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One business woman's 5 surprising lessons as a start-up

25 July 2018

I began my entrepreneurial journey as the founder of the start-up Milray Park - Australia’s home of eDecorating in 2015.

Leaving my corporate role in Westpac was a difficult decision to make. I loved my colleagues, the culture and the quality of opportunity, but the timing made sense. I had what I felt was enough career experience to return to corporate life if I needed to, without losing too much ground, and economically, it was right.

Start-up costs had fallen dramatically. Access to technology was simpler and cheaper. The ability to set up a dynamic website was more affordable, and access to target markets was becoming easier because businesses could push through social media and through search engine optimisation to reach customers. Using these avenues meant I didn’t need huge advertising budgets just to get a look in.

Milray Park is an online interior design platform. On it you can work with an interior designer to design your home. The cost is one simple $299 flat-fee price per room. Customers can choose from 50+ top Australian interior designers (and growing) to get the home of their dreams. Milray Park customers also access industry-only discounts to save money on furniture and decor.

It’s now three years since the start of my business and I couldn’t think of a better moment to reflect on some of my more unexpected lessons.

Lesson 1 - Networking events versus online

Part of what attracted me to start-up land was the community of super-passionate, super-smart entrepreneurs. I looked forward to all the great conversations I might have with like-minded founders, casually firing off our musings on tech, marketing, unit economics, etc.

The truth is that the first start-up networking event I went to wasn’t that synergistic. The next six or so after that followed much the same disappointing pattern.

Looking back on it the odds of finding the best person you need to be talking to at a networking event are slim. At the time, though, I thought it was exactly where I needed to be.    

Then I went online, specifically to LinkedIn.

LinkedIn has been an invaluable tool for me for hires, collaborations and for just identifying who to talk with about the business. I really like the instant messaging format, which lends itself to quick more casual exchanges than email.

Networking events were costs on my time, an unexpected lesson.

Key takeaway: if something isn’t adding to what you’re doing, cut it out. Doing something because everyone does it or it’s the accepted norm isn’t always the right thing.

Lesson 2 - If you aren’t failing, you're not trying hard enough

A well-known start-up catchcry, my real life version of it was unexpected.

Looking back, I definitely made the mistake of spending too much time gilding the lily; making tweaks to the tech, making sure everything was perfect. This, I thought was a good thing. It was a waste of time.

The only people that should tell you that something is or isn’t good are your customers, and you can only get critical feedback by getting ‘the thing’ out there.

Spending time or money focusing on perfecting the product is simply delaying the real test: the customer.

And, by the way, ‘perfect’ is the enemy. You can’t improve on perfection and, in business, constant improvement is the number one objective.

Being honest with myself about what Minimum Viable Product (MVP) really looked like, committing to make iterative changes, followed by more testing and customer feedback, was what produced results.

I had to learn to feel comfortable with being ‘more scrappy’. It was the biggest adjustment for me, post corporate life, second to the lack of a pay cheque.

Key takeaway: striving for perfect wastes time in business.

Lesson 3 - Friends and family come along for the ride, you design the ride

I’m grateful for the encouragement and emotional support provided to me by my family and friends. Their continued interest in my business and journey are a big compliment and provide me with a feeling of support that helps me navigate the ups and downs.

However, I must admit, it’s nice to be able to switch off and not think about the business when you’re out, especially when you’ve got an obsessive tendency to analyse.

This goes for home as well: I turn off, and my partner and I, who’s also his own founder, avoid talking about work at home at all.

It makes a difference.

Learning to set boundaries between social life and your work life, no matter how arbitrary, is important for self-preservation.

Key takeaway: you need to take responsibility for switching off with action.

Lesson 4 - There is no secret, the force is with you

When I began, I thought that there was some secret that I didn’t know about start-ups that I could potentially go and learn somewhere. Sounds silly, but I sense strongly that this is a common belief among a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs. It taps into the imposter-syndrome thing.

Now, I believe, if you are paying someone or some entity to tell you how to do it in the early stages, they’re winning, not you.

As controversial as that might sound, I think self-directed research, for example, using the internet (which is truly amazing, and free), is your best use of time. Research skills are going to be so important at all junctures of your journey.

Key takeaway: brainpower is free. Have more faith in yourself, the force is with you.

Lesson 5 - Sometimes doing nothing is best

Some of my best strategy ideas and realisations have come from doing nothing, just sitting and thinking and reflecting.

Inaction may seem indulgent, but it’s actually critical.

This was surprising to me because we aren’t necessarily encouraged to consider ‘slow thought’ as a classically productive (or vital) business exercise.

Key takeaway: regular time for unstructured thinking is important and can contribute significantly positive results.

Wishing you the very best on your business journey - connect with me here.