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10 Top Tips From Creative Small Business Owners

Small Business

And we’re back!  It’s back to regular programming today – thanks for indulging us in a slightly less frenetic publishing schedule over the past two weeks!

We’re kicking off the year with a timely and super inspiring piece from our small business columnist, Fiona Killackey of My Daily Business Coach!

Here, Fiona draws on TWO YEARS of interviewing some of our favourite small businesses, distilling ‘Ten Top Tips’ to kickstart your business in 2019. Let’s get into it!

7th January, 2019

Nicolle Sullivan and her team at Cultiver. Photo – Jacqui Turk for The Design Files.

Fiona Killackey
Monday 7th January 2019

It’s been almost two years since we launched this monthly Small Business column, and today, we’re distilling some of the best tips and advice from creative small business owners, to inspire, motivate and educate you for the business year ahead!

From networking and money matters, through to gaining international stockists and hiring staff, there’s advice for every business owner (or freelancer!), no matter which stage you’re at.

Cultiver talks the importance of SEO and utilising analytics daily. Photo – Jacqui Turk for The Design Files.

On Staying Motivated

‘The best advice I could give would be building and keeping in touch with a network of fellow business owners, and advisors. Talking through issues, asking for feedback, getting inspired by speaking to others – all this helps to overcome the challenges of being a sole business owner,’ tells Nicolle Sullivan of Cultiver 

‘I also include in this people I follow, through podcasts and blogs, learning from their shared experiences and taking comfort that some frustrations are not just mine alone. I’m excited to make new connections in 2019, and learn more from them, as well as “paying it forward” with others just starting their business.’ 

Jeremy Wortsman of  Jacky Winter Group and Creative Mornings Melbourne. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

On Networking + Meeting New People

 ‘You just have to go [to events]!’ says Jeremy Wortsman of The Jacky Winter Group and Creative Mornings Melbourne.

Running your own business is full of things you don’t like or want to do. I still have to clean the toilets sometimes and run software updates on laptops, not because I love doing those things, but because it’s vital to keeping the business going. Networking and meeting people is the same – avoid it at your own peril. 

My biggest piece of advice, however, is that you don’t need to attend other events to network. You can always just start your own, and it doesn’t need to be a large thing. Even a small irregular meet-up of 2-3 like-minded people can have huge impacts. There’s so much support for niche events at the moment and sometimes the more focussed you can make something, the more relevant it can be for you and others.  

 If you do attend/host an event to network: 

1. Don’t think about what this person can do for you, but what you can offer them. Going into any interaction with a spirit of generosity, no matter what the circumstances. 

2. Educate yourself broadly! If you are networking properly you will probably be meeting lots of people outside your industry. It helps knowing who people are and what they do before you meet them. 

3. When going solo to an event don’t be afraid of silence or awkward moments. Challenge yourself to put your phone away and just sit with the unbearable awkwardness of being alone and see what happens.’ 

Cassie Lucas (far right) and the Firecracker Event team! Photo – Emily Weaving for The Design Files.

Firecracker moved to a much bigger HQ later in 2018. Photo – Emily Weaving for The Design Files.

On Scaling Your Business

‘Go for it. And pace yourself. You don’t have to do it all yesterday,’ tells Cassie Lucas of Firecracker Event 

‘It helps me when I break it down. Put it into a 12-month plan, then break that down into 3 months and then monthly. This makes all the things you’d like to do feel very achievable and less overwhelming. I re-jig my plan all the time as things change.  

 Save. Save some energy, some time and some cash (for yourself and for that rainy day).’

Line Paras, ‘boss lady’ of bookkeeping, payroll and business support agency, Counting Clouds. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

On Managing Your Money

‘When people are just starting out they can jump the gun and be reactive rather than proactive, and not always consider the big picture first when making financial decisions,’ says Line Paras of Counting Clouds.

‘Business management, bookkeeping and accounting should never be an afterthought. Doing your own books will not make you more money! Doing what you do best – running your business, moving and shaking, making your art, selling your wares is what will help you make a profit and probably/hopefully it is also what makes YOU happy. 

At a minimum, anyone in business should aim to save 15% of your earnings each week for GST and tax. Keep your receipts and get a bookkeeper’. 

Abigail Forsyth of KeepCup. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

‘Understand that whilst experts can contribute skills, no one can match your passion for your own business.’ – Abigail Forsyth of KeepCup.

On Hiring New Staff, Contractors or Suppliers

‘Do your research and call some people, tells Abigail Forsyth of KeepCup.

‘We talk about finding the gold nuggets in any conversation, they are always there if you are listening.  Ask questions. Be curious.  How much?  How long?  What works? What doesn’t?  Once you have spoken to a few potential suppliers you can start to decode the language of the industry you need help in.  Who will actually be doing the work? Ask for references. Call them. 

There’s nothing wrong with getting three quotes to get a feel for what the market pays.  It’s a fair rule of thumb, that you get what you pay for, if the expectations are clear.  

 Ask yourself: 

1. Are they [the person/agency applying for the role] genuinely curious about the opportunity? Can you have a robust commercial discussion about an issue, because the best outcome requires your input and theirs. 

2. Is there an alignment of culture and values? 

3. What are the metrics of success? Is it transparency about that?

…Understand that whilst experts can contribute skills, no one can match your passion for your own business.’

Becca Stern of Mustard, which launched in February 2018. Photo – Bronte Godden of Lazy Bones.

On Launching A Product-Based Business

‘I always come back to the words: Done is better than perfect.,’ admits Becca Stern of Mustard. 

‘Mustard is evolving fast. We don’t have everything fixed and final. Being a small business means you can and need to be agile and there’s a strength in moving quickly and responsively.  

From a very early stage, I committed to telling anyone I met about Mustard (sorry for the random locker rants!).  Although the plan wasn’t fully formed and the products weren’t even in existence, I put it out there and grew from the response. If you wait for perfect, you’ll be waiting forever.  

Ask lots of people for their opinions, advice, and experience. Ask as much as you can! Then… ignore a good chunk of it and go with your instinct! Having a clear vision of the brand you are creating helps you filter all that information and take what is really useful. Take what you need and discard the rest.’

Georgia Perry. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The bulk of Georgia’s business transactions are carried out online, with customers spanning across the globe. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

On Securing International Stockists

‘Firstly I think a good way to look at it is – buyers are always on the hunt for cool new products to fill their shops with,’ explains Georgia Perry. ‘You could be doing them a massive favour by reaching out and showing them something they haven’t seen before. If you can get them to open an email you’re halfway there. 

Secondly – buyers/store owners are insanely busy people, so you want to do everything you can to make it easy for them to want your stuff. This means eliminating any barriers to purchase like long boring biographies, low-res product photos, or not including a wholesale price list.  

You need to make your selling tools clear, concise and easy on the eye. If you can’t do it yourself, enlist a friend who can to take some product photos or help design a lookbook for you.  Just a couple of pages will do.  

Then – just be friendly and persistent! Our other motto is “It’s never a no until it’s a no!” People are busy so don’t be put off straight away. Maybe they missed your email or mailout. Drop them a friendly follow up message, but also – respect their decision if they politely decline, and then move on to someone else.’

The Gordon family of Robert Gordon Australia. Left to right: Kate Gordon, Sam Gordon, Robert Gordon, Barbara Gordon, Bobby Gordon, and Hannah Gordon. Photo – Sean Fennessy.

On Collaboration

‘The biggest advice I’d give to anyone considering collaborations is to respect your brand – does the collaboration work in favour of that?’ asks Kate Gordon or Robert Gordon. 

…Honestly, not all collaborations work. They can be super costly and when there are too many people involved or too many “mouths to feed” as Dad would say, it’s hard to justify. 

 …We tread carefully into each collaboration and don’t take them lightly.’

Abigail Crompton of Third Drawer Down (left) speaks to her email marketing coordinator (right). Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Third Drawer Down has amassed a global following of art lovers. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

On Great Customer Communication

‘My advice would be to decide whether you want to be a trend or part of tradition. From there comes everything, including your tone of voice and how you communicate with your customers,’ says Abigail Crompton of Third Drawer Down.

Also, embrace the things that go wrong and learn from them – or laugh at them! If our website shopping cart hadn’t have gone down without our knowledge back in the early stages of launching, we wouldn’t have received a phone call from Sarah Jessica Parker in New York who was awake and online shopping at 2am because she was up with her newborns! We actually got chatting and found out she was an online customer of ours through that call, and she visited the store when she was in Melbourne! We had a photo taken and now I think she is my BFF!!!!’

Mark Rubbo (managing director and co-owner) and Joe Rubbo (Carlton bookshop manager) in the newly renovated Readings store. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

‘Be different and DO NOT try to beat the competitors on price. If you are different you will build up a loyal core’. – Mark Rubbo of Readings.

On Facing Competition

‘Our industry, including Readings, was hit really badly by the likes of Amazon and Book Depository. Prices of overseas books in Australia were really distorted,’ explains Mark Rubbo of Readings.

Book Depository was offering books at a third of their Australian price. I did a lot of lobbying with the Australian distributors to get them to bring their prices down. We went early online, and kept on investing more and more (we still are); initially, we tried to match our competitors especially with free freight – we haemorrhaged money but our sales grew amazingly. We had to introduce a small freight charge; we lost a lot of sales and still lose money but not nearly as much.  

We’ve had to be more creative with our offers, differentiating ourselves from those that offer the cheapest price; I see our online as another form of marketing and a way of building our community digitally.  

So my advice would be to be different and DO NOT try to beat the competitors on price. If you are different you will build up a loyal core.’ 


Fiona Killackey is business consultant, author and mentor for My Daily Business Coach.

You can sign up to her weekly email full of small biz insights and tips here or purchase her new ebook, all about goal setting and having a great business year here.


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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email