Features

24 Hours With….. CEO and angel investor, Bilyana Smith

24 Hours With… spotlights the working day of some of the most interesting people in Mumbrella’s world. Today we speak with Bilyana Smith, CEO, board director, strategic advisor and angel investor. 

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6:00AM: The day starts with Sasha, our fluffy and enthusiastic border collie jumping on my bed, wide awake and eager for a walk. Every morning, for one hour, seven days a week, regardless of the weather, non-negotiable. I am not a natural early bird, so after four years of endurance, this habit has become a badge of honour.

We skip down 50 steps and a winding path through the reserve to Cremorne Point, along the waterfront, passing the wharf. The first ferry is arriving from Circular Quay. Otherwise it is still and peaceful, with the shimmering city skyline across the harbour. Beautiful and always changing, I never get bored with it. Uninterrupted and without distractions, I let the mind wander.

Sasha getting her cardio on

Sasha getting her cardio on

I’m thinking about a strategy meeting I have this morning with David, the founder and CEO at a medium-sized digital agency/technology company that is, after years of healthy organic growth, beginning to slow down and David feels the company has lost its purpose and direction.

After having acquired and merged with two small tech businesses, branched out its services and hired new people, the company found itself top heavy, with healthy revenues but falling profitability, which is usually a symptom of more than just inefficiency in processes and resourcing; it often indicates a more fundamental problem within the outlived business model, no longer creating value for the company.

More recently the team began complaining about confusion, lack of leadership and focus.

David and I met last week for a chat and he asked me to help him diagnose the problem and develop strategy for turnaround. We agreed to meet the board of directors today for a top-level briefing and then ‘deep dive’ with the senior team.

I am wondering about the board’s position. How radical do they want to be? How much risk are they willing to take?

8.30AM: I check my email on the ferry to the city. A message from Scale Investors, aa female-focused angel investor network I am involved with, reminding me of the investor group meeting on Monday. It means that I need to prepare this afternoon.

Short walk up to Bligh Street and breakfast at Janus, one of my favourite morning cafes, also close to the client’s office. They have the best ricotta hotcakes in town, but they’re not on the menu today so I have a bowl of fruit with yoghurt (at least I feel less guilty) and a double espresso while quickly flicking through the papers. The client’s office is five minutes’ walk.

Janus Cafe, Sydney Blight Street

Janus Cafe, Sydney Blight Street

9:00AM: Coffee in the boardroom. Introduction to the chairman and the directors and we start with David outlining the problem and then his recommendation to initiate a review and define new strategy for going forward.

The objective is sustainable growth, with the intent to publicly list within a year. The discussion is focused on the potential – size of the market, scalability of services and technology products, profitability, but there is appetite for reinventing the business model and more radical change.

We have a mandate to go ahead with a focus on creating a strategy for sustainable growth and with a sustainable path – including ‘quick wins’ in addition to the major all-encompassing and slower initiatives.

I stay on after we exit the boardroom to meet with the operations, marketing and finance directors individually and discuss their objectives and concerns with risks and agree on the next steps.

I will need their help while gaining an understanding and drawing insights, as much as their support for proposed direction and even more with the implementation.

For now, I am collecting the material and asking a lot of questions. The next step is more research, analysis and talking to their teams, as well as their clients, to get a broader perspective and insights.

1:00PM: Switch to my mentor hat to meet a friend, Charlotte, at Pablo & Rusty’s for lunch (we both love their salads). She is an English language graduate, still in her 20s, working as a marketing manager with a telco and looking to move somewhere, possibly smaller, where the marketing team has a more strategic role in the business.

Today she is facing a dilemma, having to choose from one of two job offers. We talk about defining success for yourself versus living to someone else’s standards, which seems to be the underlying issue.

2:30PM: Back at the office, the focus shifts to my angel activities for the afternoon. I am a member of Scale Investors network and we invest in early start-ups. I became active as an angel for many different reasons. Initially, I was drawn to the group because of its mission to promote gender diversity – by helping women become successful investors and by supporting early stage businesses with the same values.

However, the key driver to join was that Australia’s entrepreneurship movement is young and exciting. We have globally recognised scientific research and innovation but we’re not very good at commercialising it.

Scale angels have invested in media/marcomms companies such as: Trademark Vision (image recognition based trademark search); Cloudpeeps (marketplace and community platform that connects businesses and freelancers); Scrunch (influencer, social media and content marketing platform); ShowGizmo (apps for event management), and Paloma Mobile (delivering rich content to mobile phones even on low speed networks).

We are currently doing the due diligence on a company we are considering for investment – a social technology platform. It’s a smart idea with a strong team led by an impressive woman with the potential to scale-up globally.

I need to prepare my assessment notes for the investor group meeting on Monday. This involves drilling deep into the business, all with the purpose of gauging its ‘investibility’ – how good, innovative, unique, desirable is the product? Who is the customer? Is there a large enough market? Is the business scalable? Is the team passionate and strong enough to deliver on their vision and scale the business? Can we influence the change that needs to happen for success?

Focusing on the product (we are particularly focused on customer feedback) and the size and quality of the pipeline of upcoming sales, I am trying to predict the ‘stickiness’ with young audiences. I realise that I have more questions than answers, all to raise on Monday.

I realise that I have a half-an-hour to wrap up and get to Ultimo for the Fishburners’ pitch night.fishburners-website-home-page-screen-shot

5:00PM: Fishburners is Australia’s largest community of tech start-ups, a not-for-profit started in Sydney and now also in Brisbane in Shanghai. Friday night pitches in Sydney have grown into the largest weekly start-up event in Australia, and it’s open to public.

I recently joined its board of directors and am taking up every opportunity to get hands-on experience of the place.

Every Friday at 5:00pm, three start-up entrepreneurs stand up in front of the audience made up of other Fishburners and external peers, budding entrepreneurs looking for inspiration, potential investor, etc, and pitch their idea or their business.

The key purpose of these events is for the entrepreneurs to practice pitching, to get feedback from peers and peer judges, to learn and improve, and also to inspire other start-ups, or perhaps attract investors.thinkstockphotos-woman-boardroom-presentation-pitch-business

Tonight, we listen to RateIt (measuring retail customer experience), EZ-Leads (real estate referral platform) and Catching Sun (bringing benefits of solar energy to commercial property) at different stages of business. I am impressed with the quality of feedback coming from both, peer judges and the audience.

7:00PM My husband, Paul, joins me after work and we walk up to Kensington Street Social in Chippendale for a dinner.

The whole precinct has been transformed (we both started our careers as architects and that still colours the way we both see the world) … Frank Gehry’s Dr Chau Chak Wing Building for the UTS, across the Broadway the Central Park has connected to Chippendale and built up on its creative buzz.

With a line-up of international architectural stars: from Frank Gehry and DCM for the UTS, via Jean Nouvel and Norman Foster for Central Park to Studio Smart for White Rabbit Gallery and Indigo Slam, the precinct has become a creative hub, a celebration of art, architecture and design and a live example of vibrant urban places with character and meaning.

Frank Gehry’s Dr Chau Chak Wing. Image: UTS

Frank Gehry’s Dr Chau Chak Wing. Image: UTS

Kensington Street Social is buzzing. Sitting at the bar, we order lamb rack with cauliflower couscous (Paul) and wagyu beef with artichokes for me, with a glass of Mornington Peninsula pinot noir each.

We talk about the precinct… Sydney has grown up… and look forward to a relaxing weekend and the pile of books and magazines waiting. I always have two or three books on the go, started in different moods, currently: Hanif Kureishi’s Last Word, The Art of Possibility (R.S. and B. Zander) and rereading the Diary of a Bad Year (I recently rediscovered Coetzee).

9:30PM: A taxi ride home to Sasha’s never failing enthusiastic welcome. I am certain she is telling me off for having left her alone the whole day. It feels good not having to worry about anything for tomorrow and I indulge in an early night with the book (The Last Word this time).

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