Scary illness led to million-dollar idea
Christy Laurence spent years in a high-paying corporate job, until one day a life-changing moment turned her world upside down.
While working in marketing and advertising in Sydney, the New Zealand born advertising executive increasingly began to feel creatively unfulfilled in her day job. She started sharing her illustrations on Instagram and getting involved in the online community. Realising she was making more money with her art than in her full-time occupation, Christy began consulting on the side about all things she had learned regarding digital marketing, copywriting, search-engine optimisation and social media.
Then one day, at the age of 28, she woke up suddenly with a nasty flu, one which spread to her brain and led to injury to her vestibular system - the sensory system that contributes to our sense of balance, spatial orientation and movement.
"I didn't know it was possible but this strain went into my brain and destroyed my entire vestibular function, which meant I lost my vision, my balance, I felt drunk and dizzy and it heavily affected my mobility (and mental health) for over two years," Mrs Laurence told news.com.au.
"Public transport, supermarkets and restaurants were the worst, and after I fell down the escalator at Martin Place in Sydney I decided to stay at home more and focus on getting better."
Despite brain scans revealing nothing major, all doctors told Mrs Laurence that most people with similar afflictions never recover and she would need a carer for the rest of her life.
Unable to move independently for two years, the former up-and-coming ad exec continued with her love of illustrating and took up the challenge to post a new artwork to Instagram every day. She began taking commissions for her work and quickly realised that the better her feed looked, the more she could charge for her art.
After what Mrs Laurence calls a "light bulb moment", the entrepreneur decided to take a leap. She decided not to renew her contract, left corporate life, backed herself from the get-go and set about creating, designing and bootstrapping a new app that taught others how to use Instagram effectively to benefit their businesses.
"I've always been entrepreneurial and have come from a family of entrepreneurs. I'd always wanted my own business and found I was incredibly passionate about this idea so I decided to scale my time by building an app to teach as many people as possible how to use Instagram," she said.
"Because I didn't have the money to build an app - and if I'm entirely honest, no idea how to build an app either - I worked for free for over 12 months at a local web and app agency to get the technology started."
Enter Plann - an affordable, easy-to-use visual design and scheduling tool for Instagram. Hitting the market in early 2016, Mrs Laurence's pre-launch marketing efforts, late nights and an alarming amount of YouTube videos to learn about tech, she welcomed 1000 paying users within the first week.
"This helped me finance my next development sprint and invest in professional imagery to really position the company as a beautiful global brand," she explained.
Designed specifically for creatives, bloggers and business owners who run their own Instagram accounts and are short on time, users are able to drag and drop images in a gallery to visualise an Instagram account, draft captions, schedule posts and save sets of hashtags.
"Building a great product and being obsessed with every single piece of the app helped get product market fit immediately," she said. "Word of mouth has been phenomenal for the growth of the business because it's solving a real problem for almost everyone using Instagram create business leads."
Three years later, Plann has been downloaded almost one million times in more than 150 countries, reaching the top 1100 grossing apps and is still climbing. Mrs Laurence, now a four-time award-winning tech founder, went from $0 to a seven-figure business and a lucrative acquisition offer (which she turned down) in just 12 months.
"Working tirelessly on a product that genuinely helps people find success, be something that they use every day to make their lives easier, creates less social media anxiety while they can be more productive makes it easy to get to work every day," she said of her mega success.
"We've been incredibly lucky that our community actively gets behind us and talks about the app to their friends, and I love to say that Plann is completely customer funded."
Being awarded Australasia's Start-up Founder of the Year in 2016 was just the start of Mrs Laurence's unbelievable journey to success.
"It's absolutely humbling and very surreal to know that something I created from nothing is helping so many other people overcome the very challenges that I faced myself when I wanted to build a business," the female tech founder said.
Her advice to anyone considering a bold business idea or a career jump? "Do it! As soon as you start talking about something you're passionate about, you'll light those up who you never expected and find crazy opportunities come out of everywhere."
Splitting her time between Silicon Valley and Sydney, the self-employed tech boss says her life is now "very, very different" as she's finally in charge of her work day.
"With our HQ at Bondi Beach, and over 30 team members in over nine countries to support me, including my husband leaving his corporate finance career to join as COO (chief executive officer), I get time to illustrate again. I've also picked up roller-skating, and have middle of the day swims in the ocean."
After the success of the mobile apps, the team is preparing for the launch of their much-anticipated web app to use Plann on a desktop.
"In order to support the businesses who've grown with us, and the demand for agencies and companies like Seafolly who use our product already, getting Plann on the web was the most logical step," she explained.
"It has taken 15 months and a lot of money to build, the entire team is on the edge of their seats to see how the world embraces us."
With a waitlist in the tens of thousands, we're looking forward to hearing how this Australian success story continues.