A leading independent creative agency, an iconic venue, office buildings, and an online memorial platform. Andrew MacKinnon, Taboo Founder and Managing Director, has built these ventures and more, and he’s not stopping there. His passion, positive outlook, and innovative character drive him to keep creating ideas and making cool things.
Andrew was oozing with enthusiasm as he reminisced his colourful business journey, which began in the cold streets of London at the age of 19. It was supposed to be a “dream job”, as described in an article he read. As it turned out, he had to stand on street corners, stop people, and sell them coupons for gyms, hair salons, day spas, and the like. From a neophyte salesman, his need to make money for travel drove him to become good at his role, and eventually emerged as a great marketer at the streets.
Although he worked his way up in that company within a year, Andrew’s calling was something else, which was to start his enterprise. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, he knew at a young age that he wanted to work for himself. His mother and father were entrepreneurs, and his stepparents had their respective businesses. With a desire of having that same opportunity, he went ahead and carved a space for himself in the business world. “Instead of joining my dad's company, I followed what he did, and that was to build my empire,” Andrew declared.
Bringing his experience from London to Melbourne, Andrew approached a small company and presented the concept, then sold promotions for them. He quickly assembled a team that braved the streets of Melbourne, expanded it to Sydney, and became known as a guerrilla marketing company. As dynamic as Andrew is, his business, Taboo, evolved from sales to providing marketing and creative services to various brands.
It’s interesting how he got the name for his creative agency, and how it fits the reputation it now holds. “There was a party at my school called ‘Taboo 92’. I just loved this word 'taboo' and what it stood for, which is ‘don't do it, don't say it’. We've grown into that meaning. We've serendipitously become our brand. It's doing campaigns and creating work that's not necessarily right or might be risky. We present ideas that might be outrageous, that no one would ever present,” he explained.
Many years after he started Taboo, he established Ponyfish Island, a floating bar in the Yarra River. He also converted two twelve-hundred-meter warehouses into brand-new offices and set up Skymorials, a memorial in the digital space. He was new to those industries, but he rapidly learned on the job, despite the pressures. “They're all slightly different. I've relished and loved the fact that my businesses are not all in one industry. I'm experiencing the best in marketing, hospitality, digital, and building development,” retorted Andrew.
Stepping up to the challenge, Andrew now runs these businesses alongside Taboo. Not to mention that throughout his entrepreneurial journey, he also dabbled with other side businesses – clothing labels, retail shops, a hair salon, to name a few – which didn’t fly as he would have wanted them to. “What always happens to me is that I usually get bored. And when I get bored, I start new businesses,” he quipped.
Having those side businesses brought a snag on Andrew’s focus and finances. “It started to get scary when I got distracted and started opening other businesses. I left the focus of Taboo and started these other things. I thought that I was a silent investor in those other businesses. But really, I was a director. The company was in the hands of people that didn't have any experience either. And so, they ran those businesses into a lot of debt,” he narrated.
The only way out for him was to pay the debt or fix the situation. It didn’t also help that he employed people whom he allowed to lead Taboo, relying on them to make good decisions. Conversely, the decisions made were poor and ran Taboo into debt as well. It was his lowest of lows. “I was young at that time,” he remarked. “I thought I was invincible. But I was in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. The partners were nowhere. Taboo was in debt, and I just cried. I didn't want to do it anymore. I was scared. I've worked all those years, it was probably five years, and I had nothing to my name, nothing to show except for a lot of debt. “
He admitted that there were times when he was tempted to leave the entrepreneurial world and forget about it. Since he was over his head with debt or stress, he considered getting a normal job. Among the things he stressed over was that he employed too many people, which meant there were wages to pay. The global financial crisis also struck, and their clients were cutting budgets. “We didn't have an income. We didn't make one dollar for three months. Luckily, we went into that period with small savings. By the time we finished that, we had one week left until we were at the bottom of the overdraft. And we had to pay the wages,” he expressed.
Being an entrepreneur is a big responsibility, Andrew acknowledged this reality. “If the business isn't good, there is no limit to how much time or more money you have to pump into a business. The first person to not get paid is you, as well as you're the last person to get paid. And if you're short, you have to sell something in your life.”
It was fortunate that Andrew stumbled upon EO Melbourne, which was a huge help as he recovered from his misfortunes. “I was lucky to find EO, the Entrepreneurs' Organization, where I met amazing people, who had problems as big as mine, if not bigger. I learned from their failures and their successes. It began to grow my leadership skills and create a very clear vision for Taboo, my business. The business started to grow profitably with much less stress.”
He was very much involved in EO Melbourne ever since he joined in 2011. “The first amazing thing was being thrown into a forum of different minds in different industries. I very quickly learned so much more than just going to a course or university,” he enthusiastically shared. He became a moderator, then joined the board, and later voted as president on his fourth year on the board. His experience with EO Melbourne taught him to overcome his fear of public speaking and, more importantly, how to motivate and manage business leaders that were serving on a voluntary basis. All those learnings from EO he was able to apply to Taboo and his other businesses.
From his lows, Andrew was able to bounce back harder and faster. He sees himself as good in growing again. “When there are times I'm down and out, I get up again. When I get up, I focus again. I rebuild it better. And I go further and further each time,” he stated. On the bright side, amidst the hardships and sacrifices, Andrew regarded entrepreneurship as a reward in itself. “As your own boss, you get to choose the people you work with, where you work, who you work for, and the projects to take in. You have complete autonomy around what your business does, and how you do it,” he added.
Regardless of the industry that he’s in, Andrew can immerse himself and adapt to his environment because he loves what he’s doing and he’s good at it. “I'm good at having a vision, bringing together a team of experts, and motivating those people to execute something the best they can. Then, I'll bring in partners that will help with my lack of knowledge to help bring that expertise to the team,” he pronounced. That included bringing in his brother who had been working in a traditional advertising agency in New York and selling him a quarter of the agency.
Apart from juggling four businesses, Andrew still takes time to exercise and meditate. He also finds opportunities to engage with his other interests – photography, travel, reading current affairs, and watching documentaries. He grows a herb garden at home, as well as enjoys a healthy social life.
But it’s not all about managing time well. According to Andrew, to become a successful entrepreneur, one has to be independent and determined to create and wake up every day hungry to see the vision. “They need to dream and have big ideas and big pictures. They also need to be positive, brave, honest and transparent,” the cool entrepreneur counselled. “Furthermore, they need to surround themselves with great people and enjoy what they are doing,” he stressed.
He loves what he does and relishes every moment of his entrepreneurial journey. Plus, he infuses fun into the equation, that is why work doesn’t seem like work for him. In his 18 years as an entrepreneur, Andrew has worn only a shirt to work. “I've never shined some leather shoes or worn a tie or suit. And so, that to me is like really cool, you know. I used to say my dream is to make a million dollars wearing a t-shirt,” he laughingly said. More than that, he has a huge vision ahead of him. One of his visions for Taboo at the moment is to move his role from servicing clients towards building assets that the company owns and generating non-client revenues.
“My dream is to build an empire of great businesses with great people. I want to be able to be creative and keep coming up with something and owning a business model that is viable. Then, bringing a great team together and making that happen,” Andrew stated. He looks after his businesses like a parent to a child. And he’s determined to grow them to be the best in their industries. There are more great things waiting to happen to Andrew. That means there are more exciting things to see for the rest of his journey.