Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How a start-up small business went international, in less than a year

growing your small businessIt's every entrepreneur's dream to grow their small business and gain an international base of customers as well as a prominent media profile, wouldn't you say? ....... But what about achieving that dream within your first year of starting-up? 

Well, here's the story of a woman who worked in the corporate arena for many years and found a way to successfully commercialise her passion through establishing a career counselling business, Career Oracle.

Based in Queensland, Australia , Kate Middleton (no, not Prince William's wife) is the founder of a business that helps people to identify their skills, interests and strengths - and then go on to locate and land the role that is in alignment with these.

Kate has achieved a remarkable rate of business growth in a short period of time and therefore I was confident would be able to share some useful tips with us .....

  • Kate, what was the motivation behind starting your own business earlier this year?

For me, starting my own business was about following my heart and commercialising a passion project. By way of background, prior to launching Career Oracle, I enjoyed 12 years’ experience, mostly in senior management level Project, Quality, Change and Business Development roles. I loved it and I was good at it. However, drawing from my own personal experience, I identified that talent that can excel in one company may not thrive at all in a new environment.

I wanted to help people find happiness and engagement in a job that they love by creating a tool that helps them not only assess their own personal value proposition; but also assess the companies that they are applying for jobs with. I wanted to help people determine how likely they are to thrive in their new environment and make an informed decision.

On top of my assessment tool, I started helping friends, family and colleagues to identify their proven achievements and then write amazing resumes, cover letters and complete detailed interview coaching catered specifically for the jobs they were applying for. My friends and I ended up achieving an uncanny record of success using my various models, so I decided to launch the website and social media channels earlier this year (2014) as a side business.
Within 6 months I had achieved so much scale that I had to leave my corporate job and start building a team. I now have market reach all across Australia and have serviced clients in Dubai, India, Pakistan, Singapore, Japan and the US.

  • How would you describe your experience during your first year of business – and how does it compare to what you’d anticipated when doing your business plan?

I am currently at the 8 month mark and there have been so many wonderful surprises. In terms of all of the traditional elements of my business plan related to launching my website and social media channels and building an audience, this has all gone to plan. My expansion strategy based on marketing, PR and building strategic partnerships have also thankfully been executed to plan.

The two biggest things I did not anticipate were firstly the rate of growth and having to employ a team so quickly. And secondly the emergence of new customer segments that I had not originally accounted for.
small business starting up
I now know that it is really important to set ambitious targets so that you continue to achieve momentum and push yourself. Don’t be afraid to think big

The other element is, if the market opens up new opportunities for you and customers from a new demographic present themselves – seriously consider adapting some of your model to cater for them. This is what I have done for my international clients and it is definitely paying dividends.

  • In a relatively short period of time you’ve succeeded in gaining quite a profile in the media – what have you found to be some of the keys to doing PR effectively?

Thank you; it has been a really fun ride. As with most effective business relationships there needs to be an element of mutual benefit. This is the approach I have taken with PR. Instead of just focusing on the hard and direct business plug, I have also contributed articles to publications that are representative of some of my core customer segments. This has been done to position myself as a subject matter expert in my field and provide some free of charge, value added information to the people who might typically use my service.

It really pays to sit down and have a think about which online, print and radio publications best represent your target audience. From there, review the articles they publish to understand some of the angles they prefer. PR does not just need to be about a direct grab on your business.

You could contribute tips around your area of expertise, pen an inspirational story about your entrepreneurial journey or participate as a business in magazine offers and giveaways. Do remember to request a direct mention of your business name and provide a live link to your website for inclusion in any online articles. Another great approach is to subscribe to media “Call Out” sites such as Source bottle. This will alert you to opportunities to contribute to, or be featured in various media stories and articles related to your product or service.
  •  What’s been your biggest challenge?

My biggest challenge has been replicating and scaling up a business model that was essentially built around my own core business acumen and personal insights into corporate Australia.

Even with the best systems, great templates, wonderful qualified staff and processes focused around service – there are some things that simply cannot be taught. That will continue to be my challenge and biggest opportunity to solve over the next year. I am now entering into a new phase where I will be pitching for funding to create really innovative mechanisms and online tools that allow others to complete a client assessment as closely to what I would do as possible. This will also be crucial in achieving the international scale I am gunning for.

  • So far, what have you found to be the most cost-effective marketing strategies for your consulting business?

I am a bit of a risk taker and am happy to go hard and invest hard to get the right outcome so am still assessing which mediums are most cost -effective. I have found the ROI on SEO quite good and that is definitely something I will continue to invest in as part of my expansion strategy.

The best, most cost-effective marketing strategies really will vary from business to business and across industries. I think the better question to ask yourself as an entrepreneur is; which marketing channels yield the highest conversion rate for me and what is the cost ratio of that converted lead?

For example, many business owners take a diversified approach and leverage social media and email marketing systems to send out offers and build brand awareness, however converting a Facebook, Twitter or email marketing lead into a paying customer is typically very low (1-2% uptake). For that reason, I would recommend thinking about who your customers are, what mediums they are most likely to be engaged with (online, email, print, radio, television) and then build your strategy and budget around that.

  • What advice would you offer to budding entrepreneurs, the ones who are still undecided about whether the potential rewards are worth the risks of starting their own business?

What does your life look like in 10 years’ time? Do you dream of working for yourself or someone else? Do you picture having a family and therefore would you like more flexibility? Are you comfortable with a certain level of risk?
Be clear on what your life feels like and then you will have your answer.
Finally, it is a bit cliché, but you will never look back on your life and regret the things you did do, it will be the opportunities that you missed out on that will weigh on your mind. You only get one shot at life, if you believe in your idea, there is a market for it and it sets a fire in your belly, just go for it!

  • Any final tips for our readers?
Be nimble, test new approaches, learn quickly, fail fast then try again. No one is going to get their business model perfect on day 1, but as long as you apply a continuous improvement mindset and always focus on great customer outcomes, you really can’t go wrong.

To that end, it also really pays to take a day out every few months to focus on strategy. Get away from working in your business and devote time to work ON your business. Look at your company / service through a critical lens. If you were an external business consultant looking into you and your team what would you change, optimise, systemise, get rid of or improve upon?

Many thanks to you Kate, for sharing with us your thoughts and experience on growing a small business. Although based here in Australia, your success in achieving an international profile and gaining clients across the Middle-East , Asia and the U.S within the first year of starting your consulting business, can be an inspiration to other entrepreneurs.
About the interviewer
Brian Carroll is the founder of Performance Development, a training business in Melbourne, Australia.  He is an experienced management coach with a passion for helping people achieve their goals in life and business. You can find out more about Brian at his Google + profile