VIEW: Check your ego at the door

While many startups and entrepreneurs are tackling changed market conditions due to COVID-19, startup leadership is being tested. In this interview, serial entrepreneur, Stacey Fisher, shares how she is managing the market downturn while pivoting her business and forging ahead with international expansion plans.

  • As a 3 x Founder, what are your biggest watch-outs for other entrepreneurs jumping into the startup world for the first time, particularly during uncertain times like the current pandemic? 

At any time, the two most important success factors when building a start-up are your financial literacy and your mindset. This is truer now than ever.

Firstly, you need to know your numbers intimately. It’s not enough just to know your way around a balance sheet, cashflow forecast and profit and loss statement. You need to fully appreciate all the inputs into them at a visceral level. Start-ups live or die by to the commercial acumen of their founders.

Secondly, you need to check your ego at the door. Nothing is more humbling than the start-up journey.

When you first start to think about starting your own business, you’ll read a lot about the importance of being comfortable with failure. Back in my corporate days I thought that I was. However, I soon learned that there is a big difference between failing as part of a group, even if the buck ultimately stops with you and failing when you’re on your own.

When I founded the digital marketing agency that I eventually went on to sell in 2018, I was the sole founder. There was nobody to bounce ideas off or sense check things with. There was no one to tap in when I was exhausted and struggling. It’s no surprise that when both businesses grew and became unwieldy, it was Minnow Designs, the business with a (pretty great) co-founder, that I chose.

The other reason that you need to check your ego is that chances are that you’re going to be in the weeds for longer than you initially think. Anyone entering the start-up world thinking that they are too important to do their own bookkeeping, pack their own orders or answer their own phones is in for an almighty shock. Ditto anyone who, like I was, is under the illusion tha that their corporate experience will be all that relevant

Start any new business thinking that you know even 50% of the answers and the blow to your ego might be too great to recover from.

  • You’ve said “Every marketer worth their salt should also be an entrepreneur.” Why? 

There is nothing like the consumer insights you gather yourself, in real time or the sales you personally make using nothing but your wits and your own dollars. There is also no greater commercial teacher than the mistakes you make with your own money.

Not only that, the rewards are so much greater when it’s your own business. If you’re good at what you do, don’t spend too long working for somebody else, building somebody else’s asset. Not only do you get to choose your own conditions, you have the ability to build a saleable asset worth well in excess of whatever salary you’ve collected in the years it took to build.

  • Have you ever had to pivot or change your business model, including during COVID-19? If so, what were the learnings from those experiences? 

Absolutely. We’ve just recently gone through the double whammy of bushfires and then Covid.

Our product does best in coastal boutiques and pharmacies and in resorts. So we are heavily reliant on tourism. 25% of our stores closed their doors completely this last summer. We expect another 25% will close their doors after Covid truly starts to make its way through the economy.

We had already moved to expand into the United States in order to balance out the seasonality of our summer product, and we’d been actively reducing the costs in our eCommerce supply chain as the balance of our sales gradually shifted online.

The contraction in the Australian retail market has accelerated those efforts and increased our focus on overseas retailers doing well in their local markets in North America and the Middle East. It forced us to very quickly reduce our wholesaling costs for Australia.

It was a literal overnight pivot that we’re still catching our breath from.

  • What has been your decision-making process when deciding whether to bootstrap, partner, capital raise or otherwise financially support your startup? 

When we launched, we knew nothing about capital raising and wouldn’t have attempted it even if we did. It’s not the traditional path of product-based businesses.

We initially invested in a small production run of just 1,000 pairs to see if the product resonated with the market. Once we’d established product to market fit and sold out of that stock, we invested the profits we’d made, plus a bit extra we managed to scrape together by consulting, into a bigger production run.

We formally launched to market in August 2016 and each production run got bigger after that. We grew to a point where we could no longer keep pace with the jumps in production run size so we appointed an advisory board and took on a round of investment in July 2019.

  • Does being an ‘entrepreneur’ get easier with time? Why or why not?

Some bits get harder and some bits get easier.

You get good at trying things and moving on if they don’t work. My imposter syndrome has eased and I don’t get in my own way so much. I’ve retrained my brain to be comfortable with uncertainty and I have a productivity system that works. My business partner and I work really well and we are clear on our core strategies.

Other things are harder. We are now at the bit where we have to hire, train, satisfy and occasionally fire staff. We have a greater sense of responsibility now that investors have trusted us with their money. The decisions we are making are for greater sums of money and we have a lot more to lose if the business falls in a heap.

Overall though I wouldn’t change a thing. The journey has taught me things about money, commerce, people and myself that I’d never have learned if I’d stayed in corporate. I get to work with my co-founder every day and there are days when I step back and look objectively at the business, or I see a child I don’t know in Minnows and I think ‘We built that from nothing’. It’s a pretty magical feeling.

About the expert

Stacey is a serial founder, brand strategist, digital marketer and writer negotiating the winding, terrifying and exhilarating entrepreneurial journey. After a decade spent in FMCG marketing building some of Australia’s biggest and best loved brands, Stacey left the corporate world to establish and then sell several businesses. Co-founder of Minnow Designs, Stacey now spends her day creating products that make a day of outdoor play easier for parents and more fun for kids.