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Two IKEA desks, one meat pie and a whole lot of hope

Thriving in business for a decade

People have been congratulating us as our content agency celebrates a 10-year milestone this year, and it’s only just starting to dawn on me why... So many companies don’t last the distance. The stresses, financial challenges, people issues, and everyday ups and downs are enough for anyone to call it quits, and no one would blame you.

So how can you go the distance?

Jump without the parachute

Genevieve and I started our content agency, Taste Creative, 10 years ago on a very hot Sydney summers day. It was the first Monday of 2010. While others were celebrating the new year at the beach, we started moving into a run-down spare room off the side of Genevieve’s bedroom in Petersham (a quiet inner-west suburb 10 minutes out of Sydney CBD). Not quite big enough to be an office, the room was more an oversized walk-in wardrobe. But for two 20-year old’s, it was ours. And it was perfect.

Genevieve and I were just two friends who’d met through a film project. We were attracted to each other’s passion to create films that we thought the world needed to hear. She was also really pretty but I hadn’t worked up the courage to ask her on a date. Instead, we found ourselves talking about starting a company together. I joke that if you want to test and see if a relationship will work – try starting a business together!

Our office could only fit 2 desks at the time and we dreamt of the day we’d get a ‘real’ office, one that you didn’t have to walk through a bedroom to get to. That dream was a while off - we didn’t have any funding or seed capital except for maybe $2,000 I had saved up from working on a feature film.

A friend had advised us that being an entrepreneur is the same as jumping out of a plane without a parachute and learning how to build the parachute on the way down.

So in January 2010, we jumped out of the plane and quickly learnt how to build a parachute! The most important thing was to just start. We had no idea how to launch, let alone run a business. We didn’t know if we would be able to get any jobs in. We didn’t know if we’d be able to buy food or pay rent. I think if we’d retained a ‘safe’ part-time job for a steady income, it wouldn’t have worked. We made succeeding our only option; all our eggs were in one basket.

You will never have all of the answers, you just have to work it out once you've jumped.

The secret to an entrepreneur’s mind-set

Being an entrepreneur can be one of the loneliest jobs on the planet. While you’re often surrounded by people, it is difficult to share the types of challenges entrepreneurs face as many can’t completely relate. It’s not a 9-5 job; if you don’t fix the challenges, no one else is going to step in and do it for you, so you have to learn how to carry them 24/7.

We were very fortunate to have a couple of seasoned entrepreneurs who took a liking to us and were happy to share some wisdom with us. These types of people became a lifeline. Even though they weren’t from the same industry, they had great wisdom regarding how to run a business, working with suppliers, and pitching for work. So, we asked them to form an advisory panel, and two years later they became founding board members. We all need advice and support and we found that those that have gone down the path before us are often happy to share it.

Fellow entrepreneurs also became very important to us, both for our own support, and so that we were able to support others. There’s something special about being able to look someone in the eye and say, “I get it”, smile, and reassure them that they can get through it.

10 years later, I asked one of my key advisors why she has stuck with us for so long. She simply said, “It’s because you continue to want to learn.” The mandate ‘always learning’ has stuck with us and for years has proudly hung on our wall as one of our five value pillars that our business is built on.

Celebrating the small wins

It’s so easy to look at how well other businesses are doing (or at least how they appear on the outside) and compare with your own. Genevieve and I used to go for an early morning run occasionally (probably not often enough!) and we’d jog past a video production company and stare longingly in the window. They had six desks (an unimaginable amount to us at the time), plants in hanging baskets, shiny computers and graphics tablets, coloured sticky notes covering walls and their logo was printed on the glass door. We thought they had it all.

We’d go back to our two IKEA desks in our cramped home office and it was difficult to not compare ourselves. We had to learn how to swim in our own lane and stop looking at other people’s lanes.

So, we focussed on what was in front of us and instead of comparing we became intentional about celebrating our own wins, no matter how small and despite what our circumstances might tell us. After our first ‘real client’ meeting, we celebrated by sharing a meat pie down the road (remember we barely had any money, so this was a big deal!)

Carrying this value with us today means we don’t wait until every problem is solved to be happy; we find any reason to celebrate. This has ensured we’ve been able to keep joy in every day of our work, even on the really tough days, which of course there has been plenty. When I was a kid my parents would hang up our rainbow 'birthday ball' and we'd know it was time to celebrate. As silly as it sounds, some 30 years later the birthday ball still comes out for every staff member’s birthday! Every small thing is a reason to celebrate something or someone.

Going together is always better

I love the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This is easier said than done. Before I met Genevieve I had moved to Sydney from Adelaide to chase a career in film. But Sydney is a big place and I quickly learnt it is a difficult place to connect with people. It was a lonely time starting out. I was very fortunate to work with a film company that had me working on big Australian feature films and TV commercials, but everyone was considerably older than I was and they all appeared to already have their own communities and cliques.

So, when we started working with clients and collaborating with freelance creatives, we intentionally worked hard to build community. Beyond the project, we wanted people to know that they were loved, valued, and it was about more than just the work.

We held parties, put on film screenings, had games nights at the office, went trampolining, ventured out on ropes courses. Anything and everything to build community.

The pay-off is always tangible because people that feel valued want to keep working with you to create great things. Greatly valued people create work of great value.

To infinity, and beyond

10 years after starting in a walk-in wardrobe in Petersham, we have outgrown 4 offices, worked with many of Australia’s biggest brands and produced films around the globe. But our true north is still the same.

We continue to jump out of aeroplanes and problem solve on the way down, we learn new things every day, we celebrate the small things, and best of all, we get to do it with a community of wonderful clients, colleagues and freelancers who want to go the distance together.

By the way – I did eventually pluck up the courage to ask Genevieve out on a date. And she said no. But only the first 2 times :)

Henry Smith

Henry is one of those rare creative types who can switch from creativity and ideation to logistics and screen business with the elegance of those fancy quick costume change acts. He is also the co-founder of Taste Creative.

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