Brenda Miley started Let’s Go Surfing 20 years ago and we talk to her for our 20th episode of So You Want to Start a Business.
This Week on So You Want To Start A Business Podcast:
Brenda Miley started Let’s Go Surfing 20 years ago and we talk to her for our 20th episode of So You Want to Start a Business.
Let’s Go Surfing is located on Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach and has taught thousands of people to surf. Let’s Go Surfing is now also located in Maroubra and Byron Bay.
In this compelling interview Brenda tells of her Business StartUp journey. The interview took place at Bondi Beach and you can hear birds dogs and if you listen closely you might even hear the surf.
Podcast Full Transcript:
INGRID: Hello, and here we are with Brenda Miley, the founder of Let’s Go Surfing, and currently the Surf School Director. Hello, Brenda.
BRENDA: Hi, how are you?
INGRID: Great. Thanks so much for making yourself available today. So, I know it’s a long time ago, but when did you actually start your business?
BRENDA: Well, I started my Let’s Go Surfing in 1995 out of the back of a van, with an idea to promote women in surfing.
INGRID: So that was the why. And when you say promote women in surfing, what does that mean?
BRENDA: When I grew up surfing, there weren’t very many women surfing, and I had always surfed. I mean, I’m sounding old, but when I grew up there wasn’t any such thing as women’s wetsuits or board shorts or anything. You had to wear men stuff. So, it was a very male-dominated arena. And I used to compete an all-boys club and I used to go and try and pick up some girls in my van and take them to the comp so they’d compete. And every time I got there, they didn’t want to go in because they were too nervous because of the boys. So I felt, maybe if I start coaching them, then that can help them. And that’s how the idea started.
INGRID: Okay. And so, in those early days, when you say coaching them, were you charging them money or was it really something you were doing… Like, was it actually a business in those days?
BRENDA: Look, I always call it market research, but I did charge money. But at the same time, I was a PE teacher. So, I decided though I wanted to start coaching surfing. I was a full-time PE teacher, and then I coached on the weekends, and I did charge money, but I never knew how much money I got and I’d always discount. I mean, it was actually the good old days. I had a bum bag full of cash.
INGRID: And you just took that to your accountant every day.
BRENDA: Yes, every now and then. And as things developed, I drop a day of teaching until eventually I stopped teaching and I went into a shop and decided to make this my real job. And that’s when the real business began.
INGRID: So that was when it became a business? When you took on a shop?
BRENDA: Yes, because all of a sudden I had overheads. Before that, I didn’t have any overheads. I had cash and I was having a nice time, but I thought I wanted to have a go at this. So a shop became available, an old laundromat at North Bondi, which nobody wanted. So I went into that with my boyfriend at the time who is now my husband, and he was good at sales and marketing and I was good at coaching surfing. So, we thought maybe we can work this together. And 20 years later, we’re still running a business together and we’re still married. So, take on both sides I think.
INGRID: Wow, and you’re now teaching hundreds of people how to surf?
BRENDA: Yes, definitely. We teach thousands a year.
INGRID: A year. Wow, isn’t that amazing? We’ll talk a little bit more about that in a moment. So, you were going to teach girls. Did they want to learn to surf, or did you tell them they wanted to learn to surf? Because that’s quite a different thing. Is it a bit of both?
BRENDA: It’s an interesting conundrum of the chicken or the egg. It was at a time where… There was actually no such thing as a surf school, and I came upon the surf school idea at a time when there was a few other people just starting. So, as soon as I opened the doors and people knew they could learn, we were actually flooded with people. Because I was a teacher, I specialized in kids so I had the kids market and I knew what to do and knew how to teach lessons with kids. And then also, women always want to learn things. Women are very good at learning and putting their hand up to say they need help.
So, I started with lots of women and kids, but interestingly men started coming too. I would operate out of the back of the van and all of a sudden I needed staff and I had people to help me, and the business just sort of grew from there.
INGRID: It sort of grew. And sort of in those days, when you realized it was a business, did you start to think about really structuring it properly as a business? Because now you’ve got staff, you have to have an HR department, you have to have rules and regulations, occupational health and safety. I mean, you would’ve had insurances, so many aspects. How did you know about all of that when you were — Because as a school teacher, you wouldn’t have been taught much of that.
BRENDA: Well, I didn’t know anything to tell you the truth, and neither did anyone else because there wasn’t an industry then. So, I knew I had to get insurance, so I got that organized from day one, and then I just developed the programs myself and just kept working and working and seeing what worked, what didn’t work, and I just kept moving forward like that. But I had no grand plans, I had no big structure. The only thing I did do was when my husband and I decided, “Let’s try and make a living out of this.” It was like we jumped off a cliff. It was more making the decision to jump off the cliff or not jump off the cliff.
And I started reading business books and I was going, “Wow, I haven’t done anything these business books tell me to do.” Which means I should have had a plan in place before I jumped, but I just jumped and thought, “Yep, I’ll fix it as time goes on.” So, that worked for a little while. But then when real business starts, which means you’ve got overheads and you’ve got rent to pay and you’ve got staff to pay, you have to start putting a bit of a plan into place, otherwise you get into trouble.
INGRID: And into trouble could be cash flow?
BRENDA: Cash flow, yes. All to do with money.
INGRID: All to do with money.
BRENDA: Yes. The trouble is all about money.
INGRID: It’s always about money. That’s right. So, in those early days, were you taking the bookings and getting people to fill in forms and putting them on their surfboards and teaching them, how early did you start to get other people to help you with things?
BRENDA: Well, basically we did all ourselves, because in some ways you have to do it all yourself to know what needs to be done before you can start passing it onto someone else. So, yes, I would have the phone at home and I could take bookings at 11 o’clock at night. Six o’clock in the morning.
INGRID: And there wouldn’t have been an Internet in those days either, would there?
BRENDA: No internet, no.
INGRID: Hard for people listening to imagine there was a time when there was no internet.
BRENDA: Yes. Well, it was actually… I was talking about this the other day. Our marketing was, I used to photocopy a million fliers, and I would sit with my mom and we’d pull them all in envelopes and then put stickers on it and then go and put the stamps on it. And that would be a couple of afternoon’s activity for my mom and I, which was sort of fun. But I mean, you had to make the post office at the right time to make sure it got through to everyone, and that was marketing.
INGRID: That was your marketing. So, in terms of funding the business, so you would’ve had to have paid a bond in the laundromat, although as you said nobody really wanted it so perhaps that wasn’t so much, but did you buy surfboards and wetsuits? Where did that money come from? How did you fund the business? Particularly as you both started to give up your jobs, where did that money come from?
BRENDA: When I first actually started in the van and with the surfboards, I borrowed 5,000 dollars from a friend and paid that back about two years later, which I felt really bad about because I couldn’t afford to pay that back at first. So, that’s how we started, then we got a loan on top of the mortgage. So, we had owned a unit which [inaudible 00:08:10]. And I think we just borrowed a little bit more money on the mortgage and invested that and spent as little as possible on the renovation of the shop, because we had to transform a laundromat into a retail shop, and we did that as cheaply as possible, and just bought some boards. And then as cash flow improved, then we would buy more boards and then we would buy… We had to work with the cash flow to buy the next stuff.
INGRID: Yes. And in terms of pricing, over the years, how have you decided — you said in the early days you discounted when you charge, but you clearly got a pricing strategy now. But in between those two, how did you decide how to charge people?
BRENDA: Well, originally, I just pulled a number out of the air. I’m sorry if any business advisors are listening. And then, I sort of worked out how much would it cost me to pay an instructor, and worked out what I would have to charge to cover that and times’d it by three because I heard that’s what you had to do.
And then, we sort of just went along that path a little bit, and then we decided to get into the tourism market. And the tourism market is where you have to give 25 percent of your business to an agent, so you have to do your pricing accordingly. So, that’s when we started doing proper pricing and making it work for the business. So, we got accountants and business advice at that point. But that was about six or seven years after I started.
INGRID: Okay, so at first, you funded all of that yourself and you managed to pay…
BRENDA: But you know, the interesting thing traditionally, now in my business I have a lot of staff and I have people who are managers. And I don’t go to pricing meetings all the time, because I traditionally will charge too little for everything.
INGRID: Let the managers make the decisions.
BRENDA: Yes, because I’m probably… The typical issue that women have is that sometimes we feel like we don’t want to put the prices too high. We don’t value ourselves enough. I mean, obviously, I’ve changed a lot and I know that it’s important, but…
INGRID: Well, the thing is, you’re responsible for a lot of people in that business aren’t you? I mean, how many people are in the team now altogether?
BRENDA: Well, I send a text out to all the staff and there were 64 that I sent the text to. Because we had some full-time people and we have a lot of casual staff. So sometimes, they come and go and never quite sure where some of them are.
INGRID: Yes, and that’s across three locations? You’re here in Bondi, and in fact everybody can hear the birds and if we listen we can hear the surf, and you have another location at Maroubra, and then also at Byron Bay.
BRENDA: In Bondi and Maroubra, the staff often cross-over and work at both locations. Byron obviously is further away so they have their own staff
INGRID: So, how do you find new customers? So, you said that about the travel industry, so they help you find customers– I mean, you’ve got a very good reputation 20 years down the track. People associate surfing and Bondi and you, but where did new customers come from?
BRENDA: Well, actually, at the moment, my husband’s on a sales mission in the US. So, we’re always looking to partner with inbound tour operators. We go to the US, UK, Europe and China, and we look for people who are bringing people into Australia and partner as their surf school. So, we find them that way. We find them on social media, but also you really can’t go past word-of-mouth as well. It’s good to keep your current clients happy and with you and loyal, but finding new customers is important as well.
INGRID: Yes. So, do you have a strong following here in Sydney itself, like, people who actually live here? Is there a percentage of your market is that or is it predominantly travel?
BRENDA: Yes, no, and look, because we’re at Bondi, we’re at a place — we’re very fortunate it’s a bit of a catch-all because there’s a strong community. So, we work with kids and school groups and community groups. There’s a lot of adults who want to take on the surfing lifestyle of various times of their life. So, we have a strong local connection, and then we also have tourists, some who want to come for one surf and some who have moved here for a year and they’re going to take up surfing as well. And we also work in the corporate market.
So, we have a lot of markets. And one of our goals is to also provide access for all. So whilst we charge for all of our programs, we also do a lot of community work that’s low-cost to no-cost because we have the privilege of being the only surf school in Bondi. We need to make sure everybody can have a chance to surf with us.
INGRID: How did that come about, Brenda? Is that a trade secret? How did you get to have exclusive use of Bondi?
BRENDA: Well, interestingly, I started the surf school and sent a letter to the council 20 years ago, and I remember going into the man who had to make the decision and he almost patted me on the head and said, “Look, good luck. People have tried this before. It will never work but go for it.” And so I said, “Okay, thank you.” And walked out.
So, I had a letter giving me exclusive use of the beach. And then a few years later, obviously the surf school industry started to develop and other people wanted to use the beach, so it had to go out to a tender process. And so, over 20 years, I’ve been through about three tender processes, but they only want one surf school on the beach which is fortunate. And I just make sure that I do the best job that anyone could possibly do so there’s no reason to not provide us with the tender. I mean, that’s how I operated.
And in some ways, it’s a scary thing but it’s a good thing because it keeps us having to be the best we can possibly be. We can’t rest on our laurels forever.
INGRID: In anyway, no.
BRENDA: But it does go out to tender and there’s an opportunity for us to lose it, but we just won the last tender last year and it’s for 10 years.
INGRID: Oh, wow. That’s good.
BRENDA: So, that’s 10 years.
INGRID: Yes. So, with that then, in terms of an exit strategy, is that something you’ve ever really thought about?
BRENDA: I’m starting to think about it more now because I’m getting a bit older, and I go around in circles because I always think, “Well, what else do I really want to do?” And I think, “I created this business. It’s something that I love and I work on the beach every day.”
BRENDA: This is my office.
INGRID: This is the office, that’s exactly right. You know, half of the world aspires sitting at your beach with your laptop and doing your work.
BRENDA: Yes. But you know, one day, I would hope possibly to sell to somebody if I’m going to leave it. But I mean, I have to think about that a bit more.
INGRID: And as you said earlier about how women approach business slightly different and we approach learning in a different way — I think we think about the exit of a business in a different way as well. A lot of people start a business but then actually think through what the exit part of it’s going to be because it’s providing lots of different things. I find many people don’t think about it at all.
BRENDA: Yes. And you know, I never really thought about it that much because I always thought, “Oh no, I keep doing this because it’s fun.” I mean, in terms of a business, this is a fun business to run.
INGRID: And you bring a lot of pleasure to a lot of people.
BRENDA: Yes, and it’s nice because people come and everyone said they had a nice time. But you know, actually running a business is hard work. Sometimes it’s not fun, but that’s also personal growth for me as well. But I guess, yes, I would think about it in terms of leaving a legacy and doing something good. There’s something about providing something valuable when you run a business, and it’s not just about money.
I know for some people, some people operate businesses to make money and that’s it and move on, and I know the definition of running a business is about profit and making money, but I think running a business is so much more than that.
INGRID: So much more than that, yes. So, if we think back over the years, I’ve got a couple of questions around what would you do differently, what you wish you’d known — So, if you think back, is there anything that you wish you’d done differently?
BRENDA: Sometimes, I’m a bit slow in changing things that need to be changed but I don’t necessarily think I would do anything differently because they’ve created something from nothing every time something changes. It’s a new experience anyway that nobody knew about. And you know, we learn from those mistakes. And you know, anything I could think where things have gone wrong… When we fixed it, it was always a great learning experience that made things better. So, I don’t know if I’d change anything.
INGRID: And I guess it’s a similar question, but is there anything you wish you’d known that you had to learn the hard way, that if there was some way you could’ve learned that, an easier way?
BRENDA: I think it’s more about the actual running of a business. My skillset is I’m a surfer who is a teacher, so I’m really good at that stuff. But I’ve had to learn how to run a business which is a completely different set of skills. But if I think about, would I have put the time and effort into doing that when I was 20-something? No, I probably wouldn’t because it was all about what’s going to be fun.
INGRID: So, if somebody came along to you now, and I know you do work with people who are starting businesses as well, you have a very strong association, what do you say to people who say to you they want to start a business?
BRENDA: Well, I often hear someone wants to start a business because they want to make a million dollars. And there’s one way that you’re going to be successful in business, and that is through hard work and perseverance. And when things go wrong, you need to harden up because you’re not the only one that something’s going wrong too. You got to harden up and move with the times and fix whatever needs to be fixed and keep going. So, running a business isn’t for everyone, because some people really want to have that safety net of a definite income. And that doesn’t happen in business straight up, and it doesn’t happen for everyone. And you’ve got to make decisions along the way about what you actually want.
INGRID: And in terms of — there’s always getting people along the way that have helped you and even that little fellow there at the council who had helped you in his own way, didn’t he — and whether you name them or not — but who are the sorts of people that have really contributed to the overall success of your business?
BRENDA: We’ve had a few — originally, when I first realized that I was struggling running a business, that was in the very early years, I went to Women in Business Mentor Program, and that program itself helped me. And basically looking back, any time I’ve asked for help, it’s always helped me. So, originally, when I went there, that helped me because I looked around and I saw all these other women who are in the same boat as me because I thought I was the only one who didn’t know what I was doing in life and everyone was great at business except me. I realized there’s a whole bunch of us out there.
So, that gave me some motivation that, “Okay, I’m on the right path. I can keep going with this.” And then, I’ve had three other business-type mentors who helped me. And I stayed with all of them, a couple of them just for a short amount of time, but you sort of get what you need and then you move on. So, a couple of business mentors, and then I currently have a business mentor. Usually, you go looking for help when your business is changing somehow. So, either you’ve grown or there’s been a problem. So, I went to the first business mentor when I was growing, I went to the second one when I had problems, and the one I’m at now is because we’re in a growth phase.
INGRID: In another growth phase, yes. And that you just need that outside perspective to help you.
BRENDA: Well, because you’re too much focused in the business and you can’t see your own issues properly. You know there’s some issues, but you can’t see them properly. A business mentor is someone who’s generally been there, done that, and can just see it so clearly. Even if they can give you just a couple of tips, they can be tips that transform your business.
INGRID: So, like you said, you’ve always been very good at asking for help and that’s a key characteristic. If you think about the characteristics that you have that have made you successful, what would they be? What do you think has made you successful? You’ve hinted about a few different things along the way, but if you had to just narrow them down to two or three characteristics that have made you successful?
BRENDA: I guess one of them is being a risk-taker because it’s risky business going into a business, going — “Uh oh, I don’t know when my next paycheck is coming.” And you have to be someone who’s happy to do that and then back yourself, and not everyone can do that. So, being a risk-taker, having a hard work ethic, not saying “I don’t work on Saturdays and Sundays because it’s the weekend”, because when you run a business you’re pretty much on call all the time. Even if you’re having days off, you just are on call. And in saying all that, I’m not what you’d call a workaholic, but I do work a lot because I do like to take my holidays, you know, a tropical location and surf.
INGRID: And you have good managers in place who can take care of the business when you’re not there.
BRENDA: Yes. I mean, I can only do those things because I put those things in place. So, yes. Being hardworking. And also, I think being a good listener because you need to listen to your clients and you need to listen to the staff, and you need to then be able to act on some of those issues so that the machinations of the business keeps working and you’ve still got clients. And the other thing I find that is being a key to success is being a giver. So, I always have thought, “What can I give to the community? How can I help?” And I’ve never sort of wanted anything in return. But when you do give things, when you can and when you do, you always get something back in return. And it works in business. I think it works really well.
INGRID: That sense of generosity, providing…
BRENDA: Yes. Just giving something back to someone, just helping people I think always works. Yes.
INGRID: Thank you. So, I guess we’re coming close to the end. We’ve talked about what you would say to somebody. So, if they’re your characteristics for someone starting a business, are there absolute characteristics that you think someone needs to have in terms of starting a business? So just to finish with, how would you… Because the people listening to this, the sorts of people who are wanting to start a business and are looking for advice, for insights from people who’ve done it.
BRENDA: Well, you definitely need a passion for what you’re doing, but you have to be prepared to work hard and work in the business and on the business. Because I’ve seen people go, “I’m going to buy this cafe.” The cafe next door to us, because they wanted to make a million dollars in a cafe. But at the end of the day, none of them wanted to work, so that cafe lasted about six months and then it’s been empty for another six months. So, you need to have passion and a hard work ethic, so that when you’re actually working it doesn’t feel so much like work. It feels like you’re doing something that you want to do.
And I think that’s the key thing. You also need to be realistic, and not throw everything away because you’re not making money in the first five minutes. You’re probably not going to make money for a little while. You need to accept that, but you need to push through it and keep working towards getting the money in. I see a lot of people, if you focus too much on one aspect of business, it can affect poorly on the other aspects.
So for example, some people are real details-people, and they won’t do anything unless they’ve got all the details correct, and then they’re going to lose opportunities so then their business doesn’t fire along. And then you’ve got other people who don’t do anything with the details and they create everything, and then nothing’s happening behind the scenes so they’re going to lose money that way.
So, we all have our traits and the direction we go, but you need to focus a little bit on all of the different aspects of business just to keep it moving forward.
INGRID: Keep it moving forward.
BRENDA: And I would say– I remember reading once, running a small business or running a business is not for the faint-hearted, and it’s not.
INGRID: It’s not.
BRENDA: It’s not for everyone and it’s not a bad thing if it’s not for you. But if you’re willing to have a go and work hard, and take your passion somewhere, then it can be really rewarding.
INGRID: And I think you’re a perfect example of that, and to take surfing before surf schools were even thought of. So, yes, you’re quite an inspiration, Brenda. Thank you so much for your time today.
BRENDA: Oh, thank you. It’s been nice being interviewed. Thanks.
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