Sole trader

How I ran five different businesses from home: SmartSolo

How I ran five different businesses from home

By Oliver Milman
Wednesday, 25 July 2012

how-I-did-it-sue-mckay-thumbAdelaide entrepreneur Sue McKay was more than happy to operate as a soloist from home when she launched her administration service Kick It To Me in 2005.


However, after spotting a number of different gaps in the market, McKay added a second, third, fourth and, finally, fifth business, all while working from her home in the suburb of Glenelg.


Earlier this year, she realised that her rapidly growing empire was beginning to completely swamp her home life and she made the transition into a commercial premises.


So how did she end up running five businesses from her spare bedroom and what tips does she have for other home-based start-ups that face the dilemma of whether to grow and move out or stay put?


McKay spoke to StartupSmart about how she has graduated her business out of her house and managed to improve her work/life balance in the process.


How did this growth kick off, so to speak?


The business almost took on a life of its own. I initially saw a gap in the market for administration services, where all I needed was a workstation, printer and filing space at home.


I was doing that when I was asked to do work outside that area. I have worked in marketing and events before, so I decided to move into the events space.


I would colour code the filing between admin work and events work. But then I realised that we could turn one of our apartments into accommodation.


It was a light bulb moment – the apartment was in the tourist area of Glenelg, near the beach and ideal for a holiday stay. I decided we would turn it into a furnished, serviced apartment.


Of course, this meant that we had to have somewhere to store all of the linen and so on, so we had to store that at home. We had cleaners for the apartment coming into the house to get the linen, so we had contractors coming in and out.


This activity increased as we grew the number of properties – we now manage the rental of four properties on behalf of others.


That’s very different from how you envisioned the business to start with, I imagine?


Yes, I thought I’d just be at home printing off and filing a few things. I was on a standard kind of wage, around $50,000 a year, from this business before I decided to expand it.


I always thought that the day would come when I’d grow the business, I just didn’t plan it to happen so quickly.


What happened then?


My husband, Dave, wanted to start-up another business after walking away from his previous venture, so I said it made sense for him to start Kick It To Me Trade, which is a property maintenance and trade division we started in 2009.


By now I thought I would run out of colours for my colour coding! But Dave could see that I was doing well and that the Kick It To Me brand could lend itself to almost everything.


I was getting the clients in and he could take it from there, he didn’t have to worry about the admin or back-end support, I could cover that. It made sense.


This new business took up even more room in the house – Dave kept his tools in the garage and the house in general was becoming more and more crowded.


But you decided to keep expanding the business?


Yes. Last year, I had a fire in my belly that needed quenching, which initially was a shopping service for people who wanted to put an outfit together or didn’t know the dress for a certain type of event.


But I then took it further than that and started an online op shop. I sourced the clothing, which was then sitting around the house, ready to be sold.


It started as a personal, sentimental thing – my mum and dad came over from Italy and all our clothes were always hand-me-downs. My mum didn’t speak any English, so I named the business Le Babe, which translates to ‘trash and treasure’ in Italian.


Although it was sentimental, there was certainly a gap in the market for it. People wanted the op-shop experience, but online. There’s been a real growth in that market in recent years.


You now employ people – how has that transition been?


I now have staff to work on different areas of the business while I try to manage from above. I have three staff and a further three contractors, which we took on in 2011.


It was a little scary initially as I knew nothing about superannuation, work cover, payment withholding and all the other obligations you have as an employer.


I think the core to the business overall has been the help I’ve had from others. I’ve never persisted with contacts that don’t deliver – so I found the right accountant, the right bookkeeper and the right IP attorney, to protect our brand.

Having that kind of network around you when you’re a sole trader is really important.


It has been manic, but I’ve managed to keep cool on the surface even though there’s mayhem going on inside. I love it because the business is mine and it’s very satisfying and rewarding.


What was your house like, with all these businesses jostling for space?


The home office had become jam-packed and the accommodation business needed space for linen and the breakfast goods.


We used the spare bedroom and then gradually filled the rest of the house. The washing machine was on non-stop and I’d have to do ironing at night in front of the TV.


The op shop took up the second bedroom, meaning that four rooms of the house were taken up by the business.


As much as I loved the business, I started resenting it. I realise that I couldn’t grow the business without getting premises. I just couldn’t cope with linen baskets being on the dining room table all the time.


What made you decide to find office space?


We were constantly shuffling things around the house whenever we had people over and we were dodging things that should’ve been in an office or in storage.


I had my fill of it. Home wasn’t home anymore – it had become one big office. You really need that physical separation from work in order to have a mental separation.


I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but rather than one word that sums up what I want to do for the rest of the year.


The word this year was “space” – both physical space and mental space. I knew I had to do this, so I started looking for premises.


What was your experience with the commercial rental market?


I knew I had to stay near Glenelg in order to service the accommodation here, as well as have somewhere that was ground floor with car parking access.


I did a lot of looking and door knocking before I could find anywhere. It took about the month.


It’s no secret that the area is very seasonal – it gets very busy during summertime – so I just couldn’t afford anywhere on the main street. I remember seeing a rental figure that was extraordinary, thousands and thousands of dollars a week, that made me realise I should look for a spare room or two in someone else’s office and sub-let.


That’s what I’ve ended up doing and it has worked out well. It’s me and three other staff in the office, although I stagger the times they are in the office so that they aren’t all in there at once and everyone has space.


How has the move benefited your business?


It’s been fantastic. Having an office gives you credibility you don’t have before. Clients can come here for meetings, whereas before I’d always want to go to their office.


It was a bit of a risk, as I was adding cost onto the business but it has paid off. I’ll be at the office or with clients during the day and while I’ll work at home too, because I’m a workaholic, it’ll be on the laptop, rather than being surrounded by linen.


Since we moved out, I’d say the trade services part of the business has grown by around 10%, while the other parts of the business are growing more gradually. I’ve done a letter box drop, but I think the move to the office has definitely been a reason for the growth.


With so many businesses under your belt, how you go about defining your brand to the market?


We get asked about the name a lot because people think it has something to do with football or kickboxing.


This is a good thing though because once you then explain what we offer, it starts a conversation and people take a business card. The name starts those kind of conversations.


There are a few elements to the business but the concept is the same – we do whatever you can’t do. We are solutions based, so if you have a problem, kick it to us.


We want to be the first words that come to mind when people have a problem they need solving.


We’ve moved so quickly so far that we want to consolidate a bit. I want to remove myself from the day-to-day work, so we are training up staff over the next year or so.


But we do want to move into new areas – I think the next venture will be Kick It To Us Tours. There’s a lot to see and do in Adelaide and a tours business would have good synergy with the accommodation business.


Finally, what tips would you have for other home-based businesses that are experiencing rapid growth?


It’s not rocket science, but the more organised you are at home, the better. If you have a proper, colour coded filing system, rather than leaving things strewn all over the house, it makes a huge difference.


It’s also important to be able to close the door on where the business takes place. When the business starts to encroach upon your living area, you don’t have much of a life anymore.


When that happens, you either need to get serious about the business and take the risk to grow it, or you scale things back. You can’t let the business just creep into your home life because it’ll start intruding on areas it shouldn’t and really get you down.


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