Small-business success is possible at any age. Here, three young business owners share their inspiring start-up stories, challenges and small business advice.
Chris Von Wilpert, 24
Founder, Snow Joey
Chris knew he wanted to start his own business straight after high school, but didn’t know quite what to do. When his mum spotted an ad for a second-hand snow-cone machine in the local paper, it got him thinking.
“I remembered how long the line was for snow cones at my high school’s home games, and thought that would be a cool idea,” he says.
He bought the machine in early 2006 when he was 17 years old, and set up his first snow-cone stand and business – Snowed Under Sno Cones. Now at age 24, Chris’s rebranded business Snow Joey has 11 mobile snow-cone stands, its own line of snow-cone syrups and has raised $100,000 for local sports clubs, schools and businesses in South-East Queensland through the sale of snow cones and fairy floss at carnivals and events. Fundraising is built into the business model, with 50c of every snow-cone sold going to the client’s cause, and a scalable option for smaller groups (where the business takes less profit).
“With our business model, the more money we fundraise for our customers, the more profitable we are as a business.”
Chris says the main thing that’s helped him get his business to where it is today is working with a great team (there are now 14 in total), and central to this is his mum, Rosanne.
“From refilling syrup bottles and restocking ice freezers late at night on the weekend, to driving marketing and promotional ideas, Mum has made it possible,” says Chris.
Implementing business systems has also helped the business become a “well-oiled machine”, making expansion achievable.
In the beginning, finding enough customers to produce a consistent cash flow was a challenge. Chris says he overcame this the old-fashioned way: through hard work, persistence and determination.
“I focused on a specific niche market and then when I new exactly who I needed to contact, I did research, cold-called hundreds of potential leads and grew my business the old-school way over months and months until I started to build a solid customer base,” he says.
But for lack of business experience when first starting out, Chris’s age hasn’t created any barriers along the way – quite the opposite.
“I think being younger can be an advantage, as people tend to underestimate what you can do and achieve,” he says. Being inexperienced in the beginning also meant Chris was open to constantly learning and changing. He also credits being a Gen Y-er for making him more adaptable.
“Generation Y are inherently lazy, which means they will always be looking for a simpler, more effective way of doing things.”
To aspiring business owners of any age, Chris says focusing on a niche and taking action to “make that first elusive sale” is key.
“I think it doesn’t matter how good your idea or offer is, if you can’t build that first base of customers then you won’t have a business,” he says. “See what’s working and modify your offer or approach if needed.”
And one other thing:
“Never ever, ever, give up!”
Jamee Huntington, 25
Director, In a Designer Home (Idh)
While working in the interior design industry in her early twenties, Jamee Huntington spotted a problem: so many talented furniture and homewares designers existed; yet only the design and architecture industry knew about them. She saw a need to connect these designers and their products with consumers, and so set about creating a website that did just that.
In a Designer Home (Idh), was established in July 2011. The website, which featured hand-picked pieces from select Australian and international designers and artists for purchase, went live in December that year.
Now, Idh features 30 designers, has both the online store and four bricks-and-mortar stores, and has also launched a quarterly magazine. It’s a far cry from the initial concept, which was just to showcase a handful of designers.
With her business ideas ever evolving, Jamee says talking about these with people both in and outside the industry has helped her to clarify her direction – something she recommends other new business owners do as well.
“What may have started as one thought may be turned upside down once discussed with people who are not as involved,” she says. “It’s important to shake up ideas with fresh insight; it can be a real eye-opener.”
Choosing the right avenues for marketing to suit your audience is also crucial, Jamee believes. For Idh, this meant being highly active on social media (Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram), as well as blogging and sending enewsletters. “These sources can be tracked, which means we can gauge the audience interaction and learn how to evolve. But if your largest following comes from the Yellow Pages, then use that tool and grow from there,” she says.
Jamee is also a big advocate of professional development in pushing a business forward.
“I am constantly on the lookout for business seminars and group discussions to be a part of that relate to me and the direction I want to go,” she says. “It may seem a large chunk of your time to attend these, however if you just take one piece of valuable small business advice that you can transfer into your ideas then the time is justified.
“There are many successful people who are willing to share mistakes they’ve made and lessons learnt, which is an invaluable tool for the rest of us, just as long as we are willing to learn,” she says.
In the beginning, Jamee thinks her young age made it hard for people to take her and her business seriously. It took time to prove herself to design companies and build credibility in the community, but once that happened – age was not an issue. Perhaps surprisingly, the interior designer’s biggest challenge in building her business was managing her own impatience.
“I am extremely impatient when it comes to which point my business is at,” she says. “I have many goals which I change weekly if not daily. Now I have learnt to breathe a little – I still keep pushing, but I realise paths may change direction and just to have a little bit more faith.”
Her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to be persistent. “You must show belief and faith in your new business before others will,” she says.
Jamee adds that valuing your personal time should also be a priority. “While working on growing your company, many of us are easily burnt out. Don’t forget to take time for yourself, concentrate on your health both physically and mentally and spend time with those around you. A support network is vital,” she says.
Want more articles like this? Check out the business startup section.
Jerome Bowman, 26
Founder and managing director, The Gentlemen’s Supply Co.
With a family history in the retail industry and a business degree under his belt, Jerome began exploring retail business ideas while in America, travelling with a friend who owned a clothing label over there. After tagging along to some trade shows and meetings, mixing with entrepreneurs and fashion-industry types, he got wind of a new concept in the market – ‘curated shopping’.
Jerome bought the idea back to Australia and, after a year building the back end of his business, in February he and business partner/operations manager Eli Chaiton launched The Gentlmen’s Supply Co. – an online curated shopping service focusing on men’s fashion.
The concept works like this: customers enter their details, measurements and style preferences, then a stylist curates a selection of fashion items and sends these to the customer. Once received, he tries on the clothes and keeps (and pays for) the clothes he likes while sending those he doesn’t back in the box with prepaid postage.
Jerome says educating the market about this concept has been one of the biggest challenges in getting his business off the ground.
“Being the first mover in an industry means that people often don’t understand what it is that you are offering,” he says. “We’re overcoming that by using our point of difference to our advantage – [by getting the message out that] we’re not just another online store, and that we have a long-term, personalised, customer-focused approach,” he says. This is done using a mix of social media as well as strategic advertising to encourage word-of-mouth marketing
Another key challenge was surviving a year in development before making any actual income.
“You have to be patient,” says Jerome. “In that first year, with outgoings increasing exponentially, and obviously no incomings, you want to be making sales yesterday, but patience is a virtue.” Initial financing for the company was a combination of personal capital, money borrowed from family and investment from Herino Pty Ltd – a traditional menswear retailer.
Ironing out creases in the system during the website’s beta stage (testing phase) was also crucial to the business’s success to date, which – after just over six months in operation – is looking good. The Gentleman’s Supply Co. has over 400 clients, with sales and website conversion rates above beta-stage forecasts. While the numbers are all positive, Jerome’s main measure for success is customer satisfaction. “This is what we teach our stylists to strive for, and the financial side of things will work itself out,” he says.
His age hasn’t created any barriers to starting up for Jerome; on the contrary, he thinks his age is to thank for making him more flexible in business.
“I am very happy to delegate tasks to people in my team, which some more experienced business owners and managers may not able to do because they feel that they need to have complete control over every process,” he says.
And Jerome’s small business advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
“If you really love your concept, which most entrepreneurs do, then put in 100-per-cent sweat equity, and invest cautiously.”
Do you think being young is a help or hindrance to starting a business? Or is age not an issue?