30 Australian executives share the biggest business lessons they have learned in 2015

Kate Morris, founder of Adore Beauty. Photo: Supplied.

2015 was a huge year for Australian businesses.

It was a year when changing markets, disruption and an increasing emphasis on better-informed customers saw businesses tailoring their existing models and strategies to get ahead of the game.

We reached out to a number of Australian executives to see the biggest business lessons they learnt this year and what changes to their sales process, company culture and mission they had in store for 2016.

From implementing mobile payments into their growth strategies, adopting real-time feedback loops and accelerating marketing efforts through to being prepared to pivot to adapt to new markets, here were the key takeaways from some of Australia’s most successful executives.

Rob Wilkinson, general manager, Toshiba Australia (ISD)

'One percenters make a difference and collectively they can turn a good business into a great business! Be open to change – in fact, seek it. Constantly look for new ways to work internally with your teams and externally with your clients. Challenge the status quo and never underestimate the constantly changing market. It’s evolving at a higher rate than ever before and is becoming the new norm and hence places enormous expectations on their technology systems to deliver efficiencies to assist them.

'Consumer and business expectations are immense, and as an industry if we want to meet these we need to work together to be agents of change.'

Sarah Hamilton, CEO, Bellabox

'Stop micro managing and give ownership over departments to those you trust in the company (don’t hire people you don’t). Cultural fit for staff is of paramount importance and take nothing for granted -- you never know what is around the corner.

'The customer continues to be right and they key lesson is to always learn from challenges.'

Nick Bell, founder and CEO, WME Australia

'Further diversify my business interests. The market can evolve quickly and I need to be ready when it does.

'Watch out for 'fast talkers'! Sometimes financial success can attract the wrong type of person, in particular those who think they deserve a piece of it without working for it. I’ve learned the hard way.

'Don’t let negative people and keyboard warriors infect your life. 2015 has been a great year for meeting some inspiring people who I now call good friends.'

Georgina Nelson, CEO, truRating

'2015 has taught me that Australia is ready for the fintech revolution. There is an openness towards positive disruption, by which I mean adopting new technology that can enhance the way people pay for things and feedback on the service they have received.

'I have seen that there's an appetite to compete on a global scale and that’s a great sign for job creation, innovation and investment. That's exciting and reassures me that the hard work we've invested will pay off.'

Chris Strode, founder, Invoice2go

'Laser tight focus becomes more and more important as your company grows. We saw this tenfold at Invoice2go this year. Rapidly building our team and capabilities brought an influx of ideas and opportunities we could pursue.

'It's tempting to jump on every exciting opportunity that comes your way, but it's more important than ever to remain focused on the key challenges you're trying to solve for your customers, and to keep getting better at that.'

Taryn Williams, founder and CEO, Wink Models and TheRight.Fit

'The quickest way to grow your business is to grow your people. Finding the right people, for the right roles, and then spending time to foster and develop them so they are equipped to give the best they can. It’s incredibly important for your team to feel supported, inspired and understand the journey and destination for the company, and that their contribution is valued.

'The best leaders blend courage with compassion. As a young boss, I’m still developing my management style, and this has been a huge learning lesson for me in 2015.'

Andy Crawley, director and co-founder, Jack Media

'Process is king. The key to scaling and growing quickly is opening up information and creating process. Clearly documented process and removing people's 'ownership' of information and contacts means new hires can quickly come in and understand the business and more people can help with a task to get it done faster.

'Make it simple. We've put in a huge amount of work to simplify and refine what we do for outsiders. Refine your elevator pitch so people understand quickly. It's something we'll keep working on as it's never done and keeps changing as the business grows.'

Martin Hosking, CEO, Redbubble

'I think that the big lesson of 2015 is only just beginning to dawn. Late stage Private Equity and VC money is drying up quickly. This will see a bit of repeat of the dotcom crash of 2000 - although not so extensive or public.

'Companies with good business models and clear underlying profitability will thrive and prosper. Others, including many of the darlings that have got a lot of press, are going to be in trouble.'

Levi Aron, country manager, Deliveroo

  • 'Focus on what you believe in, be truthful to that belief and apply everything you have to that belief and you will build something incredible.
  • 'For the first 6 months - do things that don't scale, it is the only way you will be empowered to fully scale.
  • 'Culture is king. Create an environment where your team can fully believe in what they are building, it encourages everyone to work their best, and the rest is easy.'
  • Eugene Trautwein, vice president of Worldwide Customer Support, Commvault


    'Always question the status quo, live by the words: innovate, execute or die. It may sound harsh, but as an industry leader in customer support it can be easy to become complacent.

    'To continue to lead we have had to question, innovate and execute with new offerings, approaches and systems to stay relevant and drive unique value back to our customers.'

    Kate Morris, CEO, Adore Beauty

    'My business has grown by about 70% this year so I’ve learnt a lot about the challenges of growth. In particular I’ve really seen what an asset it can be to have a strong company culture and values.

    'There’s no way we could have achieved the growth without the right team of passionate, can-do people on board who are willing to challenge themselves.'

    Alex Louey, Co-founder and CEO, Appscore www.appscore.com.au

    'To keep on innovating and constantly pushing the boundaries of business, offering new products and services. Never stop finding ways to add value otherwise you'll fall behind in a blink of an eye. Your competition has always got you in their sights.'

    Dean Ramler, CEO, Milan Direct

    'Sometimes your biggest competitor may just become your biggest ally. So treat everyone with the utmost respect, even in competition.'

    Pana Barbounis, founder and CEO, Pana Chocolate

    'Organic growth is awesome but a clear sales strategy is essential. Pana Chocolate had a huge year, thanks to our strong mix of the two.

    'Sales strategies are particularly important during the slower months as this is impacted when you have few top tier employees/head office.'

    Shira Raber, managing director, Helpling

    'Accept your mistakes and learn from them. Making mistakes is always painful and our natural tendency is to cover them up or forget about them asap. Instead, accept your mistakes, learn from them and move forward.'

    Christian Mischler, co-founder and CMO, HotelQuickly

    'Planning is priceless, plans are worthless. It’s important to go through the thought process of developing a strategy and put effort into following a vision, but there are always external factors that will change the way business goes.

    'Keep an agile mind to be able to adapt to whatever challenge comes along your way.'

    John Winning, CEO, Winning Group

    'The key to maintaining and building relationships, whether that’s with a customer, staff member or a supplier, is that constant and clear communication is key.

    'Take calculated risks and lots of them. Just measure them and make future risks more calculated as a result. A good friend of mine calls this failing forward.'

    Ben Handler, CEO and co-founder, Cohen Handler

    '2015 has been a big year for Cohen Handler — the business has grown considerably, expanding from Melbourne and Sydney to Brisbane. The biggest lesson from this year was understanding that culture and people are king.

    'Having the right staff in the business has been a critical part of our successes in 2015. Ensuring that everyone is clear about the future of the company and its values has helped align objectives closely, and work towards a common goal.

    'We’ve also learned that in order to support rapid growth as a business, you have to ensure that you have the correct systems and support in place to help sustain it.'

    Nick Austin, founder and CEO, Divvy Parking

    '2015 was the year that Divvy Parking made the big move from the peer-to-peer space to the commercial property sector. It's also the year I learned my biggest business lesson — the importance of being prepared to pivot. The original vision we have for a business is something we all hold close to our heart; whether for weeks, months or years, we've put money, time, sweat and every ounce of creativity possible to transform an idea into a viable business model. This kind of commitment is a must to succeed in business, but it can also be something that can hold us back and shut us off from other opportunities.

    'We have to remain open to new ideas and new markets that might not fit within that original business model. The goals set way back when should guide us, not shackle us ad keep us from innovating. We need to be prepared to adapt and jump at new opportunities as they arise and react smartly to any unexpected challenges.

    'Today Divvy is working with major property groups, government and even the courier industry to help solve big problems like congestion in our CBDs. We're achieving things I never thought possible at the start and it's only because we were prepared to pivot!'

    Gary Tramer, co-founder, LeadChat

    'There’s been a couple of key lessons for us:

    'Get onboard early to new platforms for marketing access. Once you can hear about a channel at a seminar, its too late to get the most value out of it.

    'Don’t hire on experience, hire on excitement and aptitude of learning. The tools we will use in 2016 to further our company don’t exist yet.

    'Understand the value of your customers and what it costs to acquire them. Our funded peers in the US tech scene fund customer acquisitions against 1/3 the life time value of a customer. That is, if they project to make $30,000 over a customer's life, they are prepared to spend $10k to acquire them. We've had to be innovative to find ways to acquire customers for 1% that amount.

    James Chin-Moody, CEO and co-founder, Sendle

    'Always work with the best people. We expanded the Sendle team almost 200% this year and we’ve been extremely fortunate to attract incredible talent. Our head of support ran multi-language centres for Rackspace in the UK, our head of design worked at Skype and Facebook in London, and was head of design at Campaign Monitor in Australia.

    'We use the same five filters for everyone we bring onto the team. We call them the 5Hs - Humble, Honest, Happy, Hungry and High Achieving and they’re helping us build a healthy, openly collaborative and vibrant company culture.'

    Joel Katz, APAC managing director, FileMaker

    Photo: LinkedIn

    'The biggest lesson I’ve learned this year is to actually switch off when you're on holidays. When I lived in the US, I would work and work and work for the entire year without taking time away from the office. But this year when I moved to Australia, I finally took a full week off and came back feeling refreshed and was actually more productive. I won't be making that mistake again!

    'In this sense, Australia's system is far better than the US, and something many hard working Aussies don't make the most of.'

    Philip Weinman, CEO and executive chairman, Locomote

    'This has been a big year for Locomote; we’ve grown our staff, signed major customers like ANZ, Medibank, Allen & Overy and World Vision and strengthened our relationship with Travelport. 2015 has been a year full of opportunities and lessons, that have helped us continue developing and growing Locomote both in Australia and internationally.

    'As a team, we continue to encourage each other to challenge the status quo of the corporate travel industry. The industry as a whole can be rigid, with long and tedious processes to enter requests, authorisations, make bookings and claim expenses — our objective is to change this, providing solutions to automate corporate travel management and make it more efficient.

    'It’s crucial that in doing so, we remain focused and apply this same idea of change to our own company - what can we change? How can we improve as a business? What can we do to make our solution even simpler and faster?

    'There’s always room for change and for improvement. This can sometimes be hard to remember, especially within an industry that can be very traditional, so it’s important we keep motivating our team, welcome different perspectives and be open to change. We also partner with companies that we see are making changes so we can innovate together.'

    Matt Bullock, founder and CEO, eWAY

    'As a company that has only processed online payments, we realised how rapidly mobile payments were growing. Given our 17 years of experience and partnerships over the years, we knew that we had to include mobile payments into our growth strategy. We took on feedback from our retailers who wanted to accept cashless payments anywhere and also realised there was a gap in the market where people like tradies could also use mobile payments. We spent a year researching and building a mobile payments solution that would also integrate and link to the online store, providing merchants real-time updates on their stock.

    'The most important lesson learned this year was that you have to constantly evolve and innovate into new markets and the unknown to stay ahead of the competition.'

    Jason Wyatt, co-founder, Marketplacer

    'Focus on scale. In a changing world we all need to think and act global. Choose supplier, teams, products and services that can scale globally.'

    Lee Ellison, CEO of Audinate

    'In 2015 we learned to step on the gas to accelerate our marketing efforts and tell our story globally. Historically, we’ve been an engineering-driven company at heart and while we've been incredibly successful to date in the adoption of our products — our audio networking technology Dante is used by more than 250 audio equipment manufacturers globally — we needed to tell our story better to the world.

    'We're taking on a $100 billion global audiovisual industry, so we made a conscious decision to invest more in balancing our marketing and sales groups. By recruiting a VP of Marketing, building out an interactive marketing team and implementing a marketing automation platform, we've been able to increase focus on social media networks, double traffic to our website and grow our followers on the major social network platforms by 300 per cent.

    'We've worked closely with our global partners to develop marketing campaigns to communicate to their customers, messaging the value proposition of having 'Dante Inside' their products, along the lines of Intel and Dolby.

    'Having a fantastic product alone won't necessarily translate to excellent success. We've learned the importance of marketing in telling our story to ensure that not only our partners but potential end users know who we are and what we do, which has allowed a young Australian company like us to have a large scale global impact.'

    David Raitt, commercial director at Criteo ANZ

    'One of the most valuable lessons we've learned this year is the importance of listening carefully to our customers.

    'This has been a major driver in growth and prosperity for the business. It's vital that all businesses today ensure they are able to adapt to their client's needs and deliver strategy that is tailored and personalised to the needs of that particular business.'

    Avrill D'Costa, co-founder, Big Datr

    'Everyone is moving towards achieving real-time feedback loops. We're moving away from the traditional weekly, monthly and annual reporting - businesses want answers in the now.'

    LiveHire co-founder Mike Haywood

    'When you always buy the cheapest Qantas fairs, it takes an enormous amount of flights to reach gold class. But seriously, focus and invest heavily in your customers and you will have more clients for life.'

    AVSTEV’s CEO, Steven Rom

    'Not to worry about all the noise and industry politics, and rather concentrate on what we do best. The big players like to push around the smaller guys as well as the retailers but we just get on with it - business is all about relationships with both give and take. It needs to work for all involved.'

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