No quick steps in building online dance business

By / 14th of August, 2014
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REMEMBER when the Internet was the future; when Bill Gates predicted the paperless office and the death of print? Since those heady net pioneering days many a web based publication has come and gone in a blink of a click, with barely an ad dollar to its name. However, one young South Australian entrepreneur has not only survived the hype but also gone on to turn her passion into an international, industry-leading brand. 

Deborah Searle is the driving force behind one the biggest online subscription-based publications in the world of dance.

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Deborah

Originally from Sheidow Park, a southern suburb of Adelaide, South Australia,  but now based in Atlanta, Georgia, Searle started Dance Informa in a small home office in October 2006.

She has since built up a base of 120 000 subscribers, a team of sixty journalists and a reputation in both Australia and the United States as one of dance’s main media players.

“I always wanted to marry my love of dance with my Business and Marketing degree,” Searle says, “but I didn’t really know what form that could take. Once I started doing Dance Informa though, it just took off.”

Dance Informa is an online hub where magazine style articles sit alongside audition, course and class listings for dancers and teachers in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

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What started as a response to “hearing about auditions a week after they’d happened” and a desire to create “a better way to inform dancers” soon turned into a massive, fulltime undertaking.

 “I think if I had known how much work it would actually be I would have second guessed myself,” Searle says now. “But the beauty of being in your early twenties and very naïve is that you just start things.”

However, like many Internet startups, Dance Informa had to deal with what were then lingering suspicions about the very credibility of online business. Although there were some key early adopters, the challenge of monetisation was the do-or-die hurdle. 

“At first people were sceptical because we were online or they thought they could just set up a link from their own site so they wouldn’t have to pay,” Searle says. “It was hard to change those mindsets but we decided to be really creative and make sure that Dance Informa wasn’t just a publication but a useful resource for the market. Then we had to do a lot of networking and, y’know, just be around for a while. So now, people are like, ‘wow, these guys are still here’ and ‘oh, they’re really growing’.”

Aside from the credibility issue, Searle also had to negotiate the tricky ground of client relationships -- a doubly difficult thing when you are selling intangibles like sponsorship or advertising.

“It’s hard to balance what you give in terms of freebies or bonuses, versus payment. You want clients to come on board and to receive great value for money, but you’ve also got to pay your bills,” she says. “You need to be proud of the fact that you’re providing a service worth paying for.”

The pitch is easier these days.

Both the American and Australian versions are steadily growing, allowing Dance Informa’s coverage to expand to include Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, which makes Deborah Searle very much in demand.

Forums, conferences, VIP invites and a burgeoning client roster are testament to the success of her vision.

“It’s just lovely to play a role in the dance industry because the whole point was to keep dancers informed; and now we can really deliver on that,” she says.

All of which is a long way from the southern suburbs of Adelaide at the bottom of the world in Australia.

Yet Searle still believes that Adelaide’s relative isolation provided much of the impetus for her to start Dance Informa.

“I think there’s a sense of community in Adelaide and South Australia,” she says. “I felt like everyone I told was so supportive and quick to get people to subscribe or write articles. To begin with a lot of our subscribers were from South Australia because they wanted to jump on board and embrace it.”

Together with husband Daniel (and two year old son Edan), Searle works on Dance Informa with as much passion as she did back in 2006.

“I feel chained to my computer sometimes,” she confesses, “but I’ve found that if you want to be successful you just have to work your butt off.”