This article first featured in the Boss Insights 2021 report, Sole trader surge: small business in a post-COVID world.
Despite the challenges that 2020 brought, our latest research shows Australia has yet again proven to be an overwhelmingly resilient nation. While many businesses had no choice but to shed staff or close their doors after the arrival of COVID-19, many Aussies were prompted to take the leap to self-employment over the past year. Prepared in partnership with Bernard Salt and his team at The Demographics Group, this report identifies key trends and patterns, and uncovers where opportunities lie for small businesses in a post-COVID world.
Tasmanian business, Sweet Nothings Event Hire successfully navigated a series of challenges thanks to the support and advice offered by Amanda Hingston, owner of local accounting business, Account Mechanics.
Running a wedding planning and prop hire business from the picturesque coastal town of Penguin sounds like the perfect plan for anyone dreaming of a Tassie sea change.
Yet, like other businesses reliant on weddings and events, Sweet Nothings Event Hire sailed into stormy weather last year.
Set up as a sole trader business, 83-year-old Richard Feeney runs the home-based enterprise with his wife, Jacqui.
“Last year, bookings came to a grinding halt. It’s picking up, but I don’t think the industry has fully recovered because people are still apprehensive about booking weddings or plane tickets,” says Richard.
Compounding the challenge of steering a business through the pandemic, the husband-and-wife team were managing the accounts without much digital know-how.
Despite the challenges, the couple were determined to keep the business on track.
Running a cottage industry
With weddings cancelled and postponed, Richard and Jacqui made the most of their downtime by repairing props, culling old inventory, and drying homegrown flowers to make biodegradable confetti.
“When potential customers visit the studio on our property, we take them through the Petal Parlour. It’s like going into an Aladdin’s cave, with dried flowers hanging from the ceiling beams,” says Jacqui.
With this studio experience an integral part of winning over prospective customers, Richard and Jacqui believe more and more people are keen to use local suppliers for their events.
“It’s a very touchy-feely experience. They’re not just walking into a commercial enterprise; they’re walking into a cottage industry. The dried flowers are from our garden, there are no chemicals or dyes – it’s just purely natural,” explains Jacqui.
Offering unique, sustainable confetti (instead of the mass-produced variety made in factories overseas) has been a strong marketing tool.
“Tasmania is a small community, so if one hundred people go to a wedding and fifty handfuls of confetti are thrown, people look at it, feel it, and ask where it came from,” says Jacqui.
Sole trader numbers swell
The growing number of people becoming sole traders is a nationwide trend, reflected strongly in Ulverstone, which is 13 kilometres from Penguin. As one of the many sole traders operating in the area, Richard believes this growth in small business ownership is driven by necessity.
“Tasmania is a bit of a backwater for industry. There’s little here, so to avoid being unemployed a lot of people create or buy businesses. Many people come here from the mainland and run businesses just to give themselves a job,” explains Richard, who has run various businesses since leaving the army in the late 1960s.
As more mainlanders continue to make sea and tree changes to Tasmania, small business ownership will continue to swell.
Describing the tiny seaside village of Penguin as “a little bit like Summer Bay from Home and Away,” Jacqui explains that the small business community is quite close knit.
“There’s no animosity between local businesses. We all support each other by buying local,” she says.
Decoding the cloud
One small business that excels at supporting other local business owners is Account Mechanics, owned and run by bookkeeper Amanda Hingston.
When Sweet Nothings Event Hire faced financial challenges in early 2020, Amanda supported the business in many ways, with Richard putting it bluntly: “Amanda saved us from drowning.”
From teaching the couple how to use Xero to troubleshooting email issues, Amanda’s support extends beyond bookkeeping and accounting.
“Amanda really helped us. She didn’t come across as a number-cruncher. She showed us care and compassion. Nothing was a problem for her, she even took our calls when she was at home making dinner,” says Jacqui.
Learning about cloud-based accounting presented a steep learning curve for the couple.
“I’m 83, so I have limited computer skills. All I was used to doing was online banking, playing Solitaire and sending emails. Learning Xero was daunting for me, but these things are never as complicated as you think they are. It was confusing at first, but I’ve got a handle on it now thanks to Amanda,” Richard says.
Accounting with care
Last year was certainly busy for Amanda and her team of two.
“When the pandemic initially hit, I was concerned about local businesses. For me, COVID-19 generated a lot of work that I wasn’t necessarily charging for,” she says, adding that since the lockdown lifted, the local economy has boomed with shops, cafes and restaurants enjoying record trade.
Amanda has also noticed a rise in people stepping away from salaried roles to become sole traders, especially people setting up services businesses like tradespeople and hairdressers.
“They might not have had the confidence to do it themselves before COVID-19. But having a couple of months in lockdown gave them the time to realise they can,” Amanda explains.
Amanda’s hands-on, compassionate approach has led to plenty of referrals, but perhaps more importantly, many friendships too.
“I have close relationships with my clients. If Richard is stuck on something in Xero, he knows he can ring me for help. Making myself available in this way helps to build trust,” says Amanda, before adding “I’m so lucky to have friendships with most of my clients. It’s a great position to be in.”
Amanda’s tips for starting your own services business:
Build relationships with your clients
Ensure your interactions with clients aren’t just transactional. Build trust and develop relationships with your clients by asking questions about their lives, challenges, and motivations.
Be generous with your time
If you charge in 15-minute increments or invoice clients for minor enquiries, they’ll be less likely to come back in the future or refer you to their friends. Not all your work will always be billable but being generous with your time helps to create goodwill.
Champion local small business
Where possible, use local suppliers and refer clients to other businesses in your area to support the local economy and business community you’re a part of.