Deborah Tarrant
Business Journalist

Deborah Tarrant is a Sydney-based business writer who specialises in the nexus where people meet business

Deborah Tarrant
Business Journalist

Deborah Tarrant is a Sydney-based business writer who specialises in the nexus where people meet business

The microbusiness boom is a 21st-century phenomenon. These days, thanks to the power and accessibility of technology, almost anyone can start up a business – and a huge number of people are doing so.

At last count, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported 61 per cent of actively trading businesses in the country – around 1.2 million – were solo operations, while 28 per cent – 528,000 – were microbusinesses with one to four employees.

Image is of a man in a workshop doing business on a laptop computer. Technology is helping smaller businesses do bigger things.

This 89 per cent of all businesses, not surprisingly, is almost as diverse as the population itself. The businesses range from disruptive, fast-growing start-ups, exploiting technology trends as part of their product or service offering, to those solopreneurs and microbusinesses with more modest ambitions, content just to be a nice little earner.

Technology has triggered new ways of trading, from ecommerce to the sharing economy. Major platforms such as eBay and Etsy, and services like Uber are opening up opportunities for microbusinesses.

More recently, the rise of the ‘gig economy’ through online marketplaces such as freelancer.com and sidekicker.com.au has allowed consultants, professionals, artisans and tradespeople to tap into a global marketplace and leap into business for themselves.

I did it my way

One common trait shared by this diverse bunch of business owners is the desire for greater freedom from being your own boss, but there are many reasons for the microbusiness boom. From the ease of starting out with an almost immediate online presence ‑ whether it’s a brochure website, a blog or a place to sell products ‑ to the convenience and capabilities offered by smartphones and the cloud, technology is allowing smaller and smaller businesses to achieve bigger and bigger things.

Competing with the big end of town

Winner of the Victorian 2016 Telstra Microbusiness Award Antonette Golikidis, founder of organic baby skincare brand Little Innoscents, wanted the independence of running her own business instead of working for big corporations.

After taking a natural therapies course more than a decade ago, she first set up a corporate massage business. Then, following the birth of her son who suffered skin sensitivity and eczema, she began cooking up natural skincare creams in her kitchen.

“I shared them with a few people and they loved them. Then I realised there was a gap in the market,” says Golikidis who has had to be steadfast and determined to meet her biggest challenge; making a mark in a field with many seasoned players, including 130-year-old Johnson & Johnson (1886).

“Social media, the internet and all the gadgets we have at our disposal allowed us to seem like a bigger company than we really were when we started off,” says Golikidis. “It gave me confidence and I just kept knocking on doors.”

Today, Little Innoscents – with a recently expanded range of 13 products including an eco-laundry line and baby wipes – is stocked in 12 countries and 800 stores around Australia.

Apart from enjoying the flexibility she needs to raise her two sons, Alex, 11, and Antonio, 8, constant connectivity via smartphone and tablet has allowed Golikidis and her staff of four to build a highly customer-responsive business from a warehouse in Thornbury “just down the road from home”. “Technology has helped immensely. As much as I hate it, I love it. It allows you to be almost anywhere and to be contactable and social,” says Golikidis. “We have a 1300 number and get back to customer inquiries within three hours most of the time. I can answer a diverted call at 10pm. We pride ourselves on that fast turnaround. Quite often people thank us for that quick response.”

Accidently on purpose

By contrast, PE teacher Jarrod Robinson started his microbusiness almost by accident. In 2008, straight out of uni and in his first job at a high school in rural Boort, Victoria, Robinson began blogging about how he used technology at work. 

Back then, he used GPS handsets as part of adventurous revision quizzes for students who were tasked with finding particular way points. But the wide embrace of smartphones and tablets powered, Robinson, aka the PE Geek, and his life and business partner, Amy Justin, into a pioneering business that’s now educating PE teachers around the world. Running workshops for PE teachers on how to use the mobile devices as a teaching aid is now the cornerstone of the couple’s business. In the process the pair have also become keen app creators. 

They’ve run workshops in more than 30 countries and also produced 70 apps for their core market, including an easy planner app to help teachers designing their lessons, and others. A hazard and risk assessment tool initially designed for the PE teaching audience has recently been repurposed for workplaces. Through their business, Connected PE, they’ve recently launched a global community – with 300 members so far paying a US$135 annual subscription – to bring together PE teachers and help them to keep learning. “No-one else is operating in the space,” says Robinson. 

“We birthed the niche by being in there early, being on social media and talking about it. Now we have the authority and the experience because there’s no one else who travels the globe training PE teachers on how to use mobile devices in their work. You own it by building it.” 

After four hectic years building the business – with Robinson often making lightning weekend or school holiday visits to far-flung cities to run workshops (and getting increasingly unfit) – they found revenue streams from the PE Geek far outstripped their salaries. Last year, both Robinson and Justin, who worked in HR administration at a hospital, were able to quit their day jobs. Robinson only needs to work a couple of hours each day, so he is once more able to prioritise his gym visits.

None of this could have happened without technology, not least because the pair works remotely with a multitude of experts. These include: a graphic designer in the Philippines who produces all their blog posts and promotional material for social media; admin assistants in Bangladesh; and web development people in the UK. They’ve also worked with app developers in the Ukraine and China. “I haven’t met any of them,” says the Bendigo-based Robinson.

Their ability to roll out the workshops is also tech-powered. “We have an email list of about 20,000 teachers on our database. Our content creation is the key to everything, we’re always producing new blogposts and podcasts, which gets people on our email list, says Robinson. “We use Active Campaign for our emails and it does geolocation, so whenever someone opens an email we know where they are. We can sort by country, so we can alert people that a workshop is coming to their area.

Geolocation allows Robinson and Justin to pick their next destination as well. "If teachers in Tokyo are regularly opening our emails, we’ll reach out to them and say: ‘We’d like to come to Tokyo. Can we use your school as a venue?’.”

The rise of the tech-enabled microbusiness was once dominated by Millennials, but there is now significant growth coming from Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who want to supplement their incomes or keep doing something productive. Recent studies also have highlighted the escalating seniorpreneur trend, with people aged 50+ starting their own businesses.

Growth hub

Business growth commonly boosts new kinds of enterprises. One that’s burgeoned symbiotically with increasing activity from solopreneurs and microbusinesses is the co-working space. Countless hubs, from tech-only to gender-specific, have sprung up in cities and regional centres across the country. 

Since starting Hub Australia in 2011, Brad Krauskopf has seen a shift in his diverse membership as freelancers have gravitated to big platforms and microbusinesses have moved in.

Hub Australia, which now operates co-working spaces in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, currently plays host to around 500 members. “Ninety per cent of our members have one to 10 staff, and what connects them all is they are all growing small businesses,” he says. Indeed, some big-name businesses that have already grown up and left Hub Australia include crowdfunding site Pozible, innovation training and consulting company Inventium.

These spaces allow microbusinesses to access services. “One thing all want is a big, fat internet connection,” says Krauskopf. But there are also sideline benefits such as collaboration between businesses as they share their insights, the exchange of business ideas and, most significantly, trade between members.

“Increasingly, I’m coming across people who are getting 60 to 80 per cent of their business from other members,” notes Krauskopf.

A case in point is construction company Capabuild, a company that’s grown from two to 12 staff over the past few years within the walls of Hub Australia. Capabuild was recently contracted to create the co-working hub’s next location in Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station.

The proliferation of mobile devices – from smartphones to tablets and laptops – has boosted the popularity of co-working spaces for microbusinesses as members inevitably arrive with their own devices and can access software, documents and other services specific to their business via the cloud.

Beyond the essential services and collective know-how, co-working spaces also bring unexpected advantages by eliminating the often lamented isolation of running a small business, Krauskopf observes. 

By co-working microbusinesses can plug into a culture. “When you start a business, you get your independence and some get their freedom, but the reality is it’s often isolating,” he says. “One of the most valuable aspects I see everyday here is the social connection. A member with five staff told me last week that one of the reasons he stays is to provide a ready culture and community for his staff.” 

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