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We Will Survive
After twelve months of terror we’re now certain our businesses will survive.
More importantly, as JobKeeper winds up, and businesses have to return all their full-time staff to five days a week, we’re confident we can keep our entire national team on board.
And I think a big reason for that is a business owner mindset you don’t hear spoken about much. It’s the deep sense of personal responsibility you feel to everyone who works for you. Yet so many business owners I know feel that way.
The popular perception is that we’re all capitalist pigs, snouts deep in the pursuit of every dollar for ourselves and screw everyone else.
Why might that be? Oh that’s right, Gerry Harvey of Harvey Norman.
Harvey Norman got $14.6M in JobKeeper support, despite gangbuster profits from day one of COVID-19.
Had a hard year? Cheer up punter, your taxes and mine chipped in to help Gerry score a personal dividend of $80M. So he can buy more racehorses.
“From our point of view it’s a tiny amount of money and our thoughts are all about our business going forward,” Harvey said.
You don’t have to be like Gerry. Be like Gareth.
Ok But Who’s Gareth?
Gareth is our Brisbane partner in Scene Change. He was one of our first employees in Hobart when we started our business.
Before us, another audiovisual business had pulled him straight out of the fruit and veg section of his local Woolworths, and made him a receptionist. Like Chris Hemsworth in 2016 Ghostbusters.
He was a great sales guy for us in Hobart. When we decided to open in Brisbane in 2015, he put his hand up and asked if he could be the local equity partner. Big move.
So many uncertainties on both sides of that equation. From our side, we had seen a lot of sales manager types put in charge of entire businesses, and it’s often a disaster.
Expenses spin out of control (‘you have to spend money to make money’) and there’s little attention to the operational and admin details that keep businesses alive.
On Gareth’s side, the risks were huge. He owned a house in Hobart. He and his family were willing to sell it and move three states north, go back to renting, and sink that money into employees, equipment and vans. Gareth’s wife had to leave her job. Their three kids had to leave their comfort zone.
What if the business didn’t work? What if they hated living in Brisbane? It was a major parachute jump on their behalf.
Gareth Gives A Fuck
To skip to the end of that story, Gareth built a thriving business in Brisbane like a total pro. He is on top of every detail. He has handled periods of sustained insane growth, and the absolute worst of virus-borne collapse, with the same calm determination.
We never worry about that business for a moment because Gareth’s got it.
Here’s a 90 second vid of what Gareth and his team does, it’s worth a watch:
Scene Change 2021 from Scene Change on Vimeo.
Since 2015 we’ve spoken a lot about what it’s like to move from employee to boss. He always says that the single biggest reward is the joy he takes in seeing his staff learn, grow, and rise up the ladder. And seeing that influence their lives.
‘People might start with as a freelancer, and that can be a real mouse-wheel life. Then they join us full-time, and they just lift from there. You see them rise to more responsibility. And you see them have kids and buy houses. And I think: we helped that happen,’ Gareth says.
It’s the positive cycle I wrote of a few weeks ago: growth creates better careers, which makes happier staff, which creates happier clients and more growth.
When Things Turn Ugly
The flip side of that reward is the magnified pressure you feel when things turn ugly, like last March.
It’s not like the abstract, anonymous ‘headcount’ issues you get in big companies. Each of those staff is someone who has gone into battle alongside you. You know all those partners and kids.
They’re relying on you.
It weighs heavily when you’re thinking: what if they lose the house over this? So when we had literally zero client work on, Gareth was still working fifty or sixty hours a week, trying to work on ways to scrape through and keep the team together.
The team picked up on Gareth’s outlook. They have lifted like champions, working on new virtual show ideas and techniques, and training others on how to do it.
Now the team is intact and well-positioned to thrive in the new world of hybrid events. The event rules will be changed permanently by COVID, and our crew are match fit.
Gareth mentioned an interesting part of his 2020 learning experiences.
“It’s hard to know what your people really think of you, you wonder if they’re afraid to speak up or whatever. We’d all been doing it tough on three days of work a week. Six months into COVID, we had an all-staff meeting, and one of them just stood up and thanked me on behalf of all of them for doing what I do, and for having their backs. It was really gratifying.”
It Helps If You’ve Done The Work
Gareth isn’t the only one to feel this sense of responsibility. All our business partners feel just the same. I wonder if it’s because we’ve all actually done the work that our staff do. Which is usually hard, stressful and done at weird hours.
It’s not the detached business school viewpoint of trying to imagine what the work must be like.
A few months back I spoke to Cyan and Collis Ta’eed about their business, Envato.
They started their business the same year as ours. They were four graphic designers working around a trestle table in the loading dock of Cyan’s dad’s photography studio. They gave me tips on my early blogging efforts.
Their blog went global, then their business did, a massive Australian success story done without any external investors.
Their whole business is based on respect and support for the creatives in their online marketplace. While most of those sites are lowball sweatshops pitting freelancers against each other in a race to the bottom.
Envato just passed the milestone of paying out their billionth dollar to their artist community, and Cyan and Collis were so visibly proud of that. Because back at the start, they were those artists.
(There’s an interesting chapter on their not-like-other-startups approach to business in this book you should totally buy.)
I don’t know what advice you can draw from this story if you’re already a business owner. You’re either in the Gareth mindset or not, and nothing’s going to change it either way.
But if you’re not there yet, I can recommend it as a deeply rewarding long-term experience, and it makes your business work a lot better.
Take Mark Manson’s advice.
PS That photo of Gareth at the top was taken in a bar in Queenstown in early February 2020. Glorious innocent times. A moment’s silence for the plans we made at that conference.
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