There’s a similar “point of commitment” between catching a wave and starting a business. Anyone who has ever surfed would understand this analogy that Alistair Lawson endorses.
In the water it’s the time when you start paddling hard until you feel the pull of the wave take over. In business it comes when you realise your idea has momentum, so you must go with it.
While a passion for surfing was to be the catalyst for Alistair relocating to Australia, the idea for his award winning business Great Ocean Road Surf Tours started much earlier when, as a youngster without a car, no one could take him to England’s surfing beaches on the Cornish coast.
Surfing however was not his first love. As a six year old he was captivated by martial arts. It was for his business Elite Taekwondo that he won his first business award in Australia.
But the emotional pull of the waves continued and neither living in an outer eastern suburb of Melbourne or a seven month old daughter would prevent him and his family moving to Torquay and launching a surf school more than a decade ago.
With several awards behind him Alistair recommends submitting to awards as a means of refining his businesses and looking for new ideas.
“The processes you go through give you a much greater return than just an award. You understand your business a lot better. Submitting to an award acts as a health check on a business.”
The underlying philosophy of Great Ocean Road Surf Tours provides an insight into why the business has garnered a variety of awards since it was set up in 2006.
“We want our customers to become as good as they can be when they are on one of our courses, whether they are with us for a few hours or several days,” Alistair says.
Staffing is pivotal to achieving that outcome.
“Great surfers may not necessarily be great teachers and vice versa. They are there to teach surfing all day,” Alistair says.
It is important to live the culture and staff must show a passion, something which is encouraged in staff competitions for photography or videos.
Choosing staff with the right qualifications such as OH&S, working with children and surf coaching is important, as well as ensuring these qualifications are updated regularly, as required.
Alistair acknowledges that “finding a point of difference has helped make us successful even though the business is founded on how I wanted to teach surfing, rather than what a competitor might offer.”
With customers coming from around the word, from a marketing point of view it is essential to understand what is important to each person, including images on brochures, telephone interaction and photographs.
“Honesty in marketing is essential,” Alistair says. He is very much “hands on” with using tools like Facebook and Instagram but cautions that not all marketing tools work. A 1800 telephone number for example proved unsuccessful for his business.
Equally, he advises not to try and hit back at critics on TripAdvisor. The likelihood of such criticism is minimised he says by having comprehensive and explicit terms of business on the company’s website.
With customer satisfaction remaining his highest priority, Alistair does a regular analysis of the business and asks himself how it might be run more successfully even though some services have been trialled and discarded when they adversely affected profitability.
Being an entrepreneur means that taking risks is mandatory but so too is having a backup plan Alistair says.
“Understand your business model and be willing to take advice. But be careful to avoid the sort of statutory warnings that say ‘this advice is general in nature’. Rather choose advice that takes your actual business into account,” he adds.
And while progressively bigger waves might strike fear into the L-plate surfer, Alistair’s experience suggests the successful entrepreneur like a big wave rider, has the knack of translating fear into excitement.
If a close family member described it as an “awful idea” for a new business, would you continue?
What about if you were a 20-something year old and it was your Father using those words?
Fortunately, Georgia Beattie persisted with her idea for a single serve package of ready-to-drink wine, even dragging her Father along to meetings to help overcome some of the cultural hurdles that presented themselves when doing business in Asia.
Addressing Entrepreneurs Geelong’s most recent seminar, Georgia exuded the energy and animation that saw her turn a simple idea into a business which she sold last year to international interests.
Now, barely five years after she launched that business, she is bringing the same sort of motivation and enthusiasm to her role as CEO of StartUp Victoria, the organisation whose mandate is to establish Victoria as the number one tech start-up destination in the Asia Pacific region.
Growing up in a wine-producing family Georgia discovered that no wine was being served at a local festival because there weren’t single serve, ready-to-drink solutions. At the time she was studying entrepreneurship, so she decided to create her own brand in a single serve package, as well as manufacture and pitch the packaging concept to a cross section of major Australian wine producers.
While beer and spirits had been the subject of packaging innovation over time, wine hadn’t, remaining “very traditional” she said. A conceptually simple package- a peel off foil lid on a rigid plastic glass-Georgia’s first manufacturing efforts at ironing a foil top onto a glass were not successful and in fact ruined a friend’s iron.
Citing Steve Jobs oft-quoted comment about the background to the iPhone, Georgia could see no point in researching a product that didn’t yet exist.
But she said you should subject your ideas to feedback from others even if her Father’s initial negative response reflected his identity “as a serious wine person”.
“By doing so you don’t risk others stealing your ideas because no one can actually see your vision of what you are aiming for. They may not see its potential and how you are able to realise it,” she says.
In the journey to create a viable business on the foundation of her idea, Georgia says her biggest and it turns out most expensive mistake was to accept a small amount of seed capital from an organisation in the injection moulding sector.
Georgia’s business quickly began to outgrow that organisation which could not see beyond Australia. When its pricing became uncompetitive she had to buy them out.
“So look for the sort of business partners who share your vision and can offer the capability to scale up over a five to 10 year period,” she advises.
Having secured a commitment from catering outlets of major event venues in Australia to carry her single serve wine package Georgia found the multi-brand wine company Treasury Wine Estates receptive to the concept.
In Australia it was a case of aiming for the volume sales typically made at events such as concerts. In Japan it was the need to get the product onto retail shelves. Those who championed the one glass cause in new markets typically shared a similar entrepreneurial mindset to Georgia’s. She also notes that in Asia, Japan and Korea are “influencer countries in which you have to establish a track record of 12 months or more.
Cultural differences can be critical in some markets, especially for young females, so on occasions “when I needed some grey hair in the room, I would borrow someone or drag my Father (by then a convert) into the negotiations,” Georgia said.
She notes that different countries and cultures dictated different approaches to marketing. Entering overseas markets she was actively in trade shows, ahead of which she chased media coverage, even writing stories for reporters.
“I did all the media relations which for a fun product made it easy,” Georgia recalls.
Last year she exited the business and was appointed CEO of Startup Victoria. Its mandate is to encourage more people to make the jump into entrepreneurship and support the development of a sophisticated high growth start-up culture. She is responsible for the launch of the new digital platform for the community and Australia’s first in-depth start-up data collection.
It may come as a surprise to people unfamiliar with traditional print journalism that the culture of daily newspapers is one of fierce competition. Both journalists and photographers alike vie to showcase their achievements in what all would agree are too few pages.
As a young photographer, Darryn Lyons’ ambition was to get his images published on the front and back pages of the Geelong News, every day.
He acknowledges that this fierce work ethic played a big part in his ongoing career success “but I also took risks,” he told a recent Entrepreneurs Geelong’s In Conversation Breakfast audience.
Like the time he became the front page news when a work colleague photographed him getting too close and personal as he was trying to capture an image of a rhinoceros at the newly opened Werribee Zoo. And later, when he was thought to be the first Australian photographer working on London’s Fleet Street, he said “if there was the potential to be killed, the editor would send me.”
So it was he built his reputation behind the Iron Curtain, over the Berlin Wall and in various war zones, thereby paving the way for his initial business success as a paparazzi and founder of a global business which specialised in photographing the rich and famous.
Years earlier it was selling signed photographs of his cricketing hero, Dennis Lillee, to school mates which pointed to the entrepreneur that the youngster from Herne Hill was becoming by the time he returned to live in Geelong. Business interests in nightclubs, property development and hospitality were balanced by a wish to serve the public which saw him directly elected as Mayor of Geelong.
Of his early career he says “working in the press was an incredible drug. It was exciting to get up and go to work.”
Admitting to “no negatives in his DNA”, Darryn Lyons took his camera and flak jacket on three tours of the Bosnian uprising which he describes as “a bit like World War 1 being fought with .303 rifles and the occasional AK47.”
“War is exciting and a sense of mortality didn’t come into it,” he said, even though he acknowledges that accepting the smell of death is bizarre.
If Uber and Airbnb are labelled disruptive to the traditional travel and accommodation sectors, then the label might equally have been applied to the unfulfilled niche market that Mr Lyons saw in the print media industry-namely photographing the rich and famous.
“It was a case of being in the right place at the right time with a roll of film costing £2 and I might capture images that with worldwide syndication would garner £50,000 in sales.”
If this was the big picture of an emerging market, Darryn Lyons also knew that to sell them, editors would want to see more than miniscule images on a 35mm colour proof sheet. He became a very early adopter of the technology to print 8 inch by 10 inch images which left editors in no doubt about what they could buy.
So, at its height Mr Lyons photographic syndication business would draw on the skills of more than 1000 photographers scattered around the world’s celebrity hot spots.
Almost forty years into a busy life, and having returned the mayoral robes to the coat hanger, he admits to having worked as hard as ever but not without learning it was a mistake to try and do too much.
Delegation is very important as is the need for an entrepreneur to have good financial advice as well as the opinions of someone opposite him to keep him grounded.
“And, don’t be greedy. Share your dream with like-minded people.”
They no doubt feel the benefit of ski jackets bearing the XTM logo but it’s a fair bet that many of the homeless recipients of these jackets, sleeping rough on our city streets, would not know of Pete Forras. But the former Olympic athlete doesn’t care about remaining anonymous.
As winter makes itself felt across the country, those lucky enough to receive a jacket are benefitting from “Heat the Homeless” a program initiated by XTM in conjunction with its retail partner outlets which encourages people to donate a second hand ski jacket.
So, while Peter Forras enjoys the market share achieved by the XTM range of ski garments, he says one of the benefits of being a successful entrepreneur is “being able to give something back to society and ultimately leave a better company” than the one he co-founded.
With a history of nearly twenty years, XTM’s popularity as a brand can be seen among those taking to Australia’s slopes this winter. Next February athletes from three countries at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea will wear the garments, which are designed on Victoria’s surf coast.
The company that is XTM had its beginnings after Peter represented Australia at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics in the men’s downhill.
He started skiing at Mt Buller after his father, having migrated from Hungary, bought the first hotel on the mountain.
As a youngster seeing a photo of the Olympic team, Peter was inspired to compete as a skier and from the age of 15 he moved between Australia and the slopes of the northern hemisphere to train and compete, operating largely on his own.
He describes his skiing career as encompassing everything “from exhilaration to extreme disappointment”, the latter emotion most evident following a bad crash before the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.
But, having achieved his goal of making the Olympic team he realised the need to re-set his goals after 1988, a decision which saw him begin to help some friends in their company selling headbands for skiers. It kept him in the sport and enabled him to capitalise on a good global network.
“It was six successful years, uninterrupted by any competition, until the market dried up and we got ourselves in a hole,” Mr Forras said.
Harbouring a long term aspiration to supply garments to the Australian Olympic team, he and his partners started XTM with a modest range of gloves.
The big change came when the company expanded its product range to include garments.
Securing a licence to use Gore-Tex fabric not only helped foster new products for XTM but it was also a catalyst for the company to realise the importance of moving to a higher echelon with the brand.
“We had to ensure that athletes were happy with the product first before we approached retailers,” Mr Forras said.
XTM’s growth was helped by a “floundering” competitor in the domestic market and also that it had fostered a favourable reputation with representatives in the ski garment sector
Peter Forras stresses the importance of having a clear vision of what a business is about.
He acknowledges he has learned some lessons along the way from failures. Of these the most important is to “know your maths, regarding cash flow.”
Now a strong player in a small domestic market for snow and outdoor wear –where there are only some seven ski resorts compared with several thousand elsewhere-XTM’s initial endeavours to sell locally designed garment lines internationally met some headwinds.
Among the lessons learned from expanding into export, Peter Forras says “we learned not to run into the first opportunity, to do due diligence and to have a clear cut business arrangement.”
Operating from a converted residence at Jan Juc on Victoria’s surf coast, XTM’s headquarters might at first sight seem at odds with its target market but Peter Forras explains that skiers and surfers enjoy a similar lifestyle.
“Importantly we learned a lot about distribution and marketing from the founders of Rip Curl who were trail blazers in a global industry and whom we count as mentors.”
Over time XTM has assembled a great team of nearly 30 staff says Mr Forras.
They share in the corporate vision to support campaigns for social justice and environmental issues. In the past eight years this has seen XTM offset its total carbon footprint and initiate “Heat the Homeless” which relies on the support of some 25 retailers of XTM garments in Australia.
It’s no accident that Sharyn Johnston chose a pun by which to name her first tea bar in the Geelong CBD.
‘TeaCha’ is the latest venture in a career that has seen her re-invent herself to become a global force in teaching people about the world’s second most consumed drink under the business umbrella that is Australian Tea Masters.
Drawing on years overseas as a specialist in corporate restructuring, she became fascinated with the varieties of tea and how it was consumed.
Returning to Geelong, Sharyn set her heart on opening a quiet neighbourhood café. With a focus on hand-blended and specialty teas, the café would also offer good coffee.
But perhaps in deference to Australia’s obsession with coffee the journey to becoming a global tea expert started with a diversion when the person selected to manage that café couldn’t take up the role. So Sharyn and son Nathan grasped the nettle; son roasting coffee on site while Mother managed front of house. Sharyn’s café ended up becoming Nathan’s café and together they laid the foundations for what would become the well-known Coffee Cartel.
But Sharyn acknowledges “there is no way that Cartel would be where it is today without Nathan’s passion for learning everything from roasting to branding and overall knowledge about coffee. Working alongside him and understanding more about specialty coffee made me realise that there were as many, if not more complexities in tea.”
She had also noted that while tea is grown in many countries there was little by way of cross-cultural awareness of tea between those countries. But it was her difficulty in finding a tea education course so she could become tea-literate that pointed to a massive but untapped business opportunity.
Aiding her education she drew on her international contacts to learn about tea, from growing it to drinking it. She visited real tea factories which she says were not the sanitised versions featured on TV travelogues. While noting that the tea industry is 99 percent men, she counsels the need to think about the business on a non-sexist basis.
These initiatives helped lay the foundations for Australian Tea Masters which today offers a range of services including tea education and training, private label blending, tea-related events and tea business advice. The wholesale business provides some eight tonnes of tea a year for 120 private label blends in Australia and last year alone the business made one million tea bags. With an office in Singapore and plans for further international expansion, TeaCha is her first venture into tea at a retail level.
Keen to ensure a legacy, she was recently advised that after a long and detailed process, the Government had accredited the first tea school in Australia.
“The Australian Institute of Tea will be responsible for managing our education agenda,” she said.
Sharyn’s most important advice to aspiring entrepreneurs in any field is “to save and start slowly to avoid stress. You must have cash behind you to sustain you when things get quiet,” she counsels, citing times with which she was familiar early in the life of her business.
As a restructuring expert she learned the importance of needing to know all the job roles in an organisation.
“Understand that no one is irreplaceable, even myself,” she said.
This lesson came home to her when she was charged with restructuring a company in Germany. Speaking little or no German she started on the ground floor of the company rather than the top floor which housed the executive ranks.
“You need to push through cultural and other boundaries and recognise that respect for people is very important. A packer is as important as the managing director.”
Passion and perseverance and the need to stay focussed are the essential requirements for building a business,” she says.