Naomi Simson founded online experiential gift retailer RedBalloon in 2001 with a $25,000 personal investment. Today, the business reportedly turns over $60 million.
Simson has since taken a step back from the company and now focuses on her investment portfolio, as well as being the red shark on Shark Tank Australia. We spoke to Naomi about how she got her start in business and the key things she has learnt along the way.
I originally wanted to be an artist. But my mother suggested that instead of doing art I should do advertising, which is also creative. At the time there were no courses so she suggested I do a commerce degree which had a major in marketing, so that is what I did.
My first job out of university was with IBM in New York, which was a marketing support role. What I did was help with the manager’s presentations.
I’ve always enjoyed understanding the psychology or behaviour behind customer interactions.
When I was at Ansett Australia that was the first time I got my hands on understanding what the customer journey was. I was the marketing manager of their [Ansett] frequency program when I joined Apple in Sydney. Even in those days they were very customer-centric and had a deep sense of purpose and I had never experienced that before.
I left corporate life when I became a mum and had a bunch of clients I was working for doing branding and marketing. I was really enjoying that, but the life of a consultant back in those days – when we didn’t have fabulous cloud-based tools – was a lonely journey. You’re so busy doing the work but then you have none.
The biggest driver for me starting RedBalloon was doing something for myself.
I would fall in love with my clients more than they were in love with their business. Often I would be so excited and come up with their marketing check-list, but they wouldn’t stick to it.
With any business, its only purpose is to serve customers.
As a marketer you really understand deeply and innately your customers. You also understand the importance of consistency and the brand as an emotion – your brand is what people feel about your organisation. So that was a pretty good start for a startup.
I funded the business through family savings.
Way back in the early days the first corporate customer was in fact Fuji Xerox, which had been a customer in my marketing business. They chose to use RedBalloon vouchers as an incentive program for their people.
The second customer was Telstra, which decided to use it as a customer reward.
Those were the two particular clients that really, at the outset, gave me an insight to the fact that RedBalloon was going to be so much more than a consumer activities website.
Business plans are quite frankly two words that are meshed together and mean different things to different people. I write it down. For some people that may be a business plan, but for me it’s now how I’m going to get things done it’s why.
It’s the purpose that drives me. I’ve always found when you keep very close to your heart with the game you’re playing, the ‘how’ falls into place.
Many people see a business plan as their rulebook. That’s not how I play. I do plan everything, though – my life, my business. As an entrepreneur and investor I’m involved in many businesses now.
When you don’t have any money to spend, nobody knows who you are. So the only thing I could do was take the lesson from Apple and look after my customers.
Over and over again we just kept working on having the best people. We’ve had seven websites and have never stopped developing the user experience.
As an entrepreneur, you worry about everything. You worry if you have enough red envelopes. You worry about whether anyone is going to show up to work.
It’s how we move beyond the worry and just do the job at hand that’s important.
Frankly, the best marketing is always other people’s marketing.
With Optus, once they selected us as their service partner they then went out to their 10,000 employees and said this is RedBalloon, this is what they do. Customers get customers in every essence.
If somebody asked me to go out for coffee – and they do it all the time – I say what do you believe in and what process are you going through to make sure you are pursuing your cause? It’s one thing to say it and it’s another thing to do it. I want people to be active in their own lives and contribute to what they do.
Looking ahead, for me it’s about investing in things I believe in – things that are innovative and game-changers. An extension of that is how work is for people, and that’s why I wrote my book.
Does work happen to you or do you happen to work? I genuinely want to help other startups and other people on their journey.