How to build your own start-up

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If you are running a business, money is going to be at the core of what you do. Even if you are so passionate about your "why" that money isn't your motivation, you will need money coming in to have a sustainable business.

When you are attracting sufficient money, it enables you to implement what you feel soul-called to do. And even if you are incorporated as a not-for-profit organisation, you won't be able to continue to exist if you can't show your supporters that you are good at managing money.

Yet there is so much reluctance to talk about money - something that I am passionate about overcoming in my work in The Joyful Frugalista podcast. Spiritual life and business coach Bec Cuzzillo notes that money isn't something we need to be afraid of.

how to build a startup

"The more we talk about it, the more it is normalised," she says. "You can earn money doing what you love. You can earn money doing something that fills your heart with purpose. You don't have to hustle hard. And you don't have to sell your soul."

Prepare a financial buffer

Some people are great at starting a business and earning money straightaway, but most aren't. And it's unrealistic to put pressure on yourself to be earning money from the beginning if you don't have to.

It's good to have the drive and ambition (you'll need it), but it's far better to save up before you start. Unexpected things can happen, and it's better to be prepared.

I had almost paid off the mortgage, hubby was in a stable job, I had good superannuation and four freelance writing clients when I decided to do the almost unthinkable and quit a stable and sought-after job in Canberra in October 2019.

I also had a stream of positively geared income from an Airbnb unit and hosted guests at home occasionally, and I had been sounded out about a more substantial opportunity.

why you need a financial buffer when you start your own business

Three weeks after leaving work, Canberra was immersed in strong smoke haze due to bushfires that lasted for almost three months. Airbnb bookings were cancelled. Then when the rains came, Covid arrived. This led to even more Airbnb cancellations, plus the disappearance of most paid freelance writing gigs.

It might sound terrible and, to be honest, there were times when I worried whether I had made the right decision. But it ended up being fine - more than fine. I pivoted to offering training courses and coaching, discovering that it was something I loved to do.

Freelance writing opportunities returned, and my podcast took off. I'm not saying it was easy, but because I had a financial buffer, I felt more confident about trying new things and pivoting. It also meant 
I panicked less.

Two years on and we have paid off the mortgage, have a growing share portfolio and a higher overall net worth due to property investments that have gone up in the boom. Who would have thought?

I've also started new ventures and received grant funding to help get them off the ground. I credit all of this to being in a good financial situation to start with.

Stay on top of cashflow

Sadly, one of the biggest reasons businesses fail is due to cashflow issues. Cashflow broadly means that you have enough money coming in to meet your expenses.

Sometimes, even profitable businesses can fail due to cashflow problems, caused by not being paid by those who owe them money, disruptive events such as COVID, spending or losing money set aside for expenses, not setting aside money for expenses, theft or fraud.

There are many systems available now that allow small businesses to do their bookkeeping online.

Whether you use a spreadsheet for a side hustle starting out, hire a bookkeeper or have a chief financial officer, you need to be across your money. You need to be comfortable with monitoring what is happening with your business and its cashflow.

startup tips

Even if you have outsourced to someone else, you still need to look at the data carefully and regularly ask questions.

Thankfully, it is not hard for most startups to know what is happening with their cashflow. Most online systems will have a function allowing you to monitor cashflow, such as a profit-and-loss summary.

This will allow you to see at a glance whether or not you are actually making money from your business or whether you are going backwards. It will also highlight unpaid invoices.

If you don't have an online accounting system, even just looking at your bank statements regularly is a good place to start. It is important to make sure you know where your money is going.

This might sound obvious, but the obvious isn't always easy.

Keep track of expenses

One of the easiest ways to track business expenses is to have a separate bank account for them. Use the bank account just for your business expenses; don't mix personal with business.

And if you are registered for GST, consider setting up a separate bank account into which you deposit GST payments.

This will help reduce stress when you receive a bill to pay GST.

In a podcast interview on The Joyful Frugalista, Amy Bett shared how she left a corporate role to start an events management business. She thought she was doing well as she had lots of clients and was super busy.

What she didn't fully understand was the true cost of hosting the events, and when all costs were factored in, the business was going backwards. It's an easy mistake to make: you quote low or offer items cheaply, wanting to attract customers.

Or you seek business not knowing the true costs of your product, aka your break-even price. If you go too low, you won't be able to build a sustainable business. And if everyone wants you, it's likely a sign that you aren't charging enough.

Cashflow cycles also affect businesses even if they are profitable. For instance, a business owner recently told me how he landed a lucrative long-term contract with a government client.

The issue is his business is now moving away from a cashflow model of many small jobs that pay regularly to incorporate a larger client that pays much less regularly.

In my business, I used to invoice my main freelance writing client each month. They would then pay two to four weeks later. This meant that it could be six to eight weeks before I was paid, and that I received funds in my bank account much less predictably than when I was drawing a public service salary.

owed money

And, of course, you might have to chase unpaid invoices. Sometimes someone just forgets or thought they had paid but hadn't (I've been guilty of forgetting to hit the final approval button when making payments online). Or maybe the invoice gets lost in the mail or goes to their spam box in email - again, it does happen. Or maybe the client's policy is not to pay unless chased.

I once knew a lady who worked for a company whose policy was never to pay unless they received a call asking for payment of unpaid money. I think that's a disreputable way to run a business, but some people do it.

Also ensure that you keep good records, including receipts. A successful business (legally) claims all the business expenses it is entitled to on tax and has records to prove it.

The successful business doesn't fear an ATO audit, because its financial affairs are in good order, with receipts and evidence of allowable deductions on file. I scan in my invoices and add them to my online accounting system (Zoho Books) so that everything is neat and together.

Attract funds and investors

For most startups, the pathway is to develop an idea and pitch it to investors. And according to Nick McNaughton, there has never been a better time for entrepreneurs to seek investor funding.

Nick knows this from experience. As CEO of ANU Connect Ventures and founder of Campus Plus, he regularly makes successful pitches to investors.

He also invests in startups - both as an angel investor and providing venture capital. He delivers a popular course about how startups can find grant funding or get investors at the Canberra Innovation Network.

There are several avenues you might consider when seeking an investor, including:

Angel groups

Many capital cities have angel groups (for example, Sydney Angels, Capital Angels). And there is even an angel investor group, Scale Investors, which invests in female founders. An angel investor is someone who provides capital for a business or startup. An angel investor can sometimes support a new idea or business earlier than when most investors can back them. An angel will want a return on their investment, usually by way of convertible debt or ownership equity. But more than the money, angels are often experienced businesspeople who want to offer support and guidance.

Venture capital firms

Venture capital financing is a form of equity financing where a firm provides funding in exchange for part ownership. Venture capitalists are usually able to provide greater funding than angel investors and will usually want a larger equity stake.

As of the time of writing, there are around 120 venture capital firms that have invested in Australian startups. Some of the best known in Australia are Blackbird Ventures, Brandon Capital, Telstra Ventures and Square Peg Capital.

Startup incubator and accelerator programs

Many innovation centres have accelerator programs where you will be matched with a mentor who is often also an investor. Sometimes, the programs themselves provide grant funding (for example, as a Covid rebuilding measure), or they offer an opportunity to pitch to investors during the program. Inclusion in the programs is generally competitive.

They include SproutX, Startmate, the UNSW Founders program, Griffin Accelerator (Canberra Innovation Network) and BlueChilli (Sydney-based).

LinkedIn

LinkedIn isn't just for finding a job; you can also use it strategically to find potential investors. Don't sound as if you are a scammer offering an "investment opportunity", but instead use it to build strategic relationships with leaders in your field.

An advantage of investor funding is that it will allow your startup to scale up. It is useful if you are looking to grow quickly. An added advantage is that the investment often comes with access to experienced business professionals who can help and guide you.

Startup checklist

  • How do you feel about money? How comfortable are you being paid for what you offer? Write down your feelings around money. 
  • How does your business track its cashflow? What could be improved? Commit to finding some time each week to look at the cashflow of your business. 
  • How could you improve sales for your business? What could you do to make it easier for people to buy from you? 
  • Who is your ideal investor? Write a few words about what they would look like, their background and their interests, and the value the investment would bring to your business. 
  • What is the financial goal of your business? Is it to be a social enterprise, to be a small-scale solopreneur, or to scale up into a multibillion-dollar company? 

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Serina Bird is a proud frugalista who has amassed more than a million dollars through frugal living. She is the author of The Joyful Frugalista and The Joyful Startup Guide. Serina blogs at The Joyful Frugalista, and her podcast is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. She is also the founder of the The Joyful Business Club.