Founder Valerie Khoo is Building Australia’s Leading Writing Course Center With 10,000 Students

Valerie Khoo is managing director of the Sydney Writers’ Centre. Since founding the centre in 2005, she has grown it from a one-person operation to its current status as Australia’s leading centre for writing courses.

The centre has helped thousands of students get published, win book deals, change careers and improve their job prospects. In fact, by early 2012 Valerie expects to welcome the Centre’s 10,000th student.

With its flagship harbour-side premises, the Centre offers both classroom-based and online courses to students around the world. More than 30 of Australia’s top writing trainers, journalists and authors provide tuition in creative writing, magazine writing, business writing, travel writing, novel writing, grammar & punctuation, media releases and more.

With a passion for building online communities, Valerie has transformed the concept of the traditional cottage writers’ centre into a dynamic community of aspiring writers from all over the world.

An experienced journalist and small business commentator, Valerie’s personal blog at www.ValerieKhoo.com was named by Smart Company as one of the 25 Best Business Blogs in Australia 2011. She has authored five books and writes for a range of corporate and consumer publications. In 2007, Valerie was appointed an ambassador of Australia Network and will feature on the channel, which is available in 21 million homes in 41 countries. 

In 2010, the Sydney Writers’ Centre was a winner in the NSW Telstra Business Awards. In 2009, it was named by Dell as one of the 10 most innovative small businesses in Australia.

We spoke to Valerie about the satisfaction of making a difference to people's lives; about meeting her heroes; and the invaluable lesson she learned from a mentor.

TNW: What was the inspired moment that led you to launch the Sydney Writers’ Centre?

VK: I’ve always been passionate about helping people achieve their dreams or fulfil their potential. However, my technical skill is writing.

Six years ago, I reflected on what I could do to combine my passion and my skills. I realised that the concept of the Sydney Writers’ Centre – a dynamic organisation where people can learn and be mentored – was the perfect answer.

I could help people achieve their writing dreams and goals, whether that’s to get their book published, to change careers or to improve their writing skills at work. I also realised that it was a scalable business because it’s not reliant on me – I have a great team of industry professionals who conduct our courses and guide our students.

TNW: How important is technology to the success of your company?

VK: Using technology in a smart way has been instrumental in our success. This has enabled us to expand efficiently and offer online courses, which opens up our market to the world.

We have students enrolling from US, UK, France, Finland, Morocco, Hong Kong and many other countries. Technology has enabled our company to be borderless.

It’s also given us the tools that allow many of our tutors to work remotely using our cloud-based applications. So we can tap into the best quality tutors regardless of geography.

TNW: Next year you hope to welcome the Centre’s 10,000th student. What are your top tips for other female entrepreneurs looking to scale their business?

First, you need a business model that allows you to scale. If your existing business model can’t do that, consider an aspect of your business where this is possible and experiment with that part of it.

For example, we initially only offered “classroom” courses, where students physically attended courses in our training rooms. However, this is limited by the availability of those training rooms. That’s why we then created our online courses, which still provide students with the same “classroom” experience but it’s all done online. In this case, we are not limited by factors such as venue availability; there is unlimited potential to scale.

TNW: What is the secret to building a vibrant, engaged and loyal online community such as yours?

VK: Regular communication, interaction and building real relationships. We have an incredibly dynamic online community. Not only is there an overall online community which connects mainly through Facebook and Twitter, we have genre-specific closed Facebook groups. For example, a group dedicated to fiction writing alumni and another dedicated to magazine writing alumni. The members of this community help each other out, encourage each other and share their successes. I’m so proud of the way these communities are nurturing and generous – they really embody the spirit of what we do at the Sydney Writers’ Centre.

TNW: It must be very rewarding to enable thousands of writers to achieve their potential. What have your most successful students gone on to achieve?

VK: There are so many student success stories I don’t know where to start. Many students have gone on to score book deals with major publishers. Others have successful changed careers into writing from an unrelated field. Others will email us and tell us they’ve been able to get job promotions because their writing skills have improved. Others happily make a part-time income from their writing outside of their day job.

I see them all as successes. But there are also the comments like this one from an online student:

“This course was the best thing to happen to me. Depression can be debilitating, so enough is enough for me ... it’s time for change. Now, ideas abound. I’m looking forward to getting back on track and in writing mode again. I hope to visit the Sydney Writers’ Centre in person soon. Once again, thanks for being a shining light this year."

If we can make a small difference in someone’s life like this, I can’t ask for more.

TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?

VK: Shared values, an interest in writing and a commitment to professionalism and excellence. Obviously, I’m also looking for people with initiative and who are not afraid to experiment with technology. Some of our biggest breakthroughs have been the result of playing around with different online tools and other applications.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

Time! Pure and simple. There is always something to do, someone to meet, something to review. That’s definitely been the biggest challenge on a day-to-day level.

Is there a moment in the history of your company which you remember as the highlight so far?

VK: To be honest, every time a former student emails or calls us, sounding so excited because they’ve achieved something they once thought impossible, this is a highlight.

Other highlights include when two personal heroes of mine dropped in at the Sydney Writers’ Centre. They were Robert Kiyosaki (Rich Dad, Poor Dad and The Midas Touch) and Tim Ferriss (The 4-Hour Work Week and The 4-Hour Body).

Although we have best-selling authors visiting us all the time, I have a personal passion for non-fiction business books and it was great to chat to them about the process of turning a book into a global success.

TNW: What is next for the Sydney Writers’ Centre? How do you see technology as a key growth driver?

VK: The biggest potential for growth is in with our online courses because they can be delivered to anyone in the English-speaking world, as long as you have an internet connection. We are already Australia’s leading centre for writing courses.

So the next phase in our journey is an international one. Although we already have many students enrolling from overseas, there is still much more room for growth so this is now a priority for us. Technology will play an instrumental part in this growth as our courses are offered online. The more we can streamline this process and integrate our community across various platforms, the better the experience will be for our students.

TNW: What is one lesson about leadership you learned from a boss or mentor?

VK: A business coach, who I got to know because he became a student at the Sydney Writers’ Centre, really helped me to think big. This was about two years after I started the business. Not only did he help me transform my mindset about the business, he also helped me create a system and framework for recruiting staff.

He taught me that no matter how difficult it may seem to fill a role on our team, that person would exist. He taught me how to find them and how to set them up to succeed. It’s a great system - we have very low turnover and a great team.

TNW: You are a mentor yourself now, in the Women in Business mentor program. What kind of knowledge do you impart to your mentees and what have you gained from the experience of being a mentor?

VK: It depends on whether your mentee is at a startup stage or if they are more established and ready to grow or consolidate. When they’re at the startup stage, you are providing general advice on pricing, cash flow and marketing. However, when they are more established, you’re providing contacts and introductions.

I’ve made some great friendships as a result of being a mentor. I love seeing people flourish and build their businesses. I enjoy playing a small part in that.

TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network enabled you to grow your business? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN?

VK: DWEN has obviously been great for networking and contacts. More importantly, it’s been a source of inspiration. Being a global network, it allows you to connect with business owners you wouldn’t normally come across and allows you to learn about different ways of doing business, be exposed to different answers to solutions and can provide new perspectives on issues you haven’t come across.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community?

VK: I think you’ve covered it. Thank you for the opportunity.

The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The NextWomen is in partnership with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series.

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