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.
Starting his own plumbing business during Melbourne’s lockdown proved to be a master stroke for Michael Rawnsley of MGR Plumbing who, after a slow start, is now riding the wave of a new business as the construction industry kicks into high gear.
2020 saw Michael Rawnsley, like many others, make the decision to become his own boss. Despite the uncertainty created by COVID-19, he took the risk of launching MGR Plumbing during Melbourne’s winter lockdown.
“I wanted the next challenge. When you work for yourself, you’re not governed by someone else, so you can make your business into whatever you want,” says Michael, who adds that the birth of his first child in March last year drove him to seek more autonomy and flexibility.
Based in the tight-knit suburb of The Basin, Michael works all over Melbourne. From working on new builds to high-end renovations and extensions, his work is varied, with each day presenting new challenges and fresh opportunities to show clients what his small team is made of.
All systems go
Melbourne’s extended lockdown provided Michael with some breathing space to focus on building the foundations of his business. Rather than launching quickly, he was able to take his time.
“Instead of getting straight into it, I spent the first month setting systems up. I use SimPRO as my job management software to do all my quoting and invoicing. Everything is pretty much in that system, and since it’s linked to Xero most of the back end of the business is now automated,” Michael explains. Fresh to business ownership, Michael consulted trusted advisors for guidance.
“The accounting side of the business was challenging. I spent time with my accountant and financial advisor to get my head around how things work and sort out the back end,” says Michael.
With Melburnians reluctant to have tradespeople in their homes during the lockdown, business was slow early on. Thankfully, as the state opened up, construction projects began to resume, spurred on by the federal government’s HomeBuilder grant program.
“It took time to kick off but now we’re super busy. We have six months of work ahead of us. The initial time I spent investing in the business and setting up systems is now paying off,” says Michael, who has now hired two others to help grow the business.
One of the biggest challenges for microbusiness owners is finding new clients, especially in the early stages.
Having decided not to invest in advertising, Michael found word of mouth to be powerful. By focusing on providing excellent service to clients, the enquiries soon started to roll in.
“Once your name is out there, people refer you on. The first few jobs I did were referrals, and then each of those clients referred someone else,” explains Michael.
He also set up a business Instagram account to connect with other tradies and develop relationships with other small businesses.
“Instagram is good for branding. It’s a way to connect with people and start relationships. For me, it’s not about selling a product, it’s about getting your brand out there and kick-starting a conversation with someone,” says Michael.
Beyond the bottom line
As Australia heads into economic recovery and business slowly ramps up to pre-COVID-19 levels, many sole traders have looked to expand their business, scaling up to employ workers and transitioning into a microbusiness. Michael sees hiring as more than just a way to increase revenue. He also appreciates the value you can bring to others starting out in the industry when you run your own show. He sees his decision to scale up and hire an apprentice as a chance to guide the next generation.
“Bringing an apprentice on was less about having another staff member and more about giving back. When I was young, I was taken on as an apprentice. I wanted to give someone else that opportunity too. It’s satisfying teaching him the right way to do things, knowing that when he’s finished his apprenticeship, he’ll be successful,” says Michael.
From problem-solving complicated plumbing issues to managing the emotions of clients dealing with stressful situations, Michael gets satisfaction from providing high levels of service.
“Whatever you put in, you get back. The more you put into your business, the more rewards you get. There are challenges, but the appreciation I get from clients is greater than when I worked for someone else, so I go home with a smile on my face,” says Michael.
Michael’s tips for tradies considering running their own business:
Invest in your team and your clients
Mentor your staff so they can grow and develop. Spend time building their practical skills as well as non-technical skills. Connect with your clients and spend the time to get to know them. The client work you choose to do shapes your business and your brand, so find customers and projects that align with what you want for your business.
Own your mistakes
Learn from your mistakes and put systems in place so they don’t happen again. Take ownership of your mistakes and your clients are likely to be understanding.
Provide better service than your competitors
Do the little things that make it easy for clients to do business with you. Take the time to communicate and connect. Ask your clients for feedback so you can continually improve.