Fiona Jefferies started 3D design business Diva Works in 2001, after striking out on her own to help other companies with the challenging and often confusing task of designing and building display installations.
After more than a decade as a one-woman operation, Jefferies decided to expand the business in 2013, and since then has built a 13-strong team. The decision has resulted in an explosion of revenue, up 1000% from $326,000 in 2013-14 to $3.1 million last year. The company’s story caught the attention of judges for the global business prize The Stevie Awards, with Diva Works recently taking home the golden gong for sales growth.
Jefferies spoke with SmartCompany about getting out of her own way to find an all-women team of talented staff to power the company forward.
I’m a very, very annoying employee — I’m a know-it-all. I really had to create a role for myself.
I got my degree in industrial design, and I was working for a Melbourne consultancy once I graduated [until starting my business].
But then, I saw so many of our clients weren’t being taken care of the way I would want to be. Clients really want to hear that they’re being taken care of. I wasn’t seeing that happening in the real world. From my perspective, when I’ve been using suppliers, I think about the number of companies that never call you back and if they do, it’s very lacklustre.
On the surface, what I do is I design, manage and deliver sales offices for companies like Mirvac and Lend Lease. If you went to buy a home from Metricon, for example, there would be a display home set up, [but] what I [design] is even niche-er. If you wanted to buy a piece of land off-the-plan, it’s like a show room for that.
It’s the only face-to-face marketing to sell those projects, and it plays a huge role in creating that emotional connection to customers. Really what I do is relieve stress around the design. My clients are trying to deliver things under so much stress.
From the first year until 2013, [the business] was me, and just a virtual assistant or something, but I decided I wanted to do epic stuff on a larger scale.
It was like, “I’ve kind of maxed out myself”, and was going to burn out if I kept on going.
I think I had to get out of my own way. I have said that I’m not a people person, but I think I actually am. I also like giving women the opportunity to work, to give women the chance. There’s so many great women out there only too happy to work in meaty roles, [and] have something to sink their teeth into.
Most of the staff came via word-of-mouth — someone could vouch for someone. It’s been interesting building the team. Even though I had specific roles in mind, not all of [the people I’ve hired] had experience in the roles I wanted. But they’re can-do women, who are tenacious and won’t give up. That kind of stuff is key — I could throw them in the deep end and they would learn.
There’s a temptation to micromanage, but if you give people responsibility then they are trustworthy. I know there’s lots of stuff out there about how you can’t trust people these days, but I think there’s a lot of good people around —especially if I’m happy to work around [things like] school and pickups.
These are pretty smart women. What we do is stressful, and we do need to allow that flexibility. It can’t just be that flexibility is weighted in my favour.
The role of technology in the design space has increased, and the amount of information that’s in the marketplace. There are opportunities there, but there’s a need for that face-to-face engagement to curate that information.
If you ever have to pick the right plan for your phone, you know you want someone to guide you. Sales offices are now so much more important — they offer that curated process and the face-to-face.
On the tech front, there’s all of these things, like virtual reality, and I’m finding that some have rushed to engage it, but what I learned early on is that communication must lead. What are you trying to communicate and how is it best communicated?
I had a client that wanted an eight-minute video on a screen when people first entered the space, [but] I had to say, “People aren’t going to watch that”. How can we chunk that up so that people do get the information? Like, do we have a number of screens for example?
There’s a lot of “me too” going on — people saying, “I’ve seen this, I want this”. But you have to unpack it and say, “Why would you want this?”
I think the freedom is my favourite part of the business. It doesn’t always feel like it’s freedom, but there is that freedom there that I decide on which projects we work on, and what team member we need next. I think that freedom is all-important.
I don’t chase growth for growth’s sake. I think a lot of businesses lose what they are; investors come along and sometimes they change the DNA.
I think now it’s about making Diva serviceable, and consolidating it, instead of just taming the wild dragon. Like, let’s just take a breath; just look after the clients and deliver amazing services.
What comes out of that, then I’m happy to investigate, but I don’t want Diva to get ever so big it becomes out of touch with the clients.
I think when people talk about business, everyone thinks it’s a big business automatically; you think of Woolworths or BHP. But the biggest employer of Aussies is small business. There are so many out there that are juggling families, sometimes intergenerational, and they’re trying to stay sane.
You’re forever needing advice. And if you have to deal with somewhere like the ATO, you probably need to have a bottle of wine there.
Over the past 15 years, I’d easily say I’ve spent a year of that trying to figure out something as obvious as WorkCover. Clearly I want to make sure my workers are safe, but what is the difference between New South Wales and Victoria, for instance?
All of that can do your head in — the different legislation across the country. I’ve put on someone in the business just to deal with that, because the paperwork was taking so much time.
Small business owners are so busy, you’re not sitting around.
I think it would be great to get a one-stop shop for small business, even with some mental health stuff there as well. So many people don’t even know you can get business grants.
I think there isn’t enough being done at a government level to support small businesses on these [things].
Everyone thinks of the big businesses.