Brendan McKeegan says an entrepreneur is someone who gives themselves the opportunity to capitalise on timing and luck. It’s a definition proven as much by failure as success for the Surf coast resident who can now best be described as a serial entrepreneur.
“If you’re risk averse, maybe you shouldn’t consider being an entrepreneur. Risk is part of the business but it must be calculated,” he told Entrepreneurs Geelong’s In Conversation Breakfast audience recently.
The first step in his business life and ultimately to defining that life came when he accepted a scholarship to study information technology after finishing his HSC. The IT course, sponsored by names like IBM and Hewlett Packard, had a curriculum driven by business IT needs and their relevance to real life.
While admitting “I still can’t code to save myself” a placement to work with ICI (now Orica) came Brendan’s way during the course and luck and timing saw him head to the UK with ICI. This was to give him the global perspective that dictates his subsequent business successes.
Returning to Australia in the late 1990s he became involved with Hitwise, a business that capitalised on using data drawn from the fast growing Internet industry to aid marketing. Brendan’s role was to take Hitwise global, the success of which was to see the business acquired for $240 million in 2007, thereby paving the way for his involvement with various IT-related businesses.
A decade on it is his global perspective which sees a strong focus on the market potential of China. His first success was the securing of one of only 300 licences to supply infant formula to the Chinese market, an achievement built on putting in place in Australia an integrated supply chain of farms, production and packaging.
Exposure to China as a market convinces him that to succeed “you must help China to lift its game by ensuring that whatever you do helps create jobs in China.” Co-branding with Chinese companies has not only helped the Australian product find its way into some 30,000 retail outlets but has helped defray the enormous expense of brand building in that huge market .
As failure can equally define an entrepreneur, Mr McKeegan is not without examples in his CV. While a business to market personal oxygen ran out of puff he says much was learned along the way about offshore marketing and patents. A credit card authorisation business cemented another guideline that there are times when an entrepreneur should not push too hard.
In an operational sense “you must also realise you may not be the right person to run the business and that perhaps you need business partners with skills which compliment your own. You should also accept remaining hands off with what others are doing,” he advises.
Having travelled extensively he says living or working from a regional location is irrelevant.
“It is critical however to understand your global customers and to do so you must keep asking questions along the way which help support the growth and direction of the business.”
From the perspective of someone living in regional Victoria, Brendan may well be at odds with conventional thinking about marketing: if it can work globally, it should work here, although he acknowledges there are circumstances in which Australia may be a good test market.
While many entrepreneurial initiatives begin around developing a product and then trying to get it to market, Mr McKeegan’s journey has proven that conventional thinking can be overturned: a resilient supply chain is essential to ensure a ready market for baby formula.
In further defining them, Mr McKeegan says “entrepreneurs have an innate understanding or self-belief that they are on the right track”. So, while collaboration is important sometimes the people closest to you “don’t see what you see, so it is important to have a wide circle to relate to.”
Brendan acknowledges there is no recipe to determine if a business is on track to grow.
“But,” he cautions, “if it smells like it’s off, you need to react.”
Outlining the issues influencing entrepreneurship he nominates his highest priorities as finding the right people and cultural alignment, followed by finance.
“By finance I mean the importance of having a cash flow model. You can’t palm this off to an accountant. “
It is also important to document your goals: to get them from your brain to down on paper.
“And, if you aren’t good at something, get someone to do it that is. For example, it is an offshore company which prepares and provides our reports on those areas of Australian agriculture which affect our business interests.”
Working a lot from home, he typically starts his day with a coffee and reading the papers
“Entrepreneurship shouldn’t be about working 80 hours a week all the time. It has its peaks and troughs but it does appeal more than the corporate lifestyle that I once lived. I realised I was not suited to it,” he said.
He gets most excited by working on something from scratch, regardless of the ultimate outcome.
“Don’t get side-tracked, despite each day throwing up a plethora of ideas. I concentrate on one thing at a given point in time, even though that may be my specific role, across multiple businesses. “