Starting a business in a 'new' country in the middle of a pandemic
Aaron Stubbings, 26 November, 2020
As with everyone, 2020 has been the craziest year of my life. At the start of the year, I was Vice President of Marketing at Flight Centre Canada, having lived in Canada since 2013 and mid-way through the largest brand campaign the business had ever run as we were repositioning the brand and aiming to re-engage a market that was losing interest in the brand, and it was working well. All key KPIs were moving in the right direction, and as a business we were looking forward to our peak business season, the Canadian winter from January-March where we should enjoy the fruits of our labour. This was also meant to be the year I got married to my fiancée Shannon in Ontario, as well as take a dream extended honeymoon as a means of relocating from Toronto back to Brisbane to settle permanently. The plan was always to return to Australia and explore something entrepreneurial. After 10 years of working in a corporate role, I felt that is what I needed to do in order to pursue the financial and life goals I have for myself.
The effects of COVID-19 on the travel industry
Unfortunately, it wasn't our year, and the travel industry was the "canary in a goldmine", feeling the effects of COVID-19 very early on in the piece as sales numbers plummeted, flights were cancelled, restrictions imposed and people scrambled to get refunds. This professional upheaval was combined with the travel plans of our wedding guests all being disrupted and then eventually our wedding plans being cancelled, and us having to make the split decision to leave Canada while we still could and return to Australia within a matter of days.
After the surprise and sudden return, and with lots of newfound time on our hands, Shannon and I figured there was no better time to put our heads together and start the marketing agency we feel the world needed. Both of us come from varied yet complimentary marketing backgrounds, with two combined decades of global experience, and had both just wrapped up with our former full-time roles as we unexpectedly found ourselves living in Australia. The job market wasn't too hot in April 2020 as the world was just starting to feel the wrath of COVID-19, so without much more to lose, we created Ripp Marketing.
The 'anti-agency' marketing agency
The early idea came from starting an 'anti-agency' where we positioned ourselves as an extension of our clients, working with them in a fractional capacity but serving as a trusted partner of the business and advising on unbiased, holistic marketing strategy. We had both been burnt by shady practices of less-than-desirable agencies we've worked with and for, and we set out to provide a marketing agency that could do it all. We brainstormed all the possible things we could do for our future clients, created a business plan, registered the business, had our technology set up, created a website, launched it on a couple of social media channels, and waited for the business to start rolling in.
That was our first mistake, and one that we work with clients on not making as it's a huge marketing no-no - we were trying to be all things to all people. After not having our phones ring off the hook like we expected they would, we started networking like crazy. Thanks to some incredible people in our network making priceless introductions, we began meeting with people who we had the opportunity to pitch our services to. In our early pitch meetings, we said that we could do it all, resulting in confused prospects unsure of exactly what we could do for them. It was a necessary exercise in networking, speaking to as many people as possible to find out what type of support they could benefit from, and tailoring our offering towards that - "finding the intersection between our expertise and what our market is looking for" is how I put it - and amazingly, after some back and forth, some of these meetings eventually led to proposals and then clients.
Now, 6 months in, much to our relief, our focus has shifted from predominantly prospecting to predominantly project and retainer based work for a diverse and exciting array of clients. And, in true start-up fashion, while it was a significant financial adjustment for both of us as we moved from comfortable executive salaries to working for every dollar that comes in, we couldn't be prouder of the growth trajectory we've seen in 6 months and couldn't be more appreciative of the contacts we've made. We've been exposed to the inner-workings of many different businesses, worked with some amazing business owners, and have built our own business the way we want it, and it's working.
Advice for budding entrepreneurs
To anyone else thinking of taking the plunge into starting your own business, I think there's no better time than now and I wouldn't change my experience for the world. But, here are some of the things I've learnt along the way that might help you.
1. It's really hard work, and it doesn't stop
I worked really hard and really long hours at my full-time job, and I know most other people do too so I'm not discounting that, but running your own business is something else. There's a direct correlation between what you spend your time on and your livelihood, and as a start-up there are many times where you have no idea if you're focussed on the right thing, resulting in so many ups and downs (often in the same day) and time spent questioning your decision to move away from that stable monthly salary to put yourself through starting a business. It gets better, and will hopefully be worth it in the end, but I don't want to sugarcoat it.
2. Do your homework
Firstly, know what you can offer that is valuable, and then find out if people are willing to pay you to do it. It sounds like common sense but you'll expedite the early stages of fumbling around and not making much money by spending enough time doing your due diligence and then putting yourself or your business out there that way.
3. It's what you know and who you know
Without the connections that people in our extended network made for us, we wouldn't be in business today. The outpouring of support in the form of introductions, referrals, and generally people taking a chance on us, has been such an amazing example of humanity for us. We've had an overwhelming amount of support from amazing people, ranging from some of our closest friends and family giving us work through to distant connections going out of their way to vouch for us, and we couldn't be more grateful.