What exactly does it take to build a web-based market place? We talk to Chantelle Robards about the development of Espyconnect and disrupting the NDIS rollout.
Disruption is a misunderstood concept. It's also one that organisations are often either terrified of, or feel they need to be leading.
But what is diruption really all about, and... other than Uber... who is doing it and what can we can really learn from them?
Let's start with this explainer video on disruption theory from the Havard Business Review, just to make sure we're all on the same page:
[Click the image to watch HBR video]
Now I want to introduce you the very passionate, energetic and inspirational Chantelle Robards, Founder and Manager of Espyconnect.
Chantelle has been on one heck of a journey bringing to market a product that solved two key problems coming out of the NDIS trials: How do people find the services they're funded for and how do they feel confident in their decision?
Espyconnect is an online space where people and human service providers can connect. More than a directory, espyconnect has been custom built for the NDIS reform and not only ensures access to CHOICE for people who are searching for providers with a free listing option for ALL providers, NDIS registered or not, but also enables providers to showcase their services through access to a range of marketing tools and features.
I had two key outcomes that I wanted to create through Espyconnect and both of these I identified as essential to stimulating the growth of the marketplace. The first outcome was to ensure that people really and truly could exercise their new right to choose a provider to support them to reach their goals. The only way that can be achieved is if all of the options are easily found and compared in the one place. Participants want to know what a provider specialises in, what their skills are, whether their building is accessible, whether they will travel to the participant.
The second was to level the playing field to achieve market growth – by creating an affordable marketing option for all providers to be able to showcase their value proposition and point of difference. It was obvious that the larger organisations had the ability to advertise widely but the smaller businesses just didn’t have that capital. A growing marketplace needs to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to have a fair go. I have found that both small business and large organisations bring their own quite different benefits and really we need plenty of both to ensure that people can decide which option is best for them.
Being in the Hunter NSW trial site gave me prime position to be watching and listening to the stories as they happened.
Originally the idea grew after I watched the general confusion of people coming from NDIA with these amazingly funded plans and a long, long, long list of providers – just names on a page. Most just stayed with their original provider because they didn’t know how to shop around or didn’t have the time and energy to call up everyone on the list. Some Providers found that they were missing from that list altogether.
During the trial period my dear friend had a stroke at age 47. She ended up in a nursing home and her husband knocked on my door one day and asked ‘where do I start?’.
That was the final push that sent me into action.
I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could borrow some money against our home to get the business started. Our fourth child had just been born, he was in a capsule at my first business event!
Having said that, I seriously underestimated the budget – building a custom website from scratch is expensive and took a long time and I hadn’t given anywhere enough thought and planning (and budget!) to marketing. I connected with a NSW Government funded small business program which locally is called ‘The Business Centre’. Their support was invaluable and I still access business mentoring from them.
The other thing that I underestimated – or perhaps overestimated – was the sector readiness for commercialisation. Businesses and organisations were aghast at the thought of paying for marketing opportunities and being pitched to by a small business. That is taking a long time to change.
About 6 months in I was picking up other work to maintain our household finances while working on the business at the same time. I was starting to look around for investment possibilities which The Business Centre were supporting me with. Then Aftercare, who are a progressive non-government organisation, found Espy and could see the potential and the need for this service in the reform space. They decided to make me an offer to purchase the business which I accepted.
Building a custom website took a lot longer than I expected. I had in my head a bit of an idea of design and function but I found getting that to paper was rather tricky. I had to trim my imagination quite a few times. Then there was translating that into something that the developers understood, it turns out that we speak quite different languages! We were also committed to making it accessible which can present some challenges too. The developers would come back with the wireframe workups and I would make modifications and we would design again. All up it took about 8 months to complete.
The logo had to be designed and the colour scheme determined. That seems like something small but so much thought and trial goes into that process.
Then going back to the potential customer base was essential to ensure that I was capturing everything that they needed from a directory. I have two customer groups – Participants and Providers and I tried, and still try, to gather feedback all the time.
NDIA also changed some key things in that time which meant that we had to make some unexpected changes. That has been a constant theme, so agility has been the name of the game.
I jumped on a very steep social media learning curve! Facebook has been the primary channel for me to reach the Espyconnect customer base. We reach up to 26 000 people through Facebook. I also engage with our audience on Twitter and Linked In. We ran a Twitter chat during the NDIS Portal Crash using the hashtag #NDISfixit which was well attended by providers, participants and politicians. Someone even made a meme using our hashtag. That was pretty cool!
I also take my role in the advocacy space very seriously. We have managed to advocate across a few issues including collaborating with the NSW Small Business Commission to reduce the registration requirements for Allied Health professionals in NSW, which saves small businesses about $5000.
We also blog as often as possible and these have been widely shared. I make an effort to have my ear to the ground in terms of what’s being talked about or what’s happening and then gather information to provide solutions for people. I know very clearly when I have hit a sore spot by the number of times a blog is shared.
There is a situation in the marketplace where providers are getting tired of being pitched to. We are listening to their feedback and trying to reach them in a place where they are comfortable and open to hearing about the benefits of being listed with Espyconnect. Our directory is much easier to navigate than a pdf book!
The value of networking cannot be understated. I have been fortunate to have been around for a long time and in combination with my own network and the people that I have been connected with through Aftercare has also given Espyconnect pathways to the marketplace.
It took just under a year to get Espyconnect to market from the time of my first meeting with The Business Centre. I did have two teenagers, a two year old and a new baby so perhaps it wouldn’t take quite as long if I was to do it now!
In terms of ENGAGEMENT we have a very lively Facebook page, engagement and sharing of our blogs, invitations to present at conferences and events – we have built our audience nicely and now we are starting to see that convert to sales. We are gaining momentum now with people contacting us asking for support to connect with providers and we are fielding questions from providers constantly. Our membership is growing rapidly.
This reform is all about building a marketplace where there was no marketplace before and that has impacted us and possibly all small business trying to make a go of it. This has definitely been a slow burn process. It’s been almost 2 years since the original launch. I think as one of the first movers in the NDIS small business space we have had to navigate all of those things that are part of this massive reform – the newness of a marketplace and what that means, having to be agile enough to pivot when NDIS processes have suddenly changed, hanging in there with a cash poor sector during the Portal Crisis – all have been challenges for us to overcome. It’s also difficult to know what NDIA have planned next and how it will affect your business.
We have several thousand there now and are adding about 100 each week.
Every time I see another social media post asking ‘how do I find providers who offer ….?’ Or a Provider anxious about how people will find them. I KNOW that Espyconnect is a much needed service. Just today I was in a meeting with some professionals who are looking to link some people with complex disabilities with providers. Providers who would need to have specific skills and experience. Narrowing down the list by knowing what providers are good at or specialise in makes that job so much easier – as well as enabling providers to link with those opportunities. There are new providers arriving in the market every day, Espyconnect gives them a place to showcase their skills and experience.
Espyconnect membership also includes access to a range of marketing tools and features which a subscribing member can use to further reach the people who are searching for them. We encourage organisations to think locally as Participants are telling us that they have had enough of centralised information – we can set up a listing that enables each different site or service to be listed and tailored to the services that a particular team is offering.
We have almost completed some modifications to the site based on feedback from our customers. We have removed the need for people to have to log in to search for a provider, we have updated the directory in line with changes that NDIA have made and we have improved our search right from the front page.
We are updating our listings as fast as we can too. We are very focused on having the information that we list to be accurate so we try to check in with providers by phone or email. There is no fast way to do that! I am constantly amazed at how many changes there are each time we update – businesses no longer operating or have merged with another, businesses who have moved, businesses who are offering a larger range of services. Providers can log in and make these changes themselves at any time too.
Next up we will continue to tweak the site as feedback comes in and we will be working really hard to get the message out there – Espyconnect is the place to go to find and choose providers!
Chantelle is an energetic and passionate person who does not believe in growing old in spirit. After qualifying as a speech pathologist in 1994 she has gone on to a committed career within the disability sector in both clinical and management roles. She has worked across not for profit, government and private organisations which as given her a broad perspective on how services are operationalised in various settings. She is particularly focused on finding solutions for problems and avenues around barriers which occur all too often within the disability and human services sectors for both people with disabilities and workers.
Chantelle has mentored many like-minded workers into roles where they are now creating environments of social change. She has spearheaded projects which have challenged existing policy and protocol and driven them to a resolution.
Chantelle holds onto a deep belief in equality and access for all.
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