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ARTICLE InspirationJuly 16, 2015

How leading Aussie entrepreneurs built their online businesses

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We’ve all heard the stories of remarkable start-up successes – those people who go from working alone in their spare room to leading e-commerce empires turning over millions of dollars a year. But as anyone who has an online business will know, simply launching an e-commerce venture is no guarantee of overnight success.

So, what qualities and values do some of Australia’s most successful e-commerce entrepreneurs share and how do these set them apart from everyone else? Bernadette Schwerdt explores these questions in her book Secrets of Online Entrepreneurs.

Schwerdt interviewed 35 of Australia’s top online entrepreneurs, including John Winning (Appliances Online), Paul Greenberg (DealsDirect), Andre Eikmeier (Vinomofo) and Matt Barrie (Freelancer.com).

Schwerdt shared some of her top insights from her candid discussions with these business powerhouses. 

Why did you decide to write this book?

I have an internet business myself (The Australian School of Copywriting) and I was always looking for Australian stories, because I felt that we constantly hear about online success stories in the US. With 23 million people in Australia, we need different strategies, and I wanted to hear the Australian stories about the entrepreneur who started in their spare room or in the garage – the stories about people who came with nothing and grew major businesses.  

Technology is moving at a rapid speed but I found the human qualities required for business remain the same.

I asked the entrepreneurs about practical e-commerce tools – like whether a business uses WordPress or a custom-built platform, about their email programs and apps – but the personal side is actually more fascinating.

This is what enables a businessperson to make a business flourish. I wanted to find out how they deal with failures and how they overcome challenges.

Everyone that I spoke to sees failure as feedback, not a setback. They all expect to make mistakes.

Secrets of Online Entrepreneurs (RRP $29.95) is published by Wiley. You can also watch Bernadette Schwerdt’s online TV series, Secrets of Aussie Online Entrepreneurs

Did all the online entrepreneurs that you interviewed share any common personality traits?

These are the types of people who never stand still – if they have a success, they don’t look back on that; they’re onto the next goal. They are all forward thinking … they have the courage to take things to market and test if people will part with their money for it. 

Were there any approaches that many of the entrepreneurs had in common?

They are all passionate advocates of big data. The data allows them to know their customers better and they are constantly drilling down into the psychology of the customer by using data. This idea of using data is something that Jodie Fox of Shoes of Prey says she wishes she had come around to sooner.

The internet entrepreneurs also regard themselves as internet companies first – what they actually sell is secondary.

Andre Eikmeier, from Vinomofo, told me that if he had known from the start that he had an internet company, not a wine company, his first hires would have been a hacker and a hustler, as he regards those as the two most important people in an online business.

Are there any structural or regulatory barriers that the Aussie entrepreneurs frequently cited?

In Australia, distance is a real problem. In addition, the mentality of the investors is challenging for start-ups, so many businesses feel they have to go to Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv to meet the right investors. Plus, achieving growth is challenging with a population of only 23 million – major online businesses are starting to struggle to grow, which is why companies like Appliances Online are now turning to TV to advertise, as they have saturated the online market. 

Which e-commerce businesses do you personally admire?

One of my favourites is Jodie Fox of Shoes of Prey. She put a lot on the line to make the business happen – she was working in an advertising agency in a prestigious job and she gave all that up. Her idea of buying bespoke shoes on the internet was very innovative but also counterintuitive in some ways, so in the end she had to go to China and build factories to make it happen.

Daniel Flynn, from the Thankyou Group, is another favourite of mine. He gave up his property degree after seeing a young boy die on TV after drinking tainted water. That changed him, so he went out and built a company that would send the profits of selling bottled water to Third World countries. He didn’t take a salary until the business made a profit, and he had many challenges – he had no experience in retail, distributing products or logistics. Plus, he went up against the likes of Mount Franklin. But he made it work.

What do you believe will be the biggest trends in e-commerce over the coming year or two?

Multiple touchpoints are going to be huge. The days of having a pure play website are over – people want to taste, touch, test the product before they buy, so I think the trend back to physical stores like Sneakerboy will come into play.

There will also be the rise of the internet of things, where everyday products and objects have network connectivity that allows them to send and receive data. For instance, rubbish bins could start to be fitted with sensors that send information back to councils, so they can better understand which bins are empty or full and they can plan their routes more efficiently. Or in the wine industry, winemakers will start to use drones fitted with cameras to report back on grape damage or readiness for picking without even leaving the desk. 

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