Like many budding entrepreneurs, Sarah Hillier always wanted to start her own business, but lacked the courage to do it. Then, when she was six months pregnant with her first baby, she was unexpectedly made redundant. Her hand was forced.
“A colleague suggested I do some marketing consulting work for him in his IT business to keep me busy until the birth,” recalls Hillier, the founder of marketing and training firm RAW Consulting. “It was during this time I identified a gap in the market for the specialised marketing I was able to provide.”
Three months after her first son was born, Hillier launched RAW, which has gone from strength to strength and employs 20 staff across Australia who work from their own homes.
Now the mother of two boys, Henry and Alistair, Hillier runs the consultancy from her Brisbane home. It has been a great business, but some time ago the signs of strain started to show and Hillier realised she needed help. Responding to a newspaper advertisement, in 2009 she entered the Optus ‘yes’ Coach competition, an online business reality show. From more than 1000 entries, she became one of the three finalists where part of the prize was a 12-week business coaching course. The Optus prize gave her an opportunity to expose RAW to the more sophisticated techniques of fast growth operations.
The 12 weeks of coaching highlighted the systems she needs to implement to take the business to the next stage. “At first I was a bit scared,” Hillier says in reaction to her win. “I thought, ‘How on earth am I going to fit this all in?’
“Initially, we talked about how we could find an extra hour or so in the day to focus on the business, and there was no way I could have dreamed of finding that extra hour. But now I do and actually enjoy it because it’s the hour that I spend working out how I’m going to get the business to where I want it to be.”
Cash flow is a challenge for most businesses, and RAW is no exception. “Cash flow was our number one issue [when we undertook business coaching],” Hillier admits. “I simply wasn’t prepared at all for the growth of the business and by June 2008, we were very much on life support.”
In her first coaching sessions, Hillier came to see there was more to the cash flow issue than meets the eye. More than just a juggling act between incoming revenue and outgoings, she found the dilemma was “symptomatic of the bigger issues underlying the business”.
Coach Lesley Ann Grimoldby explains Hillier’s problem: “She said at the beginning that cash flow is one of the issues. But it’s because she’s working with some quite big clients who she’s invoicing monthly, and yet she is very keen to pay her consultants immediately. She’s paying them weekly, and there’s a disconnect there.”
A great business can be profitable, but go broke if it cannot make payments. Growth becomes a nightmare and money woes can strangle business goals.
Coaching has been a wake-up call for Hillier, particularly around the cash flow challenge. Whereas once she would have simply blamed clients who did not pay on time, after a few weeks of coaching with Grimoldby she realised this frustration was “just scratching the surface of the issue”.
“When I originally started talking to the bank, I believed the issues were about my suppliers, so we were looking at some options – debtor finance being one of them,” Hillier explains. “But now that I realise there are probably other issues there, I need to go back to the bank and talk about the best option for RAW.
“We have a very aggressive growth strategy and need to be able to have access to more cash. I’m scared about committing to something that’s too big for us.”
Hillier now realises that her ‘obligation’ to pay her contractors as if they were employees on a weekly or fortnightly basis is misplaced. “Really, I need to step back and say, ‘As contractors, they need to be a little more flexible with their payment terms as I am with my suppliers’. They will need to understand where RAW is going, and whether they’re going to embrace that.”
Hillier has moved to develop a ‘positioning statement’ with contractors that clearly explains payment issues. “They don’t have clarity over their arrangement with RAW. So we need to do it for them and for us.”
She has also moved to solve some banking issues, specifying her goals and being up-front with her financial institution about her needs. “I’ve now altered my supplier and customer payment terms, switched to a more supportive bank and started to manage my cash flow via a worksheet on a daily basis.”
Leading the charge
Other benefits have come from coaching. Setting goals has become more formalised, as evidenced by a newly written statement of strategic intent on the wall in Hillier’s home office. “I had an idea of where I wanted RAW to go, but I hadn’t written it down,” she says. “And there’s a bit of fear in that too – when you’re writing it down, you aim to commit to it. Whereas now I’m writing it down and committing to it.”
With her business processes in place, RAW is ready for the next step forward. “I am motivated by my desire to succeed and to also give other people the opportunity to work from home,” Hillier says. “At this stage of my business life, I am still learning. Every day presents a new challenge and I am always willing to take on board feedback from others, especially those who have been there before me.”
Great leaders must be willing to make the hard decisions and have the passion to create a great business – and that is what Hillier is doing. “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” she says. “Get on top of cash flow early, and most importantly realise you are not your business and your business is not you.”
View from the top
Finally, it seemed apt to find out Hillier’s views on marketing.
“Bill Gates was recently asked what he would do if he only had one dollar left. His response: ‘I would spend it on marketing.’
“Most small business owners know the value of marketing, but don’t take the time to invest in creating a clear and strategic plan. Instead they choose to undertake activities in a scatter gun approach. More often than not, this results in more wasted time and money than results.”
Hillier says that crucial to the success of any business is the development of an accountable and manageable marketing plan. “One that contributes to achieving business goals. Without a marketing plan a business has no clear direction.”
But she says a marketing plan shouldn’t be convoluted. “It doesn’t have to be an overwhelming 100-page long document, but it needs to be a practical, concise plan that provides you direction and an outline of activities that will help achieve your goals.
“The main purpose of the marketing plan is to generate new customers and retain the current ones. The first step in doing this is in understanding who your customers are and what buttons you need to press to get them interested in your business.”
She points to a recurring response from small businesses when asked who their target market is. “They often say, ‘Anyone and everyone!’ Obviously marketing to everyone is no easy feat. A good way of making this task more strategic is to create an ideal customer profile, which outlines a description of the perfect customer for your business. This profile can then be used as a guide to choose the best ways to market to them.”
Hillier says another key element of marketing that is often overlooked by small business owners is the concept of a brand.
“Regardless of how big or small a business is, it is vital to create a brand, believe in it, embody it and ensure that no matter what you do, it is consistent. A consistent brand says a lot about the professionalism of a business.”
It’s a strategy that’s certainly paying off for RAW.