Working holiday

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Three-and-a-bit hours south of Adelaide, Debra Mackey and her husband Richard have set up shop. Or, more accurately, they have set up shack. 

Their business, Happyshack, run from the Mackey’s very own happy shack, is a property management business with a difference. Their clients’ home away from home is their first priority – with services ranging from garden care to stocking up the groceries; from booking a restaurant to babysitting. 

It is no surprise that Robe is the holiday destination of choice for many Adelaide-ians. Sitting on South Australia’s Limestone Coast, the historic town has long been a tourist haunt and a welcome respite from the rat race of the city of churches. 

Founded in 1846 at the southern end of Guichen Bay, Robe was once a busy seaport, and boasts Colonial-era buildings, tranquil lakes and cult-worthy crayfish. But the history is not restricted to the architecture. 

“I’ve got four generations of family here as well, so it really is ‘real’ home,” says Debra. 

The Mackeys, however, have not always called Robe home. Even though Richard holidayed in Robe as a boy, the pair made a life for themselves in Adelaide, where Debra had moved when she was 18. There, she worked in office administration, he in sales. 

Whether it can be blamed on inner city pressure, Sigrid Thornton or even good old-fashioned homesickness on Debra’s behalf – the two soon decided that the big smoke wasn’t for them and opted for a sea change. 

“We’d come down for holidays all the time – for weekends and Christmases and every time we went to go home, we were just miserable. We didn’t want to go back to the city, me especially. One day, I just said, ‘That’s it, I’ve had it. I want to go home’.” 

The problem they then faced was how to earn a crust on the coast. 

“There was this real little niche in the market. You’ve got your B&B accommodation and then you’ve got the real estate agents doing property management, but there was no-one in the middle doing a really good holistic property management service, taking excellent care of the properties and the guests. Holiday homes in Robe are massive.” 

Massive both in size and in number, Debra decided that looking after these abodes would be their ticket home. 

Think big

For the few years before they fled seaside, Debra worked for an accounting practice with a heavy focus on business coaching. The lessons and systems she learned here proved invaluable. 

“It was a good start to knowing exactly how to start [a business] and what to do from the outset.” 

And Richard’s sales experience meant “he was very, very good with people”. 

The pair had never worked together as a couple, but it seemed a natural progression. 

“We just get along,” says Debra. “We try and keep work and business as separate as we can. But we made sure when we started that we really did plan it. We knew who was doing what job, who was responsible for what, and cut it up as if it was a huge business already.” 

Debra believes this is the secret to having a successful small business – to act like a big one. “I think that’s the reason people took us seriously to start with. From the very beginning, we had everything – our uniforms, advertising on our cars, we were prompt, we answered our phone every single time.”

It’s this attention to detail that sets Happyshack aside from other property management services. “The average property manager with real estate will not attend to every little thing every little time. With ours, when they get down the house has already been checked and cleaned and is pretty, shiny and sparkly for them when they get here.

Debra says they implemented systems from “the get go”. 

“Everything followed these same systems, from how we fold a roll of toilet paper right through to how we answer the phone. Everyone did it exactly the same. And that made it appear frightfully organised.”

This approach was a welcome change from the traditional lackadaisical country town mentality. 

“People thought we were a lot bigger than we actually were. The phone would be answered by one person and then you’d be put on hold and put through to the other person and that kind of thing.”

Appearances, she laughs, can be deceiving. “Actually it was just the two of us trying to juggle two babies and a new business. We got married and we built a house all in those 12 months. It was a lot of stuff to do. We nearly lost our minds – we just thought, ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’ But it was ok, we got through that. And I don’t think anything will be that hard again.”

Budget beaters

To date, Happyshack’s marketing has been minimal. “Obviously when you start, you haven’t got a lot of money so you do a lot of low-cost marketing,” says Debra. 

Having four generations of family in town certainly didn’t hurt Happyshack’s lead generation. “It put us off on the right foot. It gave us the referral base to start from, which is handy.” 

The bulk of their marketing has been through word-of-mouth. “We love what we do, we’re really enthusiastic, and we’re really passionate. We talked to all and sundry – anybody that would talk to us, we’d put information in their hand.”

Debra says it is vital to have your website up and running from the start. It’s important to allocate money to your online strategy to be sure that you get it right, especially considering that you will have to allocate your precious spend on its promotion. 

“We had a professional design a really, really good, user-friendly, happy website that reflected exactly how we worked.” 

In keeping with this strategy, Happyshack sends out quarterly e-newsletters offering special deals to their existing client base. 

The Mackeys continue to use local talent for their creative, including business cards, pamphlets and print advertising in the local Adelaide papers. Their low-cost strategies have proved successful with the two of them (often literally) rushed off their feet. 

In these tough times, she believes marketing spending is all the more important. “It’s crucial,” she says. “It needs to get out there and you need to get in people’s faces.” 

Debra says that it’s easier to maintain great relationships with existing clients, then to cultivate new ones. Good news travels fast in a close-knit community, and repeat business has never proved a problem. 

She believes marketing is the art of creating genuine customer value – this advice could not be more pertinent for home-based businesses struggling with tight budgets. 

“It’s just that wow factor,” says Debra. “It doesn’t have to be much more than everybody else does, but just that tiny little bit extra is what will tip them over the edge.” 

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