In today’s interview we talk with Valerie Khoo from Australian Writers’ Centre who talks about her on StartUp experience and she also shares her extremely insightful thoughts and observations of other Business StartUps.
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Valerie Khoo is a journalist, author and keynote speaker. She founded the Australian Writers’ Centre in 2005 and it has since become the leading writers’ centre in the country with a community of more than 30,000 writers.
Valerie still loves teaching and mentoring students and is often asked to deliver presentations at conferences about writing, publishing, entrepreneurship and social media.
When she is not writing, you’ll find her Tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming.
Along with Allison Tait, Valerie co-hosts the popular top-rating podcast “So you want to be a writer“. She blogs at valeriekhoo.com
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Read the entire transcript of Valerie’s interview here:
INGRID: Good morning Valerie and thanks so much for joining us today.
VALERIE: It’s great to be here Ingrid.
INGRID: Firstly, we are going to talk about your business and get some insights from you. Just briefly, what is your business?
VALERIE: My business is the Australian Writers’ Centre and we have short courses in all different types of writing. Ranging from travel writing to writing for the web, to business writing, to screen writing, every kind of writing you can think of. We have campuses in Sydney Melbourne Perth and online. So, it’s really fun you know because I’m working with people who really want to write and that’s my passion as well.
INGRID: That is your passion indeed. I have a series of questions I’m going to ask and the interview will probably be about 20 mins or so. So here we go, why did you start your business and when?
VALERIE: Why and when? So I’m a journalist and it started about 10 years ago, but back then I was doing a lot of writing and getting paid for it, and even tho I was earning a fairly healthy income, the reality was I was working dollars for hours and so, you know, there was a cap to what I could earn because there are only so many hours in a day. So it was hours for dollars for words, if you know what I mean, so I realised I needed to start a business that was more scaleable, and because I like helping people to realise their potential.
I am the sort of person, my friends might find me slightly annoying cause I’m the nagger, ‘yes you can do it, of course you can achieve your dreams and of course you can do x y and z.’ I just love seeing people realise what they once thought was impossible. So I thought what can I do to combine those things, because I can’t coach someone to Olympic glory because I’m not athletic. I wasn’t really interested at the time in being a business coach, but I could help people achieve their writing goals. So that was how it started, or why it started, because I wanted a business that was scaleable and a business that combined my passions so that I could bring that enthusiasm to the business from day one.
INGRID: Great, and listening to you I can hear you oozing with enthusiasm. So when did you actually become a business? Was there a moment in time when you thought you were in a business, where it became real and you made that transition from you doing the writing and earning to you being an actual business?
VALERIE: From day one to be honest, because even from day one at the Writers’ Centre I always treated my writing as a business. Writing has an art and craft to it, and I applied the art and craft, and from day one I thought of it as a business. I never termed myself as a freelance writer, I had an editorial consultancy. I had the mindset it was a business from day one.
INGRID: A business from day one. So now the original service that you offered at the Australian Writers’ Centre, how did you find out that people wanted what you were going to offer them?
VALERIE: I guess I thought about it from my own experience because I began life as an accountant. That was my first career, but I always had a passion for writing. I always thought I wanted to do something more creative than accounting at the time. And at the time, I kept searching and looking for Writers’ Centres that could offer what I needed and I couldn’t find one that offered all the things I wanted. I could find what I needed at 10 different Writers’ Centres but I wanted to create the kind of centre that I wish had existed when I was searching and exploring the world of writing. So there was that part of it, but just talking to people and meeting people I realised just how many people wanted to write. You know, they wanted to tell their story or they wanted to tell their grandfathers story or they had a novel in the bottom drawer they never did anything with. So I realised there was a market there, but I also realised there wasn’t a Writers’ Centre servicing many people in a professional way. There were a lot of Writers’ Centres who were a little bit more cottage industry, but because I did come from the corporate world I knew the importance of having professionalism and excellence and a certain level of service delivery that some other centres didn’t. So I wanted to create that kind of environment for people.
INGRID: That’s so interesting. Something you want, and have not been able to find yourself, is often how businesses get started.
VALERIE: Yes, absolutely.
INGRID: The need isn’t met by anything and people say this is what I ought to be doing because there isn’t anything out there.
INGRID: So given in the early days it was online and you were running some corporate courses, there doesn’t sound like a lot of capital expenditure. Some businesses need alot of funding to get things started. So just without breaching confidentialities or anything, how did you fund your business in the early days and how did you fund growth? Where did the money come from?
VALERIE: Sure. Well in the first instance we just offered face-2-face courses, we didn’t have online courses from day one. That came a little bit later.
INGRID: Yes 10 years ago, it’s hard to believe.
VALERIE: Yes, hard to believe. Initially it was done very very frugally. I didn’t get investors, and I didn’t really use nay of my savings because I did things on the smell of an oily rag. For example, in our first lot of courses, I was able to, we didn’t have, our own dedicated premises like we do now. Now we have our own centre with training rooms and offices and that sort of thing. We didn’t have that 10 years ago. So 10 years ago I negotiated a situation where I could use a training room but also I negotiated that if I happened to not get the numbers, if I needed to cancel, I didn’t have to pay for it. So it was a ‘per use’ situation – fortunately I never had to cancel and I always got the numbers which was great, but it was wonderful having that peace of mind in the back of my head that I didn’t have that cost if the course didn’t go ahead. But I did things very frugally to start with and I didn’t necessarily spend up and engage a website designer or a marketing person, or an assistant or a VA from day one. I waited till I could afford those things, and then I spent on them. Until then, I essentially did it myself or called on favours, or just learnt alot of things myself back then.
INGRID: And that is how many businesses start, people do have to wait until the customers create the revenue and that then allows the additional staff to be employed, or the contractors or the services to be engaged, doesn’t it?
VALERIE: For sure, yes.
INGRID: Rather than looking for investors to invest, you actually use customer funds to grow your business.
VALERIE: Yes, well that’s what I did anyway.
INGRID: Great. 10 years was along time ago, so is there anything you would have liked to have done differently, or anything you would have liked to have known before you got started? Two different questions kind of wrapped up together. Is there anything you wish you’d known or did differently?
VALERIE: In that 10 years, I’ve lived in Sydney, Victoria, a couple of different places and I’ve travelled a bit. I actually believe that these days despite all of these wonderful concepts that you can live remotely or live anywhere, and I believe you can do work from anywhere, but I believe the correct statement is that you can do work from anywhere IF you have fast internet. So, ahh, for a period, I lived in an area that didn’t have fast internet, and the difference in productivity and you know, achieving your goals and that sort of thing, was markedly different. And so I thought it would be fine because it had internet, and I thought I’d be able to run things just as smoothly but that wasn’t the case. So I probably would have not moved to that area because it put a handbrake on things. I know that sounds an odd thing to say, but it was certainly a learning….
Ingrid: Yes, it’s becoming more and more apparent that internet is very critical, isn’t it? I remember reading an article somewhere when someone said was all they needed was a comfy bed and a superb internet connection. And so that is a great piece of advice, particularly for people starting out now.
VALERIE: Also because you don’t know what you don’t know. While I was living there, I got used to it, and so I kind of forgot what it was like, and then when I moved back to where there was good internet, and instantly revenues increased, productivity increased, and everything just seemed to skyrocket.
VALERIE: I actually came to the conclusion that your revenue can almost be a function of your internet speed. So, while I was living there I didn’t kind of realise how bad it was until I moved.
INGRID: Wow, isn’t that interesting? And you’ve already been very diligent because of your background tracking numbers and things.
INGRID: So one of the things people often want to know is who can help them? So who has been the greatest assistance to you, and to your business over the time?
VALERIE: Wow. Ok, various people along the way. But my team, basically my staff at the moment are awesome and I couldn’t do it without them. They bring different skills to the business and some of them are skills that I don’t have of course. And also as you go through your business you need different people at different times, sometimes you might need a business coach, sometime you might need a Google AdWords expert, sometimes you might need an IT strategist, sometimes you might need a marketing consultant. I don’t think you need those people all the time, I’ve typically used them on an ‘as need’ them kind of basis and I’ve found that quite useful. I will admit they don’t always work out, it is trial and error like anything in life, but there is only one way to find out and you should do your due diligence to find the ideal consultant for you. But sometimes you find that ideal consultant who comes in and can just lift your business or give you fresh ideas when you need them, because you are stuck in the daily grind. Sometimes you might have an area you are struggling with, so think about considering external help for a finite period, instead of doing what many people do and go and employ a marketing coordinator now. Because that might not be the answer.
INGRID: That’s also a great piece of advice for people. So if you, and you probably meet people often because of the service you provide for writing, if someone came to you and said they wanted to start their own business, what would you say to them?
VALERIE: I would ask them what kind of business they wanted to start and why they wanted to start the business because that is so important. I meet a lot of people particularly in the tech and start-up space and they just want to find a business they want to scale and sell. That’s a perfectly fine goal but sometimes you can see that they don’t actually care about the business itself, the actual concept of the business, they just think it’s going to be the next Facebook. It’s hard to sustain yourself in business if you don’t actually care about the product, so I like talking to people who do care about the actual product. It also depends on their background, if they have previously had experience in small business or grown up in a small business environment, then maybe their parents were small business owners, then I would have different advice to those coming straight from the corporate world.
One of the biggest things I see from corporates, is they have a wealth of experience and a great work ethic, and all that kind of stuff, but they bring a corporate mindset to the world of small business and it doesn’t always work. In fact in most cases it doesn’t work because they are so used to doing things on a big scale. Not that there is anything wrong with dreaming big and doing big things, but they do it from day one and sometimes they end up thinking I need 200 thousand dollars to start my business, so I’m going to mortgage my house. No you don’t need to do that. Or I need 5 staff because I don’t know how to do marketing or Google AdWords. No you don’t need to do that. Sometimes they over capitalise from day one if they come from a corporate environment, or they certainly have way more expenses then someone who has grown up in a small business environment.
INGRID: Valerie that is amazingly insightful and such a good point. What I see happens alot is that people are used to having services around them, so when something goes wrong with the computer they dial a number and someone fixes it, so they just have services around them that do things for them….so you are right, its that bigger picture that they feel needs to be big from the beginning.
VALERIE: Yes so I see these corporate people pay retainer services for those sorts of things, when they could really just google the answer themselves!
INGRID: Yes its all there on google, there are videos that teach you. Everything is there.
VALERIE: Yes, I’ve seen people lose their homes as a result, having come from the corporate world.
VALERIE: So I encourage those people from the corporate world to flip their mindset, so they don’t think they need to have all that corporate expense from day one.
INGRID: From day one, yes. So more about you, Valerie.
INGRID: What are your 3 characteristics that make you successful? They often have the top 5 things to be an entrepreneur, or entrepreneurs have these 10 characteristics…what are your 3, that you think make you who you are, and successful in business?
VALERIE: Tenacity, or really, tirelessness, for want of a better word. And I’m lucky that I love what I do so much that I don’t feel its work at all. Even if I work on a Sunday I don’t think of it as work. I sometimes have friends over who say, ‘can you stop doing that, can you not do that’ and I say, ‘well you are depriving me of something I really love, so shut up.’ So, yeah, a tenacity and tirelessness in a sense, but also an idea that everything can be figured out, and nothing is impossible. You might be presented with a problem, and it might seem complex, but all you need to do is break it down and tackle it one little piece at a time, and in the end you figure it out. Just an attitude that even things that seem complicated can be figured out. A third one, I suppose would be, just doing the right thing.
INGRID: That’s nice. Yeah.
VALERIE: Doing the right thing by people, whether they be customers or suppliers or whatever. It doesn’t mean I’m a pushover, but I want to do things the right way and with integrity and be respected for my decisions.
INGRID: And having known you for quite some time, you are absolutely all 3 of those but definitely the last one. Its such an important part of business and it goes with what you were saying earlier, about people who want to be the next Facebook or whatever which is about to be chewed up for a million dollars, there is no care about what you are doing or who you are doing it for. Ultimately the customer is who you are providing the service or product to, so if you don’t care about them, then you don’t care about the business.
VALERIE: And we will have some customers who are buying a $2500 product from us, and they are literally ready to hand over their money, and I say to them, ‘you know what, this isn’t going to achieve your goals. You need to do this other thing’, whatever that might be. Or you need to go away and not work with us for 6 months and then come back. But yes, I’m very upfront with people who might think that buying a product is going to solve their problems, but if it’s not going to solve their problems, I’m going to tell them honestly.
INGRID: Yes. And as you say, it might solve their problem in the future, but not right now.
VALERIE: Yes, yes.
INGRID: So if those are your characteristics, and we talked about people who may want to start a business, what’s one characteristic that you would say someone would need to develop in themselves, or need to have, in order to be successful in business?
VALERIE: A work ethic, tirelessness. You know. Nothing is going to happen if you think you are going to work a 4 hour work week. Even though Tim Ferriss wrote ‘The 4 hour work week’, he works way more then 4 hours a week. It’s a great idea in theory but the reality is if you want a successful business you have to work hard.
INGRID: That laptop at the beach vision is just not true.
VALERIE: Yeah, you can have that laptop at the beach, but you’ll be constantly on it.
INGRID: You’ll be swimming with it. (laughs)
VALERIE: (laughs). There’s nothing wrong with the laptop on the beach but you have to be connected to the internet.
INGRID: And I did hear somewhere that Tim Ferriss made that title up as a title to sell the book, not because the content lets you work 4 hours.
VALERIE: Yes of course.
INGRID: It was more about the title to get the book sales.
VALERIE: And what a great title it was.
INGRID: Yes, a great title. Finally, one of the things people don’t think about is how they are going to exit. Again, I don’t want you to tell me something confidential. Do you have an exit strategy, or strategies, have you given that some thought?
VALERIE: Even though I have an exit strategy, its not one I believe I’m going to implement any time soon. What I mean by that is that you should always be building your business so that you have the kind of structures in your business so it can be saleable, so that somebody else can effectively, if you wanted to sit on the beach for a while, someone could come in and you have the right structures in place so someone can take over. So in a sense, I have an exit strategy so that I have the mindset to have those sort of structures ready in the business, and of course we constantly improve those structures, but I don’t have a plan to exit, even though I have an exit strategy as such.
INGRID: That’s a really great point. It means you may not follow the plan but there is something there. I was recently talking to Will Edwards who has just created the first distillery in Sydney since 1850.
INGRID: Yes it’s quite amazing. And his exit strategy is what happens if things went wrong, because he’s only just started, so one of his exit strategies, he’s got 3 or 4, is if something goes upside down or turns to custard. People may never have to follow them through, but they have the strategies there. Valerie, thank you so much for your insight today. It’s been wonderful talking to you. Your energy and enthusiasm just oozes through everything you say, and you have such high integrity and you really provide such a wonderful service at the Writers’ Centre. So onward and upward for you, and thank you so much for your time today.
VALERIE: It’s been my pleasure Ingrid.