Michelle Deaker has a proud entrepreneurial family history and she is continuing the tradition, having created several successful businesses.
“If you’re good to the people that you’re working with, they will try and help you, which will eventually lead to more business,” she says.
After spending time discussing the entrepreneurial spirit with Michelle Deaker, one can’t help but wonder whether it is, in fact, a genetic trait. Many of her family members have founded or headed up companies – most notably, her grandfather was one of the founders of SPC Limited – and Deaker herself has been building businesses since she was a student at Canberra University.
“I don’t know if I ever thought about being my own boss; I am just one of those people who is always out doing things,” Deaker recalls. “My first business was a tertiary tutoring service, which I formed to bring in more money when I was at university.”
Keeping good company
Once Deaker left university, she set up an IT consultancy firm specialising in computer and web design that eventually progressed into E Com Industries, a hugely successful prepaid card and e-voucher business that was acquired for $30 million by a UK company in 2005.
When Deaker founded E Com in the late 90s, she set out to create something unique that would leverage off the approaching dotcom boom. However, the usual suspects that hold back the development of a start-up business weren’t a major hurdle for E Com.
“Capital wasn’t hard to get because if you had dotcom after your name, everyone was interested, but [the challenge] was knowing how to get their attention and how to value the company.”
It’s a common predicament faced by both new business owners and corporate ladder climbers: getting a foot in the door with little or no reputation, particularly if you’re trying to spruik a new concept. This is where the entrepreneurial spirit kicks in and a clever approach is devised to overcome the fact that you, or your business, are a ‘nobody’.
When Deaker did manage to set up a meeting with one e-commerce manager, she then rang another major retailer and told them “we’re coming down to see Coles Myer on Monday and we could fit you in”. Deaker says it’s this sort of thinking that you have to do when building a business. “You have to build [your reputation] and you have to earn it.”
Starting and subsequently growing a business can be a lonely experience, however, Deaker has always surrounded herself with mentors and informal advisers who have provided support. Her parents have provided insight and experience that she continues to tap into, along with industry participants such as Tony Harris, the former managing director of SAP, who she used to discuss sales strategies with. Deaker is also a member of the Sydney chapter of the Entrepreneurs Organisation, a global community of business owners.
“It’s a matter of trying to gather people who believe in what you’re doing and who are prepared to give you a bit of help along the way – it’s creating a value proposition, and then, if you’re good to the people that you’re working with, they will try and help you, which will eventually lead to more business.”
In the early days of her entrepreneurial career, Deaker’s other major challenge was growth. E Com grew quite rapidly and was then hit by the dotcom crash, which resulted in some tough decisions, including staff redundancies.
“Cutting back staff was distressing, not only because I had to do it, but because it upset the other staff as well,” she says. “It was a learning process for everyone; we tried some things that worked and others that didn’t – every business is different and you need to make adjustments.”
When the industry began to recover, and the growth took off again, the company went through a transition stage.
“What I found was that there were some staff who managed that transition very easily and then I found that some staff couldn’t cope with it all – they felt threatened when we tried to move a role and responsibility even though they knew they were over worked and couldn’t keep up with the total load of the job.”
Deaker has worked hard to create a positive working environment by providing a flat management structure, while still maintaining a strong sense of team morale, so there is a feeling of belonging and a clear and approachable line of support. As a leader, she encourages her staff to actively contribute and take ownership of their role and the business. The benefits of this style of management, according to Deaker, result in a huge output from the staff who can see the vision of the company, and leaders can also learn to be better at listening to the people around them.
“I think you can [continue to] improve your skills over your lifetime,” she says. “Certainly women probably have a more consultative style of management; they’re happy to take on feedback, which has probably changed businesses in some way in the country now. Even right down to simple things like changing the face of the workplace and allowing people more flexibility in their jobs, whether it’s working mothers, etc.”
Deaker has continued her quest to build great companies through One Ventures, a venture capital firm she established in 2006. It was a logical step forward, having advised, invested in and raised capital for emerging technology companies over the years. Through key offshore networks and business partners, the firm provides backing for innovative research and development companies. “I want people working in this company to have entrepreneurial and business experience who can actually help the entrepreneurs get to where they want to be going.”
Conversely, Deaker is an active participant in the non-profit sector, sitting on the boards of The McDonald College, a unique performance arts school in Sydney’s western suburbs, and Round It Up Australia. The latter enables her to share her retail experience as the charity is built around retailers rounding up the cents on the tills, which is then collected and distributed.
“Whenever you do things that aren’t specifically for yourself, it’s usually rewarding and even if I look at business, generally speaking, most of what I try to do generally involves courting other people at the same time,” Deaker explains. “Personally, I find that you do better when you do something larger than yourself because that can be a real driver, and it certainly is for me.”