Australia’s youngest-ever university student shares his experience in business, why he chose to work for himself, and the lessons you can only learn in the real world.
At face value, Mel Myers looks just like any other business owner: humble, unassuming and passionate about his field. However, Mel is anything but.
He became Australia’s youngest university student at the tender age of 12, studying maths and IT through open learning at Deakin University. At age 14 he began attending the University of the Sunshine Coast, and graduated three years later with a degree in business, majoring in information systems.
He then launched his first business, which he had to do in partnership with his dad, as he was still under the legal age of 18 years required to own a business.
Mel chats with My Business about applying everything he studied to the world of business, being a serial entrepreneur and the advice he would give to others looking to expand or launch their own business.
Having started your first business at age 17, was it frustrating to not be able to legally implement everything you had learned in your own right?
Extremely so. One big thing [was that] I wasn't able to have a credit card. It wasn't actually necessarily to spend money, but made it very difficult to purchase things that you need.
Of course, instant banking wasn't as prolific as it is now … it was also very difficult to make purchases for anything that you might need for pretty much anything. That was probably the single biggest thing.
What made you want to get into business in the first place?
I've always been the sort of person who likes to do my own thing ... I'm a big believer in live or die by the sword: if you do something well, you can take the credit … if something goes belly up and something's a disaster, it's your responsibility as well, and it swings both ways.
Being your own boss … there's no hiding behind anything: you're fully responsible for your actions, whether that's good or bad. You can set the pace, you can run as quickly or slowly as you want, and you're not restrained by a system. You're not waiting for other people, because it really falls onto yourself. I'm the sort of person who might like to move along fairly rapidly with a lot of things and move on to develop ideas and [act] on those.
You've had quite a few businesses over the years. Can you take us through those?
You actually have a business that sort of ends up morphing to another. Apart from very, very early days, I guess you could say I was sort of consulting and fixing up computers and everything when I was very, very young, but I wouldn't necessarily call those businesses, because I wasn't really earning any money. My first proper business, I would have been around about 16 or 17. I was actually earning a proper income.
Then from there I had an online shop, which had a partner as well. He was doing the product side of things and I was doing the actual technology. That was one of the early online shops, I think that was '98. That was a proper, genuine shopping cart way back in the day … called the BuyersClub.com. my partner at the time wanted to run in a particular direction, stock certain products, [and] I wanted to do things in a different way. There were no major disagreements, but I wanted to do a different thing than what he wanted to do, so I ended up selling my part of the business to him, and he ran with that one.
One that did fairly well, which was another online shop, and that was about 2003 I think I started that, was buying and selling computer software.
I moved back into development after that, and that one's still running to this day, so that one's four. My web development business, I guess you'd call it five and six, which is called morphing into Jetpack [Web Design]. And now I've got BoxBrownie.
Why have you changed so much between different businesses and areas?
If you look at my original web business, that kind of ended up morphing into my secondary business, which is business number four, I guess you could say. That one then morphed to be branded into number five or number six, and then that one sort of morphed and branded again.
They're sort of new businesses, but on the other hand it's not really a whole new business from scratch. That's probably the best way of looking at it.
The market is always very fast-changing, things are evolving ... it's taken me some time to really understand the focus a bit more, of what I really want to do. I guess it's the result of learning: as you progress and the time goes on you get a bit wiser.
Do you think that's a trap that a lot of people fall into, thinking a business can last forever?
Absolutely. There's so many businesses – both large and small – where very much you adapt or die. Businesses that have done well [have done so] because they've adapted. You can look at Kodak [and] unlimited examples of businesses that because they couldn't adapt, they ended up going under or not doing as well.
I think that adaptation is actively important and I think it's becoming more and more the case as time goes on.
Your current business BoxBrownie is a digital photo editing service, operating largely in the real estate space. Given that technology is becoming more and more readily available to consumers, how does BoxBrownie protect itself against the threat of customers doing the work themselves?
BoxBrownie is an outsourcing model. We've got Australian staff that do custom service and quality control and that type of thing, but the core of the editing ... you've seen photo editing done for a dollar and three dollars and that type of thing, it's offshore. There's no secret about that.
On one hand we've got real estate agents and many others that have listings, and a full site. They send photos and floor plans and all that through to us. We do the edits and send it back to them and they're happy and [it looks] fantastic.
Over time we would expect that there will be more people that are doing it directly themselves or maybe they'll be aggregated, or maybe real estate agents will change and they'll become a fee-for-service type arrangement, but in some way, shape or form we know that the work still needs to be done, so the type of service that we're offering, there's going to be a demand for that in some way, shape or form.
Yes we charge $30, yes you can go directly overseas and you might be able to get it a little bit cheaper, but what we need to do is, we actually provide the systems and the process and the efficiencies and the quality control, and we provide enough value that it's not worthwhile [for] somebody to go direct.
Business name: BoxBrownie
Industry: Digital imaging
Location: Sunshine Coast, Queensland
Number of employees: Six in Australia, plus equivalent of 50 abroad (including full-time and part-time subcontractors).
Customer base: Majority within Australia, 10 per cent overseas.