Without even realising it, 22-year-old Harry Sanders is an inspiration to many. His incredible journey from youth homelessness to thriving business owner is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Virtually every story of building a business involves considerable hard work and perseverance, overcoming adversity and a good dose of self-belief. But very few have taken the “rags to riches” path more earnestly than Harry Sanders.
At just 14 years of age, he dropped out of school to help his father’s struggling business. By 17, he was homeless after circumstances conspired against him.
It is a sad but all too common experience in our society. Homelessness Australia, citing 2016 census figures, says that there 116,427 Aussies without a home. That equates to 50 in every 10,000 people being homeless.
“My family hasn’t really got any wealth or never really came from a wealthy background. So, my mom was homeless, couch surfing, and had a bit of a falling out with my dad. I had a stepmum and then had a falling out there. And literally all of a sudden [I was homeless],” Harry said in an episode of the My Business Podcast.
“It was very sudden, to be honest, and it’s not something that anyone ever expects or plans for. And I know all my buddies that I made and were friends with while during that period that were also homeless, no one ever expects to go through that.”
The “wake-up call” that he had hit rock bottom, Harry explained, was when he had to seek out shelter to protect himself from the elements.
“Getting food and water is easy. People assume that’s the hard part. The hard part is really finding a place to stay,” he said.
“It was pretty gruelling. I mean, I remember the first day... it didn’t really kick in until the first night. I just remember going, ‘Oh wow, what am I actually going to do here?’
“And that’s when I was like, scouting places to stay or sleep, and I had no idea about homeless territories, had no idea that was a thing or that that would get me in trouble. And I ran into some problems there.”
Give up or have a go
Such circumstances would easily and understandably overwhelm most people. But not Harry. He knew that it was up to him and him alone to turn his life around, and that the longer he waited, the harder that would be.
“I just had this continuing thing echoing my mind. And that thing was, ‘If I don’t do something, I’m going to be homeless for the rest of my life’,” Harry explained.
“There is no safety net. No one’s going to pull me out of this. There’s no backup plan. This is it.
“If I do nothing, this is legitimately going to be the rest of my life. Or I have the option of trying. I have the option of doing something or pushing to do something.”
But even speaking about this low point in his life, Harry reveals — with wisdom perhaps beyond his years — that every cloud has a silver lining, if you can find and grab hold of it.
“I feel like the biggest motivator in business, when we’re running from something — maybe it’s a job, maybe it’s something as drastic as homelessness or financial problems — that’s such a core motivator and that’ll light a fire underneath you like you wouldn’t believe!”
Building something from nothing
Most people go into business with the benefit of skills and experience, perhaps some formal qualifications, established contacts and the comforts of their own home from which to research, plan and build their new endeavour.
But for Harry, who had an incomplete secondary education, no home and grubby old clothes in which to meet people and secure work opportunities, his business literally was built from nothing.
How? My Business asked him.
“That was actually the easy part,” Harry replied.
“I knew what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to... Because I’d been doing SEO since a young age [working for my dad’s business], I knew I could do it and I knew I could make it work. And I was confident that I could make my own little small agency, like little SEO agency.
“Really, at that point, I was just thinking to get enough work for myself to have a share house.”
His approach, at the age of 17, was to attend every networking event he could find as a means of getting in front of people and selling them on his knowledge and skills, as well as his sheer tenacity.
“I still know a lot of the people that I met when I was in that period. And they would describe me very interestingly,” admitted Harry.
“I had these run-down shoes, run-down clothes. I was at all these networking events just trying to get a few kind people to take a chance.”
That gamble paid off, helping Harry to earn an income, be able to afford a roof over his head, and continue to grow his professional credibility. And the work just kept on coming in.
“A lot of the people that took a chance on me four and a half years ago are still our clients. In fact, I think all of them are,” he said proudly.
“[It was a] big hustle to get these first kind of clients, as anyone does in a new business. But once I kind of had those, I knew I could do the work and we just got tons of referrals.”
To date, his business StudioHawk has expanded quickly, and shows no signs of stopping any time soon. The agency now employs 18 people and has ticked over $3 million in turnover.
Harry was also crowned Young Business Leader of the Year (10 or more employees) among the winners of the My Business Awards 2019.
Advice from someone who knows how to put in the hard yards
It seems everyone has advice to dish out nowadays, and it makes sense to filter out the advice coming from people who haven’t been there and done that themselves.
So, given his own journey of perseverance and self-made success, what advice does Harry impart about overcoming adversity?
“Find your why,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Why do you wake up in the morning? Why do you get out of bed? Why do you care about what you do? Why are you passionate about making a change in the world?... And I don’t want to hear ‘money’. Money’s not a why; that’s something that comes from a strong why.
“Never focus on the money: focus on creating impact, finding that why and resonating that through everything you do. If you know your why, everything [else] will follow.”
Hear more insights from Harry’s impressive transformation, as well as his SEO tips for business, on the My Business Podcast.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.