Own your right to be here, expect hard work, explore your network… advice from a CEO and co-founder

Deborah Noller is the CEO and co-founder of Switch Automation. Switch began in Sydney in 2005 and has since expanded its presence to include five offices in four countries.

Deb was also one of the eight women in the first intake for the Australian chapter of Springboard Enterprises Accelerator program in 2013.

With more than 20 years’ experience in business and tech, Deb has seen a lot of changes. When she started out in business, Deb said there were no networks for any start-up entrepreneurs at all, let alone women.

“Springboard was the first initiative in Australia to get behind female CEOs and founders, helping them grow their business and get access to capital,” Deb said.

“The first and most powerful thing that helped me was the network of mentors, coaches, and fellow entrepreneurs that the program created. This network is phenomenally valuable and the calibre and strength of the companies joining the network - especially as the Springboard program grew - created an environment of support and connections for women embarking on their journey.

“The other really valuable benefit of the Springboard program is validation. And if there is one thing every entrepreneur starting out needs… and this is especially true for female entrepreneurs…it’s validation. Being selected for the Springboard program means people outside of your company believe in you, your idea and your technology. It takes such a lot of effort to build a new company in a new market so that validation is really encouraging.”

Deb said the biggest change for her personally after going through the program was the improvement in confidence, particularly in pitching.

“When I started out I was not a confident speaker… at all! Pitching is hard and especially so if you are a technical founder. Technical founders are excited about their technology but the people you are pitching to are much more interested in the problem you are solving, how are you solving that differently and the business model.

“I encourage all entrepreneurs – male and female – to take every opportunity to practice their pitch. Take every opportunity you can to pitch or speak at events. You will gain a lot of confidence in speaking about your company and you will learn the questions that you need to answer in your presentation.”

Earlier this year, Deb was named one of the 2017 James Cook University Outstanding Alumni and the Chancellor’s Outstanding Alumnus, having graduated from JCU in 1989 with a Bachelor of Commerce, majoring in Computer Science.

“The line-up of people shortlisted for this years’ outstanding alumni was amazing. The Chancellor at JCU acknowledged that entrepreneurs are going on to make significant impacts, not just locally but globally, solving real-world problems and creating jobs.”

Deb said it is positive that universities are recognising the benefits that start-ups bring to the global economy by teaching entrepreneurialism and introducing a broader range of skills within their courses.

“Traditionally, and certainly when I was a student, we learned a specific skill set for a career in law, education, health, business or computer science but not the skills needed to start and grow a company.

“You either have to learn that on the job or you tap into a network of people who can help with the missing knowledge. But learning along the way takes time, and in the start-up world, time is money. Sometimes the difference between success and failure is time. Many businesses fail because they can’t get to success fast enough, they just run out of money or energy. You slog away but it takes an enormous amount of effort, energy and sometimes sheer brute force. Many entrepreneurs fail simply because they can't believe how hard it is.”

Deb said very rarely, new entrepreneurs can crack success in a short period of time but not very many. This is why entrepreneurs with a track-record often get funded next time round with much less evidence of business plan or proven technology.

“The media can make it look like an overnight success but that’s very rarely true.”

Deb is quick to point out that many male founders struggle too. Which brings her to resilience. Deb said the basis of resilience is the ability to look beyond the bad. When things don’t work out, you’ve got to find another way.

“Someone once told me that you have to pitch a thousand times to be successful. Knowing that is helpful because you don’t feel like a failure if you have pitched a dozen times without any results. Entrepreneurs need to go in knowing they are going to get a lot of NOs. The trick can often be in getting people to a NO fast. My advice is to start a pitch asking questions - ask who they invest in, the size of their typical investments, and what are they looking for - to help validate that you are pitching to the right people. Don’t waste your time pitching to investors that have no interest in your industry or your business model.”

What other advice does Deb have for female founders?

Make the most of your networks

Having a network is more valuable if you know who they are and how they can help.

“If someone has offered you a coffee or a meeting, they want to help you. Don't think they can read your mind, research who they are and their connections. Go into the meeting with what you want out of it.

“And when you do ask… be specific! Think about it, plan it, know what you want. Maybe you want to break into the US market and you know your mentor has experience in the US, so ask what they did about visas or if they can recommend an accountant/lawyer in the US.

“Don’t ask a general question like if they can introduce you to investors… Everyone wants introductions to funders! Do your research on the investors in your space, the ones that are funding companies at your stage, the investors that your contact knows. Ask for a warm introduction to that investor.

Never take your eye off revenue

Deb’s advice is revenue is always more important than funding.

“Two reasons. Revenue demonstrates traction and investors invest in companies with momentum. And revenue is often a shorter path to cash flow than funding. Funding can take longer than gaining customers so I always advise start-ups to focus on winning and growing your revenue.”

And ignore the barriers

Don’t get bogged down by the barriers faced by female founders… instead own your right to be where you are because you are an expert in your space.

Deb is the first to acknowledge it is hard work and is very open that there will be a rollercoaster of ups and downs but said it is also so rewarding that she wouldn't be doing anything else.

“Solve a problem, have a go, get some wins, and build that momentum. You’ll find that momentum is hard to slow down once it starts.”

If you would like more information about the Springboard Enterprises Australia Accelerator Program, pre-register here