What I’ve learnt from 10 years as a small business owner

Last October, our business celebrated 10 years of operations. It was an amazing milestone and while the pandemic meant we couldn’t celebrate with our team and clients as we’d hoped, it didn’t stop me reflecting on how far we’ve come in the past decade.

My reasons for starting a business are far from unique. I’d been succeeding in large corporations for several years and could have easily continued moving into more senior roles. But my instincts kept prodding me to give it a go myself. To do it differently; do it better.

I was increasingly frustrated by watching good ideas just glide right past leadership because of immovable hierarchies or inflexible business strategies. And there was also the idea of having greater control over my professional future and, all being well, more financial freedom over time.

So, on 7 October 2011, I took the equally terrifying and exhilarating step of launching Nutbrook Engineering Group. 

The journey

As a consulting business, my overheads were thankfully very small in the early days. I worked from home and the only billable hours I had to cover were my own. I gave myself 2 years to convert my fledging enterprise into a thriving business.

Having this deadline to convert my business plan into reality motivated me to work as hard as possible to beat it and – just as importantly for my own wellbeing – gave me an exit strategy if it didn’t go as planned.

One of my proudest achievements throughout the growth of our business into a now 40+ person company, generating a solid revenue without any external investment.

Our business remains privately owned and 100 percent Australian made. But with that achievement has come a lot of struggle and sacrifice.

I routinely work 80+ hour weeks and carry the weight of not just my own family’s financial security, but dozens of other families too – a fact that has become immeasurably amplified with the pandemic.

Another crucial element many business owners play down when talking about their success is that, often, while they were nurturing their business through its infancy, they were also beginning families of their own.

Since starting my business, I got married, bought our home, and welcomed three magical children into the world. I may be the Managing Director of our company, but I built it with my wife. This is our family’s business and we’ve both worked hard to get it where it is. Every day we struggle together to find the balance between building a comfortable future for our family and making sure our kids know we’re there for them now.

None of it has been easy, and I know now that it never will be. We’ll never reach the summit. Because, when we do, the next mountain we want to climb will come into view. That said, I’m more confident in my strength to climb that next peak. Because the lessons you learn in those early days of business are some of the most valuable.

So, allow me to share some of my advice to budding business owners:

  1. Mentors are important, but they need to come and go.

Perspective is important in business, especially when you’re entering new territory. In my experience, the only thing that was familiar to me in the first few years was feeling completely out of my depth.

I am forever indebted to my first mentor, JP Mater, for challenging me in the early days and giving me the structure and resilience I needed to keep going. I remember the day he told me that we’d gone as far as he could take me. He recognised that I needed to be challenged by a new perspective for the next phase of my business. And he was right, as always.

Don’t be afraid to outgrow your mentors because it’s their job to help you flourish beyond their stewardship, not stay put.

  • Be rigid, and flexible.

One of the first things you’re likely to be told when you start a business is to have a clear purpose and to iterate that purpose across three, five and 10+ year plans. It’s absolutely the right thing to do.

If you don’t know where you’re going, how on earth can you get there, after all. But also remember your plan hasn’t happened yet. Don’t be so focused on reaching your destination that you forget to keep an eye out for scenic detours.

Every industry is full of businesses charging down the highway trying to get to your destination first. The best businesses look for the backroads and give themselves the time to explore them.

  • No matter what business you’re in, your business is people.

It doesn’t matter what you do as a business, the business you’re in is people. It’s what you’ll spend most of your time on and, aside from cashflow, it will be the source of most of your worries.

It’s a cliched statement to make, but that’s because it’s true – the people you employ will make or break your business. It cannot be overstated how important it is to take people management seriously and give your people the time they deserve.

At the same time, always remember that you can’t make everyone happy and that your employees come to work each day with their own personal responsibilities and ambitions.

If your business philosophy is authentic, you’ll attract the right people, and they’ll want to stay. The people who don’t share your vision won’t stay, and it’s not personal.

  • Without integrity, you have nothing.

This point should be self-explanatory, but we’ve had a few too many Royal Commissions lately to believe that integrity is an innate quality. The inescapable truth of running a business is that diverting your attention from the honest and right path will never come to any good. Either you’ll let yourself down, let your customers down or let your employees down. No one ever includes a strategic goal in their business strategy to fleece as many people as they can, so don’t it. Ever.

Importantly, though, don’t confuse this advice for playing it safe. All businesses must take a punt or two to succeed, and all businesses make decisions based on the facts available to them at the time. You will make bad decisions at some point, there’s no escaping it. Not only is it allowed, but it’s also necessary to learn and be better. It’s how you make those decisions that matters.

It comes back to your purpose. Don’t ever compromise on your purpose and don’t ever make a business decision that puts an individual or entity’s needs above what is right and good for all.

Author/Interviews: Neil Shepherd – Managing Director & Founder, Nutbrook Engineering Group