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Meet the Mentor: Athena Zolis

Athena Zolis, Rare Birds mentor

Athena Zolis, Rare Birds mentor

A serial entrepreneur, Athena has learned many lessons along the way, including the importance of avoiding potential pitfalls by surrounding yourself with people who have walked the path before you. She is currently the first point of contact for Australian businesses for Austrade and is involved in the government’s Boosting Female Founders initiative. Rare Birds is so appreciative that Athena has chosen our mentoring program as another way to give back and share her experience and expertise.

Tell us a bit about your business Heal Naturally and why you started it. 

I am a proud mother of three adult young women and have juggled motherhood and work all my life. I have always felt that I have had the best of both worlds. I started my career in Shopping Centre marketing as a secretary and worked my way up to Victorian Marketing Manager for Westfield and Special Projects Marketing for Sussan Property Group.

After a challenging year of personal trauma, I left the corporate world to look after my health and just happened to find a niche market unrelated to anything I had ever done before. I launched an aromatherapy brand called Essentials-In-A-Box in 2006. I was the first company in Australia to formally launch the Ultrasonic Aromatherapy Diffuser to the Australian retail market. I started this business without any prior knowledge of operating a business, so it was tough, and I made many mistakes along the way. Despite this I built the business to become a multimillion-dollar business and eventually sold it to an Australian Company who I believed could take it to the next level.

After the sale of the business, I concentrated on my daughter who was studying Year 12 at the time and that gave me time to ponder what would be the next stage of my working career (retirement is out of the question for me). I started to think about all the trials and tribulations and challenges in starting and operating a business and the wealth of experience and information I had to help businesses whether they were start-ups or ready to scale their businesses. It is more the mistakes that I made that I like to emphasise to business so that they don’t make the same costly mistakes.

I started to think about all the trials and tribulations and challenges in starting and operating a business and the wealth of experience and information I had to help businesses whether they were start-ups or ready to scale their businesses.

I also looked at all the wonderful products that people have created and sell at markets and events, but who may not have the necessary knowledge or skills to take their hobby/business to the level where it returns a decent profit and replaces their existing salary. That’s why I started Heal Naturally. The strategy is to give new natural therapy products (not in mainstream retail) a platform to promote their products, including an interview with the owners for the Heal Naturally YouTube Channel and offering mentorship to the business owners.

I was starting to work on the marketing strategy/formula for both businesses when COVID hit. I decided to take a break from the project when I started a position as a Small Business Specialist working on behalf of four Federal Government websites business.gov.au, asbfeo.gov.au, brs.gov.au, austrade.gov.au. to assist during COVID. I have spoken to over 2,000 businesses during the pandemic assisting them and guiding them to the necessary Government resources to answer their queries. I am currently working in a specialist team for austrade.gov.au concentrating on exporting. And I am listed as an official mentor for the Federal Governments’ Boosting Female Founders Grant initiative.

What has motivated you to become a Rare Birds mentor?

It is what I want to do. It may sound like a cliché, but I want to help businesses that are in the same position as I was 15 years ago when I started my brand. I have experience and knowledge and I learned the hard way. I know what to look out for, what you need to keep your business safe financially and how to take calculated risks. I also know how the life of a business operates, how you need to be ready to pounce on the opportunities that present themselves for you to take your business to the next level. A business needs to grow, be flexible to change and update strategies to think outside the box. This is the only way a business can survive.

I also know the importance of having a mentor. Someone who you can trust and discuss and nut things out as you go through your business journey. I had a wonderful person, a highly skilled and savvy businessperson, who I would touch base occasionally for advice. He always gave me sound advice. But I did not officially make him my mentor. I touched base maybe once every six months which in hindsight was madness. Again, one of the BIG mistakes I made throughout the time I operated my business. You can never underestimate the importance of having someone you can reach out to give you guidance, experienced guidance. It is imperative when starting and operating a business, no matter what stage you are at. Operating a business can be very lonely, but the wonderful thing is that mentorship is readily available and that should be taken advantage of. I also know the Government resources available to businesses whether that be on a Federal or State Level. I have a great deal to share and teach and it is what I want to do.

What has been your biggest ‘aha’ moment in business?

I have had many ‘aha’ moments in my life that have been life changing. I would have to say that the most significant ‘aha’ was when I first saw the Ultrasonic Aromatherapy Diffuser and immediately recognised that this technology could revolutionise the way we experience our essential oils. And it did … The rest all fell into place, but there were times when going forward was very intimidating especially since I had never operated a business before. It was all a new world for me, but exciting as all challenges can be.

What is your driver for helping people to grow their business?

What I experienced over 12 years of starting and operating a business. The feeling of not knowing what the right decision is, how to deal with serious issues that the business faced, how to protect my business.

What is the secret to sustainable growth? What was your experience?

Management of your finances – first and foremost. Over 60% of new businesses fail in the first five years and out of that over 40% is due to mismanagement of funds. You also need to protect your business, putting your eggs in the one basket leaves your business vulnerable particularly in the early years of the business. Then there is growth. Don’t sit still. Understanding when you need to take that next step in your business and be ready financially and mentally to take that opportunity when it comes along is especially important in the growth of your business.

Over 60% of new businesses fail in the first five years and out of that over 40% is due to mismanagement of funds.

What advice would you give to someone whose business is stuck in a rut? What can they do to create a catalyst for positive growth?

Have a brainstorming session with people who know your business and people who have business experience. Write anything and everything down that is a possibility. Get ideas: look at your competitors and see what they are doing. Then work out what your next step is. Take out the business strategy, rewrite it, and look at the pros and cons. Is it a calculated risk, how are you going to make any new ideas work? What about the funding, the marketing, do you already have the essentials in place and is it a natural progression for a business like yours? If not are there any resources available to assist you? When I brainstorm, I put in anything and everything I can think of and then look at each idea and decide whether or not it is viable.

The next step is imperative – you must take action, every day, do something that is going to put into action what you wrote down. And get a business mentor to help you out and keep you accountable.

Which sources of business wisdom do you turn to when you are stuck?

I tend to go back to the basics and ask myself ‘What was I originally trying to achieve?’ What was the idea behind my concept? I remind myself why I started the business and how I was going to make it a success. Then I take action. I am not talking about taking major action – no, I am talking about doing something every day that is going to benefit my business until I get back on track. That includes things like where I want to be in one month, two months, six month, 12 months time. I don’t believe that you can wait until you are motivated, that may never come, you have to achieve something on a daily basis.

What would you say to someone considering becoming a business mentor?

If you can help someone with your knowledge and experience in business, just do it. You are doing someone a favour by allowing them to tap into your knowledge. The more you narrow the niche down the better and everyone is good at sharing information. Find the right platform and then start to help people. It is amazing how making a difference to someone in their business journey gives you such a feeling of satisfaction and energises you. When I can detect the sigh of relief in a business owner after I have answered their question or directed them to the right resources, there is nothing like it. Then the gratitude that follows always makes my day. It is very rewarding.

Anything else you would like to add?

Operating a business is challenging. It can be a rollercoaster ride and things may not happen as quickly as you would like them to. At this point in time, I have never seen so much support for small business in Australia. Information and resources are readily available at the drop of a hat, as are business mentors. Take advantage of what is out there. If I had access to this much help when I first started my business 16 years ago, I guarantee you, it would have had five times the turnover. Guidance and assistance from someone who has been there and done that is priceless. Do your research and take advantage of what is available to small businesses in Australia. I don’t believe that there will ever be a time like now. I would be honoured to play a part in your success.