How to Grow Your Small Business – According to the Experts

Blake Vanderfield-Kramer (left) and Steve Pillemer, founders of Feels Botanical

How do you turn a small business into a big business? These seven companies used different methods to super-charge their growth.

Find the right partner

Feels Botanical distils eau de vie grape spirit and combines it with sustainably sourced botanicals, such as Illawarra plum, turmeric and ginseng. When it soft launched in 2020, the company partnered with high-end bars to develop the use of Feels in cocktails. Talking to individual liquor outlets about how to recommend and position its products was also key to driving sales, say founders Blake Vanderfield-Kramer and Steve Pillemer.

By mid-2022, Feels Botanical had decent recognition in bars and restaurants and was available in more than 60 liquor outlets and online, mostly on Australia’s east coast. But to take the business to the next level, the co-founders needed to find a like-minded distributor.

Vanderfield-Kramer turned to Michael McShane, CEO of Swift + Moore Group, which is a respected distributor of premium alcoholic beverage brands. “Swift + Moore has salespeople in each state and it deals with national accounts,” says Vanderfield-Kramer. “It was the step we wanted to take because it’s challenging to personally get around to every customer in Australia.”

Importantly, the new partners have similar business values. Neither is chasing mass-market sales but both are aiming for sustainable growth. And because Swift + Moore is also a boutique company that’s in a growth phase, Feels has maintained close oversight of its brand, driving the marketing. “We didn’t have to hand it over for someone else to do everything.”

Within four months of joining forces with Swift + Moore in August last year, Feels has seen a significant uplift in orders, says Vanderfield-Kramer, and is on track to almost quadruple the number of stores stocking its range to between 250 and 300 by the end of this year.

And a note on cashflow... The expansion of distribution and sales requires business owners to calculate how they’ll balance upfront supply-chain outlays (such as Feels Botanicals’ cost of quarterly production) with revenue, which can be affected by industry-standard timing of payments by retailers to distributors and then by distributors to producers.

Cashflow was a key consideration in growing their business, says Vanderfield-Kramer. “We focused on the next three to five years and did a lot of work on volume and distribution builds with the Swift + Moore guys. On the back end, we looked at the cost of fulfilling a rise in orders from both a production and an operations perspective.”

Align with your values

Simon Canning, founder of Cannings butcher shops

Sam Canning started his free-range butchery, Cannings, in 2010, in Hawthorn, Melbourne. After doing his apprenticeship as a teenager and working in paddock-toplate butcher shops in Europe, he felt he couldn’t work for most meat purveyors in Australia. “As an animal-lover, I felt their values didn’t align with mine,” he says, pointing to standards of animal care and raising, transport, slaughter and processing. So at 28, with $100,000 in scrounged capital and having talked his way into a lease, he opened his first shop, taking pride in bringing ethically sourced produce to the community.

Since then, he’s opened another eight stores and now has a staff of 140 behind the counter and in head office. “It was about doing the right thing by the farmer, the producer, the animals and our employees but I’ve never been great at documenting or process.”

So about three years ago, he decided to investigate becoming a B Corp, which is a global certification scheme that holds companies to account for their environmental and social performance.

Achieving B Corp certification – and maintaining it by renewing the application every three years – requires discipline, documentation and rigorous attention to numerous factors, including corporate governance, treatment of your workers, and the community and environmental impacts of making your product or offering your service.

“B Corp was a great way of taking the business model and the values we already had and structuring and documenting them in a way that could be referenced,” says Canning, who adds that the process was “arduous” and time-consuming – working through the requirements alongside day-to-day operations took almost two years. “But if someone challenges us on our free-range claims and says, ‘I want to see your suppliers’, everything is now organised to a point where we can validate any of our claims.”

Today, the business’s project manager, Joseph Lynch, keeps a consistently keen eye on aligning the company’s decisionmaking with its compliance. “The most exciting part,” says Canning, “is how it now influences all the decisions we make on a daily basis.”

To consumers, B Corp certification signals that your credibility as an ethical provider is proven and transparent – no greenwashing. Although accreditation is mentioned on the butchery’s website, “we never made a big song and dance about it,” says Canning. “Customer reaction has been subtle but encouraging.”

He hopes that B Corp will raise the bar for the local industry. “At the moment, we’re the only meat-industry B Corp in Australia but I’d love to see other meat companies get on board.”

Have a point of difference

Steph Claire Smith (left) and Laura Henshaw of Keep it Cleaner

When Melbourne-based Keep It Cleaner (KIC) wellness duo Steph Claire Smith and Laura Henshaw reformatted their website offering simple healthy recipes and accessible exercises into an app in 2018, their subscriptions went up by 25 per cent. The website was owned by a company that had partnered with the former models to popularise healthy living but the women wanted to run their own show. Their agreement with the website owner meant that they couldn’t take their subscriber database with them so they forfeited the database to go it alone, says Henshaw. “We were so passionate about developing the business and we had all these plans for what we wanted to do.’’

Still able to communicate with their health-seeking social-media community via their personal social channels, the pair canvassed those followers about their interest in more KIC recipes and varied workouts delivered via an app – and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. “People could have a personal trainer in their pocket,” says Henshaw.

Smith and Henshaw’s experience in the body-perfect, dieting world of modelling encouraged them to go down a different path and make confidence boosting and sustainable change their points of difference in the crowded health sector. They eschew kilojoule counting, dieting, body measurement and before-and-after photos in favour of easy, nutritious recipes and multiple exercise options. “Our members are finding their own recipe for a healthy life,” says Smith. “Their routine doesn’t have to look like someone else’s.”

In 2020, having analysed how users were engaging with the app, asking them what they’d like from the next version and researching their competitors’ activity and KIC’s market potential, Smith and Henshaw relaunched with nine trainers in different disciplines, from yin yoga to dance cardio.

The app relaunch coincided with the second COVID lockdown in Melbourne and gave them a new audience of people who couldn’t go to the gym and needed to workout at home. Henshaw attributes KIC’s subsequent high retention rate to its focus on healthy lifestyle, rather than quick fixes, and fresh weekly content that keeps people motivated.

With each increase in revenue, KIC expanded its employee base (from a pre-COVID eight to the current 17) and brought software development in-house in 2021 so they could constantly upgrade the user experience.

They’ve also continued to push their podcasts. On KICPOD they talk about “stuff that matters”, such as relationships and mental health, which has broadened their membership and added value to the brand. Their almost 200 podcasts have racked up more than eight million downloads, with an average of 128,000 unique listeners per month.

Expand your client base

Zoomo’s Mina Nada (left) and Michael Johnson

The mission of Mina Nada and Michael Johnson in co-founding Zoomo, the Sydney-based light-electric vehicle (e-bike) company, was to “accelerate the electrification of transport starting with last-mile delivery”. Last-mile encompasses meals, grocery and “instant” consumer goods delivery, plus parcels, documents and express cross-city post. Allied Market Research forecasts that this sector will more than double by 2031.

When Zoomo first started making its purpose-built e-bikes in 2017, the drive for cities and corporations to decarbonise was in its infancy. Nada and Johnson focused the business on individual delivery riders, who wanted efficient, reliable, faster-than-pedalling transport to help them earn more money, and Zoomo wrapped its bikes into payment plans that included servicing and insurance.

Now, says Johnson, companies are looking to electrify their delivery fleets. “If you’re delivering letters or small parcels in London, there’s absolutely no way an electric van is going to be faster or more efficient than an e-bike.” A Zoomo e-bike saves an average five tonnes of CO2 emissions a year, compared to an internal combustion- engine vehicle, he adds, and the cost of an electric-powered van could cover the purchase of multiple e-bikes.

Soon after its launch, Zoomo’s founders decided to test whether enterprises in the last-mile sector would be interested in leasing or buying its e-bikes, which included servicing and digital tracking and security technology. We “placed bets”, says Johnson, seeding a single salesperson in markets such as San Francisco, London and northern European cities, to start conversations and pilot schemes.

The sales cycle can be long, taking 12 months in some instances to get a pilot up and running, “but in 2021, the year we really focused on our enterprise offering, Zoomo grew its orders by four times” and its global enterprise segment grew 20-fold to become two-thirds of the business.

The company now employs more than 400 people globally and serves clients such as North American grocery delivery service InstaCart; German-based ondemand grocery service Gorillas; and Uber Eats and Deliveroo in numerous markets. Fleet-scale servicing and tracking technology, says Johnson, “have allowed us to win in the enterprise space, where safety and quality data are important”. In lease arrangements, he adds, the fleet management system that tracks the live location of the bikes by site, customer and use status, and weekly servicing, “gives us good control over our assets”.

Embrace social media

Making rock candy with intricate messages or images is mesmerising to watch. At Sticky Australia’s shopfront in The Rocks in Sydney, CEO David King was accustomed to seeing 70 or 80 passers-by gather to watch Sticky’s small team roll and stretch each sugary, eight-to-16-kilogram mass of coloured strands into cylinders of candy with images and words embedded over their entire length.

But it wasn’t until COVID hit that King capitalised on the theatricality of his craft. The former lawyer, who started the business in 2001 with his biochemist partner Rachel Turner, saw sales of personalised lollies for weddings and corporate events drop “to zero” during the pandemic. If it hadn’t been for a small number of online customers, he says, “the business would have folded entirely”.

In the midst of COVID, Sticky began posting more on Facebook and Instagram, which helped to boost online sales, but the couple’s teenage daughter, Annabelle, suggested they also open an account on TikTok, the fastest-growing social media platform in the world. “We started to live stream our processes,” filming 15-second takes of staff making rock candy, candy canes, bullseyes, swirly lollipops and more, says King, “and everything went bonkers.”

Enquiries and online orders bubbled over. Sticky has subsequently increased its workforce from five to 17 in line with the three-fold increase in in its production and revenue.

The store now goes live on Facebook on Friday and Saturday mornings; on YouTube on Saturday afternoon; Instagram at midday on Fridays; and TikTok on Saturdays at midday, where it’s attracted 6.7 million followers and its videos have had 231 million views.

The streaming schedule considers employee availability and the time zones that work for audiences and plays to the audience’s thirst for reliability. “Having a regular schedule also makes planning our production infinitely easier,” says King. It helps staff to know when they need to be “on” and when they need not feel that “pressure to perform”.

King thinks sharing the personalities of Sticky’s employees, who show their vulnerabilities alongside their skills, is what has resonated most with audiences. “People come to see us because we’re just like them and often a little bit hopeless.”

Sticky has more followers on TikTok than on other platforms, he says, and live streams there can get many more viewers. But TikTok doesn’t pay creators for their content in  Australia, whereas Facebook and YouTube “do try to support the people making the platforms work” via advertising revenue. Also, live videos on TikTok disappear “the moment you finish; they don’t live on, like they do on the others. All the platforms are important to us but for driving business and earning streaming revenue through advertising, Facebook and YouTube win hands down.”

Evolve the team to meet the business’s needs

The people at Plico Energy knew about renewables, having put together solar and battery systems to power mine-site accommodation in remote Western Australia. But when it launched a disruptive new business model supplying renewable-energy systems to homes in the south-west of the state, CEO Robbie Campbell realised he had to adjust his workforce to reflect this new consumer market.

Plico Energy is taking the upfront sting out of solar-plus battery costs for the residential market. In exchange for a weekly subscription that starts at $38.90, Plico installs and maintains the system and automates it to provide the optimal amount of energy for household use. The fleet of batteries is intended to form part of a “virtual power plant” (VPP) that will ultimately support the South West Interconnected System (SWIS), as the grid is known in the west, balancing fluctuations in electricity supply as the proportion of renewable generation grows.

Plico was rich in technical expertise but its segue from dealing with mining executives and operations managers to a more mass market meant that the new workforce priority had to be communications, community relations, marketing and couching technicalities in layperson’s terms.

VPPs are technically complex but they represent both a joint venture and a joint resource for communities – enabling them to work together for electricity-cost reductions and decarbonisation. Plico’s new four-strong marketing team has aligned the company with a variety of community events and sponsorships, including skateboard workshops at the annual Groundswell Festival in Scarborough.

“If you haven’t built the brand and people don’t know about it, you can do all the selling you like but no-one’s gonna jump on it,” says Campbell. “If you’ve got your brand and leads coming through but you don’t have the right salespeople in place, those leads are going to be wasted. Further down the line if your operations team is not able to cope with the volume that’s coming through, you’ll lose scale.”

Campbell says that before he rejigged the Plico team, in the six months “from November 2021, Plico installed 300 home systems”. But once he’d expanded and re-targeted the workforce to the needs of its new consumers, installations “doubled to 600 during the next six months”.

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SEE ALSO: Your Small Business Survival Guide

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