On a September morning in 2005 Valerie Khoo had a revelation. Having spent years attempting to unite her vocation of writing with her business knowledge and nous she decided to create a centre for people who wanted to improve their writing skills.
But it wasn’t the first time she had attempted to turn her love of writing and storytelling into a her occupation.
Ten years earlier she’d stepped away from a well-paid career in public relations and written to every editor she could think of for a job.
She eventually started out as a features writer for the teen magazine Girlfriend. With a strong background in business, stemming from an accounting degree and auditing experience with PwC, she progressed quickly through the magazine world to become deputy editor of Cleo magazine in Singapore.
But she was soon in need of a more challenging role. “After four years of writing about orgasms, diets and celebrities I really needed to introduce some more diversity into what I was writing, so began working as a freelance writer,” Khoo says.
Despite a successful portfolio of work and steady demand for her copy, Khoo hit up against the limitations of freelance writing as a career.
“The number of words you write determines your income, the more I wrote the more income I could create but my total income would always be limited by the number of hours I could personally dedicate to the role of writing,” Khoo says.
“That’s when I realised that teaching would be the next step because it’s the same investment of time whether you’re teaching one student or 10 students. Suddenly it made perfect sense, I could still do what I loved but without being constrained by time.”
So it was that Khoo founded the Sydney Writers Centre in 2005, as a single class focusing on feature writing.
“The first course I promoted through the local paper, the offices I was renting had a boardroom with places for six people, so that was the limit of my class sizes,” Khoo says.
Khoo sold out the first class and then began promoting her courses through a website and search engine optimisation technology, focusing on a small number of high-quality courses rather than massive expansion.
“I was always really selective about who could teach in my classes,” Khoo says. “They needed to have teaching experience and be renown for writing in their own right.”
As demand for the courses expanded Sydney Writers Centre outgrew shared offices in 2007, however the increasing importance of web-based courses will have a major impact on the company’s future development.
“We closely monitor every course, get feedback from all our students and integrate it into the next course, so the format has been constantly changing and we know what works and what doesn’t,” Khoo says.
“We started our first online course in 2008, it started because we had so many people travelling from interstate to come to our classes, now we’ve got them coming from all over the world.”
More than 8500 students have graduated from the Sydney Writers Centre since it first opened its doors and Khoo is confident that figure will rise to 10,000 by January 2011, and with the web-based courses already being taken as far afield as Afghanistan, Italy and Singapore, Khoo believes there is much more growth to come.
However, for Khoo the underlying driver for the business is her love of writing and the opportunity to share that love with people all over the world.
“Apart from business writing courses, there are so many people in the corporate world who look to us as a creative outlet,” Khoo says.
“Most do it for fun but others are a bit more ambitious and want to write a novel.
“It’s great when we can play a part in making that journey happen for someone.”