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Valerie Khoo’s got the write stuff


Valerie Khoo, Sydney Writers' Centre founder

Entrepreneur | Profiles | Women In Business

By Lorna Brett

You’re either a words person, or a numbers person – right? Not in Valerie Khoo’s case. 

This entrepreneur began her professional life as an accountant with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, before turning her hand to journalism to work for the likes of ACP and Pacific Magazines. It was from this radical transition that the idea for the Sydney Writers’ Centre was born, as Khoo experienced firsthand the lack of support for people who wanted to pursue their love of writing.

So she built the kind of centre she wished had existed when she shifted into the world of words, opening the Sydney Writers’ Centre and teaching both of the two courses it offered. In the years since 2005, she’s grown the centre into a profitable business that offers 30 face-to-face or online courses to students in Australia and around the world.

Many of Khoo’s students have gone on to be published and land book deals, so it’s little wonder she’s become a much sought after mentor in both literary and entrepreneurial circles. In the midst of growing a profitable business, she’s also found time to pen five books and become a prolific blogger, on both her own blog and a range of widely read online publications including The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

But she’s not done yet: Khoo is now turning her talents to a new start-up, SocialCallout.com, which is designed to connect bloggers with the businesses who want to work with them.

In this interview, Khoo shares some straightforward small business blogging advice and reveals how she’s built a successful business out of words.

Tell me a bit about where the idea for the Sydney Writers’ Centre came about.

I had the idea for the Sydney Writers’ Centre in August 2005. At the time, I knew that I wanted to start a business but I wanted to create one that was aligned with my passions. I love helping people achieve their dreams. It might sound like a cliché but it’s true. I love it when people achieve something they once thought impossible. So I realised that my business had to incorporate this.

I didn’t want to be a life coach and I knew I would never mentor someone to win a gold medal at the Olympics. But I knew that I had technical skills in writing – and lots of experience in the world of publishing and journalism. So I realised that I could certainly help people achieve their writing goals, whether they wanted to write a novel, get their articles published or improve their writing at work. That’s how the Sydney Writers’ Centre was born.

Can you share how you’ve built a profitable business out of words?

From day one, I’ve really focused on the customer – or the student in our case. I genuinely get a kick out of their achievements. Every single day, I receive messages from former students who have been published or scored book deals or been promoted at work as a result of an improvement in their writing. Your customers are your biggest fans and advocates – so when you look after them, they spread the word about what you offer. They do the marketing for you. But I don’t focus on this just because I want to build my business; I have a genuine interest in their lives.

Apart from being passionate about your business and your customers, you also need robust systems. It took years to create systems that now operate like clockwork – and there is still always room for improvement. A business can only run smoothly and profitably if you have clear, documented systems that everyone follows.

Equally important is to ensure that you have the right people in your team. This will make or break you. We have very low turnover of staff and I care deeply for every single member of my team.

Ultimately, running a profitable business is not possible unless you are smart about your marketing. After all, you could offer the best product or service in the world but that doesn’t matter if no one knows about it.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when launching the business? How did you overcome this?

There aren’t enough hours in the day. When you start a business, one of the biggest hurdles is when you grow to a stage where you need to hire people or outsource. It can seem like such a big leap.

If you are a new business, it can be easy to get stuck in the mindset that you have to do everything, or that no one will be able to perform certain tasks as well as you can. If you think this way, you’ll never grow. You need to hire the right people, put the right systems in place and trust that they will do the job.

What do you find most rewarding about owning your own business?

I get a real kick out of seeing my customers love our products and services. It’s even more rewarding when they Tweet about it or talk about us on Facebook. I love seeing our customers succeed – sometimes they score book deals, or they get published in their favourite magazine or they switch careers and make a living out of being full-time writers.

On weekends, I enjoy grabbing a cappuccino, reading the newspapers and seeing how many of the articles have been written by our former students. The same goes for heading into a bookshop – I get excited when I see our students’ books on the bestseller shelves.

Is there anything you know about business now, that you wish you had known when you launched Sydney Writers’ Centre?

I wish I found a coach or mentor earlier. It might sound strange, but in the beginning I just never thought of using one. Now I understand how valuable this kind of external advice can be.

As it turned out, my coach/mentor was one of my students and he understood the potential of the business even better than I did at the time. He helped me open my mind to play a much bigger game.

You’re quite the prolific blogger. What tips would you offer to SMBs who are looking to improve their blogging skills?

Just do it. Don’t over think it. Blogging is not a scary exercise.

I see too many business owners spend so long debating about whether they should blog or not – or discussing the potential pitfalls – they waste valuable time while their competitors are already blogging, and getting clients as a result. It’s a wonderful way to position yourself as a thought leader or an expert. And it’s a great marketing vehicle that’s totally free!

What’s next?

As I’m passionate about blogging and social media, it’s probably no surprise that I’ve co-founded www.SocialCallout.com. It’s a way for bloggers to connect with businesses who want to work with them, either through paid work, sponsored editorial or brand ambassadorships. And it’s a free service to bloggers – so that’s very exciting. I really feel that we’re only just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the power of bloggers in Australia – and it’s great to be a part of that.

As a writer, I’ve also been busy researching and writing my new book ‘Power Stories: The 8 Stories You MUST Tell to Build an Epic Business‘. It’s about storytelling for entrepreneurs and it’s out in October 2012 but people can pre-order now with some great bonuses.