Valerie Khoo is a journalist, author and entrepreneur. She has founded the Australian Writers Association as just a one-person-operation in 2005, this centre has helped thousands of young writers get published, score book deals and change careers. Additionally, in 2010 it won in the NSW Telstra Business Awards. Valerie is also co-founder of SocialCallout.com as well as the editor of Latte Magazine (Australia’s leading magazine for business women). Recently she has published her own book, Power Stories – 8 stories you must tell to build an epic business. She explores the ways to build a positive brand profile by using the lost art of storytelling to make authentic connections in all areas of business. Check out her own blog ValerieKhoo.com which was named by Smart Company as one of the 25 Best Business Blogs in Australia.
Read on to hear her exciting journey from Accountant to Sydney Writers Institute founder:
P: Valerie great to talk to you today. We really admire the work you have done with the Sydney Writers Institute. As the master of telling stories we would love to hear yours.
V: Sure, so despite that my favourite subjects at school were English and I won the English competition five out of six years at high school, I then became an accountant. I didn’t really think you could do anything with English except be an English teacher. I didn’t really think of being a writer as a real option. In my household, you became a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant. So I became an accountant but I always had a creative side to me, a desire to express myself and a desire to play with words. I joined PWC and I had some great opportunities with them. I went to London, I worked in Sydney, I had some great clients. But after a while, I realised this really wasn’t the job for me and I needed to do something about it. And all I knew was I wanted to something different. But even then, I didn’t think “oh, I might want to become a writer.” I did some courses in communications and I actually ended up going into PR first before going into writing because PR is still a bit more corporate and it was a bit more what I was used to. Writing is so different from accounting.
I worked in PR for a while and I thought I would be able to feed my creativity by freelance writing on the side, which is what I did for a while. I loved it, but I realised one day I was going to have to make a little bit more of a dramatic change. So I woke up one day and thought I’ve got to actually give this writing thing a proper go or I’m just never going to know. I did everything I could, literally, I did everything I could, I sent out so many letters and CVs and contacted people. I was contacting people everyday. And a month later, I got offered a great job in a magazine. I thought, “Wow all of my dreams have come true!” However my salary was a fraction of what I was earning. By that time I was a senior consultant at the PR firm. And I thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to be poor”. But you know, I just loved the job. I had a mortgage by that time, so I sold my apartment because there was no way I was going to be able to afford the mortgage on my new salary. But the job was just so appealing to me that I was happy to sell my place. Fortunately, six months later I was offered a job that was three times my original salary. Once you get in and do what you love, you’re going to be great at it and people will see that. Obviously, then the money will follow. It was a six month short time sacrifice where I ate cereal for dinner, but it paid off in spades. So, I got into another magazine, Cleo actually, and I loved it. I love writing, so that’s kind of the start of it and how I got into writing.
P: What genre of writing did you start in?
V: Women’s magazines. The very first one where I worked for six months was Girlfriend Magazine, a girl’s magazine. Then I went to Cleo, a women’s magazine. So then I was at Cleo for about four years.
P: What happened next?
V: I worked at both Cleo Australia and Cleo in Singapore because they have a Singapore edition, where I was deputy editor. That was a great experience because it’s a different country and they moved me over there. Then after four years of 50 Most Eligible Bachelors (which is not that exciting I have to say) and four years of celebrities, relationships, orgasms, and stuff like that, I really wanted to write about a lot of other things you just couldn’t do at Cleo because it wasn’t a part of the formula. So the only was I was going to be able to write about other things was to be not at Cleo or to do freelance. Because I wanted to write about a whole range of things that’s really only possible if you freelance because if you work for a magazine you have to write about that magazine’s topic. So I went freelance and once again loved every minute of it. From day one though, I made sure I treated it like a business and because I had a background in accounting that was really easy for me. So I had cash flow spreadsheets I had tracking, you know, all of that. I made sure I had targets and I met my targets. So fortunately for me, my first year of freelancing was really really good. I made heaps of money, also because I worked hard, but also because I treated it like a business. And that was great for me because that set the foundation for me as a freelancer. I’ve been freelancing for 13 years now. At some point, a couple of major things happened. One was I started a social enterprise, kind of like a nonprofit business. We call it a social enterprise because we weren’t exactly nonprofit. We wanted to make a profit because all the profits went to support an orphanage in Cambodia. So I started a fashion label with my friend Kylie Taylor. We called it Taylor & Khoo.
P: What did your fashion label, Taylor & Khoo, lead you to?
V: We started a fashion, homewares and accessories label out of a store in Pitt St. Mall in Sydney. We sold in Sydney and Singapore. The orphanage we were supporting was in Siem Riep, Cambodia. That started because we went there and couldn’t believe the state of the orphanage and the conditions the children lived in. We also realised that there were emerging skills in people who knew how to weave silk and so we outsourced emerging skills who really needed the work. It was an income generation project for them, in that we worked with people with disabilities, women in refuges, and disadvantaged people… people who were disabled because they stepped on a landmine or whatever. It gave them an opportunity to earn an income and sold products obviously in Singapore, Sydney, and also online. We had a customer in Antarctica who used to buy silk tops on a regular basis… I don’t know where she wore them and all of the profits went to support the orphanage. We didn’t draw a salary from it and it was kind of a sustainable business model that just fed itself.
P: What are the start up costs to begin that?
V: We just started on a shoestring. We were staying in $7 a night hotels so we had to be very frugal. In our first lot of revenue we held these great events in Singapore. We were lucky because Kylie kind of lived in this stunning, heritage house and everyone knew this house but no one had a chance to step in it so we had it in her house and people were just really curious to see the house as well, so they drank but they also bought lots of stuff because we presented it beautifully.
We got our first lot of cash injections that way because we did really well at those events and we were able to fund the business model initially that way. We were also very lucky, in that Westfield because we were in Westfield in Pitt Street Mall they give us the rent for $1 a year. They made this happen and they saved hundreds of children’s lives so that was a wonderful opportunity because obviously we could afford to do that. So did that for about 6 years and then a couple of things actually happened at the same time: One, Westfield re-developed so all the shops had to go because Westfield renovated the entire area in Pitt Street Mall, but also at the same time it got to the stage where the people we were working with in Cambodia were able to get on their feet as in the groups we were working with like the groups for people with disabilities they were able to service other organisations in the US who were wanting to build up 1,000 pieces as opposed to 100 pieces like us so they kind of didn’t need us anymore, which was great. We still support the orphanage on a personal level but we wound the business down and it happened at the same that Kylie had two children. So that was a huge learning experience because you know we started in a company where we didn’t know the language and it was an industry that we had no idea about but we learned very quickly.
P: What did you do after your charity work?
V: After I did that I founded what was then called the, Sydney Writer’s Center but is now called the Australian Writer’s Center. We changed our name in December of last year and that’s because we’ve gone national. We’ve already opened up in Melbourne and we’re about to announce Perth. So that started about 8 years ago and that’s obviously been growing ever since and it’s something I just love. I mean when I think about what kind of business I wanted to start. The purpose of Taylor and Khoo was to save people’s lives and help people who really needed it. There was a very clear goal. With the writer’s center I needed to think of something that was going to really feed my personal passions so with the fashion label it was more like “where’s the problem? and here is how I’m going to solve it”. With the writer’s center it was what’s going to feed my personal passions to go on for a long time and what I realised was that writing is something that I love and any of my friends will tell you this I love helping people to see that what they want to do is possible and my friends think I’m mad and even people who I’ve just met like acquaintances they always get this pep talk whether they want it or not because I can see their potential and I can see what they’re capable of and I just wish with all my heart that they would see that too so I love helping people make their dreams come true and you know, if you want to climb Mt Everest I can’t help you, if you want to become an Olympic Gold Medalist I certainly can’t help you. In writing though I can totally help you because I can help people achieve their writing dreams. It’s not just their writing dreams because it impacts your whole life because they become happier so that was the genesis behind the writer’s center. I started the Australian Writer’s Center because I wanted to create the kind of setting that I wish had existed when I was fumbling around, finding my way and doing different courses and stuff like that to create a writer’s center that would be supportive, interesting and professional because I had a corporate background I had a passion for being professional and not some cottage in the middle of nowhere, so yeah that’s how that happened.
P: Thank you so much for sharing that with us.
V: Oh, I forgot to mention social callout. Do you want me to talk about that?
P: Yeah that would be great.
V: So, last year a couple of amazing women, Katrina Allen and Michelle Palmer approached me to become involved in social callout, which is a service that connects businesses with bloggers, so if you have say a great beauty product and you want women over 40 to try it and you want to write it in a blog we will put you in touch with those sorts of bloggers. I was particularly interested in that because I’m heavily involved in the blogosphere because the Australian Writer’s Center runs for the Best Australian Blogs Competition and so I get to know a lot of blogs and I speak at a lot of blogging conferences and so it was just a perfect fit for me and I had known Katrina from way back like I don’t know about 14 years ago or something and I’d always admired the way she did business so it was a no brainer for me to become involved, so there you go there’s my life history!
P: Fantastic! That’s absolutely awesome. That’s a really interesting story you’ve had. It sounds like a very rewarding story and a very rewarding career.
V: It is, especially the writer’s center because I was teaching all day on Saturday. The students inspire me by their ideas, their enthusiasm and 10 months from now they’ll be in touch with me again and they’ll tell me the difference it’s made in their life and in fact I find it inspiring. So many of my students have become friends like after the course on Saturday I went for drinks with someone who was in training school because we’re mates now and it’s just really, really rewarding. I just love seeing the changes it’s made in their life because even though we’ve given them the tools they’re the ones who’ve made the change and I pinch myself sometimes. The most common word people use when they talk about our course is life changing and I never expected that when I first started it. I thought it’d do alright for sure but I didn’t know people would actually just bloom as a result and that is incredibly rewarding.
P: So, a lot of our readers and the clients we work with are scared to make that leap of faith that you were speaking about earlier, in terms of giving up the salary that you were on. So women who are in that position and who know that they’re unhappy and really want to take the next step but they’re not entirely sure why, where or how do you have a piece of advice that you’d like to give them?
V: First of all babysteps. You don’t quit your job and do something new straight away. You start doing something new while you have that job. You could do it on the weekends or after hours. Whether you want to start a blog, do styling or whatever. Start doing it part time just in your spare time. It also depends on your circumstances, if you are just living at home with no options and all of that it’s not that big a leap but if you’ve got a family, got a mortgage and all these things. You have to do it in stages. I know one guy he spent some time in IT, he started writing books on the side after doing courses with us and then he cut down the IT to 4 days a week, after that he cut it to 3 days a week. See what I mean? And, he did it in a much slower way than somebody who…like I know one girl who’s going to resign this week. She doesn’t have a mortgage. She only just a mortgage but for her it’s the thing she needs to give her the momentum to take steps in the right direction. So everyone’s different you can’t apply the same formula because everyone has different levels with this. The thing to remember is to just be logical about it and if you can save up so that you have a back up then great go for it. You know because it may just give you that piece of mind even though in reality you may not need the money, and of course very importantly talk before you make a big change but not to like your cousin or your mother but to people who’ve done it. Educate yourself, do courses. It’s shocking the amount of assumptions people make before they make big decisions. Go do courses, go talk to people who’ve done it. Do that first and you’ll be well informed and you know you’ll probably find that the leap is nowhere near as big as you thought.
P: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us Valerie, it was truly inspiring.
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