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The Shirlaws Story - 1994-2010

by Darren Shirlaw

In 2010, Darren published an article called 'Reconnecting your business vision' which encouraged business owners, CEOs, and managers to revisit the reason they started their business and to share the journey with the team - as a key exercise for releasing any recession-era baggage before moving forward.

As an example, he also shared the Shirlaws story, which we are proud to reproduce.

The Shirlaws story: research and development
December 1994 to July 1999

Every business has its own timeframe and I'd like to use the Shirlaws history as an example of perspective.

I encourage clients to have a similar perspective conversation to highlight exactly what happened in the past - including pre-launch. Most people in an organisation won't know exactly what happened then and therefore their perspective isn't the same as the business founder's.

Most people think Shirlaws' history started on 16 July 1999. In fact it started on Sunday 4 December 1994, some five years earlier, when I first had the idea of setting up business. During this period I worked hard to research the market. I interviewed more than 700 businesses to discover what problems they had, what help they needed and where they found it. I also interviewed people in the coaching and training industry to explore their business models - what worked and what didn't.

Armed with that information, and after five years of solid work, I understood what people really wanted from coaching. I could also design a scalable coaching business. After five years, that intellectual property (IP) became the core of what we're now delivering 11 years later and is the foundation on which our business is built. For any business, the work done in these pre-launch days is what lays the business foundation.

In the first meeting with my business partners, I told them it takes six minutes to copy IP, six months to copy a system and six years to copy a culture. "I want to build an amazing culture - and that will be our competitive advantage." In setting down our platform 11 years ago in 1999, we laid the foundation stone on which everything else is built.

In the same way, each business owner needs to map out what’s relevant to them. For example, never wanting to work for anyone else was one of my core drivers in setting up this business. I always wanted independence and therefore our business infrastructure encourages entrepreneurial spirit in everyone. What are your foundation cornerstones that you can share with your team?

The Shirlaws story: proof of concept and platform development

By 1999 I had a concept, but needed to prove its validity and commercial potential. The next four years of our business therefore were all about proof of concept.

By 2003 we had built the business in one country and our revenue had risen from $0 to $6m. We had won two national awards, one of which as the seventh fastest growing organisation in that country. We arrived at 2003 and could say, "This is working. And so what’s next?"

As soon as you ask the "What’s next?" question you're technically going into another phase.

In perspective, by 2003, I'd been working in this business nine years. Some people joining in 2001 or 2002 had only been working in the business one or two years. We were all part of the business, but in perspective terms I had nine years versus one or two years.

My nine included five years of research, development and IP - not to mention having all my own money at stake ($1m at the time). Then four years of working seven days a week to get the first country set up.

A significant milestone. 1999-2003 was also a product building phase. We had to invest in developing it and proving to our clients that it worked. We weren't trying to sell and market it to everybody - it was very much a platform/product phase.

The Shirlaws story: internationalisation

In 2003 we moved overseas because we wanted to prove the concept in Australia would work in other countries - prove internationalisation. From 2003-2006 we invested heavily in setting up two overseas hubs, one in London and one in San Francisco, to demonstrate the Shirlaws business could go global.

Most of this time we invested money in our platform, getting those two hubs bedded down. We recruited, trained and developed people and put systems into those countries.

Along the way we changed our brand to become international. We invested well over £200,000 building an international brand complete with logos and fully documented products.

The American market told us our language didn't work in the US, so we had to re-draft our documents to work better in that country, and so we have had to replicate that experience in each new country (Spain, Japan, Middle East and so on).

In 2006 we sat back with the UK and the US and said, "Our company is now built and we've proved it works. We've demonstrated it in other countries and have the product platform in place." To have developed business coaching was a major milestone for us. At that point, we agreed to hand the business over to a management team and let them run it.

In perspective, by 2006, the guys starting in 1999 were up to the seven-year mark, but I was up to my 12-year mark.

The Shirlaws story: major new product development

From 2006-2009 we exited the Shirlaws business from a managerial position and began developing even more product for the coaching industry. Let's return to the 1999 vision. The stone we laid down then had two key things written on it.

  • We will be an international company
  • We will be a coaching industry player, (i.e. not just business coaching).

This vision meant that, at some point after building the business coaching brand, we'd need to develop the other brands. We knew we couldn't offer Life, Executive and Leadership coaching under the same umbrella brand as business coaching. Apart from these four distinct brands, we also needed four different types of IP to offer into the four markets, which we developed during this three-year period.

Our perspective sitting around the campfire in 2009 was now a business 10 years in operation (1999-2009). We'd developed the product for Shirlaws business coaching, proved it in one country, proved it internationally and now invested in product for three more brands. This meant we could play across the whole industry.

Looking back with perspective at the 10-year mark, we had really invested hard in product. Along that journey, when anyone asked, "Can we invest more in marketing?" We said, "No." "Can we invest more money in sales?" Again we'd say, "No."

"How about a database management system linked to sales?" "No." We kept repeating that we'd only invest in product until we had built the whole organisation.

The Shirlaws story: sales and marketing
2010 onwards

The campfire conversation of 2009 led to new questions. "What to do next? How to grow the business now all the products are built?" The simple answer was, "Switch to sales and marketing." In perspective, the first 10 years have all been about product and the next 10 years will all be about sales and marketing 2009 to 2019.

Armed with perspective, people understand the journey. This isn't just those who didn't know the history, but includes people who've been around since 1999. They too can come up for a breath of fresh air saying, "Yes, now I know what we're doing and remember why we're doing it. I feel reconnected to why we're in business. Now I feel re-energised and want to keep going."

2010 is about putting down the platform for sales and marketing, which includes two key initiatives we've already launched this year.

  • Moving into the online space with the sole purpose of bringing in more work via online activity
  • Moving into the fund and advisory space because many small business clients want access to funds.
    Several have approached us in the past to say they need funding to get their business going and can’t buy coaching until they've secured the investment. Previously we’ve said come back once you have the funding and we haven’t been part of that solution. Now we can help people raise funding and as part of that, we can offer coaching

We're now one year into a 10-year programme of sales and marketing. We have a massive platform and we're ready to fill it up. In perspective, about 10 years from now we'll have four brands in at least seven major countries, which is 28 business units all generating revenue. If we only get those local businesses up to $10 million revenue, we would be generating $280 million globally.

That will be some achievement.


You can be part of Shirlaws' future - as a client, a partner, or as one of our growing number of business coaches. Call Shirlaws on 0118 366 2013 to find out how you can get started, or sign up for our Business News updates to stay informed.