Business Advice

Building a business from nothing: Ten company founders on the early days

Emma Koehn /

Forget comprehensive business plans and signing the lease for shiny high-rise office space: Many of the world’s most successful companies started by building a business in garages, dorm rooms and at kitchen tables.

Each week SmartCompany and StartupSmart speak to tens of multi-million business owners about growing the seed of an idea into a robust business.

In their own words, here are ten company founders on the experience of starting from zero, as told to our reporters over the past decade.

Two Birds Brewing co-founder Danielle Allen

“It was probably the scariest thing I’ve done in my life. I was really just nervous, but at the same time, quietly confident that I knew that it was going to work.

We’d done a business plan; we hadn’t just jumped in with no experience.

It was a foolproof plan, although it was a definite risk. We had a five-year plan, and at the end of the five years we thought we’d get to the point where we’d build our own brewery.

We started off with contract brewing, or “gypsy” brewing, but that changed at the two-year mark, when it was really important to have a home for our brand… the number one question [from customers] was “where is your brand located”? We wanted to give an answer to that question, and we were tracking really well in the first two years.”

– 2017

Catch Group co-founder Gabby Leibovich

Gabby Leibovich

“We moved to a tiny 200 square meter warehouse in the suburb of Moorabbin in Melbourne. We put together a team of six people, I was the buyer, someone else was doing the IT, one guy was doing packing, one guy was doing customer service and that’s when we launched.

Obviously we didn’t have the expectations and the dreams that we have right now. When we launched it, all we wanted to do was have a job, just like a lot of people who start from nothing. I remember very clearly our target on the first week was to sell 60 items and that was all we wanted, and we thought that if we do sell 60 items, then we’ll be able to pay the bills and have a decent salary to feed the family at the end of the week.”

– 2012

KeepCup co-founder Abigail Forsyth

On developing the product:

“We engaged the designers in October 2007 and we got the prototype in February 2009 and it leaked. In June we got the prototype right. So it took five months of really finetuning, testing – someone was popping on and off that lid a thousand times to try and work out how long it would last and where the leak was coming from. That was a tense time for everyone.” 

– 2010

Nad’s Hair Removal founder Sue Ismiel

Sue Ismiel, Nad's founder

“It wasn’t like I had a degree in selling or marketing, but I think I taught [my kids] how to do a back of the envelope calculation that made sense. If I was planning to advertise on TV, then I had to work out what the return on investment was. I had to work out if I sold that many [products], we’d be making that profit. And I’d often speak to them about, “Oh, we only got this number of units, we have to try harder”.

I think entrepreneurship is not something you can teach, but you do have an impact on others. And the girls have always heard me verbalise these crazy ideas. But a lot of the time I have proved it and I have turned these ideas into realities.”

– 2017

Zero Latency co-founder Tim Ruse

Zero Latency founder Tim Ruse

“It was probably in mid-2014 we realised the business could be a real thing, and then it was about how we build that bridge from a hobby into a full-time business. It turns out that bridge is made of money.

We were lucky enough to secure committed and passionate investors early on who even approached us first. We also did a crowdfund back in 2014 where we pre-sold tickets to raise money to help us set up.

We raised $32,000, and it was the hardest money I’ve ever earned, but it helped us out in three different ways. Firstly, it gave us something to focus on. Secondly, it got our awareness up and gave us something to hang our hat on. And finally, it proved there were people out there who wanted our product and were willing to give us money on the back of a concept.”

– 2017

Kogan.com founder Ruslan Kogan

Kogan expansion plans in full flight with travel division launch

“When I first started Kogan the general sentiment was no one would ever buy a TV online and that sort of stuff, and then in our first year I did $300,000 of revenue. And I was like, “yeah, check this out!” Then the next year, we did $800,000. At that stage I thought it’s gone bananas. Year after, it was $2.8 million. I was running a business. It went from $2.8 to $8 million, so on, and now we’re on $250 million.” 

-2013

Frank Body co-founders Bree Johnson and Jess Hatzis

When we started Frank it was always considered a side project, but you find yourselves in these positions sometimes.

“There were a number of reasons: for Bree and I, we were looking for the creative challenge of owning the project from start to finish. Our co-founders were really interested in the product side of things, and it all came together.”

– 2017

Canva co-founder Melanie Perkins

Rejection hurts, a lot, but failure was never an option.

“For better or worse, when I set my mind to something I don’t give up very easily at all. Being rejected a lot in our initial stages just meant that I had to try harder and refine my strategy.

“It wasn’t an option to not start but I had to come to terms with the idea that if things didn’t work out I wouldn’t hate myself. Fortunately things have been going very well and we’ll keep on giving it our absolute best to create the company and product that we’ve always dreamed about.”

– 2016

Vinomofo co-founder Andre Eikmeier

“The journey towards Vinomofo, before we worked out what we were doing, was intense. We’d put everything we had into our previous adventures, and we were really burning through our savings. I’d mortgaged my house and had a young family, so I was terrified. 

“We’d built a good site and community, and we had positioned ourselves as communicators of wine to Gen X and Y. We were seen as leaders in content marketing and social media, but we just couldn’t seem to make any money. Not for lack of trying though.”

– 2013

Stripe co-founder John Collison

“We had a clear vision of what we wanted Stripe to be but we actually didn’t quite know at the time how we could bring it into being.

“We honestly didn’t know how any of this stuff worked. I remember exploring this space and trying to learn about the finance industry and the payments industry.

“We had an awful lot of hard decisions: Do we launch with this approach? Can we find a better approach? Is this even possible? … The big scary decisions are fewer nowadays because now that we’re at scale, the individual impact of a decision is less.”

– 2016

Never miss a story: sign up to SmartCompany’s free daily newsletter and find our best stories on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn and Instagram.

Advertisement
Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior journalist at SmartCompany.

We Recommend

FROM AROUND THE WEB