This week’s Woman of the Week is Jess Shanahan, a motoring and motorsport journalist, and creator of The Racing Mentor (link here), a resource set up to help young racers find funding, with an associated e-course (link here). She started her career in a PR agency specialising in luxury interiors, moving over to motorsport PR work after forming a relationship with Rebecca Jackson. This led to doing PR and sponsorship work for Jackson, Team HARD and others. In 2016, she was team boss of Turn Eight Racing in the BRSCC Porsche Championship. This year, she has taken a step back from the racing, because demands on her time simply grew too great. Instead, she has prioritised creating The Racing Mentor and Sponsorship Bootcamp to empower young racers to do their own sponsor finding work. She also works on bringing new talent into other areas of motorsport.
Bridget Schuil: What is your first memory of motorsport?
Jess Shanahan: I came into motorsport quite late. It was in 2008, I was watching Formula 1 with my boyfriend and all his friends. I was trying to work out who I wanted to support – we had Ferrari fans there; we had a Red Bull fan; my boyfriend was a McLaren fan – and I didn’t want to support someone just because it was who my boyfriend supported.
I remember asking the question, ‘who’s the tallest?’ and the answer was Mark Webber. So I was a huge Mark Webber fan from that point onwards. I guess that’s my first real memory of motorsport, and that is how I got into the sport. I had been interested in cars before, but then I was interested in Mark Webber.
BS What do you love most about the sport?
JS I love the noise and the atmosphere. As much as I love watching racing on television, I would rather go to a club race every weekend and just absorb that kind of competitive family atmosphere with lots of noise and great smells, as well as the variety of cars as well. I really love that, so yeah, definitely the atmosphere.
BS Who do you think has been the most supportive of your career?
JS Probably Rebecca Jackson. She was my first ever motorsport client off the back of my PR experience. I’ve kind of grown with her as she’s gone from Porsche Championship and GT Cup to doing Le Mans, and then Mini Challenge this year. She’s been really supportive.
My family and close friends have also been great. I’ve made loads of friends through motorsport – both online and at events – so I’ve got a really nice circle of people on Facebook who’ve all been super supportive. I’d say I’ve been quite lucky, but Rebecca was my first client and the one who’s been with me the longest. We’ve been working together for so long and we’re definitely more friends than just employer and contractor.
BS In your career thus far, what would you say have been your biggest challenges?
JS I had to teach myself sales skills. I did sales not long after I left college, and I absolutely hated it. Then I went into PR, which was great. There was a little bit of selling involved, like when I’d ring a journalist, I’d have to sell my story and make sure they want it. I guess the skills are similar. I learned some skills there, but as soon as I then had to start working on sponsorship, it was a whole different kind of selling. It’s more a wheeler-dealer sales person kind of effort.
At the time, I was struggling with anxiety, I hated speaking on the phone, and all that. I kind of got used to it over the years, and found that the cold calling approach didn’t necessarily work. I had to literally go out there and make friends with people who could introduce me to other people, so I was going with a warmer approach. I recently completed a free course, which I’m offering to help people learn from those mistakes I made.
BS What have been your proudest moments and career highlights?
JS Watching Turn Eight Racing race to multiple victories in 2016 was amazing. I have one of Pip Hammond's Porsche trophies sitting happily in my office. It was also amazing to see Rebecca Jackson make her way from club racer to Le Mans and know I played a part in that. She's a phenomenal person and I'm proud to work with her.
As a journalist, I recently went to the launch of a new Abarth in Italy. While zooming around on a yacht after making multiple amazing contacts, I realised that it was the fulfillment of a goal I'd set myself five years ago when I quit my PR job. On a lake in Italy is definitely a time when you can think: Wow, I think I've made it.
BS So tell us about the origins of The Racing Mentor and Sponsorship Bootcamp. Where did those courses come from?
JS Racing Mentor came from a vision of teaching racing drivers to do something for themselves, rather than relying on someone like me to go out and find sponsorship for them. A course made most sense, and I was speaking to a lot of racing drivers about whether they’d prefer podcasts, long-form article, or videos and short articles. The answer came back that videos and shorter articles were their preferred learning format. Easily digestible information was better.
So I figured a course talking about all the mistakes I’d made when I was first starting made the most sense to me. I set up the Sponsorship Bootcamp email course first, followed by my Mistakes course, with the view that I’m going to do a more comprehensive course in the future based on the feedback I receive. It’s all outlined, it just needs to be written up and filmed. So yeah, it definitely came from that place of wanting to help people, but also needing to know how they learn. I think that was the most effective way.
BS Seth Godin bases his courses on Slack, so there’s no exclusive content, what people are paying for is input from and face time with an expert. Have you used a chat platform with your courses? Is that something that you’ve found that works?
JS At the moment, my course is set up with teachable.com. Within that, there is a comment system, but I’m not really using it for this course because the content is quite basic. The next course is ‘Ten Steps to Your Next Sponsor’. That’s actually an exclusive, because I’ve not told anyone about this yet. I’m going to utilise the comments system within the platform I’m building this course on, but depending on the level people choose when they pay for the course, they do get more input from me.
The higher levels get one-on-one time with me, be that a Skype call, like a proper hour or two of mentoring session, or a live chat session on a platform we both use. I want to keep people on the right track, and give them real-time input. I’m still kind of in the research stages of how it will all go together. I do really like Slack, but it’s not that popular because people don’t use it every day and therefore forget to check it. I’m hoping that if people pay for a course and it includes Slack, that they’ll use it because they’ve paid for it. I’m exploring options and I think maybe for me and the time-poor people I’m working with, keeping it within my course ecosystem would be better so people don’t have to stray too far.
BS And what’s your completion rate? The average for the internet is a 98% drop-out rate. How are your course customers thus far comparing to that?
JS With this ‘mistakes’ course, it’s very short and can be completed within twenty-five minutes or half an hour. At the end, there are email templates, and things in there as well. So I think a lot of people are going through the course to grab the freebies and move on. I think at the moment the completion rate is just under fifty percent. That’s with a very small pool of people who are already involved within my sales funnel. They’re already involved in the Racing Mentor Facebook group and what I’m doing, but it’s good to know the course is performing better than average.
The Sponsorship Bootcamp is an email course based around the basics of acquiring sponsorship. Because it’s automated, it’s got a 100% completion rate. There are tasks within the course that get people to pitch to me as Racing Mentor as though I were a business they wanted to seek sponsorship from. If they impress me, I am going to sponsor them, and I’ve already sponsored Nick Holmes as a result of his work in the course. So there is a lot of incentive for people to complete that, and I’d say maybe 30% of people have got to that stage. Obviously, there are more in the pipeline. I do hope they complete the course, because I love giving feedback.
I already know that a lot of people who’ve done that course have found sponsors from it, so I can see that my material is working. It gives me such pride to know that my content is helping racing drivers build cars, get on track, and find new sponsors.
BS Have you ever experienced sexism in motorsport? If so, how did you deal with it?
JS I haven’t through Racing Mentor, because my customer base so far has been people that I know. They’re people who are already within my circle. They’ve mostly been friends or friends of friends.
Working within motorsport, yes. I know that a lot of people have had some really, really bad stuff, which makes my experiences pale in comparison. But obviously, my experiences are still relevant, because they show that sexism is still alive and well.
The most recent example was when I was at Silverstone for a race, but I was there just to support a friend, rather than in any kind of work capacity. I was dressed essentially in my civilian clothes, rather than a team t-shirt or whatever. I looked pretty glamorous, because I thought, ‘Hey, how often do I go to a race track where I don’t have to be crawling around on the floor near a car?’ So I dressed quite nicely.
There happened to be a guy there that I knew from doing filming for my TV show Road Trip (link here). I hadn’t seen him for ages, and I basically spent the whole time talking to him. He’s a really talented camera man, but he’s not really into cars; he was also there to support our friend. So I was explaining some racing and car stuff to him, and we got speaking to a few other people in the paddock. One gentleman was talking about all these cars he’s worked with in the past. He kept showing pictures to my male friend, but then wouldn’t show them to me.
I thought, ‘I’m literally the only other person in this conversation who cares about cars!’ so I had to ask him specifically if I could see the pictures. It wasn’t until my friend pointed out that women get treated very differently in that kind of environment that I thought, ‘Oh wow, that’s actual full-on sexism!’ I just thought the guy was being rude, but looking back I’m pretty sure it was because I was a woman.
It wasn’t until just as we were leaving, the sexist guy’s wife was speaking to me, and I was telling her what I did for a living, all of the motorsport stuff I did. He was so interested after that! I just left. I wasn’t having any of that from him.
BS In that context – being subjected to sexist treatment by someone you can’t seek recourse against without negatively affecting your career, like a boss or someone in a position of power over you – how do you deal with that? Did you do any self care? How did you rebound and stay polite even though he was treating you unfairly?
JS It’s difficult, really, especially when, let’s say it’s a boss or someone like that, there’s an element of ‘I need to be nice to this person because they pay me.’ While I don’t think anyone should stand for sexism, I think we should save our energy for the fights that matter. I was able to just brush him off, because I’ll likely never see him again.
But I think when you’re in an environment where you know that person, if you can tell they’re doing it out of habit and societal norms rather than being malicious – it’s not overt ‘I don’t think you’re good at this because you’re a woman’ sexism, but more the kind that’s ingrained into everyone – you can open a dialogue with that person. Say ‘this made me feel uncomfortable.’ Ask them not to do the thing that upsets you, and offer concrete suggestions of something less oppressive for them to do instead.
It’s easy to get caught up in our heads, thinking ‘I’m never going to be good enough; they don’t think I’m as good as a man at this,’ but most of the time you can open a dialogue if you’re calm and make it known you don’t think they actually meant it. I think a lot of people – men especially – get really angry if you say anything that implies that they were sexist, because they don’t think they are.
The problem is that they might not be overtly sexist, but everyone is a bit sexist because that’s how most of us have been brought up. It’s in the media; it’s everywhere in motorsport; you can’t really get away from it. That’s what’s sad, and I think that’s why people should speak up about it if they feel they can. But I’m aware that not everyone can do that when someone’s paying their bills, or has a tendency to get aggressive, or something like that.
For me, I don’t want to say that I’m used to it, but I’m quite thick-skinned. I was able to laugh about him with friends and family when I got home. I was able to move on, because he wasn’t a huge part of my life.
BS What advice would you give to girls and young women who want a career like yours?
JS I’d say get out there and start learning the skills you need to do this kind of thing. If it’s motorsport PR, start making friends with racing drivers on social media. Start reading newspapers, magazines, and websites where their press releases and achievements are placed. Maybe even ask for work experience with someone who’s already doing motorsport PR. I think it’s really important that people get a feel for what this is about before jumping into it.
Most of the time, you’re not going to be able to just find a job doing this. It’s more likely that you’re either going to have to do tonnes of work experience and then kind of funnel yourself through from an assistant or admin role, or you’re going to have to do what I do and go the self-employed route. A lot of people I know who are young and looking for work experience or a part-time job are looking in motorsport and motorsport only. That’s great if you can find a job, but most of the time they want really experienced people. My first PR job was in luxury interiors, which is so far from motorsport it’s unreal. But it gave me the skills to know what I needed to do to sell a story to journalists, and write a press release, and so on.
Some other advice, I think writing about motorsport is a good way to get into any aspect of the sport, because it throws you right in at the deep end and gets you talking to drivers and people in that sphere. Start a blog, or start pitching ideas and interviews to websites whose content you like and respect. You might need to do a little bit of work for free at the start. I feel a bit strange suggesting people work for free because I don’t think anyone should; I think everyone’s work has worth. But when you’re just starting out, it’s important to get your name and your writing out there, which is why a blog tends to be better.
At least with a blog, you’re writing for yourself for free, and you have more freedom to monetise that with sponsored posts or affiliate marketing. But if you do want to build a bit of a portfolio, look for websites that will take on guest content. I run a motoring and automotive website called turneight.co.uk, and I accept guest content. I pay a token fee for beginner writers, and obviously work up as the relationship progresses and the writer matures. I understand the need to get your work out there, but I don’t want people to write for me for free. It’s not a huge amount of money, but at least people aren’t writing for free because I don’t want that. I tell people off for not paying writers when they can afford to, it's not right. Exposure doesn't pay the bills.
I run two or three blogs that are quite well-read, and when I’m posting on them regularly I earn about six hundred pounds a month. That’s just from sponsored posts and people paying to place content on my website. A lot of people look at affiliate marketing and that kind of stuff for monetising their blogs, but I think guest posts on paying blogs and sponsored content and collaborating with brands can be a lot more valuable, if a little bit more hard work.
Jess has made several resources available to our readers. We'd like to encourage you to take advantage of these great tools. Your career will thank you!
- Join Sponsorship Bootcamp (an email course to help guide the sponsor search) here
- Read Jess's DriveTribe article about becoming a motorsport journalist here