Success hasn’t come easy to Juliet Potter. She talks passionately about the struggle against seemingly impossible odds that paved the way to her new business, AutoChic, an online portal offering car information to women.
Her business resume has been chequered, to say the least. There was the career in advertising, followed by the makeup and wedding coordination businesses, but it wasn’t until she went shopping for car seat covers that Potter found her calling. Unhappy with the range on offer, she decided to create her own. Her design was a very popular jeans design—Diva Denim—that sold over the phone like hotcakes.
Then came the distribution into automotive stores. Sitting on the bottom of the shop shelves, wedged below the pink fluffy ones and the boring grey and black covers, Potter realised she needed a different selling model. She recognised that women are the most likely consumers to buy add-on products—“they buy the dress and take the shoes and jewellery”—so she thought she had the perfect sell for the male-dominated car companies.
By this time she had introduced other female-friendly products into the range, including lip-gloss that doesn’t melt, aromatherapy car freshener, and storage baskets, so she hit the car companies and dealerships offering to co-brand her products to target women buyers. They didn’t leap at the opportunity. “I saw every car company in Australia and not one of them took me up on the offer.”
So she decided to take the online route. Though it was set up mainly to take and manage online orders, Potter started to receive questions from customers about car maintenance and car buying tips. And while she had no idea how to answer the questions, she saw a big gap in the market. “When I started doing research I discovered that women are making the majority of the purchasing decisions when buying cars. It’s not like back in the 60s.
“They started asking me questions like what’s a greenslip? Or what’s the best insurance? Or what car should I buy?” she explains. At first she was confused about why they were asking her. “But then I realised it’s because women are so under-represented. And because they’d seen the cut-through of my products in Cleo or other women’s magazines they assumed I was a car expert. So Diva Denim became Diva Auto.”
Learning From Mistakes
As the online forum grew, Potter decided to switch focus from selling products to offering a complete car website targeting women. This site was SheDrives.com.au and it grew so quickly she needed to take on a business partner. “I was in a position where the banks wouldn’t touch me. I was a mum, I was starting a new business and they wouldn’t lend me any money.” So she took on a partner and gave away a 51 percent stake in the business.
This is where things started to go wrong. When the partnership turned sour, Potter sold her share in the business. “The irony was that I wasn’t empowered in my own business, so I had to resign as a director.”
Walking away from SheDrives was heartbreaking, Potter says, but she knew she needed to get back some control. With her son sick in hospital and a three-year-old to take care of, Potter found herself standing in the dole queue. There she realised she could start again, so she walked away from the queue and set up a meeting with potential investors for her new brand, AutoChic.
The investors were no lightweights, and she has some pretty impressive backing, with Martin Hoffman, former ninemsn CEO, and Rob Antulov, former director of strategy for Fairfax Digital, in her corner. “I feel I really have support for the first time.”
Like all business owners, there have been plenty of lessons for Potter to learn along the way, and some have been hard to bounce back from. She’s encountered some pretty tough characters in the male-dominated industry, such as the big name car executive who told her she got to where she was in the industry thanks to her hair colour and bust size. Rather than be put off, the pint-size businesswoman was spurred on to achieve more. “I have never felt so discriminated against in my life, I have never felt so belittled and I just walked out of that meeting with the biggest fire in my belly because I thought: stuff you, you watch how much difference one person can make.”
Aside from the sexist executives she was pitching to, she’s also encountered plenty of “sharks” ready to cash in on her fast success, so when her business partnership went south she was more careful about teaming up with the right partners, and feels she has definitely found them in Hoffman and Antulov. She also advises SMEs to get a good solicitor on the books. And while she admits this may seem like an unnecessary expense, she can vouch for the ‘what might have beens’ had she employed the right counsel in the beginning.
She’s also more protective of her intellectual property, especially after a former staff member left to start a rival business. “I didn’t see it coming. I have great faith in people.” And these days she has learnt not to personalise problems and hiccups related to business. All these experiences have made her a tougher businesswoman.
These days, Potter still doesn’t consider herself an auto expert but recognises how much her knowledge of the industry has grown, and how much she continues to learn. She is a passionate advocate of the internet as a platform for delivering pertinent information quickly and effectively. “Unless it’s built incorrectly, the website is the easy part. Get it built properly from the start, and get it built so that it allows you to grow. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done in another forum. The internet has allowed me to get to where I am and keep growing. And it means I can compete with the multinational car companies or large websites. And it empowers women on so many levels.”
Potter says that her key point of difference is her keen understanding of the market, as a woman, and she keeps in touch with what visitors to her site are really interested in. “Someone gave me some good advice and that is to not look at what the competition is doing. And I agree with that. It can really throw you off your game.
“I think keeping in touch with the women as I do every day, and being a woman that isn’t necessarily a car enthusiast, is really beneficial.”
And she promises that all content will “tell it like it is”, painting the good, the bad and the ugly side of the car industry, creating an offering that was tailored to women’s lifestyles. “I didn’t get into this because I’m passionate about cars. I’m just your average woman that needs to know what petrol to put in my car, and what is ethanol, and how to put my baby seat in my car. It’s about lifestyle, it’s not about buying the car. And I guess that’s what the building industry did with DIY and that’s what the automotive industry needs to do for women, concentrate on the lifestyle aspects of the car, not the car itself. That’s the key. I think we’re reaching tipping point just now.”
She makes money though advertising on her site, as well as plans to facilitate car- buying for members. Potter’s goal is to get it to the point where women are coming to the site to buy a car. Now boasting some 5,000 members, and growing, Potter is keen to grow into the largest lifestyle site in the automotive industry. The free membership is open to all ages, and she is reaching a wide audience, members aged between 17 and 67 years.
Although she is targeting mainly women, to counterbalance the 90 percent of male targeted sites and magazines, Potter says the site does get hits from men, especially those who don’t know a lot about cars and are intimidated by the other offerings.
Another benefit of her site, Potter says, is to educate readers on topics such as global emissions and ethanol and alternative fuels. “Overwhelmingly I find that because women aren’t reading the car section of the newspaper and Wheels magazine, they’re really missing out on pertinent information. And I think our website is the perfect platform to be delivering pertinent information in a really consumable manner.”
Speaking of ethanol fuel, Potter has recently been crowned the female champion for the Queensland Government’s Ethanol +e marketing campaign, to raise awareness of the benefits of ethanol-blended fuels.
As well as building awareness of greener fuels for cars, Potter is a strong advocate for reversing the poor representation for women in the industry, both as consumers and those who work in the industry. She knows it is largely an uphill battle. “But I’ll keep pitching. It’s been eight years but I’ll keep pitching!” she says. “I really feel like I’m pushing shit up a hill. But I guess that’s the difference between an entrepreneur who’s passionate and gets back up and keeps going to someone who’s just doing it for money.”
Three others work alongside Potter in the business, and she has plans to grow. “I want more staff to do the things that I don’t want to do!” But she remains happily tight-lipped about how she’s going to get there. “I’m going to take my own advice and not disclose to you what I’m doing—for the first time ever!” Another lesson learned.
Hard Business Lessons
- It’s hard to find good staff so when I do, I treat them well.
- My knowledge is my intellectual property and I don’t disclose it to anyone.
- Don’t personalise business.
- Learn from mistakes.
- Get staff to do the things you don’t want to do.
- Business is hard without money, so ensure you have good relationships and clever business partners.
- Make friends with the bookkeeper!
- Get a good solicitor on board.