Confessions of a serial entrepreneur: What Ian Ugarte learned from starting 28 businesses in 28 years

Ian Ugarte

Small Is The New Big co-founder Ian Ugarte.

House boats. Toilets with inbuilt fish tanks. Sports and remedial massage. Wastewater treatment. Colonic irrigation. Naturopathy. It might sound like the pre-movie advertising roll at the local cinema but it’s actually a series of flashbacks through a diverse catalogue of small businesses I’ve founded in 28 years as an entrepreneur.

With more than two-dozen businesses under my belt — some still firing, others consigned to the dustbin of history — I’ve learnt as much about failure as I have about success.

I’ve also figured out how to build sustainable, vibrant and fulfilling small businesses. 

These days, most of my focus is on my renovation disruptor outfit, Small Is The New Big. I share with people how to create micro-apartments that help alleviate our emerging crisis of homelessness, which is something that motivates me and fires my passion to help the less-fortunate, while also guiding clients to generate extra revenue for themselves. 

But the road to this point has been long and colourful. These are some of the candid moments, hard yards, key discoveries and pitfalls of my life as a serial entrepreneur.

Know your audience 

The most important lesson I’ve learned, to the cost of at least a few opportunities, is the significant value of building in solid market research at an early stage of your business plan. 

One example: we started a wastewater business that holds seven worldwide patents on the treatment of wastewater domestically. We would have punched nearly $10 million of R&D into this business, but probably only made about $5 million worth of sales.

One day we decided maybe we should do some research on what people are looking for, and what they’re willing to pay. The research showed they didn’t want to pay $20,000 for a wastewater system, they wanted to be able to plug a hose into a garbage bin and get perfectly treated water out for $600.

So that business was what most people would consider a failure, but in my mind it’s not because it taught me a lot about doing market research and the value of creating a minimum viable product.

Along with a foray into the colonic irrigation business, I reckon I am probably the most qualified person to be able to not only treat people’s waste from beginning to end, but also to officially tell someone they’re full of it!

Another early business, which we called Flash In The Pan, created vanities and toilets and prime cost items for houses that had fish tanks built into them.

Imagine it – we did no market research, thinking people would buy these like hotcakes. We had no understanding of how to market the business, but also no ability to actually make sales – because there was no market for it! 

Establishing demand for your product or service is crucial, as is gaining an understanding for how you are going to tap into it. I mean, who could have predicted that the world just isn’t ready for a dunny-based fish tank? Not me, evidently.

Avoid the emotional pitfalls

I’ve also founded a number of businesses that continue to trade today. An early one that’s still rolling along is a houseboat-building business that began on a whim when we Iived on Sydney’s Hawkesbury River. It was based around the emotion of not wanting to see what I would call ‘bricks on floats’ going past every day. I couldn’t stand to look at them anymore! 

So we built our first houseboat at the front of our home on our pontoon. And from there we’ve subsequently built others — really nice-looking boats designed with a mate of mine who’s probably one of Australia’s better architects. But there are other businesses that make more financial sense.

I wouldn’t start another business solely on the basis of emotion or a whim. It’s true that I need to believe in what I do, because that’s what gives you purpose and keeps you going through the lean times. But it needs to have an objective reason for existing that stands up to dispassionate scrutiny.

Ian Ugarte houseboat

Source: supplied.

Play to your strengths

I’ve also learnt a lot about the types of business that I should (or shouldn’t) be involved with.

I’m nearly a qualified naturopath, so we started a business in the natural therapy industry. But I came to realise that health services wasn’t for me, because I don’t have much of a filter.

Someone would come in and they’d be overweight. You could see a bunch of signs that were not quite right, so you’d ask, “what do you eat?” They would answer, “oh, well, you know, a piece of toast in the morning and some veggies at night”. And I’d go, “come on, let’s be serious here. Are you serious about your health or are you just serious about lying to yourself?” I was too honest, and realised my bedside manner wasn’t a good fit for the health industry.

It took me a while to realise what I’m actually good at is public speaking – again, it’s that unfiltered thing, but this time in a good way. A few times when I got up on stage beside other speakers, you could hear that people would actually put down their knife and fork when the microphone was passed to me.

In some ways, the realisation that people connect with me and the stories I tell helped form the business case for Small Is The New Big, where I use in-person seminars and (more recently) virtual presentations to create that spark, the connection that motivates people to move from interest into action.

And finally …

I’ve learnt – the hard way – the perils of having a business partner. There’s nothing worse than having to deal with money when you split a partnership. That’s when people’s true values surface.

I will never have another business partner again.

Employ everyone, or give them an incentive to be in your business. Keep control. 

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