Naomi Simson is the founding director of RedBalloon, an Australian online retailer of “experience” gifts. The award winner is also a shark on the Channel 10 television show Shark Tank, as well as a public speaker, blogger and author. Simson, 53, chats to me about the most challenging aspect of her career, why she always wears red, and her first meeting with the man who last year became her husband.
How did RedBalloon begin?
I had a corporate career and when I had children I didn’t want to be at everyone’s beck and call, so I started a business from home. I wanted to play with my kids in the day and work at night on a dot com.
How did you grow it into the empire it is today?
I just figured: if I look after the experience of the experience, people would talk about it.
What has been the most challenging aspect of growing an e-commerce business?
One is staying up to date with technology, it’s forever changing. Just when you think you’ve sorted out how you used Facebook, then something changes. You always have to be curious, interested and learning, so that’s challenging. And also having the right people around you.
What has been your biggest career highlight?
We have been a best employer, five times.
As someone who knows so much about success, what has been your darkest moment and how did you get through it?
Everyone has tough times, me included. On occasions I have wanted to fire myself, which is pretty hard when it is your business. The reality is that my businesses are not set. They take constant love, attention and nurturing. But owning my business with my ex-husband had its challenges. I am really glad to say that even though it is six years since we separated, that chapter is finally coming to a close with me having a new business partner joining the business.
Who are your biggest influences?
I’m influenced by many: my mother is way up there; Lyndsey Cattermole is a great Australian entrepreneur; Carol Schwartz, too. Strong articulate business leaders who are simply great human beings.
What do you enjoy most about being on Shark Tank?
The sheer variety of businesses that we meet. Their ingenuity and – sometimes it’s the gumption, sometimes it’s the naivety – but I just love the have-a-crack Australian mentality … Working out the difference between persistence and pigheadedness, and many of the people don’t know the difference.
What are the traits for a great entrepreneur?
One is passion – they’ve got to really feel the energy of what they do. Second one is they’ve got to stick with it – it’s persistence … And the other one is having a sense of purpose – it’s about, “How do I make the world a better place? How do I contribute to others? Why do I do this?” And it can not just be about money.
What is your advice to someone starting out a new business?
Only do it if you’re made to be an entrepreneur – just because you’ve got an idea, doesn’t mean you’re made to be a businessperson. There are lots of people who can take an idea and turn it into a concept, test it and then bring it to market, but building a business is hard. It’s not for everybody and it can be quite lonely.
I love that you always wear red. Tell me about the inspiration behind that.
When I started the business about 10 years ago, I just wore red once and someone said “Wow, you look really good in it,” and then somebody else said, “Oh, do you wear red because of your balloon?” “No, no.” And then I just started wearing it, and the more I wore it, the more people expected me to wear it … The other thing is, I do a lot of [public] speaking and so when you come to the stage, in the moment, it doesn’t matter whether it’s male or female, people are checking you out and it’s just an absolutely human thing. So by wearing red, it helps people get comfortable with you and go, “Oh, it’s her”.
Congratulations on your wedding last year. How did you and Stuart [King] meet?
I don’t remember meeting him. We were at a conference apparently, we connected on LinkedIn and then we met for a business meeting … He lived in Melbourne and I had some events in Melbourne and I asked him to be at my day because it was the entrepreneur of the year, which I was up for a prize, and then also I was a judge at Telstra Business Awards and he was my date, and we’ve been together ever since!
What do you do to switch off?
I paint and we also entertain and cook. But [Stuart] is into motor sport.
What do you think of motor sport and how do you negotiate that as a couple?
… Motor sport is not something that I knew anything about. But as a race official he is keeping people safe and really enjoys his role … I adore his commitment to what he does, even if I don’t always know the details about what it really is.
What do you like to paint?
It is about the colours, the textures and the light. For me it is discovering how things come together to create an image … It is such a wonderful place to get lost. Sometimes I lose whole days without any understanding of time.
WE WENT TO Beta Bar, Castlereagh Street, Sydney
WE ATE Pita bread, marinated Greek and local olives, chickpea hummus; octopus twice cooked, macaroni kofto, cherry tomatoes, marjoram, mastic oil; spanakopita, spinach pie, leeks, feta, dill; roast parsnip, caramelised onions, kefalotyri, filo
WE DRANK Sparking mineral water
NAOMI WORE A vintage coat and Carla Zampatti pants