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Telstra Business Women’s Award Winner Julie Verner-Mackay on how she’s stayed successful during 30 years in business

May 10, 2020

Did you know that in Australia, 1 in 3 new businesses fail in their first year of operation, 2 out of 4 by the end of the second year, and 3 out of 4 by the fifth year?

We asked Telstra Small Business Winner for 2020, Julie Verner-Mackay, how she has beaten the odds and built a highly successful business in the vocational education and training industry.


I don’t think there is one clear-cut formula for succeeding in business. If there was one, we would certainly have better results than those identified. Surviving in business can be attributed to a number of things, but first and foremost it’s about having a strong vision for what you want to achieve and why it is important to you. If you understand the ‘why’ and remind yourself of this constantly, how you get there becomes easier to achieve. But critical to this process is setting goals aligned to the vision and then being resolute in ensuring you're constantly reviewing them and working towards achieving them. With the frenetic pace of business and the myriad of things competing for your time each day, it’s easy to take your eye off your goals unless you lock in time each week and each month with your team to review your progress.


I have learned that accepting responsibility for what happens in the business starts with the choices we make every day. These choices define our outcomes and determine whether or not we achieve our goals. There is nothing else that determines our success or failure except the choices we make. It's easy to get caught up in the reactive stuff and I often ask myself the question: “Is what I am about to do going to take us closer to our key goals?” Learning to be proactive, managing your time effectively, and working on the important things is probably one of the most important aspects of business that I’m still trying to master. 


Like most business owners, I can be fearful about future change and the impact on our business. But I've learned that worrying, without action, is probably the most destructive force likely to affect our success. Learning to regulate the less helpful thoughts and adopt positive self-talk has been one of my biggest and most helpful learnings. I believe that it's our self-talk that provides the energy, determination, and resilience needed to deal with the ups and downs of business. We have faced many precarious situations that have placed our business under enormous stress but have chosen to think positively and really dig deep to find potential solutions to our issues.

Surviving in business requires mental strength along with competence and the ability to communicate clearly and enthusiastically. As a leader, we set the tone of the business and the culture. Again, from my experience, developing these qualities and a ‘can do’ attitude all starts with our inner-dialogue. You may have heard the quote: “The quality of our thoughts determines the quality of our lives.” I couldn’t agree more with that; it is our thought processes that drive our feelings, actions, and behaviours—and ultimately, our business success. 


Being able to effectively market and sell your product is also critical to survival. Branding has always been highly important to our company - it is where credibility, differentiation, uniqueness, and relevance all intersect. We have focused on this to separate ourselves from the rest of the market. We are a client-driven company and have always had the goal to be the best in the industry. We continually push for excellence and innovation within our team—one of my favourite sayings is: “never settle for mediocrity, take a chance, take a risk but aim for the best”.


I am also fortunate to have a wonderful business partner who is an amazing systems architect and has worked hard to understand our clients' business requirements so that we can deliver solutions that surpass our competitors. We have been Australia’s fastest-growing student management software (SMS) company for some time, and we're now Australia’s largest cloud-based software product in the SMS space. I have no doubt that our push for excellence and innovation has helped achieve these results.


Nothing excites me more than hearing from totally delighted and loyal clients who love our software. It is exciting to learn more about our clients’ businesses and how we can assist them to be more successful in what they do. The process of selecting a new software system is not an easy task. It's a significant change and requires high levels of empathy, trust, and on-going support. Our service model is based on what we call the values of the heart:







I have left probably the most important but arguably the most challenging aspect of driving success in a business: the need for effective leadership. Building a high performing team and a great culture has significantly contributed to the success of our business. We are passionate about developing our people and look for opportunities to empower and grow individuals. 

My door is always open to my team and I encourage robust discussions in pursuit of continually improving each area of our business. Our Human Success team works closely with our managers to consistently implement our performance management approach, including each individual’s ‘Success Plan’. This ensures that each team member has a clear path to success. This is one of the most important examples of being proactive—but can often be neglected which can demotivate staff, significantly affecting the overall performance of the business.

Finally, it’s so important nowadays to maintain a voracious curiosity and recognise that we never stop learning. I’m learning more now than I have ever learned in all my years of being in business. Being in the learning technology space is highly demanding and continuously changing. 


Julie Verner-Mackay is founding director of VM Learning and aXcelerate, and has been strongly involved in the VET sector for more than 30 years. 

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