Robert Gerrish needs no introduction. In this podcast he talks about the start of his business Flying Solo, and its recent sale to David Koch’s Pinstripe Media Group. Robert remains on the Flying Solo advisory board; continues to write for them; produce their podcast and regularly pops up at conferences and events.
Robert is now increasingly immersed in his latest new venture Mellow Brick Road with a focus on the ‘older entrepreneur’. In this capacity, he aims to demystify the process of creating smart, lifestyle-led enterprises and help his clients design, enjoyable, viable businesses.
This is his story. It’s a great podcast with plenty, and I mean plenty, words of wisdom.
To listen to the full interview on iTunes click here.
You can listen to the full interview on Stitcher click here.
To listen right here on my website click here.
My guess is that you are here because you are curious about what it might be like to start your own business?
Perhaps you’ve been wondering if you have what it takes? If your idea will work or even how much it actually costs to build a successful business?
I’ve written a book that can answer pretty much all your questions “So You Want to Start a Business” and you can download the first 20 pages at www.thestartupsteps.com
15 years of experience working with start up businesses are condensed into the 7 steps in this book.
It’s your step by step guide to launch your business smarter and faster and I’m so excited to be sharing it with you and can’t wait to hear about your progress.
Now here is the transcript of the podcast:
Ingrid: Hello and here we are today with Robert Gerrish. Hello Robert.
Robert: Hello Ingrid. Thank you very much for inviting me in.
Ingrid: Thank you so much for coming in. And we’re going to talk to Robert today about his fantastic business, Flying Solo, which Robert recently sold. So we’re having a business discussion from the perspective of somebody who has sold a business. But we’re going to do the same questions we always do. So, what was Flying Solo? What was that business?
Robert: What it was, is still what it is happily, which is an online community for people that are going it alone in business.
Ingrid: And when did you start that business?
Robert: It started in its current manifestation in 2005. I actually started the … registered the name five years prior, but 2005 is when it got all grown up.
Ingrid: That’s a long time ago. And why did you start that business?
Robert: Well, it was at that time when I first registered the name in 2000, I had just started my own business, on my own. Very much a lifestyle business. That is a business that was designed to absolutely suit the way that I wanted to live with my wife and with our young son. And as I was sort of planning that business and getting into the whole space and mindset of starting up, I realised that there was very little out there that was specifically for people that were running very small businesses. And having a background in marketing I spotted a niche very clearly and I thought, “Hello, nobody’s really supporting this group. I could do that.” And I was having such fun building my own small business that I gradually built a team around me and we did that to help alot of other people.
Ingrid: And very successfully too.
Robert: It depends on how you measure success, but I would say yes it was successful, the greatest success in my book is the fact that we enjoyed ourselves so much for a dozen years and we touched a lot of people, without sounding too weird.
Ingrid: Yeah, and created lots of different ways to touch people too.
Robert: The community really ended up surviving as a … Or flourishing as a publishing business model. And that’s not without its challenges in the market place, but it was a huge lot of fun.
Ingrid: It was, the whole team and for all of us that were members. So, it sounds like you had a really strong desire of what that business was going to give you from the beginning. What was the purpose? What did you want from Flying Solo from the beginning?
Robert: Okay, well, what I wanted was being able to work where I wanted, when I wanted, with who I wanted. I wanted to do work that was meaningful, that impacted a lot of people, I wanted to create something that would leave a bit of a legacy, something that I could be proud of and I wanted to get some food on the table. It’s kind of a mixture of that lot.
Ingrid: When did Flying Solo feel like it was a business? When did it actually feel like it was a real business?
Robert: That’s interesting. Well, I’m not sure that it ever did to be honest. That’s probably not what you wanted to hear, but such was a way that … I should say really quickly that this was not something that I did by myself. I might have started it, but I very quickly had the good sense to enrol the support of a couple of business partners and together we designed something that was exactly the way the three of us wanted it so, because of that we kept ourselves in check and we always made sure that we were doing what we wanted to be doing, we were working the way we wanted to be working, we were impacting people the way we wanted, we were keeping enough food on the table. And because we have that, it’s kind of uppermost in our mind, at all times, it never felt like a business.
We still used to giggle at board meetings and think, “Is this really a board meeting?” If you sit cross legged on the floor eating Indian takeaways, does that constitute a board meeting? So, we managed to keep the fun all the way through.
Ingrid: That’s such a terrific answer. And that’s actually one of my favourite questions, what is the point of something feeling like it was a real business. So that’s a terrific answer, thank you.
So, when you were setting up Flying Solo, and you’ve eluded the answer to this, and maybe just put a sentence or two around this, how did you know that people wanted it?
Robert: Well, I guess the first way we knew is that I was doing it myself, so I was starting my own business, and I realised this was the very early days of the internet. I realised there wasn’t much around in terms of support. And then things started happening, I got a knock on the door from ABC Four Corners, who were doing a documentary about new work practises and they’d somehow heard about what we were up to and got interested.
Then the Telegraph approached me to write a column, Allen and Allen approached me to write a book, so there were signals around the place saying, “Hello, we’re onto something here.” And again, it was the very early days of commercial use of email as well. Just all the signs were, we are on to something. But when we started it, bear in mind that the three of us, Samantha, Peter and myself, we all had our own little businesses alongside it. So we were doing it, not as a hobby, but we were doing it without it having to perform in terms of revenue. Because we all had other sources of income.
We had little portfolio business, if you like, I was working as a coach and a consultant. Peter was a commercial writer, Sam is a writer and has some, well had and has countless children, so she was busy. So, it just got going without us realising it.
Ingrid: And of course because you’ve got such a strong marketing background, you were able to see the signals that there were people wanting what Flying Solo was able to offer.
Robert: Yes, I think so. I would certainly say if I think of you and I think of me, I think of you as being someone who’s not only good at marketing but you understand the figure side of things very clearly. I’m more marketing and I’m not so good on the figures. But that’s again why luckily I have a good sense of surrounding myself with people better than I. But yes, I was definitely looking at it from a marketing point of view and I still honestly believe if you get the marketing right, then to some extend the money should look after itself. If there’s enough people knocking on your door, it doesn’t take long before you work out how to earn some money.
Ingrid: That’s terrific. So, that said about money, where did the money come from before it? Because you had created a website, how was it funded in the early days?
Robert: Well, it was definitely … The one-word answer is it was very much ‘boot-strapping’, we did it with our own money, but I invited firstly Sam to join me, and by then I got things going a little bit, so I said, “Hey, would you like to come and play, if so it will cost you X dollars to come and join me.” So that went straight into the business and then the same with Peter a couple of years later.
By then we built things a bit bigger and we said, “Look, would you like to come play with us, if so, you need to cough up this much.” And so, happily they both willingly did that and we put anything that we got straight into the business. And in the early days, well in fact a long way through the business, everything we made we put straight back into the business development.
So, yeah that’s how we did it. It was all done quite tightly, but also when I started the business, I was in my late 40’s so I’ve had a career with a proper job and all that stuff, so I sort of en-massed something, not much but enough that Jane and Jay, my new born son could survive. So, we kept it very lean. I worked for the first few years from a little shed in the garden. I never got much beyond that to be honest. But it’s how I wanted to work.
Ingrid: And you didn’t need much more than that.
Robert: No, we didn’t, because we were all working remotely. Sam’s up Mullumbimby, Peter lives a good 45 minutes north of the city. We did later on get more grown up and have an office and all those things, but it was a business that we could run remotely and again, that’s what we designed.
Ingrid: Yeah, that’s terrific. So, people came to Flying Solo, so if we think of the members, as the customer or suppliers, how did you attract them? How did you know where they were? How did you get them?
Robert: Okay, it’s a good question. I guess we attracted them through a few means, certainly writing, I personally was doing a lot of writing then in the Telegraph. I was also doing a lot of presenting at a small business event. So I was basically tarting myself anywhere and I love talking and presenting and writing, so it was very easy for me. We had the book from Allen and Allen in 2005 and that also got us a bit of airplay. And delightfully I would say the majority in those early days was word of mouth and it probably still is.
People even in this day and age, when everybody talks about social media being the most important thing, the truth is, if something’s good people talk about it. And that’s how it happened. We have the name Flying Solo, it’s quite a nice name even if I say it myself. And it’s an easy name to talk about, the concept is very easy to talk about. We were just at the end of everything we say, “Hey, if you know anybody else that’s going it alone in business…”. And I think we’re up to 130 000 odd members now – Australian, and 35 000 on newsletter and Facebook and Twitter and stuff.
So you know, it’s good.
Ingrid: It’s pretty substantial, isn’t it? So eventually you need it to make some money and you developed a pricing strategy. How did you go about pricing … we don’t need to know the details of the actual dollars, but …how did you go about thinking about a pricing strategy to actually generate income?
Robert: Interestingly 99% of our revenue came from and continues to come from advertisers and sponsors. So, I like to think about it as the ‘Robin Hood business model’ where we steal from the rich and give to the poor. Basically what happened was, as our reach grew, what started to happen was the big end of town were knocking on our doors saying, “Hey, how can we get in front of your audience?” And the first time people said that we’d say, “Well, that’s a great question.” Because we haven’t really thought about that.
So then we went out and spoke to some online ad agencies, which again were really only just getting started at that time. We’re very lucky that we ended up working with a really good agency and have done ever since. We’ve moved agency a couple of times, but we are represented by one of the foremost digital agencies in Australia.
They advised us and say, “Hey, this is the rate.” So, that’s how it worked. There is an element of the revenue also comes from premium membership. But that’s frankly always been a small amount and our goal was never really to charge the audience too much. The idea is they pay us by their attention. And our model was always that the big end of town, fund our play thing.
Ingrid: That’s nice.
Robert: It’s a nice idea.
Ingrid: I know the people listening to this podcast, are people who are thinking about starting a business or in the early stages, so they’re really interesting to think how that can apply to other business. How can they actually get funding from the big end of town.
Robert: I think the key thing of all of it is, again the way we started was very much, we think we’re onto something, we knew we had some traction and we just kind of figured in our slightly hippie way that if we had enough people we’d find the revenue model somewhere. That’s hardly news these days, just about every new online business or the big ones, they’re funded but they’re not getting any money in for usually a very long time. So, we we did that accidentally. I think the key thing and the key reason is that still I believe that businesses fail because there’s no market for what they do.
We didn’t have that problem. We knew people wanted what we had. The money did kind of catch up. I think what worries me more is when I see people with pricing on their website and all these kind of things and I think, am I not the first person that will see that? If there’s nobody looking at what you’re doing, if you’re not getting some traction, then pricing becomes fairly meaningless.
Ingrid: Yes, indeed. Now my next question usually is about an exit strategy. Now, recently you guys did exit, so do you want to just talk us through what actually happened. Because I know a lot of people aspire to grow a business and then sell it. How did that happen? How long did it take? What actually was the process of selling?
Robert: Well, gosh, I got to tell you it was a fabulous process. What surprised me, I really enjoyed every minute of the sales process. And that’s not because we sold it for squillions and I won’t have to work another day in my life, it’s nothing like that. Sadly. But the actual path to sell was fantastic and it started a number of years ago. We realised that we were not going to do this business forever, so we started to think about what might an exit look like and what do we need to put into place.
So we started probably five or six years ago to just redesign things that we did so we made sure that the three of us, Sam, Peter and myself were not sort of all over the front page all of the time. Because people tend not to buy business … Or we didn’t want to be locked in permanently to any kind of sale. So we withdrew intentionally a little bit from the front and bought on a lot more people to write and contribute with us. And we also did some other stuff. We also made sure we have all our ducks lined up, we had a lot of paperwork in order and all the documentation, procedures and policies and all those things that sound boring but gosh they’re so liberating. So wonderful when you actually can see your business in a ring binder. It makes you realise that you got something that people can sell.
So basically what we did, I’m in my early 60’s and so a couple of years ago I suggested to Sam and Peter, “Hey, let’s do this, let’s go out and talk to some people.” So that’s what we did. But then, we had a pretty good following, we had good relationships with state and federal government and most of the small business bodies associations and so on. So we got a good representation of the marketplace, we had nice Blue Chip clients. So it’s a good story. And we just were very honest, speaking to people and I say, “Hey, I’m in my 60’s, we’re not sure what our next stage of development is, but we think you guys might be at a better place to do it than we are.”
That was the conversation, that was the truth, because publishing online, publishing is a tricky business. Unless you’re constantly moving and developing and growing. It’s very difficult. Most online publishers don’t work. So anyway, we’re very fortunate that we met David Kosh and the people at Pinstripe. They were really pleased to become involved with us and it’s been terrific. Peter’s got a great job with them, Sam and myself have pulled right back, which is what we’ve wanted and it’s great.
Ingrid: It’s lovey to hear of an exit, takeover, sale that’s gone so smoothly.
Robert: I find it massively exciting. I think I must be missing something. Everyone tells me its ghastly but I thought it was terrific. I loved every … I guess if you’re sitting there with a business where you know there are absolutely no skeletons in any cupboards, which was the business we built, everything was there. There was nothing to hide. There was no conversation I was every worried about. It was terrific and we met lovely people and they like what we did.
Ingrid: I think when we think about a business, that due diligence process of making sure that processes and procedures are there. I can hear some of the listeners eye rolling at the very thought of having to do policies and procedures, but that’s what you sell. You sell all of those systems, that support what actually happens.
Robert: The thing as well, I think we started our policies and procedures from the day we started, and it’s not rocket science. We literally just opened a Google doc every time we did something new, we just dumped in the steps. Just little bullet points, it was scruffy but it was all there. And then when we got into the due diligence process, it was actually oddly exciting to put it all together.
The thing with a lot of potentially your listeners, people in small businesses, we often don’t think we need policies and procedures, but it just makes life so easy. I remember when I was running my coaching business, one of the first procedures I wrote down, was what to do when somebody called me out of the blue. Because often what would happen was, I would be sitting there writing something or playing with my young son, the phone would ring and it would be a potential new business lead and suddenly you got to get away from Bob the Builder and into an intake. So I had a procedure on my desktop and it just absolutely got me in the zone straight away so there might have been screaming and howling the background, but I could still speak coherently, and that’s what procedures do, they give you freedom.
Ingrid: It also gives the freedom to hand it over to someone else at any point in time.
Robert: Yeah, of course, at any point.
Ingrid: So, Robert, just thinking back, and we know you’ve gone into a new venture, because when I heard that Flying Solo had been sold, I thought to myself, “I wonder what Robert’s doing now.” I can’t imagine him lying on the beach, just gazing out at the waves. I’m sure he’s got some new venture and we will talk about that in a moment, but if you think back to the beginning of your business that is Flying Solo, is there anything you wish you done differently?
Robert: I was thinking about that as I was coming here to talk with you, because I knew you were probably going to ask that question and I can’t think of anything. So to be quite honest, let’s possible pass of just who I am, I don’t often look back and think, “How could I done that better?” We’ve made lots of mistakes, plenty of mistakes, but through those mistakes we grew, so I can’t honestly, I cannot put my finger on any one thing we did that I think we should not have done that. Really, all I remember is maybe I did something two weeks ago that was stupid. But I can’t think what that is now.
Ingrid: Slightly different question and you may not have an answer to this one, is there anything you wished you had known from the start? Because that’s a slightly different question.
Robert: Again, sorry to be difficult, there are some things that I can say I supposed I wish I had known, I wish I’d known how difficult running a publishing business was, but then I don’t wish I’d known, because if I had I wouldn’t have done it.
I wish I’d known how the world was going to develop. That would have been nice. I wish I had a little insight into the arrival of Facebook and Google. That would have been useful.
Ingrid: That’s all good. So, you’ve talked about Peter and Sam, because my next question is about who has been of greatest assistance. Is there anybody apart from them in terms of the business and you’ve mentioned the big end of town, the government and lots of partners.
Robert: Peter and Sam are just the most gorgeous people to spend a day or 12 years with, for that matter, but I would say, without sounding too piffy that the people that have been the most support to us were the community that we are surrounding ourselves with – because I always used to carry with me this little census in my mind which is “the community has the answer.” I totally believe that. If ever we were in doubt, we’d ask them. Or we look closely to what they’re already showing us.
It’s the small business community in Australia in a sense, they were the most helpful people because they showed us, they told us. Everything that we needed to bring to the fall, was in response to what they told us and showed us. We had our line discussion forums, we ran the big research exercise every couple of years, so we asked them and they told us. They are so wonderful at sharing all their innermost feelings.
Ingrid: And that’s so true of every business really. The clients, the customers…..
Robert: Totally. Ask your customers.
Ingrid: My next question is about feedback. Does the same apply to that? Like who gives really good feedback?
Robert: Well again, I would say it’s the community that does. The thing particularly if you open to an online discussion forum, boy do you get feedback. Not always lovely, but it’s always what that person is feeling at that time. So we never had any doubt at any point as to whether anything we did was being accepted or not, because we saw it online everyday.
We ask people. We made it very easy for people to talk with us, indeed they still do. If anybody put something on a contact form, I guarantee you’ll get a response a lot quicker than you expect. And we’ve always been like that.
Ingrid: That’s terrific. So, my last question regarding this, and then we’ll talk a little bit about what you’re going to do next. So for you personally and this kind of segways into the next question about what happens next for Robert Gerrish, but what are the three characteristics that you think make you successful in business.
Robert: Golly. Wat are the three characteristics … Well, I think I’m pretty good at always having a future picture and so I guess thats a little bit of creativity wound up in there somewhere, but I kind of always know where I’m going even if the path is not very long. It’s not very far into the distance, I’ve always known where I’m heading. So I think having a good sense of direction.
I would say always having a good understanding of the purpose, why we are doing this, why am I doing this, why am I getting up every morning? I’ve got a good sense of purpose. And I think probably finally I just say enjoying it, if I’m not enjoying and if the people around me aren’t enjoying it, what the hell are we doing it for? So, I have to listen back to these responses. They’re not planned.
Ingrid: That’s good. So, if someone comes to you and says, “I’m thinking about starting a business.” What do you say to them?
Robert: Great. Well done. What sort of business are you thinking of starting and who are you going to serve and tell me more, I’ll just get people talking. And if somebody … The hardest question to answer is if somebody says, “I really want to start a business, but I have no idea what to do.” That’s a tricky one. But most times that’s not the case. Most people have got an idea but what they haven’t necessarily done is harnessed it in any sense of reality. That sounds a bit mean but I think a situation I often describe is, there’s alot of people who are very skilled at doing a certain things, they have talents, but their talents may not be actually designing and starting and growing and building a business.
There’s a lot of people who are extremely competent practitioners with a fantastic skillset, but they have no idea how to get their idea to the market. So what I say is, if someone has an idea for a business then I’ll say, “Okay, tell me what it is.” And usually I’ll get an awful lot of very passionate responses of all the things they like to do and I’ll say, “Okay, so what is it you’re not so good at, what do you need to improve in?” And that’s often where people get a bit quiet and that’s where they need to concentrate their time.
Because if you think about starting a business, usually everyone around you says it’s a great idea, particularly friends and family and not to be judged by the way, they will tell you it’s a great idea and then you talk a little bit wider and people tell you it’s a great idea and often people get started on that basis without really researching and talking to enough people.
So that’s the kind of thing I ask, is how many people have you talked to, what proof have you got that anybody wants what you’ve got.
Ingrid: Proof that anybody wants what you’ve got.
Ingrid: So speaking of everybody wanting what you’ve got, what have you got for us? Tell us about your new venture.
Robert: There’s not a lot to say at this stage, basically what I’m doing, I still happily do some work with Flying Solo, I still present their podcast or I write a bit for them. What I’m tending to do now is I’m concentrating more on a new niche – which is the older entrepreneur – because I am one.
Robert: Again, when I’ve had a little look around I realised an awful lot, in fact the largest growth sector of business are people over 50. I didn’t know that until I looked. So my business now is to support those individuals, so I’m not looking to create another publishing business, but what I’ll be doing is working one-on-one with people or running a little workshop. I’ve got a new book coming out in a couple of weeks, couple of months, and I have a new podcast called Mallow Brick Road which is also for that older audience, so that’s my new bag. Helping.
Ingrid: Just say the name of the podcast.
Robert: Mallow Brick Road.
Ingrid: It’s so cool.
Robert: Thank you.
Ingrid: And that’s really such an example of the marketing, like it just speaks to the audience.
Robert: Well, hopefully.
Ingrid: What’s the book called?
Robert: It’s called The One Minute Commute. So it’s with Pan McMillan and I believe it hits the shelves in July.
Ingrid: And the book is about?
Robert: Well, it’s about starting, growing a very small business primarily from a home base, but it doesn’t have to be a home base. But it’s everything I ever learned about starting and growing a very small business.
Ingrid: And there’s lot of people who want to know how to do that.
Robert: Yeah, well I’d say having read your book recently, it’s the ideal partner of the book, to your book.
Ingrid: Oh, that’s good.
Robert: I think yours is very strong particularly in the financial side as one would expect.
Ingrid: We wish you well Robert.
Robert: Thank you very much.
Ingrid: As we finish up here, is there anything, because speaking about our audience and this audience is an audience of people thinking about starting a business and your audience is a similar group of people and you’re niching into a particular age group, any parting words of wisdom?
Robert: Well, I think it’s kind of really what we spoke about which is research – and I would also just say design it right. You can obviously design and tweak and fiddle as you go but I think the more work that anybody puts into the initial design of the business in the early days the better. So many businesses are somewhat, if not totally accidental. Business that get started because somebody says, “Hey, can you do this?” And then it’s quite hard two years down the track to retrofit structure and systems and processes and things. So I say, just do what you can to get it right from the first stage and always hold a vision of where you’re going. I’ve still got my vision board back home, the one that I did in my shed in the garden in 1999 with pictures stuck all over it and it’s still … I get breathless every time I look at that thing. It’s so weird because it’s exactly the business I created.
Ingrid: Vision board stuff just works, doesn’t it?
Robert: It does, yeah.
Ingrid: Robert, thank you so much for your time today.
Robert: Thank you very much.
Ingrid: Thank you.