What is it that propels a small business to greatness? SME founders and leaders share the turning points in their journey to success.
“Sometimes running a small business is more art than science,” says Luke Achterstraat, CEO of the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia (COSBOA). “There’s always trial and error involved to find the right product or service that fills a gap sustainably in the market.” Australia’s 2.5 million small businesses – those with a turnover of $10 million or under, with most turning over less than $2 million – make up about 98 per cent of all of our businesses and form the mighty heart of our economy. SMEs employ almost 7.9 million people and generate more than $850 billion of economic activity – or more than half of Australia’s GDP.
Each one started with a dream but most will have had their share of nightmares, too. It takes resilience, resolve and creativity to keep going. “It’s the nimbleness of small businesses and their entrepreneurship that drives this innovation and dynamism,” says Achterstraat.
There’s a mix of bumps, byways and bright spots when running a small business. But for these three success stories, there was a turning point that changed everything.
Joining an accelerator
Anna Polyviou, Anna Polyviou Pty Ltd
The cliché is “fame and fortune” but celebrity chef Anna Polyviou says she made a “silly business decision” that resulted in lawyers telling her to declare herself bankrupt. A tricky partnership had ended in her losing her dream of opening her own shop in Sydney’s Inner West in 2022, as well as a year’s worth of work on recipes.
The one-time MasterChef Australia favourite dug in to pay off debts. “I was depressed but I was able to sleep at night,” she says. By late last year, Polyviou was back in action on Network Ten’s Dessert Masters at about the same time that her co-branded “edible cookie dough” hit the chiller cabinets in 850 Woolworths stores around Australia. She says Seedlab, a startup incubator and accelerator program sponsored by the supermarket giant, was instrumental.
“My friend Skye Blackburn, who owns the Edible Bug Shop, said, ‘Apply for this Seedlab program – you need to learn how to run a business, the manufacturing, branding, costs... everything.’” Polyviou was one of about 30 per cent accepted from hundreds of applications into the program. “It changed my life.”
The free online incubator bootcamp aims to identify if any of the businesses have a product that’s “retail ready”, says Seedlab co-founder and CEO Hazel MacTavish-West. “Anna came to the online course every week, having done all her homework. Then she got to pitch for our four-month accelerator program, Cultivate, with a five-minute video and samples of her cookie dough. I saw her come to life.” Polyviou’s was one of about 15 businesses that earned a place, receiving one-on-one mentoring and online resources to support her in everything from intellectual property to food safety and how to pitch.
But there were still plenty of hoops to jump through. In early 2023, at an expo for Woolworths staff to sample products, MacTavish-West says Polyviou’s meeting with the category manager didn’t go well. “They made it clear: ‘The fact that you’re going to be on Dessert Masters is not of interest – we’re doing this for your cookie dough.’ It was assessed on its merits.”
Seedlab worked with Polyviou to ascertain the benefits of setting up a a joint venture with Charlie’s Fine Food Co. “She did a lot of work on extending the shelf life of the product,” says MacTavish-West, “and she listened to feedback that the product also needed to be edible raw.”
The partnership with the boutique baker and wholesaler is the happy opposite to the one that nearly bankrupted Polyviou. “It’s a family-run business that’s really respected in the industry,” says the chef. “Without Charlie’s, I wouldn’t have been able to get into 850 stores.”
Polyviou’s confidence was also renewed. “Part of being an entrepreneur is the life lessons from business. It’s about surrounding yourself with like-minded people who allow your aspirations to grow.”
Flying from Darwin to Sydney, she got chatting with Paul Valenti, managing director of catering company Gema Group. By March, The Dessert Trolley by Anna Polyviou will be rolling through the corporate hospitality area at Sydney’s Accor Stadium.
“Anna’s such a talent,” says Valenti. “I’m very passionate about how we run our business – we have very similar values and I love that she always wants to do more.”
Polyviou’s desserts are on offer through online chef marketplace Providoor. She also wants her own TV show and to open an eponymous boutique store in a five-star hotel. “I love hotels – they really do make dreams come true,” she says. As Polyviou now knows: dream big – but back it up with a clear-eyed business plan.
Making a pivot
Amin Shayan, Littlepay
After leaving international banking in 2012, Amin Shayan used the connections he made working on a number of tech startups and joined the founding team of payments platform Littlepay in January 2016. “It was a very broad, ambitious vision that had a complex problem set – and nobody else was really doing anything like it,” says Shayan, who started as COO. “I’d never had the opportunity to be part of building something from the ground up – raising money, hiring people, getting our own office… starting everything from scratch.”
The backing came from investment group ICM Limited’s technology portfolio, Allectus Capital. “This was not a garage startup,” he adds. “Building a payments platform is very capital intensive. The vision was a platform for micropayments, hence Littlepay.”
Aggregating multiple transactions in a day – small-value payments, such as buying a train fare or purchasing a single online magazine article – and processing them once saves the vendor transaction fees, with software smart enough to accommodate discount rules such as weekly fare caps. Tap-to-ride transit was the first application Littlepay launched.
Within 18 months they found themselves in tech’s feared “Valley of Death”, the time when many startups perish. Shayan says Littlepay had set out to create “a global payments company with an infrastructure that banks would respect”. In doing so, they’d burnt through multiple millions of dollars.
“The investors were a bit unhappy – they couldn’t see a path to us ever making money. They were close to saying they might pull the plug – it was a moment of reckoning.”
When the original CEO left the business, Shayan took “an alternative plan” to the investors and in January 2018 became the new CEO. The pivot strategy was to build cloud-based software-as-a-service payments infrastructure, targeting the niche of public-transit operators. “We redefined our purpose to be about moving more people through better payment experiences.”
This led to a major downsizing. “That was very difficult – I’d never done that and I felt awful about it,” says Shayan. He was conscious that most of the people Littlepay made redundant were senior payments-platforms specialists who’d “left careers in stable multinational companies to take this big leap of faith”. But knowing it was either lose 30 per cent of the staff or 100 per cent steeled his resolve.
“We built momentum and within about six months turned the business around to become cashflow positive,” he says. Today, Littlepay is in 13 countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, with more than 250 transit operators using the service worldwide.
With its mission to move more people, Littlepay will be working behind the scenes as a paymentsservices provider for such things as rental scooters and bikes, EV charging and toll roads. “If it’s in that wheelhouse, we’ll consider it. But we’re not going to do retail or restaurants.”
Six years on from those tough calls to save the company, Shayan has advice for anyone in a similar spot. “Don’t slalom around red flags – when you see one you have to pay attention.”
Natassia Nicolao, Conserving Beauty
It took two years plus the knowledge from her science degree, experience in developing products for Swisse Wellness and exposure to other startup founders for Natassia Nicolao to formulate her beauty product. It took two minutes for her then-mentor to tell her it wouldn’t go anywhere.
Through COVID lockdowns in Melbourne, Nicolao worked to invent a sustainable make-up wipe that required less water to manufacture and would dissolve in seconds. At the time, she was also head of operations at a private equity fund focused on beauty and wellness, and head of global sales and partnerships for WelleCo, a supplements company founded by Elle Macpherson.
“I used to wake up at 5am and do three hours on my project before my actual day job then finish that at around 5.30pm and work till 11pm pretty much every day as well as every Saturday and Sunday,” says Nicolao.
She had a small lab set up at home and access to professional labs through contacts. “Manufacturing was an essential industry and all of the beauty product manufacturers were making hand sanitiser so they’d lend me their lab space out of hours.”
As well as developing the actual product, Nicolao was brand planning. That was the point when her mentor broke her heart – and lit a fire. “My mentor was someone I’d worked with in my first job and he told me nobody cared enough about sustainability and I should rethink my positioning of the whole brand,” she recalls. “I’d told him the name of the brand – Conserving Beauty – and he said I’d find it really hard to get that into a retailer. I had in my pitch deck that I wanted to be in Mecca and he said, ‘Mecca will not get behind this.’”
Rather than fold, the advice propelled Nicolao to ask Mecca herself. “I didn’t think I was going to get into Mecca straightaway but I wanted to know if I was on the right track.”
After three months of “stalking via LinkedIn” she finally scored an introduction to Mecca’s head of buying and took prototypes of her products and a pitch deck to a meeting. Mecca head of new brands Liz McCartan (now head of category for make-up) remembers it vividly. “Natassia was smart, highly energetic and passionate, with a great knowledge of the product and a clear position for the brand.”
Mecca said yes. “I loved the simplicity of the range and the face oil tested strongly with our team,” says McCartan. “Once the dissolvable make-up wipes and face masks were presented, we knew our customers and team were going to fall in love with Conserving Beauty.”
Nicolao recalls that the Mecca team recommended changing her face oil lid colour from black. “They said, ‘You don’t want to be another black lid on shelves’ so I changed to yellow lids immediately. Maybe some people are a bit precious about their brand but I thought, ‘They know better than I do, I’m not a packaging expert!’”
Conserving Beauty launched via its own website at the end of 2021, into select Mecca stores and online in April 2022 and at all Space NK stores and online last July. Nicolao now says her former mentor “did me the best favour… It pushed me to go to Mecca early, otherwise I would have waited until a year after launch.”
McCartan’s tip for hopeful entrepreneurs? "Be open to feedback and digest it in conjunction with your own vision. Some of the best ideas will come from great people who may share a different perspective or experience that will enhance your brand or product.”
“I broke Australia’s equity crowdfunding records.”
Mike Smith, Founder, Zero Co
In October 2021, Mike Smith discovered how deep the interest was in his new startup, Zero Co. One day after securing $6 million in investment from Australia’s largest venture firm, Square Peg Capital, Smith turned to the public with a crowdfunding campaign on Birchal. In just under 6.5 hours, the Byron Bay entrepreneur had attracted $5 million for Zero Co, a personal-care and home-cleaning product company.
It wasn’t Smith’s first foray into crowdfunding – he launched the business in November 2020 after a Kickstarter campaign – but it was his biggest. And a record-breaker. “The team felt a week’s worth of emotions in six hours,” he says. “It gives us the confidence that so many people out there believe in us and want to be part of the solution. On the other hand, I also feel a very big sense of responsibility.”
That’s what led Smith to create Zero Co in the first place, with a vision of eliminating single-use plastic from Australian kitchens, laundries and bathrooms. “I had trekked to farflung parts of the planet before launching the business and I couldn’t believe we were seeing plastic on beaches in some of the most remote parts of the world.” Zero Co offers a range of products sent directly to the customer, with dispensers made from ocean-waste plastic that can then be refilled with pouches made from recycled plastic. When customers are done with the pouches, they return them to Zero Co, where they are cleaned, refilled and reused. “So far, we’ve removed almost 6000 kilograms of plastic rubbish from the ocean. That’s more than 500,000 water bottles worth of plastic.”
Smith now has big plans for a marketing push, to increase his staff to more than 20, launch new products and move into the European and North American markets this year. He puts the company’s fast success down to a commitment to being “radically transparent” from the beginning. “We’ve built our community by telling customers about our mistakes and wins along the way and that’s grown our audience exponentially. We’ve celebrated the wins and losses, which has allowed us to build a fan base.”
“Handing control to an outside partner was key to growth.”
Becca Stern, Co-owner, Mustard Made
“Conquering America was always part of the plan,” says Becca Stern, who lives in Newcastle, NSW, and launched Mustard Made with her London-based sister, Jess, in 2018. The company creates retro-style metal lockers and, says Becca, “the product made sense in the United States market, with a similar audience to Australia”.
The duo’s business instincts are beyond doubt – since the company was founded, revenue has doubled year-onyear to make Mustard Made a multi-million-dollar concern that sells direct to customers as well as through 120 stockists.
But the pandemic brought challenges. Not only were the sisters’ plans to export to the US shelved but factory closures in China created manufacturing hurdles. With 14 staff working from home, international expansion felt impossible.
Demand from the US was clear, says Becca, with buyers contacting the company online, but “we just couldn’t see how we could possibly meet it. We always travel to a new market to make sure things run smoothly but COVID put an end to that.” Eventually, the sisters made the decision to push ahead, hiring a London-based manager to build the American market. It was the first time they’d handed over control – and it felt risky. “Often in business we get excited about the product or the branding or visual side of things but we’ve certainly learnt that the real heart is the infrastructure, the logistics and the partnerships you have. It took trust and confidence in our partners, ourselves and our product to believe that we could take something that’s working here and translate it to another market.”
The decision paid off. Mustard Made launched in the US in August 2021 and sales started coming through within minutes of the site going live. “They’ve been steadily growing since then,” says Becca. “Building a new export market remotely could be a major turning point for how we’ll do things in the future.”
“I had to sell my business to let it grow.”
Dominic pym, Co-founder, Ferocia
For a long time, banking appeared to be far more complex than it is, according to Melburnian Dominic Pym. But banks don’t need physical branches; the same service can be delivered online, giving customers more detailed information about how they spend their money and which bills are due.
Pym and his team at financial software company Ferocia have spent the past decade working to bring about radical change in the sector. In 2018, they launched Up, a digital bank, in a joint partnership with Bendigo and Adelaide Bank. “The market had been crying out for change for a long time.”
Up became a hit with younger Australians – Gen Zers and Millennials make up more than 85 per cent of its customers – but at the end of 2021, Pym sold Ferocia to Bendigo and Adelaide Bank in a $116-million deal. “It was time for a change to allow further growth of Up.”
Pym will remain closely involved in the next iteration of the business but the sale frees him to work more closely with the startup community and fintech sector to help them get access to partnerships, capital and talent. “I’m now on the advisory board with Bendigo Bank and have access to more capital so in addition to directly investing and mentoring, I’m also able to look at the whole spectrum of capital markets in Australia.”
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“The pandemic brought my work to a halt – then gave me two businesses.”
Jeremy Fleming, Founder, Stagekings and Isoking
Building some of the nation’s largest stage sets was all in a day’s work for events company Stagekings, which created everything from a replica of Edinburgh Castle for the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo to giant themed sets for TV shows like Ninja Warrior Australia.
But when the pandemic hit and events were cancelled all over the world, founder and CEO Jeremy Fleming was faced with the prospect of letting 23 staff go – or transforming his business. “We knew people were going to spend more time at home due to the pandemic so we saw this massive opportunity,” he says of recognising the immediate need for desks suitable for working from home.
Fleming put a call-out to the events industry. “We got as many event workers as we could to help us make the furniture as a stop gap to keep them going.” Within 24 hours, he had his first flat packed homeoffice desk prototype and launched an ecommerce site under new business name IsoKing (isoking.com.au), which remains linked to the Stagekings website. They sold 30 desks on the first day.
Fleming hoped to make $1 million in the first year with his new venture but garnered $3.6 million in the 12 months after COVID hit. “We survived by staying agile, looking for opportunities then moving on those. I’ve spoken to so many people who had a great idea but never moved on it.”
As he prepares to ramp up Stagekings, Fleming has bought out two suppliers – a steel fabricator and a signage company he often hired as part of the set-building business. The acquisitions allowed him to bring these services in-house and he’s moved operations to a larger Sydney warehouse. “We’ll continue running IsoKing and [we’ve expanded] into bigger ticket items, such as bed frames and sofas.”
And with restrictions lifting, the bookings are starting to roll in again. The company now has about 100 staff, mostly contractors who come on board to help handle events. “One thing I’ve learnt is not to have all your eggs in one basket.”
“We shifted our focus away from China.”
Bec Hardy, Founder, Bec Hardy Wines
When Bec Hardy took over the highly successful McLaren Vale wine brand Pertaringa from her winemaker father, Geoff, in 2020 and launched her own label, Bec Hardy Wines, exporting to China was a key strategy. The plan? Travel there to solidify the market and ensure the brand was well-received by buyers and distributors.
But the pandemic and the much-publicised strain on diplomatic relations between China and Australia – which saw China place tariffs on a range of our produce, including wine – forced Hardy to explore new export markets. “There’s always opportunity in international markets for premium Australian wine at a great price with a strong heritage. And we have that in spades.”
Hardy used the pandemic pause to refurbish the cellar door and pursue new avenues in countries including Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand and Canada. “We’ve been investing in marketing and hosting events, opening up our home for special intimate dining experiences and for tours.”
She also recently signed an export deal to the United States that involves 130,000 bottles, while 12 additional markets have been secured. The hope is that as more deals come through, the winemaker will be able to hire more people. But right now, it’s a tightly run ship.
Hardy points to the many connections made by the family business as key to this expansion. “The relationships we’ve had over the past 10 years have made this growth possible. It already feels like we’ve turned the corner.”
“We committed to B-Corp certification.”
Chloe and Olivia Brookman, Co-founders, Olli Ella
When sisters Chloe and Olivia Brookman were growing up, “we used to set up shops in our bedroom”, says Chloe. “We hoped to build something together one day.”
And in 2010, they did just that, opening their lifestyle company, Olli Ella, in Byron Bay. Specialising in whimsical, folk-inspired children’s toys, along with home décor and apparel, the duo found quick success with their unique range. “We create our collection with the planet in mind,” says Chloe, “and we ensure a rich thread of diversity and inclusion is woven through our designs.”
The brand now employs 36 people, operates ecommerce stores in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe and has forged wholesale relationships with more than 1200 stores in 44 countries, including Harrods in the UK and Anthropologie in the US.
Key to this impressive expansion? Becoming a Certified B Corporation, a goal the sisters reached last year. It was no mean feat. The commitment necessitates adhering to the highest standards of verifiable social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. “We wanted to be a ‘good’ company but having that framework keeps us accountable,” says Chloe, adding that the pair is determined to play a role in reducing inequality and bolstering sustainability.
The lengthy and meticulous process revealed important learning opportunities, cementing the brand’s social and environmental identity. “The process uncovers how much further you can take your efforts, while celebrating what you’ve already achieved. Certification is an opportunity to excavate your business practices and improve on them.”
The decision has had multiple pay-offs for the business. As well as influencing its choice of manufacturing materials, the certification has also seen Olli Ella enjoy rapid expansion, by building greater brand awareness among eco-minded shoppers. Plus, says Chloe, “being B-Corp provides access to handy resources and aids in attracting aligned talent”.
Image credit: John Paul Urizar, David Finlay, Jono Ring