Remember these names. They may be unfamiliar to you, but they are the names of young entrepreneurs making a mark in four markedly different industries, and who share a common drive to succeed – here – in South Australia. Remember David Sherwell – the man behind Jack Rabbit Signs whose displays stare out at you from vantage points across Adelaide – but who were it not for a last minute phone call might never have realised his dreams.
Commit to memory the hipsters behind The Encyclopedia of Magic, who sat at home cutting YouTube clips of their magic tricks and sifted through the reams of online comments for feedback that could help them improve.
Take a look at Becky Hirst, who quit her government job to concentrate full-time on a consultancy firm that guides businesses and government in the art of community engagement.
And don’t forget Jenny Paradiso, who along with her husband Dave looked at the solar offerings available to consumers and didn’t like what they saw, so decided to put it right with a company of their own.
None of these are overnight success stories.
Just stories you’ve only noticed overnight.
Their success is the product of years of toil and learning their trade, and the help offered by programs such as Business SA’s Young Entrepreneur Scheme. They are proof that, armed with reserves of perserverance and a few ideas, you can succeed in this city.
Jenny Paradiso & Dave Hille
Jenny Paradiso and her husband Dave are self-confessed “yuppie hippies”. Yes, they love their creature comforts and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle in the suburbs. But they also recycle, have grey water, put the water from the washing machine on the garden rather than let it go to waste, and have solar.
Have a solar company, to be precise.
How a 36-year-old former librarian came to have a solar company is a story born out of a reaction to disappointment. Paradiso and Hille first experienced the solar business in 2008 as customers, and didn’t like what they saw. “We were disappointed at the knowledge and expertise of the people we spoke to,” Paradiso says. “We really just wanted to do something that we had trouble finding someone to do properly.”
So instead of signing up to a sub-standard deal, they decided to install it themselves. And then they did it for family. And then some friends. And hell, why not do it for the neighbours while we’re at it, they thought? So SunTrix was born. This is, of course, to simplify what was in fact a gradual and sometimes perilous process. But it is a shining example of a how a company can evolve from almost nothing.
In the early days, there were the sleepless nights, there were the full-time jobs to juggle as they worked out how to turn a series of referrals into a working business. And in between, there was the arrival of children.
Paradiso says the business really kicked off full-time in the middle of 2010 when Dave quit his job. “It was very scary,” she says. “We were part-time, with a young child and about to have another. We had mortgaged our house (to pay for the business) and there was a lot of risk involved.”
SunTrix was established from their kitchen table just as the solar boom began to take off, courtesy of generous government tariffs. With so many new operators swarming the market, Paradiso set up a referral program for new customers – a move that was inevitably aided by the sometimes incestuous structure of Adelaide society.
“I do think Adelaide society is two degrees of separation, rather than six,” she says. “That’s made a big difference.” In its first year, SunTrix saw 40 per cent of business come through word of mouth. The couple worked hard to convey a sense of professionalism to instil confidence in their customers – from the company letterhead to the individual quotes to the final installation. SunTrix wanted to be major players and they intended to act like them from the start.
In February 2011, the couple cleared the kitchen table and moved into a warehouse in Newton. It was part of a 20-month period of expansion that has seen SunTrix grow to its present 23 full-time staff and achieve turnover in the millions. While exhilarating, it was also a taxing time, as the couple plunged everything into the business. “We probably did have a full year when it was tough and we had no life,” Paradiso says. “Just because we were growing so much and we wanted to do it right.”
In the coming months, SunTrix will move a few doors down to even larger premises. There will be room for a showroom and a training suite. A badly needed meeting room will allow the company to plan its growth in an environment befitting a successful business, rather than, as Paradiso admits happens now sitting atop boxes in the warehouse or huddled over the kitchen sink.
While symbolic of the company’s rise, Paradiso says the facility will give her the room to educate the public on solar – thus validating the very reason the couple began SunTrix in the first place. “We want people to know what they’re getting into, what questions to ask,” she says.
Sherwell was 22, trying to start a printing business from his parents’ back shed, and down to his last $1000 when the phone rang in January 2007. The call was from a design studio, offering him work on a government contract. It was an offer that provided the kick-start needed to get his grand design for a sign and large format print company off the ground. He had borrowed $10,000 from his dad, the majority of which had gone towards the machinery required to get started. The rest had seemingly evaporated on a variety of small costs.
Today Sherwell, now 27, has traded up from his parents’ back room and is running his thriving business from a workshop set behind a school uniform shop in a Kent Town back alley. From its busy surrounds, Sherwell and his team of three can work on up to 40 projects at a time – ranging from architectural and retail signage to vehicle wraps to large format digital printing and displays. “Because of the diversification of my market if, for example, retail is down, I can pick architects and school work,” he says. “If one’s not cranking, another is.”
Now never short of a project to which to turn his hand, Sherwell says Jack Rabbit Signs more than doubles in size each year. Its distinctive name and emblem weren’t his idea, and he’s still not certain of its providence but he reckons it’s been effective in encapsulating his approach: lithe and lean, progressing in leaps and bounds into many varied directions.
One of an estimated 400 sign companies in Adelaide, Sherwell deliberately sought out his own patch: looking to turn his hand to more up-market and more creative projects.
The quality of work and customer service can either make or kill a company, and Sherwell is constantly analysing the customer service provided by other companies in a restless search for ways in which he can improve. “It’s either shit or champagne,” he says with a laugh. “If you do something good, everyone knows. But if you do something bad, everybody also knows.”
These days he almost acts as a sub-contractor, working with design studios that provide the initial idea, which he then crafts into reality with his hands and with a variety of tools. Those hands and tools now do jobs in Sydney and Melbourne, but Adelaide remains his home.
Sherwell gets a sense of satisfaction from driving around and seeing his work, knowing he is making a tangible mark on his city. “You’ve got to have fun, you’ve got to enjoy what you do” he says. “It’s very important in business as you’re going to be doing it for a long time.”
Vinh Giang, Travis Hobbs, Jeff Wong, Lenny Tran, William Chen & Michael Wilczynski
Encyclopedia of Magic count money as they sleep. In the early hours the 97 per cent of their customers based overseas log on to the group’s YouTube site and web page and download their magic tutorials, which ran the gamut from coin and card tricks to brain teasers using sponge balls and rubber bands. They know this, Vinh Giang, 25, says, because the “pinging” noise that accompanies the PayPal transactions used to keep them awake throughout the night. They could listen to their bank account rise and rise – as if by magic.
Now, to provide some separation between work and home, they have moved into an office at Innovation House in Mawson Lakes. Packed with computer terminals and video equipment with nary enough room to swing a rabbit and a hat, at first glance it is little more than a broom closet. But this is where the magic happens.
Encyclopedia of Magic began in February 2011 as a bunch of friends who wanted to share their love of magic tricks, and the difference it had made to their lives. Yes, they admit, there were the inevitable dreams of shedding their day jobs as accountants and pharmacists and making it rich. But the primary aim was to create an online resource that would be the veritable “encyclopedia” of magic for self-confessed magic “nerds” like them. They wanted to do something different and make a mark with their lives, rather than moulder comfortably into middle-age. “People do things just because that’s the way it’s always been done, rather than that’s how it should be,” Giang says.
Yet their initial efforts were, in retrospect, well, initial efforts. They were greeted with a torrent of feedback of varying construction and usefulness. But if painful, the feedback presented an opportunity to learn what their viewers wanted, and subsequent videos were substantially improved. “We didn’t like the feedback to start, but we listened and learned,” Giang says.
What they learned, they now acknowledge, was one of the first laws of business. If they were going to build a successful enterprise, it had to be one that was flexible enough to adapt to the needs and desires of their audience as much as one that allowed them to indulge their creative whims. Passion was critical, but having a plan was also key. “Let your customers tell you what they want you to tell them,” Giang says.
It was an ethos that worked. Within a matter of months, they went from just a few hundred users to 18,000, and settled on a payment model in which subscribers pay depending on their use of the videos. As YouTube Partners, they also earn revenue from the advertisements that run adjacent to their tutorials.
Still, there was some trepidation when the new subscription site went live in December last year. They had finally taken the gamble, had given up their jobs and moved into Giang’s house to save money and apply the finishing touches to their site – a development that hadn’t best pleased Giang’s girlfriend.
The team remembers they sat about the garage and waited apprehensively until the telltale “pings” of PayPal deposits began. The site made $23,000 in the first month and the number of subscribers has increased by 30-40 people a day.
Being an online business, they are largely inured from the small scale of SA, or the tyranny of distance that affects other companies. Yet they are far from disengaged from it.. “Adelaide is small enough not to have too much competition, but big enough to make it,” Hobbs says. “Adelaide has the right people – it comes down to, do you want it?”
Hirst can remember the moment she had her epiphany. It was June 2009 and she was on the daily drive from her home in McLaren Flat to her job in North Adelaide. For six months, she had tried to balance the demands of running a nascent consultancy firm with the obligation of two days a week working for SA Health.
But as she sat in her car, negotiating the city traffic, the advice from a mentor rang in her ears. Without going full-time, she would never have the time to focus sufficiently on her business in order to make it a success, she realised.
And so she did.
Hirst insists she never made a leap of faith. Instead, the move from government employee to freelance consultant was a slow and deliberate one, every move carefully made. “I gradually moved more part-time with my full-time job,” she says. “I never had to make a massive leap.”
Yet the commute to North Adelaide had become, in its way, her personal road to Damascus.
The decision to take that chance has led to a thriving business: Becky Hirst Consulting, in which she works with governments, councils and businesses to help guide their community engagement efforts. Hirst’s willingness to take a chance first saw her move from the UK to Australia in 2007 in search of sun, sand and better opportunities.
Now 34, and with a degree in contemporary dance, she finds Adelaide a good place to do business, both because of and in spite of, its small size. “People say if you can make it in Adelaide, you can make it anywhere,” she says. “It’s a slower market, and it takes longer for people to make decisions. But if you’ve got energy, creativity and can pitch ideas, people really notice.”
For Hirst, there are any number of reasons for deciding to strike out on her own in 2009. An aversion to red tape, the need for a personal challenge and a gap in the market for consultants providing specialist community engagement skills were chief among them.
Working on projects that range in time from a matter of days to several months, her clients have included the State Government, design firms, councils and even Aboriginal communities. “My passion is to have a conversation and that’s the approach I bring,” she says.
Hers is a very modern approach to a career – using her skill-set on a varying range of projects that are not grouped around a simple nine-to-five. As a consequence she often finds herself working in cafes or public spaces.
The going can be tough, she admits. There is a constant need to press the flesh, to be seen, cultivate contacts, and maintain an online presence to get work and attract clients. She has also had to become an expert at every aspect of running a business.
But with an 11-month old daughter, lifestyle has become an increasingly key reason for going it alone. She can choose when she works, how much she works, what she works on, and where she works. “I can make more money, you can pursue your passions, and if you get bored you can change.”
Written by Julian Swallow, published in the Advertiser
Article avaiable here