Valerie Khoo is feature guest on Cloud Stories

Valerie Khoo is National Director of the Australian Writers’ Centre, the country’s leading centre for writing courses. With campuses in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Online, the centre has helped more than 17,000 students to get published, change careers, or write with confidence. Valerie is also an adviser and investor in startups. Her blog has consistently been named as one of the Top 20 Business Blogs in Australia.

Highlights of my conversation with Valerie Khoo

  • Identifying your passion and turning it into a business success
  • The process, development and delivery of online courses on the Open Learning platform
  • Breaking in and setting up the CRM Infusionsoft
  • Online tools Valerie Khoo uses in her business
  • The benefits of learning to write for a business person

Subscribe to Episode 1 of Cloud Stories on iTunes:

https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/cloud-stories-heather-smith/id908333807

Transcript

Heather:        Hello, today I‘m speaking with Valerie Khoo, the National Director of the Australian Writer’s Centre. Hello Valerie, welcome to our show today.

Valerie :         It’s great to be here Heather.

Heather:        Thank you so much for sharing your time with us today. Really appreciate it, I’m really excited about talking with you today and I know from listening to you speak in so many other capacities that our listeners will really appreciate what you have to share with them today.

Valerie:          Well I hope I can share a few insights that people can learn from.

Heather:        Sensational, that’s exactly what we want to hear. So Valerie you run the Australian Writer’s Centre which is something that I’ve sort of been involved in on the side. You’ve currently got campuses in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and online and you’ve helped more than 17,000 students which is amazing.

Can you give us an outline how your business operates and sort of what sort of courses it offers?

Valerie:          Sure. As you mentioned we are the Australian Writer’s Centre. We actually just started off in Sydney but then we grew over time. Our first foray into another state was the centre in Melbourne that’s going really well. And then earlier this year we opened in Perth. We have another one in the wings I’ve just been checking out venues for that but that’s yet to be announced.

Heather:        Anywhere close to me?

Valerie:          It’s not official yet, I can’t say anything. You’ll have to stay tuned.

Heather:        I hope it is.

Valerie:          But we also have a very, very active and large online campus so to speak. About 40-45% of our students study online from all over Australia and the world. What we do is we offer writing courses and they are designed to help people; adults improve their writing, or get published, or change careers or write with just more confidence.

So they are in all different genres of writing and the beauty about our course is they’re pretty short. So you can just do a tester, you can do five weeks, or you can do a weekend course that sort of thing. The good thing is if you decide that you like it you can build on it. You can do the next course, and you can do the next course and they’re all relatively short so that it’s all in manageable bite size chunks.

We find that, as with most people these days’ time is a scarce commodity so we want to make sure that it’s something that people can do and commit to.

Heather:        That’s interesting; I hadn’t realised they were around as being short courses that you have like this first course, then second course. You’re completely right. People get overwhelmed if it’s too much involved. I know that while they are short courses I’ve done two of them now. They’re packed with lots of insight and information.

Valerie:          Yeah that’s one thing I’m really committed to because I’m a course junkie from way back and I’ve done many, many courses. I’m never without doing a course and one of the things I don’t’ like about some courses is when they treat you like a dummy or treat you like an idiot. They think you’re not capable of learning more and I do believe people are capable of learning more. I do believe that people want to learn more and have a thirst of that knowledge.

So I make sure that we do have a lot of information and really interesting things in our courses.

Heather:        Absolutely, that’s sensational. I completely agree with that. People are really into content specific courses these days and it probably leads to a whole other conversation of whether people need to go out and do further education. Whether they should just tailor their life around content specific short courses like the ones you offer.

Why did you actually start your business?

Valerie:          Well I started it because I was at a period in my life when I was thinking to myself I really want to do something different and I really want to make a difference in people’s lives. But I also needed to eat and pay the mortgage. I thought to myself well what am I passionate about? And as clichéd as this may sound it is the honest to God truth, what I love doing, what gets me excited is when I help people realise their potential. Or help people realize the steps that they can take to get what they really want in life or achieve what they really want as a goal. So I know that sounds little bit ra-ra.

Heather:        No it doesn’t, I’ve seen you in action so I’m not going to disagree with that because I know that you do that and I know that you’re very good actually pinpointing people. I’m not speaking about myself but I’ve seen you in action pinpointing people and just extracting what bringing the cream to the top and saying go for it.

Valerie:          I just love doing it and I love to see them go on that journey and nothing makes me happier. I thought well okay could I do? I didn’t want to be a life coach really or didn’t want to be a business coach. But I did have the technical skill; I was very experienced with writing, success as a writer. I thought well while I may not be able to help somebody climb Mount Everest because I would have no idea or win at Master Chef because you know I can’t cook. I could certainly help them with their writing goals.

That’s where it started. What’s interesting though is even though that’s where it started and I thought okay I can help people achieve their writing dreams because I can teach them that technical skill and I can provide courses that can equip them with the right skills, it actually spilled over a lot. Because even though it starts off as writing, some people discover writing and it actually changes their life because they can suddenly have a lifestyle that they wanted, or they can actually can earn more money than they thought than they would as a stay at home mom perhaps.

They get more confidence in doing something that they’ve always wanted to do. It’s just been the most rewarding experience so that’s where it started, me kind of trying to marry my passion with the technical skill if you know what I mean.

How long did it take you to formulate your passion?

Valerie:          I think my passion has been with me for a long time. I kind of even remember I think I’ve just always felt this way because even my friends will tell you that I’m slightly annoying in that I’m the one when you catch up for drinks, or dinner or whatever I’m the one that says, “Of course you can do it.” Just do this, do this, do this- you know what I mean.

So I’m a little bit of a- they probably think I’m a little bit of a nagger even though I think I’m a cheer squad. So it’s something that I’ve always done for as long as I can remember. But it took me just a little while to articulate it and figure it out when I was thinking what I wanted to do for my business or my career.

Heather:        It’s interesting that isn’t it? When you actually need to do it to monetise it, it’s like what’s my passion? It can take people a second to think about it.

Valerie:          Yeah, I didn’t really know. I didn’t sort of identify it until I thought well what really fuels me and I sat down and made myself think about that and I realized that’s what I do to all my friends is what I love because I care about them and I want to see them succeed. It expanded from there.

Heather:        Excellent. So can I ask you,

What platform are the Australian Writers’ Centre online courses built on?

Valerie:          Lots of different parts.

Heather:        I grammatically phrased that really badly.

Valerie:          We understood you so that’s okay. Lots of different ones but the main one that the online course specifically is built on is an application called Open Learning which is a fantastic company in Sydney. I’m fortunate enough to also be one of their advisors because I really believe in their product.

Basically it’s an online learning platform so like a learning management system which is designed to obviously deliver online courses but design for the students to have a great user experience that is similar to sort of Facebook. In the sense because so many people are used to that these days so then you can reply to each other, you can like each other’s comments, you can dip into different areas. Just like in Facebook you dip into different pages, or groups, or whatever. Yeah it’s called Open Learning.

Heather:        Okay, thank you for sharing that with us.

How long does it take you to go through the development of a course? Sort of what process do you go through?

Valerie:          You mean from scratch?

Heather:        I guess so, from the formulation or conception of a course.

Valerie:          Forever.

Heather:        Forever, okay.

Valerie:          It takes a really long time to be honest. Because typically we start our courses in a classroom setting, in real life, in most cases. Because that is where you figure out what works and what doesn’t, you know what I mean. You get immediate reactions to certain things and you can see all the pennies drop, or you can see blank faces.

Typically we start off in a classroom experience and once we know that we’ve nailed it, and then we know that we can turn this into an online course. And that takes way more time than you think; it’s a lot of work.

Heather:        I think it takes a long time in that I’ve tried to develop my own and it’s like, it’s life sapping. Wow.

Valerie:          It takes a really long time because you need to make sure that every I is dotted and every T is crossed because you just never know when someone’s listening. They could be listening on the bus, or in front of the computer, or doing the laundry or whatever in the car. You’ve got to make sure that the information is conveyed not in a lecture style but almost in a conversational story telling style so that it’s easily absorbed and remembered.

It takes quite a while to change information into something that’s digestible like that because unlike a classroom course you can see people’s reactions on their faces. They can ask you a question immediately and you can fill in that particular gap. You have to think of every gap at first before you do an online course so that all those gaps are already filled and that any possible question is answered.

Of course people may still have their own other questions and certainly in our course they have the opportunity to ask them but in the first instance you need to make sure that as much as possible is covered. And so it’s not only the creation and the structure, and the design of the course, it’s then also the creation of the actual course materials. The MP3s, the handouts, the online delivery all that kind of stuff. So yeah a long time.

Heather:        It’s interesting to hear you say that because you didn’t have a teacher’s background did you?

Valerie:          But I lectured at Sydney University at both within the faculty of Economics but also I did for years I was a teacher at the Centre for Continuing Education at Sydney University.

Heather:        That gives you an understanding of the course development from a teacher’s perspective. Because I always kind of wondered whether you had teachers in there just guiding on that structure of things rather than coming along as the expert and applying it.

Valerie:          I had that background for oh gosh, I was lecture at Sydney Uni more than 20 years ago.

What’s the most popular course that you offer these days?

Valerie:          I would say that creative writing is currently very popular. They all go in peaks and troughs of course depending on what’s fashionable at the time. Creative writing is very popular and is a perennially popular one because it is a great first step for people who think they might be interested in writing. They’re not sure but they love reading or they kind of, in the back of their mind think that they love to write a novel one day. They just love telling stories.

That’s a good one because then people get a taste for what it’s like in a slightly more structured environment so then they kind of see yeah that structure actually helps my writing. And I might be taking the next step.

Heather:        It’s interesting seeing people because I’m in one of your community groups and seeing people, how they kind of need to be prodded along by people. My goal posts and settings, and people are encouraged and motivated by other people pushing them along or other people doing what they’re doing. That is interesting.

Valerie:          Definitely, it’s inspiring to see.

Heather:        It’s very inspiring. The Writer’s Centre has had so much success which has been so impressive for what you’ve done.

I understand you use a product called Infusionsoft, do you still use that product?

Valerie:          I do.

Heather:        Okay, so Infusionsoft for those who are listening is a sales and marketing automation software for small business that combines CRM, email marketing and ecommerce. That was a pre-prepared question because I thought I’ll go on the website and make sure I get everything that it does.

Can you give listeners a bit of an insight about this Infusionsoft product and how you’re using it, and what it’s done for your business?

Valerie:          So basically as you mentioned Infusionsoft is a cloud based application that uses a combination of a CRM but also has an email marketing function. It has kind of like ten bazillion features of which I’m using maybe five, not quite.

We are using quite a few of the features but there are many more that suit different types of industries and businesses which just wouldn’t be relevant for my particular business. So we have only been using that since around January 2014. I had actually explored it a few years ago and when I was exploring similar applications to decide which one to use and I decided against it at the time.

I wasn’t impressed with it at the time to be honest. But over the last sort of year or prior to moving to it, quite a few people who I respect said that they had started using it and that they were finding it good. I thought it was time to give it a second look and so I did a lot of research again and decided to give it a second look. And I ended up deciding to give it a second go.

It’s worked out well so far, I’m glad we made the decision to move to it. We were on a different application before that and so what it does is that it powers back end if you know what I mean. That means the back end when you book into a course, or so in terms of communication to students and perspective students that’s done by Infusionsoft.

In some cases you may fill in some web forms and that’s done by Infusionsoft. The delivery of the courses is not done by Infusionsoft as I mentioned that’s done through Open Learning. But essentially it powers our back end. The booking system, and the communication system, and the database system.

Heather:        No, it sounds very impressive. It seems to sound like you have to set up a huge number of email templates. People have told me about it sort of responsive to everyone’s reaction to different ways to the way that they react and what they’re interested in.

Valerie:          You can make it really complex where you have a bazillion email templates because you may have really complex sort of decision trees. If someone clicks on this then they get this email, if they do not click on this than they get this email. If they do not click on this after five days then they get an email.

But we haven’t actually gone to that level of complexity. As is its simpler than that. At this stage, however there is potential for you to create really complex journeys if you want to.

Heather:        Yeah absolutely. One of the things that’s always impressed me about you is I know how thorough you are about researching something. You’re actually using something I know a huge amount of researchers got into that product.

Valerie:          Yes.

Heather:        And it does seem to be that more businesses in Australia are exploring that product and seeing good results. As with anything it needs to be properly implemented so I’m sure that took you a bit of time and there are a few experts out there who do the implementation. Because you did a course didn’t you or something like that, or training sessions with them.

Valerie:          I think I was really lucky in the sense that typically what I found, I’ve meet many Infusionsoft users now and typically what I have found is that a huge number of them like almost all of them who aren’t Infusionsoft consultants. Almost all of the non-consultants, just like normal businesses say yeah I had it for six months or a year and I only did one campaign. Then I finally decided to get into it and oh my God it blew my mind and I realized I could have been saving so much time over the last year.

So people seem to get it because they realize it’s a good idea but they seem to step very slowly into it because it can seem kind of overwhelming and daunting. However we were in this unique situation where we decided it’s going to start in January. And our quietest time of year is the period between Christmas and New Year.

Heather:        Really that’s surprising.

Valerie:          For obvious reasons you know. Everyone’s just on holidays in Christmas and New Year.

Heather:        And not being creative.

Valerie:          They start on January 1 their New Year’s resolutions but Christmas and New Year they’re busy eating, drinking. We had no choice but to create the entire business of Infusionsoft between Christmas and New Year.

Heather:        Of course no choice whatsoever, yes.

Valerie:          I had no Christmas break. Every working hour I was creating Infusionsoft campaigns. I was kind of lucky in the sense that I went bang straight into it, very in depth and therefore got to learn it very quickly. I didn’t do that stepped approach so I got to understand what its capabilities in a very short concentrated space of time.

Yeah it was an interesting period.

Heather:        It’s interesting to hear you like you’re a national director of a big organisation with numerous employees and you actually say I went in, I got into the detail, I know how to do it. So it’s always one of those things I like I always wonder in business, I get very into the detail. I’m like maybe I should be pulling back from the detail. It’s interesting to hear you say that you really got into the detail of it.

Valerie:          Probably that’s because I have a curiosity.

Heather:        Yeah.

Valerie:          Probably because I just am a little bit geeky and I kind of want to know stuff. Once I know a certain level and once I know I have the staff member who knows way more than me about this, I step back and I let it go.

But you know it was new to every staff member at that time so we were all starting at ground zero. We all had to learn it.

Heather:        They all like spending their Christmas with you, hulking down on working with Infusionsoft.

Valerie:          Not quite.  We didn’t to make the Christmas and New Year but as soon as one or I think two January we were straight into it. But you were referring to a course I didn’t actually go to a course. I went to a conference run by Infusionsoft in Phoenix, Arizona which interestingly wasn’t all about the platform itself.

Only about 30% of the sessions were platform specific, the rest was about marketing and growing a business.

Heather:        Interesting, that’s interesting that they do that. Cool.

Okay I’m sure some of our listeners will find that product interesting if they’re not already using it. Go off and explore that.

In your business you’ve mentioned that you have a tendency to be a bit geeky and curious.

What other online tools do you use in your business that you think your listeners might benefit from?

Valerie:          Cloud File storage changed my life. So it’s really normal now but I’ve been using it for years and years. The fact that I can be on any device in any city, well any of my devices. Because I spend a lot of time in between Sydney and Melbourne and here I have an office in Sydney but I have a home in Sydney. And then I have an office in Melbourne and a home in Melbourne.

There’s already four places that I got devices that I spend time to work. I needed from years ago I wanted something to liberate me from the desk, from the single computer and so the first thing I discovered which I still love is SugarSync which is cloud file syncing application.

Of course similar things can be done with Google Drive, and Dropbox, and Cubby and I use all of them actually for different reasons. For me I love SugarSync the best. But because they all have slightly different limitations and parameters, Sugar Sync it doesn’t do everything. It doesn’t work with a server whereas Cubby works with a server and Google Drive works with server.

Dropbox is a little bit annoying because you have to put everything in the Dropbox. So yeah. I think that cloud file sharing services just liberates you so that you can actually work from anywhere with internet.

Heather:        Absolutely, they are amazing. Amazing tools.

When you have SugarSync can you just go and like search and it will just pull up the document you’re searching for?

Valerie:          You have it locally on your computer that’s the bit that I love as well. Even if you do it and you change it locally on your Macbook, on your laptop it will sync to the cloud and this cloud will then sync to every other device where it’s also stored locally.

You can just base it in the cloud if you want but I like having my files locally on whatever I’m working on.

Heather:        Yeah absolutely. I think it’s also quicker if you do that. Just push it to the cloud but if you’re using it, if you can pull it back down and work on it, and then push it back up into the cloud.

Valerie:          Definitely.

Heather:        I think it all comes down to sometimes the speed of the internet connection. I know sometimes we see you frustrated by your internet connection in certain areas of Australia.

Valerie:          Yes.

Heather:        So having that versatility is beneficial.

Do you use cloud accounting?

Valerie:          That’s definitely been a game changer to have cloud accounting. I remember the days when I just had to go to this particular computer in the office. I could only use that computer because that’s where the accounting license was on. Therefore I had to drive in at specific times to do it whereas with cloud accounting you can do it anywhere, from wherever you want and it’s so easy to transfer the files, or to look it up from a whole other country. I love that.

The other one it’s not about business but I love it to pieces which is sort of cloud based is two things the Foxtel TV guide, I love it to pieces because I can be in Las Vegas and go oh my god I got to tape The Good Wife or whatever. I can be in my hotel room in Las Vegas because I’ve got two Foxtel boxes. I can choose which room even to tape it.

Heather:        Really. So you set it up and you can set it up to record and you come home and you’ve got all your recording sitting there.

Valerie;          I love the Foxtel app.

Heather:        Well that’s cool and is it like on your iPhone?

Valerie:          Your iPhone or your iPad. You can be having a conversation with somebody. Oh have you seen that documentary about whatever and you can search for it on the Foxtel app. And when you find it you can just tape it and choose to tape it in my bedroom, or in lounge room.

Heather:        Excellent. That’s a great share, I’m sure people can record some business shows on their using that as well.

Many of our listeners probably come from a business background so

What course does the Australian Writer’s Centre offer that you recommend to a business person interested in writing?

Valerie:          it depends on what they want to write. But typically most business owners I find are keen to do a couple of things. Potentially write a blog in order to build their profile but also to write for the industry publications, or even consumer publications to build their profile.

One course that I think is useful is the course Magazine and Newspaper writing because even if you don’t necessarily want to write for a newspaper, what it teaches you is a great structure for any article that can translate to a blog post but is ideal for writing articles for magazines. That’s a great way to build your profile when you have a column or a regular article placement in your industry magazine.

One of the things it also teaches you is when you understand how journalists want to write the magazine article and if you’re on the other side of the fence like you’re being interviewed you can also help them with the kind of content that’s going to make the magazine article sound good if you know what I mean.

Heather:        Absolutely. That’s actually been an interesting phenomena that I’ve been realising lately in that I did one of those courses and got a lot of blog posts out there and they don’t take a long time to write it but then you see a journalist looking for a source to talk about X, Y, Zed and you know what the key things are to tell them, to entice them to use you. And then you’re like well I didn’t have to write the article, I got an article in Sydney Morning Herald and I’m quoted as the expert and it took maybe ten minutes work.

Valerie:          That’s right.

Heather:        You do learn that structure from these are the key thing that I should be highlighting and this is a way to phrase a sentence, etcetera. Whereas sometimes you speak to people and they don’t get to that point quickly.

Valerie:          Yeah exactly right.

Heather:        That’s really good. Now one of the questions I wanted to ask of you was, you had been involved with a lot of podcasts and I know you currently, what’s the name of it. You’re doing a writer’s podcast with Alison.

Valerie:          Yeah it’s called So You Want to be a Writer and it’s with Alison Tate.

Heather:        Yes, and it was recently featured on the best new podcasts or new featured podcasts on iTunes is that correct.

Valerie:          Yeah new and noteworthy.

Heather:        New and noteworthy podcast that’s very good. So what suggestions do you have for me since starting up a new podcast.

Valerie:          Do something that you’re passionate about. Clearly your passion is about various concepts to do with cloud, and productivity that can be enhanced as a result of cloud which I think is a wonderful niche. I think cloud is a game changer. People often think cloud and they just think cloud accounting but there are so many applications that are really useful in the cloud.

I probably use even another 20 but they’re such a normal part of my life I don’t even think, I’m going to use the cloud you know what I mean.

Heather:        I think that’s right. People turn to me and go, well how do you manage to get so much done? It’s like well I just sort of activate this, and I activate that and it’s all done. But yeah it does make life easier, it’s quite funny. I did a productivity session in a meeting business group the other day and the outcome of the productivity session was sharing calendars with your children to get them to do the work as well.

But yeah it was kind of interesting how you do adopt a lot of them without even thinking about it.

Valerie:          Yeah absolutely.

Heather:        So you’ve told us the future for Australian Writer’s Centre, you’re perhaps looking at having another location here in Australia. IS there anything else in the future for the Australian Writers Centre?

Valerie:          Well we definitely will be transforming more of our business writing courses online. Because we find that there’s a real need for people to access that information wherever they are. They can’t necessarily take a day off work to come to a cause, a business writing course, because these are typically one day courses during the day in a week. And also if we can transform them into online courses which are modularised, people can do two hours each and they might be able to do two hours on Wednesday, or two hours on Friday.

They didn’t have to do it in a whole chunk of time. That’s definitely one of the next things on our agenda. Quite a few people have asked for various courses to be transformed online and we’re definitely looking into that. As I mentioned it’s a very long and involved process. We just need to decide in which order we’re going to deliver them.

Heather:        Yeah absolutely. So Valerie one last question for you.

What advice would you have for your 17 year old self?

Valerie:          Oh my goodness what a good question. Okay that’s quite a hard one. My 17 year old self, I would say- that’s a really tough one.

I would say that if it was specifically to me I would say that, see I was very lucky in that even at 17 I truly believed that anything was possible. But what I didn’t know was that sometimes in life things, circumstances, people will disappoint you. Will let you down.

That’s okay. Don’t let it in the way of you or don’t let it get you down even if they let you down. Just accept that that’s part of life. It may not have been personal, or anything like that. It’s just going to happen throughout life. But don’t even sort of try and view it as a letdown just kind of go okay, and move on. Don’t take it to heart.

I don’t want to end on a negative thing though.

Heather:        Because I asked that question because I have a 17 year old child myself and so I’m asking that question of everyone sort of thinking that he’s going out into the world. It’s kind of what does he need to know or how is he going to quickly get to where he needs to get to. I know you’re a CPA, would you have still gone down that route?

Valerie:          What do you mean would I have still gone down-

Heather:        Because you went and did accounting initially didn’t you?

Valerie:          Yeah, no I still would have taken the route that I’ve taken now. Because I always fundamentally believed in doing what you love. I just happen to love writing more. I would have definitely gone down this path anyway because it was just what was going to be nagging at me. Like I would have always felt that thing inside me, that itch that I had to scratch and I knew I had to go down this path in a sense.

But if I had to I would just have sort of changed it around a bit. If I had to give advice to your 17 year old son as opposed to my 17 year old self I would probably say A, anything truly is possible if you put your mind to it. B, just wanting it isn’t enough though. You need to work out the steps you need to take to get there. It’s not going to be handed to you on a platter but it is in your reach and once you work out the steps you need to take to get there, you just need to take them.

It’s as simple as that and once you take them if you’re serious about it, you will get whatever it is that you want in life.

Heather:        Absolutely. On that very positive note thank you so much Valerie for sharing your time with listeners today. I know that you’ve always been such an inspiration to me and I’ve benefitted so much from the number of courses that I have done through the Australia Writer’s Centre.

I look forward to more success from you and with the Australian Writers Centre growing and taking over the world, improving English one course at a time. Thank you very much.

Valerie:          It’s been my pleasure. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed talking to you Heather.

Heather:        Sensational.

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