“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
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.