Tammy May may have taken her start-up business from her kitchen table to a national $6.9 million revenue brand, but May insists that her initial desire to launch MyBudget was altruistic.
May says that she saw the impact debt was having on people’s lives while working at a law firm, subsequently realising that there was a gap in the market for a business.
“We had no one to refer them onto,” she says. “In those days, most people thought the way to get out of debt was to get more debt. Some couldn’t even get a consolidation loan.”
In 2000, at just 22-years-old, May launched MyBudget as a way to help Australians out of debt. The service, administered via a call centre, analyses people’s incomes, debts and expenses in order to help manage their finances.
May’s father and husband both ran their own businesses, so May felt it was “right and natural” to go it alone, even though she had to make sure she wore her glasses to appear a little older when visiting clients.
She initially went part-time at her job before quitting to concentrate fully on the business, which was run from home.
Perhaps wisely given the nature of the start-up’s offering, May didn’t take on any debt to fund the business. She didn’t draw a wage for the first 18 months either, despite the low overheads of running a home-based enterprise.
Fortunately, May was able to rely on plenty of referral business from former work colleagues and local small businesses in Adelaide, although the work schedule was punishing.
“In the early days, the business was 100% referrals,” she says. “Client referrals are about a third of the business now. Back then, I would go and see clients at 9pm and literally do everything for them manually as you couldn’t electronically transfer money then.”
“The terms have evolved over time, but there’s 30 days notice and I had an instinct for what was fair for the client and the company to charge them. I would quote a client in the same way that you would quote for building work – on the time it took to set up.
“No-one ever said the fees were too expensive. I went in to help people, not make $1 million.”
While May was making minor inroads into the Adelaide market, several factors inhibited the growth of MyBudget.
Brand awareness was fairly low and she didn’t have enough revenue to advertise. Also, because all the client work was done manually, May’s time was absorbed with every facet of the business’s operations rather than growing it.
Breaking the growth deadlock
The business was only making a small margin and it appeared that May wouldn’t be able to break the deadlock.
However, she managed to move the business forward with two major breakthroughs that were funded by the mortgaging of her house.
Through a contact of her husband’s brother, she moved the business into the office of a payment processing company. The company had a software department and May’s husband gave up his job to learn how to be a programmer.
With a team of three people, a $60,000 investment was made in building the software system that was to move the business to the next level.
“The system gave us a platform to grow,” says May. “It was too expensive to employ staff to do things manually, so we needed a proper system.”
“It meant that if I wasn’t there, there was a procedure to follow. It allowed me to go out to market and promote the business.”
“The system set in place the questions to ask a client, how to analyse their budget and explain step-by-step the process to go through. It helped provide consistent results. Also, electronic banking came in, so that helped us with payments.”
“The savings on cost and efficiencies meant that the investment paid for itself.”
The development allowed May to ramp up the marketing effort for MyBudget, as well as take on her first member of staff.
Spreading the word
The business began advertising itself on radio and TV, but it wasn’t until May won Telstra’s South Australian Businesswoman of the Year in 2007 that the marketing message began to resonate.
“In the first ads, I didn’t appear as I was eight months pregnant,” explains May. “But the production company said that I should speak on camera as I was genuine and the award lent credibility.
“The credibility was very important to the marketing. It changed the message and it resulted in a 50% increase in leads for the same media spend.”
The advertising, May’s second main driver of growth, fitted MyBudget’s approach without any frills – client testimonials and reassuring pieces by May to camera. The ads were deliberately made so they wouldn’t age, allowing them to be rolled out in Melbourne and Queensland following MyBudget’s expansion.
“The biggest challenge was educating the market in just 30 seconds of air time,” says May. “It’s not as if we sell shoes. We are selling quite a complex product and it’s a unique challenge to carve out a new category.”
Dealing with staff
Another challenge was employees. Unsurprisingly for a business that uses a call centre, staff turnover was a problem for MyBudget in its early years.
“The staff have to fit culturally in the business,” she says. “They have to want to make a difference to clients. They may have all the skills, but that doesn’t matter if they don’t care.”
“Customer service turnover was an issue a few years ago. When there’s 10 of you, the culture is alive and you can manage it. When that grows to 30, 40, 50 people that culture gets lost a bit.”
In order to combat this, May devised professional development days every quarter, where staff learn how they impact upon their clients’ lives.
May also ensures that she has meetings with management at least twice a day as well as team meetings that stress the culture that she wants in the business. As a result, staff turnover has decreased.
MyBudget now has more than 6,000 clients and May’s goals for the business are lofty. Within two years, the company plans to have offices in every state capital city.
Beyond that, May aims to launch the business in New Zealand, the US and UK, as well as broaden the service to offer client negotiation on electricity and telephone fees, on top of personal finance.
Set-backs in achieving these goals isn’t something May is afraid of.
“I love the story of Colonel Sanders in the US,” she says. “He got 127 knock-backs and had no money but he kept driving around, eating his chicken in his car. That’s what you have to do – you have to be passionate and focus on your core product. Don’t let a knock-back put you off.”