Former school principal Gillian Eadie is CEO of the Healthy Memory Company, which helps people aged 50-plus strengthen their memory skills via a range of resources they have developed, including books, videos, training courses and neurogames.
How and why did you make the move from school principal to CEO of a startup?
When my mother, Jeanie, aged 92, developed Alzheimer's and needed full-time care, I resigned from almost 11 years as principal of the Samuel Marsden Collegiate schools in Wellington and Whitby. I moved in next door to Jeanie in Christchurch, assisting my sister, Dr Allison Lamont, who was also running her busy counselling practice and memory clinic.
Allison's PhD research into age-related memory loss - and the six key memory skills required to live independently - had aroused international interest and with my skills in education, we developed practical ways to develop mental fitness and 'push back' against memory loss while the brain is active and healthy.
We were selected to join the Hi-Tech Launch programme run by the Canterbury Development Corporation, which led me to contract a local company to help us with web and games development and sell the first copies of our eBook in the US and Australia. Then we were away!
We later moved back to Auckland and gained more mentoring through the University of Auckland's Spark entrepreneurship competition; we were runners-up in 2010 gaining seed funding of $10,000 and three months of business incubation in the Icehouse. In 2011, we also gained further business development assistance as finalists in Unlimited magazine's Business Challenge.
What skills and experiences have you been able to transfer from your previous career into this current business?
As a school head I lived these beliefs: every student can learn and enthusiasm and positive values need to be caught, not just taught. 'Will this help students learn more effectively?' became my bottom line for school change. These beliefs are fundamental to Healthy Memory Company's business, too.
School leaders are immersed in 'people businesses', able to communicate freely with their communities and have an unerring 'customer focus'. Independent schools have the additional challenge of very direct accountabilities to their fee-payers.
Striving for integrity and excellence in every interaction and encounter has been both an asset and a drawback for the Healthy Memory Company. We have a loyal community of enthusiastic subscribers in 40 countries - they are our business; startup theory, though, says not to delay in 'going to market'. So getting our products to the highest possible standard first may not have been the best business strategy. However, this does reflect our background and upbringing, where our mother always insisted on us 'doing our best'!
Working with board members during a satellite-school startup also taught me how to face opposition with courage, how to calculate the value proposition, the importance of positive relationships and the need for resilience, perseverance, a sense of humour and faith in the final outcome.
On the other hand, what new skills have you had to learn?
I had been responsible for a multimillion-dollar annual budget for years so running a small business startup should be a breeze, right? Wrong.
The backup I had as head of an independent school - superb board members, a business manager, an outstanding EA and a handpicked staff - cushioned me from having to carry out most of the business functions myself. While I'd analysed hundreds of sets of financial statements, I hadn't created one from scratch. My degrees in English, education, management and psychology didn't help me there! To put it bluntly, I didn't realise what I didn't know. And it turned out to be a lot. I am still learning and we've had support from amazingly helpful professionals.
My sister and I collaborate on the content of the brain tools we sell - that is almost the easy part. Setting up the sales process, online business systems and structures, advertising and promotion, finding affordable, aligned contractors, managing our social presence and the time-consuming process of seeking investment partners and routes to market have all been huge learning tasks. Each new day brings us a new challenge. And new customers.
What are your top tips for others considering embarking on a similar journey?
1. Have patience. Everything seems to take so long!
2. Have a flexible business plan because opportunities arise that are too good to ignore.
3. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Not wanting to be 'a pest' has held me back at times.
4. Financial background and knowledge is essential; if you don't have it, contract it.
5. There is definitely 'life beyond school' and school leaders have transferable skills that are assets in business.
Coming up in Small Business: I'll be looking at ecommerce - talking to small business owners about their experiences of establishing their online presence. What's worked? What hasn't? If you've got a good story to tell, get in touch: email@example.com.