If I knew then what I know now
SOME people thrive in business because, not despite, the fact they have made mistakes. Sir Richard Branson, for example, has admitted he learned a hard but necessary lesson from being thrown in prison for a night for trying to dodge export tax as a fledgling entrepreneur.
Of course, most other successful entrepreneurs haven’t suffered such spectacular setbacks as this, but almost all of them have had their preconceived notions of business practice challenged.
So what advice would Australia’s leading entrepreneurs pass onto their younger selves, given the chance?
Interestingly, how to deal with suppliers, colleagues, customers and investors is a common reply. How to deal with people is something you learn ‘on the job’, as many entrepreneurs have found out.
“Most people are nice so don’t be spooked by them and be yourself,” says Debra Templar, the noted retail coach.
“I did learn that there are immense differences in the way men and women process information. If I sell to a man I have to change my style as women talk four times as much as men. Men glaze over if you’re not talking in bullet points.”
“Saying that you should treat men and women the same is rubbish. There’s no right or wrong way, but you need to understand that people don’t think and act like you do and you need to learn those soft skills.”
Gender is less of an issue for serial entrepreneur Philip Weinman, but he would certainly think again about the people he’s hired.
“I’ve had experiences with people from a corporate background that want to cover themselves and think about self-protection,” he says. “In my culture, if you make a mistake, well, there’s no better education like losing money, is there?”
“There’s nothing more important than passion. A passion for life as well as work. It’s even more important than ability. You must take on people who have passion.”
Domenic Carosa also has a clearer idea now about the people he wants around him in business.
“These days I only work with people I like. Sometimes, deals make commercial sense but not people sense.”
“My rule now is that I just won’t work with people I don’t get on well with.”
Carosa, who lost his equity in Destra, the company he founded, following the collapse of stockbroking form Opes Prime in 2008, unsurprisingly says he would do things differently given the chance again.
“You should always take the money off the table,” he says. “I never sold a Destra share in eight years and in hindsight I should’ve sold some shares.”
“It’s one of those things and it all happens for a reason. You can choose to make it into a learning experience. A mistake is only a mistake if you don’t learn from it.”
“Entrepreneurship itself is unchartered territory so you are bound to make mistakes. The Australian psyche is different from the US psyche. Here, you make a mistake and people think you can’t recover.”
Carosa adds that new businesses should “make sure they are not too optimistic. In my role at Dominet and Future Capital, I get to see a lot of business plans”.
“The common thread is that they are very optimistic when it comes to revenues. I tend to look at the revenue and halve it and take expenses and double it. Roughly, this turns out to be right.”
“That’s not to say that we don’t invest in anyone. You look for people’s passion. You can teach all kinds of other things but you can’t teach passion. That what I look for.”
Villa and Hut founder Franz Madlener now understands how banks deal with small businesses, but lacked this knowledge at the start of his entrepreneurial career.
“I wish I had known the absolute pivotal position that banks take in your business once you owe them money,” he says.
“What I really wish I had known about banks is that when the sun is shining they give you an umbrella, but as soon as it starts raining they want it back again. Don’t underestimate the power of a bank in your business once you owe them money.”
Online entrepreneur Fred Schebesta has learned that much of what you may previously think is necessary in business is not quite so vital.
“Avoid meetings at all costs,” he says. “Meet only if you are going to make a decision. Meetings sap away time which you could use to be productive and make money.”
“I personally only have two meetings per week and they are a maximum of 20 minutes each. Set your meeting times for unusual time increments and start them at unusual hours, like 10:17am, to ensure you finish your meeting quickly.”
He adds: “This time around I've learnt to say no to things I don't want and not grin and bear it. It comes with confidence and experience. Play it slow when you are unsure and wait for a better option.”