This is a reflective time in my life. Square Holes will be five at the end of 2009 and I head towards the end of my 30-somethings. At a time like this it’s hard to avoid thinking about how far we have come, challenges faced and lessons learnt.
[Note: After much questioning about where Square Holes came from, I sat down last Sunday night with a glass or two of red and brain dumped the following. It’s longer than a typical Think! blog post, but I was keen to share as is]
I’ve always been something of a hopeful entrepreneur, calculated risk taker and to be honest a bit of a dreamer. Square Holes is largely the precious and ever growing child of my thinking and efforts over many years to create something unique and new to be proud of. Quickly building a market research agency people describe as creative, fun and dynamic in a conservative and not always well loved sector.
While I don’t wish to bore with stories from memory lane, I would like to share my thoughts of where Square Holes came from. I’ll attempt to keep this brief, but I’m always happy to discuss the story.
The story starts with a man called Bill. He was married to Hazel and had eight children six boys and two girls. They moved from their home in Portarlington the seaside holiday resort in Victoria to establish a life in Swan Hill on the then strong flowing Murray River. Bill was an entrepreneur and established a successful building business ‘Dunstone and Sons’. Obviously, Bill’s sons were encouraged to join the family business.
Although he didn’t have any fancy business qualifications the business prospered. His key to success was the value placed in staff and a commitment to the brand. An example is for fifty years without a breath the local football ground’s scoreboard and external billboard have been sponsored by ‘Dunstone and Son.’
My father was the third oldest son of Bill and the only to not enter the family business, and the only sibling to leave country Victoria. I was born at the Swan Hill District Hospital, and spent my first two years in the town. During this time we were so Australian we had a pet kangaroo.
When I was two, our family packed up and moved to Melbourne where my parents, brother and sister had some great years. We then moved to Launceston in Tasmania for some more great years as my father accepted an exciting new role with a large grocery brand.
I had my first job during this time, a newspaper sales boy when I was 12, as soon as they would take me. Every Saturday evening I would lament missing some great television shows to walk house-to-house selling the newspaper in very cold and hilly Launceston. It taught me to value money and hard work.
Our family moved to Adelaide when I was in early high school, where I attended Norwood High School. I studied while working part-time jobs at Kmart, Coles and, when I was old enough to drive, delivering for Pizza Haven in a car with a glowing chicken head on its roof. I also had a couple fly-by-night enterprises at school including a lunch-box casino, and loved a bet at the TAB. Â I finished high school with an adequate yet hardly stellar final academic year, partly as a consequence of having way too much fun elsewhere.
Much to my father’s discontent I took a gap-year before university. I think he was worried that I would never return to study. At the time, I was the first of Bill’s more than 30 grandchildren to attend university, so the pressure was on. In between having a huge amount of fun, I worked at the University of South Australia’s Childhood Teaching Unit at Magill. I also worked for a couple months at the car wash on the corner of Angas and Pulteney Streets, which is now about 200 metres from Square Holes’ HQ coincidentally.
I did go to university, Economics at Flinders, learning the obvious, as well as statistics, econometrics, psychology and other interesting and not so interesting topics. Part-time I managed a service station on weekends and worked at a large union as caretaker and IT support in the evenings.
With no desire to become a banker or economist I mailed my CV to a small selection of Melbourne market research companies. It sounded interesting from studies in my final year and in particular a project investigating consumer trends in dairy products.
My first interview was at Frank Small and Associates, at the time a large research company with offices in Melbourne, Sydney and across Asia. I was confident so didn’t pursue other offers. Perhaps this was too ambitious, but luckily I got the job. It was the early to mid 1990s when computers were just starting to have their massive impact.
I was responsible for a portfolio of more than $2M and worked on key strategic research projects for clients including Telstra, Ford, RACV, Australia Post and ANZ. During this time the company was acquired by global research group Taylor Nelson Sofres, later becoming TNS. I was lucky enough to spend time at the global head office in Paris. The mammoth size of the enterprise was an enlightening experience.
This job proved to be the foundation of my career in market research. One moment that sticks in my mind, is my asking one of the senior directors, “Why don’t we look at data other than surveys and focus groups and the response was “This is not what we do.” But, “Why?” I thought.
Today market research has extended well beyond surveys and focus groups, to real-time data, social media, ethnography, communities etc. It has been interesting to observe the rapid growth, globalisation and impact of the Internet. There has also been an increase in confidence in market research as a career, or at least that is what I’ve observed in my time with Square Holes.
I had a boss who was an absolute perfectionist and at times managed in somewhat of a bully-like manner. While at the time, he was very difficult to work with, looking back he taught me a huge amount including the need for perfection and that you get more from staff being supportive.
After a few years, I considered changing jobs and as part of this considered moving back to South Australia. To be honest my first dealings with the local research industry didn’t build confidence. One older man I spoke to over the telephone described a lacklustre South Australian industry offering little opportunity for smart young people.
I returned to Adelaide to work with the largest local research company at the time, McGregor Marketing, and it quickly became clear I’d entered a dramatically different research environment. The level of value marketers placed on research was low and the need for convincing high, even for a small market. There were very few young researchers and the market was, from my perspective, price driven, commoditised and generally lacking strategic thinking. Projects were much, much smaller and client expectations lower. This shaped the profile of the local research industry. I was worried about my future in South Australia.
At this time I conducted postgraduate study in Commerce and Information Systems at the University of South Australia. Amongst other outcomes, the studies enhanced my thinking around how technology and information systems could improve market research.
Sydney seemed like a good next step to avoid my career in research slipping into oblivion if I remained in South Australia. While this may have been an exaggeration, I was a very ambitious young person not seeking a nice place to raise a family.
I was lucky to then be poached to become GM of Harrison Research the main competitor, when in my late 20’s. While the defection was not popular at the time, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands. With the Managing Director relocating to Sydney, I was given a massive amount of autonomy. The role pushed me beyond my comfort zone, established amazing contacts and experience and allowed me to further develop my thinking as to˜how market research should be used.
After around a year the Managing Director floated the opportunity of me purchasing the business, which broke down after an extended period. I was bitter at the time, but used the frustration as an opportunity to plan and launch the research company I had envisioned over many years.
My objective was to quickly grow a dynamic and creative full-service research agency unique to others both locally and beyond. I did not wish to be limited to South Australia. The image targeted was one much like a creative advertising agency offering strategic consumer insights beyond traditional research. A Sydney-like research agency.
Around one year was spent more specifically planning the new business. The process of writing the plan as to my vision, potential challenges, projections etc was pivotal to our success, and there were the legalities and other less interesting stuff. I talked to many people I respected as a check to make sure I was on the right track. For many there was a perceived gap in strategic research.
From 2003 to 2008, I was a director on the National Council of the Australian Market and Social Research Society, the membership association of more than 2,000 research buyers and suppliers. This also proved to be valuable input into my planning.
While I trusted my knowledge of market research and how it should be, I considered it worthwhile to entice a small number of investors to support the businesses start-up and challenging years. They were people I’d dealt with and respected, offering many more years of business experience than I had.
We started Square Holes with five investors, me with 40% and the others sharing the remaining shares to fund a limited working capital base. They all had their other businesses, so I was also employed by Square Holes as the Managing Director and Chairman. It was essentially my baby, requiring significant blood, sweat and tears to build the business in such a competitive market. Business took off quickly. We had a busy first month and profitable first year. Our revenue has grown year-on-year.
In 2008, three of the investors sold their shares in Square Holes, and now the only remaining investors are myself, with 70%, and Ron Tomlian 30%. This is clearly a preferable position from my perspective, and allows for less distraction from other investors. Ron has taken a more active role since the start of 2009 and shares my ambitious vision for Square Holes. Ron has been invaluable in the journey and has been a great mentor.
We had some great support from the start with clients, referrers and staff. Many staff and contractors came with me without question from my former role. It’s not easy starting a business, bloody hard work and sacrifice. Without support, you will not make it. While there was scepticism from some that weâ€™d never make it, the fond memories are of those with unquestionable loyalties. You feel quite emotional and thankful for such assistance.
Our vision has been solid to build a creative market research agency beyond traditional research and we have achieved this. Along the journey, we’ve done well, yet have made some mistakes and quickly learnt from them. This is essential to success. I’m personally much stronger from the experience.
From our first office on Halifax Street, with me, a laptop and a casually employed interviewing team in late 2004, we have quickly grown to around 10 consultants and more than 30 support people from administration, to IT, statistics, field management and interviewing in our modern HQ on Regent Street North in Adelaide. In revenue terms we are in the top-tier of local research firms.
We have continually evolved our thinking and now have a high degree of precision at what we do and our ethos. Our specialist focus on branding, advertising and digital research is now a strong point of difference. I’ve spent a large amount of effort in getting this right, and the high calibre of staff and clients we are attracting indicates we are getting it right. The evolution never stops, but we are doing work to be proud of.
Our staff are the heart and soul of Square Holes. We are highly selective of whom we recruit. The happy vibe in our office is testimony to this. Staff selection is more than academic qualifications and experience. It’s the click with the team and brand ethos. It is important to have an emotional rather than functional relationship with your team.
I’m very proud of how well our team socialise as friends in and out of work. Ex-employees continue to maintain a good relationship with Square Holes, and it’s great that we’ve never lost a staff member to a competitor.
Our double storey orange office in Adelaide was specifically fitted-out at great expense to be a creative and dynamic work environment. It is decorated with a cow, rubber ducks and assorted fun things to relax and spark creativity. I believe we are an employer of choice, attracting the smartest young people into a creative research agency environment. Our team show a huge passion for what we do that only benefits our clients and Square Holes’s future.
We now are regularly complimented by potential staff and clients as having an ad agency vibe. Some are even surprised we are not from Sydney or Melbourne which I think is meant as a compliment.
Square Holes has worked on hundreds of projects and through this spoken to around 100,000 consumers. While surveys and focus groups continue to be our bread and butter, on-line research is having a big impact. We are actively involved in social media analysis, ethnography and other new forms of research and consumer insights.
We’ve worked on social advertising campaigns encouraging people to quit smoking, reduce their alcohol consumption, drive safer, plan for bushfires, eat more fruit and veg, be more environmentally conscious, have a flu vaccination, make better career choices and be safer at work.
Our local corporate client base has included Hamilton Sunscreens, Australian Central Credit Union, SANFL, Coopers Brewery, Adam Internet, Harris Scarfe, Chemplus and San Remo.
We’re also actively involved in the Arts, partly for fun and inspiration, and partly as a good fit with our˜creative brand image. I’m a director on the board of Patch Theatre and Square Holes has worked with the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Adelaide Film Festival.
We love South Australia and believe it is no barrier to expansion, quite the opposite. Our reputation and workload interstate is growing quickly, yet never at the cost of the local market. You’ve always got to get the basics right and never forget where you came from.
Square Holes is now much bigger than me. My role is to inspire and guide the very bright people we have to achieve great things.
My five lessons:
- Take advice, but make your own rules
- Bite off more than you can chew, and chew like buggery
- Beware of partners
- Maintain a strong vision of your goal, especially through challenges
- Staff are the heart and soul of your brand