‘We want to be the Australia’s first listed Indigenous business on the ASX 200’
“Yerrabingin comes from my grandmother’s language, the Mooktung of Maneroo, which is in the Snowy Mountains, and means ‘We walk together’. It’s essentially the beginning of the sharing of culture, which we learnt from the Aboriginal keepers of the land, and the idea that has been transferred into our philosophy of collaborative design.”
That’s Christian Hampson, one half off Yerrabingin, an indigenous sustainable solutions startup that’s run like a family business, with plans for world domination. Well, at least to become Australia’s first Indigenous company listed on the ASX 200.
But more on that later.
Christian and his business partner Clarence Stockee, sat down with Flying Solo founder Robert Gerrish recently to share the challenges and advantages of running an Indigenous startup.
As they told Robert, Yerrabingin has two big goals: to mentor Indigenous entrepreneurs and to become the first Indigenous company to be listed on the ASX 200. As well as creating some awesome sustainable solutions to design problems along the way.
But how did they arrive at this point?
As Christian told Robert, he and Clarence have known each other for 25 years. But it was while they were studying the Indigenous Bachelor of Business Administration, at the University of Technology Sydney, that they decided to join forces.
Enter Yerrabingin and their 500m2 farm on top of a building in Everleigh, Redfern in central Sydney.
But as both Clarence and Christian explains, the garden is the flagship product of their business that serves as an inspirational prototype for future developments.
The “why” of the business
“The purpose of our business is to provide sustainable solutions, coupled with cultural connectivity and shared understanding to design problems. And the farm is just one of the projects we developed for our clients and it hit the right nerve,” explains Christian.
It has also catapulted the pair into the media spotlight and won them several accolades, most recently the Delicious Award for 2019 Astounding Native Producers, as nominated by chef, Kylie Kwan.
“We are really interested in taking the sustainable aspects of Aboriginal culture into the food culture… focussing on helping chefs to take food steps, rather than food miles. And this is part of our mission with the rooftop farm, but also in terms of extending it to eduction and community connection,” says Clarence.
The lightbulb ‘aha’ moment
As Clarence told Robert Gerrish, he and Christian had both worked in government roles over the past 20 years, but it wasn’t until they were studying that they decided to put their considerable work experience together, in a new way.
“During the course we had access to lecturers from a selection of disciplines and a whole bunch of different advisors… In our last year of study around design thinking and human-centred design and research, we began to expand our thinking,” says Clarence.
“As Indigenous business owners we are interested in social capital and we started asking how we could invest in the next generation,” says Christian.
Their previous government experience had also inspired the pair to take an entrepreneurial approach when it came to work.
“We wanted to bring a different way of thinking to our business,” says Clarence.
“We’d both seen how long the bureaucratic process can take and the lack of agility. A lot of the innovations in government areas are delayed and so by the time the innovation takes place, the world has moved on. We became interested in how we could bring something dynamic to a space that is quite slow to evolve, in some regards.”
Started as a side-hustle
“We had some serendipitous things happen,” says Clarence. “After we graduated we started the company as a side-hustle because we could see from our education that there was enough space [in the industry] to start something.”
The pair also focussed on ‘thinking big’ from the outset.
“We have been called a visionary startup, but actually, we started it with our own money, nobody else’s,” says Christian. “We also knew we wanted to build something of a certain size. So we developed a corporate business plan that has multiple areas for growth, so that can grow as we evolve. Especially around food and landscape design.”
An offer big enough to leave the day job
“Serendipitous moments have occurred since we started the business which meant we were able to move into it fulltime from February last year,” says Clarence.
“Christian and I met lots of people in the corporate sector, and one of them asked us to participate in a tender for an Aboriginal cultural landscape garden – actually that company was Mirvac!”
In preparing for their pitch to Mirvac Clarence and Christian say they relied heavily on their university education.
“We came to that meeting meeting with a pitch and they loved it! We were pinching ourselves! We had studied negotiation at uni and so when we sat down to the meeting we had a list of things we knew we needed, and a list of things we knew we could probably give away,” says Christian.
“And they literally said yes to everything – except one thing! We kept a straight face through the meeting, until we walked away and said to each other, ‘Really!? Should we have asked for more?’”
The pair used the successful Mirvac project to launch their business and luckily enough, Mirvac returned shortly after with two other projects, including the rooftop garden at Everleigh.
“The main thing we learnt about working with corporates is that day they say alright send us a proposal and we want to contract you right away… we have avoided using government grants, having corporate investment means we are part of a collaborative business,” says Christian.
Business challenges in the early stages of a startup
Clarence told Robert that time management has been the biggest issue for the pair.
“You don’t want to say ‘no’, particularly as we have thrown in our jobs and been fulltime on the business since January,” he says.
“We want and need to take the jobs we are given. But we also need to make sure we can deliver and don’t fall down on anything – so we can stay at the top of our game and deliver the best possible outcomes for all of those projects.”
Christian also said building a team has also brought some unexpected challenges, too.
“The Yerrabingin brand is me and Clarence and so they [the investors] want our personalities and our involvement. So when we’re building a team we need to ensure they share our vision, because they are representing us.”
Striking a work/life balance
Wellbeing is something both Clarence and Christian know should be a priority but both find it a juggle when business is busy.
“We are busy but we are not stressed. So I think we are very passionate about what we do and we do have a lot of fun… But it’s hard to get the work/life balance, particularly in terms of giving ourselves thinking time, away from the business,” says Christian.
When they do manage some downtime, Clarence says they try to lean into Wayapa, an Indigenous spiritual practice that focuses on building connection to mother earth.
“It’s a practice that uses Aboriginal dance music – almost a form of tai chi, that helps you centre yourself and connect you to earth – even if you are not Aboriginal. It’s a bit like mixing mindfulness and yoga, to a certain degree.”
Where to next?
Both Clarence and Christian are delighted with the incredible progress Yerabingin has made so far.
“We are already where we’d thought we’d be in 5 years, after just one year. And the things we are involved in, we are excited about. So we do pinch ourselves and say how lucky we are.” says Christian.
“The space we are in we are finding there is not a lot of other people in our spacel this is a great opportunity and we want to be able to take advantage of it. Ultimately we want to keep growing our business, and work towards becoming Australia’s first publicly listed Indigenous company. That is our goal.”
NSW Small Business Month is a series of hundreds of events to help your business succeed. Gain valuable support, be inspired to start, run or grow your business, and connect with like-minded people. Find an event near you, or join one online.