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Secrets of success: 10 entrepreneurs tell all

No successful business venture is built in a day. From planning and getting started, to facing challenges, making mistakes and maintaining sustainability – the work of an entrepreneur is never done. We uncover the journeys taken by a variety of entrepreneurs in their pursuit of a ‘fail proof’ empire, starting with Kristina Karlsson.

Swedish Success

Interviewee: Kristina Karlsson, kikki.K
When it came to setting up her own home office after moving from Sweden to Australia, Kristina Karlsson was quick to realise the lack of stylish home and office products that Australia had to offer. “I really wanted my office to be an extension of my personality, just as the rest of my home was. So, I designed my first range and it all started from there.”

With no business experience, let alone any idea of how to go about manufacturing, Kristina literally looked up ‘stationery’ in the Yellow Pages and started making calls. “Some people thought I was crazy. But I had a vision and nothing could stop me.” Today, she is the creative director and founder of international fashion stationery label kikki.K Swedish Home/Office Style, known for its unique Scandinavian design, with 25 retail boutiques in Australia and New Zealand, and an online store that services the world.
DB: How do you differentiate yourself from competitors?

KK: kikki.K products are very much aligned with fashion. From colour, design, materials and textures – we move with the seasons and constantly have new products arriving in store. I gain inspiration from everywhere, and travel to Sweden at least once a year to keep the Scandinavian element consistent. Sometimes it’s as simple as thinking of practical solutions to everyday problems. Other times, it’s from nature. Inspiration is truly all around.

DB: What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur and doing what you do?

KK: I get so excited and inspired when developing new products. It’s such a rewarding process to start with a blank page and create beautiful objects that people use every day and come to love. On a personal level, I get great enjoyment from working in one of my stores and seeing people’s reactions to the products. I also love to see the people that work with me growing and evolving through their work with kikki.K. It’s become so much more than my business now as I share it with all the people that work in the team. I love seeing people achieve their own personal goals through their experience of working in a stimulating and fun young business.

DB: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

KK: From my own experience, the answer is very simple – you just can’t do it all yourself. At some point, if you want to grow your business and have a life – no matter what your level of emotional attachment is – you need to hire other people, let go and clearly delegate responsibility to them. It is also important that you then ensure you provide them with all the support they need in order to get their jobs done.

Do something you are passionate about. There are days when you don’t think you can do it any longer but if you do things you are totally passionate about then the hard days are easier to get through.

Gillian Franklin, who founded The Heat Group and was recently named by The Age as one of Australia’s most powerful businesswomen, has been a wonderful mentor and inspiration to me. She has taught me so many things. Perhaps the most important has been the value of having a mentor.

Building a Better Way

Interviewee: Rob Phillpot, Aconex

Friends since boarding school in country Victoria, Rob Phillpot and Leigh Jasper used their backgrounds in commerce, building and engineering to harness the power of the internet. Dealing with the information flow of drawings  from subcontractors and consultants saw Phillpot become frustrated with paperwork. “I was spending all my Saturdays doing filing and administration and it got to a point where I began thinking and saying to myself: ‘There’s got to be a better way’.” Meanwhile, in 1998 and 1999, Jasper was working for Mckinsey and Company – a management consultancy, looking at how how the internet could help their business.

Eventually, bringing projects together using the internet to help manage information simply made sense. This saw the start of the online information management and collaboration service known as Aconex which services projects with a combined value of AU$200 billion across 44 offices worldwide. “We were two young guys with a business plan, along with that youthful naivety that we could actually pull it off.”

DB: What risks did you have to take?

RP: When we started, we were just the ‘new kids on the block’ and a lot of our competitors were fairly new too, so there was a lot of competitive risk surrounding us. There was always the chance that we could have developed a product using the wrong technology, or a product that wasn’t stable, or that we might not have got our first couple of sales. It was a rollercoaster of emotions back then; you were either going to the fridge to get a beer because you were happy or because you were depressed.

DB: What has been your biggest challenge?

RP: Probably our second capital raising in late 2001. Once we’d built the product and done the proof of concept to go to market, we went out to investors the week before September 11 and sent out the document following the fall of the twin towers. That was probably our near death experience as what we expected to take two to three months to raise, ended up taking us nine to ten months. We had to lay off staff, cut back costs and just survive really and luckily we did.

DB: Any lessons learned along the way?

RP: If business relationships go sour it’s not just the cost of unwinding that relationship that proves most expensive, but the actual cost of dealing with it. Make sure you do business with people you trust and have a good working relationship with.

DB: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

RP: Make sure that whatever you do, you are not only good at it, but passionate about it otherwise, you might as well give up. The way you feel about your business rubs off on everyone else. If you’re not passionate no one else will be and you’re just not going to succeed. Be brutally honest with shareholders if you get them in. Communicate with them regularly and communicate the good with the bad, don’t try and spin it. If you’re honest, they’ll trust you and that pays off later.

DB: What gives Australian entrepreneurs an edge?

RP: We have a reputation around the world for being hard workers, really innovative, and giving everything a fair go.

DB: What is you focus now and for the future?

RP: Our focus now and always, involves controlling the rocket that we’re sitting on as well as making sure our culture is intact and our people are happy. We find that if you get the basics right, everything else follows.

A Whole New ‘View’

Interviewee: Stephen Langford, Quickflix

From a global accounting firm to funds management, Stephen Langford became involved with the internet from a commercial perspective, right from its early days. As such, he established a successful consulting and development group around the internet in the mid nineties that saw him involved in the development of a number of ventures for some large corporates and start-ups. A colleague and senior executive for eBay in the US, alerted Langford of a brand and DVD rental model taking off called Netflix. Appreciating this success story, Langford found himself excited by the prospects for a similar model in the Australian marketplace that would become Quickflix.

DB: What helped you most in trying to get the business off the ground?

SL: Two other major players with some serious money behind them were also interested in the model – Telstra and Home Screen. It was this validation from competitors that the model had the chance to be effective that proved a plus.

DB: What has been your biggest challenge?

SL: Aside from having major competitors that are heavily funded, it was competing for access to the investment capital required to get the business up and running. The other challenge was breaking consumer habits and presenting them a new way of renting DVDs.

DB: Any lessons learned along the way?

SL: We probably underestimated what it took to introduce a new model into Australia. Changing habits and the way that people are comfortable doing things is hard work. If we had our time again, we would have raised more capital at the outset.

DB: What is the downside for you?

SL: To be an entrepreneur, or at least for me, I can only do things by being very focused and single minded. I think this often means you are not perhaps the most rounded personality.

DB: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

SL: Be persistent and take the feedback from your detractors as a challenge and prove them wrong.

Creating a Ripple Effect

Interviewee: Tracey Bialek, Ripple Products

A unique combination of personal savings and an insurance pay out following the flooding of Tracy Bialek’s car saw her launch the innovative Shower Timer into the Australian market in 2003. With her passion for the environment and experience in product design, marketing and business, Bialek established Ripple Products to develop a niche product in the growing environment sector.

“I had a real desire to be in a business that was active in the environment sector, but could also create some sort of change. The idea of being an independent woman in business was also quite important to me,” she explains.This has seen Ripple Products effectively expand from a home-based business into a four-person operation over the past five years.

DB: What risks did you have to take?

TB: I put myself financially on the line, starting with personal savings and selling my car. I think there’s also an emotional and professional risk that you take. Emotionally, working on your own when you first start a business takes a certain type of personality. Professionally, and for me personally, there is a risk attached to having your name associated with a business and launching it yourself.

DB: Is there a downside to being an entrepreneur?

TB: I think trying to find a consistent work/life balance is always a challenge. You do try to do everything you possibly can and I think sometimes you need to say no. There are always going to be opportunities, but you need to be selective about those opportunities you pursue.

DB: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

TB: Make sure you research your particular sector and define your role within your business. In my experience, you can often do too much and that can be quite detrimental.

The Branding Edge

Interviewee: Dorry Kordahi, DKM

With no MBA, marketing degree or diploma and eventually giving up on his hairdressing apprenticeship, Dorry Kordahi became the founder and managing director of Dorry Kordahi Management (DKM). Just six years ago, at the age of 21, Kordahi joined his family in running a promotional products business selling polo shirts and baseball caps, but was still unsatisfied. Since beginning work out of a shed on his marketing and merchandising business in 2002, DKM has come to operate in Sydney, Melbourne and Shanghai and generates more than $4,000,000 in revenue.

DB: What helped you most when trying to get your business off the ground?

DK: For me, getting away for six months before starting DKM really helped. It was a good time for me to reflect and organise how I was going to run my business.

DB: What risks did you have to take?

DK: The main risk was not having enough money in my bank account to get to the next stage. I tried to keep a really tight overhead, which is why I was in my parent’s shed at the start.

DB: Any lessons learned along the way?

DK: Right at the start I was working in my parent’s shed, which was a struggle, but provided a valuable lesson in budgeting and patience. Patience was something I had to develop, because if you don’t have patience you are at risk of making bad decisions.

DB: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

DK: Learn to have patience, follow your gut instincts, have a vision and think five years ahead. They’re the things I really believe in.

DB: What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur?

DK: Having the power to act. Being an entrepreneur and running a business means that if you fail or if you succeed it all falls in your lap. The ability to be creative is probably the most exciting thing.

Good Enough to Eat

Interviewee: Costa Anastasiadis, Crust Gourmet Pizza Bars

Costa Anastasiadis has always been surrounded by the food and hospitality industry. Since the age of 15, he worked in the family pub/hotel business in Sydney’s South. Beginning as a ‘glassy’ before progressing to bar work and eventually a part-time managerial role, looking after the wood-fired pizza restaurant. This saw his idea for Crust Gourmet Pizza Bars evolve. It was a combination of gut feel and knowing what was happening that led to the opening of his first store in Annandale, Sydney.

After eventually opening four stores, Costa and business partner Michael decided to put their own stores on the line as capital to invest in a proper franchising model. Within eight months of completing the franchise model, Crust rolled out another six stores. Today it has 17 stores operating under the franchise model across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

DB: What helped you most in getting your business off the ground?

CA: I’d say the local environment and the fact we had a very cutting edge idea at the time. Seven or eight years ago, pizzas were made behind the closed doors of shops – you couldn’t see what was going on with your product. So, we opened up a store in a local environment where the people that were living in Annandale – eating, commuting to and from would and so on, would walk past our store and get this visual display.

DB: What risks were involved?

CA: The biggest risk for us at the time was financial, We had a lot to lose from doing this. Also, trying to really get a system that worked was quite a challenge. We went from a bar/bistro model to a takeaway; which two very different models.

DB: What are the major challenges?

CA: You are constantly dealing with emotions of different people and your franchisees. The relationships you have with franchisees are crucial – they can make or break your business.

Outside the IT Box

Interviewee: Tony Gea Gea, 24/7 Distribution

If anyone suggested setting up an IT distributor to Tony Gea Gea a few years ago, he’d have told them they were absolutely insane due to the competition in the marketplace. However, looking into the capabilities offered by those players four years ago led him to discover a ga
p that needed filling.

Subsequently, Uptime Distribution, now known as 24/7 Distribution, was set up. “Customers are demanding so much more education, energy and attention to their business. Mapping the technology to their businesses is what these distributors weren’t stepping up to.”

Tony saw that a distributor could play more of a service-based role within the marketplace and really take away from the reseller or retailer’s services. 24/7’s services include helping the channel partners to sell the technology, educating them on the product, presenting the product, generating leads through to delivery and support. “This gives the channel partners as well as the end users the comfort that we can support the applications and the products.”

24/7 Distribution has become the leading services based distributor of unified communication solutions with offices in every state in Australia, India, New Zealand and Fiji.

DB: What risks did you have to take?

TG: One of the biggest risks was being a new model and the cash involved in setting that up. You have to make the investment in people, infrastructure, utilities and facilities, which is a huge risk.

DB: What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur?

TG: The autonomy to be able to do whatever I feel is right and execute on it. Creating something from scratch and taking it from dream, or concept to reality is what I find quite inspiring.

DB: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

TG: Stick at it, stay focused and don’t be derailed by the different things that come up throughout the course of your strategy or vision. It is important that you keep to the game you’re good at. The strategy or vision may alter along the way, but as long as the end game is the same, then that’s the trick.

Outside Pharmacy Boundaries

Interviewee: Stuart Giles, APHS

Historically geographic in their services and location, pharmacies have been restricted by their respective state pharmacy legislation. This meant that pharmacists tended to stay inside particular state boundaries due to restrictions on how many pharmacies they could own.

However, consolidation of the operators in the niche areas of healthcare in the mid nineties, opened the door for Stuart Giles and his wife Cathie Reed to develop a national pharmacy service network. APHS – Your Pharmacy Partner provides specialised hospital, aged care and oncology pharmacy services.

Following the implementation of this model, APHS has grown to become one of Australia’s largest, specialist aged care and hospital pharmacy groups with offices in Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

DB: What differentiates you from competitors?

SG: Initially, it was geography and service availability, coupled with specialisation. That has fanned out over the last 10 years to further areas of differentiation and innovation as we strongly invested in areas of technological solutions and importing technology from overseas to really try and give ourselves a point of difference.

DB: What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

SG: Be prepared for everything. The biggest expectation has to be that you’re going to have to work hard. Whoever said that success is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration was spot on.

What gives Australian entrepreneurs an edge?

I think we perform highly on a global benchmarking scale as we lack a critical mass of people and have greater geographic challenges. Whenever we have a great idea and want to try and convert it into reality, I think the fact we often have to solve those problems as well as establish a niche for that product or service, gives us an opportunity to outperform.

Dabbling With Diversity

Interviewee: Maureen Frank, emberin

For Maureen Frank, becoming an entrepreneur was all about risking her pay packet as head of mergers and aquisitions for a US multinational, to change what she saw in that corporate environment for women.

“Being one of the most senior women in the company, it became apparent to me that perhaps some of the younger girls weren’t treated as well as they should be. That became something that concerned me greatly for a number of years.”

After winning the Telstra Business Woman of the Year Award in 2004, Frank decided to write You Go Girlfriend, a book that deals with diversity and gender diversity. Becoming a best seller in Australia and following such high demand for the book following its release, Frank felt that this was an area she loved and ultimately make a difference in. She set up emberin, an organisation specialising in assisting companies to retain, attract and grow their female staff.

DB: How do you differentiate yourself from competitors?

MF: We don’t really have many competitors in the Australian marketplace We’re really very different to anyone else who does anything in the gender diversity space. Probably the uniqueness is around the approach. We’ve developed a mentoring tool kit in the form of a CD/DVD based program, to help women step up. This format allows for a self-paced program with 10 modules and enables companies to spread it to a very large group of women as it is also reasonably priced.

DB: Any lessons learned along the way?

MF: Originally, I was working with someone who I had very different views to. I think that had I have been brave or courageous enough, I would have realised that I needed to do something on my own a lot sooner. That’s ultimately what I ended up doing, but it took me a bit of time to get there.

DB: What do you think gives Australian entrepreneurs an edge?

MF: I think that Australians have a very strong entrepreneurial spirit. Having done business all over the world I think we bring a strong level of creativity and flexibility to the table.

Ringing the changes

Interviewee: Dale Carr, Mobile Data Group

Mobile Data Group grew from a company that was based on playing with phones and technology, to being a mainline focus that enables others to play with phones and technology through mobile games, wallpapers, ringtones, videos and more.

Being involved in developing technology solutions during the IT multimedia wave before the year 2000, Marc and Dale Carr were always interested in extending the user experience on technology platforms. As mobile phones became more prolific, they identified an exciting opportunity to bring multimedia content to these devices. From then on, the father and son duo have developed modular solutions for anyone wanting to enter the mobile business, whether it be to send SMS, run trivia contests or sell wallpapers, games and videos.

DB: Is there anything you would have done differently in hindsight?

DC: I would probably have pushed for faster growth. We opted to remain manageably small and control growth pains through a smaller footprint in terms of staff and offices. This meant that we possibly did not attack overseas markets as aggressively as we could have.

DB: What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur and doing what you do?

DC: As a wise man once said, “If you really love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.” I live by that mantra. Being an entrepreneur means taking ultimate responsibility, accountability and risk. Who better to take charge and control of your life than yourself? I thoroughly enjoy every aspect.

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