After a severe traffic accident nearly killed him, Don picked himself up, dusted himself off, and founded Business Boost Centre, a small business support service run out of Canberra, Australia. We spoke to him about his journey, and the business lessons learned along the way.
Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, Don has always been passionate about small business. He's also fascinated with technology and how it can move business forward. "I love technology. I always have. It started when I was eight years old," he remembers fondly. "My dad bought our first TV – a grainy, black and white thing, back in 1969. And on that grainy little TV I watched the Apollo 11 moon landing. It inspired in me a great passion for technology, a quest for knowledge. I've always wondered: just how much can we achieve with the tools available to us?"
Don was born in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia. His parents were very enterprising. For them it wasn't about profit – it was about making sure the kids had enough food and clothing in the winter. "We were a family of four kids, so things were pretty tough for Mum and Dad," he recalls. "I remember Dad used to make payday loans just to be able to afford groceries."
Don's parents had their own market garden and chickens, and they grew as much of their own food as they could. "Thanks to my parents, I've always been passionate about entrepreneurship and small business," he says. "So starting my own business was in my blood."
In 1970 Don's family moved to Australia seeking a better life. "We left our friends, our family, pretty much everything we'd ever known," he says. "My parents arrived in Australia with four kids and two suitcases. That was all they had. None of us spoke a word of English. We jumped in the deep end and learned to swim."
When Don finished school in 1980, Australia was going through a recession. There wasn't much work around, and he ended up joining the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as an electronics technician. "Even before I joined the air force, I suspected I'd never be happy with a 9 to 5 corporate lifestyle," he says. "I was always looking for the next challenge, the next adventure – that's my favourite word, actually," he reflects.
After six years in the air force, Don started his own business, a computer cabling company called Concept Technologies. That was in 1986. The industry was still young at the time, and demand for computer cabling was rapidly increasing.
"This was my first success – and my first failure," he says. "We grew at a fantastic rate and had some great contracts. What started as one man and a van soon became eight full-time staff, a permanent site and multiple service vehicles."
But Don encountered financial trouble with some big contracts when customers took too long to pay their invoices. "When you have high growth, you need capital to fund it. You still need to buy materials and pay staff, so the overdraft really gets up there. We didn't have the capital," Don says. "Then one day, our biggest client suddenly folded – before they could pay us. Over a hundred thousand dollars we were owed just vanished."
Don ended up as one man and a van again. "For the next 18 or so months I worked small jobs, with materials paid up front, and worked my ass off – pardon the expression – to resolve all my debts. At the end I was exhausted. I'd had enough."
Don decided he had to reinvent himself, building on the business lessons learned from his previous endeavour. He wondered how he could maximise the return on his skills without having to retrain. Realising that there were a lot of electricians who wanted to get into computer cabling, he decided to teach them how to do so.
Don set up a training business called Technical Skills Australia. He designed a brochure, started marketing, and developed a two-day hands-on computer cabling training course. Things were looking up. "I was cruising again. I was staying in nice hotels all around Australia, running seminars in the conference rooms. I went from doing computer cabling, to teaching computer cabling."
The business ran successfully for a number of years, but the industry was changing. "The companies that provided the cables we used – large international corporates – started offering free training to electricians who bought their product. There was no way I could compete with their marketing budgets. Overnight I was out of business. Again."
At that point Don needed a change. For a number of years he worked as a contractor, overseeing the installation of fibre optic cables around Australian air force bases, and later doing project management for large corporations such as Qantas and Telstra.
In 2002, Don and his family moved back to Canberra so Don could be with his father, who was in ailing health. "I wanted to give my son the chance to develop a relationship with his grandfather before he passed away. After we moved back, I started looking at setting up another business – as you do when you're entrepreneurial," Don laughs.
After he and his family moved to Canberra, Don bought into his father-in-law's furniture company. He didn't know much about furniture or retail, but he did know how to run a business. The furniture store had good staff, good revenue, and it meant he didn't have to start from scratch. He jumped at the opportunity.
Business was looking buoyant. Don made the game-changing decision to import furniture directly from producers rather than buy it for resale from local importers. At its peak, the store brought in over 40 shipping containers' worth of imported stock a year.
But this hard-earned momentum came to a dramatic stop in July 2007. "I was in a pretty serious car accident," Don says. "In that moment I remember thinking two things: this is going to hurt – and I'm going to get through it. I still get emotional thinking back to that moment."
Don sustained severe spinal and nerve injuries and was lucky to have survived. "I had a lot of support," he says, "but it was tough. Tough for the business, and tough for my family. Basically I was out for the count. I ended up on opiates for the pain – and unfortunately they're very addictive."
Don had survived, but he wasn't out of the woods yet. "For a number of years, I was pretty much stuck on the couch drugged up on opiates to dull the pain. I wasn't being a husband, I wasn't being a father, and I wasn't being a business partner. I wasn't functioning as a human being."
Don realised he could no longer manage the heavy lifting required at the furniture store. He retired as director of the company and decided it was time to reinvent himself once again. But first he had to beat his addiction to painkillers.
"Sometime along the process – four or five years, I'm really not sure how long – I woke up and thought 'what the hell are you doing?' I was still mentally capable. Physically I was in pain – I still am, a lot of the time – but I knew I had to get off the opiates."
But the journey proved to be a challenging one. "I can understand why people stay on drugs," Don says gently. "It's easier to stay on them than to get off them. Every time you reduce your dose, you go through withdrawal – which is horrendous. It took multiple attempts to finally shake them. But I got through it. I'm still here, still battling."
Don was off the opiates, so he started looking for his next venture. He realised he had the perfect skill set to start a small business support service. Soon after, in 2013, Business Boost Centre was born.
"I understood the issues small business people have and where they needed support, and that's where the business boost centre came from. 'Boost' is an acronym: back office operations systems technology," he explains. "It combines everything I love and do into the one service. We're not accountants or bookkeepers, we're small business support people."
"Entrepreneurs are good at what they do – and they're passionate about it. The last thing they want to do is waste their time on admin and back-end stuff. So we're aiming to divide every business into a front end and a back end. The entrepreneur handles what they do best – and we do the rest."
Once again Don is moving in a completely new direction, but his entrepreneurial fire is alive and well. "I'm an entrepreneur. I run a business. I happen to be working in an industry that provides bookkeeping services, but the mindset is on helping people grow their business – not just help with their books."
Don has succeeded, failed, taken some knocks, and gotten up again. The business lessons learned from these experiences have helped shape his outlook on life, work, and everything in-between.
Great journey Don.. Great to see you succeed.CheersLavisha Figures Matter
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