Kate Mills assumed her long and illustrious editing and journalism career – riding the highs and lows of Australia’s economy and analysing the social and economic undercurrents rippling through Australian business – perhaps positioned her better than most as she made the leap from “writing about something to actually doing it”.
In this case it was leaving her high profile and demanding role as editor of business masthead BRW and setting up her own small, Sydney-based business. Six months ago Mills left the Fairfax publishing stable (and the uncertainty hovering around print media, she says) and launched Professional Mums (professionalmums.net), which looks to match mothers qualified as accountants, lawyers, management consultants and engineers with flexible, family-friendly roles.
Supported by industry heavyweights PwC, EY, Clayton Utz, Arup and Brown Wright Steen, the business idea had been tugging at Mills for some time and as a successful, senior editor herself, with two young children of her own, true diversity in the workplace was a “thriving passion” of hers.
Last week Mills spoke to a crowded audience at Sydney’s slick Establishment complex, nestled inside George Street’s elegant, heritage-listed George Patterson House. Part of the Sensis Business Directions Breakfast series, held in partnership with SmartCompany, the sessions (one was held in Melbourne) launched the Sensis Business Index Survey Results for the last quarter of 2013 and took a look at what small and medium businesses could expect next year.
Mills has penned some of the country’s finest business analysis and opinion pieces and broken and edited countless news stories – whether on superannuation, managed funds or corporate governance – but what really captured the crowd was her honest, candid reflections on the realities of running your own business and the fact she’s had to throw out the window much of what she had assumed.
A qualified lawyer, and with 20 years of print and broadcast business reporting and commentary under her belt, including for the UK’s Legal Business and Investor Weekly titles, Mills said the last six months had been the most instructive in her life.
“When you’re a business journalist you interview people all the time and think you know it, and then you get hands-on experience and you discover all the holes in your knowledge,” she says.
“I’ve written feature after feature and news story after news story on cash flow and capital and red tape, but you’re often talking to business owners about it once they’ve been in and come through that situation. I realised, once in a business, how people get into that situation in the first place!
“What are the behaviours and activities that mean you have a cash flow or sale cycle problem – that’s something I am discovering that I wasn’t really aware of. I think as a journalist I’d assumed people weren’t on the top of their game or had made a mistake and it’s quite humbling now to understand these are normal mistakes everyday people make and that you all get into them.”
Showing a picture of a business owner tied up metres of red tape, Mills said she’d assumed red tape would be easier to wade through than it really was. She noted she’d found it “hard to reach for the scissors” and that there was “no note of ceremony about it”.
“What I discovered was that red tape is completely out of proportion to the size of your business.”
She outlined several ways she thought small businesses owners could manoeuvre through red tape with greater ease: through organisation, risk mitigation and finding a mentor and network group.
“Ultimately, small businesses need to be phenomenally organised. An editor once told me the difference between a good journalist and a great journalist is organisation. You know that’s true, because journalism is completely frenetic and you’ve constantly got things up in the air, you’ve got 15 people to talk to and to call up, you have to dive straight into conversations. I think that’s what I really get about small business – you have to step up even beyond that.”
She said many small businesses focused on chasing sales but that it was critical to have at least two days a month completely devoted to administration and compliance – drawing up and chasing invoices, for example – to avoid ending up “in a complete mess and in a cash flow crisis”.
When making the leap into your own start-up, she said risk mitigation was important, and in her case involved taking a part-time job editing Australia’s bi-monthly Property Council magazine.
Mills also suggests forming a network with similar business owners to help set up accountability and structure.
“I created a network of three or four local businesses and we meet up once a month and are a coaching club of sorts – we feed off one another and work together and set goals and targets. Typically you’re in a scramble for the two days before the catch up to get that target done! But it works and keeps you from letting things slide.”
She says reaching out to more sophisticated and experienced business owners for advice and researching are things perhaps overlooked but valuable.
“The thing is there’s actually a lot of help out there for small businesses. I think the government does get the economy. I think SMES think they don’t get it, but things like having a small business commissioner, having someone at federal level representing small business shows they do get how important small business is. There’s actually a lot of free information out there – it’s always a bit difficult to find and you often have to go looking in different places for it but it is there.”
A key point of hers was that businesses couldn’t stop campaigning against restrictive red tape.
“In terms of the ease of doing business, Australia should be doing better. We’re lagging behind Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand. One of the biggest problems is the state system. With more and more businesses online and operating nationally, every time those businesses want to do something they are dealing with seven different types of legislation – for a country of Australia’s size this is ridiculous.
“We need to keep campaigning for the syndication and harmonisation of legislation across states and territories, it’s just not happening fast enough. If we want to have an entrepreneurial country, full of SMEs that are driving the economy, we need to make it easier for them rather than harder.”
Mills provided some illuminating advice for what SMEs can be doing to grow bigger, stronger businesses. She said one of the hardest things she’d faced as a sole operator was managing the delicate balance of keeping prospective clients coming in while servicing existing clients well enough for them to want to come back.
“Every time I start delivering the service to clients my eye comes off the client pipeline and vice versa – I completely see why as soon as you can you need to hire someone to focus on the delivery or sales.
“I think that businesses, post GFC, are looking at coming up with products that can be run on a low cost base – everyone wins here – the client wins because it is a low cost product and the business wins because they don’t have to put so much money into actually delivering the service.”
So what does Mills predict is in store for businesses in 2014?
“It depends on the sector you’re in and the business model. What is changing is the opportunity as we become much more global and digital. A lot of businesses have been reviewing their models in light of that and making some tough decisions on what’s sustainable and what’s not – we saw that with Holden this week – and I think that will continue.
“Manufacturing and exporting will find it hard but there are other sectors where we will see huge innovation – such as retail. The bottom line is innovation is everywhere so harness it.”
She points to charismatic tech entrepreneur Matt Barrie, CEO of global online outsourcing marketplace Freelancer, which in the 2011-12 financial year turned over $50 million as a model of harnessing innovation successful.
“You can’t ignore that – I think we’re always impressed when someone on the Australian stage moves to the global stage. There’s also Matt Harbottle of 99designs. There’s this misconception that innovation is just in the state or the Silicon Valley but it’s just not true – it’s wherever you want to find it.”
Mills said she was also fascinated to watch the bricks and mortar, older retail businesses restructuring into the digital world.
“David Jones isn’t out of the woods yet but they’re a good example.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the Matt Barries, who have done a wonderful job, but in Australia especially, I think there are a lot of mid-tier businesses that you don’t hear much about that have pretty good, innovative products and services.”
She said she shared the confidence that Australian SMEs expressed when polled by the Sensis Business Index survey on their feelings for the next business year.
“A lot of people have revisited their business models and cut costs and that’s been particularly hard for employees but coming through that, businesses may have created a more sustainable model. We know the RBA has and is doing the right thing and is very front lever and I think businesses are heartened that the RBA is responding so quickly and deeply to them.”
“I think we’re all beginning to get our heads around the digital revolution and the fact we’re all working in a global market and the opportunities of that. I think at the end of the day it’s about getting those supplier and client relationships, and being in global market it’s about realising they could come from everywhere.”