It is not often that I add to my own blog something that has been written about me – this article written by Peter Wilmoth and appeared with a cover shot throughout Melbourne last week. I thought it might give a broader perspective to you about my life….
Up, up and away.
If any of the more than 1000 operators who provide experiences for “experience retailer” RedBalloon happen to notice an elegant woman abseiling down a cliff or doing some rally driving or – unlikely but possible – paintballing, it might well be the group’s founder Naomi Simson doing a bit of undercover work.
Hundreds of times she has road-tested the experiences her operation offers. “I will often read a description of an experience and think, ‘I’d like to do that’, and I will book in and go. I use a Gmail account, nobody knows who I am.”
So far she hasn’t unearthed any problems. “All they need to do is what they said they were going to do and it’s all OK,” she says. “Afterwards I’ll review it and talk about it. If I say, ‘Here comes Naomi’, they might do something special and that’s not the view of the world. All of our team go out and about and do experiences.”
Every businessperson wants that one great idea. It’s all you need. Naomi Simson had hers in the late 1990s. Noticing the propensity for people who have been given gifts they don’t want to “on-gift” or “regift” – how many copies of Mao’s Last Dancer can you own? – she started RedBalloon 12 years ago.
The name was inspired by the 1956 French film The Red Balloon, about a Parisian boy who befriends a red balloon.
The company offers people an easy way to give the gift of an “experience”, everything from learning to play the didgeridoo, to swimming with whale sharks, to learning to fly a helicopter, to dinner in the Daintree.
Simson says it had struck her that gifting was “always about stuff”.
“That’s not to say grandma didn’t give opera tickets or ballet tickets to her grandchildren – it was hard though. You had to do the right date and the right time. It’s not as if people haven’t been giving experiences, it’s just that it wasn’t easy. And how do you know if it’s good? If you give a jet-boat ride and the jet boat is kerplunk that’s no good for anyone.”
Simson meets me in a café in East Melbourne. She is warm and friendly, and exhibits the confidence and calm demeanour of someone whose business started in her lounge room and now turns over $50 million annually. She re-affirms my belief that those with the least need to prove anything to anyone are always the most charming company.
Simson grew up in Christowel Street, Camberwell, the street on which Barry Humphries also lived. Simson didn’t know Humphries (he had left home by then). But she did know his mother who, of course, achieved fame – if not notoriety – by making comments that became show titles (such as Isn’t It Pathetic At His Age?).
She went to Camberwell High, then Korowa for the last three years of school. “As a really young person I wanted to be a clown but I grew out of that and wanted to be an artist.”
Was she any good? “Well, I thought so, but apparently nobody else did. My art teacher said, ‘You’re fabulous, you’re really great, I can see you starving in a garret and famous after you’re dead’. And somehow that didn’t inspire me.”
She still paints, though.
Simson says she went looking for a creative career and was inspired by an unlikely source. She would watch the ’60s TV show Bewitched and while many were concentrating on the nose-twitching witch, Samantha, Simson noticed her husband, Darrin, who was in advertising. “I thought, ‘I’ll go into advertising’. Mum said, ‘What about you go to university before you start your advertising career?’ And marketing is sort of like advertising.”
Simson went on to marketing roles at KPMG, Apple and at Ansett, where she was marketing manager for Golden Wing and worked on the team that launched the airline’s frequent-flyer program. “Literally the day I started working at Apple (my husband, Peter) called me and said, ‘How’s your job going, sweetie?’ I said, ‘It’s great’. He said, ‘I’m really glad, because I’ve just lost mine’.”
She and Peter, who worked in accounting, moved to Sydney in 1991, when she left Ansett to join Apple.
In the late ’90s she quit work and started wondering whether there might be a business using the internet. “I left corporate life when I became a mum because I wanted to spend more time with my kids,” she says. “I thought I could run a business at night and play with my kids in the day. Doesn’t quite work that way.”
She was confident she had what it took to go it alone. “I believed in my own skills as a marketer, that I could create a brand, and that’s where it came from.”
The internet was just taking off. “I didn’t know anything about online. In 2000 I was going, ‘Wow, what’s all this online stuff? It looks like I could do something there’. It had to be something that couldn’t be done unless there was the internet.
“It had to be ‘disruptive’ – an innovation that people don’t see coming, a new way of doing business. It’s usually taking an existing idea to a new audience in a different way.”
Simson’s “disruptive” idea was gifting – in a new way. She is anti-“stuff”, against material possessions floating around that nobody wants. Her vision was that experiences are often better gifts.
She spent $25,000 of family savings developing an outsourced website and waited for customers. “How naïve as a marketer – to think they would just come,” she says. “They did not just come. For two months and four days they didn’t come. Longest two months and four days of my life.”
Then she got her first customer. It was a $99 booking for a “stress-busting” massage. Simson did the transaction on the website and made a $9 commission.
Six months later, Fuji Xerox wanted to use RedBalloon’s services as a sales incentive. It wasn’t long before companies such as Qantas, Telstra, Westpac and Commonwealth Bank jumped on.
In its first year, RedBalloon processed $70,000 in transactions. Now, 12 years on, the company has 60 employees and processes $50 million worth of transactions annually. In the past financial year it has grown 40 per cent. It has 1000 providers who offer more than 2500 experiences. Last Christmas Eve, they processed a transaction every three seconds.
Simson learned her business acumen on the job, and her energy and passion helped. “I think there was a little ignorance there and if we knew everything we needed to know, we’d never get started,” she says.
“One thing that I know I’m very good at is knowing what I’m not good at and also being real with myself saying, ‘You know what? I’m not good at detail, I’m not good at analysis’ – and finding those people that love that work. It makes it really easy. When you know what you’re there to do – you go home feeling like a winner.”
As the business grew, Simson often went home feeling like a winner. “People want more good times with family and friends, and our job is to make it really easy for them. ‘I’ve always wanted to ride in a red balloon’, ‘I’ve always wanted to ride in a V8 Supercar’; I’m really clear about why we do what we do.”
She is no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the business, but remains on the board as a “founding director”.
“I’m accountable for vision, values and alignment,” she explains. “I mentor and coach people in the organisation.”
Simson is a regular blogger, offering insightful thoughts on business and the world, and she has 120,000 LinkedIn followers. She says we need more female role models who are prepared to stand up and be counted.
“I had great role models and I never thought it wasn’t possible to do what I do. My mother worked on the first computer in Australia. She worked with a great Australian entrepreneur, Lyndsey Cattermole, the founder of Aspect Computing. It (business) was always in our vernacular.”
She passionately believes staff need to have a strong voice at work, and also to know when their work has ended and rest and recreation have begun. “I’m increasingly concerned about people’s addiction to their smartphones. There is such a melding between the work day and the work weekend; I don’t think it’s healthy.”
Is she good at relaxing? “Oh yes, I’m the best. I lead by example. Yoga is really important to me. For many years all of the sport I did to get fit was more stress, like long distance running and pulling weights. Now it’s meditation.”
“I don’t agree with the term work-life balance. we have one life, not two.”
Her children – Natalia, 17, doing VCE, and Oscar, 15, who is in year 10 – are at school in Melbourne. “Oscar is very interested in rowing, rugby and sport. Loves the outdoors. Natalia is looking at science or engineering,” says Simson.
Boarding school was a deliberate choice. “We wanted to teach our children resilience, responsibility and respect, and boarding is a great way for them to get that,” she says. “Both of my kids are unbelievably self-reliant and self-sufficient.”
She misses them. “Oh, desperately. They will bring me to tears at any point. People say to me, ‘Oh, how could you have sent your children away?’. It makes me terribly sad but it’s not about me. It’s about providing the best for our children. Having a boarding education means they have to do their own homework, they have to find their uniform, be sure they feed themselves properly, get to their sport on time, all of that.”
Does she sometimes worry they won’t do all of that? “Which parent ever stops worrying? Of course we worry about our children. I believe I gave my kids the greatest gift, which is to teach them to look after themselves. There’s not a day that I don’t wake up and miss my children and wish they were with me, but it’s not about me.”
Simson and her husband separated two years ago after years of working together in the business. “We still sit on the board together. We were married for 20 years, we have two beautiful children together, created a fabulous business together, we’re still very good friends, we just no longer had a shared sense of purpose and direction. Better to part as friends.”
Any conversation with Simson has plenty of philosophy in it. “I don’t agree with the term work-life balance,” she says. “We have one life, not two. There’s not work and then there’s life. We just have one life. If we don’t love what we do every day, find another job, because life’s short.”
Simson shares her thoughts on her blog, which she says is a good way of engaging with people and helps fulfil her desire to be a leader and a role model for women.
“I absolutely believe that the role of leaders is to make sure everybody gets the tools to get the job done. Our job as leaders is to make sure everybody gets to do their best work, that they go home feeling of having done their best work.”
Simson’s own best work has been very good. Those who have been fortunate enough to move in her circles can only have learned a lot.