Twelve questions

Sarah Stuart poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions: Leanne Graham

A teenage mum with no qualifications, Leanne Graham set her sights on millionaire status by 30. At 43, she's one of the country's top internet entrepreneurs, driving Xero's global growth before becoming an investor and CEO of GeoOp, a business app for mobile workers she plans to make a billion-dollar success story.

Leanne Graham says family financial loss and big responsibility at a young age gave her great focus. Photo / Natalie Slade
Leanne Graham says family financial loss and big responsibility at a young age gave her great focus. Photo / Natalie Slade

1. Did you find business, or did business find you?

I went looking for it, without a doubt. You can't decide you're going to have a successful career and plenty of money to retire with and a lifestyle for your children if you don't go and find it. There wasn't a lot of talk about money or business in my family, not that I listened to, anyway. My parents lost their business when I was 12. They had a resthome and it went under. When you go from a middle-class family to a family that doesn't have much money at all, of course it has an impact. You probably do have to see issues like my parents had to decide that you don't want to have those issues yourself.

2. How did being a single teenage mum shape your life?

Hugely. I was 19 when I had Alisia and I'd been working for a couple of years so had saved a bunch of money for my OE. I was going to work in the UK and have a big career over there and all of a sudden I had a child and a mortgage and a job. It was hard. But you know, I didn't know any different and Alisia and I are so close because we grew up together.

Responsibility is something I have always had in my adult life. And there's nothing like having a little person that you are responsible for to really focus and drive you.

3. How did you get started in computers?

I went to look for a job when I was about 17 and happened to find a computer company. They had two jobs going - a receptionist and a software support role. The guy said, 'You went to a Catholic girls' school, they would have had computers there.' And we hadn't even had electric typewriters. But I told him, 'If you give me three months on minimum pay I guarantee you I can do it.' Within a month I was training ladies at Remuera Rd medical centres how to use the systems.

4. Did you dream big, even then?

I met a woman in that first job - her name was Alisia, I called my daughter after her - and she would say things to me. You know how when you are a teenager you let your past create what your future is going to look like? Well, we used to have long discussions about things and she would say, 'Leanne, you can design what your future looks like.' That intrigued me, so I would picture what I wanted to happen. At that stage of my life it was to be a millionaire by 30.

5. Did you do that?

Maybe it was 40, anyway I got there years earlier. I haven't seen Alisia since but I've wondered what happened to her.

6. What creates mental toughness, do you think?

Discipline and goal setting. At every stage in my life I set a stretch goal and focus on how to get there. Often people are scared to actually stretch themselves or set goals they think are unrealistic. But the reality is anyone can have anything they want in their lives if they choose to.

7. Do entrepreneurs need an education, do you think?

In the technology business you are always learning, it's always changing, and I think for some people their formal academic education is a platform to teach them to learn. For others it's about putting in the hard yards early and learning on the job. Continual education is really important but that comes in many forms. I haven't had any formal education. I was pretty lazy at school. It wasn't until I got into the workforce that I went 'this is great, for the hard work you get the rewards'.

8. Have you enjoyed the rewards you've reaped?

It's important to have the lifestyle that you want to live but I'm not driven by money alone. For me it's about achieving goals. My biggest indulgence? I did recently buy a nice car, a Mercedes E350. It's new but ex-demo. I have to get a deal! I probably buy more label clothes than I did a few years ago but I don't even know what they are really. I'm too practical to really be a spender.

9. You've invested almost $1 million of your own money in GeoOp: does that make you a more nervous CEO?

It certainly means you're committed! I think putting your money where your mouth is in investing is really important for young companies and to show other shareholders that you're willing to put your stake in the ground as well.

10. The cloud business: it'll never last, will it?

I've been in the software game for 25 years now and I've never seen a technology change like this. The cloud is really about mobility. Many of the guys we are working with - tradespeople, mobile workers - didn't have a computer 18 months ago. They do now, and it's their smartphone. They're already using it for emails and Facebook and downloading apps. Now they can see doing business on their phones too.

11. Can Kiwis create online businesses from the bottom of the world - or do we need to go where the action is?

We absolutely can do it from here and we are. Look at our success stories - Xero, Navman, Diligent. People talk about Silicon Valley but we have amazing talent here and people are coming from all over the world to work here. The biggest thing most companies fail on is the global strategy and execution of that. You can waste a lot of money if you employ the wrong people, you're in the wrong countries and you don't get the right partnerships.

12.You're a grandmother at 43 - how did that happen?

My daughter was in her early 20s when she had her first child. I remember the phone call. I was driving and I had to pull over. I wasn't thinking about her, I was thinking about me! I'm Nana to the kids. Nana! But it's fantastic. Their faces light up when they see me and mine lights up when I see them. You're present to every moment - more than with your own children - and then you hand them back.

- NZ Herald

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