How I had to Start and Fail at Five Businesses Before I Got it Right

Evolving to Evolve 

Love her or hate her, Christina Aguilera smashed out some power girl ballads in the early 2000s. Although I didn’t always prescribe to Team Xtina, her song ‘Fighter’ always has a place in my heart.

‘Cause it makes me that much stronger
Makes me work a little bit harder
It makes me that much wiser
So thanks for making me a fighter

When you’re building a business, you need to be passionate, quickly learn from your mistakes, and adapt your approach. You need to wise up, fast, because business doesn’t get easier; the landscape merely changes.

Each of my businesses has given me a new lesson (and scar!) and taught me untold lessons about resilience, being passionate about business, and knowing what not to do next time.

Lesson 1 – Know your market’s blockers and limitations

My husband and I created an app called ‘BeScene’, as in being seen in the scene. Hear me out! During an early morning reflection after a dull evening out on the town, we figured there should be an app informing users which places were pumping, or ‘going off’.

We headed to Silicon Valley to learn about app development and jumped on board the ‘gold rush’ of developers looking to be the next overnight millionaires. There was lots of work, and just as much research. We found and worked with a virtual team and went through the whole process, only to find out just before we started testing prior to launch, that Apple wouldn’t approve it to be on the App Store because of its disruptive nature.

It was 2011. We had no street cred, and our geolocation tech was just too ahead of its time.

Lesson 2 – Build a business within your sphere of influence

Amidst the excitement of outsourcing work to offshore teams, my husband and I attempted to build a website with a bigger purpose and mission statement – with the aim of helping others before ourselves.

HOTO (Helping Others Then Ourselves) Bazaar worked in a similar manner to eBay, specifically for up-and-coming artists to have an online gallery to sell their goods, with a percentage of the sales being gifted to charity.

We assumed that simply by creating a business that had a strong ethical foundation and was intended for a greater charitable good, people would flock to it. How ignorant we were! We didn’t have the insight, or contacts, to create a catalyst for people to jump on the site and post their work.

With the lack of content, there were very limited opportunities to drive sales.

So our idea, although we were passionate about it, fell over because we didn’t know the specifics or know the motivations of our target demographic.

Lesson 3 – Partnerships can end in messy divorces

The Social Experiment was a ‘one-man band’, a then-new (but now fairly common) concept for consulting businesses.

After five years attempting to grow the brand outside of myself, I brought on a business partner who was passionate about change too, and in doing so, we found that our new business structure gained almost immediate success.

We partnered together, but with no due diligence about how to grow and what kind of culture we wanted, and we unfortunately found out the hard way that we weren’t compatible. After 12 months together, we wound up, closing down.

Time heals a lot of wounds, but it was a very messy divorce – similar to a marriage ending. Assets needed separating, employees shared, and unfortunately we spent too much time going down a negative path that there was a great deal of resentment when it was all over. I didn’t just lose a business partner; I lost a loving friend.

If only we could have started that journey again knowing what we know now, we might not have structured the business the way we did, or we might have realised that we had different goals and chosen to keep the friendship instead of grow the business.

The lesson here? Figure out your shared goals before you dive in.

Lesson 4 – Branding needs to be unambiguous

Greasers Workshop started shortly after the failure of HOTO Bazaar. My husband Gerard, who had been working within the mining industry, was experiencing depression, so I encouraged him to quit his job and focus on building a motorcycle workshop. He’s a great mechanic and I was all about the building culture, so the marriage of the two became Greasers.

The business did well as a home business. We grew a solid following, although not necessarily to the brand, but to Gerard as a mechanic and both of us as a couple. We welcomed people into our lives and home via social media and included our new daughter Pepper as part of it.

But we had wrongly branded the business. Greasers has a connotation of the 1950s rockabilly lifestyle. The general expectation was that we were rockabillies into swing dancing – definitely not us! Though not intentional, it felt like false advertising; the brand we were presenting ended up not matching the company on the inside. The external-facing name gave people the idea of what the brand should be, but the real experience was different. We still provided a seamless customer experience, but our customers’ were often left confused.

Lesson 5 – Know your limits

Not easily defeated, Greasers 2.0 took the form of The Motorcycle Society. Gerard and I decided to create a new business structure, bringing on stakeholders and a new business partner. We moved into a commercial space, including a café and retail area of the business. We took on board the lessons we learnt from Greasers and became ‘brand agnostic’. The Motorcycle Society was for any kind of rider – Vespa riders, street bikes, Harley Davidsons, and everything in between.

With this business, our big lesson came back to a different kind of due diligence. At the time we grew and expanded I couldn’t help much, so my husband went to find external help to ensure we could keep on track with our current growth rate. Unfortunately (not having yet learned our lesson!) we again ended up partnering with someone whose values system differed from ours. Just because someone’s your friend, don’t avoid open and transparent conversation about previous business relationships, particularly when you’re getting into commercial negotiations. With my husband’s mental health in steep decline, we left the business, choosing his mental health over working in that environment.

There is power in knowing and understanding your limits and being self-aware enough to acknowledge them. Know when to let go. Prophetically, the same day we chose to leave the business, a dear friend who had been silently suffering on his own, left the earth by choice. So now, although the business is gone, I still wake up every day and see my husband’s face and see him get to play with his daughter.

How I got it right – finally!

When I started Evolve MGMT Co, I didn’t employ anyone for the first six months. I immersed myself in what the company would look like as an employee. I developed my position description, the company’s values, and employee behaviours, making sure I took a good look at the good, bad and ugly from previous businesses as I did. The result is that now, my employees know where they sit, and they have a good understanding of what is expected of them and what they can expect from me.

Winston Churchill said “’[s]uccess is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

So I’ve taken my cue from Churchill, and created Otimi’s Law: starting a business is easy, but to make it successful you must take your time trying, failing, and learning to make it last.  At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with failing. We need to fail in order to learn, to get back on your feet and try again. The success I have now is in the combination of the failures that tested my courage, pushed me to carry on, and provided me with the experience to tackle new problems as they continue to arise.

  • Benny

    March 25, 2020 at 12:04 am

    Amazing story, and while I’ve never had the courage to start my own business, my ‘brand’ has certainly suffered through failures. A great story such as yours gives me hope that no matter what life throws at us, we can pick ourselves up, dust off, and be better for it. I always knew you had big balls, but to share this with such level of intimacy and detail, is truly awesome. Thanks for being a great colleague, and wonderful friend Otimi xo


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