Jo Burston - If she can I can
If she can I can
Jo Burston is the founder and CEO of Job Capital a company she grew from nothing to $40M in less than 5 years with a team of 12, co-founder and director of Phronesis.Academy and founder of the entrepreneurial movement Inspiring Rare Birds, Rare Birds works to promote opportunity for women in entrepreneurship and has a global vision to have ten million women in its community by 2020.
Jo has been recognised as one of Australia’s top entrepreneurs for the past six years and is a leading authority on global women’s entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship as a whole, and SMB markets. Jo is an active mentor for fast growth entrepreneurs both men and women, and is passionate about encouraging young Australians to endeavour to find out exactly who it is that they want to become, and create their own jobs to achieve this.
Her Story – Jo Burston
I am CEO and founder of a number of companies, the first one being Job Capital which I started back in 2006. It is a payroll, salary packaging and full services migration firm which I launched pre-GFC. My second, third and fourth companies were all SAS businesses I have since sold two of those companies, the first being Cleaning Ladies which was a cleaning company and the second Sign Easy which was an online signing company. I then created two other SAS companies, one of which I broke and the other which broke me.
The two companies I started most recently are still active, so in all I now have three active companies that I am running. The first being Inspiring Rare Birds which I started 2 and half years ago, founded to enable the growth of female entrepreneurs globally, with the vision of a million women entrepreneurs globally by 2020 and a mission to give every woman globally the opportunity to become an entrepreneur. The second is an ed-tech company, the Phronesis academy, where I took the thinking and learning of entrepreneurship into the school curriculum. The name comes from a Greek word meaning practical wisdom which is the aim, it is about teaching kids in school practically how to become the entrepreneurs of the future. Currently, the approach to teaching is one of ‘chalk and talk’, we are taught to read, remember and to then regurgitate what we have learnt which is then assessed as being a pass or a fail. This is a necessary element of a number of core subjects such as maths or the sciences, however entrepreneurship cannot be learnt from reading, it is something that you can only learn from doing. It is a matter of seeing, thinking, doing and then reflecting. Entrepreneurs develop a cycle of unconscious learning from the experiences that they either have themselves or that they see others go through. It is our belief that the stem subjects taught at school are of course critical, business then provides the vehicle to utilise the learning of those subjects and then we see entrepreneurship as a mindset which wraps around that, it is the thinking that ultimately becomes unconscious competencies which makes a great entrepreneur.
I wasn’t always headed in the direction of being self-employed and starting my own businesses, it actually came from a sliding doors moment in my own career. At the age of 32 I was working as an employee with a corporate background, prior to my 5 years in the corporate world at that time I had a mismatch of earlier jobs. In all honesty, I was a bit of a wanderer, I had left school not knowing what it was that I wanted to do. I took a number of jobs in retail, my first job was a seamstress in a bridal boutique making wedding dresses which I really didn’t enjoy. Through the range of jobs that I had, I learnt a range of invaluable skills but I was yet to find my niche or my passion. At the age of 27 I landed with an organisation in Sydney after I had spent a couple of years travelling the world and exposing myself to what life really looked like. I returned to Australia desperate to find a job given that my overseas adventure had left me broke. I applied for a job with a company who was involved in salary packaging work, I found that I really enjoyed this type of work. I have always had a strong business acumen, a strong sense of numbers, mathematics, practicality and a very strong common sense. I became quite good at sales through that business, within 5 years of being there I had worked my way up to being the managing director of the company which at the time was the most senior position in Australia, it was an $80 million company at that time.
I really built my way up from nothing. My father had been a fireman and my mum a bank teller, there were no business people in my family at all. The big move towards becoming a business person myself came in 2006. I flew to Melbourne to meet with an important client, I had researched the background of the client and of course my flight was late into Melbourne to my meeting with this client to pitch the services of the company. I had missed the meeting time but I was determined that I would still meet with them, no matter what time that would have to be. The client called me that day to say that they had been able to find a space for me at 3 o’clock that afternoon, I later found out that they had made that space for me because I had been very courteous and polite to the EA, an important lesson in life. I remember going to the office in St Kilda, it was pre GFC at a time when it was pretty easy to make money and to do business, the share markets were rallying. I remember walking into the office, there were screens everywhere and the office was filled with a magnetic energy. The client’s energy filled the room, he was running around in his jeans and sneakers. I remember thinking that this was what I wanted in a workplace. He told me to take a seat wherever I wanted so I went around to his side of the desk and sat in his seat, telling him that I was going to sit here one day so why not start now. He just laughed, we kicked of an immediate rapport. He asked why I was there, what my business does and what it was that we actually wanted from him. He told me that he was impressed by the way that I had backed myself, I had done something cheeky but I had backed myself in doing so. He then asked me why I was working for the company, why I wasn’t doing it myself when I clearly had the presence for it, it was something that I had never really thought about. The 15 minutes of his time that I was meant to have turned into a 3-hour conversation, which in turn lead to me having my first investor 6 weeks later, my first business partner and ultimately to the launch of Job Capital.
I didn’t know that I was going to become an entrepreneur and I am not someone who believes that people are born entrepreneurial, instead that it is something that you need to be exposed to. It was this client meeting that was my time and place to learn it. I have been very fortunate to have a mentor in him, with our partnership going on to grow the company very quickly. We had become a $40 million company by the 5-year mark and it has only continued to grow from there. The service that we were offering, outsourced payroll and salary packaging, was in perfect timing for the GFC as organisations were wanting to fire non-revenue generating staff, we were able to create an outsourced service for those organisations who were cutting overheads in trying to survive the GFC. It was rather ironic as we grew so quickly over this period of time, there were points in time where I felt bad because so many people were being laid off but in turn it did mean that I had the pick of the crop of employees for our business. It was all about timing, about having the right product and the right service at the right time. After 5 years, we had grown to a $40 million company and on top of that had grown to 13 staff.
This success really got me interested in entrepreneurship, even 11 years ago there was a lot of stigmatism around the word, you would automatically be bucketed in with the Alan Bond’s of the world. The reality was that I really didn’t know many entrepreneurs, I had become one myself by accident. It was hard to find my own of people, it was almost a lonely place in that there were very few people that I could talk to on that journey. The more I began to talk to people, I realised that there was this almost underground group of us and I became more connected. The more I became involved, the more I became attracted to the idea of it and the more I realised the opportunity that technology was going to present for me to scale the growth and to still keep the headcount down in my business. Through this free and unleashed learning, including many trips overseas to meet other entrepreneurs from the Philippines, China and the US, I was able to self-educate throughout the journey.
Inspiring Rare Birds
Inspiring Rare Birds was started as a for purpose business, I loved Job Capital, it had been a great learning journey for me but the business of payroll outsourcing and salary packaging is certainly not a sexy business. I got to the point where I felt I had refined the business processes and the technology side of things as much as I felt that I could, I started to become restless, Around the same time, in 2012, I won a Pearcey award for my contribution to technology here in Australia. It was a great honour and acknowledgement, I was being acknowledged by previous winners and technology legends, as someone who doesn’t come from a technology background. I can’t code but I can understand how technology can grow a business, I can manage and direct technology teams. I was standing on the stage at Government House, accepting my award and remember looking out onto this sea of amazing faces including government officials and high up people from the technology industry. I remember thinking how many guys there were, and asking myself where all the girls were? For the next 48 hours I really felt that entrepreneurial doubt, questioning whether I had been standing on the stage because I really am good at what I do or because I am a woman? After the doubt, I backed myself and decided it was because I was good at what I do.
However, the doubt made me curious, I decided to find out why they were not more women in that room. I took a film crew to my old primary school and high schools to get an insight into what was in the minds of this next generation of women and girls. I filmed about 30 girls between the ages of 8-17, talking about their ambitions, who they wanted to become as a person as opposed to what job they wanted to get and I asked them about what they knew about entrepreneurs. To my astonishment and to my great sadness, every single one of them said ‘it’s a man that’ or ‘it’s a man that does’, their exposure and perception was that having your own business, being the boss or being an entrepreneur was a man’s job. I didn’t blame anyone for this, I just knew that it was a problem that I needed to solve so that the next generation of people in Australia have the opportunity to make social and economic impacts as entrepreneurs. I went home that night, had a bit of a cry and the following week I pulled together with a couple of friends who were female entrepreneurs themselves and told them of the problem that I had uncovered. I asked for their help in addressing the problem which is how Inspiring Rare Birds started. Its genesis was a social problem that I could see would have a long-term social and economic consequences if the issue wasn’t addressed.
We know now in Australia that women are starting businesses at twice the rate of men, there are 880,000 women who have companies here but they still face challenges in growing those businesses to become scalable, sustainable or saleable organisations. It is actually women between the ages of 40 and 45 leading the trend, it is not the millennials and the gen-y’s as everyone expects. There are three fundamental reasons for the significant increase in female business owners. Firstly, women categorically need to be away from their chosen career path when they have children and upon returning to the workforce they are then re-evaluating what they are doing and what they now need for their family. The need for flexibility actually often forces women in entrepreneurship as a solution. Secondly, we have seen very highly skilled women come out of corporate careers who have great depth and knowledge, those who have seen other people be successful as entrepreneurs and who then in turn feel the entrepreneurial ‘itch’. Thirdly, there is an opportunity which exists today which just did not exist when these women were younger, as was my experience.
I looked at my own journey and I spoke to hundreds and hundreds of other entrepreneurs, in order to identify what it was that got in the way and what would have made the journey easier. I also spoke to academia, to government and to corporate in order to create the vision of 1 million women entrepreneurs by 2020. I could then use data and research to demonstrate what the impact would be in Australia if we reached this goal. Through research we know that women re-invest 90% of the profits that they make back into their family’s welfare, education, health and into the community. In comparison to men who re-invest around 40c in the dollar. It was more than just talking about entrepreneurship as everyone was at the time, it was something which had a real and measurable impact for the country in which we live. If we look at Australia on a global stage, we have 5.3 million children under the age of 18, in the US there are just under 43 million children under the age of 18 and in India there are 435 million children under the age of 18. We need to give our kids and our country a chance at building economic growth and at social inclusion as a way of thinking, whilst still being able to compete on a global stage. I knew that starting point was fixing the numbers of entrepreneurs and then really exposing kids to the entrepreneurial mindset.
Advice to self and others
I would recommend that you have a lot of conversations with both men and women about what their dreams and goals are, obviously Inspiring Rare Birds has a community platform that you can jump on which costs nothing. From this you will find that you become more and more curious about entrepreneurship and what your own roadmap might look like. There are networks like ours and networks globally, places where you can have these conversations in a safe environment and ask all the questions you need to ask in order to be comfortable to actually take the next step. In the process, you will find that your confidence will also have changed.
When I look back and think of what was the one thing that I really need to hear early on, it would be to back myself. I needed other people to back me so that I could back myself. That sense of confidence and self-esteem has probably taken me the journey of my career to build, through the highs and the lows. Not losing that self-doubt permanently but just temporarily is a very important factor of being an entrepreneur.
I look at the tall poppy syndrome which is still very alive in Australia, amongst both men and women. You can see it in sports, in business and amongst entrepreneurs. The way I see it for myself is that I have a mission and I have a goal, it is my life and I get to choose what I do each day, how I do it and whom I do it with. It comes down to the fact that it is none of my business as to what other people say about me, if they care for me than I am all ears but those who sit back and criticise for the sake of criticising I have no time for. Entrepreneurs and business people develop the skill to block out that background noise out, to at least turn the volume down.
There are three key habits that I have. Firstly, I am someone who does get up very early and I do yoga every morning. I find that it balances my mind, my emotions and that my body becomes much stronger because of it. I make sure that my health and wellness comes before everything else, it comes before my friends, family and my business because if I don’t have my health and wellbeing then I don’t have any of these other things. My first habit for success is all around looking after myself, whilst it sounds selfish it allows me to be my best for other people and for my businesses. The second habit is being a creature of habit, I enjoy doing things routinely. Part of this is ensuring that if I start something that I finish it, I do one task at a time. I am not a multitasker, I find it a funny concept that women are supposed to be good multitaskers, given that human behaviour is built on only being able to do one thing at a time. I am very task driven, I have my to-do list, I mark things off and I generally don’t go out the door until I am finished. My third habit has been building meaningful relationships from early on in my career. The starts of my successes and failures are a sum of my relationships formed over the past 25 years, we live in a world where you can build networks easily by jumping online and having 2000 connections on LinkedIn. However, these are not actually relationships but only numbers. True deep relationships are a habit, you need to build them over a number of years. Often this takes the form of giving first, you need to develop a win-win situation in order for the relationship to flourish.
In January, each year I build a list of people that I am going to meet that year. It is a list of 5 to 10 people that I am going to purposely meet for a range of different meaningful reasons. I then become hell bent on finding ways to meet them, they are often high profile people who are quite inaccessible. I target them and come up with a proposition as to why I am meeting with them. Often you find through doing this that you end up meeting those people subconsciously. I wanted to meet Malcolm Turnbull and through a series of events I ended up sitting at the Innovation Table in 2015 which were part of materialising the innovation paper during Malcolm’s first term and working with him through this. I also wanted to meet sir Richard Branson a few years ago, about 6 months after deciding that I wanted to meet him, I got an invitation to Manukan Island where I ended up doing a business deal with Virigin Group. On my list, currently is definitely Michelle Obama who I want to meet at some point in my life. When I come to the decision that I want to meet someone, I think deeply about the conversation that I want to have with that person knowing what I know about them or through doing my research about them. It is about working out what makes them tick, about what would be interesting to them and make them want to talk to me.
The second part of that task is pruning back the tree, I lovingly detach from the people who are not bringing value to my life through our relationship. It is not about being harsh or mean, it is just about recognising when a relationship has run its course and there is no longer a value exchange, then detaching from it and moving on as opposed to continuing to put time and energy into it.
One of my favourite business related quotes is ‘revenue is romantic, profit is perfect but cash is king’. From a personal and aspirational view, my absolute life mantra is ‘to give without remembering and receive without forgetting’.
I have three books that I recommend everyone have a look at which I have self-published. The first book we published was Australia’s 50 Influential Women Entrepreneurs which is a beautiful hardcover coffee-table style book, it is in libraries, government offices and consulates all over the world. I am really proud that I have been able to show case the stories and journeys of 50 Australian Women entrepreneurs. The next book I wrote was #If she can, I can, which is the story of 29 gen-y entrepreneurs in Australia, ranging from social enterprise through to half billion dollar companies. It gives the background and insight into how they actually achieve what they have, it is a real know how type of book. The third publication is Brilliant Business Kids which features the stories of 12 kids from all over the world, from all different cultural backgrounds who are entrepreneurs. Its shows adults who have that fear factor around going down the entrepreneur path that there are kids who start with nothing other than themselves, energy and time. They are kids from the ages of 8 to 16 showing us that’s is possible, that you can’t make the excuses of not having enough money or not having a well enough established network. These kids don’t have the barriers in their mind that adults tend to have.
A book outside of our publications that I read recently was Business Models Generation, it is an entire book based around 50 to 60 different types of business models which you can form in starting a business. Looking back, it has been a good checklist for me, looking at the business models I have used and then looking at Inspiring Rare Birds and where we fit amongst those models. It is really a handbook for visionaries and those striving to challenge today’s outdated business models.
Our website is www.inspiringrarebirds.com where you can go to subscribe to what is going on in our world. It is completely inclusive, I strongly encourage men and women of all cultural backgrounds to be part of our movement. We all need to work together in order to elevate everybody in the entrepreneurial community. We have a mentoring program, we would love those in the corporate world such as CEOS, thought leaders or subject matter experts to get on board and help some of our women mentees who are looking for superb mentors.