Nine, going on nineteen

Starting a business can happen in many ways: by design, accident and also necessity. Believe me, Twentieth Letter was never part of my grand plan.

I’d always thought I was way too lazy to be an entrepreneur. I imagined that I’d spend my days procrastinating on the couch and watching Oprah. But as Twentieth Letter enters its tenth year of frank and fearless creativity, self-employment and company leadership are now my choice and entirely by design.

Small businesses employ between 43-47 per cent of the Australian workforce (ABS 2016). That’s the largest share of employees amongst small, medium and large organisations. This equates to about 5 million employees turning up, paying tax, requiring management and making things happen. For the business owner it’s quite a responsibility and often quite a journey.

And the journey is in no way linear.

In my case year one was a mix of boredom, elation, fear and keeping my options open for a “real” job. I still wasn’t sure if freelancing (as it was at this stage) was for me and I secretly had my fingers crossed that the job of my dreams would cross my path in the near future. But a few nice first clients (thank you MREMS), an inexpensive logo and a passion for high quality marketing and communications work kept me hanging in there.

Two years in, there was enough work to keep me busy and the mortgage paid. A taste of security and independence meant that thoughts of corporate utopia were becoming less frequent. We re-branded. I was now a “consultant”.

It was late in year two that Twentieth Letter hired its first employee and in early 2011 we moved out of my second bedroom and into our first office in Alexandria. This was the year I decided I was “all in”.  There is something very motivating and empowering when you know that you are not only working for clients, but building your own company.

It’s about now that you realise how much you need partners that get you through. Accountants, lawyers, bank managers, real estate agents, HR specialists. People who’ve “been there”, mentors, friends and family. If you want to build a small business get yourself a network, including experts you can trust with your investment.

Small business can be lonely. Just as you need expert contractual advice you also need wine and inane chats. Friends keep it real.

In year four I started to wonder what on earth I’d done : I was turning 40, battling exhaustion, crippling anxiety and a bunch of legacy emotions I hadn’t resolved since leaving my corporate job. This was all despite (or perhaps as a result of?) landing some very large clients leading to a terrific year of business growth. 

I am grateful I made it out. With help. Mental health is something we don’t talk enough about in Australia. But we talk about it a lot at Twentieth Letter. A study from the icare Foundation (Dec 2017) found people working in the small business sector may be more likely to be affected by poor mental health than the general population.

Importantly during this time, Twentieth Letter continued to deliver great work (and so enough said on that).

Turning five is a milestone – especially when you consider that over half the businesses with zero to four staff that were around in 2011 did not survive to see June 2015. As a business owner you’ve got to celebrate wins like that.

Year six saw a move into our first Redfern office. We worked hard, the team grew and we continued to land some fabulous new clients.

Year seven was hard. An horrific injury saw me on crutches for 16 weeks and fighting pain, immobility, juggling medical appointments and another bout of anxiety while trying keep the team focused, our clients well serviced and frankly my sh*t together. All up I took two days off.

There is nothing like an unforeseen injury to get you thinking differently.  When you’re forced to enable your team, you quickly learn who’s made of what. And so you make decisions. You also learn that vulnerability doesn’t equate to weakness. In fact, despite feeling like you’re struggling and can't go on there is ALWAYS more left in the tank.

2017 was a year for Twentieth Letter to focus, consolidate, stretch and grow. We started to really question where we wanted to be and put in place measures to make that happen.  I think year eight was a year of clarity and has laid the foundation for our future. Hiring a Strategy Director and restructuring the team was crucial.

It’s late in year nine, we’ve all worked bloody hard and I am feeling like I kinda got this.

The secret is having cracking good people work for you and trusting them to do their job.  It has them feeling good and me doing a better job at being the MD.

So here we are on the eve of double digits of trade: a cool bigger office space, an incredibly talented team of nine, partners we love to work with, work up and down the east coast and a client list (with great people) I am so proud of.

Why do I tell you this? 

Firstly because self-employment – and more importantly the employment of others – is NOTHING like I’d imagined. If I’d known what was needed of me to succeed for a decade back in 2009, there are some days I don’t know whether I’d do it again. It’s not easy. But on most days I can’t imagine doing anything else. It might be a huge responsibility, but it’s also a privilege.

Secondly because at Twentieth Letter we have had five core values in place since day one: Empowerment, Collaboration, Accountability, Inclusiveness and Fun. Having a job that enables you to live to your values means that despite all the compromises you make as a business owner, you never have to compromise yourself. That is so important.

And finally because behind – or in front of – every small business is a person. A person who never ever really switches off, tries to keep a lot of people happy, logs into Xero at 11pm to reconcile accounts, lays awake at night, doesn’t see family or friends as often as they’d like, can’t remember their last holiday, pays themselves last, celebrates new business like a lotto win and knows they are only as good as their team.

You can be sure that on the 7th of August my team and I will raise a glass to Twentieth Letter. We’ll also cheers those other incredible, brave and selfless Australian small business owners who should also be celebrated for their own special entrepreneurial fearlessness.

Happy 9th birthday to us!

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...on most days I can’t imagine doing anything else. It might be a huge responsibility, but it’s also a privilege
— T