Business owner Ben Hirons is due north, where his entrepreneurial compass points him. It’s a trip he wants to savour. “One thing I realised is that business is a journey. It's not a destination. It's all about how you plan, structure, execute and implement the right journey. It's always about getting to somewhere,” he says. As a wise man once said, “if you're not heading north, you're not heading anywhere!” Loving the play on words, Ben founded a business and named it Due North.
His educational training, passion for business and love of the outdoors all come into play in his company name. With a double degree in Business and Aerospace Engineering, Ben charts his entrepreneurial flight plan heading north. His destination is to succeed in growing his business and achieving his dreams for the future. For this reason, he pilots his business with precision through the dynamic and ever-changing terrain of sales and marketing.
“From my perspective, it's how you bring that engineering discipline into something that's historically warm and fuzzy. So, I guess that's probably one of our skills sets and strengths. It's how you take marketing from that warm and fuzzy, sometimes wishy-washy discipline to what is now trackable, measurable, and reportable,” the enthusiastic entrepreneur opined.
His journey wasn’t a smooth takeoff though. In fact, it was not an easy flight as other people perceive owning a business should be. Rather, it was more akin to an outback adventure in the wilderness, with the rough landscape and harsh conditions to brave. The good thing, however, was that Ben enjoys explorations, even in the business sense.
The world of aerospace engineering would take him to work overseas, and at that time, he didn’t want to go. Although he has always been fascinated by flying things, such as rockets and aircraft, it wasn’t something he wanted to build. Straight out of university, he wasn’t sure of what he wanted to do. “By default, it was ‘let’s go exploring’, which was what I did,” he shared. Then, he stumbled into a bit of consulting work, helping out in his brother’s retail business. One thing led to another until he came into the payments space for small businesses, where he was able to set up his first venture.
Right in his tiny one-bedroom apartment in East Melbourne was where his first business began. “It was a shoestring. It cost me five grand to get it up and running: a logo, business cards, a printer, that sort of stuff,” he narrated. That business grew quickly until the global financial crisis hit and it died a long and slow death before finally being shut down in 2015. Then another one was established along the way in 2012 and sold in 2015. “It was a strange year – exiting one business on a high and one business on a low. These all led to starting his third venture in Due North.
Through successful and not so successful businesses, there were learning experiences that helped Ben hone his entrepreneurial instincts. There were disappointments and frustrations, such as partnerships that didn’t work. But these were the things that made him stronger and wiser. Ben expounds, “The heartbreak is when people let you down. Then that happens also too often, whether it be internal staff or suppliers or agencies that you're using. It's hard enough. You just expect and want people to do what they tell you they will do, and you hope they will do it well. And they can continually let you down.”
Allowing other people, such as his past partners or clients control him or his business was a mistake that Ben ascertains never to repeat. “I will never be at the whim of anybody again, whether it be a client, a partner, staff or suppliers – they will not ever control the outcomes of my business again. We'll never be dependent on just one staff member or one client or one person. So, to me, that's probably one of the biggest lessons I've learned,” he asserted. “When it comes to people, you've got to know and understand people, how to manage people, to lead people, to relate to people. It's very hard for most of us to do it well.”
He admitted that they weren’t exactly good at hiring the right people, with a lot of turnovers during the early days. “The biggest challenge was finding the right talents,” Ben inferred. Learning from the past, they began choosing people based on their alignment with the company’s core values. “Also, we provide the right work environment for them to be able to perform. We haven’t had any major drama with people for couple years now, which is good,” he stated. When it comes to letting go of people, he realised that the best route is an open and honest conversation with the staff member. When both parties find that the other is not the right fit for them, the parting of ways becomes more amicable.
Apart from people, there were other hurdles that Ben had to confront. “The sheer challenge of running a business is amazing and is not understood until you’ve been there and done that. You’re continually getting slapped in the face whichever way you turn – staff not turning up, stock that’s late, customers that become unreasonable. It's just the whole gamut and the vast majority you can’t control, so you just have to keep rolling with the punches.”
In addition to these, he has to navigate through the tough sales and marketing landscape. “There are multiple challenges. One is that technology changes. There's just so many bits of amazing software coming out that trying to keep up with them is hard. The second thing is that the reputation of marketing consultants and digital marketing agencies is terrible. We tend to get tarnished with that same brush, unfortunately. But, at the same time, it's also all of these that produce all those opportunities for us,” the sales and marketing engineer remarked.
Ben has adapted to such frontiers and turned the tide in his favour. He got all the smarts behind his business. He honed his company’s value proposition. He built their capabilities. He developed a good product offering that has a niche in the market. Plus, he included tracking, reporting and analytics into the equation. According to Ben, “We've learned the hard way by doing it all. From employing people and using consultants and agencies, we truly learned the hard way. The number of times we staffed it up. The amount of money we wasted. As much as it pains me to say, it was an expensive but good way to learn what we needed as a small business to grow our revenue. And we've come a long way.”
Those experiences were instrumental in shaping his business and its offerings to their clients. It’s more of a been-there-done-that thing that enables them to share their expertise with other small and medium enterprises. They help shortcut their client’s pain in going through acquiring the right capabilities, skills, resources, and systems to grow their businesses.
Another factor that Ben has lately found in his entrepreneurial journey that can lead to more progress to him, professionally and personally, is EO Melbourne. What he loves most are the stories of his fellow EO Melbourne members, that they all go through great times and some awful things. It is a learning experience for him as he listens to the experiences of other business owners.
Moreover, apart from experiences, he understands that gaining good entrepreneurial qualities are beneficial in surmounting some of the obstacles in his path. These traits are being detail-oriented and being a generalist. “Attention to detail. You must have all facets. Like the old saying in the rag trade, ‘retail is detail’ in running a retail business. Every business is all about the detail because that's where you come stuck. Everything in your business has to be triple checked and QA'ed before it gets to a customer or client. The second thing is to be a generalist. You need to become an amazing generalist across all facets – from product to people to systems to software to whatever else. Generally, in a business, you might have eight hours to get a task done, while in your small business you've got 15 minutes. So, you need those amazing generalist skills.”
With regards to client management, Ben has learned the ropes as he came from the other side of the fence. Now that he is doing the servicing part, he implements strict requirements. “The one thing that we do exceptionally well is that we under promise and over deliver every single time. We're the first to let them know when things aren't going right because that's our job. And people love that honesty. They appreciate it. They know things aren't always going to go right. But as long as you're all over it, you know why it's not going right, and you're proposing solutions to fix it, there's a business. And they are happy. I think we've got that best client management in the market.”
On top of that, he added, “The biggest thing is you stay positive versus you beat yourself at all times. So, it's trying to see what you can control versus what you can't control because you tend to be just all alone. And you should be nicer to yourself.” Such positivity is needed because being a business owner is a 24/7 job. As Ben puts it, “You wake up in the middle of the night thinking that you've got stuff you've got to pump out on a Sunday afternoon.”
But he learned to manage it all well as he loves what he’s doing. “I think I'm living the dream, so to speak, for lack of a better word. I've got a very healthy work-life balance that I hope to keep, that I would be able to kick some good goals with work and just keep on living the current life that I live my way,” he enthused.
And in all of these, what he considers as his greatest achievement are his kids. “They are certainly the sunshine of my life. And my wife. From a work perspective, I'm proud of our business, as a whole. It's the epitome of 15 years of work. I think we've got a great brand. We've got an amazing team of people. We've got a first-rate product offering that's truly second to none in the market. I'm pretty happy with where everything is at the moment,” he quipped.
Sure enough, his family keeps him preoccupied outside of work. And with his interest in the outdoors, he goes out from the confines of his office to have a bit of adventure. “I love camping and four-wheel driving and mountain bike riding. That sort of stuff is my real passion. I love seeing Australia from a dirty, dusty, bumpy road.” They try to go camping once a month, with two major camping trips a year. In fact, he is excited to go to Kimberley later this year.
As he is enjoying his present state of life, Ben is optimistic about the future. “We've got some pretty big plans for growing it. Look, I guess we like to call ourselves a crack marketing team for hire. We think we can shake that up and provide some amazing people and great resources on both the national and international scale. We got some fairly big aspirations that we'd love to see come to fruition over the next 3, 5, or 10 years,” he pronounced.
He may have started his journey fresh from university with no idea of where to go. But he quickly learned his steps and the direction he would take. He has planned his journey, navigated his path, and scaled his Everest. Since then, he traverses his space in sales and marketing because he knows he is on the right track. It’s time for him to show others the way through the help of his business. With his experience, learnings, and passion for the things he is doing, there’s no other way for him to go but north.