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Sharyn Smith appreciates the kind of power referrals have in business. She began harnessing this influence in 2006 with the launch of Soup, a now internationally renowned word-of-mouth marketing agency.

Soup was born out of Smith’s first venture, an independent research company called Pollinate. While helping SMBs adapt to the changing communications landscape, Smith came to realise that word-of-mouth recommendations were more trusted than traditional advertising. The aspiring entrepreneur saw a business opportunity and grabbed it, launching the very first Australian agency to offer word of mouth marketing services.

Just five years on and Soup is hiring staff in droves and enjoying revenue growth of 30 percent year-on-year. The business connects brands like Commonwealth Bank, Panasonic, Arnott’s, Lion Nathan and Nestle with a network over 100,000 influential customers who play a role in the trialing and shaping of products, and then go on to share their experiences via social media.

With a number of successful campaigns and clients in the bag, it’s little wonder that demand for Soup’s services has been so strong – with Smith opening offices in the UK and New Zealand this year to meet it.

Here, the master marketer shares how she’s promoting your business as her business.

What have you found most rewarding about building your business?

I like taking risks and seeing them come to fruition, and learning from the ones that don’t.

I also enjoy hearing from our Soup community – our Soupers – about how much they love being involved with what we do.

What gets you through the more challenging times?

It’s important to have a really clear idea and mental picture of the end goal. I’m driven by my desire to build a business that will last; one that I’m really proud of and that someone would be willing to buy.

To keep going in business you really need to know what you want to create. Remind yourself that you’re achieving small milestones, even though it sometimes feels like you’re taking two steps forward and one step back.

Thinking back, what’s the biggest business lesson you’ve learnt since launching Soup?

People are key, so get the right people on the bus. Always hire the right person for the job you want them to do now – don’t hire for something you think you might need in the future. Hire slowly, fire quickly! One negative person in the wrong job can impact the whole company.

I’ve also learnt that you need to let people fail sometimes. You can often see it going wrong as the owner and it’s hard not to jump in all the time, but people need to learn from their mistakes and you can’t stop mistakes from happening.

Are there any entrepreneurs you look up to?

For brand building, I look up to Richard Branson. For culture building, I look up to Tony Hsieh at Zappos. For business focus, I look up to Steve Jobs. For how to build valuable companies, I like the story of Buddy Media owner Michael Lazerow who recently sold his last business to Salesforce and made a great video about the experience.

I know she’s not technically an entrepreneur but I really admire Gail Kelly, the CEO of Westpac. I’d really like her to write a book.

What’s your advice for how SMBs can generate some good word of mouth?

  1. Have a clear idea about what you want your customers to say about you. What is your sticky message? And how are you communicating and demonstrating this to them?
  2. Stand out from the crowd. I know this is easier said than done but figure out what will make you different. Ask, what will make you remarkable. Is it going to be the lengths you go to for customers? Is it going to be the chocolate you put in every package you send? What could your point of difference be?
  3. Involve your customers more in your business. What can they help you with, particularly on new products? If you can create a sense of co-ownership them they will sell it for you.
  4. Know who your most valuable customers are, and I don’t mean the ones who buy the most. Who are your biggest advocates and what can you give them to share?

You’ve now expanded overseas. Do you have any words of wisdom for how to make this growth a little easier?

Firstly, it’s not easy. Know your market as well as you can before going over. Do lots of research and plan for every scenario: Do you have the resource to support it? Do you have the processes in place to add complexity to your business? Is your team behind it?

And second, have some really good consultants who have helped businesses do it before and get access to all the grants possible, such as the Export Marketing Grant. It can make all the difference to cashflow at the times you start to stretch yourself.

What’s next for Soup?

We are in a year of redeveloping everything. We are looking at a high R&D phase for the business and relaunching next year. I strongly believe that you should look to innovate before you need to. We don’t need to right now; we are the clear leaders in what we do, so it’s the perfect time to throw it all up in the air again and make it better.

What do you think?

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Lorna Brett

Lorna Brett

Lorna was Dynamic Business’ Social Web Editor in 2011/12. She’s a social media obsessed journalist, who has a passion for small business. Outside the 9 to 5, you’re likely to find her trawling the web for online bargains, perfecting her amateur photography skills or enjoying one too many cappucinos. You can follow her on <a href="https://twitter.com/#!/dynamicbusiness">Twitter @DynamicBusiness</a>

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