“It takes 10 years for overnight success,” said Tina Tower’s mentor.
At the two year mark of owning her own business, Tina thought she’d be much further into her journey than she was. But fast forward another 10 years, and Tina had gone from starting her business to exiting it. The road has been a tough one, and success has come through hard work and determination. “For me, success has not been an accident, it has been very purposeful, very disciplined and very, very hard.”
Begin Bright is a chain of early learning centres that readies children for school, improving children’s learning skills and aims to put them straight to the head of their class. Twelve years ago, half way through her teaching degree, Tina started her first business, Reach Education, a tutoring centre for children, as a means to pay her way through university, but by the time she finished university, she had 20 staff and a business that was thriving.
“I’ve always been a bit of an odd ball in normal realms of society so I started my business when I was 20 at university while everyone else was getting youth allowance and most of them didn’t have jobs. While they were going out and drinking in the pubs I was running the business all day and working in the pub from 10pm - 4am at night so that I could pay the rent while we got off the ground.”
When Tina decided to commit herself fulltime to Begin Bright, she had no idea of the ride in store for her. “We started out as a licenced program, and sold the program to teachers around the country to use in their own centres, but because they’d known I’d ran successful tutoring centres before, they wanted business advice and the [Begin Bright] name.” And so after two years, Tina made the decision to franchise.
“I went to see every single franchise that I could and sat down with them and asked: what creates a great franchise system, what should I do, what should I look at. Pretty much every single one of them looked me square in the face and said ‘don’t do it’, but I was very determined, to me franchising was such a beautiful concept.”
In a gesture to support new franchisees, Tina decided to wave the first 12 months of her franchising fee, believing it would help people get on their feet, but the reality was a stark contrast. “Once it got to that one year mark and they had to start paying a fee that they hadn’t paid before, they started hating me, which was not a positive thing to deal with. It also cost a hell of a lot more money than I anticipated so we were growing at a really rapid rate, but because we started with no capital, I couldn’t afford the support that they needed. It was a really difficult time.”
By this stage, it was 2012, and Tina was invited to her first CommBank Women in Focus Conference. “I like to call it the golden ticket when you get invited to the Women in Focus Conference. The first time I came I just simply couldn’t believe that I didn’t have to pay to go to something where you’re spoiled and surrounded by such amazing people… it’s just the most incredible concept I’ve ever heard.”
But despite the success and growth of her business, Tina had ‘imposter syndrome’ and her business was struggling financially. “In the couple of weeks before the Conference, I was feeling like an absolute fraud. I knew I was coming along to this Conference where there are all these successful business women, and I couldn’t afford to have a coffee.” Being the eternal optimist, Tina knew she would find a way to figure it out.
But right before she walked into the Conference, she dreaded people asking what she did, and how her business was going. “Of course the first reaction is [to respond] ‘fantastic, let me tell you about the greatest wins’… And on paper it was fantastic: we had great growth, we had great revenue, we had good profit, it just had to go back into the business. And then I thought, well, I’ve got people here that have so much collective knowledge, so much experience and have gone through everything, I’m going to use it for what it is.” On that first day, Tina was sat next to fellow Conference alumni Wendy McCarthy AO and Naomi Simson, and was completely honest with them both, sharing her story, and in that moment, she found solidarity from women she respected. This opened up the opportunity for each person at the table to share their own stories of struggle and overcoming those challenges.
Not long later, after a trip with The Hunger Project, Tina re-evaluated what was important in her life. “As high-achieving individuals, we want to be all things to all people.” Running a business that demanded time and energy from her, and with two children under the age of three, Tina decided to start saying ’no’, rather than yes to everything, and started to focus her energy on improving one aspect of her business at a time, to ensure the Begin Bright brand was growing and that all centres maintained the same values and culture.
“I always tried to define my ideal life but somehow I’d ended up in a situation where my life was anything but ideal. After we got back from Uganda with The Hunger Project I sat and wrote this vision and all the things that were going to be my non-negotiables.”
“You can make decisions that change your life in an instant and that was really one of them for me, so we packed everything up and my husband and I went in a camper van from Noosa to Sydney trying to find where we would live.” At the end of 2013 Tina and her husband bought a farm just north of Byron Bay and relocated their family. “My lawyers and accountants said: you can’t run a growing franchise system from a farm, Tina.” At the time they relocated, there were 12 Begin Bright franchises and by the end of 2014 that number had grown to 20, the business was thriving.
Since moving, Tina hasn’t looked back. “It was the best move we could make, it meant my kids were getting a much better lifestyle, my husband was much happier and I could go and do my work and come home and have this relaxing atmosphere, and it was more affordable.” Moving to an inspiring place away from the big city lifestyle gave Tina the opportunity she needed to get used to being uncomfortable. When she started her business in 2004, she realised that if she didn’t take risks, her options for business growth would remain limited. “I threw it all in and went hell for leather, I thought if I fail, I’ll fail spectacularly.”
“You’ve also got to be able to enjoy your day to day, and starting new franchises everything’s so systemised that I even lost the buzz when we signed a new centre.” So Tina began looking into getting investment in the company to hire a CEO, and at the beginning of 2016 Begin Bright was listed for investment. But in March, a company approached Tina, and wanted to buy the entire business.
Although it was well before Tina’s planned exit strategy, the company who approached her was the perfect match for the business she had worked so hard to build. “It was an absolute dream company that already had nine education companies under it and was in 35 countries, and for me, starting Begin Bright, all I want is for the business to be successful and so I had to make the decision on whether or not I could step out of the way and let my dream go to somebody else and soar.” And that was exactly what Tina did, in 2016, Begin Bright was acquired and Tina is now off on new business adventures.
“It’s kind of been the story of my life that nothing happens easily… the most positive thing that’s come out of my experience with Begin Bright is the belief that I’ve had to have in myself.”