It takes guts to quit a secure government job offering a six-figure package to pursue a start-up dream, but Melissa Little has done just that, creating and launching her own online wedding booking platform, VENYU.
But it was anything but a spur of the moment decision. The launch of VENYU in mid-2017 was the result of 18 months of planning, testing and investigation.
With a strong background in event and hospitality management and marketing, which has seen her undertake work in South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia and even Dubai, it was probably no surprise that Mel’s first entrepreneurial role would be in a field relating to event management.
Mel had been involved in helping to organise hundreds of weddings at places like Hayman Island, the Royal Mirage, The Palms and Atlantis in Dubai.
It included having to reorganise more than 20 weddings when the Hayman Island resort was closed following a cyclone.
“Thankfully there was insurance to help cover the cost of relocating the weddings, but we had to organise for our team to provide alternative weddings throughout Australia as far away as Sydney, Port Douglas and Broome,” she recalls.
However, it was only after coming to the aid of her younger sister Nicole who had been left with a wedding venue crisis that Mel fully recognised the niche that existed for her to go out on her own and pursue a dream to have her own business.
Having quit her job with Kerzner International to return to SA to help her sister organise her wedding, it was discovered that the venue was double booked, just three weeks from the big day.
“We ended up contacting 90 venues in McLaren Vale with no luck,” Mel recalls.
“It was peak season and it was hard to find much that could cater for over 100 people.
“I think we then went through another 20 or 30 in the Adelaide Hills before a cancellation opened up at Nepenthe Wines at Balhannah.
“I thought then that there had to be a better way for people to be able to search venues and check availability and suitability without having to ring or visit every single one like we had.”
And so the concept for VENYU was born.
Through her role in business development at the City of Onkaparinga, Mel learned of the SA New Venture Institute’s Venture Dorm Program, a 12-week course undertaken at Flinders University which helped her further explore and test the concept. Fortunately, she was able to do this while also continuing to work for the council.
“Venture Dorm was great. We had the chance to access other programs and a business mentor and then pitched our concepts in a competition offering $100,000 in prizes,” she explains.
“I was lucky enough to be named in the top three which gave my business a lot of PR exposure and the opportunity to go to America for the South by South West Tech and Innovation Conference in Texas.”
While in the US, she was also able to participate in a range of other activities exposing her to business development opportunities, including meetings with or addresses by venture capitalists, patent lawyers, marketers, futurists, technical teams in Silicon Valley and more.
“We were able to meet with founders and hear stories from them about how they’d grown their businesses. One of the most memorable for me was from a founder who had taken his concept from an Australia garage to a billion dollar digital security company servicing the world. We also had the chance to go to Wall Street, the international centre of fintech in New York City.
“I came back and was supercharged. I knew I couldn’t continue working in the same role and pursue my venture as it was a conflict of interest, so I had to make the leap.”
And, according to Mel, despite some hiccups and lessons during the VENYU formation process, she has not once regretted her decision to turn her back on her lucrative government job.
“It certainly helps to have a partner’s support and a background in business. I’m not risk averse if it’s a considered risk.
“I also know that, if I had to, it wouldn’t take long for me to get a job so I had confidence knowing that was my fullback plan.
“We set a budget as to what we would put towards the business, but we didn’t include my time in that.”
The biggest challenges for Mel have been self-doubt and learning to deal with the inevitable knockbacks that you get when in a sales role, particularly for a new product such as VENYU.
“Usually the knockbacks come when I haven’t given myself enough time to plan for it,” she reflects.
“I try to make sure that I plan better and not try to make sales calls when I’m tired.”
Mel also learned from her training and mentoring that it was foolish to try to commence the scale of business she was contemplating without some outside assistance.
Although she is responsible for the sales and marketing, accounts, business planning, day-to-day business activities and management of properties, Mel has also sourced partners to assist her, particularly in areas of the business she doesn’t feel confident in doing herself.
She has formed a partnership with Lateral Vision who provide much of the state-of-the-art visual elements of the website and also with a consulting company who provide the technical support for the site. There’s also other aspects that she outsources.
And, like many start-ups, VENYU hasn’t necessarily followed “the plan” to the letter.
Mel has had to rethink her vision for VENYU, not because it hasn’t worked out well, but more because the demand for some aspects of the business has been greater than expected.
“I was surprised by the amount of demand for the specialist services we provide, such as assistance with marketing the venues, visual promotion and other services for the venues themselves,” she said.
Earlier this year Mel was able to showcase VENYU as part of the Australia Post Regional Pitchfest competition where she was named the South Australian runner-up at a ceremony held at McLaren Vale.
“The competition was great exposure and experience, including the chance to attend a workshop with the Melbourne Accelerator Program.
While acknowledging she is still in the learning stages as a business owner, Mel has some wise advice for anyone considering embarking on setting up their own business.
“If I had my time over again I would have spent the money that I needed to on the development of the site itself at the start,” she said.
“I scrimped on it because of my lack of confidence, but in the end it has probably cost me money to cut corners and then have to spend the money anyway to get it right.
“I’ve also learned don’t ever be afraid to approach someone, to get to know them or to ask questions, either as a partner or for advice.
“I think it’s also important to be realistic about what’s involved in setting up a business and make sure you do the research to find out if it will work. Good ideas don’t always mean income generation.
“Make sure you spend the time on concept validation, test the idea with potential customers, and be wary of the opinions of friends and family who are likely to support the idea no mater what.”
Mel also paid tribute to the book that helped her greatly during her business planning and contemplation phase – The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. As well as a book there’s also a website offering some great advice for startups.
“I used the business model canvas and got out there and tested it.”
Today Mel is travelling throughout South Australia researching wedding venues and is particularly excited about the many unknown venues which will be launched through the site. So, if you’re planning a wedding or special function or have a beautiful property you think could be suitable for weddings get in contact with her via www.venyu.com.au.
Lessons to share:
- Don’t scrimp and cut corners – Design a realistic and complete budget. Don’t let confidence stop you from spending money on the things that are crucial to your business’s success.
- Seek advice/help from others – Don’t be afraid to approach people who you think may be able to assist you in your business, whether just as casual advice, professional advice or as a partner or investor.
- Do your research – Do your research, prepare your business plans and test the concept as much as you can beyond the views of friends and family.
- Seek learning opportunities – Whether it be reading books and writings by experienced entrepreneurs such as The Lean Startup by Eric Ries or enrolling in educational programs aimed at entrepreneurs, take advantage of opportunities to learn from others.