Anatomy of a start-up

Advice | Entrepreneur | Profiles | Startup

By Stephanie Zillman

Long hours spent in the garage and living on two minute noodles for months on end: the start-up lifestyle has become a cliché, but the reality of running a start-up rarely follows a script.

Dynamic Business spoke to three Aussie start-up founders about how they keep their businesses going.

Scott Handsaker spent three years building a product while running a consulting firm with a friend. He eventually launched Eventarc in 2009, and is now looking to take his second start-up, Attendly, to market in the US, UK, and Australia.

What convinced you to start you own business?

Ego, probably. I found myself rising up the corporate ladder very quickly wherever I went, but falling down that ladder just as quickly when I would eventually annoy the wrong person. I realised I was good at learning from failures rather than avoiding them altogether, which makes me perfect for startups and a horrible fit for corporate life.

How did you manage the capital in the beginning?

Badly would be the short answer. While we were running our consulting business we would routinely do six figure web contracts, so we didn’t value being frugal as much as we should have.  Our very first attempt at a startup we spent $5,000 on logo and name development, only to scrap it after two months without writing a line of code or talking to a single customer.

How has the business evolved?

We originally started Eventarc as a way of providing the best event registration system on the market. It turned out that what we had created was a great product, but probably too similar to some of the existing major players in the space. It wasn’t differentiated enough to allow us to get traction outside of Australia. It did well here and still does well, but it is never going to be a global smash. Because of that, we launched a second company in May this year called Attendly. It’s a very different business proposition, even though it is still an event registration and ticketing product.

What challenges have you faced along the way, and how did you learn from them?

We have gone within two days of missing a payroll due to cash flow constraints, but we came through that unscathed. We have been 24 hours away from getting taken for $30,000 in fraud, but we caught it and stopped it before it happened. Lesson learnt!

How have you balanced your personal time and the time you put into the business?

I have two kids and a wife at home, so I consciously choose not to do the clichéd 80-hour weeks that others are fond of. I start early (7:30am), but I leave the office at 5pm every day and I don’t work weekends if I can help it.

What tips or advice do you have for others looking to start their own business?

Take action. Businesses are built by those who favour action over planning. Meet lots of people in your space, even if just for coffee. Until you have a broad network, it is hard to understand how important networking will be to your success. Above all, be persistent. Persistence over a long period of time often beats raw talent.

Jacqui Bull launched Sidekicker, a website and app that gives businesses access to a resource pool of pre-screened and on-demand assistants, right out of university. After six months of operating in Melbourne, the business has expanded to Sydney and Brisbane, and had over 2500 people apply to become a Sidekick.

What convinced you to start you own business?

About 18 months ago the idea for Sidekicker came about when my co-founder Tom was busy working and would have loved a way to outsource his chores, and I was studying and would have loved a way make work fit around my life and studies, not the other way around. We started working on the original idea, similar to Task Rabbit in the US and I decided not to take up a graduate position I was offered at Deloitte and focus fulltime on Sidekicker. I’ve always wanted to own my own business, even from a young age; I just didn’t think it would be straight out of university.

How has the business evolved?

When we created Sidekicker we weren’t targeting businesses to use the service. We actually thought that busy professionals and business owners would use Sidekicker to outsource their chores. But we quickly noticed a trend in businesses requesting short-term administration assistance in the office and event and promotional assistants. That, as well as the high standard of people that were applying to become a Sidekick, made us quickly realise we had created a great tool for businesses.

The great thing about being a start-up is that you can adapt quickly – when we noticed a trend in businesses using Sidekicker, we changed our messaging to highlight the benefits of having on-demand assistants, when customers needed Sidekicks in Sydney, we launched in Sydney.

What tips or advice do you have for others looking to start their own business?

Don’t keep your idea a secret – ask anyone and everyone what they think of it before you spend too much time and money getting it off the ground. When you do take the leap, test it in the market with the minimum product before you add heaps of features. They can be added later, but first you need to prove people want your core offering.

Troy Westley was inspired to start his business after finding his son’s asthma plan tucked away forgotten in a filing cabinet. His solution was CareMonkey, an electronic medical and emergency form that allows parents to share care information with trusted carers. It allows schools and other carers instant access to important information to help them fulfil their duty of care obligations and help provide better care and responses in emergencies.

What convinced you to start you own business? (When was that)?

I’d had more than 20 years of experience at US software companies including Oracle, and Google.  Although I’d had a rewarding career I had the idea for CareMonkey and the desire to build something I could be proud of. I also felt it was time for me to take a risk and get out of my comfort zone. Given I had six kids at the time (now seven!) it was a risk and costly to leave the day job but in August 2011 I burned the bridges and went solo. That day I paid $7 for a wire-framing tool and started designing CareMonkey.

How has the business evolved?

CareMonkey started as a consumer app for families to share care information amongst themselves and with other carers (kind of like a health and safety version of Facebook). It still does that but now we have evolved it to group management. This means schools, clubs and workplaces can use the system to collect and share medical and emergency information.

What challenges have you faced along the way, and how did you learn from them?

The biggest challenge I had was not executing fast enough, particularly in development of our solution. I spent a good 12 months on the development of CareMonkey using contractors both in Australia and overseas. Although this was an economical way to get started it slowed me down. It was frustrating not having someone as passionate as me working on the business. Easily the best thing I did was join forces with Martin Howell.

How have you balanced your personal time and the time you put into the business?

We work hard Monday to Friday but try not to do too much on the weekends. Even though it’s difficult to stop thinking about what we are doing and what we need to do next, the weekends are for being with family.

What tips or advice do you have for others looking to start their own business?

Test your idea early with the target customer base. You don’t need to build the final product to test it either, mock-up your solution in a wire-framing tool, PowerPoint or even on paper and show it to your prospective customer base. Read up on lean startup principles and get involved in the startup community. Don’t be afraid to talk about your idea and seek advice from others. Try to find a co-founder.

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