Class of 2007: How Sprout Labs founder Robin Petterd overcame sales challenges to create a constantly evolving digital business

When Robin Petterd left the corporate life to start digital learning business Sprout Labs in 2007, he was fuelled by a desire for independence and responsibility. Now 10 years later, the business has evolved and grown but keeping a consistent pipeline of clients and securing sales has been a challenge.

Looking forward, Petterd tells SmartCompany about how the business is looking to evolve further and continue to strive for stability.

What inspired you to establish your business 10 years ago?

I was in a corporate job as a manager in an education organisation, and I was looking for other work. I had a desire to be independent and for control; to be able to control my own destiny and have responsibility. I also wanted to make a different type of impact. I had some experience running my own business as I ran a work-at-home web design business in the 1990s. My parents also run a business, so I wanted another chance to run a business how I wanted to.

How different is your business today compared to 2007?

It was just myself running the business in 2007, and now we have four of us working full-time, most of them in the design space. We’ve also won multiple international and national awards, and we have a number of good ongoing relationships with clients.

It’s been an interesting journey expanding the business and hiring new people. As I was coming out of the corporate space I initially didn’t feel like managing anyone, but it has been a real pleasure having people around me.

What challenges have you come up against?

The main challenges I’ve faced is keeping a consistent pipeline of work, and making enough sales to keep the business going. At times that dropped, which led to cashflow challenges. Every once in a while I questioned if I could keep going or if I should just go back to a corporate job, but that’s the nature of running a business. There’s always more challenges, but you have the ability to control what you doing — it’s your responsibility.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being your own boss?

Being able to work really closely with my clients to get the outcomes we both want. In my corporate role I felt like a cog in the machine, so running my own business has been much more intimate. Operating the business feels more intimate too, as you have a close-knit tribe around you.

There’s been a real mindfulness to create that culture, so when I hire I can instantly know who’s not a Sprout. It’s great to work with so many creative people, and it’s great to be your own boss.

If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?

In the earlier days, I would have changed how I did my sales, as the most important part of any business is sales. I would have focused more on being a salesperson and a marketer. I still do that myself, and I’m getting better, but there’s still some way to go.

How has your industry changed over the past decade?

There’s a lot of new players in the market, along with new tech, especially in the area of digital learning, which is traditionally sold on being cheaper than face-to-face training. This means there are more lower-cost providers than there used to be.

The other major change is that there’s a real shift as people realise training business aren’t all about resources and web pages, it’s about social learning and social media, which has made it really different.

What do you think are the three most significant factors or developments that will affect your business in the next 10 years?

We’re in a really interesting place as we’re shifting to be a business more about platforms and what’s developed and sold. We’re moving to be a more product-based business.

We’re finally in the spot where we’re not the ones being undercut, we are doing the undercutting. It’s another evolution of the company, going back to being a company that sells software, which means more management work and more employees.

We’d really like to double or triple the size of the business over the next 10 years, and we want to be really stable. At the moment the business has to scale up or down depending on the project pipeline, so I’m hoping to get a stable income and a stable group of people.

Read more from the Class of 2007 here

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