Thursday, January 22, 2015

Small Business Success Story - and it all started in his bedroom

Hey, if you’re a budding entrepreneur then you’ll be inspired by this story.

In 2002, picture a young guy with a passion for music in the small bedroom of his home helping struggling musicians prepare their tax returns after work. Gradually, word-of-mouth referrals evolve to a point where he quits his day job and starts up a small accounting business.

Fast-forward some 13 years later and Tom Harris is running White Sky, a company that employs over 30 staff and is based in a spacious 2 storey commercial building in Collingwood (Melbourne), with another office in Sydney. His company is recognised as one of the industry leaders in offering accounting and business management services for many of the leading musicians, record labels, venues and performing groups within the entertainment industry, not just here in Australia but in the U.S and Europe as well.
So, what’s his story? Read on …..

1.   Tom, what initially inspired you to start your own business?

In the early days it was the idea of freedom that appealed to me. I was 25 when I started White Sky, I had a pretty good work ethic and I enjoyed a challenge. I didn’t particularly like the idea of having to adhere to someone else’s rules. I guess it was a classic “rebel without a cause” scenario.
When it came to deciding what sort of business I wanted to start, I just wanted to work in the music industry. I didn’t know anyone in the industry and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do exactly, I just wanted to be around other people who were going to gigs every night and were happy to talk about music all the time. I’d worked as a bookkeeper in another job and I knew the essentials of it, so I saw starting a music bookkeeping business as an ideal way in.

It sounds all pretty laid-back at the start, but it didn’t take long before I became quite obsessed with building the business. I worked nights and weekends and thought about it constantly. I felt that I was in such a privileged position to be working with these cool bands … I was determined to impress and I hated letting anyone down.
It’s funny looking back, but I think that it was this attitude that actually paved the way for the sort of client-focussed culture and commitment to service that is integral to the way the business operates now, almost 13 years later.

2.   What have you found to be most rewarding in running your own business?

Without a doubt it’s the people I work with. I just love being a part of a great team of people who share a common goal.
In part it’s also the professional development aspect of managing and leading a group of staff. I gain enormous satisfaction from seeing people be challenged and learning and growing from their experiences here. To offer them opportunities that help to improve their skills and build confidence in their own capabilities is very fulfilling.

And then there’s the personal level….. I love seeing a new person join the team all nervous and quiet at the beginning - and before long they’ve made a heap of friends and they’re really into the job, the company and what we’re all about.
I gain a deep sense of satisfaction in feeling that I’ve helped create a culture where people come to work here every day and we are having a positive influence on who they become as people.

3.   What’s changed in the way you market the business from the early days, compared to now?

The old saying ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is very true in an industry as small as the Australian music industry.
So “marketing” in the early days was either word-of-mouth or me going to gigs and meeting people and talking about White Sky.

Once I’d built up a bit of a client base I got a website which basically just explained what I did and listed my clients. That’s all I needed. I could just direct people to the website and once they saw that I worked with people they knew or with people they’d heard of, then they were sold.
And over the years, in some ways things haven’t changed all that much. The website is still essentially the same - and word-of-mouth still accounts for the vast majority of our growth, only now ‘the brand’ takes care of the ‘sales’. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but one of the smartest things I did in the early days was creating and promoting the brand ahead of myself as an individual. It meant that as we grew, the reputation I’d built personally was transferrable onto my staff.
It might seem obvious now, but that wasn’t what most people were doing at the time and in hindsight I think that played a big part in allowing the business to grow so quickly.

4.   You’ve been working with a business partner, Paul Luczak, for around 8 years. When and why should a small business owner consider taking on a business partner?

The best part about having a business partner is having someone to share the wins with. Running a business is a really hard slog, a lot of thankless time and effort goes into it and it’s important to celebrate every success you have along the way, no matter how small. Having supportive family and friends is great, but having someone who’s right there in the trenches beside you makes it a lot more enjoyable.

Paul coming on as a business partner was a pretty gradual thing. He was an employee for the first 4 or 5 years of his time at White Sky and as he learned and developed his skills, he became more than just an employee. He was someone I could bounce ideas off, someone I really trusted and relied upon. He was also really focussed on the growth of the business and not just his own role, so that made running the company together more enjoyable.

So bringing Paul on as a partner wasn’t just a clever tactical decision - although it was great for the business - it was also about creating an opportunity for enjoying the journey.

5.   You’ve achieved an enviable rate of consistent growth in your business Tom ...... And yet growth can bring its own separate challenges. What have been some of the “growing pains” that you’ve experienced?

There was a 2 year period around 2012-2014 where we were growing at a rate of about 1 new employee every 6 weeks. There were a lot of logistical difficulties with that in terms of cash-flow, office space, etc.  But by far the hardest part was the training.

We place a lot of emphasis on delivering a high standard of service to our clients, so bringing on new staff at that rate while still ensuring all the work being done was at the level required was a huge challenge. We got through it because we have some really amazing, committed staff who have been with us for a while now - we asked them to step up and they did.
6.   What final tips would you offer to the budding entrepreneur or the small business owner still in start-up phase?

It’s no secret that to build a successful business you need good people around you. But it’s easy to lose sight of that when things are going 100 miles an hour.

Take the time to find really great people who are willing and capable to take on responsibility, not just do your leg work. That way, you won’t burn yourself out and you can instead focus on the bigger picture.

Whether that means bringing on a partner, or just hiring really good people and keeping them happy, it’s vital that you don’t try to do it all yourself.

In my early days, I probably took on too much and in hindsight if I’d been able to delegate better, I’d have had more time to focus on improving systems and services which would’ve saved a lot of headaches during the growth spurts.
I think for many entrepreneurs, learning to let go of some of the control and trust the people around you can be a big lesson. And that would be my final piece of advice – be prepared to keep on learning and improving – you can’t afford to become complacent

Thank you Tom – I think you’ve offered us some great tips. Following up your point about the importance of delegation and trusting your staff, for those readers wanting to learn more about this essential leadership skill, then check out "How to delegate"
About the interviewer
Brian Carroll is the founder of Performance Development, a training business in Melbourne, Australia.  He is an experienced management coach with a passion for helping people achieve their goals in life and business. You can find out more about Brian at his Google + profile