Between client phone calls and incoming brokerage contracts, Erin Lord has managed to squeeze in a short chat. She is in the midst of one of her busiest quarters yet; working around the clock with her business partner, Steve McLaren, to bring their clients home. In the midst of COVID-19, Aeromedical Solutions is helping more people now than it has in the past 12 months.
As an entrepreneur, I often feel as if the sheer will to see my idea come to fruition makes me an outsider. But through my research and conversations, there is a sense of comfort in knowing that there are people like Erin in my own backyard. The ones who work the long, hectic days, who were isolated long before the current crisis, and who are pursuing ideas that some would say are too small, or too big, or too fuzzy around the edges to get off the ground. There’s nothing average, and nothing ordinary about the people who chase ideas that seem improbable until they aren’t.
Take Aeromedical Solutions. Erin and Steve operate a brokerage service to arrange medical repatriation to both interstate and international clients who have become ill or injured. It seems straightforward enough, until you understand how the pair got here. During their 6 years working for the Royal Flying Doctors Service, Erin and Steve would receive countless phone calls from people seeking advice on how to make their return trip home. “Given that ill-informed family and loved ones of their clients were paying, sometimes in the vicinity of $300,000 to get them home, this service was both needed and welcomed,” says Erin. They saw an opportunity to provide sick or injured patients an alternative route home without breaking the bank or being exploited.
Erin is one of a growing group of Gippsland entrepreneurs whose businesses are rapidly expanding onto the global stage. There’s also Jane and Phil Sahhar of friendie. Starting from humble beginnings and utilising their kitchen table as their business breeding ground, Jane and Phil made quick work on their goal of delivering sports luxe headphones throughout Australasia. I can’t help but notice the all-too-familiar characteristics of tenacity, determination, and passion that I see in many entrepreneurs, emerging through these conversations.
Geography and global ambition aren’t the only things that Aeromedical Solutions and friendie have in common. Both businesses came through the inaugural Startup Gippsland incubator program last year. It is one of the biggest programs of its kind in the country; the need for a new way to support local entrepreneurs was so pronounced that all six local councils came together in an almost unprecedented collaboration to bring Startup Gippsland to life.
In Jane’s pitch for friendie from the 2019 Startup Gippsland showcase night, she said that “Music is the soundtrack to life”, and that friendie wanted to change the way it could be seen and heard. Jane and Phil took a product from an existing marketplace, and reimagined it. “Headphones hadn’t evolved. The designs were heavy, uninteresting, not multipurpose, and mostly black. We wanted to develop a range of high performance wireless headphones and earbuds that were made for work, play, and the gym”, says Jane. They have since released an innovative new product, the friendie Frame; which are sunglasses that double as headphones by releasing vibrations to the inner ear, bypassing the eardrum altogether.
Jane and Phil have leveraged the positive power of social media to increase the brand awareness of friendie, which now has over 80,000 followers across both Instagram and Facebook. Their products are stocked across many large scale eCommerce stores, such as Myer, Catch, Amazon, and Red Balloon, and have also been seen at Melbourne Fashion Week. “I love where I live, and we plan to help create jobs, training, leadership and opportunities for people in Gippsland as we take on the world. We hope to inspire other businesses and entrepreneurs that they can do big things if they have big dreams, starting with just one small idea”, says Jane.
Gippsland is proving to be a proud birthplace of many new ventures with global ambitions. “We originally thought startups were for young, hip city kids; however we realised very quickly that this was not the case,” says Jane.
Stephanie Thoo, Program Manager for Startup Gippsland, has seen first hand the possibilities that exist for businesses and startups in Gippsland. Since the launch of the program in 2019, over $110,000 of funding from councils and sponsors has been distributed to the Startup Gippsland Program and other startup businesses. After receiving 113 applications in last years’ program, she is excited to see the diversity and innovative ideas from emerging and existing entrepreneurs in the area in 2020.
“Something I see amongst many entrepreneurs is that they feel they need to have all of the answers before acting on their business idea. However, the Startup Gippsland Program exists to answer these questions and educate the individuals, to help them learn as they go. We provide the tools, support, and mentorship they need to launch and grow their businesses”, says Stephanie. She stresses that startups and budding entrepreneurs don’t need to know the “how” of scaling their business, they just need to have a willingness to succeed, and a creative idea that has potential.
“We are constantly striving for more, and the Startup Gippsland program absolutely revived my quest for success. It solidified things we knew, and taught me things I lacked. It reminded me that in the country, we can do it just as well- if not better- than those in the city”, says Jane.
Startup Gippsland is currently accepting applications for their 2020 Incubator Program. Erin is unequivocal in the message she’d give to anyone who is thinking about taking the next step with their idea, or looking to take their existing business global. “I had previously owned a small business and I probably would have taken the same approach to setting up Aeromedical Solutions. However, during the Startup Gippsland Program, I learned that startup thinking is different. It’s about agility and speed, and not waiting until things are absolutely perfect before making a start.”
Applications for the Startup Gippsland 2020 Incubator Program close on Friday 5th June. https://startupgippsland.com.au/apply/