"You need to start thinking of where you want to be in five year's time." These are the words of DWM Solutions owner Nick Clift that he imparts to his staff, especially to his sons.
Having a vision, a purpose and then a plan is the foremost thing that Nick realised is important in setting out in one’s entrepreneurial journey. “Do that one to three-year plan right before you start,” is his number one advice. That’s because he learned it the hard way. The way it turned out for him was that he hit the road running without knowing what was ahead of him.
“Most people get an idea. Or, there’s an opportunity that comes along. And they just jump in and do it, like I did, and don’t plan for what is going to happen. We got burned a couple of times because we didn't plan that well enough,” Nick pondered in retrospect.
Nick never thought he would be an entrepreneur one day. Coming from a family of school teachers, he’s the pioneer in the business field among his family members. While none of his parents or siblings had any background when it comes to starting up or running a business, Nick’s wife and two sons are very much involved in DWM Solutions. It is both an achievement and a challenge for him to have them in the company. But he never goes easy on them as expectations on them are higher as compared to his other staff.
He never saw this coming when he began his career working for a global I.T. company. “Initially, I thought I was always just going to be an employee. I never really wanted to go and start my own company,” Nick reflected. However, a change in management that led the company to pull the plug on the project Nick was working on got him disillusioned. “At that point, I decided that I needed to get out of there and do something. I wanted to be in control of my destiny. That was the catalyst that started it.”
When he was still employed, one of his colleagues at work pulled him aside and told him, "Hey, if you want to get ahead, you need to get out of here and go and do something for yourself." Then the colleague handed him some self-help books. “I think it was a Dale Carnegie one and a few other books like Zig Ziglar stuff, like in the early 90s,” Nick tried to recall. He then pored over the pages of these books and found a lot of interesting insights from them. “From that, I thought, ‘Ah, there's more. There's more to life than just working for somebody else.’ That was the trigger for it. If he hadn't done that at that time, I would still be working for another company, to be honest,” he revealed.
Before he crossed over from being an employee to becoming an entrepreneur, Nick shared the common perception that most people have for business owners. “When I was just an employee or when I was starting out, I thought, ‘Oh, you run your own business. You will be a millionaire. You have a cruisy life.’ That didn't happen,” he laughingly said. He found out later on that running his own company takes a lot of hard work and discipline, but he prefers the lifestyle, especially of having control of his future.
Nick’s change of direction towards the entrepreneurial path was smooth, but not without glitches. Being risk-averse during his younger days, Nick started his company with already a contract with his previous employer in place. Although money was not a major consideration when he was starting out, it was the ability to deliver on his promises to the clients that terrified him. “The scary thing is that I'm going to be fully responsible for this. Following directly from that is finding the right staff,” Nick intimated.
Getting the right people on board was the major setback that Nick battled out in his entrepreneurial journey. When he got the contract from his previous employer, that company was sacking a lot of its staff. “I had to go back and offer those staff that just got their redundancy packages a job with my company on half as much money because I couldn't afford to pay them with what they were getting paid. There was a lot of angst around that. Initially, I just had to get someone on board. So, that was the scary thing. Back in the early days, it was making sure I had good staff because I didn't want to do all the work myself. I couldn't physically do it all myself.”
Nick started his first business venture with his wife, Jenny, and two other business partners. It eventually grew and made good money. Unknown to Nick, his other partners had a third entity behind the scenes. Not having money of his own, as he had put everything in the company, he made the tough decision of walking away from that business. “I thought then, ‘I can't work with these guys.’ So, I ended up leaving that company. Then nine months later, they went broke and went out of business. That was a bit sad because we put a lot of work into that,” Nick remarked.
A year after he and his wife left that company, they formed a new one, which is DWM Solutions. They were able to bounce back. After three years of founding DWM, they were bigger than they were five years before that, during the peak of their first company.
As time went by, they sold a percentage of the business to two staff members. “We thought at that time that it was a good way of getting some stability and security for the company. So, we didn't go external. We went to internal staff. We made a deal with them and sold some percentage to them. They then came on as partners,” he recounted. It was good for the next five years. But the partnership turned sour. One of the partners did a horrible thing outside of work while the other wasn’t pulling his weight. Nick had to let go of them in the end.
But what thoroughly worried Nick was the rate of staff turnover. “I used to be paranoid about what our customers would think of staff changes because, in our industry, the average tenure is probably two to three years. We've had a lot of staff come and go. I thought, ‘What would people think?’ When my second lot of business partners left, that was tough. I was very worried then.” He found out later that his thoughts are worse than reality. One client even told Nick about a staff member that he let go, "Oh, he was hopeless anyway. You should have gotten rid of him years ago."
There have been changes in how they’ve been managing their people. Now, they’re into the whole scaling up process. They have daily huddles, weekly team meetings, monthly management meetings, and quarterly planning sessions. Services of external coaches, especially those specialising in the personal development aspect, are availed to help cultivate human resource. Currently, the DWM team has what it calls as the united front. That means that the whole team is behind any staff member in delivering the same service to all their clients with consistency and same quality.
One major lesson that Nick learned out of this is that people may come and go but what is important is a consistent relationship with customers. He intends for DWM to have the heart and soul of a small company despite its continuous growth. They treat their staff, as well as their clients, as a family. That’s the main differentiator from their competitors.
Nick has come a long way for nearly 20 years of running his business. Sure, there were the normal ups and downs, such as a finance deal that fell through a couple of years ago. It hurt them so bad that they had to sell a bunch of assets and pay off a few loans. But such experiences have brought huge lessons on Nick and his team. Throughout his entrepreneurial journey, he picked more learnings along the way.
A new source of additional learning for Nick, apart from the books he’s been reading, is EO Melbourne, which he has been part of for the last six months. It has added value to him as a person and as a business owner. “Two-fold. One is the people that I've met. The other entrepreneurs are facing more struggles. They have similar issues to what we have, regardless of the size of their business. It doesn't truly matter how big or small you are, everybody has the same issues to deal with, which is good. So, that was good learning for me. And the other thing that I like is the consistent message from EO across all the different facets of life. It's quite good. I like it. It all seems to be aligned. They all have a plan. There are lots of opportunities to learn and visit different things. I like that as well.”
Equipped with experience and knowledge gathered from books, mentors, and peers, Nick is looking at the future with bright hopes. Surely, he has a plan.
From Victoria, he is looking at expanding his business to the entire east coast of Australia. Mergers and acquisitions are among his goals. Selling the business is not an objective, at the moment, but he is not closing his doors on such idea.
Most of all, he is looking at investing in himself. “You are the average of the five people that you associate with the most, so make sure those five people are teaching you everything you need to know. I've seen myself go down in my objectives of what I'm trying to achieve by associating with the wrong type of people,” Nick remarked. He is considering at acquiring education on human psychology to better school himself.
“It's all about the future. It's all about people. Anything done on the computer can be automated. What can't be automated is the interaction between people. The more you understand how people think and do things and what influences their thinking and their reaction, the more successful you will be of what you're trying to achieve,” he shared. He plans to spend time improving his knowledge of the world and helping other people. With travel as one of his passions, he wants to go around the world and do project-based endeavours and some public speaking, which he has already started to do right now.
From all he has learned, he has this to share with budding startup owners. “Everyone is born into the world as equals. It's what you do that makes the difference. Spend some time investing in yourself, learning, and do some planning. I think that's probably the biggest takeaway that I would have to myself,” Nick avowed.