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Taking an idea that began as an experiment at home to a business with national reach required research and planning. Camille Howard meets Alison Basson who deals in tiny talk, but her goals are anything but small

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Since May last year, tiny tots around Australia have been able to talk with their carers. Well, in sign language, anyway, and it’s all thanks to Alison Basson of Tinytalk.

While in the US, 35-year-old Basson saw a documentary on baby sign language and interest in the concept took seed. After a year or so of research, she put her knowledge in play with her young daughter, Ellie. “I was using it with Ellie and I got lots of requests from other people, to show them how to do it,” she says. “And it just took off from there.”

Basically, like in the Meet the Fockers movie, carers learn simple signs to teach their child so they can express themselves, from basic signs for ‘food’, ‘drink’, ‘toilet’, to the more complex signs for ‘hurt’, ‘bus’ and animal signs.

As an accountant, trained in the UK, the switch for Basson to teaching baby sign language was huge. But it wasn’t a blind leap. Her role as a trouble-shooter, saving businesses from bankruptcy, prepared her to run her own business.

Tinytalk is built around a range of products teaching baby signing, available online as well as offering baby signing classes around the country. Tutors employed in other states run classes and promote awareness of the products so Basson is able to focus her attention on building the business in other areas. Right now, for example, she’s in talks with major department stores and bookstores to get her books and CDs on retail shelves nationally. This is a move the wiser businesswoman would make earlier, if she had her time again. “Having it on the shelves and then doing the promotional work is far better than trying to do everything yourself online and in a few stores. That was a big learning curve,” she says.

Basson is pleased with the take-up of her brand to date, but because the nature of the products are one-off purchases, attention is constantly focused on finding new customers. This is where word-of-mouth is important. And part of this involves aligning with similar organisations, such as childcare centres, and cross-marketing to promote to new audiences.

She’s also focused on restructuring her offerings, so repeat business can be encouraged, especially with the tutor-run classes, run by 12 part-time mothers around the country.

As well as a full-time admin team in the office, Basson finds it most efficient to outsource areas she doesn’t have the skills in, including public relations and graphic design for her marketing collateral. And she outsources the retail distribution side of things, so she has an expert acting as ‘middleman’ to get her products to retailers.

One of the downsides in being the first to market is dealing with copycat businesses. Rather than be deterred by competition, Basson knows she and her team are “in it for the long haul”, and strives to stay one step ahead.

And a plus to being first means all the positive media interest in the brand has helped promote her solid reputation. Pounding the pavements to mother’s groups and childcare centres also helped get the word out, and her tutors help do this on a national scale.

Tinytalk is a good product to promote at expos, too. A bonus from the five or six she’s attended so far has been immediate sales, but more importantly it’s where she gets a lot of contacts to spread the word about her products. “For limited outlay, expos will give us huge exposure,” she says. “And once you make the right contacts you can do things that don’t have to cost hundreds of thousands.”

Protecting her intellectual property is difficult because, as a language, no one can own the rights to baby signing. All Basson can do is protect the brand she has created as well as the individual design and structure of the business.

But she knows she can’t rest on her reputation to keep the business growing and on the front foot. Once talks with national retail chains have been finalised, Basson knows the business will shift again. Further growth on the back of these deals includes plans to expand the product offerings, and increase the number of tutors and their roles, including state-based managers. Then Basson can take a less hands-on role of overseeing the business. International expansion plans are also underway.

While all this growth can put a dent in the cash flow, Basson has measures in place so any move is controlled and won’t stretch the business’s capabilities too far. “We look at our budgets and targets every month so we know where we’re going, what we need to do, so that keeps it controlled,” she says. And if this includes paying out $20,000 to $30,000 on stock, Basson’s systems can cope. “We do have control. We don’t have an endless pot of money, but we do have cash flow there to do what we need to do.”

She also has tight control on trading terms with stockists, so the company’s cash flow doesn’t suffer while waiting on payment. And a good relationship with printers means, if needed, she can get occasional extensions on payment terms.

Before she started in the business, Basson ensured she had enough funds to sustain the business and be ready for any sharp increase in interest and orders. This means that although orders from major retailers and bookstores can be considerable, she knows she has the financial backing, as well as the support of good suppliers, to fulfil the orders without needing to over-extend or seek external investors. “That was a major thing we looked at before we went into business, that we would have that cash flow if and when we did get big.” And any money made on the business still goes back into the business to fuel further growth.

Other than encouraging business owners to be truly passionate about their business, Basson’s best piece of advice for other SMEs is to research, and know before you start a business that you can achieve goals. “It’s too easy to go into a business thinking that you can do it, and you can’t. Make sure you know where you are before you go into a business, even if it takes you that much longer.”

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