The Leap Stories #94: Dara Shashoua – from Sydney employee to Melbourne chronic entrepreneur

I once heard the saying ‘no plan survives its impact with reality.’ And nothing could be truer when you’re taking a leap. For all the plans you might make (and I’m a BIG advocate of plans), you will get thrown curveballs. But perhaps a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis is one of the least you might expect.

Three months after leaping to a new city to open her own business in an industry she was deeply experienced in, and on the verge of turning 40, Dara Shashoua was told she had MS. While many advised her to shut up shop and move back closer to family, Dara was committed to her 10-year vision in the making and stayed, determined to find a way to make her leap work. Calling on the assistance of others, she structured the business to operate without her, while she did rehab to learn to walk again. Her diagnosis wasn’t the end of her business, but a reinvention of it. It made her realise that she didn’t have to do it all herself, and that she wasn’t the only one who could do what needed to be done – both common pitfalls for small business owners.

Four years on, Dara has been embraced by the Melbourne design community, launched several design collaborations with industry icons and continues to grow her beautiful business. She’s learned to pay attention to her health, and built a support network. She continues to build a way forward and create a life that works for her.

Since we spoke with Dara, she’s also launched ‘A Chronic Entrepreneur‘ – a blog interview series about entrepreneurs thriving with chronic illness, advocating that a diagonsis is a plot twist rather than an ending.  Because while our ideas, our hopes, our dreams may not always work out the way we imagined, that shouldn’t stop us daring to chase them, and seeing just how far we can go with a new plan.

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The wonderful Dara Shashoua, Founder of Byzantine Design.

What did you want to be when you grew up and why?

As an archaeologist, I am fascinated with the history of things. In fact, it was when we first started getting natural stone into the tile store that  I was working in that the tile industry really sparked my interest. I just loved how every piece of stone was different, there were even fossils in a few pieces. Stone has an energy to it that manmade products just don’t have.

I’m that person who touches the walls on buildings when I travel. You can feel the energy of the place if you are attuned to it. I look at the floor everywhere I go, it’s an occupational hazard.

I was always creative. I was the only girl who went to Year 12 in Industrial Technology. I kind of did it purely because of the challenge of being the only girl as well.

What did/do you study?

Bathroom Design at KBDI and Diploma of Events Management at TAFE.

What has been the most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made?

Moving from Sydney to Melbourne to open my store. I moved with one friend and could count the people I knew in Melbourne on one hand. I just had a vision of opening a store, that was as far as my vision went. I didn’t think about customers, running a business or even if I would have staff. In hindsight, I think it was ideal that my thoughts didn’t go any further than that, I would have freaked myself out. I clearly remember the first day, I opened up and was like ‘What now?’ That feeling lasted for about the first six weeks.

Three and a half years later we are a team of four wonderful women and I think we’ve made a dent in a saturated industry.

What were you doing before you made your leap?

Working for other people whilst thinking I could do a better job than most of them. Having said that, I learnt a lot from every company I have worked for, both positive and negative things.

Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?

My brother, Joel – we’ve had each other’s backs for all of our lives. We’ve both been there for each other and offered shelter and support when the other has needed it. He’s my person, and we only get closer the older we get. He’s been really great at giving advice on managing my team and the business side of things.

SJ – When I came up with my crazy idea to move to Melbourne and open a shop, he was the only person who said ‘How can I help?’ and as a result, he has invested in the business. We have been friends for as long as I have been in the industry and I wouldn’t be where I am without him and his belief in me. Even when times were tough he was always there to listen and always respected any decision I made with regards to the business.

Tania B – One of my bosses at Amber Chatswood, she taught me so much about the business side of the industry. In fact, I still use a lot of her processes today at Byzantine Design. 17 years later we still message each other for our birthdays (she is much better at it than me) and we see each other occasionally.

What did you have in place before you made the leap?

Not a lot, just a true belief of ‘If I build it they will come’. I knew deep, deep down in my soul that Byzantine Design would work. That and 15 years of industry knowledge and connections. I had a rough business plan and an idea. That was about it.

What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that led you to the leap?

I was visiting my bestie in Perth over Christmas in 2013, I went out and had spontaneous fun, which was something that I had been missing living in Sydney. All of my friends were married with kids and, as much as I loved all of them, that wasn’t the life that I wanted for myself at the time. Also, Sydney is an incredibly expensive city to live in, and I realised it was getting me nowhere close to my dreams. It was once I had gotten back home, lying awake unable to sleep, that I decided I would move to Melbourne and open my store. It all made sense to me as any editorial I had gotten for the business always had a response from the design community in Melbourne.

The next day I was going to the beach with a friend of mine Sally, who had always talked about moving to Melbourne. I told her of my crazy plan, by the time we got to the beach we were both moving to Melbourne! That was January, we were in Melbourne by June that year.

Once I had made the decision to move, all of these other opportunities opened up to make it happen. I just knew in my bones that it was the right decision for me. It felt like the Universe just kept providing opportunities which I took as a sign that I was on the correct path.

How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?

The first year in Melbourne was super tough. I had moved to a city where I knew a handful of people and was trying to get a business off the ground whilst working from home. Looking back now I would say I went through a period of depression, we also had some family dramas that caused a lot of stress in my world at the time and a few of the key suppliers who told me that they would support me disappeared, so it was really a year where I learnt a lot about myself and other people. I also had lots of therapy to get through it.

I just got up every day, some days I sat at my desk and did not accomplish a lot at all. For the first six months I worked on my website and product range. I looked at doing other work to get me out of the house but I had tried that years before when Byzantine Design began. Historically I became focused on the other work so I knew that I needed to get sorted and find a brick and mortar space. Tiles are really something that need to be seen so I had to look for a showroom to get to the next stage. I found a showroom and signed a lease in March 2014. I opened the doors in May 2014.

Six weeks after I opened I had to fly to Sydney for the funeral of a friend’s father, I was walking along in a shopping centre and I fell over. Within hours of the fall my body started having a very odd reaction. Within a day or two the whole right side of my body started to go numb and within a week or two walking became difficult as my balance was affected. I felt like I was never steady on my feet. The left side of my body started to go numb around week four. I woke up to loss of vision in my right eye and then fell over again in week five. I had an MRI booked for week six which confirmed a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis.

As you can imagine, a diagnosis of MS three months after opening my store and six months before I turned 40 was a wake-up call. People advised me to close the business and move back to Sydney, I was like ‘hell no.’ I hadn’t worked for 10 years to get to this point to give it all up because of a diagnosis of MS. I just had to make it work. You can call it courage, or just plain stubbornness to prove everyone wrong. I just had to come up with a modified plan. I hired two people to help out in the store whilst I went to rehab to learn to walk again. This was the turning point that made Byzantine Design what it is today.

How did you fund your leap?

I have an investor, a long time friend who believed I was a good investment. I couldn’t have done it without him. That, and I was used to living with very little money anyway.

What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?

Byzantine Design started out as a bathroom design business.  Man, was I terrible at running a service-based business. I really admire my friends who can run an interior design business, I found it so difficult to charge a price for my thought processes. Dealing with tradespeople was just not my forte. We now offer the design skills as part of the service at Byzantine Design, I just love creating concepts with everyone that walks through the door.

I also had a market stall where I had made mosaic picture and mirror frames. I teamed up with a friend Nicola who made leather bound books. She sold out, I don’t think I sold a single frame. In fact, I think I also did a market stall at Glebe Markets, I think I sold one frame. Put it this way, everyone got picture frames for the next few years as gifts.

What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?

I am fearful of having another big relapse, one that could debilitate me for a while. However, I look after myself so well now that I hope that that won’t happen. I now know the signs so I do what I can to prevent small relapses becoming large ones.

How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap?
1 being sad, 10 being rad.

10. I freaking love Melbourne, I am definitely home in this city. It was the best decision I could have ever made to move here. The way the design community has embraced Byzantine Design is beyond my wildest dreams. My life here is so amazing and I am so grateful, I have been lucky to create the life I wanted.

What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?

When you move interstate you are able to reinvent yourself to be who you really are. When you have been friends with people most of your life you fit into a certain box with people and you become comfortable. The challenge of moving away from your comfort zone is huge, but has paid off in ways that I could have never imagined.

I have the most amazing tribe of friends in Melbourne and I get to work with some of the most talented interior designers and architects in Australia. We are also about to launch our first collaboration with Bonnie and Neil, which is beyond exciting for my little business.

What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?

I don’t know if there is a real downside, I miss friends and family but technology makes it easy to communicate with everyone.

The other thing I have to watch is my stress levels, it can be quite stressful running a business, especially on your own. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way now that I have taken the leap. If I even think about going for job interviews I shudder.

What might be your next leap?

I have the rumblings of a new blog/space/podcast about changing the dialogue around chronic illness. I think if we can change the dialogue then some of the stigma around being diagnosed will change.

A lot of people diagnosed with chronic illness find it hard to fit the mould of normal work hours because their health and energy levels can be so unpredictable. I guess I would like to create a space and tell stories where we celebrate rather than commiserate and inspire each other. Chronic illness will affect a large percentage of the population in the future, it doesn’t mean the end of your life. It means that you get to create a new one that works for you.

What are your favourite words to live by?

  • Just breathe.
  • Put it in the ‘Fuck it’ bucket.
  • What is the worst thing that could happen? It usually puts things into perspective.
  • What would (insert name here) do? This could be anyone ranging from Daenerys Targaryen, Harvey Specter to Han Solo. It all depends on who I am trying to embody at the time. And yes, I do also insert people’s names I know. And yes, I would like a dragon.

Who do you admire who also made the leap?

Louise Bell from Table Tonic. Lou and I went to school together, we both started part way through year eight within weeks of each other. She has always been one of the most stylish people I know and it’s amazing that she’s turned that style into an incredible online homewares business and even has her own clothing label now! So proud of her. It’s been so wonderful to watch her create and curate a gorgeous world.

Bonnie Ashley and Neil Downie – Bonnie & Neil. Working with these guys to launch our collaboration this year has been an incredible journey over the last two years. I have learnt so much from working with both of them, they are such a great team and have built such a great business together.

Kylie Lewis – she is just an amazing human being.

I’m really inspired by anyone who is living their passion, be it Adele who can bring joy to 80,000 at once on her own. To my yoga teacher Mel who radiates what she does. It’s an honour and a privilege to witness people doing what they have been put on earth to do. Finding your calling and then making a life from it is a hard but rewarding road, these are the people who inspire me. People who are living their passion exert a certain energy and power that is contagious.

A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?

Plan, plan, plan. Write it down, thoughts don’t really make something happen, you need to write them down somewhere and make yourself accountable. I’m a list writer, I have even been known to add something to my list after I’ve done it so I can tick it off!

Right now I’m:

Hearing: Sense 8 Soundtrack.
Eating: Beautiful organic meals from My Goodness Organics.
Drinking: Strong soy chai.
Reading: I just finished a Liane Moriarty binge, I think I have now read all of her books.
Loving: Oprah’s podcast.

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Right now could be a good time to check in with the plans you’ve made for yourself. Never be afraid to question, to let go, to redirect, play bigger or to self-compassionately recognise that you’ve changed, and rewrite your story accordingly. Because you can.

Lovingly,

Kylie x

  1. It takes courage and a ‘can do’ attitude to merge entrepreneurship with chronic illness (this I know firsthand). So thank you for sharing your story, Dara. You have inspired me in so many ways.

    I wish you all the very best.

    Amelia

    PS love this conversation around ‘leaps’ Kylie.

    Reply

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