What I wish I'd known: 5 small business owners share their stories

Hindsight is a powerful thing, and so is learning from others. So what can your business learn from the success and mistakes of others? These five successful Australian business owners reveal what they wish they'd known when they were first starting out on their small business journey.

Be selective (and smart) about who you do business with - Chris Tantchev, co-founder of Bookabuy

“There are many sharks out there, especially aiming for new business owners, so it can be difficult to surround yourself with the right people to do business with. Whether they are suppliers or partners, we think the most important thing we have learned is how to effectively evaluate someone we are about to do business with.”

Chris Tantchev, co-founder of book subscription service Bookabuy

Make the time and effort to learn accounting basics - Tim Black, freelance designer, Blackmarker

“I’m now married to an accountant who keeps me in line, but for the first part of my freelance career I was terrible with cash. It left me with a hefty tax bill at year-end that took an extra 12 months to pay off. I struggled during that year. If I’d have sought financial advice (and it’s worth actually paying someone good for this) I’m certain I’d be much further ahead today than I am. Keeping track of your dollars is the only way to stay in business and doing it well will be the difference between real financial success and just scraping by.”

Tim Black, freelance designer at Blackmarker

Your resume is about to be hugely expanded - Rosie Shelton, designer and owner of jewellery company La Luna Rose

“What I wish I'd known when I started my business was that I was about to become an accountant, production manager, sales guru, marketing expert, social media professional and graphic designer overnight and with no prior training. I am a designer by trade so was all over designing and managing production but what I hadn't yet considered (and being a one-man-band to start out with) was that it was just me and that there are 1001 things to do to launch and run a business.

"Of course, as things grow and cashflow becomes more of a regular thing and production sorts itself out, there is more money to outsource the tasks and duties of running a business that you can't find the time for or aren't skilled in. But there was a moment there that I was almost like, 'Huh, I don't remember signing up for all of this!' The great thing is obviously all the learning and new skills that you acquire going through this process... but it's not an easy one, so get ready!

Rosie Shelton, designer and owner of jewellery company La Luna Rose

You’ll be bluffing at least some of the time - Shelley Werbeloff, owner of clothing boutique Vine Apparel 

“You are never going to know what you are doing 100 per cent of the time. Trust your gut, take calculated risks and ask for advice from anyone and everyone, but only take on what you need at the time. Do things your own way and don’t pay attention to what others are doing. There is enough room in this world for everyone.”

Shelley Werbeloff, owner of clothing boutique Vine Apparel

It can get lonely -Tim Black, freelance designer, Blackmarker

“Leaving my full-time job to be a full-time freelance designer was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life – I love the freedom it gives me, the ability to earn more money if I work more and too many other things to list. I’m still a one-man-band, which for now is just how I want it – very low overheads among other things – but you can quickly go a bit crazy if you don’t find a way to interact with real humans during the day.

"If someone told me I’d be talking to myself and my dog – as if I expected responses – within 12 months, I’d have laughed at them, but that’s just what happens. I learnt quickly after these one-way conversations became all too regular, that I should find more human interaction within a day: get to a shared office space, make face-to-face meetings [occasionally] in place of phone/Skype, head to a café and use their Wi-Fi and chat with the barista, go surfing and spark up a convo with the guy or girl surfing near you. If you’re going into business on your own, then this advice is worth more than anything financial – it'll keep you happy and healthy while also helping to prevent burn out.” 

‘If you build it…’ they might not come. Marketing matters. - Doan Vo, founder of organic baby products store Little Organics

“I naively thought that if I built a website, people would come as there was a need for the products and there were a lack of stores providing it. However, I quickly realised that having a website is like having a business in a hidden alley and unless you make efforts to tell everyone that you exist, people won't know about it. You need to have steps in place with a marketing strategy. [Then you need to plan] how you will follow through with that strategy as once you start a business, you realise how busy you become with the other aspects of business...[My husband and I] launched our website, gave each other a pat on the shoulder and watched as our site stared quietly back at us. It's been such an eye opener!”

Doan Vo, founder of organic baby products store Little Organics

Not every client cares about your payment terms - Tim Black, freelance designer, Blackmarker

“It doesn’t matter if your client is a billion dollar company or a mum-and-dad style startup, your payment terms aren’t generally their priority. My first freelance invoice that went out after I’d left my full-time job had 'seven day payment terms' on it in red text. The client was a friend with a small business and I was getting to the bottom of my money barrel when I sent it. They took 21 days to pay and I was already on the bones of my bum. Since then, other clients have taken as long as 60 days to pay their invoices. I had barely enough money saved to get me by. 

"I think the advice I needed before setting out would have been something like, 'Calculate how much you’ll need to live for two months, then double it – that’s what you should have at the bank'. There are also a few spin-offs of this that I’ve learnt on the way: create a part or interim payment contract for bigger jobs, where the client puts down a deposit with you or pays an interim amount with a signed, legally binding document to show it. Don’t cover client printing or other costs if you’re not 100% certain you’ll be able to recover the money – companies going into liquidation, shutting down or purposefully being dishonest does happen.”