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Let’s Talk: Business leaders share 20 invaluable lessons they’ve learned so far

The past couple of years has witnessed a massive shift in the business world as we know it. And we’ve learned that no business school could have prepared us for what’s happened in the last few years. 

Lessons learned in school will never be as valuable as business lessons learned through real-life experience. Businesses have been forced to be more adaptable and resilient in the face of unexpected pandemics, wars, and global economic disruptions. 

In this week’s Let’s Talk, we asked experts to share the most important lesson they learned while growing their business. 

Let’s talk

Christa Quarles, CEO at Corel Corporation 

“Diversity in the workforce is so often considered in the context of HR, not in the context of business strategy. What I have learned is that diversity can be a direct path to better innovation and better business outcomes. It’s not simply an HR issue, but a strategic issue. Diversity should be woven into the fabric of your company’s culture, and be reflected top-down from your executive team to entry-level employees. 

“Put plainly, diverse teams make better decisions. That has certainly been my experience and is my firmly held belief. And I can speak to my experience sitting in the C-suite for some of the world’s best-known companies, watching what happens when diversity is — and isn’t — considered a true value proposition. 

“The pandemic transformed the way businesses operate, demanding diversity to drive productivity. Driving this takes consistent, active effort across the organisation, and CEOs need to lead by example.”

Ajay Unni, CEO and Founder of StickmanCyber

“That perseverance can get you through anything and ask for help when you need it. Trust your gut, keep an open mind and always remember to come back to your purpose.  

“Resilience is key and the last few years have highlighted just how capable we are of facing any type of challenge, no matter how insurmountable. The fact that scientists were able to come up with a vaccine in record time, businesses evolved their legacy systems and we all found ways to come together and support each other are a testament to the human spirit and our will to survive.  

“It also helps to have a strong support network around you and I’m grateful to all the people in my life that have helped me, personally and professionally, while I was building my business and through all the challenges we have faced throughout the pandemic.” 

Catherine Velisha, CEO of Velisha Farms

“The most important lesson I’ve learned is that business growth comes down to finding the perfect mix of both business and self-improvement. You can’t be afraid of making decisions outside of your comfort zone and truthfully it will never get easier but trust yourself as a leader that you’re doing the right thing. 

“A leader must continue to push themselves and their team to grow above and beyond their wildest hopes. People and situations are forever evolving and changing and your resilience, strength and resolve will get better through every challenge.”

Linda Goldspink-Lord, author, speaker and founder of Poseidon Animal Health and Australian Fermented Beverages

“The biggest lesson learned for me in building two successful businesses has been to focus on the importance of connections, and to genuinely show up when building business relationships. So many amazing partnerships have been created for us, through our ability to communicate and to create meaningful connections with other people, consultants and businesses. 

“For me personally, after suffering personal tragedy with the loss of my daughter Molly ten years ago, I came to understand the importance of creating businesses with the right intentions, so that I know I’m pouring my time and energy into something I truly believe in. The fact that I get to do this alongside my family is a true gift. 

“In the early days of Poseidon Equine, so many customers were blown away by our willingness to communicate with them. To answer their questions and to answer the phone, when so many other businesses were responding with silence. I want every person who touches our business to know they’re important, and to be treated with respect. It sounds simple, but it goes a really long way.”

Luke Grana, Co-founder & CEO, Andi Health

“At GRANA we started building a solid foundation with a core team, range of products and marketing channels; we tried to expand too quickly, too soon. The lesson we learned was to go back, be patient and rebuild our solid base to scale over the long term. We did just that and are now a profitable brand. Premature scaling can be the downfall of any new startup and for me, it was an important lesson to learn and grow from. 

“Applying this lesson to building Andi Health has been key in creating the foundation for our early-stage startup. Growth will come when the foundation is strong and the time is right.”

Brodie Haupt, CEO & co-founder of WLTH 

After years of playing a part in the growth of WLTH, I learned the importance of investing back into your team. Similar to how there is a financial budget set for marketing, advertising, research and other pillars of the business, there should be one for the team.

“It could be for health and wellness benefits, upskilling and ever-important training conferences. The point is, the team running the business is the most important resource of the company, which means a decent amount of time, money and effort should be spent on their development and happiness. Neglect them and you’ll have high staff turnover, or they may be lacking the skills and knowledge needed for the company to grow. 

“At WLTH, we hold quarterly team conferences where we fly in all staff members from around Australia to Brisbane HQ. It gives us a chance to all get-together, build trust and set goals as a whole collective.”

Rachael Greaves, Co-Founder and CEO, Castlepoint Systems

“Every day brings a lesson, big or small, but perhaps the biggest one for me has been that it’s never too late to take an important step. The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago – but the second-best time is today.

“This has been a guiding light for me as we have initially bootstrapped, and then funded our early and disruptive concept for a new kind of Artificial Intelligence into a successful business, with 495% growth year on year, and a quadrupling of our valuation in six months.

“When you are in the start-up phase, you have to bite off more than you can chew, and then chew really fast. But once you have the funds, it’s not too late to invest in a new system or a key new hire. You might not have had them at the outset, but you can prioritise them right now.”

Roby Sharon-Zipser, CEO and Co-Founder, hipages Group

“Embrace the hustle. Big goals can be daunting if you do not build personal stimulation and the opportunity for wins into the process. An empowering competitive spirit is one that enjoys the journey as much as the wins. Business is an unrelenting sport, to embrace the hustle is to be at one with the curve balls that you have to face and to thrive on solving what needs to be solved.

“As part of the IPO process we successfully moved through in 2020 at hipages Group, I learned that it’s critical to play to your strengths. Everyone should understand how and where they add value. Playing to your strengths means you can never do it all. It requires surrounding yourself with the best talent and processes to complement whatever your art form is. The end game is always about value creation, understanding your role and that of others is a fundamental strategic decision.”

Adrian Johnstone, Practifi, president and co-founder

“There are hard lessons in ensuring you have your client and vendor contracts tight, payments processes clear and your taking sound advice from credible sources. Building a detailed product/market fit and having a clear addressable market are foundational items that, if done hastily, can cost dearly. As can failing to articulate the ‘value’ to the purchaser and instead focus on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of your offering. All that said, if I had to distil all my experiences and lessons learned into a single thread it would be that every business is ultimately about relationships. 

“Whether it’s the family and friends’ support you need to get started, the early teammates and investors to get you moving or the clients, advisors, partners and later stage staff/investors that help you to scale, building strong human relationships anchored in trust and respect is the bedrock of every good business. 

“In technology firms it is all too easy to ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ and become overconfident to the point of complacency, building a narrative that the product you’ve created has somehow become indispensable. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

“In a period of exceptionally tight labour markets and increasingly competitive commercial landscapes, it’s the businesses with strong human connections to staff and clients that will prevail.”

Catherine Whitaker, SelfWealth, CEO

“Building a successful business comes down to four key principles: innovate within, be a pace-setter, customer centricity and deploying data with aplomb. At SelfWealth, we believe that the keys to success lie in investing in your team and future growth by focusing on your own business and creating an environment conducive to innovation.

“Our mission is to democratise access to wealth creation and we are continuing to work with our customers to make sure we are delivering the sort of experience that they demand. 

“That also means focusing on constantly evolving and adapting as well as ensuring we can be the first to market to offer rich and intuitive experiences to retail investors seeking to gain exposure to new markets and asset classes.

“One of the greatest lessons for me has been to surround myself with a team of the highest calibre. I’m incredibly grateful to be leading such a strong team and one of the secrets to our success has been ensuring that each of our new milestones has our customers front and centre. 

“Customer centricity is a fundamental part of our ethos at SelfWealth and our strategic partnerships allow us to provide best-in-class experiences for retail investors. SelfWealth was the first Australian online share trading platform to announce cryptocurrency investing. We’ve partnered with BTC markets and we’re excited to live next quarter.

“Finally, we are constantly looking towards our customers for feedback and it’s imperative to set up strong databases to capture customer insights to help ensure that our decision-making process is always focused on important areas for improvement. Our customers now demand an omnichannel experience and the way they interact with us continues to change. 

“Being able to deploy this data with aplomb, understanding how our customers use the platform and how we can continue to lead in the market with a compelling end-to-end offering is integral for success. It provides us with a competitive advantage to continue to deliver amazing experiences to our customers and value to our shareholders over the long term.”

Ashley Bellino, Founder / Director, Stoned Crystals 

“Mindset is everything when it comes to pursuing your goals and this is something I always speak to my team about. Using an analogy of being caught in rough surf, rather than try and battle the waves and be thrown around, we’ve gone under them (or even surged over the top of them) and emerged on the other side stronger than ever. Whatever came my way, as a business owner I’ve always chosen to focus on the light and opportunity rather than the negative, and this truly has been the way my business Stoned Crystals has been able to get to where we are. 

“At Stoned Crystals, some of our biggest challenges have been the building blocks of our greatest achievements and breakthroughs. There have been many times where obstacles and setbacks could have had me packing my bags, but my resilience and ability to pivot and create a ‘new idea’ has meant that Stoned Crystals has continued to be an ever-growing business. 

“As an intuitive female leader, I tend to trust my gut when roadblocks occur. The challenges we faced on social media platforms for example, with Instagram being a very unreliable and uncontrollable beast for businesses at times, lead us to create our very own App. Without the trials and tribulations that we experienced with third-party platforms, we wouldn’t have developed one of our biggest sales advantages which is our Live Sales App.”

Jordan Fogarty, CEO of Be Media

“When I started my first business at 22, I expected to be an overnight success (as I believe many do). What I learnt is you don’t hear of the behind the scenes, the slog, the people resigning, the lack of belief, the hurdles.

“The way I put it is if you want to play full out and really get out of your comfort zone, you need to be prepared to literally get punched in the face pretty hard, and sometimes each day at times.

“The persistence came for me from eventually becoming aware and comfortable that this is just a fact, and unfortunately most people expect or “hope” for otherwise, and that’s just not the case. I now always prioritise energy, focus and mindset to make sure the punches to the face have minimal impact.’

Samantha Dybac, founder & managing director, The PR Hub

“When I co-founded by the first business at the age of 23 I was full of youthful naivety, ambition and a desire to make a meaningful difference. While the latter two remain core to my being, years of experience filled with highs and lows, has taught me that as business owners we never have all the answers, nor do we or should we always get it right. 

“However the more we recognise this, seek advice and surround ourselves with the right people, the more we learn and succeed. The path as a business owner is not linear, and at times it is damn hard, but as founders, we naturally gravitate towards challenge and growth, so it can be truly rewarding.” 

Jason Toshack, Vice President and GM ANZ, Oracle NetSuite

“Throughout my career, I’ve worked with many budding entrepreneurs who have gone on to enjoy much success. They all had one thing in common: a symbiotic team of go-getters with complementary skill sets who all shared the same vision.

“As even the best-laid plans can go awry, it’s important to build an agile team that confidently tackle challenges and think of creative solutions when necessary. Creating an invaluable support network can provide a shoulder to lean on, additional expertise to diversify your thinking and lighten the load.

“Lastly, when building a business, it needs to move quickly and operate with limited resources. This means effective processes underpinned by technology should be viewed as an extension of your team. Indeed, NetSuite research shows nearly half of APAC entrepreneurs regard their core business software as crucial to the success of their overall business.

“Investing in a robust solution from the get-go can improve operational efficiency and can allow your team to focus on more strategic tasks.”  

Graham Glass, Founder and CEO at CYPHER LEARNING  

“The biggest lesson I learned while building a business is that hard work and persistence pays off. I had grand plans when it came to setting up CYPHER LEARNING,  it was never going to be a modest company. I wanted to make a real difference, utilising my passion for education and web-based software based on my experience in computer science, to build an innovative and smart online learning platform to motivate and inspire learning for both educators and learners alike. It took a lot of perseverance and patience to grow it into what it is now.

“I was urged on many occasions to think smaller, I was determined to see my vision through. Of course, there have been challenges along the way, but I see every roadblock as an opportunity to learn and grow. 

“With that in mind, my advice to others who are thinking of starting a business or implementing a new idea would be to believe in yourself. Work hard to achieve your goals, have a clear vision when establishing a business or implementing an idea, and be confident enough not to be deterred by others’ opinions.” 

Ivan Lim, Co-Founder and CEO, at Brosa

“The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the power of focus – pushing myself and the business to be crystal clear in our purpose and areas of attention, resource and activity. Focus is just as important in the early days when resources are scarce and you need to be prudent in what you spend time on, as it is when businesses are larger. 

“You need to ensure that everyone is clear on what are the most important priorities so you avoid wasted time and frustration. To be great at focus requires appreciating that saying no is just as important as saying yes.”

John Deeb, Country Manager ANZ at Workato

“People are everything in building a business, both in your internal team and your customer base. Internally, identify leaders early in the business and give them opportunities and responsibilities. In my experience, building a strong culture starts with inspiring leaders and creates a spirit of selflessness, which will naturally spill over into your relationships with your customers.

“Externally, earn the right to ask your customers to be advocates by making them successful. When launching Workato in the Australian market, we established a foundational set of successful customers on the Workato platform so we could tell their story. Our customers became our biggest cheerleaders and it led to exponential growth for our business, but it started with their success. 

“Finally, time management is critical. Prioritise high impact activities and be ultra-aware of how you are spending your time. Establish goals and deadlines, and develop strategies with your team to meet them.”

Guy Pearson, Co-Founder and CEO of Ignition

“The transition from being an accountant to running a software company was a huge learning process. When launching Ignition (formerly Practice Ignition), the biggest lesson was building conviction to encourage other people to join you on the journey and being extremely cognizant of the problem you’re trying to solve. 

“We had a clear vision of the future of the business. However, we were introducing a completely new business model to an industry that was used to operating in a particular way. As a founder, you need to be an effective storyteller. You need to take customers, employees, investors and partners on the journey with you for success. You need to communicate a clear and consistent purpose that everyone can understand. 

“For Ignition, that was helping accountants and bookkeepers sign more clients and get paid faster, and sharing that story has helped us grow to over  150 employees and thousands of customers across the globe.”

“As a Managing Partner, the sooner you learn that the power is in your team rather than just in yourself, the sooner you can accelerate growth and build strategically.

“It’s also very hard to make sure that you stay true to your values and the way you service clients as you scale and grow.

“And finally, advisors and experts help you avoid reinventing the wheel as well – they’ve done it before, they’ve walked the same path you are trying to. Getting them involved at the right time means you’re not going to waste yours.”

Danny Lessem, CEO, ELMO Software 

“When we started ELMO Software, we knew we needed to always strive to solve our customers’ problems. The key to building a technology solution lies in the fact that it must solve a problem. The only way a business will know whether or not it is effectively solving that problem will be by listening to its customers.

“For ELMO, when we were in a position to ramp up our business, we took the opportunity to speak to our customers about what already works well and what they would want to see from us. Our customers told us they loved our “Learning Management Solution” but would like to be able to digitise and simplify other areas of their HR operations. 

“Customer feedback and insights are invaluable when deciding where to allocate resources to determine where you can expect the greatest return on investment.”

Alec Lynch, CEO and Founder, DesignCrowd and BrandCrowd

Alec Lynch, Founder & CEO, DesignCrowd and BrandCrowd

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt running DesignCrowd and BrandCrowd is the importance of speed. Whether you’re about to launch a new business or you run a larger, more established company, doing things quickly is a critical ingredient for success, especially if, like me, you run a tech business.

“Speed helps with competitive differentiation. Speed helps you grow more quickly. Speed helps you win that customer or partnership. Speed helps you hire that great candidate before someone else does. Speed helps with innovation. Speed helps you succeed.

Often when people have a good business idea, they sit on it for months or years. This is a mistake. Start today and move fast!”

Paul Weingarth, Co-Founder and CEO at Slyp

“In business, the most successful people are those driven by a passion. Whether that’s helping those in need, advocating social change or improving sustainability practices, every leader has a driving force that gets them out of bed in the morning. 

“My biggest tip is to surround yourself with a team that is just as “irrationally passionate” about solving the problem as you are. It might be harder than you think, but once you get the winning formula, there will be no stopping you. 

“Most great companies that create breakthrough innovation have their “we’re not going to make it” moment. It’s precisely this collective passion for solving the problem that will push you and your team to smash down barriers, overcome obstacles and set new industry standards.”

Ben Pfisterer, CEO and co-founder of Zeller 

“It may sound simplistic, yet it’s all about the ability to “keep moving forward”. A commonality of starting any new business is to not be overawed by the magnitude of the task ahead of you. A structured thinker who can either dissect the enormity into manageable parts or has the objectivity to get started on discrete projects will soon be on the right path. Alternatively, with a strong self-conviction, an ability to employ a ‘blinkered thinking’, or an element of naivety, a different approach might be to simply get started on whichever task you can grapple with first. 

“Many people fail to make material progress before the inevitable fear or doubt kicks in. If you can make progress before experiencing this, you’ve likely built up resilience or conviction that you’re now on your way. The ability to “keep moving forward’’ pushes founders to make material progress, driving greater resilience — the essential ingredient to starting any new business.”

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Yajush Gupta

Yajush Gupta

Yajush is a journalist at Dynamic Business. He previously worked with Reuters as a business correspondent and holds a postgrad degree in print journalism.

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