The founders of this year’s Smart50 Top Exporter Award winner, baby products business b.box for kids, have told SmartCompany in the past about how they started the business with a five-year company blue print.
But things have changed since 2007 and co-founder Dannielle Michaels says the company now never plans more than 18 months ahead—the global markets the company ships to change too rapidly in the space to warrant anything else. The business has a three-year revenue growth rate of 300%, and generates 50-80% of its $5.7 million annual revenue from overseas.
SmartCompany asked Michaels to reflect on how her leadership style has changed as the company has expanded.
I come from a strategic communications and marketing background and I used to work with professional services firms on all of their tender writing.
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This involved working on how to win new business and putting yourself in the customers’ shoes. I worked with partners to write the documents for this.
I also ran my own business from a freelance communications perspective, both in Australia and in London, and when my co-founder Monique [Filer] and I had moved back to Australia, around that point we both had young families.
We decided if we were going to work hard, we were going to work hard for ourselves.
The biggest shift we’ve made from a leadership perspective [so far] is when you start a business, well, for us, we only had each other to be accountable for. We were leading each other.
But as it grew and we added staff—now we have 11—we realised that [makes] a big difference in running your business.
That’s the journey we’ve been on—to be leaders but from within. This is my fourth baby. I’ve got three kids, but this is the one that keeps me up at night.
We’ve really divided and conquered. We’ve put a lot more structure to the business, which allows us to not get bogged down in the day to day.
At first, everything was in our head. I knew what [Monique] was thinking and vice versa, but then you have people, and you have to take them with you.
For me, I work 15,000 miles an hour and expect everyone to go at that pace. If I’ve got in in my head, it’s already on the market.
For me to grow as a leader, sometimes it’s been to stop and wait for them to catch up.
We have lots of different people we talk to on decision making. We’re always learning, and I think that’s important. I think where we want to take our company now is at a different level to what we’d managed before.
One of the pieces of advice we were given very early on is your greatest strength is knowing your greatest weakness.
So, for example, we’ve just recruited an operations/HR person. [Another] key thing for us is the product design, and all of those things mean that you have to manage more people, and motivate them.
I enjoy more the mentoring and the leading side of things. The day-to-day HR? No, someone else can have all of that. But Monique and I have a really clear picture on how we want to grow b.box. We know we need amazing people around us for that to happen, and that is the thing that excites us.
We’re looking to really continue to bring new and innovative products to market; everything we do is a little twist on what’s on the market.
With expansion, you’ve got to make sure that all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. It’s about making sure that all the balls stay in the air and make sure nothing comes crashing down.
It’s also just forecasting and budgeting for those things, and I think planning and forecasting is going to become even more important.
We’ve been working with our the Chinese supplier for four years, and when we started Daigous [influential shoppers] were not even a phenomenon. The challenge has been how to manage the Daigous from our perspective. Nothing we do will ever compromise our partners, but those are the kind of things you think about.
We stopped doing more than 18-month business plans more than a couple of years ago. It’s about being more responsive and understanding what the culture is, and understanding and respecting the differences in the markets [we export to].
The US is a big target market in the next 12 months, as well as looking at European warehousing. We rely on our distributors to know their market, but one of the biggest challenges for us as a company is that we have young kids. It’s not practical, being on the ground.
When you’re starting out, work life balance is really hard. Three years ago my family and I went away, I had my laptop with me, and my kids were like: “Mummy, we’re on holiday!” Now I’m going away for a month and not taking my computer with me.
It’s funny, as the team gets bigger, work life balance gets easier. I don’t think many people out there have worked it out, but as we’ve grown, it’s become easier to attain.
Between 5pm and 7pm, unless the warehouse is burning down, I don’t want to know—I’m with my kids. I think that’s far more flexible than the corporate world, and I understand that it’s give and take. If I need to leave work at 3pm, then I’ll sit down at 9:30pm or 10pm and do things. If I was working at a corporate, you can’t just get up and leave at 3pm unless you ask for permission.
I can’t imagine working anywhere else. Both Monique and I still love to come into work everyday – well, more days than not – and we still have plans for what we want to achieve.