Economy

The secrets of running a business from the bush

Andrew Sadauskas /

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Once upon a time Australia’s centre of commerce was Sydney or Melbourne. But these days, businesses that serve both these major centres can be based just about anywhere. And they are. The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics Business Register Counts reveals that 35% of small businesses operate in a regional part of the country, with the wonders of technology expected to push that figure upward in years to come.

In many cases, these savvy businesses are servicing city-based customers, who often don’t even realise they’re doing business with a regional dweller.

While recent comparable figures to indicate how many Australian businesses are based in regional areas don’t exist, Business Victoria figures show that in that state at least, 28% of small businesses are based in regional areas. It also shows that regional and rural small businesses comprise by far the largest proportion of business in regional Victoria, which Business Victoria says contributes to social cohesion and export growth.

There are plenty of examples of big name businesses operating from beyond the city limits. FMCG heavyweight Mars is based in Ballarat, Victoria. Patties is based in Bairnsdale, Victoria. Beechworth Honey called Corowa in NSW home; and technology giant IBM Australia opted to locate the international Queensland Call Centre in both Brisbane and Varsity Lakes on the Gold Coast, employing more than 400 staff. There are thousands more PR firms, technology companies, online businesses, FMCG brands, manufacturing firms and import businesses also operating from regional and outback areas.

Businesses opting to base operations in regional areas name loyal workers, cheaper rent and labour, government incentive schemes, strong community support and greater local influence as some of the many benefits to base its business in the bush.

Cheap travel makes it easy to run a business from virtually anywhere, while the wonders of modern technology including the ease of connecting to the internet, online banking, PayPal, Skype and Dropbox make working in a regional area completely feasible.  

And while recruitment to a regional area can be a challenge, many businesses report that staff retention rates are far higher.

Why a regional centre works for me

Online women’s fashion retailer Birdsnest is a popular site for female shoppers. But few realise the site is headquartered from Cooma, country NSW.

Love bought site founder Jane Cay to Cooma, which saw her move from Sydney to a sheep and cattle farm outside the regional centre. In 2004, Jane bought a local retail store and rebranded its Birdsnest before launching sister online store in 2008. Now, she stocks more than 150 brands and employs more than 70 full-time and part-time staff.

Sales have doubled every year and the business was named a finalist in the BRW retailer of the year awards last year. “A lot of my business comes from city areas and often when shoppers find out we’re in a country area, they’re very surprised. People just don’t expect us to be regional. They’re not bothered by it; they just wish they could come and visit our store.”

One of Australia’s first online retailers, VetShopAustralia opted to base its headquarters at Forest Glen on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast for lifestyle reasons. The decision certainly hasn’t impacted the operation, which has more than 200,000 customers and fills more than 10,000 orders a month. Interestingly, 90% of its customers are located in city areas, with Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne accounting for most of its sales.

Business director Steven Perissinotto says working from a regional base gives the business ready access to a good source of both skilled and unskilled staff. “And being based on the highway gives us easy access to Brisbane and the airport for Australia-wide and international delivery,” he says.

Then there’s Haymes Paint, which opened its doors in Ballarat in 1935 and hasn’t moved out of the regional centre since. The company branched into other regional Victorian markets before expanding into Melbourne and Adelaide and is now stocked nationally.

The company’s general manager Rod Walton says the benefits of being regionally based far outweigh the challenges. “We believe the location of our business has helped us over the years. We are a part of the community and understand what our customers need and we’re well supported by the regional community. We have a solid record of staff retention, loyalty and commitment.”

Kelly Baker launched physical and online gift and flower delivery business Edible Blooms in 2005, with sales jumping to $1 million in the first full financial year of trading. Today, Edible Blooms has 25 staff, further offshore expansion plans on the horizon and a swag of business awards, including recently being named Telstra Business Women’s Award winner.

Baker works on the business remotely from a farm near Port Elliott in South Australia and believes less interruptions helps her be far more productive.

“Each week I spend one day in my city office and rush from one meeting to the next. When working remotely I spend more time working on the business and not in the business, which is great for our strategic growth.”

Technology made it easy for Sydney woman Samantha Tannous to move to Jervis Bay, in NSW. Samantha established a group buying site called LilBirdie with business partner Jonathan Levy in May last year. The site offers cut-price deals on media to Australian businesses and marketers.

Both business partners were living in Sydney when the site launched, but Samantha recently opted for sea change, and remains the marketing director of the business.

“We sell bus advertising in WA to a food brand in Melbourne, for example, so physical location isn’t essential for us. 99% of our business happens online.”

The challenges

But of course, opting to base a business in a regional area can throw up a series of challenges.

Haymes Paint admits that a smaller talent pool makes recruiting senior executives a major headache. Logistics is another issue, with extra costs associated with transporting its products to city and major population areas.

Kelly from Edible Blooms says working remotely requires discipline. “It’s easy to get distracted.”

It’s important to make the time to travel when required, she says. “As a working Mum, working from home means I spend more quality time with my family and using technology for managing daily meetings, like Skype and cloud based systems allows me to reduce time spent on a plane. But real face to face time with my team does require travel.”

Samantha agrees, saying you need to be extremely organised. “I find there’s a need to be very specific with clients about the distance issue, and encourage them to stick to meeting times. In the city, we’re all too used to chopping and changing meetings that we have lost that sense of commitment to a time and place.”

What makes it work for me

Kay of Birdsnest says being just an hour from Canberra means the local mail service offers overnight delivery, which keeps her customers happy. She has also been able to recruit skills from Canberra when hiring staff. “Being in a regional area is a definite advantage. We weren’t seen as a threat as we were building the business, so everyone was very supportive of what we were doing. And being able to live and play in the slow lane is fantastic.”

Samantha and her business partner had already mastered ‘best practice’ before she moved out of Sydney. Online tools like Google apps have made it easy to collaborate on projects, while Dropbox is the best way to file share, which ensures you’re always working on the current version of a document, she says.

They use Skype to communicate with their technical expert. “Because we’re an online business, it’s online where the profile makes the difference. So I’m dedicated to my social media channels, ensuring they’re kept up to date and that I use LinkedIn in particular to maintain contacts and make new ones.”

She’s also a member of several online networks, writing blog entries about advertising and marketing.

Kelly agrees that accessing latest technologies is crucial. She invested in cloud based business systems, which gives her real-time information on transactions.

 “I can see real time minute to minute reporting of our business activities and this gives me control and communications required to manage Edible Blooms effectively.”

How to make it work:

  • Research the latest online tools that can making staying in touch easier.
  • Invest in relevant technology.
  • Take time to make regular trips to city areas for face-to-face meetings.
  • Be disciplined and make sure you are accessible.
  • Maintain regular contact with staff and clients.
  • Use social media to maintain an online presence.
  • See if you are eligible for government funding to relocate your business to a regional area.
  • Join relevant online networks and be an active member.
  • Attend workshops and seminars for businesses held in your local area and network with like-minded business owners.

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Andrew Sadauskas

Andrew Sadauskas is a former journalist at SmartCompany and a former editor of TechCompany.

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