Elaine Saunders, 60, is from Melbourne, Australia. She started her healthcare company, Blamey Saunders hears, in 2011. Blamey Saunders hears is a leading tele-health and hearing aid company. It supplies hearing aids to people all over Australia, direct to the end user, empowering people to have hearing aid advice and support in the comfort of their own home.
Starting the Business
Q: Where did the idea for your business come from? Where were you in your life and career?
A: I am a researcher, hearing scientist and audiologist. My career has always been in hearing, but doing lots of different things. I led a team, while based at the Bionic Ear Institute, which designed the second generation of electrode for Cochlear. After this project, I met Peter Blamey, who was also based at the Institute. He, and his team, had invented a new way to amplify sounds for hearing aids and cochlear implants that kept sounds audible and comfortable without distorting them: a known problem with older-style hearing aids. This invention used the power of digital processing. About the same time, a company in Canada invented a tiny computer chip that could be used in hearing aids, powered by a hearing aid battery. This was the opportunity, and we spun off a company that supplied advanced sound processing to hearing aid and headset companies all over the world.
In 2009 we decided to start the hearing aid and we were confident that we could provide a better deal to end-users. We are proud to be supplying Australian technology to Australian people.
We use the signal processing developed in the first company, and more besides. We have also made a complete hearing aid system, so that people can program their hearing aids themselves, without costly visits to a hearing aid dispenser. We have built a hearing aid and tele-audiology system where we can work with people all over Australia, indeed the world. People are empowered and have as much or as little help as they choose. So now we are empowering people so that they have much better access to hearing aids.
Two years refining the technology and business model and we launched publicly in 2011. From there the business has grown stronger and stronger and we have helped thousands of people.
My initial interest arose because my Dad lost his hearing as a young man, and I saw his struggle with inadequate hearing aids and inadequate services.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced when starting out?
A: I find it hard to decide what the biggest challenge was when I started out. Actually, I find it hard to decide when the start was. We have had many challenges. We are inventors, innovators and disruptors, determined to make life better for people with hearing problems.
Whilst our customers love us, our competitors do not and they have a lot of power over the current distribution model. Some audiologists have indicated to me that they fear we will impact on their jobs. Actually, I think we will have a positive impact on their jobs in the long term, as they will be better to reserve post tertiary qualified health professionals for tertiary level care.
Healthcare as a profession is slow to change. While the government tells us that it is behind tele-health, the reality is that medicine is a very conservative profession and business. We still face these challenges.
Q: What is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you started the business?
A: I can’t think of anything in particular that I wish I had known when I started business. I have certainly learnt a lot. Perhaps if I had known more, I would never have started the business! To get to our present situation, we have both put in many hours over many years and our families have made sacrifices with us. When we were selling technology to hearing aid companies, I just about lived on a plane. I didn’t see a lot of my four lovely children in those years.
Q: What would you consider your first big success in the business?
A: For me, the successes in our business are always happy clients, and we have had many. We have also been honoured with many awards – I was most excited to be awarded the Melbourne community award. I believe it’s possible to develop a business with social good where we make profit, but fundamentally we are trying to give our customers and clients a very fair go.
I am also very excited to be recognised as one of Australia’s leading tele-help businesses. I won the National Corporate and Government Sector Telstra Business Woman of the year in 2004. So, while I haven’t stopped to look back, it’s nice that someone recognised my achievement.
Q: What is the toughest thing about getting to the top / staying on top in your industry specifically?
A: I think the thing about getting to top in the hearing aid and audiology industry has been the lack of support and interest from the Australian audiology community. I have always been interested in training and supporting audiologists and good clinical practice, and audiology has the opportunity here to be at the forefront of tele-health. I believe the industry is so dominated by large commercial interests that it is difficult for them to share our excitement. I can see that we have many challenges ahead of us, particularly given the strength of the power of established players and the lack of interest from government hearing services. However, I am building a business that’s successful and I’m helping many people with hearing difficulties. It has been my life’s ambition to do that.
Q: Where do you see your industry heading in the next 5 years?
A: I think that within the next five years there will be other companies doing the same thing as us. I hope to remain a leader. We have certainly built a lot of systems and processes and “know how” that will take time for a competitor to replicate.
I have highly trained staff and I’m realistic that I will be continuing to invest extensively in staff training. In the future, there will be multiple paths to buy hearing aids and access audiology services. Masters level and Doctoral level audiologists will be supplying territory care services where their expertise is really needed for people who have complex hearing or other health issues. Distribution will be a much simpler and more accessible process.
Q: What do you plan on doing / changing in order to keep growing in this time period?
A: Where to start – there is so much to do. We have a number of initiatives in the short-term pipeline that will give us incremental change.
We are also investing heavily in our research and in technology development.
We are continuing to invest in staff training and up-skilling. We will put more focus on international operations.
And we are putting a board in place, with a view to a structure that is more suitable for attracting investment into the company.
Q: What does ultimate success look like to you? How will you know when you’ve achieved it?
A: I’m not sure I ever will. There’s always more to do, but I suppose it would be nice to think that we can be successful enough that I can reduce my hours a bit.
Q: What do you think will be the biggest challenge facing entrepreneurs in the near future?
A: Every entrepreneur has a unique set of challenges to overcome, but there are some barriers that have to be overcome in Australia that are unhelpful. The worst, in my view, is the taxation system around share ownership. It’s difficult to find big salaries for experienced people in the early days, but if you give them shares, they get a tax liability to pay, even though the shares are not tradable. This has made it very hard for companies. I don’t see the point. Why not make it a tax on income earned, if a profit is made? To me it seems like the Gold Miners tax of the 1850s.
I think another is Tall Poppy syndrome, which sadly makes it harder for people with interesting business ideas. We have to look to value what we have, not assume that it can’t be as good as overseas. I would like to see more funds for innovation, such as for Commercialisation Australia. I think it would be a good investment for the country, and would be paid back many times over in skill development and increased income tax revenue.
I also think there will be challenges getting staff. I sometimes think we are entering a period of dark scientific illiteracy, here in Australia.
Q: What one piece of advice would you give to someone just starting out in your industry and wanting to make it to the top?
A: I am going to call my industry entrepreneurship. In that case, the advice is persistence. There will be barriers and obstacles, but they are there to be overcome.
As Henry Ford said: “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.”