“As a kid, I had two dreams. I wanted to be an AFL footballer or run a successful business like my dad.,” This is how Dimple Founder Damien James’ story begins. Assessing his qualities or lack thereof, he chose the latter. Because he wanted to give himself the best chance of seeing his dream come true, he started his entrepreneurial journey at an early age.
Realising he wasn’t tall enough to reach the highest level of football, Damien decided to focus his energy on building a business. He kept playing football, although not on a professional capacity, and applied the principles of the sport to the entrepreneurial arena, bringing his A-game to every venture he started. Learning from his dad, who had run a business for as long as he could remember, Damien dipped his feet into the fray from a young age.
“I registered my first business when I was 11 years old, which sounds a lot more impressive than what it is. It was an environmental engineering company, and clearly, I had no qualifications, cash or clients. But I think what I was doing was applying what I'd seen with football; the best way to get better was to practice. And the earlier I started to practice, the better I would get,” he said.
His mum and dad worked hard as a team to provide for their three children. Damien recalled a story when his Dad was standing in a line at ASIC for people to register their new business. His Dad got talking to another guy in the line who was about to start an accounting business, and the exchange resulted to his Dad becoming this guy’s first client.
Long story, short; both began their respective enterprise at the same time. Both were very successful in their own right, but over the years, the Accountant took larger strides financially than Damien’s dad. Damien was keen to learn why the Accountant had managed to achieve more commercial success during the same time frame and asked his Dad how the Accountant had achieved this. His dad explained that the Accountant started his business at a younger age and didn’t have a wife or children to support, which meant he could take risks in a way that Damien’s dad simply couldn’t. That struck a chord, and Damien doubled down on his vision to start a business at a young age and take risks well before he gets married or has kids, so he can have the freedom to make mistakes without it adversely affecting anyone’s life other than his own.
Like many teenagers, Damien found himself in countless Allied Health and Medical consultations while growing up. As he was keen to spot a business opportunity from a young age, he noticed that although many of these professionals were excellent practitioners, their businesses didn’t appear to be very well run. That’s when he first started considering that there may be a fertile opportunity for him to build an enterprise that operated in the health sector.
“When I came to choose what tertiary course to study, I had to make a decision. Health is a very broad industry, so I had to work out what particular part of the sector that I should specialise in my studies. Since the goal was to build a successful business, I reflected on what I’d learned from the little experience I’d had in starting – albeit largely unsuccessful – businesses as a kid. I wrote a list of tailwinds I believed would give me the best chance of making my boyhood dream come true. I wanted to be in a growing market. I wanted to have repeat businesses. I wanted to compete in a market that was fragmented and safe from bigger and stronger competition. Since the population in Australia was aging rapidly, Podiatry seemed the right choice, since older people regularly see podiatrists every 6-8 weeks, for many years. Also, no single brand or business dominated the space,” he explained.
That strengthened his resolve to choose podiatry. He remarked, “Very few other health professions than podiatry seemed to be better positioned to benefit from the coming ‘Age Wave’. It then shaped my decision to study podiatry, and it was a hard slog because I didn’t expect to practise as a podiatrist for long. I only wanted ‘the piece of paper’. I failed a few subjects, and it took me longer to graduate than other students. In the end, I managed to enter my final year, and six months before graduation, I wrote a business plan for what was to become Dimple. Back then, the local podiatrist provided podiatry care to the local aged care facility. The problem was that podiatrists primary focused on their clinic, which was their baby, so they’d fit in aged care after clinic hours or on weekends. Because many elders retire to their bedrooms at 5 pm or spend their weekends with their families, there was a clear disconnect between what patients in aged care wanted from what podiatrists offered.”
Damien’s vision was to create Australia’s first aged care specialist podiatry service that catered specifically to the needs of patients in aged care facilities. Despite what appeared to be an obvious niche and need for such service, there were some that discouraged him, telling him that the work wasn’t interesting enough or no podiatrists would ever be part of a business that just focused on aged care.
Regardless of all these, Damien pushed on, confident that a scalable opportunity existed. But that confidence started to wane within hours of starting the business.
“I picked up the Yellow Pages and called Nursing Homes, starting with the letter A. By the time I’d made about 60 calls and reached facilities starting with C, I knew my approach was wrong, as I’d yet to secure a sales meeting. Everyone kept telling me they already had a podiatry service, so I changed tack. Instead of ‘selling’ my service, I started asking Facility Managers how they felt their current podiatry service could be improved. I then uncovered some consistent frustrations. I went back to the drawing board and reshaped our USP. That’s when things changed dramatically. Suddenly, people were enthusiastic to meet with me and learn more about what we believed was important,” he recalled.
“It didn’t sound like a big deal. But 50 people telling you they’re not interested in what you’re creating was challenging. Hearing all those no's had me questioning if my dream was dead before it even had a chance to live. But if you embrace the challenge, you'll learn from it, and you grow. The more that you grow, the more your business will grow. I've seen that pattern repeated throughout my life with my business,” Damien said.
He continued, “Fast forward to three short years, and we were Australia's largest podiatry company. Our business essentially disrupted a sector, a decade or two before ‘disruption’ became a common business vernacular. We were growing at an incredible rate. I was young then and, to be honest, I thought I was a bit of a Rockstar. So, I started a chain of Podiatry clinics that treated some of the World’s highest-profile sportspeople namely, Lleyton Hewitt, Pat Rafter, Martina Navratilova, etc. It grew too quickly, which meant it absorbed a lot of my time and focus.”
Damien had to hire a General Manager to look after what was then known as Aged Foot Care (later to become Dimple). Then the unthinkable happened. He hired someone that he didn’t know was a serial fraudster. The person stole $300,000 from Damien. When he discovered this, the fraudster already paid several of Damien’s busiest podiatrists $2000 per week to stop going to work and not tell Damien. The fraudster also convinced them to instead join a new business in competition with Aged Foot Care. Suddenly, a business that was known for its reliability became very unreliable. The theft heavily compromised its finances. Also, Damien was then trying to run another business that was, at best, cash flow neutral. Within weeks, Damien was forced to put both businesses into liquidation.
With encouragement from his parents, former clients and a few trusted staff, Damien decided to give Dimple another go. He promised himself this time he’d do it better. But to do that, he was going to have to get smarter, surround himself with people who were strong in areas he was weak, and upgrade his recruitment and retention strategies significantly. He also made himself a promise that this awful event was going to be the making of him as an entrepreneur.
Within two years, the business had rebounded. It was bigger and, more importantly, much better than its first iteration. This ‘comeback story’ was featured in respected Melbourne broadsheets like The Age, which captured the attention of EO Melbourne’s Membership Officer, Boyd Roberts.
Boyd called Damien and encouraged him to consider joining the EO Melbourne community because many would be able to relate to his journey. “There’s rarely a month that passes that I don’t thank my lucky stars that Boyd called me and introduced me to EO. As a result, I was lucky enough to join an incredible forum where I've learnt an enormous amount of insights. It’s been transformational for me, in all respects, and as such, I wouldn’t change a single thing from my past. The whole journey, the lessons and support I’ve received have helped shaped me. I think I come out the other side, not just as a better entrepreneur, but as a better person,” he believes.
Better equipped, Damien brought together a great team who all shared a common vision and lived common values. He finds it incredibly gratifying to have built a business that makes a real difference to elders’ lives by living three simple, yet powerful values: do right; be loved; go beyond. Since he used to pop into the facilities unannounced, he once witnessed a touching scene between one of their female podiatrists and an elder. “Rani hadn’t noticed I was in the facility since I’d only just arrived and entered the wing where she was working. I would never forget the way she was communicating with her patient. Although she was half my age, of different gender and an employee, she communicated the same way I did when I treated patients. That’s the moment I knew we were truly living our values. That’s the moment I knew we were a successful business,” recalled Damien.
These values, combined with building a team of A-Graders who were able to execute our strategic plans, helped Dimple capture 24% of the national market share. Choosing the right people to be part of the company was a crucial move. Damien said, “I’ve always considered business to be an intellectual sport, where the smartest team that’s culturally aligned wins. We always hired people who were bigger than the role. We wouldn't hire someone who could do the role. Instead, we would choose someone who could do much more than that role. We landed some very ‘big hitters’, including the former CEO of (Unilever subsidiary) T2Tea, Nick Beckett. We were able to do that because they bought into what we believe: the people who built and fought for our country deserve to be celebrated and not hidden away from society.”
Blending his love for football and business, he would often use sports analogies to convey a message. When he was looking for his COO (who became CEO), he compared two very different, well-known AFL football coaches to the Executive Recruiter. “In Melbourne, AFL is pretty popular. So, I compared two very different AFL coach personalities to help articulate what type of leader I was looking to recruit. I wanted someone who put the team first and their ego last. I wanted a leader who could galvanise the team and ensure our strategic plans are executed to enable me, as Founder, to focus more on embedding our values.”
Damien believes entrepreneurs need two essential qualities to succeed: grit and the willingness to recognise the specific strengths and weaknesses of the team and adjust the team accordingly.
When Damien was CEO, he hired Nick Beckett as his COO. But within just 12 weeks, he felt sure that Nick would be a better CEO than himself and offered him the role. “I can be pretty pragmatic at times. Since I thought Nick could do a better job at running the company than I could, and he’d already earned my trust, it made sense to offer him the CEO role. I already learned from the past, which is why handing more control to someone more capable than me wasn’t an issue. I had other skills unique to me that the company could better leverage for the advancement of the team.”
Once in Nick became CEO, both Nick’s and Damien’s performance shifted up to an even higher gear. “He was a much better CEO than me. The extra bandwidth enabled me to focus on being the very best Founder. He was the brains, while I was the heart. We had the same values, but completely different skills sets. We were the yin and yang. That synergy helped our team flourish.”
The business grew rapidly where 17 of the 20 largest aged care providers contracted Dimple. That didn’t go unnoticed. Soon, Damien was receiving unsolicited enquiries every month to buy the business. Eventually, the management team put in place an 18-month plan to make the business as valuable and saleable as possible, culminating in a competitive sales process managed by Deloitte M&A.
The result? A fast-growing healthcare company, called Zenitas, bought the business for $13.4 million.
“Where do I see the business in the future? Well, it's part of a much bigger ecosystem now that will afford our team many opportunities. The benefits flow both ways. The Dimple DNA, the quality of the management team, and the culture are already having a very positive influence on Zenitas. With the benefit of some significant tailwinds, I think Dimple will easily be ten times bigger than what it is now. It means we’ll be pretty close to achieving our BHAG.”
Since the company follows the Rockefeller Habits, they have formulated big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAG’s), which are their 10-year goals. They then broke these down to small, hairy, audacious goals (SHAG’s) that speak specifically to three-year goals relating to quality, growth and profitability. Dimple chose to focus on these key deliverables three years before going to sale, well aware that if they could deliver on these metrics, the value of the business would increase significantly.
So what does life look and feel like for Damien now that he’s sold his ‘baby’? “I'm now looking at the world through an investor's eyes rather than an entrepreneur's eyes. At the moment, I'm focusing on building up a portfolio of cash flow positive commercial properties. There are also a few businesses that have approached me and offered equity to help them scale. It’s an interesting period. It’s certainly a new chapter for me.”
Looking forward, he also wants to inspire and mentor other entrepreneurs. “I love working with entrepreneurs, particularly founders who are only a few years into their journey. I've made every mistake in the book. So, I'm probably not a bad person to speak to because I can help them get through some of these things,” he offered.
His entrepreneurial journey isn’t dissimilar to that of many AFL footballers he idolised as a young boy. He began as a spectator to his father’s business. Then, he became a rookie in business and had a great first or second season as his venture grew very quickly. He got ahead of himself, lost his way, and had to start all over again. But those experiences thrust him to the role of captain and, eventually, coach.
Damien is clearly very proud of what the whole team at Dimple has achieved. “The percentage of elders in aged care suffering from loneliness and depression is staggering. We saw depression as the opposition team, and it was our goal to do whatever we could to beat it by making elders lives a little brighter each day. I'm proud that our team did that. It's an ongoing battle, and we haven't won the game yet. But the bigger the business gets, the more elders we help. It’s been an honour to lead a team of people who have sharp minds and golden hearts. These are people who worked hard to make the world a little better each day,” he passionately remarked.
Knowing that they are doing right, being loved, and going beyond, Damien can’t help but smile when reflecting on his entrepreneurial journey. It was full of peaks and troughs, but ultimately, he did make his dream come true.