Ahead Of The Game – EPISODE 3: Lauren Whiting (Physiotherapist Venturing Into Allied Heath Services)
Welcome to Ahead of the Game, a podcast brought to you by KMT Partners. I am Andrew Montesi. In this episode, I am joined by Lauren Whiting. Her entrepreneurial journey began with a shoe problem. Back in 2007, Lauren couldn’t find shoes big enough to fit her feet. So, on a hunch that she wasn’t alone, Lauren naively went about building a business. Taking out a loan, renting out a store and importing shoes of many styles and sizes. With a bit of luck, she found a mentor and early customers. Word quickly spread Australia wide, which led Lauren to launch the company online. More than a business, it was a community of people coming together around a common problem. With typical cashflow and staffing pressures, Lauren was also raising a young family. She juggled both side by side before eventually making a tough decision to shut the business down. But the story doesn’t end there. On top of her physiotherapy qualification, Lauren has been studying entrepreneurship at the University of Adelaide, and is getting practical with her soon to be launched new startup, Lift Rehab. Lauren shares the highs, lows, and lessons learnt from her story. This podcast is brought to you by KMT Partners. KMT is a leading accounting and wealth management advisory firm in South Australia, assisting you to emerge, renew, grow and build resilience in business, things which are essential to this podcast series. For more information, visit kmtpartners.com.au. But for now, enjoy the interview with Lauren Whiting.
Andrew Montesi: [00:01:31] Lauren, thanks for joining us.
Lauren Whiting: [00:01:33] Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Andrew Montesi: [00:01:35] So, let’s go back to 2007. By your own admission, you have fairly largely feet.
Lauren Whiting: [00:01:40] I do. Size 13.
Andrew Montesi: [00:01:42] Size 13?
Lauren Whiting: [00:01:43] Yes.
Andrew Montesi: [00:01:44] Wow, finding shoes a bit of a problem.
Lauren Whiting: [00:01:47] Yeah, finding shoes has always been a problem. When I was 13, my feet grew to a whopping size 13.
Andrew Montesi: [00:01:53] My goodness.
Lauren Whiting: [00:01:54] So, for men, that’s around size 12. So, it’s not too different to men’s sizing, but it’s significant and poses a lot of challenges if you would like to buy a pair of shoes, feminine.
Andrew Montesi: [00:02:05] Wow. So, what did you do about it?
Lauren Whiting: [00:02:10] So, in 2007, I opened a retail store. We imported shoes from manufacturers in Europe. So, we had a couple of manufacturers in Italy. They made the largest sizes for us. So, they started making shoes, where your normal brands would finish, the started. So, we went from size 10 up to 15. So, imported those and sold them. Had a shop front. It was great.
Andrew Montesi: [00:02:35] It’s all well and good to say, those shoes, it’s hard to source shoes of that size. But to then go the next step and say, I’m going to build a business around this. How did that come about?
Lauren Whiting: [00:02:44] Well, to tell you the truth, it’s something that probably… just trying to think how old I was then. But it had been brewing for a while. So, like I said, when I was 13 years old, my feet was size 13 and stayed that way. So, it was an acute pain that I felt for many years. Not to say that men don’t have that problem, but as a female, it’s something that was quite upsetting. It was quite depressing going shopping. I just started talking about it to people, from a young age saying that, wouldn’t it be great if I could have a shop. I go in there and I could pick a shoe and they’d have my size. After talking about it for a long time, I think I just bit the bullet and just sort of thought, well, what’s the worst thing that could happen? The worst thing that could happen is not going to work and it’s not that bad. I’m just going to give it a go. I felt I had nothing to lose.
Andrew Montesi: [00:03:35] Was it a bit of a case of well, if I don’t do it, no one else is going to?
Lauren Whiting: [00:03:38] Yeah, it was a bit of that as well. Yeah, it was a bit of that as well. I think very selfish motivations as well. I just wanted some nice shoes.
Andrew Montesi: [00:03:48] Absolutely. I would imagine that the import business wouldn’t be an easy game.
Lauren Whiting: [00:03:56] No, it wasn’t. So, I was incredibly green when I started all of these, which looking back actually I think worked in my favour in a lot of ways. But I took myself along to a look course going on at the WEA, adult learning import, export. So, just sort of learned the real basics about how to import products, shoes. Then took myself off to the Milan shoe fair which is the biggest shoe fair around, and just sort of stumbled my way through. You know met some nice people who were willing to help. It was actually at that first shoe fair that I met a really great contact, a guy who has been in the game for 30 years, based in Brisbane. I think he sort of could see that I had no idea what I was doing. His core business was importing shoes. So, he wasn’t a retailer. He was a wholesaler. Anyway, he offered to put my order on his shipping container. He had loaned a credit with the suppliers and all of these kind of stuff. So, he let me piggyback of his experience and his relationships, which was amazing. Looking back, it was one of those things. Timing was just right. It really, really helped.
Andrew Montesi: [00:05:13] So, how did you actually get started?
Lauren Whiting: [00:05:15] So, I did it all probably the wrong way. I leased a loose shop front, went with no suppliers and no idea, and nothing. Borrowed money from my parents, because I had full faith in what I was doing which was great. Yeah, then went to the shoe fair, put in an order, and sort of worked back from there. Yeah, just took it as it came.
Andrew Montesi: [00:05:39] So, it’s a massive risk, putting in an order. Do you remember what the amount was that you had to?
Lauren Whiting: [00:05:44] It was something like $40-50,000.
Andrew Montesi: [00:05:48] Geez, that’s a fair risk.
Lauren Whiting: [00:05:51] Yeah, it just didn’t feel like it at the time. But probably still now, because people have said, if you were to do this again, I mean knowing what I know now, I would definitely, it would be different, I would be much smarter to what I was doing. But you know I don’t know how else I would have learnt it. I had no experience in shoes. I worked in retail before, not in fashion retail, in food. But yeah, I sort of thought, well if I don’t do it, it’s not going to happen. I have to do it. I have to take the risk.
Andrew Montesi: [00:06:20] So, $40,000 worth of stock docks up, and now you’ve got to sell it.
Lauren Whiting: [00:06:24] Yeah, so I remember day one, actually my husband reminds me of this a lot. He said, I walked off that first day to open my new shoe shop. He just thought, do you even know what you’re doing, Lauren? Do you know even how to put a sale through. I don’t know. Again, I just sort of bumbled my way through a little bit. But we were lucky enough to get a little bit of press that day or a couple of days before, just in the local paper. I think it’s such a niche product. That was the only bit of marketing that had happened to that point. We had people turning up when the doors opened and made sales on the first day. It was great. It was a really good feeling.
Andrew Montesi: [00:07:04] So, you remember that moment of that first sale?
Lauren Whiting: [00:07:06] I do remember my first customer. I remember my second customer. It’s very vivid.
Andrew Montesi: [00:07:13] How did it grow from there? I mean I assumed that you moved to that $40,000 worth of stock. Then what was the next step?
Lauren Whiting: [00:07:21] So, more orders. We established our suppliers a bit more over that first sort of 12 months. Started to get some feedback from our customers. So, obviously when I was placing orders initially, I didn’t really know who our customer was. I was basing it onto some very vague guesses about what people wanted.
Andrew Montesi: [00:07:40] And yourself.
Lauren Whiting: [00:07:41] And myself, definitely myself. But like I said, I never worked in shoes. I didn’t understand even size runs. How many I’m going to need of this size? How many people are going to come in asking for wide fittings or narrow fittings or all these other little quirks with people’s feet that I had just no idea of. So, there was a bit of stock. I can still remember the styles, they were lovely but they didn’t move. So, that first order wasn’t great. But I learned very quickly what people were after and was able to customise our orders in line with what people were asking for, which is good.
Yeah, so what came next was staff. So, I had a few staff on the first day who were part time workers for me. One of them was my sister. But we sort of moved into having other people helping out with the store. The other thing that happened quite quickly was the online side of our business. So, back in 2007, online shopping was not really that prevalent, particularly shoes. We built a very clunky but still functional website just using Paypal, because we had people calling us from different places. So, we had the website. Then people found the website. People calling us from around Australia saying, do you have a shop in Melbourne or Brisbane or wherever. We didn’t, but we worked out that we could sell the shoes online, and that these customers would purchase online.
Andrew Montesi: [00:09:03] I would imagine that the company with such a niche would do really well in the online space in the early days.
Lauren Whiting: [00:09:09] Yeah, I think it was probably something we were probably a little bit ahead of people’s tolerance with online shopping. I mean now you talk about online shopping and we just don’t even think twice about it. But back then, I think the benefit that we had is that the people who were looking to buy our products, our customers, they were really desperate, like really desperate. So, they were willing to take that risk. I think if we were servicing a normal sort of population, it wouldn’t have bene maybe as successful. I mean just to divert a little bit. Some of our customers, just to give you an idea about the desperation, I remember one lady come in. So, she had size 13, same as me. She was 20, 30 years older than I am. She was saying, when she was my age, she actually was a nurse. She had a nursing background. She worked in the hospital. She approached an orthopaedic surgeon to surgically shorten her toes, so that she will have a smaller foot, so that she could get into shoes.
Andrew Montesi: [00:10:07] My goodness.
Lauren Whiting: [00:10:08] I mean that is just one example. I mean the number of stories that people would start telling me about how they’ve gotten around these problems. So, when I talk about people being desperate, it’s not just I want a pretty pair of shoes, it’s actually quite a bit deeper than that. So, it was going back to the online side of things, I think that that definitely worked in our favour because people were willing to take more risks on online shopping, and also the feet because it can be quite difficult to gauge that from a website. So, that was our entry into online.
Andrew Montesi: [00:10:40] I guess at its peak, how big did the business get from, I don’t know what numbers you can give us from the context of revenue or staff size.
Lauren Whiting: [00:10:51] Staff wise, so it started with me and my sister. I ended up having 5 staff by the time we finished. Just to give you a bit more of an idea, the first 3 years, we had the retail outlet, bricks and mortar type setup with the online alongside it. After 3 years, I closed the shop front and just continued doing online. So, I had it all online. By that stage, we had probably gone through maybe our fourth iteration of our website. It was a lot smoother then. Also things had moved along a fair bit as far as platforms to sell online and so forth.
Andrew Montesi: [00:11:29] Okay, so was that like a warehouse setup with a team or /bedroom?
Lauren Whiting: [00:11:40] Shed, lovely shed out the back of the property. So, actually we bought the house we live in currently, and we bought it while this was all happening. When I was telling my husband what we need, I said, we need a house, but we also need like a second area, separate from the house which is going to be the warehouse. So, that was one of the criteria when we were looking to buy a place. Yes, we had a little warehouse out the back, and had the whole setup with the computer and so forth, and took all the orders out there on the phone. Yeah, so just sort of moved it all home. That coincided also with family changes and family commitments.
Andrew Montesi: [00:12:16] Okay, so you were able to juggle the family life with the business to what extent?
Lauren Whiting: [00:12:24] To a degree, yes. So, when I opened the business, I had no children. Then after 18 months, my son was born. 18 months again after that, my daughter was born. Then 2 and a half years later, my third child. I mean the business sort of, child number 1 and 2, I had the bricks and mortar shop front. That became tricky because I needed to front up and do bits and pieces and people need to see what I look like, and all of that kind of thing. But then when we did move to having the online business and closed the shop front, it did get a little easier. I would say, it was probably a lot more stressful because you’re never away from work. The phone is there all the time, and the kids were there all the time as well. So, it was tricky. I think with the help of family and my husband, we did manage to juggle it reasonably well. But you know I can remember times where the 3 kids, because my son hasn’t started kinder yet, so I had them all at home, and the phone would ring. My business phone, and I’d have these ladies and these really great customers of mine who I had sort of developed relationships with. You know they would ring up from interstate, and they want to put an order through, like it was a couple of thousand dollars. That often is how they would purchase. But you know I would have kids screaming or pulling up my leg, and I would be grabbing the chocolate biscuits out of the cupboard and just ditching them down the hallway, so they’d go and move away from me. I mean this is not a joke. This is exactly what I used to do. It’s not ideal, and it’s not the way that you would necessarily want to run your business.
As I said, stress wise, you felt like you weren’t giving your business all you wanted to give. You weren’t giving your kids all you wanted to give. But there wasn’t another way. Getting staff at that point to do all of those jobs was also not sort of the way I wanted to go.
Andrew Montesi: [00:14:25] So, was it a tension of trying to do it all yourself and not really being able to do both properly, not necessarily having the revenue or supply to be able to sustain a team?
Lauren Whiting: [00:14:34] Yeah, I think so. Looking back to that period of time with GFC and all of this kind of stuff, it probably wasn’t the best time to be starting a business. Retail I think is notoriously tricky and kind of a difficult space to be in. But yeah, it was. It was just that time commitment. Like I said, we did have staff. They were good to a point. But I think also in retail, a lot of people see a retail job as a transient, interim, menial. They are doing something else. It’s just a way of earning a bit of cash. So, that wasn’t all our staff. But there were a couple I can think of. You’re managing staff then, and you think, you know what? I might as well be doing this myself. Yeah, I don’t know. It was tricky. It was a tricky balance, yeah.
Andrew Montesi: [00:15:18] So, you came to a point where you did shut the business down. What was the thinking behind that at the time?
Lauren Whiting: [00:15:25] Yeah, I think the thinking behind that was, I mean something had to give and it was either go down that staff route and get them to sort of manage all of those things, or just give into the fact that having 3 young children and trying to run a business was really quite tricky. So, I contemplated selling the business. We had a couple of people who were interested in buying it. But then sort of a part of me thought, because I think probably as well, I was, and I know I was very emotionally involved in the business. It was like another child to me. So, the thought of selling the business and giving all of those things, I just didn’t want to do it. I suppose at the time I thought, maybe I’ll reboot this. I’ll put it on ice and let the kids get a little bit older, and then see what I want to do. Reflecting on that now, I’m probably not. I’ve got my lovely supply of shoes. Retail is probably not something I want to get back into at the moment.
Andrew Montesi: [00:16:25] Maybe just elaborate on the emotional side of I guess letting the business.
Lauren Whiting: [00:16:29] I think you do put blood, sweat and tears into it, the amount of time you put into it and all those things. But obviously my motivation for getting into that business particularly was very personal. Like I was mentioning before, some of these stories that you would hear from these women, you’re really connected with them. It sounds bizarre. Often when we had the actual shop, it was almost like a little support group with customers. They didn’t know each other, but they would come in and start telling their stories to each other. It was this real little family. I hadn’t expected any of that. But there was a part of it, which was little community. I did have a real connection and a real passion for that, the product that I was selling, and the cause, so yeah.
Andrew Montesi: [00:17:19] Absolutely, okay. So, you’re a qualified physiotherapist.
Lauren Whiting: [00:17:23] Yes.
Andrew Montesi: [00:17:24] So, did the physio qualifications, was that pre-shoes?
Lauren Whiting: [00:17:27] Yeah, it was pre-shoes. So, like I said, I thought about this idea of the shoe business when I was quite young. Then I had gone in to physiotherapy from school. Did my degree. So, when I had the business, I worked part time as a physio alongside this. I suppose, that’s always been my plan B, my backup, and a bit of a safety net. So, when I was first starting the business, and I wasn’t working. I was trying to remember how many hours I was doing as a physio. It wasn’t a whole heap. Maybe, I don’t know, 10 hours a week or something like that.
Andrew Montesi: [00:18:00] For a bit of stability.
Lauren Whiting: [00:18:01] But it was a little bit of cashflow, yeah. It just gave us a bit of breathing space. Yeah, and that cashflow to feel confident enough to take a few risks and make a few mistakes, and spend money on things. Some of them worked and some of them didn’t. But not feeling so paralysed because of lack of cashflow that we couldn’t sort of experiment a little bit in those early days.
Andrew Montesi: [00:18:21] Also maintaining those skills so that when you did complete the story of the shoe store, to then be able to return to it.
Lauren Whiting: [00:18:30] Exactly. I think that’s something that physios are a great career for. It really leads yourself to part time work. A lot of physios do burnout because physically it’s demanding. So, to work full time is hard. Doing part time certainly from that point of view, and also like you mentioned, a really good fall back position, and something I really enjoy as well, and I’ve always had a passion for that. But yeah, it’s nice knowing you can try something and still have something else which, especially in health, quite stable. There are plenty of jobs around.
Andrew Montesi: [00:19:04] Now you’re drawing on those physio skills for a new business.
Lauren Whiting: [00:19:08] Exactly.
Andrew Montesi: [00:19:09] Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Lauren Whiting: [00:19:11] Yeah, exactly. So, I’ve been here in Adelaide uni doing some study in innovation entrepreneurship. As part of that, I mean the course have been reapplied. So, there has been lots of opportunities to explore different business ideas and use those in the different subjects that we’ve been required to do. Out of a few of those, the idea for a rehab centre focused around cancer came up. Through sort of the major project that I needed to do for the study, I worked up a more detailed business plan. That’s something that I’ve decided to action now. Yeah, very much coming full circle.
Andrew Montesi: [00:19:52] This is based around mind and body.
Lauren Whiting: [00:19:55] Yeah, exactly. So, looking at the services that this population are going to benefit from in the areas of exercise and body physio, and psychological wellness if you like.
Andrew Montesi: [00:20:09] You’re working with a psychiatrist, is that right?
Lauren Whiting: [00:20:11] Yeah, so a colleague, who is a psychiatrist is coming onboard with me as a business partner. I’m planning to launch it next year.
Andrew Montesi: [00:20:19] Awesome, so it’s quite interesting because we often think about school projects and business projects, and it’s something that you make up. You never do anything about it. It’s just purely for the grades. So, this is a project that’s evolved into a real business.
Lauren Whiting: [00:20:33] Yeah, definitely. I think I probably knew when I started the projects that it might have leaks and might turn into something a little bit more. So, I think it was probably some of my best work because I had maybe something a little bit more at stake than the grades. I mean some of the other projects that I did maybe were a little bit more in that category where it was more just to go through the motions. But this one has definitely been a bit more important enough. I pay particular attention to it.
Andrew Montesi: [00:21:05] Interesting with entrepreneurship is that I guess you would learn about it by doing, by your mistakes as you’ve spoken about, your shoe business and so forth. How do you apply it in the academic sense?
Lauren Whiting: [00:21:19] Yeah, it’s really interesting actually. I think for someone like myself, so I have approached this study from the perspective of actually already having done something. I think it’s 2 different things, but I mean they do sit alongside each other. So, I found it really interesting, the course is teaching us what the academic literature is saying about this, that and the other, and theories around entrepreneurship and innovations and so forth. I think it’s really interesting to understand that at a deeper level. I agree exactly with what you said though. Learning by doing I think is one of the best ways of learning and remembering. But yeah, it’s been interesting. The people who have been involved in teaching us generally speaking have been people who have worked in businesses. So, they have got that on the ground sort of understanding about how things actually really work and how theory doesn’t always translate to practice. So, it’s a good balance.
Andrew Montesi: [00:22:15] So, it’s a practical kind of course.
Lauren Whiting: [00:22:16] Yeah, well it’s called an applied. The one that I’m doing is called an applied masters. So, like I was mentioning before, a lot of the project work and the assessment items are more on the applied side of things as opposed to being academic. I think there is an avenue if you want to go into academia, and go down a PhD or whatever. But for myself, I’ve wanted to do this to bone up a little bit and sort of understand more around maybe what happened first time around. It’s also been something my youngest is still at home with me. She starts kinder next year. So, the idea from my point of view is actually to just get back into this space a bit while I was waiting for my kids to get a little bit older. So, that’s what I have been doing for the last couple of years.
Andrew Montesi: [00:23:03] So, in your view, can entrepreneurship be learned, or is it more kind of gut, like you’re kind of born with it? It’s a philosophical question.
Lauren Whiting: [00:23:15] Based on purely my own thoughts, I think it’s probably a bit of a combination. But I definitely think it’s something, I don’t know if it’s like a personality, not personality type, but characteristics around the person who is doing it. I think the reason that I feel comfortable with maybe like you spoke before, the risk in buying those shoes or whatever, both of my parents have worked for themselves. You wouldn’t necessarily call them entrepreneurs. But they have been self employed for as long as I can remember. So, I suppose I’ve grown up in an environment where I’ve been told, there’s always a way to do something. You’ve just got to find out what that way is. So, that’s sort of in my head all the time, thinking well, this is what I want to do. There will be a way to do it. I just got to work out how to do it. Whereas I suppose other people might have grown up in a different environment where that sort of appetite or level of comfort with uncertainties is not there. So, I think there’s definitely an element of it which is something, not necessarily born with but maybe it’s just around you, modelling it on something. Do you know what I mean?
Andrew Montesi: [00:24:22] Absolutely. You’ve just come from a gruelling mentoring session prior to this interview.
Lauren Whiting: [00:24:27] Yes, I have.
Andrew Montesi: [00:24:30] How important has mentoring been for you throughout your journey?
Lauren Whiting: [00:24:34] Mentoring has been wonderful actually. After my first year in business, I was lucky enough to be accepted into a program which is still run through business SA called the South Australia young entrepreneur scheme. That was brilliant. That was my introduction into mentoring really. The mentor that I was allocated back then, I’m still in touch with. He still mentors with informally with what I’m doing. I think it’s wonderful to have different perspectives on what you’re doing, and having other people who can challenge your thinking and maybe make you look at a problem from a different angle, I think is invaluable. Yeah, I think it’s a great part of doing your own business, is getting out there and talking to other people who have had experiences that are the same, but are very different.
Andrew Montesi: [00:25:24] So, I guess reflecting on your journey, what are some of the key lessons from your early years that you’ll apply to your new business?
Lauren Whiting: [00:25:35] Key lessons? That’s a really hard question. But I think probably I sort of alluded to before about that emotional connection. I think it’s important to be really passionate about what you’re doing. But maybe more definitely I know this time around, I’ve taken a step back. So, less of that personal element. That purely just to stay a little bit more pragmatic about everything, and a little bit more black and white. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know. They are little lessons in relation to a lot of things that I couldn’t sort of sum up.
Andrew Montesi: [00:26:16] Maybe how have you evolved?
Lauren Whiting: [00:26:18] I’m a lot wiser. I think I’ve just learned to ask exactly what I want from people. I think probably in those early days of having my own business. I was a lot younger and hadn’t done it before. It was all learning on the spot. I was probably a little bit more apologetic for different things when I was dealing with other people. But now I’ve got the attitude of in a nice way, just asking exactly what I need from people. Generally they give it to you. That’s probably been a big lesson.
Andrew Montesi: [00:26:49] Awesome. Lauren, thanks so much for coming in and sharing your story, and some of your highs and lows.
Lauren Whiting: [00:26:55] No worries.
Andrew Montesi: [00:26:56] All the best with the new business.
Lauren Whiting: [00:26:58] Thanks so much.
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This podcast is brought to you by KMT Partners. KMT is a leading accounting and wealth management advisory firm in South Australia, assisting you to emerge, renew, grow and build resilience in business, themes which are central to this podcast series. For more information visit KMTpartners.com.au
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This podcast is hosted and produced by Andrew Montesi from Apiro Consulting apiroconsulting.com