As any small business owner knows, the success of an enterprise depends just as much on your personal drive as much as your commercial acumen. As such, it is the personal circumstances of others in business as much as their professional experiences that can provide a genuine source of inspiration.
You need look no further than fashion designer and owner of Australian menswear label Aussie Essence, Grant Goldfinch, to learn a few things about hard work and determination.
One fateful morning
Halfway through completing a Bachelor of Education, Grant realised that teaching just wasn’t for him, and so he initially began an apprenticeship as a chef. But that too didn’t go to plan after the restaurant he was working at closed down, leading to him to look for work elsewhere.
That search took him to men’s underwear and swimwear start-up Aussie Bum. From a start-up business in the early 2000s, Aussie Bum has grown to an internationally renowned men’s underwear and swimwear brand, with turnover reportedly in the tens of millions from its website and exclusive international stockists.
“I just started learning every aspect of the business as it grew…and that’s where I gained all my experience in customer service, all sales operations, production… everything. Every year or two as the company grew, I would always be doing a different job role.”
It was during his 10 years with the company that a short commute to work one day irrevocably changed Grant’s life forever.
“In November 2008, I was on my way to work as a passenger [in a car],” says Grant.
“We stopped at a red light, the light turned green…and that was the last thing I remember. Everything I know about the accident is what other people have told me.
“A guy went straight through a red light, hit the passenger side I was on and I must have seen him at the last second and grabbed onto the seat [and my hand] got caught between the door and the seat.”
Grant says the force of the impact not only crushed his side of the car, but pushed it into a large metal pole on the other side of the street, reducing it to a mangled wreck.
“I was stuck in the car for about two to three hours. They had to get the Jaws of Life to cut it open,” he says.
The next two weeks in hospital are something of a blur to Grant, but he will never forget the multiple rounds of surgery and countless physiotherapy sessions that followed.
“I had the surgery on my fingers. They set my wrist in a cast. About 40 physio sessions later, they realised it needed surgery again, so they did that,” Grant says.
“The fingers were fantastic – a plastic surgeon fixed them up, which got my movement back. They then did the surgery on the wrist, and then a year later they realised it was not what it should have been, so I had to go back into hospital and have it re-broken.”
Yet this failed to result in any real improvement in the functionality of his wrist – which remains largely frozen in place today.
“It’s sort of just stuck in that position. It doesn’t bend, it doesn’t turn,” says Grant.
“I was halfway through the interview … and he just blatantly came out and said ‘No one is going to hire you with THAT’, pointing to my hand. I was stunned and shocked!”
A desire for change
As well as his health care professionals, Grant is quick to lavish praise on his employer, who supported him throughout the months he was off work and then his gradual return to work.
“I’ll forever be grateful to Aussie Bum. They really helped me throughout it – they went above and beyond what a lot of other employers would do,” he says.
But after a period of time, it became apparent that he had outgrown the business and needed a new challenge.
“I sat down with the owner and said ‘I’ve been here over 10 years, where am I going?’” explains Grant.
“I was very comfortable going into work nine to five. I knew the job inside and out; I could do it with my eyes shut.”
Initially, Grant hit the market as a jobseeker, looking to port his skills and experience somewhere new. However this proved to be a surprisingly big challenge.
“A lot of feedback I was getting at the time was that I didn’t have the formal qualifications, which a lot of the big corporations wanted, or I was overqualified for start-ups or smaller companies. I felt as though I was stuck in the middle,” Grant recalls.
The true inspiration to establish his own business, though, came after a fateful job interview.
“I was halfway through the interview … and he just blatantly came out and said ‘No one is going to hire you with THAT’, pointing to my hand. I was stunned and shocked!” Grant says.
“I walked out of there and I was very upset by it. It’s probably the first time I felt like someone was really judging me for my hand and what had happened.”
Despite not being someone who “usually takes gambles”, Grant felt that enough was enough.
“I just said to myself: ‘That’s it. I’m going to do it. I know what to do, I know how to do it and I’m just going to give it a go,” Grant explains.
“You’re not going to get anywhere wondering if you’re doing the right thing. As long as things are going forward, keep doing it. You can always change later on.”
Learning on the run
Grant admits that running his own business is infinitely more difficult than working as one of the first employees in a start-up owned by someone else.
“It was hard. It still is hard. It’s going to be hard for the next five to 10 years,” he says.
“Starting from scratch, it was a lot harder than I expected. I’ve been the first employee of another brand, I thought I knew it all…but until you do it yourself and it’s your dollar on the table, you really don’t know how much effort goes into it, how many times you feel like throwing up your hands and walking away from it.
“It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, to get it established,” he adds.
According to Grant, one of the biggest lessons he has learned about the transition from employee to business owner is the shift in power dynamics with existing contacts.
“I had been working in a job role where suppliers wanted to deal with me, having the buying power, having people wanting to deal with you constantly…and then going to the other side of being a small fish in a big ocean. It’s a different dynamic,” he explains.
“Because you’re dealing with a lot of the same people and you could really feel the dynamic of the relationship shift from having things like buying power to being a start-up. Not that people didn’t have the time for you, but you weren’t a priority for them anymore.”
Yet Grant and Aussie Essence are making in-roads into their aim of cornering their niche: Australian-made menswear.
“There’s so many brands in America that the Americans love because they are so patriotic, and that’s where I want Aussie Essence to be – I want people to think ‘Aussie Essence is Australian and proud of it’,” says Grant.
“I’m not claiming us to be high-end fashion, that’s not what Aussie Essence is. It’s an everyday brand: you can throw on a t-shirt, throw shorts on and head to the park or go out for a beer.”
At just 33 years of age, Grant already has so much advice to share with anyone else working in or starting up their own business. Yet he is unequivocal in what he is most eager to share.
“Do it your way,” he says.
“Take advice from people who are giving you advice, not people who are telling you that you’re doing it wrong. What works for one person doesn’t work for everyone.
“You’re not going to get anywhere wondering if you’re doing the right thing. As long as things are going forward, keep doing it. You can always change later on,” Grant adds.
Business: Aussie Essence
Industry: Men's clothing manufacturer and retailer