When the entrepreneurial bug bites

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What would it take to jump head-first from a nice, safe corporate career into a start-up entrepreneurial business? JAMES THOMSON finds out.

By James Thomson

Executives who get the entrepreneurial bug

The chance to become an entrepreneur may not have passed you by. Sometimes you need a career’s worth of knowledge before striking out on your own.


Many people think that entrepreneurial people have some magic, in-built gene. You know the sort of story – at the age of five, these natural-born entrepreneurs start their first lemonade stand. Later, they drop out of uni to start some sort of company in the garage and a few years later strike it rich when they invent a fabulous product.

But some of our greatest entrepreneurs are not natural business geniuses, and it is only after many years of working for other people that they take the plunge and start a business. 

But they provide great inspiration to wage-slaves everywhere – your chance to become an entrepreneur may not have passed you by.

This year’s BRW Young Rich list included some great examples of late bloomers, including Simon Woodfull (aged 37), group chief executive and director of operations at software company Bravura Solutions. In December 2003, he and business partner Iain Dunstan (aged 44) were building on long careers in software development and running a division of Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC).

The business was travelling well, but CSC was unwilling to invest in the research and development needed to build the next generation of products. Woodfull and Dunstan thought they could do it better. So they went to an investment bank that specialised in management buyouts, mortgaged their homes and started negotiations to buy the division.

Twelve months later they were the proud owners of wealth management software provider Bravura Solutions. The company is now worth $250 million and Woodfull and Dunstan own stakes worth about $25.6 million and $50.8 million respectively.

There are countless other examples from the Young Rich. Shaun Bonett (aged 36), who has a $300 million fortune, enjoyed a successful career as a lawyer before starting his property company Precision Group. Richard Bell, who has rocketed up the wealth tables thanks to his $180 million stake in reverse charge calling services company Reverse Corp, started out in the financial services sector, running the United States’ operation of stockbroker Wilson HTM.

Other well-known examples of late-stage entrepreneurs from the Rich 200 include billionaire Kerr Neilson (aged 57), who worked as a fund manager for BT for many years before striking out on his own. Miner Ken Talbot (aged 56) worked for a number of mining companies (including one owned by Alan Bond) before staking out his own mine, borrowing some money and giving it a go. He’s now worth almost $500 million.

So what does it feel like to take the plunge from a nice, safe corporate career into a start-up?

One person currently adjusting to the change is Martin Nally, a human resources veteran who has worked for giants such as Pasminco, Kraft, Mayne and Coles Myer during a 25 year corporate career. In 2006, he left Coles Myer to start his business hranywhere, a consultancy offering a range of HR services to companies of all sizes.

Nally says that while he enjoyed the experience and challenge of running a large HR team, working within the bureaucracy of a large company could be frustrating. “I used to have a lot of good ideas. Some got implemented but others just fell on deaf ears. There is such a large approval process to be negotiated in a large company, and it’s just so hard to do.”

He got a glimpse of what he wanted to do when he was helping manage the transition of managers from Coles Myer to the newly-created Myer organisation (owned by a consortium including private equity firm TPG.) The transition was handled by a small team of four HR managers. “Here I was in this big corporate, replicating this small team and it was a huge success. I saw there was a yawning gap and I decided to start my own business.”

Nally has hired 10 associates and tried to bring an ethical, values-driven approach to hranywhere. Perhaps the most important values are a focus on delivery for clients and the hranywhere team.

One thing that annoyed Nally about working in a big corporate was the expectation that the HR executives would spend a lot of time at the office. He offers his staff flexibility and is more worried about getting the job done than how many hours a staff member works. “It’s really about bringing the values that you’ve experienced for so many years. These can get lost in the corporate environment.”

Nally says he didn’t feel like he was taking a life-changing risk by starting a new business, mainly because his children are grown up and the financial pressure to succeed is not as intense. He’s enjoying his new business so much that many of his friends have asked why he didn’t bloom as an entrepreneur earlier. “They say to me ‘you should have done this years ago’. But I shouldn’t have. I wasn’t ready,” he says. “This was the perfect time for me because I’ve built up such as personal reference volume that I can refer to.”

And in an era of work/life balance and sea-changes, the number of late blooming entrepreneurs will grow, especially from the baby boomer generation.

So don’t fear that entrepreneurship has passed you by – as the examples above show, sometimes you need a career’s worth of knowledge before striking out on your own.




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