Three years ago, Christine Smith was diagnosed with a stage three brain tumour, which not only turned her life upside down but seriously threatened the viability of her flourishing business.
“My life took a complete 180-degree turn and I was blindsided by it … (and) my business almost flat-lined,” she says.
Fortunately Christine survived the operation but surgical complications left her with permanent facial paralysis, which in turn caused her to fall into “the deep hole of depression”.
But there was an upside. When Christine recovered she used her experience to shape her business and, three years on, it’s thriving.
“I am a person with disability, I employ people with disabilities and I provide a service for people with disability. It’s a feel-good business model and, at the age of 44, I have finally found my calling,” she says.
“My facial paralysis left me a recluse, but I see purpose and I see that my paralysis and the back story is there to be told, to inspire business owners they can regenerate even after a major setback.”
Take us back to the beginning. What were you doing before this?
I spent 20 years in the police force, most of it investigating child abuse and sexual offences.
Where did the idea for Great Ocean Stays come from and how did you get started?
I live in Barwon Heads and, about 20 years ago, saw a need for a boutique holiday home service in the area. I saw a need to offer a genuine hospitality service through property rentals. I wanted to offer a high standard but with a relaxed coastal vibe. And it worked!
In the beginning I made a promise to my 30 or so property owners that I would not become the biggest accommodation provider in town – that wasn’t my goal. I do not need to be the biggest in town to be the most successful.
I wanted to keep across my whole business - to know my clients, to have a fabulous working relationship with my employees, to recognise niche markets and to seize on those opportunities.
Feedback from guests in the early days suggested a huge gap in the market for truly accessible (disability-friendly) homes. I needed to figure out a way to provide a service inclusive of all people and retro-fitting homes was expensive. But when you consider that one in four Aussies have some form of disability, it makes very good business sense to be more welcoming.
How much capital did you have?
Not a lot. What I did have was a great story for my bank manager and a proven track record of what can be achieved financially with holiday rentals in the area.
I had a vision, a passion and a country girl work ethic and that got me over the line with the bank.
I started building accessible homes (slowly at first) and worked hard to gain the respect and loyalty of a large customer base. This has provided me the sound financial reports to continue to build more accessible homes.
What mistakes did you make early on? Were there any major ones?
I made hundreds of mistakes, but I recognised them, fixed them and got smarter.
The biggest mistake I made early on was to try and do everything across my business. I’ve learnt to outsource things I’m not an expert in. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and money if you just pay to get the job done right the first time.
The biggest mistake I made is not networking early on. All business owners should network, and network well. Make positive and lasting relationships with other business owners and take action. Surround yourself with people that have a drive to succeed and passion in their product and you will move forward in your own business.
In the early years I had no one to bounce tricky situations off, to brainstorm or be across new opportunities. Networking gives you that sounding board. A micro business simply must be out there networking. This includes becoming a member of your local Chamber of Commerce and associated business organisations.
A mistake is good for business, because this is where we learn. We must recognise our mistakes and make adjustments so we do it better next time. A mistake is a speed hump but any small biz owner will tell you there’s no other choice than to push forward.
My police background has conditioned me to make quick, decisive decisions. I challenge all assumptions - mistakes are part of the journey. I acknowledge to my customers if I have made a mistake. People appreciate honestly and it just makes good business sense to be up front.
How has your business evolved over the years?
I have adapted to meet the needs of customers. I have invested more than $2 million in the past two years alone building custom-made wheelchair accessible homes.
I understand the needs of people of all abilities. I have successfully disrupted the holiday market in Ocean Grove and positioned myself as a leading provider of homes that suit people of all abilities. After all, who wants to run a business that ostracizes 4 million Australians?
I have innovated, researched and identified a niche market. I have positioned my business to have a clear point of difference from my competitors.
Of course the internet and the smart phone have changed everything, but these are just more opportunities to shine.
How competitive is the marketplace?
Very. Large booking platforms have taken the industry by storm. Property owners are renting out one bedroom of their homes and the market is flooded.
Consumers are savvy - they expect a high level of service and product. My next challenge is to raise the much-needed topic of regulating the accommodation industry to abide by strict accessibility standard guidelines so people with a disability have confidence when booking on any platform.
What sets you apart?
Attitude, attitude, attitude. My previous career has conditioned me to be able to multi-task, make strong decisions quickly and to be able to communicate effectively with people across all socioeconomic environments.
I love my business. It is a reflection of me and what I stand for, so of course I am passionate. I guess what really sets me apart is I want to be a voice for people with a disability – I want to see a more welcoming world.
I have a speaking role with the National Disability Coordinator’s Office talking to other small business owners about how they can create a more welcoming business. Small changes to any business to be more inclusive can mean such a lot for a person with a disability. It’s all about understanding, educating and inspiring.
What major hurdles have you had to overcome?
I have Trigeminal Niralgia, which is a debilitating facial nerve pain that gets worse over time, and four years ago I was diagnosed with a stage three brain tumour.
Going to hospital for surgery meant I had to put my dream to build holiday homes on hold. Unfortunately the tumour was so large it had wrapped around my facial nerve and the surgeons had no choice but to sever that nerve, my tear duct and balance nerves.
I was now a person with disability. My world was transformed, not because I had permanent facial paralysis (although that shattered all my confidence and left me a recluse), but because I quickly fell into the deep hole of depression.
My life took a complete 180-degree turn and I was blindsided by it. Twenty years in the police force saw me push through even the most horrific of incidents without personal effect, but now I now faced anxiety and depression that left me contemplating how I could go on.
How did it impact on your business?
My business almost flat-lined as my hired temp of just one week ended up steering the ship for three months. When I was diagnosed, I reduced my business down substantially. I needed to remain transparent with my property owners.
How did you keep the business going?
It was a challenge, but I had good policy, marketing and business plans in place which helped a lot. Those dusty folders, sometimes only pulled from the shelf once a year, were now meticulously edited and re-edited.
I’ve also had an ‘If I die” folder in my office for many years (a joke in the household), but those useful day-to-day instructions on the business were invaluable.
In the end though, good staff and understanding clients got us through. I was fortunate that I had a very good loyal customer base who stuck by me.
Has it changed your business?
I am a person with disability, I employ people with disabilities and I provide a service for people with disability. It’s a feel-good business model and, at the age of 44, I have finally found my calling.
Facial paralysis is something you can’t hide and it’s been devastating for me. Ironically I set about building the inclusive homes before my own disability and if there is a silver lining to my illness it is that it’s given me even more passion to help create a more welcoming world and inspire others to do so.
My facial paralysis left me a recluse, but I see purpose and I see that my paralysis and the back story is there to be told, to inspire business owners they can regenerate even after a major setback.
You recently won the 3AW Momentum Energy Small Business Success Award. Why did you nominate? Is it part of your marketing strategy?
My marketing vision is to create a region that is inclusive of all people and to inspire leaders to think about the accessibility of their own businesses. I want to be able to sell The Bellarine as all welcoming.
I actively promote employment of people with disability and encourage other businesses to tap into this huge skillset of talented employees by seeing past the disability. But I need a platform to reach a larger audience. I cannot do it from my kitchen table. Where better to encourage and inspire than on radio. I was honoured and grateful for the opportunity.
My goal is to disrupt the tourism industry on a large scale - not just on the Bellarine. A small business owner cannot accomplish such a task by reaching out to one person at a time. The steps to my success rest in fast-tracking my message to the widest possible audiences in the land.
Three tips for other small business operators?
With that as your DNA, then in 10 years time you will have “overnight” success! Can I add one more? Network.