From our Founder, Kasia: What I’ve learned from 10 years of running a small business – Part 1

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Hi! LH Agenda Founder, Kasia here. This article is Part 1 of a special Q&A with me to celebrate our milestone birthday, and it covers a lot of history!

Running your own small business: it’s not all sunshine and roses (or awards and profit). Ask anyone who runs their own business and they’ll probably (hopefully!) say the same thing. I believe that part of the LH Agenda mission to empower the leaders of tomorrow is sharing insights to our own business and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. In this article, I share the great, and sometimes uncomfortable, realities of entrepreneurship and running a small business, and give you practical tips to start using in your business right now.

I’m answering your questions on how and why I originally started LH, and when I decided to leave my full-time job to work on my passion business. I’ll also share with you details about our first investment, first staff members and the breakthrough moments that helped LH be what it is today.

The highs of running a small business

In its first 10 years, our business has grown from a blog to a passionate online community and award-winning stationery brand (THANK YOU!). Since its start in 2011, our blog of articles and interviews has been visited over 8 million times! We still publish articles for our community, but we also now offer purposeful stationery designed with leadership-development experts to inspire the everyday leaders all around us!

In 2014, we hosted the 50|50 Future Leaders event, which aimed to engage men in the gender debate. It was chaired by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, with multiple CEOs from ASX-listed companies on the panel. That same year we successfully crowdfunded our first product – the Make Your Mark notebook – in 10 days, and it has since been featured on national TV.

I’ve been named one of the Most Inspirational Women Online by Open Colleges and a Yarra Trail Trailblazer (yay! Clothes!). We’ve worked with fantastic companies across the world, such as Amazon, Coca Cola, Suntory, RMIT and the AFL. And I have been a Stevie Award finalist in the Female Entrepreneur of the Year category.

I’m so proud of our achievements! But….we had to start somewhere.

Q&A with Kasia

Q: Why and how did you start LH?

A: There were multiple, somewhat unrelated, events that led me to the same crossroad – to create Leaders in Heels (the original name). When I look back now, I feel like it was my destiny.

While I was still working as a management accountant in my corporate job, one day, a female colleague came to me. She was disappointed that she didn’t get a role that was available in our department. When I asked her what our boss said when she asked him for the role, she said she’d never asked. It struck me that she didn’t say anything. I wanted her to succeed, and wondered if there were many other women like her who would do exactly as she did. I had a desire to fix it but I wasn’t sure yet how. I bought a domain leadersinheels.com in 2010, and continued enjoying attending women’s events and listening to inspiring speakers.

At the time I was very busy with my beauty blog. I really wanted to get out of the mining, very much male-dominated, industry I was working in, and the beauty blog I had started was my priority to get my foot in the beauty industry door. And it did! However when I got that dream job, they told me I had to close my beauty blog due to access to confidential data from the beauty market. This created a space in my life for the next chapter.

That is when I created Leaders in Heels. It was October 2011. I started interviewing and learning from successful women, and compiling my findings to share with and educate others. I decided I wanted to inspire and empower women, and show them that they can speak up and create the lives and careers they truly love. That’s how LH was born.

Last year my mum was cleaning up her house in Poland and sent me photos of my planner from 1993. This is the year that my dad died. I forgot I even had a planner. Going through the entries gave me goosebumps. It was like getting into the brain of a 12 year old girl. It made me cry and brought up some very important memories. It also helped me understand what kind of person I was at the time. I was indeed still very immature. I forgave her. Maybe this is why I am in this business…

This is the cover of my school planner from 1993. It translates to ‘School Year 1992-1993 Student and Teacher Calendar.’ Can you see the red heel? Can you also see how inappropriate this planner is, especially for a 12 year old girl?

Q: Did you start LH as a side-hustle? When did you decide to quit your job and go full-time with LH? Where do you start when launching a business? How long did you prepare before launching?

A: I started LH as a hobby while working a 9-5 corporate job. I liked my job in finance and the company I worked for and I had no desire to leave my career. I spent so many years studying finance and my dream career trajectory was to become a CFO one day. Maybe CEO!

I am also coolheaded, more likely to take only calculated risk, and I love independence. I would hate to be reliant on my husband’s salary or have to cut down on my spending! I personally wouldn’t drop everything to start something I don’t know will pan out.

Fast forward to 2014 when we launched the first Make Your Mark notebook. By 2016, having released the Make Your Mark Set, we were getting quite busy with orders.

When I was working a regular 9-5 job, I couldn’t be at home for courier pick up. This is me in front of parcels on my neighbour’s porch (they helped me out with the courier pick ups!).

My career was also flourishing. I changed roles a couple of times and then was working as a Finance Partner for a telco brand. Having more flexibility and travel in my new role, I would often respond to customer emails while at work and pack orders after work. My husband was helping too. But I couldn’t sustain it, it was against my ethics and I didn’t feel it was the right way to do business. I also didn’t feel LH was mature enough as a business yet to give up everything for it. I was torn between career and business.

At the time, I was also battling with personal issues. I was trying to get pregnant for a while, I discovered I had endometriosis and ultimately had two surgeries. And we had a mortgage… So initially I asked my employer to move me from full-time to part-time, leaving Fridays as my LH work day. It was exhausting but I loved working on my passion business.

When our first baby was born (I got pregnant finally!) in September 2017, my husband and I really decided to give LH a go!

This is me during Christmas 2017 with my newborn in a baby carrier shipping our first planners.

During the maternity leave, my husband and I did everything we could to grow our business. Working late at night and during nap times was our new normal. And we loved it. If LH was to go pear-shaped, the plan was for me to go back to work. My husband was earning less than me, so he was actually the first one to leave his job to work full time for LH in 2018. It made sense economically and he was able to spend more time with our son while I could continue designing new products. This was the beginning of creating our dream work/life setup. By the end of FY19, we were earning more than our salaries from our two previous jobs and we knew there was no going back.

My unofficial last day in my corporate role was when I went on maternity leave in September 2017. I extended my maternity leave for as long as I could (trying to balance business and motherhood). In the meantime I fell pregnant again, so officially I was still employed there for another 3 years. Only after it was time to come back after my second child (where an extension was not an option any more) did I resign. That was only last year! In 2020. So you can see, I like to play it safe.

Christmas 2018 / Me pregnant with our second son working from our small cottage in Balmain, NSW. Excuse the mess!

I would say every life, every business story and all circumstances of founders are different. There is no one “right” time to take the leap. Your “leap” moment might be at a different time than someone else as your story is different.

Q: How much was your initial capital? When were you able to get actual ROI?

A: I always suggest testing the market on a small scale before you commit large investments. However in some circumstances, and that was the case for our printing business, it is not always possible. The printing required substantial financial outlay upfront, and we needed to print a considerable volume to make them cost-effective. Crowdfunding provided the much needed capital without the risk.

My first campaign was in 2014, and we raised nearly $10,000 within 10 days – well above my initial goal. We then launched another campaign in 2016 to launch the Make Your Mark set.

You can see my crowdfunding campaign page here.

You can see it wasn’t amazing. I cringe when I see it now.  The video was just a slideshow of photos and the voiceover was my friend reading it from her home (notice the echo?). The products were just mockups. And we managed to convince 270 people to invest AU$23,000 in us!

Crowdfunding was definitely time consuming, but it validated our ideas and gave us time to collect orders before we needed to commit financially. It was also an excellent tool to take people on the journey with me, and earn some PR during that time. One thing I noticed is that no survey can replace real customer action of them opening their wallet.

With two under my belt now, I have been interviewed multiple times on how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign. You can read my in depth interview for Women In Focus on how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign here.

Q: When did you hire your first employee?

A: The first year of running Leaders in Heels (the blog), on top of my new full time job and attending women’s events, had me working alone till 1 or 2 am every single night. The blog grew quickly, and so did the workload. I was learning web development and social media. English was my second language so my boyfriend Nino was proof reading my interviews! This was crazy! Now that I look back on it, I cannot imagine how this was even possible. I love this quote by Pearl S. Buck below as it accurately captures the moment.

“The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible – and achieve it, generation after generation.”  – Pearl S. Buck

After a year, Nino, my boyfriend of 3 years, told me he was concerned that I didn’t have any time for him while working on my blog every night and that it was straining our relationship. I convinced him that I would seek help and balance it. That’s how I ended up hiring our first writer, Rashida Tayabali.

She was a young journalist who I found through social media. She was passionate about women’s equality and she joined as a volunteer, excited about being able to interview some top profile women in Australia. We negotiated that she would be paid commission whenever Leaders in Heels was paid. Writing was my biggest, most time-consuming challenge, so she fitted perfectly into our team of two to combat my lack of skills in this area.

Entrepreneurship Tip: When hiring, look for people whose strengths are your weaknesses, and hire passionate people. I was very lucky to work with volunteers first who were not driven by money, but by the impact and contribution they made.

In January 2013 Rashida ran the biggest profile to date, an interview with Managing Director of Microsoft, Pip Marlow. I managed to get her attention on Twitter! I would never have had the guts to interview Pip Marlow if it wasn’t for Rashida. Soon after, we were voted the #1 website for women entrepreneurs to love by the readers of She Owns It. Take a look at what our website (and some other well-known websites now) looked like back then! And Pip Marlow and Microsoft later became some of our biggest supporters when we launched our first crowdfunding campaign.

Soon we were operating like a magazine, with multiple editors responsible for Career, Business, Tech and Style sections, social media managed by Yolanda Floro (our second team member), and an agent regularly providing us sponsorship opportunities. I still remember the excitement of seeing this Telstra banner in the middle of Melbourne CBD.

I still remember the excitement of seeing this Telstra banner in the middle of Melbourne CBD.

 

Our early team during a strategy meeting in my kitchen!

The conclusion is that seeking help pays off. We can’t do it all!

Q: What were the major breakthroughs in your business?

While on the outside the magazine was growing, on the inside I was feeling like a fraud. “How could I possibly be a publisher when I can’t even speak proper English?” my inner voice was asking me.

Around 2014 we saw a decrease in sponsored content and eventually our agent announced they were closing down. While our running costs weren’t very high, it wasn’t free, and Leaders in Heels was starting to become a time consuming and money draining hobby. I was considering closing Leaders in Heels.

Luckily, at the same time I was in the thick of launching Make Your Mark. Meeting Ozlem Beldan, who was the founder of the Spirit of Womankind and a social media manager for Dress for Success, was a life changing turn. She was the one who encouraged me to launch Make Your Mark, came up with the title and later did a voiceover in my second crowdfunding campaign.

Ozlem and I at the 50|50 Future Leaders event.

Pivoting business models from an online magazine to stationery design couldn’t have come at a better time. I felt a huge relief when the crowdfunding campaign was received with open arms by many people and businesses – the community we have built to date. I didn’t have to close down Leaders in Heels. Yay!

Me signing off on the first print of Make Your Mark, which was produced in Australia.

I also learned something about myself. I loved the creative process and had enormous satisfaction hearing our products were changing people’s lives and careers. That was the main reason why I started Leaders in Heels in the first place, and even though the “way” has now changed, the “why” still remains the same.

My second business breakthrough moment was meeting Arienne Gorlach through Toastmasters. She had a coaching business and she also had her own planners. Using Arienne’s planners and attending her events made me realise how I loved planners, organisation and personal development all combined.

Me and Arienne celebrating Leaders in Heels’ 3rd birthday.

Soon I started designing my own Leaders in Heels planner, but there was a problem. I wasn’t a graphic designer. Planners were much more complex than my first notebooks were and the communication with the designer to understand my vision took so long I missed the 2016 Christmas window.

Frustrated that the most simple things – like moving a margin, or changing font – required so much of my time spent communicating, in 2017 I enrolled into an online course in InDesign and became my own designer for Leaders in Heels. It was a life changing career move. I have always loved fashion and I approach stationery design in the same way. Creating our diamond-quilted or chevron-quilted cover designs reminds me of when I was 10 years old designing my own clothes. Growing up in communist Poland, we didn’t have many choices in stores and I was lucky to have a mum who taught herself how to sew. This allowed me to stretch my creative muscle and also ingrained in me that I too can teach myself just about anything.


Mocking up potential designs for our Phenomenal Woman planner covers.

In the year we launched our first planners, our revenue tripled.

Without a formal education in design, it wasn’t until 2021 when my imposter syndrome started to fade away and for the first time, I called myself a Creative Director. And it felt good!

 

Me on the shoot for the Yarra Trail Trailblazer campaign.

 

My parents-in-law took a picture of their TV when I appeared on it with Make Your Mark.

 

Donation drive for Dress For Success.

 

Fundraising for the Walk In Her Shoes charity with our People and Culture Manager, Happy.

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We covered a lot of ground in Part 1 of our Q&A – including the LH startup story, our breakthrough moments and business lessons – but I still have more of your questions to answer! Stay tuned for future LH articles where I talk more about marketing, rebranding and building a loyal following for your business. And if you have any other questions for me, please leave them in the comments below.

Be inspired,

Kasia


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