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My dirty little secret: Confessions from 10 successful entrepreneurs

Monday, 10 February 2014 | By Yolanda Redrup

They’re prosperous, intelligent and tech savvy. They dress well, have an air of confidence and foresight that makes others jealous, but even the most successful entrepreneurs have secrets.

They’ve made mistakes, spent too much money and hired people they shouldn’t. They’ve got tricks to make their businesses look bigger, have forsaken their staff over their customers and have had failed ventures before finding their winning idea.


SmartCompany spoke to 10 successful entrepreneurs about their biggest business secrets.


I pretended my business was bigger and invented whole departments


Attracting clients to a new business can be tough when there are more experienced, larger competitors in the field.


Naturally, some business owners try to inflate the size of their company when starting out.


Elle Belle Recruitment founder Linda Lewin didn’t have an office when starting out, but that didn’t stop her pretending.


It (the business) was started in the spare bedroom in our apartment at the time, and we did everything such as the interviewing in coffee shops, that made it look like we were bigger than we were – all of the illusion,” she says.


While still in the planning stage of establishing her company, Lewin built her client base through the White Pages.


“It was my planning stage, so I couldn’t say anything to anyone. It was purely just building a data base… getting all the cold leads and cold calling done over six months.”


Entrepreneurs and small business owners are well-accustomed to doing everything in the business, but that’s not necessarily what you want your clients to know.


“We did a few things to make our business look bigger than it really was. For the first 18 months I was the accounts team, but I commonly used comments like ‘please call our accounts team,’ or ‘our accounts team will get back to you’,” InfoReady founder Tristan Sternson says.


“Sometimes on the phone I would say, ‘sorry about the dog barking in the background - one of my staff has that sound as a ring tone’. That is because for the first six months our business cards had a blue chip Collins Street address on it, but we actually worked from my house. Corporate accommodation was my spare bedroom, and the dog barking was actually was my dog Fonzy.”


I bought my own product


InfoReady now has a legitimate Collins Street address, but Sternson didn’t get there without saving money.


“To save on costs we flew cheap flights from Avalon in Melbourne. It saved us on both parking and flights costs for the whole first year,” he says.


For up-and-coming fashion retailers it can be hard to resist buying your own clothes and accessories, a problem Net-a-Porter co-founder and now consultant and non-executive director Megan Quinn encountered.


“I managed to get myself on the top 50 clients of Net-a-Porter during the first year of business, not once but twice (by sneakily using two email addresses),” she says.


“My accountant would suggest that I was basically paying to be at the company...but I prefer to think that it was a stoic example of being willing to buy what we sold!”


I created an impressive but confusing logo


Prior to co-founding NAP Quinn had started a cleaning company called Partners in Grime. Launching a company in England during the 1991 recession was a bold move, but a clever logo helped her attract customers.


“I designed an insignia logo for the uniforms and corporate identity that featured the letters C.I.N.T.G. under the Dragnet style badge. My clients assumed that it stood for some international cleaning body, when in fact it stood for "Cleanliness is next to Godliness”,” she says.


“I dare say those five letters opened a lot of doors initially.”


It was my way or the highway


In 1990 Kate Costello started her own consulting firm Governance Matters, but it took her a few years to realise she didn’t always know best.


“I always used to think I knew the way to do something. Coming from a background in law, I was used to thinking in black and white and critiquing what people were saying,” she says.


“I used to think my way was always the way to do it and it took me forever to learn to actually shut up and listen. I used to think my ideas were the best, but in reality if the market doesn’t want them, who cares.”


I failed


In Australia’s entrepreneurial climate failure is often hard to accept, but co-founder of app development company Imagine Team Zakaria Bouguettaya discovered you can learn from failure.


“We launched an app ‘LifeGym’, an app that rewarded women that went to the gym. Users earned points for checking in at the gym, and when they earned enough points, they got to choose rewards that we would send to them,” he says.


“We didn’t have any women working on the project and very quickly found out that we didn't understand women as well as we thought we did, and that the awards we were giving failed to motivate our users. In fact, we found almost half our users were men looking for free stuff! We shut down the app later that week.”


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I discovered fake reviews


Ever been faced with a bad review and wondered who wrote it? Milan Direct found Dean Ramler has encountered this problem time and time again, and then he started to notice a trend.


“Some of our competitors are stooping to very low levels and leaving fake reviews about our business online. We know this because the same account almost always leaves a five star and glowing review about their own business on the same day,” he says.


“This is the only way many think they can compete with us, but we don’t lose any sleep over it. Any company that we have found to do this, we proactively go out and find the exact same products they are selling and manufacture them ourselves, but happily sell them at cost price!”


I set negotiation parameters


The biggest lesson Vinomofo co-founder AndreEikmeier has learnt in the past few years is to set a bracket in order to achieve your desired negotiation outcome.


“One of the most important parts of any negotiation is establishing a range. Then the games begin within that range, to arrive at a number that works for both,” he says.


“But the establishment of what that range is - that's the most important part. If they say one and you say three, you're going to be haggling between those numbers and will probably end up somewhere close to two. If they say one and you say 10, even if 10 is ridiculous, you're going to be haggling between those numbers and will probably end up somewhere closer to three.”


I doubted myself


In the early 1990s Quinn interviewed for a senior position at a new job. At the time she felt she was ill-equipped, and let this feeling ruin her chances of getting the position.


“At the end of an enjoyable interview with a CEO of a big company in London, he leaned back in his chair and looked at me. ‘You'd either be absolutely BRILLIANT at this job...or BLOODY awful...and I can't decide which’,” she says.


“In typical female fashion, I replied, ‘I know- I can't decide either.’ He seemed to work out that it would be the latter outcome, and bade me farewell.”


I started my business by accident


Founder of renowned Melbourne restaurant David’s and the Oriental Teahouse chain, David Zhou started his restaurant by accident.


Originally Zhou had been content with a single table and chair so people could sample his tea before purchasing it, but in 1999 he was unable to secure a licence for the teahouse and he emerged as a restaurateur.


“I ended up with 100 seats and a fully licensed restaurant, David’s restaurant opening wasn’t intentional. It was just because a lady nearby told me I needed to get a permit for my table and chair,” he says.


“So I went to ask for one at the council and the man behind the counter asked me how many seats I wanted it for. I didn’t know, but he helped me work out I could have 100 seats… then my restaurant journey started.”


I hired crap staff


Hiring the right people is a common problem faced by business owners, and founder of Aged Foot Care Australia Damien James admits he used to hire “crap staff”.


“When I started my business all my colleagues told me I’d never attract great staff into aged care because the scope of practice was so limited. For the first few years I believed them and our service delivery suffered,” he says.


“Then I came to the realisation that by introducing excellent recruitment and retention programs and benefits for staff, I could make our company a great place to work – and that’s helped us attract a fabulous and committed team.”


For a while, James says he also valued his customers more than his team members.


“But I have learnt that if you take care of your team first, it makes them happy and in turn, they ensure our customers are happy,” he says.


“Shifting the focus to my team is our ‘secret sauce’ – and the outcome is that our customers are happier than ever. Opposite thinking has now become our competitive advantage.”


Things went pear shaped


If you take your eye of the ball as a business owner, it can be a swift transition from booming business to financial ruin. Fortunately for Old Colonial Cookie Company owner Howard Dray he was able to turn around his fortunes.


“Things can start to go pear-shaped and it’s a reality check. In 2008 I’d been going for nine year and the business was booming, we had nearly 50/50 exports and local trade, but then the global financial crisis hit,” he says.


“We had no control over that… but it was a process call that something wasn’t working in the business. When something does go wrong you have to look at it, be honest with yourself and ask how, why and where.”


This article first appeared on SmartCompany.