Caitlin Sykes ' Opinion

Your Business editor of the NZ Herald

Small Business: Change of direction driven by passion

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Starting new way of life and business doesn't mean checking all the skills you've learned before at the door.

Julia Charity, founder of homestay network Look After Me, has been ripped off but battled on to achieve success.
Julia Charity, founder of homestay network Look After Me, has been ripped off but battled on to achieve success.

How do you go from being a school principal to starting a memory training company? Or shift from civil engineer to software entrepreneur?

Small business owners who have successfully established themselves in fields largely unrelated to their previous careers speak of being driven by a personal passion.

Lacey Graham, of estate clearance business Twinset and Pearls, for example, worked in TV production and says the windup after six years of the show she'd been working on, as well as turning 50 prompted her to rethink what she wanted to do.

She got the idea for her start-up after executing the estate of her much-loved aunt Sally.

"Collecting antiques has been my hobby since I was a teenager and I adore beautiful old things," Graham says. "Sally was an amazing, entrepreneurial woman who was always encouraging me to do my own thing and I know she'd be tickled pink with what I'm doing."

Changing fields doesn't mean forgetting skills you've learned before.

Gillian Eadie was principal of the Samuel Marsden Collegiate schools in Wellington and Whitby before starting the Healthy Memory Company with her sister, memory expert Dr Allison Lamont.

She says she's able to utilise a number of skills gleaned from her education career in the start-up; both operate by a core set of beliefs and are, fundamentally "people businesses" where communication and "customer" focus are key.

But she admits there's also been a huge amount to learn.

"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," she says. "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."

• Coming up in Small Business: I'll be looking at e-commerce - 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: nzhsmallbusiness@gmail.com.

Q & A - Julia Charity was a scientist with Scion before launching her own business, homestay network Look After Me, in 2011

What was the process of moving from a career as a scientist to starting your own tourism business?

What started it was being made redundant from my science role. I was lucky enough to secure a job in "projects management" but my personality wasn't well suited to processes and systems so I wasn't working to my full potential.

The idea of building a homestay network sparked in November 2009 and it wouldn't go away. I was serious about building a successful business so I went to night school for a year - all of 2010 - to write the business plan. While I was still at Scion I had a chance meeting with a colleague who connected me with Stefan Korn and Dave Moskovitz of WebFund, who agreed to mentor me and said "you're launching in six weeks". So I just leapt in, really. It was the bravest thing I've ever done. But I'm a big-picture thinker and I wanted to showcase New Zealand's greatest treasure - our people - and leave a legacy. I also wanted to create wealth for myself and my daughter so I can pursue my next career - as a creative writer - without the financial constraints of having a day job.

How did I do it? I told myself "I am doing a PhD in entrepreneurship" - so I tackled it in the same way. First, I did my market research so I could position the business in the gaps of emerging markets, then I got to know who was who in the industry. Next, I set about building the infrastructure, which is essentially the website. That's been the hardest bit.

Finally, I worked on refining the marketing message and attracting customers. It's all been quite methodical and systematic really. The next and final stage will be scaling the business so it has enough profitability to make it appealing to potential acquirers.

What have been some of the challenges in terms of starting in a field relatively unrelated to what you'd done before?

Taking a new idea into a conservative market at the low point in a global recession, and into an industry I knew nothing about without an ounce of business skills, e-commerce or web development background. Any one of those factors is challenging.

Perhaps, initially, I was delusional but I've been steadfast in my goal and it really is possible to move mountains one rock at a time. I completely underestimated the amount of skill and knowledge required to build an e-commerce site, and increase web traffic and conversion rates to make sure our homeowners achieve adequate bookings. I've had to do a lot of learning and rely on mentors and expertise along the way.

The hurdles have been frequent and painful, but I think that's pretty typical in entrepreneurship. I've been ripped off, which was absolutely gutting and I nearly gave up because of that. I've been burned out and I felt pretty foolish for allowing that to happen and for the anguish I put my family through. At times I've been so broke I felt completely demoralised. But amazingly enough, it's in those toughest moments that you learn to dig a little deeper, try a little harder and when luck strikes, you feel all the more grateful for the struggle.

I'm definitely not the same person I was two years ago. I've changed and grown in ways I could never have anticipated.

What advice would you have for others considering a similar move?

Be realistic about what's possible. Think about how much it will cost and how long it will take - and then triple those amounts. Don't underestimate the impact of switching from paid employment to entrepreneurship. The first year will take every ounce of mental energy, self-belief, courage, commitment, integrity and ingenuity you can muster, create or borrow.

But if you think you can do it, throw your heart in the air, run like hell, seize and test every opportunity along the way but be sure to know how long your runway is. Because it's a pretty fine line between lift off and crash and burn.

www.lookafterme.co.nz

- NZ Herald

Caitlin Sykes

Your Business editor of the NZ Herald

Caitlin Sykes has been a business journalist for more than a decade, including eight years at the award-winning Unlimited business magazine, where she was writer, deputy editor and, most recently, editor. She currently is the Your Business editor of nzherald.co.nz, specialising in issues relevant to small and medium enterprises in the New Zealand economy.

Read more by Caitlin Sykes

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