Doing business on the side

Attitudes to work are changing, with increasing demands for more flexibility in the way we work and what we do fuelling a rise in personal entrepreneurialism

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There’s a revolution underway in workplaces around Australia. It’s been labelled the “side business phenomenon”, as increasing numbers of people turn personal passions into start-up businesses while still working at their day jobs.

Research released by e-commerce platform Selz reveals that 23 per cent of working adults in Australia are working on a side business, with a further 42 per cent considering it.

Driven by a desire for both financial and personal freedom, and increasingly enabled by an internet-connected society, these entrepreneurs are turning their ideas into money spinners.

The report, titled “The Side Business Phenomenon”, shows that average annual income from side businesses is around $25,400, while 12 per cent are earning $75,000-plus
a year.

We spoke to three passionate proponents of the side business trend who have transitioned from corporate careers to growing their successful start-up ventures, enlisting the power of the internet to reach out to customers and grow.

 Liz Tehan,Set That

A fascination with new technology combined with early-adopter enthusiasm has taken Liz Tehan from a career in HR to working with major corporates in new technology implementations and project management, and ultimately down the entrepreneurial road.

In her mid-50s, and with a 30-year corporate career working with companies including BHP and Toyota behind her, Tehan and a colleague hit upon the idea for their global shopping site Set That during a conversation about the frustrations of online shopping.

“We both felt that online shopping was a disaster,” recalls Tehan. “This was four years ago, when retailers were just plonking their product catalogue online and expecting us to be inspired.”

The pair embarked on research to identify an online shopping platform that would provide an easier way for women to shop online while delivering a better experience.

“We committed some funding and three days a week to work together in a disciplined way on the idea,” says Tehan. “At the end of three months, we would decide if we felt the idea had legs, and then we would either invest together to build a website, or give it away.”

“I loved the idea of solving a problem that existed and building something very innovative and new – while also building a successful business that people loved working for and also doing business with.”

Set That, which aims to inspire and help busy women undertake their online shopping through “sets” of products curated and styled by other site users, launched in mid-2013. However, the pressures of establishing a start-up took their toll, and Tehan’s business partner sold out of the venture after two years.

“It’s hard to be a start-up when you’ve been used to a corporate career with a regular salary,” says Tehan. “You go to no salary because you’re re-investing the money you’re making back into the business for it to grow and eventually scale.

“You’re facing that fear of whether it’s going to take off. After the first few years, the business still hadn’t grown to the level that I’d hoped, but my attitude was never to give up – I always had a strong belief in both the concept and in myself.

“The business had legs, but [we] had to crawl before we could walk, and that needed a lot of energy and money to continue moving forward – it is a significant challenge for entrepreneurs to maintain the mind set, the enthusiasm and the financial backing that they need to become successful.”

Today, Set That features more than 52,000 brands and 437,000 products from more than 100 global stores in categories including fashion, beauty and home. While initially Tehan’s focus was on creating a website to sell products to consumers in an inspiring way, her key priority now is marketing Set That’s B2B model, working with all types of businesses as they seek to sell products to their online audiences.

“That could be anything from sporting clubs with a niche audience through to major publicly listed companies like shopping centre owners,” she says. “It’s a very big opportunity. We now market Set That as a technology for businesses that want to provide a shopping experience for their website visitors but don’t want to manage the product data and fulfilment of orders.”

While her current business is very different from her previous corporate career, Tehan says the skills she developed there have been invaluable to her entrepreneurial success.

“Being an early adopter of technology, and [having] the skills I’d developed around improving processes through the effective use of technology, enabled me to learn the raft of different technologies needed to build, market and manage a start-up business. But being willing to make mistakes while learning – which is not what we do in corporate careers – was something I had to get used to on my path towards becoming a successful entrepreneur,” she says.

Adam Jelic, Mi Goals

For Adam Jelic, an early passion for goal setting as an ambitious young sportsman has continued to assist him in his working life – firstly in his corporate career in sales and then in sparking the idea for the start-up he began as a side business.

Jelic and his friend Alec Kach co-founded Mi Goals five years ago by launching a single product – a humble diary – albeit a very stylish one.

From selling 800 in their first year through a select few Melbourne bookshops, Mi Goals’ range of diaries and notebooks is now on track to sell 110,000 units this financial year through more than 150 online and offline stores across Australia and New Zealand. The potential of the giant US market also beckons, with major retailer Urban Outfitters recently having become a stockist.

The inspiration for Mi Goals struck Jelic more than eight years ago during a personal development session at his workplace, when the coach asked the group to write down their goals on a piece of paper.

“At the time I’d been setting personal goals since I was 15, [when] I’d wanted to be a professional soccer player,” says Jelic. “That day something just sparked in me. I thought, ‘There’s something wrong here,’ just writing on a scrap of paper that would just be lost.

“I said to my boss at the time that I was going to create a diary for myself to use. He laughed it off and I put it aside, thinking it wouldn’t work.”

But the idea simmered away in Jelic’s mind until he eventually enlisted the help of Kach, a graphic designer, to create a prototype of the stylish, inspirational product he’d envisioned. “I used it for a few months, and then started trying to sell it,” he says.

“At the time I was an account manager in the DVD kiosk business, so I began working on the business, juggling things in between work. In the first year, 800 diaries went out and they all sold – and it’s been doubling and tripling each year since then.”

Newly married, and with a mortgage quickly followed by the arrival of the couple’s first child, Jelic says his personal circumstances in those early days meant he couldn’t make the leap fully into the business. Instead, he worked on the business in his spare time.

“I was working on transitioning into being able to eventually go full time with Mi Goals,” he says.

“It was crazy. There was one time in 2014 [when] I’d started a new job, we’d just moved into a new house we’d built and were two weeks away from having our second child, and then we had 20,000 products drop into my garage.

“It was a pivotal point when we grew the most. You just do it – you adapt, and energy is running high.”

Jelic was finally able to commit full time to Mi Goals in November last year, his corporate departure strategically timed to coincide with the busiest period of the year for the stationery business.

He says the skills he gained in his corporate career have served him well as an entrepreneur. “The face-to-face selling, having business-to-business experience, knowing how to network, build a team and develop the vision – it’s been very helpful,” he says.

Suzanne Acteson, Habitots

Early on in her career, one of Suzanne Acteson’s mentors described her as “always looking for the next rung” on her ladder. It was a quality, he said, that made her perfectly suited to sales, because “you can never reach your limit”.

The observation turned out to be prophetic, with even a busy role as the Melbourne-based Managing Director for Australia and New Zealand of advertising company Buchanan Group – plus two young children and then the birth of a third – proving no barrier to Acteson launching and operating her own start-up side business.

Canadian-born Acteson initially established her children’s concept business, Habitots, as an online retail operation in 2013, after several years of developing the vision in her head. Her rise through the management ranks, combined with the arrival of her first child, had kept the idea on the backburner until then, but eventually the time was right, and with the encouragement of her boss, she kicked it off.

“So I got a logo done, created a website and just got started on one portion of the bigger idea I had for a kind of a multi-purpose space for families and kids, a physical space,” she says. “I saw a retail side, as well as classes for kids, a cafe, parties.”

Acteson was initially working around 20 hours a week on building the business. “I was doing it in the evenings and on planes – I was travelling a lot for work. I’d be on the plane writing content, figuring out what products I wanted for the site, and how to import products – it was pretty much trial and error.

“But it didn’t feel like work, it was fun. It was allowing me to be creative, and I guess in hindsight that was an important part of my desire to do this.”

But the bigger part of Acteson’s vision was to establish a bricks-and-mortar store, and  she eventually left the corporate world in early 2014 to take her plan for Habitots to the next level. She tested the concept with a two-month pop-up store in April 2014, and the opening of her permanent location followed five months later.

“This brought a whole new learning curve,” she says now. “I’d never been in retail before, and this was quite a complex business – it’s about four businesses all under one roof. So it was another steep learning curve learning about merchandising and finding your way through all the details with the council and it’s many requirements. But you just manage it and get through it.”

Acteson credits the skills developed in her corporate career – particularly in sales – with being invaluable in the transition to the entrepreneurial world.

“Even as MD at Buchanan, I wore a very strong sales cap,” she says. “I’ve always been good at pitching my business to people. Sales techniques – how to sell my business and products to customers – are fundamental. It’s quite a natural thing for me.

“And the resourcefulness that comes with that – always being able to find a way around any challenge. If you get a knock-back, you just find another way.”

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