I first met Menna Davies and Sally Sutherland-Fraser a couple of years ago when their idea for a business was just that … an idea! Now …. Their business, Health Education & Learning Partnerships is a unique education consultancy based in Sydney.
Just one of the reasons we are interviewing them today for So You want to Start a Business is that this business is a fantastic example of creating a really clearly defined niche …. We love niching!
Founding partners, Menna Davies and Sally Sutherland-Fraser bring together over thirty years’ nursing experience specialising in perioperative practice.
Drawing on their nurse education experience and clinical nursing expertise they now provide consultancy services for the healthcare industry and clinicians in metropolitan, rural and remote locations of Australia and the Pacific.
Here is Menna and Sally to tell us their StartUp Story …
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You may prefer to read the transcription of the interview following:
Ingrid: Hello, and welcome. We’re here with Menna and Sally and we’re going to discuss with them all about how they started their business. They have a very successful training business. So good morning Sally and Menna.
Sally: Good morning Ingrid
Menna: Hi Ingrid
Ingrid: So let’s get started. Why did you start this business in the first place?
Menna: Well we started this business because we were working together in a very similar kind of role but in a public sector setting. And I think we both worked out that at some point we could do this a little bit differently, now we used to go for walks before our meeting down by the water and I’d say Menna this is getting ready for our time, now how are we going to do this sort of long term, so that was sort of one of the kind of promotions, I guess of it, and I think we both thought we’d like to do things a bit differently and getting to the point where we wanted a bit more time for ourselves and for our partners and I think we both worked in the public system for quite some time and realized that perhaps there was more to life than that and we both had good skills and knowledge and were both working a lot with newcomers to the operating theatre and that was really our, well my passion anyway to sort of try and promote the specialty of operating theatre nurse, and we were getting a lot of calls from newbies that wanted to get into the specialty that couldn’t, and we thought, well what is it that we can perhaps offer them external to the public system that would generate the interest and also fulfill the next generation of theatre nurse.
Sally: And also one of the things that was motivating for me was that whole idea of keeping fresh and keeping young by using your brain. I just thought we can do what we do, let’s see if we can challenge ourselves a little bit and find a way that’s really working our brains, so it was a bit like, you want to do something new, what would it be, do the same thing but use a business sort of model with it.
Menna: I mean I was, being a little bit older than Sally, was sort of thinking well, retirement perhaps is looming over the next few years, but you know it’s nothing I didn’t want to actually stop doing stuff and using my brain and I wanted to sort of think, well what else could I actually do to keep that interest going and I think this was a perfect opportunity to use those skills and slow down a little bit, as you say get a bit of life work balance, and sort of ease into retirement that way perhaps.
Ingrid: So how would you describe your business, what is it specifically? How do you describe your business?
Sally: Well we talk about being education consultants, broadly, that’s the sort of role that we would think about it, and we work within a healthcare setting generally. So our background area is as nurses and we’ve both worked public sector for a long time and I think similarly we’ve been in operating theatres and moved from a clinical role into an educational role leading to a consultancy role. So kind of a similar pathway that way.
Menna: I think so, yeah.
Sally: And so our business is sort of building on that apex that we’re consultants with a body of knowledge but we recognize that that’s the top. At the bottom is quite a broad base, knowledge of all around health care but also training, so there’s a couple of things that we can do with that, and what we’re finding is actually that the interest is mostly at the moment around delivery of education within health. So we’re running seminars and workshops, and loving it, because that’s energetic.
Menna: Yeah. And I think we realized that the area of operating theatre nursing wasn’t covered by any of the other health education sort of groups, critical care nurses have a group which takes care of critical care nurses, like anesthetics and so on, but the actual operating theatre aspect of it really didn’t have a company or a business that was looking after that, so we felt that was a little niche market that we could explore. As Sally said it’s a little bit broader than that, but that’s where our initial passion lies.
Sally: I think we thought it was more consultancy than it’s actually become at the moment, it is really much about training and education. And you know, we both enjoy that aspect of it, so we’re open to do more but at the moment we’re focusing on what’s getting the interest.
Ingrid: Great. So with all of that expertise, how did you start a business? So how did you know you were in a business and what is that transition? Because there’s a difference between what you’re doing as jobs, but now you’re actually running a business, so how is that different?
Menna: Well I suppose we made the deliberate decision we would start a business. I think the sort of planets aligned a little bit, about two years ago now isn’t it that we made the decision, yeah let’s have a go and then you saw there was an ad for the startup business course at the community college. And that was something like the following week, or something crazy.
Sally: Yeah, we said look, this is really interesting isn’t it, you know you come up with an idea and everything’s sort of just been waiting for you to sort of recognize the opportunity and, so it happened pretty quickly from that point, and the preceding sort of days and weeks, it really was only days and weeks, Menna and I had talked about the idea of changing what we have been doing and becoming consultants, and that came to me when I was travelling doing four wheel driving with my partner across Australia. It was sort of like, coming back I thought, it’s time to do something different and didn’t take much to convince Menna.
Menna: No (laughs) I liked the idea of doing it together
Sally: But for about a year or 18 months we were both still working in our existing public sector roles full time, but absolutely making that transition in terms of our approach to what we wanted to do and also getting prepared. So I started taking some more leave and that freed me up to do some of the business development, and as Menna said we did the course, and then, you know that was a bit of a test wasn’t it?
Sally: You know, we think we can do this, what do we need to do
Menna: And then I made the decision to see if I could go part time and that worked out quite well and sort of working, sort of three days one week, two days the next, and then it became week on week off, and that gave me more time obviously to concentrate on the business with Sally on the off weeks as it were. And then just sort of just naturally sort of stopped us, well this is crazy, Sally then left her job and then I went on service leave, and I thought you know, it needs to be more sort of 100 percent to the business so, I took a long service leave and then resigned from my job.
Ingrid: And that probably happened a bit sooner than you thought it might.
Menna: Possibly. But it didn’t feel the wrong thing to do.
Sally: No and in fact I was there sort of on the sidelines going wait a minute, is she going to do it, I need you know (laughs)
Menna: (laughs) Well I was feeling that pressure too you know, I was like, oh well Sally’s doing all the work there, and I’m sort of playing catch up each week that I was-
Sally: But it was fun, you know development stuff is exciting and it’s really good to share it as well, as I said, that was part of the model, let’s learn a new skill and so, you know like I got the k.p.i. and getting all those connections and networks with people like you Ingrid, I found that very exciting at the beginning, because I knew nothing about it. So here’s something new to get stimulated by
Menna: I mean I remember you coming back from that k.p.i. seminar and it opened up so many doors and sort of companies that we thought, well we can make use of those, and use of those-
Sally: I mean you say yes to everything, and then you go god I’m sick of those emails, so you work out what ones really provide the information you’re looking for and that’s been quite helpful.
Menna: Good tip. If you have the course on top of, emanating from that
Sally: So in answer to that question, when did it all happen, I think it happened far sooner than either of either of us anticipated, and that’s been really satisfying for us that the idea has actually started to pay off, and also all those things that we hoped would happen are happening. We’re enjoying the lifestyle, we’ve got a lot more control and choice, and you know there’s a whole lot of stuff that comes with that as well, that, you know, well where is the income, but you realize that if you’ve got some balance over other things those things go further down the priorities. Obviously you need the basics, but then you say, this is enough for the moment because I’m getting other things in spades.
Ingrid: So just on that about funding, so you ‘ve stayed in jobs, took long service leave, gradually transitioned into it. What other ways have you funded it, your startup, your business?
Sally: We were kind of lucky at the time that we started up because we were doing some, writing a course material for the Australian College of Nursing, one of their postgraduate courses and that was hard work but it was, it paid quite nicely, and that became a little nest egg for us to start a business. We both put in a little bit of money in it ourselves, but that was a big chunk of money that came in that allowed us to buy some new computers, and various things that we felt we needed to just sort of get going.
Menna: And after that we had a few small contracts which were, the body of work was sort of a day’s delivery but it allowed us to sort of have a little bit more income coming in. And our income stream sort of looks like an ‘easy g’ I say to people. So like every now and then there’s a spot where there’s nothing, and in theory there’s nothing. It’s partly that we’ve got some resources that we’ve prepared ourselves. I been doing a little bit of clinical work still for a couple of reasons, it just does allow me to keep a small income stream. But it’s actually more about our business and keeping that foot in the door with what’s happening at a professional level, keep maintaining access to the awesome resources you get through the public sector and employment in health and stuff. You know online resources and websites and those kinds of things. And also the relevance and recency of practice. You can’t be a legitimate authority if you’ve been out of the sector for a while. And I still enjoy that. So that’s been helpful as well.
Sally: You know a few times we’ve sort of thought, right we’ve actually got to make things happen. And it’s all but there that our twilight seminars really kind of happened. We thought we’d do that but then it was like, well we’ve actually got to make that happen. So put a few dates together and it just started to roll on.
Ingrid: It’s magic when you put dates together.
Sally: It’s magic when you actually get people to buy tickets to come, that’s even better (laughs). Menna: It’s such an obvious idea, but then you go, actually we’ve got to make that happen and that’s probably a big learning moment for us, that, you know we’ve been employees, things come to us, we respond. Now we’ve worked out, well it’s up to us to actually generate that. Nothing’s going to happen if we don’t make it happen.
Ingrid: That’s a very insightful observation. So taking that question to a fuller aspect, is there something that both of you would have liked to have known? What one thing would you have loved to, if you could go back two years, and you could tell that two-years ago self, is there something that you’d wish you’d known, or is there something you wish you’d done differently?
Sally: We could sort of use up a lot of time sort of thinking about that question because you go, but I see nothing really powerful at the front, but I think I still would have liked to have known more about business processes. I think both of us would say we are cruising along and thinking at some point the rapids are just around the corner and perhaps we should know that they’re just around the corner. You know, business processes, finances, but we’re also thinking, there’s nothing wrong with being naive and confident, because you might not do stuff if you knew the pitfalls in advance. So stumbling around a little bit on some things.
Menna: I think at the beginning I think the course at the community college was good as a broad base, a look at what we’re in for sort of thing. But some of the practicalities like getting an ABN. and opening a bank account and all those sort of practical kind of things that you think, oh yeah, we should have done a little bit more perhaps about the practicality of what you need to do now and then having a solicitor who will get you to be a company or partnership or something. I mean we’ve had a little bit of that but I guess it was then finding out the nitty gritty of what that actually means in practice.
Ingrid: And on that, have you set yourselves up legally?
Sally: Yeah, we’re a partnership, and we’ve talked about in fact just this week, that we felt we were ready to form a company because the advice we got from a couple of our network and advisors
Menna: and Accountant
Sally: Let’s do the partnership for the moment, let’s see what your income’s going to be, we’ll have a target for your income, and when we look like we’re going to hit that, then we’ll create the company. It’s pretty easy to do that but it’s harder to dismantle it. As we’ve said, we’ve got a contract that we’ve picked up that will give us a good base income while we can do some other stuff of course and we recognize that that’s probably the trigger for us to say, I think it’s time now, we want a bit more of that sort of security that the, the word company protects us a bit more, and I think that’s a bit of a master enforcer, to say (overlapping dialogue)
Ingrid: Congratulations, that’s great
Menna: So our accountant just came to sort of have a chat with us towards the end of the financial year and said-
Ingrid: For the beginning of next year
Sally: Yes, that’s where we said, look, would we do that now or because she said look really quick just let us know and then she said well OK, we’re not far away from the financial year-
Menna: How about we do it then.
Ingrid: So on that, have you given some thought to your exit strategy? Given that there’s two of you, right now it’s sunny and roses and you work well together, you’ve obviously got delightful rapport, and I’ve known you for a number of years, so I’ve seen that. Do you have exit strategies?
Menna: Well I think when we started talking about working with a business, a number of our friends that we worked with said, well I’d love to do that
Sally: The queue formed immediately
Menna: So I think down the track that I do eventually decide that the golf course is far more fetching than the office, I think there will be a few other people that might sort of come into the company, we’ve got plans to do other things as well, so I think down the track that there’ll be, I mean they’re very keen now because they can see sort of, from the outside looking in, but when they’re actually sitting in the hot seat, they might not be quite so-
Ingrid: You can invite them sort of as interns or something
Menna: But we thought of some to approach actually, because we don’t have all the expertise in our specialty areas, and there are certainly areas that we recognize that. So we certainly would be pulling in experts that we would need to run a program-
Sally: That’s actually one of the things that we’d like to do whether it’s an exit strategy or not. But it’s another thing that we can do it terms of businesses, sort of have that, bringing people in, that’s a great thing to sort of do, it broadens our capacities I suppose. And it is that idea that you know we’ve had some really good supporters who’ve kind of, look back and kind of put their hand out and said, take that step not that one here, I’ll give you a hand up. And we’ve so valued that, we’d like to be able to do that as well. Not, sort of in years but from the beginning. So it’s like, come on this is not hard, it’s really about having the financial security. I think you couldn’t do what we’re doing without that, because we make it sound easy but that’s because we’re not relying every day on some income coming in, and that’s not everybody’s situation. So we do want to help people sort of come on board without making the huge financial leap that they might have to make. But as far as, another way of looking at that question, at the very beginning, our accountant said, right, before we form anything we want some clauses about how we get out of it. And that was great.
Menna: She gave us the 10 commandments to do.
Sally: And one of those was
Sally and Menna: We don’t love each other anymore
Sally: That was number 10 I think. And what are you going to do about that?
Menna: It forced us to sort of think about those circumstances
Sally: Yeah, it was sort of like a prenup. I think we also said, I know I said that that what’s most important to me is my friendship with Menna. The business is riding on that and if there’s any sense that that’s getting shaky, then I’d be most concerned about the friendship. You know the business is a separate thing and it’d be time to sort of say, look let’s talk about what’s happening there because we don’t want both things to sort of be challenged. So I think we sort of thought through about that. Working with just the two of us that makes it easy enough. When, maybe one more person comes in or a few more, then that’s certainly going to change the dynamic.
Menna: And we don’t know how to do that Ingrid. You know, we’d be kind of OK what do we do now?
Sally: They’d better bring a lot of money with them. (laughs)
Ingrid: It is a consideration when you actually form the company, is to set up a structure where, you have a particular type of shareholding, and other people come in, there’s an opportunity for them to have different type of share or, you know, because this is a great opportunity to set that up for the future with those sorts of plans in mind. And I’m sure your accountant, your lawyer can talk to you about that.
Sally: Because we would like the business to be something that other people are interested in buying and whilst it’s Sally and Menna, if Sally and Menna, or Sally or Menna leave then it’s no longer Sally and Menna, so there isn’t the same thing to sell. So we do recognize that the longer we sort of just do what we do, the harder it will be to sort of transition to something that is a going concern. So it is about building up the services that we can maybe step back from that we’re not necessarily in front of house people and we bring in those other people.
Ingrid: The more leverage to your business it is, the better potential it has for sale
Menna: Because I think initially, because we’re both fairly well-known within our specialty, we brought in a little bit of business because of our names and who we were, but we cannot always trade on that, you want the business to be the name.
Ingrid: And in the future your systems and processes and IP will be what people are attracted to rather than you as individuals because then you’ll be on the golf course or driving across Australia. So just to go to you as characteristics of people starting their own business, if you think about what are a couple of the key characteristics that you, I can hear tones into what you’re talking about there, you appear to be open to learning, you appear to be willing to try things without thinking too much about the repercussions, but at the same time being thoughtful and considerate about what might happen. What are some of those key characteristics of you as individuals that you think you bring to a startup business?
Menna: Flexibility, I think. We both recognize that, I think we’ve both been in jobs where it’s fairly sort of rigid, sort of hierarchy and you kind of go down one path, and now we’re sort of free. We were just thinking about that the other day. We were doing a presentation at The Vintage in the Hunter Valley and it was getting pretty busy, we were thinking of what we were going to do and then you said, “oh we should really take this in, isn’t this grand, staying here in the sunshine looking at the golf course” it sort of the other side of it. You know, we’ve now sort of stepped away from all of that rigidity of that public system and the flexibility and the, you know, we can go anywhere, we were talking about that too, take the road show up there and we think, we can do that now.
Sally: I think one of the things is that sort of creative side. I get really excited by the ideas and something crazy, you know doing it in a crazy way. Menna will be the voice of reason, and caution, which is really important because you know, crazy ideas don’t always go. But I think we’re sort of working that out as well, that we’ve worked together a lot but for different employers. So that when you’re working together for each other it’s not good enough to sort of say, well “you do that”. We’ve actually got to able to compromise as well. So I think it’s good that Menna can sort of moderate some of my wilder ideas, and I hope also that Menna sees it as positive that I can say, “come on”, sometimes sort of when you’re thinking, oh I’m not sure about that. So yeah, I feel certainly working in a partnership you’ve got to have those qualities of balance and fairness and being able to compromise. And also, if you’ve got an idea being able to sort of say, I’m passionate about it for these reasons, rather than, oh I just think we should do it. You know, you’ve got to be able to sort of back that up, and if you can’t then OK well the air comes out of that balloon, that’s fair enough because it probably needed to be burst.
Ingrid: Sally do you find yourself distracted by things, like you’re working on this and then you have another bright idea and another bright idea? How do you temper that?
Sally: Yeah I am, I can be.
Ingrid: Apart from Menna helping you.
Sally: (laughs) Apart from Menna,
Ingrid: Because not everybody has somebody with them, and one of the things that I see with people starting their own businesses, they’re full of fantastic ideas, people like you, they’re always seeing potential, and they say to me, “oh I’m not going to live long enough to do all of the fantastic things that I want to do” so how do you moderate that in yourself?
Sally: That’s a really good question, and it’s making me think, have I even considered that I need to moderate it. I think I recognize that because it may just be, as an example, Menna and I don’t always work physically in the same space. Obviously we work in here a lot of the time, but then we’ll recognize, OK we’ll do our own thing over a day and keep in contact. And on those days I recognize that I can be either of two things. Deeply focused on one thing at the detriment of something else that I should be getting on to, or unable to focus on anything at the depth it needs. So it can be, swings in roundabouts, and I recognize when there’s two of us, the mere presence of somebody else and the expectations of somebody else and the commitment to the objective which is outside one of us, it’s there in front of both of us, that becomes more important. So I think that strategy certainly works. If I had to sort of impose that on myself, if I was working by myself, I think I’d really have to be structured about it, and I’d have to say, this is what happens on this day, or at least have a mentor, talking to somebody and sort of saying, “yeah, yeah, I’m still doing that, I’m still getting stuck on that, OK I can hear that” and respond to it.
Menna: We are pretty good. I mean we do have a bit of a plan for the day usually, you’re very good at writing lists of things that, OK today we’re going to try and concentrate on this and tick them off as we go. We don’t always get them done, but-
Sally: Coffee always works
Menna: There is a bit of a structure there, that we’ve got a bit of a plan and there’s always something a little bit different, an email comes in and you say, oh I’ve got to respond to that now, so I think it’s just flexibility of how to respond, or whether to put it on the backburner and say, no I don’t have to respond to that, so prioritizing.
Ingrid: And a final question to both of you. If someone came to you from a completely different field or your own field and said I’m so excited I’ve got this fantastic idea, I’m going to start a business, what’s the one thing that you would say to them?
Menna: I think find a good mentor to bounce that idea off, and I think go for it, I think just the sky’s the limit, I think, just have a go. You don’t want to die wondering. But I think finding a good mentor, and doing a course that can just give you sort of those broad brush sort of ideas and inspiration to sort of get a start moving. But I think from that maybe find a good network for yourself and chat with others from that group.
Sally: Yeah I concur with that absolutely. It is really about, if you’ve got the idea and you want to go for it, then it’s absolutely appropriate to go for it, but to recognize that that process in itself is really rich and worthwhile, and if you get to the end of that process of saying I want to do a business and you’ve worked out that it’s not going to work, you haven’t lost anything. You’ve actually gained quite a lot of insight about yourself and business, and the next business idea that comes up is going to be much better formed, much more likely to go. Because a lot of people are so cautious, they think, I’ve got a grand idea but it’ll never be the right time. You’ve got to make that happen. It’s now, it has to be now. And if now means it doesn’t work, it’ll be better next time.
Menna: Just stay positive I think, believe in yourself and your product.
Sally: And in fact, Marigold Hotel, I just saw the first one, there’s this lovely line in there, it’s really funny, it’s so true, and it says, ‘it’ll all be OK in the end, and if it’s not OK, it’s not yet the end’
Menna: That’s so nice.
Sally: It’s a funny one, because clearly it’s a disaster when they arrive at the hotel but it’s a really great sort of way of seeing the world, that if it’s not OK yet, it’s not the end, just keep going.
Ingrid: Just keep going, and it will be OK. That’s lovely. Thank you both so much for your time and your wisdom and your insights.
Menna: Thanks for asking us.