BEING in business takes a lot of courage, but you’ve have to particularly brave to stand in front of a crowd of your peers and own up to some of your biggest business blunders.
This is precisely what five Gladstone business owners did at the recent #Bizfail4680 seminar.
Hosted by Startup Gladstone and the Gladstone Chamber of Commerce and Industry the event was designed to share stories of failed ventures in order to help others learn from past mistakes.
Richa Joshi owner of Dual Nation
Ms Joshi started her online business in January this year, designing and selling t-shirts, baby clothes aprons and other items embossed with the Australian flag and the flags from other countries so people with dual nationalities can show the world they have ‘twice the pride’.
“For the first three months things were going well,” she said.
“Then nothing, I couldn’t understand what was going on.”
Ms Joshi reworked her website to boost her site’s search engine optimisation (SEO).
“I have about 40 different country combinations on my website so it was a lot of work to get it right,” she said.
“But sales slowly increased and I started seeing new faces coming in, not just my parents.”
She was also receiving good feedback from her customers.
“Then I got a negative comment,” Ms Joshi said.
“I was told my designs weren’t fun and not cutesy, so I created another design and sales picked up.
“I’d hit the nail on the head.”
The next negative comment shocked her.
“In this person’s country the crossed flag design means you’re part of a gang,” Ms Joshi said.
“I created another design and things started picking up.
“I also started doing good content on my site, the best blogs and podcasts.
“Because I’d forgotten people buy from you because they relate to you.”
“Brand yourself and put out content that creates the relationship.”
Her final lesson was to avoid taking on too much.
“I was the president of the Multicultural association, chairwoman of Connecting Women, P&C member, Startup Gladstone, Saiki Sister City programme, Coach for Guinea Group and mum to two kids under 10,” she said.
“While I was trying to make this year’s Multicultural Festival the best event under the sun, my health suffered.
“For three weeks I couldn’t drive, cook eat sleep or clean myself.
“Eventually I had to learn to say the ‘N’ word, ‘No’.
“Fingers in lots of pies is really nice.
“Your bio looks great, but your health takes a back seat.
“Say ‘No!’ and you’ll do a much better job as a parent, partner and business owner.
“And everything else will fall into place.”
Adam Balkin owner of Curtis Ferry Services
Mr Balkin is a big believer in taking big bites and chewing faster.
He left his job and started his first company AB Marine in 2008, just before the GFC.
“One of my first lessons occurred when I went for a loan to finance a new boat,” he said.
“On the Friday afternoon I was told I had the loan and did I want a contract.
“I told them no, because I take people on face value.
“I’d drawn down on my mortgage to help fund the boat then they decided not to lend me the money.”
The lesson to ‘get it in writing’ had been learned and four years he took another punt.
“In 2013 I saw big players in ferry services coming to Gladstone being awarded contracts on previous experience, not what they could deliver,” he said.
“A gamble is good occasionally but make it a calculated risk.
“So, I showed the companies a photo of a boat I’d seen for sale and I was given a letter of intent to use my service.
“A bank loaned me half a million dollars, but with very strict repayment terms, basically $50,000 a month.
“I bought the boat in the ad and away we went.”
Ninety days later, and owing $150,000 in repayments Mr Balkin “hadn’t seen a brass razoo” from the company.
“I made a phone call and they started paying me,” he said.
“I started paying down the loan fairly quickly.”
The next setback occurred when the company walked away owing him $300,000.
“I was s**tting myself,” Mr Balkin said.
“Fortunately, we had a contract, so I contacted my lawyer who approached the company.
“We came to agreement and I got paid.”
Mr Balkin said his expensive lessons had been hammered home.
“Handshake deals were a great thing in the past, but make sure you get your contracts in writing.”
Megan Leaneowner of Megan Leane Dietitian .
“I had no desire to start my own business,” Ms Leane said.
“But government cuts in 2012 meant I was among 269 dietetic graduates competing for two graduate roles.
“So I started my own business with the big goal of coming to Gladstone and providing the sort of regional health care access it never had.”
Ms Leane was the only dietician in the city.
“Business was good for the first two years,” she said.
“But then another government funded programme, which helped parents get their fussy children to eat good food, was also cut.”
Knowing there was a need for her skills Ms Leane developed her own programme.
“I hired another dietitian, we spent six months creating a package which we would charge for and nobody came,” she said.
So, she dug in and tried again.
“This time we approached schools, child care services and went on social media,” Ms Leane said.
“We spent another six months, with more staff, developing more content and dropped the price considerably.
We took bookings, had numbers and still nobody came.
“It was incredibly frustrating, plus now I had cash flow issues and extra staff.
“It was a very stressful time.”
Ms Leane had learned two lessons from her experience.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results,” she said.
“I also had to accept good health isn’t a priority for everyone.”
Her advice is to “stay in your lane, do the things that pay your bills”.
“Now, if I’ve got a passion project, I do it on my own, in my own time, for free,” Ms Leane said.
“People are turning up to those.”
Louise Dowling owner of More 4 Life Sustainable Solutions.
Ms Dowling who describes herself as a ‘natra-preneur’ grew up in Botswana and was no stranger to life in business.
“In Africa there’s no government support, no Centrelink, no back up,” she said.
“You had to make things happen yourself, so my parents had their own businesses.”
After spending some time in France graduating from high school Ms Dowling moved to England to study medicine.
“I was passionate about it, but because I was from Africa and hadn’t lived in England for three years I was turned down,” she said.
“I ended up studying reflexology, holistic herbalism and medicine.
“I held down three part-time jobs, one full time job and worked my butt off.”
At 28, Ms Dowling returned to Botswana to start her first business, Wellness Spa Safari Projects.
“I also got married and started a family,” she said.
“Then we moved to Port Headland, Australia where it was all happening.
“I opened a practice there and I got into a partnership with another company in an online retail business and was heavily involved in community service.
“Then my husband and I started a marine hire business.
“Port Headland is a boom bust place, and we didn’t get a contract for the marine business so when the company pulled out we were left high and dry.”
Ms Dowling had learned her lessons while trying to run the three businesses.
“Keep things simple and stick to what you’re good at and stay consistent,” she said.
“I now have one business and I’m looking forward to learning more lessons along the way.”
Brent Jordison owner of Gladstone Betta Home Living
Mr Jordison, shared two of his philosophies: ‘Partner or perish’, and ‘If you stand still you’ll go broke’.
Arriving in Gladstone 19 years ago with his wife and baby daughter he was shown a path to becoming a partner in his current business and never looked back.
“We’ve had a steady road in the business, with some mini-fails along the way,” Mr Jordison said.
“Particularly during the GFC and recent downturn.”
But Mr Jordison was about to hit a big stumbling block.
“I came across an ad for a coffee machine vending business,” he said.
“I loved the product, and I knew the company behind the vending machines was reputable.
“So I rang up the distributors who were contracted by the company to sell the machines and asked to join.”
In spite of his eagerness Mr Jordison didn’t rush in blindly.
“We did due diligence on the business,” he said.
“It was a good attachment to what we were doing, it had good returns and we thought we could manage it.
“We signed an agreement for exclusive access to that product in Central Queensland.
“It all felt good.”
Mr Jordison borrowed money and had even seen the machines with his name on them.
“It was all above board, but the machines never arrived,” he said.
Then he received a call from a friend who informed me that the machine’s distributor’s business was bankrupt.
“I recall telling my wife, ‘I think we’re stuffed’,” Mr Jordison said.
The six investors who had signed contracts for the machines hired a lawyer.
“It all worked out in the end,” he said.
“The parent company were keen to preserve their good name in the industry and they re-paid the money I’d borrowed, with interest.”
“I was still keen to invest in the machines though, but they told me they weren’t happy with the development of the their machine.”
“So in the end, it wasn’t about fraud.”
The lesson Mr Jordison learned though was important.
“Keep looking new income streams and ways to grow your business,” he said.
“But do your diligence and invest with reputable companies.”