It’s not enough to feel the wind – you have to change your sails

Five years ago, I was the youngest and most impressionable member of the SmartCompany team.

Having only been in the job a few months, I was still becoming accustomed to calling people out of the blue and asking for a quote. Straight out of university, it was a shock to move from doing the odd article with a press representative to actually interviewing the people in charge.

It was both thrilling and nerve-wracking.

So imagine how I felt when I jumped on the phone with Gerry Harvey back in 2008, who told me that online retailing “was a complete waste of time”.

“I’ve got an online part of my business, but I definitely would not put more into it. That’d be a recipe for a disaster,” he said.

“Online people do not make any money.”

That story was, by far, the biggest story of the day – nay, the next year, (at least at SmartCompany). I also feel partly responsible for unleashing Harvey’s thoughts on the digital sector on the world.

Forgive me. I knew not what I had done.

At the time, I didn’t really know too much about online retailing, but I certainly knew Gerry Harvey was a little off the mark. Could it really be possible that his company wouldn’t make any money at all from online retailing? Could it be a crock?

But that wasn’t what he said. He said no one would make money from online retailing. Ever. A bold claim.

Over the past five years at SmartCompany, I’ve interviewed hundreds of business owners. Probably thousands. I’ve written thousands of news stories, read hundreds of financial reports and I’ve even tracked down a dodgy CEO or two. I’ve written on success stories, probed founders on what makes them so successful, and picked up some advice along the way.

I’ve spoken to company owners who think they’ll be the next biggest thing, and go bankrupt a few weeks later. I’ve watched founders who would barely say three words about their company, and yet end up creating some of the most successful businesses in the country.

I by no means call myself an expert. But exposure to both success and failure over a long period of time means you pick up a few things.

Two stand out.

The first is this – entrepreneurs tend to be full of bullshit. Don’t read that the wrong way. Bullshit is often necessary. They bend the truth in a certain way to make themselves look good. Nothing wrong with that. It’s like motivating your team when you’re losing halfway – you blind the bad side to make way for the good.

But there are those who spin the bad kind of bullshit, and they drive me nuts. You’ll spot them, because they can’t tell you what their business even does.

I remember sitting down with a young business owner about six months into my reporting gig. I consistently asked her what her business did, and she couldn’t even tell me in five minutes. I kept asking her to simplify things, to pretend I’m just some random person on the street. But she couldn’t do it – the buzzwords kept falling out of her mouth.

She doesn’t work in that business anymore.

I’ve used a rule that’s served me well: if someone can’t explain their business in two simple sentences, they don’t know what they’re doing. I’ve been right most of the time.

The second piece of information I’ve picked up is more subtle. And it’s this: Successful entrepreneurs recognise when the wind is changing, and modify their businesses to benefit.

They don’t wait until the waves are crashing down around them to move. They see an opportunity, but aside from just recognising the change, they actively move with it – if it’s relevant, of course.

This growth isn’t stuff you’re going to see on front pages, usually. It’s in the background. They’re the invisible success stories – the business owners who are servicing a need you didn’t even know existed, then get out while they’re on a high. It’s usually boring stuff.

I mean, who wants to create a healthcare business. I don’t. You probably don’t either. It’s not sexy, like an app business or whatever. But Tristan White did 10 years ago, because he saw the population was ageing and knew they would require more health services down the road. So he started The Physio Co and is enjoying solid success. Is it a multi-billion dollar empire? No. But most successful businesses aren’t.

So how does this all relate to Gerry Harvey?

I disagree with Harvey often, (naturally), but I tend to have a fondness for him as that interview marked the beginning of a long career at SmartCompany speaking with people who I tend to not gel with completely. When I think of my first year, I think of that conversation. I’ve kept it in mind ever since then.

Harvey complains that his business isn’t making a lot of money from online retailing. I trace that back to that moment in 2008. What if he had said – “my business isn’t making money from online retailing…yet”, and invested millions in creating the best online database for appliances?

But he didn’t. He was too slow. Now Appliances Online is making $300 million a year from online sales and free deliveries.

I’ve learned a lot while I’ve been at SmartCompany, and I have plenty more to go. But I’ve certainly come to terms with this: It’s not enough to just recognise the wind is blowing.
You’ve got to change your sails.

Good entrepreneurs can tell the difference.

(This blog will be my last at SmartCompany. After five years, I’m moving on to a new position. It’s been an incredible ride. If you want to keep in touch, discuss ideas or just yell at me, you can follow me on Twitter at @pdstafford.)


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