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Episode 2: Successful women in business with Alex Adams

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All Xero In episodes

Hosted by Rob Stone and Jeanne-Vida Douglas

It’s an exciting time for women in business, with more women starting companies than ever. So what does it take to succeed? Meet Alex Adams, who quit the corporate life in Sydney to launch Secret Foodies, a surprise dining experience that offers food lovers a unique way to indulge. Xero In hosts Valerie Khoo and Rob Stone chat with Alex about how she followed her passion and carved out a niche as a female in the very male-dominated food industry. Listen in to discover how she’s turned a fledgling newsletter into a sales and marketing powerhouse that’s driving the surprise dining movement in Australia.

Episode transcript

Participants: Valerie Khoo (VK), Rob Stone (RS), Alex Adams (AA).

VK: Hi there small business owners, I’m Valerie Khoo and you’ve just tuned in to episode 2 of Xero In. Joining me in our Sydney studio is Rob Stone, how are you Rob?

RS: Hi Valerie, really well thanks.

VK: Now Rob, earlier on you were talking to me about the Rare Birds Network, tell our listeners a bit more about it.

RS: It’s a great network, it’s called Inspiring Rare Birds. I actually met Joe Burson at a Start Up Growing event recently and really powerful stuff. Particularly around what purpose can bring to a business, but it’s focused about our theme today, which is women in business.

VK: Yeah because I believe the Rare Birds Network features a whole bunch of woman who can mentor other business woman. Is that right?

RS: It’s a great concept and it’s just going from strength to strength.

VK: Well as you said, our theme today is women in business, and I also feel it’s something that will resonate with – with today’s guest. Alex Adams from Secret Foodies. Now I understand you are a foodie, Rob?

RS: I am, I’m always thinking about where my next meal is coming from and I can’t wait to meet Alex and hear more about Secret Foodies. Secret Foodies, the whole concept’s been really successful abroad, it’s the gorilla dining, where you can bring people, food and places together for a surprise dining experience. We’ll have more on that later but first Valerie, lets chat a little bit more about today’s theme, women in business. What are your thoughts on this?

VK: I think it’s really exciting to be a woman in business these days, there are more women than ever before starting businesses, and I think what’s great is that there are so many resources and networks for women in – in business. You know I’m a member of quite a number of them myself and we’ll put the link in the show notes but, for some people who are thinking of joining a network, there’s the Australian Business Women’s Network, which is headed by Suzy Dafnis, and that’s a wonderful educational resource. There’s also Business Chicks, headed by Emma Issacs and that – they hold incredible, fantastic events, and also there’s Women’s Network Australia headed by Linette Palmin, and those three women are doing incredible things with their networks for women all around Australia.

  But I think it’s also really important to understand that you don’t just have to network with women, you know, you just – there are also other wonderful organisations and again, we’ll put this link in the show notes but there’s EO which is the Entrepreneurs Organisation, there’s the Key Person of Influence, headed by Glenn Carlson and that’s a wonderful network and Business Blueprint, headed by Dale Beaumont, so there’s so many exciting things that people can tap into as well.

RS: Yeah, I’m really passionate about this as well. There is underrepresentation at all levels in commerce which does need to be addressed. I don’t have the answers, but people like Joe Burston for instance at Rare Birds, they’re really, you know, pioneering the way and creating that next generation which I’m excited about.

VK: Very exciting and I think that also you know, I have to say this. Some women just need to not be afraid to step into the spotlight because, we like to think that, you know, we like to get things on merit, and that may be true but people can’t give you things based on merit if they don’t know about you. So it’s a matter of not being shy to build your personal brand.

RS: I couldn’t agree more.

VK: We’re part of the Xero podcast network and we’d love you to subscribe to the show in iTunes...

RS: And leave us a review, the link is in today’s show notes on xero.com.

VK: Great, well now we’ve got Alex Adams joining us over the phone. Thanks for coming on the show Alex.

AA: Thanks for having me.

VK: So Secret Foodies, that’s really intriguing. Can you just give us your elevator pitch then?

AA: Okay so, Secret Foodies, it’s surprise dining for adventurous food lovers. You buy a ticket to a secret themed dinner party and you don’t know where you’re going or who you are going to meet until 2 hours before when you get a text message with the location. You arrive, you meet new people, you meet the chef and the producers behind the food and then yeah, have a great night. Enjoy food and wine and then we write about it on Secret Foodie’s website for those who couldn’t be there.

RS: Alex that sounds right up my alley, as a big fan of food. I have to say...

VK: Rob loves food.

RS: …I’m looking forward to coming along to the next one. Where are some of the places that you’ve taken people?

AA: We do a mixture of in restaurant as well as out of restaurant. So when we do in restaurant, it’s usually a takeover of the restaurant, it’s a themed dinner, you know. We’ve done events with, for instance, Colin Fassnidge at the Four In Hand. We did an event with him called, fresh from the farm, and everything that came out had to be sourced from within a 100km location of the restaurant. So he was like “Oh the lamb is from here and the herbs are from my rooftop garden” So that was a fun exploration. We did, we’ve done Parisian events, we’ve done – we did an event called ‘Lambathon’ once, that was a seven course lamb degustation. Using different cuts over beef.

RS: Oh fantastic!

VK: I can see Rob salivating already, I mean, look, that sounds really labour intensive. Can you give us a sense of the size of the business and – and your growth as well.

AA: Okay so it’s still quite lean, so there’s myself and a couple of part timers and then when we need to scale up, so if we do an event that’s out of a restaurant for instance, obviously you know, our caterers, wait staff, you know, chefs and we sort of bump up as we need to but at the moment it’s still myself as a full timer and some part timers. But in terms of growth, you know this little idea started over five years ago now, as just, you know, me coming up with this small idea. Invited 10 friends to a secret dinner party, said you won’t know where you’re going. You’re going to get a text message 2 hours before, bring one friend I’ve never met. 20 people came, we had a great night. I was working in the corporate world at the time so I’d been about five – five years in a sales and marketing role within a corporate – within a corporate company. That was on the Friday night and my heart was racing all weekend. I just couldn’t sleep I’d come up with this amazing idea and then on the Monday I quit my job, and I was like, right I’m going to run secret dinner parties!

VK: Wow!

RS: So how long ago was that?

AA: And ah, thankfully it all worked out and if you fast-forward five years, Secret Foodies is now two different cities. Sydney and Melbourne, got an office here in Sydney and we’ve got a, you know, a team of people, part timers, but a team of people who help with Secret Foodies. We’ve hosted over 250 events and we also branched out into private events. So people started saying, can you plan my birthday, can you plan my team building and we’ve done events from you know, 10 people to a – a nice 10 person intimate dinner party, to a 300 person Christmas party.

RS: And today’s theme is all about women in business. Have you found, it a – you know, quite a male dominated industry? The culinary world. How – how you found that experience?

AA: Well you know Rob, I came into this and my background, I love food. My background is journalism, my mum’s Greek so food is in my blood; it’s how we express our love in our family. But coming into this industry, no I’d never been a chef. I would joke if I was cooking the food at Secret Foodies people probably wouldn’t come back. And so when I was out there and meeting with these chefs and convincing them, from the beginning, convincing you know, someone who had no background in the culinary world or hospitality to work with me on putting secret dinners together. I was really out there, and I guess, pitching myself. And it is quite a male dominated industry, often I do feel like it’s a bit of a boys club and I think – I think subconsciously I kind of changed my disposition, and the way I went into meetings. You know I almost adopted a slightly more male character, typical male characteristics. Even lowering my voice when I would talk in meetings and I don’t think it was something I intentionally planned on doing, but I think looking back on it now it’s something that I, you know, I felt like I had to present a very confident and strong, sort of front, when I was going into these meetings.

VK: So you’ve grown from you know, that one, that – that first dinner party for your friends and now you’ve had 250 events, how have you used, how have you created awareness for your brand?

AA: Word of mouth is still a huge way that we attract new customers, you know? 20-30 people come to a dinner, they have an amazing experience, they go and tell three friends, “I went to this cool secret dinner experience.” So word of mouth is still an oldie but a goodie. Social media has really impacted the business as well, so five years ago Instagram wasn’t around but it was very much Facebook and Twitter, also having eatdrinkplay.com which started out as my blog but is more of a lifestyle website now. And we’ve, I’ve grown the newsletter so initially it was a couple of 100 people who subscribed, mainly my mother that would read my newsletter about cool places to go in Sydney, and that’s grown to about 45,000 people and it goes out every Wednesday and that’s been going for six years now. So that is still a major marketing tool to drive the people to the events side of business.

RS: Now Alex, I – I suck at social media, any tips and tricks and you know, how big is your following at the moment?

AA: Well across the different, different assets so, you know, Twitter, over 5000.

RS: Wow.

AA: Facebook over 13,000. Emails over 40,000. Instagram still growing that one, so nearly at 4000.

RS: They’re huge numbers.

AA: Yeah I think, yeah, just would do posts regularly and post relevant content, so for your followers.

RS: That’s great advice. Talking about referrals here, social media is probably bringing more leads into your business or is it the - the blog and verbal referrals do you think?

AA: It’s a lot of, it’s everything really, but a lot of the newsletter. So the newsletter that goes out every Wednesday, we have you know, places to eat drink and play around Sydney but we always feature an upcoming Secret Foodies event as sort of, the main, you know, the main box in the newsletter I guess, and that’s the primary way that sends people to buy tickets to our events. Facebook, we post on Meetup. We post on sort of free event listings as well. So City of Sydney or City of Melbourne. But primarily it’s through that email database.

RS: Great, and what other challenges have you – have you faced?

AA: With selling, with selling tickets? And sort of getting the word out there?

RS: Yeah just, just in business in general. You know, accounting, additional revenue streams, embracing technology?

AA: Well someone once gave me some really, a really good piece of advice and said look, you don’t need to be an expert in everything and if you focus on what you are really good at, so my background was in sales and marketing. I was really good at sales and marketing, but terrible when it came to numbers and spreadsheets and actually doing my expenses, you know, when you’re in the corporate world, you hand in your expenses, it goes to the accounts apartment and then everything is handled. Also IT. You know? Your computer breaks down, you text the IT department, they handle it. When you have your own small business, you are the IT department, you are the, you know, your accounts department. And I quickly realised that if I was going to be able to do this business and grow it, I needed to rely on people and outsource.

  So I have a bookkeeper, I’ve got an online tool that I use for my bookkeeping and accounting, I’ve got you know, a really good accountant. I’ve got a developer, so any time I need any changes made to the website; you know I’m not teaching myself coding 101. They can do everything for me and sort of outsource. That was a really big lesson early on in my business, that you don’t need to be able to do everything.

VK: So you’re essentially selling people an incredible experience. How do you know what people are going to love? How do you know what to put together to make it a success?

AA: Well people love good food for starters, and food is one of those...

RS: Here, here!,

AA: [Laughs] Do we all agree with that?

VK: Yes.

RS: Yes.

AA: Food is just a wonderful way of bringing people together. So I think if you’ve got good food, you know, good drinks. I’ve always been really blessed. The people who come to Secret Foodies, I mean why would you go to something where you are going to be meeting other people if you didn’t want to meet other people? So, you know, you’re going to be kind of a social person or looking to get out of – out of the bubble and meet new people, so I think, you know? As long as you can provide, you know a nice atmosphere with good food, it’s going to, it’s going to appeal to everyone no matter what their age or demographic.

RS: And do you think that, that trend and that theme is going to continue of, urban isolation may be too strong but you know, I think it’s fair to say a lot of people in cities these days around the world are – are feeling more lonely, does this scratch that itch? In conjunction with the benefit of great food.

AA: 100 percent. So I am, in the online world I am known as Ms Darlinghurst and I have lived in Sydney for 12 years, but I actually am a born and bred country girl, I grew up in Broken Hill which is totally different.

RS: That’s – that’s really country.

AA: It is very country, and, you know, I’m the sort of person when I first moved to Sydney, I’d strike up conversations on the train, “Oh hi where are you going today?” And then I, you know, about five years into living here I sort of five years into the corporate world I found I – I just stopped. I didn’t look at anyone on the train, I didn’t meet anyone out of my own circle and the older we get the less opportunity there is to meet new people, and I’m not talking from a dating perspective or anything like that, although, you know, people might argue that’s a hard situation in Sydney. But I think meeting like minded people, you meet them at uni or you meet them at the work place but other than that, it’s hard to meet new people. So the Secret Foodies provides a catalyst to try new places, meet new people and eat great food, and I think that yeah you are right, the fact that we are still going over 5 years later, means that people are looking for ways to connect in, you know, a busy place like Sydney and Melbourne.

RS: So how – how do you create that amazing customer experience and what’s your measurement at the end of one of these events to say, “you know what? That was a great experience.”

AA: It definitely comes down to, okay so started – from the minute they get on, they’re getting them excited about it, managing their expectations about, you know, what you’re buying and – and making sure that you deliver on that. So if a ticket’s, you know, $100 and it includes a cocktail on arrival and three courses and matching wine, obviously delivering on that. Providing that personal touch, so I host all the Secret Foodies events, so people have sort of got to know me that I’ll be there and they get to know people in my team. But then also, you know, it is a team effort. You can’t create an amazing event without different elements working so I needed to make sure that, you know, the chef is passionate and on board and they come out at the end of the meal and they talk about their background and their experience and why they’ve prepared this meal for us. I think that’s a really nice touch.

  At the end of it, it’s as successful event for me if people at the end of it think, “Oh that was amazing, that was great.” They send an email the next day or, you know, they come back to another event, or they want to maybe book us for their birthday or, you know, I’ve got to organise the client Christmas party, where should I go. For me they’re elements of success from Secret Foodies’ events.

VK: So you’re obviously really hands on and I touched on this before, it seems so labour-intensive. Do you plan to keep it that way or do you have plans to make it scalable in some way?

AA: That is the biggest challenge, Valerie, for me and it’s something that I’m working through at the moment. So I manage Sydney and Melbourne, and I do have a host in Melbourne but I, you know, in order to scale this business, you know, I am going to have to sort of let go of the reins a little bit and learn to trust in people and sort of be able to delegate a little bit more. And I think as a small business owner that is a, that is a big challenge for a lot of small business owners. So for, at the moment you know, I’d love to expand into Brisbane and also Canberra, and so it’s just about finding the right people on the ground that can do that and you know, and being able to trust people. But it’s something that I am working through at the moment.

RS: And do you find that you are back end systems are in a place where it will allow you to scale currently? And what systems are you using?

AA: Yeah I think there’s definitely room for streamlining our private events arm. From a technology perspective, you know we’ve got a really good ticketing platform that allows everything to sort of happen online, so you know, people buy their tickets online. We’ve got an app that scans people tickets when they get there and then you know, obviously it’s about taking an on – off – online experience and bringing it offline. For private events, so if people want to book in to do you know, the farmyards feast or their Birthday. At the moment they can go online and all the details are there and they can make an enquiry online, but I think what would all – what would streamline that and what I’d like to look at in the future is making that all automated. So that you can go on, you can actually, you know, set up your own ticketing page for your friends to buy their tickets, which we do have at the moment but we actually manually need to set it up for people. And it’s just having that fine line Rob between you know, that experience – what makes us special is you do get a bit of human interaction, and it is a little bit more of a bespoke experience but then streamlining it so that you can pop up in other cities and, you know, there’s only one of me so, you know, that’s something that I’ve got to look at.

RS: Sounds really exciting and I wish you all the best. One last question from me before I hand it over to Valerie is, everyone knows the food market and the food scene moves so quickly. How do you keep your pulse on the – the zeitgeist of what’s – what’s happening out there?

AA: So having eatdrinkplay.com has, is a great, it’s a great partnership with Secret Foodies because particularly in Sydney, because eatdrinkplay is only in Sydney at the moment, you know we get press releases before anyone else, keeping your ear to the ground. So we’re constantly writing about great new bars and restaurants that are opening up in Sydney. So that kind of segues nicely into Secret Foodies. You know we go to events all the time and there’s great caterers or there’s great venues, so you know, that’s really helpful. And I think that’s been a really good business model for Sydney and its’ something I’d like to replicate in the other cities is having, sort of, that lifestyle website that keeps you in touch with what’s happening in the food scene but then can also dovetail into your marketing tool to drive people to the events arm.

RS: Would you call that content marketing?

AA: Yeah, yeah, essentially, yeah.

RS: And it’s clearly very successful.

AA: Yeah it’s definitely worked, well it’s worked so well in Sydney. I’ve just got to replicate that now in – in other cities.

VK: So you know, bars restaurants, surprise parties. Sounds like so much fun, are there low points? Has there been a lowest point in your business when you’ve thought, “what am I doing here?”

AA: I think a lot in the beginning. I remember I was 25 when I quit my job and I was you know, I was making good money, it was sort of a recruitment industry pre, it was just as the GFC hit so, you know, riding the wave, I remember telling my parents. “Oh look I’ve quit my job and I’m going to run secret dinner parties” and they were just like, are you serious? You know you are on a really good wicket, we love and support you no matter what you do but, you know, every couple of, every three or four months my mum would call me and, “are you sure you’ve made the right decision?” And I did start doubting it. There were times where you know, I went from making quite good money, to my first year I made, I didn’t make anything the first year. I’d saved up to put the deposit down on an apartment, and I felt, right I’m going to take that money and I’m going to invest it into a business. And the first year I didn’t pay myself anything. So I, you know basically lived on savings and then the second year I remember I made $32,000 and I’d never been more proud of myself ever.

  I thought, “wow, I’ve made that $32,000 out of nothing”. And I was so proud. And you know, obviously since then it’s grown and grown and grown. But you know there were definitely times where I was like, “Oh how am I going to pay my rent this month”. And it always just happened, you know, there’s nothing like having to pay your rent to motivate you, to – to work on your business.

RS: Thanks, Alex.

RS: If you’d like to try Xero, head to xero.com. There’s a 30 day no obligation free trial, go ahead and check it out. All right, it’s time for the small biz quiz now, it’s not really a quiz in the typical sense but it is a chance to find out a little bit more about today’s guest.

AA: Sure.

RS: Ten quick questions in a row, first off, who’s your favourite entrepreneur or business personality?

AA: In Australia, a friend of mine, Sarah Wilson. She started the “I quit sugar” movement. And I just, every time I see her, what she’s doing, she’s just diversifying, growing and I just think that, you know, although I love sugar, I don’t think I could give it up. But I think what she’s done is created a, you know, an amazing business and – and really grown it.

VK: What wakes you up in the morning?

AA: I ride my bike pretty much everywhere, it’s how I justify all the food that I eat. I think riding my bike’s, riding my bike’s really good because I get a lot of my best thinking done when I ride.

RS: And what’s your favourite business related book.

AA: There’s one that’s sitting on my coffee table at the moment which I quite like, is the Monocles Guide to Good Business. Like I said my business is sort of similar, reflects a lot of things that they talk about in that book.

VK: Beautiful looking book.

VK: What are the three apps on your phone you can’t live without.

AA: Oh okay. Instagram, Facebook and Spotify.

RS: What’s your favourite TV show?

AA: At the moment it’s Game of Thrones.

RS: I think that’s a very popular one.

VK: And what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

AA: I think like I mentioned before it’s you know, you don’t need to be an expert at everything and focus on what you’re really good at and you can outsource the rest of it in order to be successful.

RS: And what do you do when something in your business isn’t working for you?

AA: I like to sort of just take a step back sometimes, I mean particularly in a small business you can be so ingrained in the day to day workings of the business; you just need to take a step back. And I often ask people that I trust, their opinion on why they think it might not be working and if they’ve got some suggestions.

VK: Well you are obviously very passionate about what you do, I think I’m going to lose Rob soon because he’s off booking into your next event.

RS: I love guerrilla dining.

VK: Thanks so much for your time today Alex.

RS: Thanks Alex

AA: Thank you for having me.

VK: If you have any questions you’d like answered on the show...

RS: Tweet us at Xero using the #xeroin.

There were some really interesting insights from Alex today, things along about her sharing the passion that she has and then executing that and bringing something to the market. Amazing, and it is also quite vulnerable in the sense that you can’t be good at everything. So knowing what to outsource and bringing in that outside help.

VK: And I know you’re just hanging to go to one of those events, aren’t you?

RS: I can’t wait; I’m really looking forward to getting involved. A surprise dining experience for me just sounds amazing.

VK: So Alex is certainly very inspirational. Now another inspirational talk I heard recently was on TED. You know I love my TED Talks. Do you love TED Talks?

RS: Can’t get enough.

VK: So this woman, she’s an Icelandic banker and her name is Halla Tomasdottir, and she’s got a great TED Talk about feminine values in the world of finance, because she started her own company. Her own financial services firm, Order Capital. And one of the things she said that was great was, it’s not about women being better than men, it’s about woman being different to men. And that just really resonated with me because it’s just so important to have different points of view and there’s some more diversity in business decisions. Don’t you think?

RS: Independence is really important, particularly at the board level. I think we need to see a lot more independence of thought, not just how removed or close you are to the company. We also have some more useful information about women in business in our Xero Small Business Guide, so please check it out. You will find the link in today’s show notes.

VK: Well that’s all for episode 2 but be sure to join us next time on Xero In. I am Valerie Khoo...

RS: And I’m Rob Stone, thank you.

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