What 2020 has taught these seven entrepreneurs about culture, community and people

Martin Herbst

JobAdder chief Martin Herbst.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected most of the world’s 7.8 billion people in some way, in Australia, the small business and startup communities have faced a unique battle.

Small businesses and startups, by definition, are small operations, which means employers and employees often work closely together, both invested in the health and longevity of a business.

For many, this meant when the pandemic hit, and cashflow became critical, managers did everything they could to keep staff on the books in some way.

Working side-by-side, albeit probably virtually, managers and their teams have fought tooth and nail to keep businesses afloat this year, and in the process, their leadership and people skills have accelerated.

Here’s what these seven business owners and founders learnt about culture, community and people in 2020.

Martin Herbst

CEO of JobAdder

One of my former managers summed up the most critical factor for business success in four words: working with great people.

Fifteen years on from working for him and going through a global crisis not experienced in our lifetime, this has never been more true.

Of course, more words are needed to explain what this means, while also recognising this is just half of the equation. You must have a great culture — particularly one that is purpose-driven, customer-centric, empathetic, innovative and resilient — to get the most out of the great people you work with.

I’ve been fortunate to step into a company with a phenomenal culture and great people that embody all of these values. Once COVID-19 hit in March, the team came together, everyone went out of their way to look out for our customers, and started stringing together record sales and retention levels, despite being in one of the most exposed industry sectors.

In short, my takeaway is that one can never under-invest in people and culture. It’s a vital chicken-and-egg symbiosis that will power companies through both ups and downs.

Justine Alter and Sarah Cotton

Transitioning Well co-founders and directors Justine Alter and Sarah Cotton.

Justine Alter and Dr Sarah Cotton

Co-founders and directors at Transitioning Well

Without a doubt, our most important takeaway from this year is the importance of connection.

This has meant connecting with ourselves as business owners and working parents by taking time to reflect and recharge, connecting with our incredible team in new and creative ways, and connecting with our clients by meeting them where they were at and supporting them as they navigated a difficult year.

We also experienced in a very practical way that culture really does comes through connection, and if this connection can only occur virtually, then tech needs to become your best friend.

At our end-of-year celebration last week, it was the connection of our team that shone brightest and the ways that we had come together to maintain relationships and support despite the physical distancing of COVID-19.

No longer do we take connection for granted, but rather, see it as a cornerstone of our business upon which we will continue to build. 

Matt Allen

Tractor Ventures founder and CEO Matt Allen.

Matt Allen

Founder and CEO at Tractor Ventures

This year has shown me that relationships built on time and trust are the most valuable thing you can have.

An abundance mentality, coupled with giving first, puts energy into a flywheel that is almost impossible to stop.

The trick is to not actually expect anything in return. Seriously.

This year has shown me that helping is a boomerang, and will always come back, even when we’re locked indoors.

Vaughan Fergusson

Vend founder Vaughan Fergusson.

Vaughan Fergusson

Founder at Vend

In the face of the most extraordinary challenge, this year taught us about the power of community and the overwhelming and unequivocal support Australians have for Aussie businesses.

In retail, as in almost every other industry, ‘business as usual’ was entirely disrupted, but the support of everyday Australians gave businesses the hope and impetus they needed to adapt and evolve.

As 2020 draws to a close, Australia is recovering quickly — both socially and economically — and I don’t think we can underestimate the role that community has played in that.

The hard work isn’t over, but a focus on community and a ‘support local’ sentiment will be the foundation of a brighter 2021.

Susie Jones

Cynch Security co-founder and CEO Susie Jones.

Susie Jones

Co-founder and CEO at Cynch Security

I’ve always put people first, but 2020 has really driven home to me that absolutely everything in business comes down to people.

This can mean prioritising self-care so you can continue to lead with compassion, proactively supporting your team’s welfare, or working with your customers so closely you begin to predict their next challenge.

Without thinking about the people at the heart of every problem (or indeed pandemic), you will never succeed. Not only that, but by focusing on the people around you, your darkest days can still bring laughs and light. I

will never take any of the people surrounding me for granted again, and I’ll be a better CEO for it.

Drini Mulla

DEK Technologies chief Drini Mulla.

Drini Mulla

CEO of DEK Technologies

My most important takeaway from 2020 has been the importance of relationships with our employees and customers.

We have always valued our relationships and truly believe it is the key to our success.

The pandemic has not changed that, but further highlighted the significance of this, and finding alternative ways to maintain these relationships and build new ones.

As a result, we have been able to better engage with our employees and customers which has led to a spate of new hires and new business.

Ruwin Perera

:Different co-founder and co-CEO at Ruwin Perera.

Ruwin Perera

Co-founder and co-CEO at :Different

Look after your team — if you take care of your team, they will take care of your business.

This year was tough on everyone and forced our team to band together like never before. Working for a new and fast-growing company can be challenging at the best of times, and in the middle of a global pandemic, even more so.

But the health and wellbeing of your team (and this includes yourself) must be a priority. 

As a leader steering the ship, it’s important to take care of your physical and mental wellbeing so you can look after your teams. The productivity levels and success at any company really does go hand-in-hand with the wellbeing of your workforce.

The more happy, healthy and motivated your teams, the more success they’ll naturally see. 

It’s why encouraging your teams to think like company owners is also key.

It’s part of the reason we make our full-time employees owners of the company.

One in every eight shares of our company is reserved for current and future employees, with every full-time employee receiving share options in the company.

Our employees know their performance is critical to the success of the company, and this approach recognises that for them to succeed, the company must succeed too.

Having a share in the business encourages our employees to set an example for others to follow, and means they’ll be able to view and enjoy the ups and downs that naturally happen in any business with a more holistic perspective. 

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