Suzanne Maher is a driven and passionate businesswoman who likes to make a difference in the world. FOCUS chatted to Suzanne, to find out what it takes to succeed and still maintain life balance and happiness.
Can you tell us a bit about your connection to the Coffs Coast?
To be honest, there wasn’t much of a connection. The Coffs Coast was a stop off between Sydney and the Gold Coast and beyond, a retirement hub, or the home of the Big Banana. Like many travellers, we paid it little heed. What a mistake that was. Then we met a friend in Sydney who was living in the Bellingen Valley, and we started coming up to for weekends. It didn’t take long for us to be hooked. I mean, what was there not to love! Magnificent valleys and escapements. Crystal clear rivers, friendly people, stunning beaches and magnificent wild life. It’s close to perfect, and the synchronicity of the moment was indeed prophetic. When Daniel, my husband, and I met, we both said we wanted to live in the country. Something not too far from Sydney, not too “bush”, a place that was creative and a place that promoted village life. Bellingen ticked all the boxes for us.
You are the founder of a couple of great businesses that are based locally. Can we start with the publishing venture – tell us a bit about that?
We commenced Affirmations in Paddington in Sydney. I was madly designing greeting cards on our dining room table. Dan would then go out and try to sell them. At the time, we were waiting for a house to become available in Bellingen. We wanted to rent first, to find the best place in the valley to live and work. We couldn’t afford an office, so we figured we needed a house that was an all-rounder. I’m a tad of a perfectionist who loves great design and when it comes to where I live and work, I’m happy to wait for what’s right. We waited two years and then our friend, who originally introduced us to Bellingen, gave us his house. We moved as soon as could, just after our wedding. It all sort of fell into place after that. I was designing in one of the world’s most creative environments.
Daniel was on the road for two weeks out of every month selling the products to shops all over the country. Suddenly I needed help with designs and Dan couldn’t be in the same place at the same time, so we hired some sales reps. We now have 12 reps selling to 1,500 shops around Australia. About 10 years ago we opened an office in Auckland and now have five reps on the road over there selling to over 500 shops.
What was the motivation behind starting the business?
Creativity is my thing. I am a calligrapher and painter. I see the world in images and words. Indeed, my whole life has been finding words to fit into my creative ideas.
I have always been passionate about design in all its forms, architecture and interior design. My sister, we are twins, is the same. Forget playing dolls and dress ups. Carol and I would play interior design. We both had a focus on attention to detail – not that Mum or our teachers knew that. In fact, they would have thought we had no concentration span. Dad, who was a physicist, would just look at us and shake his head and smile. I love transforming things. Making things look better.
Dan and I travelled around Australia and could not find decent greeting cards (in 1987). So, we decided to hand make some cards and send them home to friends and family, who said, “These are fantastic! Why don’t you do this?”
We had a copy of A Guide for the Advanced Soul, a sweet little book with quotations on life, love and the universe. We thought greeting cards using these quotations could be a game changer. It didn’t quite change the game, but they sold really, well and gave us a starting point. We strive to improve everything we are doing and constantly learn from the past.
How important is it to pursue an ethical and environmentally sustainable business model?
We’ve always recycled. Always had a focus on improving the environment. Sustainability has always been our mantra. We are passionate about creating an ecologically sound business.
At our warehouse we recycle everything that comes in. All our power comes from renewable energy sources. We print on recycled paper using vegetable-based inks, shred all paper for packaging and use environmentally sound packing beads when we send your orders. Our office is powered by solar panels, reducing our carbon footprint outstandingly. And we are not stopping there. Each year brings new environmentally sustainable ideas that we are committed to integrating into our business model. Three months ago our office became Carbon Neutral.
What have been some of the hiccups you have had along the way?
- We lost a complete print run which was in storage at Dan’s sister’s place in Sydney, where the landlord just dumped the contents of his garage in the tip.
- There was a spelling mistake in a book, so we had to dump the whole run (5,000 books). That was hard to do; considering all the energy taken to make it, produce it, send it back to us and to discover the mistake was devastating. But we made the call for excellence in our product.
You also own an amazing B&B called Cottonwood Farm; when did you set this up?
Cottonwood Cottage has been running now for three years.
What was the plan for it initially, and how has that changed?
We simply wanted to share our unique place with as many people as possible. It has turned into an award-winning guest experience and was awarded Top 10 romantic getaways in Australia 2016 – View Retreats.
We have so many plans still for Cottonwood Farm. A sculpture park, a yoga and art retreat space, organic produce, another guest cottage. In the eight years we have been there, the place has literally turned from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan.
How important is social media to your ventures?
Social media plays an important role, but we don’t try to monetise it. Our strategy is to use all our social platforms to engage, rather than inform. Our vision, our mission, has always focused on inspiring people with positive, inspirational messages of hope, love, respect and understanding.
To achieve all the above, we use a tone and voice that matter. Make sure your brand is humanised. Be part of the conversations. Be real. People want authentic communication with brands. Maintain an authentic tone while posting and interacting with both your customers and potential ones. Take the time to communicate directly with your followers as you establish your voice. Show your personality. Maintain a voice that delights your consumers. Happy users will always talk about your brand. Put a face on your brand and let your real personality take stage in all your communications. Speak the truth.
You have a very busy schedule with all the work that you do; what is the key to staying on top of it all?
When I moved to Bellingen, I thought life would slow down, but if anything, it has got busier! A good busier. We have more purpose and vigour. We are more community orientated. Indeed, our lives have flourished in more ways than one.
I am now taking time off here and there to do something different (learning French, going to the beach). I went to the beach the other day and had lunch with a girlfriend and thought to myself, “Wow, it’s taken 30 years of toil, but it feels so good to be off work during the week”. I love to swim and the beach and a walk to keep my mind focused.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
- The people who tell you your dreams are crazy and you should get a real job will still be stuck in the same place they are 10 years from now. You don’t have to be, so keep pursuing your dreams and never give up.
- Your true friends are the ones who are there for you, who listen to you and who support you in healing. True friends empower you to grow.
- Your brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 24. You’re going to make mistakes – a lot of them. Consider the possibility though, that your mistakes are lessons.
- Failing is winning. This might sound funny now, but believe me when I tell you that all your failures are laying out a path for you to succeed big-time. It’s better to fail before you make it and learn from those failures. Remember, it’s not how many times you get knocked down that’s a problem; it’s not getting up that is the issue. Always get back up. Even if you lose everything, you can make it all back and then some. Life is full of surprises. Enjoy the ride.
Where can our readers find out more?
Cottonwood Cottage: Cottonwoodfarm.com.au
Affirmations Publishing House: Affirmations.com.au
I will be travelling later in the year to gather photographic images for products for the 2018 season.