“Time after time, you see companies struggle when they have to change course; they don’t have the management systems. When a small business sees the market moving it can move the other way, quite quickly. You don’t have to have massive committee meetings … you’re much more flexible.”
As he points out: “You can get into a small business, run it, and if the game changes really badly, stop it and do something else, or do what you need to do.
”Twenty-five years ago, as the founding editor of BRW, Gottliebsen helped kick off the Telstra Business Awards as a way to raise the public profile of Australia’s small businesses. Back then, there were 800,000 small businesses in Australia; now they number more than two million, employ 4.5 million people and generate more than $330 billion annually. “This vast area of our business community is the engine room … and it’s going to be a lot more important in the next five or 10 years.”
But the Awards have done more than just raise the profile of these businesses. Robert believes that the entry process itself has “been a tremendous contributor to the health of small business in Australia.”
"The most important thing about them is not so much who wins them, but the process of entering,” he says.
“It makes [businesses] think about their strategies [and] makes them think about their weaknesses.”
While running a small business will always be a hard task, he believes technology is creating the perfect environment for entrepreneurs.
“One of my aims in these final years of my journalism [he’s now 76] has been to attempt to get society structured to cater for this big increase in entrepreneurship I think we’re going to see in the next decade,” he says.
“The key to entrepreneurship is to know what your business is and what your skills are … There are a lot of products and services you can now market internationally. We couldn’t do that 25 years ago. That’s an incredible change in 25 years. And that’s going to accelerate.
“Now the pillar of it is, the world can market to you [and vice versa]. People can market out here from the US, or from anywhere, to Australia. So, that’s a change that is going to take place.
“And then finally, you’ve got to have the right idea, but you’ve also got to manage it. This will never change – you’ve got to manage your cash. I’ve seen so many good ideas that are even being marketed well, have failed because they didn’t manage the cash.”
For former Awards judge Will Irving, now Group Executive, Telstra Wholesale, the Awards winners share the same notable traits, whether they are from 1992 or 2016.“Having met many of the winners going all that way back… [they share] the ‘never say quit’ determination, combined with a measure of flexibility,” he says.
“I know those sound at odds, but being flexible in how [these businesses] help customers, but absolutely inflexible in their commitment to those customers and their staff is the main hallmark.”