When Bronwyn Eager started her business, Creative Exchange, she quickly realised she was a little out of her depth.
“It was close to a total disaster,” she says of her early forays into business, which runs workshops that teach people resin casting so they can make home wares or jewellery.
“I signed up to retail leases and had bookwork piling up and just didn’t know how to attack it.”
“Did I have a business or just a nightmare?” she asked herself, before deciding that a formal business education was the best way she could get the business in shape.
Eager decided on a Masters of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Swinburne University, a course she felt would be appropriate after meeting a lecturer and discussing her situation.
Three years, many late nights and busy weekends later, Eager has completed the course and says that it has not only given her the theoretical knowledge she needed to get on top of business administration, but also “made it more exciting to run the business”.
“I was learning things at Uni that I could put straight back into the business,” she says.
“It made the business like a part of the degree. I would learn things and my brain was ticking over about how to put them into practice.”
One of the best lessons she learned was the value of strategic alliances, as this way of doing business has allowed Eager to cut costs and simplify her business.
“I work with shops that sell the materials, and I sell courses that I conduct on their premises,” she explains. “We share the same customers, but we sell to them in different capacities.”
“I can use their retail spaces, and market to their customer base to promote the workshops.” Doing so eliminates the need for a retail presence, and means Eager does not need to worry about acquiring stock and all the inventory management and cash flow complications that creates. The retailers, in turn, are happy for Eager’s presence as it helps them to sell materials and position as more than just a source of supplies.
Eager is now using the lessons she learned about modern marketing to tweak her website so it emphasises the creations people make in her workshops. That social approach, she hopes, will build community that results in repeat business and creates word of mouth about her business.
Being able to consider that kind of initiative, she feels, is only possible now that she has learned business fundamentals.
“I can really see the difference between an actual business versus a business that is really just an indulgence that turns into a nightmare,” she says.
When students are the best teachers
When Marie Najjar went to University to study a Masters in Communications, some of the most valuable things she learned came as big surprises.
“When I first started in public relations (PR) we used to fax out press releases,” says Najjar, Managing Director of Sydney PR company Public City. “Now that environment has changed so there was a lot I wanted to learn and I wanted to learn it with a mix of people from similar industries.” Going into the degree, she felt confident that academics would have developed a curriculum that made sense of the many changes in her industry. Along the way, she found that the experiences and insights of her fellow students – some of whom came from blue chip corporates or large government departments – were sometimes even more valuable.
“You can learn from the people in the room,” she says. “Sometimes what you learn from other students is just as valuable as the coursework.” Najjar also found that learning about herself was an important part of the experience of juggling work and study.
“I became meticulous about having things in my calendar,” she says.
“Once you decide a day is for study, you cannot break that regardless of what comes up.” She also learned lessons in flexibility. “Sometimes getting something done is more important than getting it done perfectly,” she says. “I would sometimes have the intention of reading 20 articles, but maybe it was only possible to read 12. I had to accept that maybe I was not going to get a High Distinction, but that at least I would have submitted my work and met the course requirements.” “In my last semester we moved office and my commitment to clients and staff were more important than study. I accepted I could only do what I could do.” Najjar told her clients she was studying and says there was no negative feedback, as she explained she was expanding her skills and therefore making her consultancy more valuable. But she went out of her way to make sure clients understood they should not and would not receive a lesser level of service.
“Rather than say to them that they would not lose my time, I just showed them they would not,” she says.
With her course complete, Najjar says the benefits of formal education are twofold. “As a business owner balancing study and work forced me to take a more disciplined approach,” she says. “It has also made me take another look at the approach we take. Sometimes the things you do in business become systematic. When you study, you look at things differently instead of doing them as a process.”
Lights, camera, education
Nineteen-year old Christopher Reavell knows a lot about film-making. His Canberra company, Velton Studios, has already created a 50-minute film – The Powder Clock (trailer embedded below) – that he describes as “a dark story, inspired by Quentin Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick, about an organisation that recruits people into a death ring.” The film has screened in Canberra cinemas and will shortly be released on DVD, feats that most aspiring film-makers would be proud to list on their curriculum vitaes.
Reavell is confident his future projects will be even bigger and better, thanks in part to his decision to pursue the TAFE qualification Certificate IV in Business and Management.
Deciding to attain the certification was not Reavell’s original plan, as he left school knowing he wanted to become a filmmaker and felt he had access to advice and skills that would mean he could put his productions first. “I have good family backing and relatives who work in finance,” he says. “I got a lot of help from them.” He also had an aversion to higher education, as he wanted to get straight into the hands-on business of film-making.
“I figured any degree does not guarantee a job,” he says.
“It is really up to you to make your own work known. You have to be in the industry, otherwise it does not matter how much education you have.” But as Velton studios became busier and Reavell wrote a business plan, he felt a little perspective could not hurt. He therefore applied for, and won entry into, the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme (NEIS).
This scheme offers income support to start-up entrepreneurs and includes an intensive education program that results in attainment of a Certificate IV in Business and Management.
Reavell says the scheme “gave me more chance to figure out what to provide to my clients, and I learned how to break down what my business was and how it could evolve in future.”
“The program covers all aspects of business including tax, administration and records-keeping. It re-enforced a lot of things I already knew, but it also gave me a lot of contacts and networking opportunities that I thought would be helpful for the business.”
One of those opportunities was financial, as the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (which runs the NEIS program) helped Reavell to obtain a loan. Velton Studios has used that money to invest in better equipment, which should mean future productions are more impressive than their predecessors.
“I feel like the Certificate confirms my qualifications and competency as a business owner,” he says.
And business is good. Velton has branched out into filming events for corporate clients and is doing a little web development too. But features are the product Reavell hopes he can concentrate on in future.
“We’re working on features already,” he says. “We got a good response to The Powder Clock and it has encouraged us to move on to bigger and better projects.”
Office skills power garage sales
Heidi Schramm once decided she would fit out a child’s bedroom for just $100, by shopping exclusively at garage sales.
“We did it for $87,” she recalls. “We got a bed, a dresser, a shelf ... everything we needed.” That experience gave Schramm an insight into how addictive garage sales can become and ultimately inspired her current business, www.whatgaragesale.com.au.
The site aims to be a hub for those who buy and sell at garage sales, offering advice and advertising to sellers and notifications of upcoming sales for buyers.
The latter group, Schramm says, are “quite a subculture. A lot of people in the garage sale world want to get that bargain no matter what it is. They want to be ahead of the pack.” “We understand that addiction and that helps us to service the people who are really connected into our particular culture.” But when Schramm and her partner planned how their site could serve its community, she realised she did not understand the back office operations needed to run a successful business.
“When we started the business in September 2009 we sat down and decided the roles that would need to be fulfilled and who would fill them. There are only two of us and I agreed to do financial management, but having never handled finances before I felt quite daunted.” Schramm quickly decided that she needed formal training, rather than learning on the job.
“I decided that if I did a course I could swim, I would understand the structure and needs of the business. I wanted to be an asset, not a liability.” Schramm chose a Community Learning Centre’s basic business course, a decision she made partly because such courses are low cost. Location was another important element, as Schramm has a fulltime job outside the business, and hoped her business education would not dominate her little free time.
“Something close to home was important and the Community Learning Centre is just five minutes’ drive,” she says.
The short course took just a few weeks, but Schramm feels it made a big difference.
“One thing I took away was how important your financial scorecard is to a business. That pushed me to form a great relationship with my accountant and really use the services he provides. I may not have done that without the course.”
“The other thing I learned came from a lecturer who was a bit of a maverick. In our very first class he introduced us to wealth coach Mal Emery. Their philosophy is to build the business to be an asset,” rather than just a replacement for a paid job. They instilled in me the idea of building a business that can be sold or franchised so that you understand how everything you are doing works towards that aim.”
That goal and the thinking to achieve it, Schramm says, are not ideas she would have encountered without seeking out formal business education and sustain her as she works on the business in her spare time at home.