Seed funding, business knowhow and a good marketing strategy might be key to starting a company, but old-school networking is still the best way for entrepreneurs to get a head start, according to The Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence Awards alumni.
Alison Green co-founded Pantera Press in the lead-up to the global financial crisis, when publishing houses, like most businesses at the time, were risk averse.
“Nobody was able, particularly with the traditional infrastructure, to take a risk on new Australian voices,” said Ms Green, who was recognised in 2016 in the Business Enterprise category of the awards, which are presented by Qantas.
“Instead, we were seeing publishers and agents focusing on their bestselling authors, encouraging their bestselling authors to write more books, and focusing on licensed titles – bringing bestselling international authors into Australia. It was this void that provided the opportunity. No one was investing in the next generation of Australian authors.”
Ms Green’s idea also had a social impact: she wanted to donate a percentage of revenue to organisations and programs that promote literacy.
She spent a year talking to librarians, publishing houses, literary agencies, printers, designers and bookshop owners in Australia and overseas, and said she was surprised by the generosity of her peers.
“I have never met a more collegiate group of people. Every single person welcomed us into their office or home and gave us the time. Most of them said to us, ‘You’re very passionate, we love this idea; but you’re also crazy’.”
Nevertheless, it was the push she needed. “Almost overnight we picked a name, registered the company and were open for submissions.”
Have coffee with lots of people. You know, it’s amazing what comes out of it.
— Ruth Medd, co-founder of Women on Boards
For Ruth Medd, an alumna from 2012, having support from ASX directors and a community of business leaders was instrumental in getting Women on Boards up and running. Almost 20 years ago she had a coffee with sports lawyer Catherine Ordway, and they got to chatting about the lack of women in sports management and on boards generally.
“We said, ‘There’s lots of people talking about it, but nobody doing anything; what can we do?’”
Ms Medd, a consultant and aspiring company director at the time, used her network to organise a women’s business event. “Helen Lynch gave us some sponsorship to run the event at Westpac, which was very kind of her. And she supported us for a number of years.”
Government funding enabled her to run the event nationally, and in five years she had a database of 2500 women.
“We said, ‘Why don’t we try and turn this into a proper enterprise?’ So we formed a private company with a social purpose – that was always our aim – and we went from there.”
Ms Medd is an investor, so she also met a lot of people at annual general meetings. “My advice is don’t give up; get yourself an advisory group around you if you’re starting a new business, to give you a helping hand. And network like mad because there are people out there who have got a few dollars, possibly.
“Have coffee with lots of people. You know, it’s amazing what comes out of it.”
Rochelle Courtenay, a 2018 alumna in the Social Enterprise and Not-for-profit category, said that more than capital, business could help new companies and entrepreneurs by lending their voices.
Four years ago Ms Courtenay read an article about homeless women using socks and newspapers to deal with their periods.
“I just couldn’t believe that it was happening in Australia. And I was really embarrassed that nobody had done anything about it,” she said.
She began collecting supplies and soon had 460 packets of pads and tampons, which she distributed to five charities.
A year later, a friend working in a domestic violence refuge asked for more supplies, and Ms Courtenay started another collection, this time doing a shout-out on Facebook. “And it kind of went viral. People all over Australia sent messages asking, ’How do I help?’”
When Ms Courtenay needed a drop-off location for personal care products to be distributed to homeless and at-risk women, she called out to Bunnings on their Facebook page. They offered assistance the next day.
“Businesses in Australia really want to help,” said Ms Courtenay, of Share the Dignity. She now works with 3500 charities across Australia. “They want to be seen doing good and they want to do good because it feels good. We are really lucky to have Woolworths and Bunnings and Chemist Warehouse and Country Road and some really big, big Australian brands on board in four years.”
She said a good network would also help with business basics.
“I didn’t know that you needed to have licences and permits and a constitution and a board of directors and insurances and all of those sorts of things. But I certainly learnt very quickly along the way. And I only attribute that to surrounding myself again with amazing people who had strengths in the places I didn’t have strengths.”