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Avoiding risk and starting from scratch

The Chairman and co-owner of Byron Bay Cookie Company talk to Nett about risk and starting a new business.

Starting from scratch

The inner-city cafe where we meet Gordon Slater is down a laneway only 100 metres from one of the city’s liveliest shopping and nightlife streets, though a massive mental leap from its high street competitors.

The regulars could buy Byron Bay Cookies at the multinational coffee franchise down the road, too, if they wanted, but here there aren’t any billboards, neon lights or take-a-number queues to spoil the exquisite coffee and cookie ritual (they’re mostly Dotty devotees) – and the owners remember your name and favourite brew. Maybe they’re better at it because they’re not trying to offer too much. The menu is small and most of the work is done with three machines: roaster, grinder and brewer.

Like many small business owners, it’s plain these guys put a lot of themselves into making their enterprise successful on their terms.

“So much of it is about starting off small and risking little,” says Slater. “Cookies started at little farmer’s markets, so very little risk. You start off small, you build a customer base and you get feedback and pivot and change the business. We’re still using those principles of risking as little as we can and seeing if people like it.”

Know risk, no risk

But what if you want to go big? When pressed for his opinion on what it takes to be an entrepreneur, Slater draws a deep breath. Then smiles.

“People look at entrepreneurs as being the more flamboyant and risk-taking guys and, you know, they’re out there and they have spectacular successes and failures, but I have a saying: ‘No risk, no risk’.”

“I think that every new business or product that is started is successful before it is started if the risk is low. You don’t have to be a very risky person in order to be successful as an entrepreneur. Risk-taking is overrated.”

If you’re passionate about your business (and passion doesn’t have to mean you’re blind to reality), you can use that energy to build a company from nothing.

Slater recommends entrepreneurs fired up by a business idea learn how to be competent in business and do their research about their market. You’ll need to hire great people to support you; better yet, hire people who are also really driven, because they’ll take you further. You also have to use your passion to help you bounce back from setbacks.

“Kill it early if it doesn’t work and you start losing money – or modify it early, just don’t keep going down it. Don’t get the blinkers on and lose sight of the bigger picture and where you want to be.

“I don’t think Australians do a bad job of having a go, but I think we tend to punish our people that have a go and it didn’t work out. You ran fourth or you ran fifth, but you were there and you did your best. Next time you do it, who knows? You’ll train harder and you’re not beat, get out there again.”

One of the great lessons from starting small is how to get things done with little money or other resources. For each new challenge, one of Slater’s planning techniques is to think back to how things were achieved when there was less to work with. Then push yourself.

“Once you get started keep asking yourself ‘what else could we do and what are we missing out on?’ A lot of people get to the stage, if they do have the aspiration, that they’ve got to keep growing, [but] you can get to a point where you’re comfortable, you’ve got a nice life, and I think that’s perfectly fine.

“But if you do have that aspiration to grow, then you need to keep pushing yourself and pushing the boundaries of what you’re going to do. To a certain extent you have to keep pulling down the barriers that are in your mind: can you do that bigger and with more quality? Can you deliver the products faster? Is this the best that you can do it? The answer is often ‘no’.” #

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