Rebekah Hurworth, CEO and Founder Family Home Experts is an architect by background who started her successful business 10 years ago knowing that she wanted to focus on designing family homes. Growing up she moved house constantly because her parents were in the army. Strongly aware that she wanted the permanence of a stable childhood home, she is now passionate about creating homes for families that fit their lifestyle and their dreams.
Rebekah is also a heritage consultant, with expertise in renovating and preserving the character of heritage homes. She is a member of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and in 2015 she was awarded a Gold and Silver International Stevie Award for Women in Business.
Tell us about why you decided to start your own business?
I guess I was always a frustrated business owner when I was an employee, I just didn’t know that’s what it was. Everywhere I worked, I took over many of the business processes and kept helping to improve things so that team was all working efficiently. I also wasn’t satisfied with just following instructions, I wanted to know why. And in my field, architecture, most of the business owners want to be architects, not business owners, so they were quite happy for me to get involved in this side. The more I did, the more I wanted to improve.
I realised there was only so much responsibility I could have in someone else’s businesses, so this pushed me to consider my own. I also saw huge areas for improvement and increased performance, and this gave me the hope that maybe I could even do better in my own business. But probably the biggest push came from the existing culture in my industry. I know it’s not unique to architecture, but the norm seems to include huge overtime and great stress.
To me this isn’t healthy long term, and especially makes it difficult for those with a family. So my dream was to build an architecture practise where team members were respected and valued and allowed to go home at 5pm. To date I think we’ve done this and currently all my senior positions are filled by women.
You’ve found that your clients want a beautiful house, practicality, value for money, and growth on their investment. What should people keep in mind if they want to achieve all these elements in their design and build?
The first thing if you want to achieve this is to realise that you’re not the expert. What you think you want is usually not what will get you best value for money, or growth in your house values. So it’s a balancing act. You need to learn and begin to understand how what you want differs from what will achieve these things, and then decide where you’re willing to compromise to achieve this, and where you’re not. For example, you might only need three bedrooms, but a five bedroom house is much better value for money and will have better growth in most city suburbs. Most families won’t buy a three bedroom house (unless they are planning to renovate it) so you’ve just cut out a huge percent of future buyers.
This also applies to personalising the house too much to your own tastes. Just because you like it, doesn’t mean someone else will. And just because you like it, doesn’t mean it will add value or sell for more money. This whole approach is often challenging as it’s dealing with your personal emotions, and often dreams that have been years in the making. You might have always thought you would extend out to the rear of your house, but it may be better to instead raise and build a new level underneath. Are you willing to consider something different to your dreams if it is going to be a better investment? Some people are and some people aren’t.
What should prospective buyers keep in mind when considering purchasing an existing home?
There are two key decisions here. The first is to decide if they’re buying a house that’s 100% done and finished, or a house that will need renovation work, whether big or small. I find most people have no idea about construction costs for renovation work, and massively underestimate how much it will cost. So if you’re buying a finished house, it needs to be 100% finished. Not 98% finished and you still have to put a deck on the back, or re-do one of the bathrooms. As soon as it needs any form of building work, no matter how small or how large, you need to get a realistic idea of what that work will cost, and add this onto the purchase price. Would you still purchase it at this price?
The second is to understand the implications of everything other than the house. This is things like the zoning and the surrounding area, any flooding or overland flow, as well so the services – sewer and stormwater lines. The house can be changed but everything else is fixed and can’t be changed. Conveyancers will collect a lot of this information but most won’t explain and tell you what this information actually means unless you ask. And most people don’t ask.
We have a heap of videos on YouTube and Facebook explaining some of these, even though it’s not core to our business, simply to help. The biggest issue I see here is to understand your zoning as well as what the zoning is around you. Zoning determines what can be built in the future, where most people only look at what the buildings are now. It is different in every local council, and changes over time. In Brisbane, we often see people buying property in a normal housing suburb only to find out it’s recently be rezoned to 8 or 15 stories and they’re going to have big units go up around them soon. That’s a problem.
You worked with United Nations Volunteer on sustainable volunteer housing in Cameroon for Ingenieurs sans Frontieres. Tell us about this project and how you came to be involved.
Getting involved was easy. We simply applied with the UN online and put up our hand to be considered to do volunteer architectural work. They then came to us with the project. It was exciting but also quite challenging. They needed a building for the French Engineers Without Borders to operate out of, as well as for their volunteers to live in during their time in Cameroon. So the building had to function in multiple different ways.
Security was a big concern, so this had to be managed. But the challenge for us was actually about climate. The French engineers were used to European weather and struggled to understand the tropical climate in Cameroon. Living in Brisbane, I have a personal experience of living in heat as well as the theoretical training. Cameroon is quite similar to north Queensland. So we automatically designed the building to function well in the heat.
At this point we also didn’t know if there would be funding for air-conditioning or how reliable the power would be, so the building had to work to manage the heat if there was no power available for air-conditioning. The client however rejected our first design, as it was too unfamiliar to what they were used to seeing in Europe! So there were some interesting conversions, in French, trying to communicate and help them understand that we were designing for a different climate. They were only interested in how the building looked.
Google translate was a lifesaver over this time! I hadn’t appreciated that we would be receiving emails and instructions in different languages. All our drawings were electronically transferred too. This kind of work just couldn’t be done in this way before the internet. And we learnt a lot about communication. It doesn’t matter if your design is good if the client can’t understand it. So we were able to bring this into our core business, and we now do screenshot videos with each design option, explaining for the client why we’ve done what we’ve done and how the design works. This video communication has been a huge success for us, and our client satisfaction rating increased massively after we introduced this.
What has been your greatest challenge?
Moving up from a sole practitioner was definitely our greatest challenge. Each step of adding a new person is such a big step when you’re little. But the hardest part wasn’t workload and wasn’t affording another person, although these were challenges in themselves. The biggest was actually was getting our clients to accept anyone other than me. When you first start a business on your own, you’re selling your own capability and expertise – you’re selling you.
As I grew, my first step was to add a student architect, and then this grew to an architectural graduate and some administration help. But essentially I was still the core person looking after our clients. When I just couldn’t physically handle any more work, we had to look at employing a senior person to share the workload. But when everyone had always been able to have me, they considered anyone else a step down.
It took two years to wean our clients off me, and we learnt a lot about creating a sustainable business through this. I have moved to a CEO role with a focus on mentoring for our team, and I try and employ team members who are more skilled than I am! We now talk about vulnerability and redundancy, and now have a business model where every skill or task is able to be done by at least two people. This also gives the client a better result, as they have a backup if their main person is away sick or on holidays. With this training model, it also means the client gets the same experience no matter who they deal with, and takes away the situation where each person does things their own way.
What are you most proud of?
In 2015 I was honoured to win a Gold and Silver Stevie Award for Women in Business. At the time I thought they must have got it wrong, and didn’t believe I deserved it. I know many female leaders struggle with acknowledgment, especially in Australian with our tall poppy syndrome, and it is a challenge to balance humility with recognition. I even thought maybe I had been taken in by a scam, and the whole way flying to New York my husband was joking that we’d turn up to an empty room.
So the day before, we went to find the building it would be held in and confirm there was an event on the next day. We were walking down the street listed on the ticket, and not knowing New York City, was surprised to find ourselves in the middle of Times Square. We were both looking around trying to find numbers for the address, and then suddenly I stopped. I had been looking too small. There was a giant billboard right in the middle of Times Square that said “Marriott Marquis” and we were in their ballroom. When we walked in there were signs for the Stevie Awards everywhere, so I was greatly relieved! And my husband said, “Maybe this is a big deal after all!”.
At the event itself, I was told I had been shortlisted in two categories. When the first category came, they went straight to the Gold Award and nothing else was mentioned. My heart sank and I felt so deflated, especially since I’d come all this way. But then, a lady came over to our table and handed me a silver award and said “Don’t worry; they only call the Gold Awards up on stage”. So it turned out I had taken second place in International Female Entrepreneur of the Year for businesses with less than 10 people. I was then shocked to hear my name called shortly after, and I went up on stage to receive a Gold Stevie Award for International Female Entrepreneur of the Year in Asia, Australia or New Zealand. I was also offered, and accepted, the honour of sitting on the jury for the Women In Business Stevie Awards in 2016 and 2017.
What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?
You have to balance believing in yourself with being honest with yourself.
You can’t listen to negative people. There will always be people who say you can’t do what you want to do. And it will be hard. You’ll hear so often “that will never work; you’re just wasting time, and money”. But when you read about successful people, the most common theme is about perseverance. For me it really took 10 years of running my own business until we hit what I was aiming for, and it was 10 hard years working with amazing people. So you have to believe in yourself to push past the doubt and naysayers.
But blind belief isn’t the answer either. You have to be realistic and let’s be honest, I’m never going to be an astronaut. There’s dreaming big and then there’s unrealistic. I see so many businesses that talk a big game, and gloat about their turnover but actually aren’t making any money. I also know most small business owners barely pay themselves let alone make any profit. You can make your numbers say anything you want them too, even lie. I often talk call them funny numbers.
If you’re not honest with yourself about your business and the numbers of your business, you aren’t open to seeing areas of improvement. My accountant actually says that he is the one to tell most businesses that they aren’t making any money, they don’t already know that themselves. That’s scary. So believe in yourself but also be honest with yourself. Honesty is the only way you can improve.