Small Business


Grey hair and grey matter: good for business

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Sales. It's a word that can send shivers down your spine. Many small business owners love the idea of running their own show but aren't natural salespeople. They're passionate about their product or service but don't want to sound like they are pushing people into buying it. 

For managing director and owner of Heidi Holmes, this was a skill she had to learn to love. "I learnt to like it because that's how I feed myself!" says Holmes, who launched her jobs board for "mature-aged and age-friendly employers" in early 2011. "It's very motivating if you don't have a pay cheque coming in."

Taking on the big guns

When it comes to job sites, this is a market dominated by some big players. For example, and also Fairfax's (this publisher's) Holmes, 30, decided to specialise in the "over 45s" segment because she felt there was a gap in the market. She was also motivated when her father, at 57, sold his business and wasn't ready to retire. "He wanted to keep working," she says. "That's when I started thinking there must be other people like him, they still have a lot to contribute. But many of them have stayed in the same job for a long period of time. When they want to find a new job, it's a bigger challenge for some of these people."

It's an idea that Holmes has toyed with since 2007 when she began working with a developer to build her jobs website. During this time, she was working at professional services firm KPMG, first in tax and then in marketing (she has an accounting degree and a master's degree in marketing). She also researched the market to validate her assumption that a site for mature-aged job seekers had legs, including writing a university thesis on the issues facing this group. Holmes can reel off any number of statistics about trends in this segment of the workforce.

However, Holmes says her first website never got off the ground. "It never became operational," she says. "That was OK because I only spent about $2000 on it. It wasn't a bad process to go through because I then knew what I really needed and what had to be done if I wanted a site that worked."


Why reinvent the wheel?

Instead of continuing to build her site from scratch, Holmes bought the existing jobs site, which had focused on the executive market in 2010. This meant she didn't have to start from ground zero. She now had a working website  with about 4000 job seekers on the database. This was the impetus she needed to quit her corporate role to focus her efforts on her business. She rebranded it to cater to mature workers and relaunched the site in early 2011. Her database has now grown to 15,000 people.

Quitting corporate life meant being cut off from a regular salary, fancy office and colleagues to talk to.

"I'd been in a corporate environment since I was 18. I went from that to sitting at home by myself, so it got a bit lonely. But It was a good kick up the bum to get on the phone and meet people," she says. "The hardest thing was figuring out where to start. When you run a jobs board, it's a chicken and egg scenario. How do you get jobs if you don't have enough job seekers? And vice versa. That's the first problem I had to overcome. 

"I had to have lots of conversations with employers to get them to use the site. I let them have free trials so I could take away the risk for them. Then once we had a few listings on board, other brands could see that – and it's easier for them to make a decision. Once we had some PR, it started to grow and people began using it."

Growing pains

"The hardest thing was figuring out where to start. When you run a jobs board, it's a chicken and egg scenario. How do you get jobs if you don't have enough job seekers? And vice versa."

After six months, she moved out of her home office and into her current premises in Richmond, Melbourne. However, a year into her business, she arrived at the typically quiet Christmas and New Year period.

"Everything tapered off and it was tough," she says. "It made me think: 'How can I mitigate these downtimes in the future?' That's when I decided to try to get clients to sign on for six to 12 months. Because then your revenue constantly ticks over."

In fact, Holmes says 70 per cent of her sales come from corporate partners - that is, those on monthly retainers who then get unlimited job postings. "However, I hope to see an increase in one-off transactions over the next 12 months as our brand awareness increases and employers start to approach us directly."

To gain this traction, Holmes says meeting people face to face is vital. She makes a point of travelling from Melbourne to Sydney each month to meet potential new clients. Holmes is always busy selling: targeting companies that she thinks would find her site a useful resource. "I wear multiple hats: social media, business development, customer support, everything."

All or nothing

It's a job that sees her at her desk by 7am and working a couple of hours in the evening. "You never really have a holiday," she says. "When you're a website, you're constantly updating things, which is very labour intensive. And because people post questions, you do need to answer in real time. It does consume my life and I'm sure my husband would attest to that!"

However, it seems that the hard work is paying off. She estimates that she has invested about $50,000 into the business, drawn from her life savings. And the business started seeing a return on her investment after 12 months. She says the business is on track to continue growing, with turnover in the year so far (pro rata) increasing by 700 per cent compared to the first 12 months.

She still has a small team. While Holmes does the lion's share of the work, she engages the services of a contractor who does her search engine optimisation and the part-time services of two web developers who maintain her website.

She has big ambitions. "My goal is to have 30,000 job seekers on our database by the end of the year. And in three years, I want 100,000. By then I want to be known as the No.1 job board for the mature-aged market in Australia."

Meanwhile, Holmes often deals with people who express surprise that a 30-year-old would be running a jobs board for mature workers. "I went into a meeting once and someone said to me: 'You look really good for a 45-year-old!'"

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