Q&A

“It didn’t oc­cur to me to give up. There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween per­sis­tent and pig­headed and, truth be told, I was closer to the lat­ter.” RedBal­loon’s Naomi Sim­son

The Australian - The Deal - - News - In­ter­view by: Justin Burke Pho­to­graph by: Re­nee Nowytarger Ready to Soar is pub­lished by Harlequin, avail­able now, $29.99. Shark Tank airs Sun­day nights at 9pm on TEN.

RedBal­loon’s Naomi Sim­son

Naomi Sim­son is the founder of RedBal­loon and Redii, a judge on Net­work Ten’s re­al­ity com­pe­ti­tion TV se­ries Shark Tank, and the author of Ready to Soar, a new book for as­pir­ing en­trepreneurs.

You’re a busy per­son. Why write a book, your sec­ond?

Iron­i­cally, it’s be­cause I’m fun­da­men­tally lazy, and the num­ber one ques­tion I get asked is: “I’ve got this busi­ness idea, what should I do?” Hon­estly I’m not even qual­i­fied to an­swer it, but I can de­scribe the ques­tions you need to con­sider for your­self. My aim is to pro­vide some con­scious­ness around the choice of start­ing a busi­ness, for peo­ple who may have a hobby or a pas­sion but haven’t viewed their idea from a busi­ness view­point.

You pre­vi­ously worked for large com­pa­nies such as Ap­ple, IBM, KPMG and Ansett. What was it like strik­ing out on your own?

When you leave the big com­pa­nies for a start-up, you dis­cover that there is no IT helpdesk, no petty cash jar, and where is the sta­tionery cup­board? There isn’t one. And to be­gin with, not even a pay cheque. I had sev­eral dis­as­ters in the very early days of RedBal­loon. It was two months and four days be­fore we sold our first ex­pe­ri­ence – we launched three weeks after 9/11, the dot­com crash had gone on, and in the scheme of things it was a re­ally bad time to launch. It was a long time un­til we had cus­tomers, and the only way we sur­vived was by keep­ing over­heads re­ally low, work­ing from home on sec­ond-hand com­put­ers. But even more con­fronting than the launch was seven months later, after I had still been run­ning my mar­ket­ing con­sul­tancy busi­ness on the side – which I don’t rec­om­mend do­ing – and fi­nally turn­ing away clients and their money and putting ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing my rep­u­ta­tion, into this new ven­ture.

Did you have a men­tal line in the sand, such as “if I don’t sell X by a par­tic­u­lar date, I’m go­ing to de­clare RedBal­loon a fail­ure”?

It prob­a­bly never oc­curred to me, be­cause ev­ery­one kept telling me it was a good idea. Not just fam­ily and friends, who are not the peo­ple you need to get ad­vice from as they’ll prob­a­bly tell you what you want to hear, but from po­ten­tial cus­tomers, the sort of peo­ple who ul­ti­mately have to part with their hard-earned cash for what you’re sell­ing. It didn’t oc­cur to me to give up. There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween per­sis­tent and pig­headed and, truth be told, I was closer to the lat­ter.

En­trepreneur­ship seems to run in fam­i­lies. Is this true for you?

Yes. My dad started his busi­ness when I was start­ing univer­sity, so I was very aware of what he was do­ing, espe­cially since he started it in the front room of our home. He had al­ways worked for small busi­nesses as a con­sult­ing en­gi­neer, whereas my mum worked for big com­pa­nies in com­put­ing. So it has al­ways been around me. I has­ten to add that after a re­cent event for en­trepreneurs, a group of us went out for a meal, and I re­alised I was the only per­son not an im­mi­grant or first-gen­er­a­tion Aus­tralian. There are a lot of peo­ple who come to Aus­tralia to seek their for­tune and cre­ate some­thing, and on Shark Tank espe­cially we see a lot of peo­ple who have this ur­gency and pas­sion. So my subur­ban, mid­dle­class Aus­tralian up­bring­ing – I’m a lit­tle un­usual.

Is there a busi­ness book you ab­so­lutely love?

That’s like try­ing to choose a favourite child! The an­swer is, in­vari­ably, the one I’ve read most re­cently. At this mo­ment, then, it is The One Thing by Gary Keller. I think it’s im­por­tant as lead­ers that we con­tinue to read and learn from oth­ers, and this in­cludes fic­tion. I try to read nov­els and think about how sto­ries are struc­tured and told. I got caught up over Christ­mas in a book by Jef­frey Archer, only to dis­cover on the fi­nal page it was the first in a se­ries of seven. A true busi­ness­man!

Hind­sight bias leads many of us to at­tribute our suc­cesses to skill or hard work, rather than luck. How big a role does luck play in de­cid­ing which en­ter­prises suc­ceed or fail?

I think luck is about in­tu­ition, tim­ing and look­ing at trends. Peo­ple will say you make your own luck, but when I launched dur­ing the tech wreck I lit­er­ally thought the dream of the in­ter­net was over, and I wouldn’t claim I was the clever­est per­son on the planet given that it was ob­vi­ously just start­ing. Trends are one of the things I ex­plore in the book, and the col­lab­o­ra­tive econ­omy is now what peo­ple are look­ing at, and it is a trend that will con­tinue.

On Shark Tank you of­ten have to de­liver tough ver­dicts on con­tes­tants’ busi­ness ideas. How do you avoid crush­ing their spir­its?

I have a deep re­spect for any­body who has a crack at life, espe­cially those com­ing on na­tional TV and shar­ing their ideas and dreams. But you are dis­re­spect­ful if you don’t chal­lenge peo­ple to great­ness. You have done them a dis­ser­vice if you fail to ask the chal­leng­ing ques­tions. Peo­ple don’t mind be­ing chal­lenged as long as it is with re­spect.

How do you bal­ance rais­ing four chil­dren with all your com­mer­cial com­mit­ments?

I think I’ve been ter­rif­i­cally lucky: my mother and fa­ther con­trib­uted equally at home, and so it was nor­mal that when I came into my mar­riage, we just split ev­ery­thing. Though I’ve taken my poor chil­dren along to so many busi­ness events, and had them do­ing or­der ful­fil­ment be­fore school when things were busy.

What would peo­ple be sur­prised to learn about you?

I love paint­ing and I wanted to be an artist, but my art teacher told me she could not see me starv­ing in a gar­ret so I didn’t go with it. I will splash around some paint in my down­time, and en­joy the colour – I love colour – but the thing I love most is cook­ing with my kids.

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