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The Social Science - from startup to small business success

"There is a unique power in being a woman in business." Michelle Gallaher

The 2017 Telstra Victorian Business Woman of the Year, Michelle Gallaher, is a Melbourne-based ambassador and entrepreneur. Her first startup, The Social Science, creates digital content and strategy for Science, Technology, Enginieering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) industries and was recently acquired by ASX-listed company, ShareRoot. We pick her brain about women in STEMM fields, launching a business later in life, the importance of networking and being part of a community.

Why is it important to encourage women to join STEMM fields?

These days, there is a unique power in being a woman in business. The pay-it-forward movement amongst women in business is tremendously strong providing much needed and appreciated moral and practical support for female entrepreneurs. Sadly, there are relatively few female STEMM entrepreneurs, so the peer group around us more important than ever in encouraging women to take the plunge.

I founded Women in STEMM Australia with Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea while I was also building The Social Science, which was certainly challenging to get two startups off the ground at once. Women in STEMM Australia has brought great joy, satisfaction, professional value and friendship along the way. The connections we have made and reinforced for women across the STEMM disciplines, in industry and academia are priceless. If Australia is to realise its full innovation potential, as I know it can, we must do a far better job of engaging and retaining STEMM women. STEMM women have leadership potential that is currently significantly under utilised and skills that can be applied to many other sectors other than STEMM.

In the world of startups, small businesses and entrepreneurship, it’s important to have a focus that is larger than the individual. Being part of the bigger picture is important to me.  Creating jobs and building a whole new offering in our industry sectors has been really satisfying. It might sound a little crazy but it makes me so happy to sign off on payroll each fortnight.       

You have a great reputation as an excellent networker. What advice would you give to people about how to build their networks if they do not have any industry contacts?

Professional networks have been critical to our business success. More than 70 per cent of our new business enquiries come via LinkedIn. As much as I favour the digital world these days, nothing will beat a handshake and a warm smile in real life. I approach networking as a continuous and priority investment in telling my story, listening to the sector, and understanding and identifying opportunities for our business. These days I’m enjoying networking outside my traditional industry sector of life sciences, casting a wider net in the resources, engineering, advanced manufacturing and broader health sectors. My big tip is to learn to use LinkedIn to initially listen to what your sector is talking about and network authentically for value not volume.  

What were the benefits and drawbacks of starting a business later in life? 

Some days I lament that I waited so long to start a business and other days I thank my lucky stars that I did. You have so much to lose and your reputation is very much on the line when you start a business later in life. You quite genuinely cannot afford to fail. But you have a wealth of knowledge behind you. I once heard someone say that startups with older founders do far better with higher rates of success than those with younger founders. I was referred to as a seniorpreneur late last year – they nearly wore their dinner in their lap!

This is probably the most expensive time of anyone’s life. I have two teenager and a mortgage - dropping household income by 70% was really tough. You could say that this was not an ideal time to start a business, but in terms of my professional network, experience in business, and focus, it was. It may have been the best time to start a business, too, because we couldn’t afford to fail, and had everything to lose.

You went from a STEMM clinician to starting up a digital agency. What were the key drivers for the decision to change?

Identifying an opportunity in the market was the seed that drove the leap for me from biotech to creative industries four years ago. The leap is actually not nearly as large as what people think.  I was CEO of the peak body for biotech in Victoria and was looking for a way to get stories about Victorian biotech and medical research into the hands of investors, journalists, government and multinationals. I had started to play around with social media in this new role in 2008 and saw the emerging platforms as the answer to my problem. The NFP couldn’t afford a PR company and this was a way of solving that problem. The bigger leap for me was from an allied health role to biopharma marketing in 1996. Again, this was because I saw an opportunity with an emerging Victorian biotech sector and dissatisfaction with the public health system as an employer. I was more curious about creating new health technologies than using the tools that were already on the shelf. Making the leap required me to undertake post graduate study to access the biopharma industry and leaving a career that I had only really just started. 

What was the biggest challenge when it came to switching industries?

I made the leap from biotechnology to digital marketing, but the leap isn’t as radical as it might seem from the outside. The fundamentals are still the same - being a great networker.  I like building relationships, sharing great ideas and information and bringing people together, so my roles now are actually exactly the same. I just do all of this in a digital world these days.

You help small businesses establish themselves in a digital space. Why is it important to you to support small businesses?

Almost all small business would like to eventually be big or bigger businesses and social media and the digital landscape gives them the ability to look and act with confidence. We are typically attracted to confident people and the same can be said for confident and polished small businesses. Small businesses need to gain any advantage we can to compete directly with larger peers. Social media and digital marketing is not hard to navigate and the return on investment is significant in levelling the playing field for small business.  

What should every small business owner – STEMM or otherwise – know about digital?  

The first rule of digital is to be generous. Giving away tips, sharing insights and offering information in exchange for email addresses are core tools in growing new business enquiries. I apply the 80/20 cocktail networking rule to social media marketing - talk about your offering 20% of the time and listen to your audience or share good quality third-party information generously 80% of the time. No one likes to be at a networking event where someone can’t stop talking about themselves.

You were named 2017 Telstra Victorian Business Woman of the Year, after also receiving the Entrepreneur Award. How does your status as an influencer in your industry help your business, and the STEMM industry in general? 

Awards are important because they serve to wake you up. The night I won the two Telstra Awards I quite literally woke up and realised that I had everything I needed to grow my business, I had the community behind me cheering and I was hitting home runs – huge home runs. I had already made it and it was about to get better. Business certainly did get better after the Awards, as I was invited to share my passion for women in STEMM leadership and the opportunity social media was offering to STEMM industries with a far wider audience. With influence comes responsibility. Being thoughtful, considerate and respectful is so very important for people who are community leaders. Putting yourself out there with industry awards is a very humbling experience and one that leaves many of us feeling quite vulnerable and open to judgement. I found the assessment process personally challenging and a great time to reflect on my path in business and leadership up to this point. I realised that I had won a long time before that very exciting moment late last year – but standing up and celebrating the success of women all around me and owning my own success in such a public way has been a life and business changing experience.

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