning it scares the hell out of me. But I guess I'm scared about the technological world that he is going to inherit from us.
Looking at what we've been through the last few years with tech: The disinformation that is served around Coronavirus, with the stuff around QAnon, with the stuff around global politics, it’s all so changed and there’s unrest. Looking at how much damage social media has done… I'm worried about the future that he's going to inherit. Like, we have some incredibly invasive apps and services that are far more invasive than you and I had when we were kids.
VFD: CoolMathGames.com was my one. I don’t think Cool Math Games is selling my user data though.
Joan Westenberg: Right? Club Penguin, y’know?
And that scares the hell out of me because I cannot envision it. I had this conversation with my partner the other day where we were talking about what age kids were big enough to have a phone. And I kind of realised it was a pointless conversation to have because in 10 years and with kids in high school, we don’t even know what technology they're gonna be using.
Joan Westenberg: Augmented reality… Who knows? Yeah. That scares the hell out of me.
VFD: It’s so funny because like, I always have the same conversations with my partner. And the analogy I use is that I feel like I'm on a boat in the deep sea, like those ones that do, y’know, the Discovery Channel deep sea lobster fishing channel. And they go over those huge waves. And we're going over a huge wave. And everyone's like: yes! And then we go over it… and there's another one right behind it.
Joan Westenberg: Yeah, that’s it.
VFD: And you never see beyond the waves.
Joan Westenberg: Yeah.
VFD: OK so, What do you think is fundamentally wrong about the space that you work?
Joan Westenberg: I think the metrics we use are just wrong. Back to what I was saying before, I think we have metrics that are just based on constant eternal growth and scale, at a pace that is not possible to sustain, at a cost that is too high.
I think technology is a wonderful thing. And I think startups are a really exciting place to work in. But I think it's just… it's too much.
We look at companies that sell for $100 million as being a failure because they didn’t sell for $200 million. And we'll look at companies who have built up something with a company of one or two people, a team and small business, and you look down on it even though it's more profitable than a startup that has raised $20 million dollars.
Joan Westenberg: And I think that it's shallow, and mundane, and it's wrong. I think what we need to do is take a really hard look at why we build companies where we build them, what we do with them, and the scale and time of it all. I think it should be less frantic and more measured. There is no real reason why things have to constantly change at a massively overinflated kind of pace.
VFD: Like: growth, growth, growth!
Joan Westenberg: Yeah I think we glamorise this concept of revolutions. Everything has to be a revolution, everything has to be overnight. But real change that helps people and shapes the world actually tends to be quite gradual. And we have to remember that. And if we slow down the pace that we do things we’ll actually stop disenfranchising people and isolating different groups of people. And we'll stop pumping and dumping companies, entrepreneurs, founders, investors, everyone else will stop building products that treat people like shit and treat people like products, and if we slow everything down we will hit a more measured pace and we will be more human about what we do.
VFD: Okay, final question. I tagged this at the very start and you might not have realised you even said this. Tell me about being emo growing up. And do you think that the emo culture is going through a revival at the moment? Because my girlfriend was emo as well and we always talk about how it's coming back. And I look at TikTok and stuff and the music that's trending now, and I think it’s coming back. But generally a more compassionate version of it.
Joan Westenberg: I find that with kids on TikTok – I don’t understand TikTok. I mean… I don't get TikTok. But that's not a problem with TikTok or anyone on TikTok. It’s a problem with me. I’m out of touch here and I understand that.
But the content that I do see is so much more empathetic and compassionate than the stuff when I was a kid. And yeah, I think it's really cool. But y’know, it's not for me,
VFD: The compassionate stuff is not for you?
Joan Westenberg: Ha, no, I love the empathy and the compassion. I still love TikTok, but I’m like: OK, it’s not for me. But yeah, look, I was an emo kid. I was terrible. My MySpace name was “x something x” and I used to have this fringe that goes all the way down and you use duct tape so it's like a spike.
And I would, like, wear fishnet gloves and chokers and so on. And the funny thing is, almost every trans woman I've ever met used to be an emo kid at some point because it was a really acceptable way to wear stockings as a kid, and people were like: oh, they're just emo, it's fine. They're not a freak.
So we all got into that sort of stuff.
VFD: Who were your bands?
Joan Westenberg: I was really into this band called Vincent Price's Orphan Powered Death Machine. And they were… I've tried to get my partner to listen to them because I’m mean. It’s awful music. It's like 60 second song's called: “Dude, you like stangs?You must have gasoline in your veins.”
VFD: Nice, good. Real wedding music vibes.
Joan Westenberg: Totally, absolute wedding songs. But then also My Chemical Romance and The Used and all that kind of stuff.
Remember when we were young and if there was a dude wearing eyeliner, they were like: Oh, he's wearing guyliner because people just couldn't say that it was eyeliner on a guy.
Joan Westenberg: Metrosexual – no one says that anymore. Which is a good thing. Terrible phrase.
VFD: It is pretty… I remember when Netflix came out with “Queer Eye” again. And my housemate had never seen the previous one, so we watched it,
Joan Westenberg: Oh yeah, it’s like so out of date.
VFD: And Carson Kressley is like: This is called “gel!” and this guy from Alabama just has no idea and is like: uhhhhhhhhh.
Joan Westenberg: Amazing.
VFD: Okay, cool. Well we can hold it there I think. Thanks so much,
Joan Westenberg: That was fun. Thanks.
Great read! Joan is so articulate and interesting. She's achieved so much at such a young age - and as someone only a couple years in her junior, that drives me crazy haha.
"The more problems you face, the more you innovate".- I honestly hadn't considered how our COVID response would impact innovation etc. It really does have the potential to leave us lagging. It will be interesting to see how the US evolves tech wise in the next few years as as response to COVID and if Australia actually has the impetus to keep up.
An excellent interview! Joan is an amazing human, they have so much clarity around the goodness in thoughtful living and the value of kindness. Their take on business survival is one I hope others can follow. This read was a great start to the day, thanks!