From ballet dancer to chief executive: How Alexandra Mills helped grow AussieCommerce into a $100 million business

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alexandramills
Entrepreneur Alexandra Mills

Alexandra Mills was once a professional ballet dancer but is now the chief executive of a suite of brands owned by e-commerce group AussieCommerce, including The Home, Brands Exclusive and TheActive.  

Last year, AussieCommerce recorded statutory revenue of more than $100 millionSmartCompany sat down with Mills to find out why she recommends hiring people who’ve taken time off and how ballet and business have more in common than you think.

My first career was as a professional ballet dancer.

I was with a company in Germany but by my mid-20s I decided I wanted a change and another challenge. I knew I wanted to get into the startup world, so I started as a management consultant to gain experience.

After a year I joined Rocket Internet in Australia when they first entered the market here.

AussieCommerce bought one of the sites, which is how I joined them. I became chief executive a few months later.

Did I ever think I would become a CEO? Definitely not.

I first got into operations within startups but that was also by chance because it was the role available. I did everything – logistics, internal operations, customer service and managing the product team.

But I never thought I would be running the whole thing.

When I got the opportunity, I knew it would be hard, but I thought I’d try it because I love a challenge. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

There are some skills from ballet that are very transferrable to business.

The obvious one is self-discipline. To get into ballet and make it professionally, just like any sport, you have to be driven from a very early age and dedicate your life to it.

You also stay very humble because you’re getting feedback and criticism all the time, from morning to evening. You need that to survive because you’ll never be perfect. And that helps in business because you manage to stay very grounded.

Also, to lead a team you need a lot of outward confidence no matter how you feel inside. You need people to feel calm and motivated. I’m very conscious of being able to turn that on no matter how I’m feeling – just like on stage.

You can so easily fall into the trap of hiring people who do similar things.

I like to employ people who haven’t done this sort of thing before because you’re going to get a freshness. Even if it’s just that they’ve taken some time off to go sailing or volunteering for charity. It shows they’re not scared to get their hands dirty.

I think it’s very important to look for different things and I’m always willing to employ on personable attributes rather than previous experience.

In our first year we had something like 400% growth and we were doing all that together. That’s exciting, because everyone has to do everything.

You can’t employ people who stick to their job description.

But if you can’t get those first seeds of growth, it’s really hard to motivate people.

The difference between us and our competitors, who still make large losses, is marketing spend. They’re spending millions on marketing, and we’re not.

The key, basic principle of marketing is having the right product at the right price.People talk about it. Someone’s going to tell someone if you’ve got a good offering.

We do a lot of content marketing to offer people a reason to come to our site other than sales. Be an expert; content is the way forward.

Social media is also important to get your brand out there.

At the end of the day it’s more about your product and the price than anything else.

But at the end of the day it’s more about your product and the price than anything else.

In the early days the thing that kept me awake at night was when a customer had a bad experience.

People get very upset when they don’t understand what went wrong and they can spread that everywhere in the age of the internet. At the beginning, we weren’t set up for that. It was just me checking social media on the weekend and stressing out.

But issues are going to happen. They’re growing pains and you aren’t going to have a smooth process from day one.

It still pains me seeing refunds coming through but you have to learn from it and see why.

Now fraud is becoming an issue which is very, very painful. You wouldn’t think you would have to set aside money for fraud prevention [as a startup] but it’s something you have to do now.

In the early days I took a lot on myself and if you do that, you can risk burning out.

In the last year I’ve employed some key people to do more day-to-day stuff for me so I can think bigger picture. But before that, it was pretty tough.

If it doesn’t work, just change it. 

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Broede Carmody is a former senior reporter at SmartCompany. Previously, he was a co-editor of RMIT University's student magazine Catalyst.

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