So you want to be an entrepreneur? Years ago, after the exploits of Christopher Skase and Alan Bond, the word ‘entrepreneur’ fell into disuse because of the negative connotations attached to it. But hard working business owners have in more recent times resuscitated the word.
Bob Cowan, who in his time, secured multi-million dollar contracts with the US Navy to supply recompression chambers, might prefer to be known as just a ‘bloody hard worker’!
When you employ over 40 workers and you wind up building these recompression chambers for Uncle Sam for many millions of dollars, then go broke, have to sell your house and move your family into a caravan while you fight for your dream, then you are an entrepreneur in the real Henry Ford meaning of the word.
Important business lessons
I remember attending an excellent conference a few years back called ‘Encouraging Entrepreneurs - How to Build on Their Ability’ at the Australian Graduate School of Engineering at the Warren Centre in Sydney. This was not an academic blab fest, but looked to people who had actually done it, searching for the lessons everyone in business needs to learn.
Early in the day, Barbara Cail, managing director of Rala Information Services and author of theKarpin Report, warned entrepreneurs that  “they were in danger of being left behind”. 
The new formula for success was to add new technology to existing markets, or to find a new angle. She forecasted that “the most successful entrepreneurs will be small to medium operation with a technology bent, and Asia will be the place where a lot of the future will unfold”. How the future becomes real!
For those interested, Barbara highlighted the seven personal attributes of a good entrepreneur:
  • Creativity
  • Imagination
  • Confidence
  • Energy
  • Commitment
  • Good health
  • Luck
This sentiment was supported later in the day by Michael Quinn, co-founder of the successful company Memtec, who agued strongly that you needed just two things to be a good entrepreneur - brains and dumb luck! He also emphasised that you can make your own luck by hiring and developing good people. As Quinn put it, “80% of a business is people, and a good business is a function of good people”.
He went on to drive his point further, arguing that a new business faces high risks as they do not have good cash flow, and that’s why good people are essential. Another way he thought you could enhance your chances of being lucky and not winding up a disgraced so-called entrepreneur like Bondy and Skasey was to make sure that you had your business plan written by the same people who implement it.
Cail offered the same advice to entrepreneurs on the up. They had to be technically-literate and “they had to know their workers”, who would increasingly be knowledge workers processing data in the growth areas of finance and information technology. The business strategy of being in touch with your workers to know your business will stand the test of time.
Exploiting opportunities
I’ve got to admit that we did get one presentation from an academic. Happily, he did not put me to sleep. Trevor Cole, who is the executive director of the Warren Centre, lucidly defined the entrepreneur and showed us what characteristics they possessed.
He said that people shouldn’t think they were an entrepreneur just because they started a business. Everyone in business innovates – some well, other poorly, but entrepreneurship is one level above innovation, according to Cole. The core attribute of the entrepreneur is an ability to make decisions, but essentially they stand out because “they search for change, respond to it and exploit it as an opportunity”.
Bob Cowan certainly did all that. His story gives this title of ‘entrepreneur’ a good name again. Bob was no ‘fancy pants’ engineer, but a tradesman who started up a sheet metal factory 25 years ago, virtually in the bush. But that did not hold him back from seeing an unusual opportunity and exploiting it.
The lucky break came on a fishing trip to Cairns, where a mate was talking about recompression chambers and how US naval contracts were available for someone who could knock them up economically, but to a high standard. Bob observed how they look like basic sheet metal work, so, as he put it: “I educated myself … built a mobile recompression chamber … the US Navy wanted it!”
While the idea to the receipt of payment ended up being years, his first contract brought in $2m, Bob’s second with the US Navy was worth $10.2m. While this sounds like good money, it is in fact repayment for a job well done – and one done the hard way.
Along the way, Bob had a continual battle with governments who could not share his dream. The quest resulted in Bob and his family living in a caravan until ‘pay dirt’ was hit.
At one stage, he had a gutful of bank knock-backs, so he went down to the head office in Sydney of a bank (which would no doubt prefer to remain nameless). He provoked them to ‘get off their bums’ and come onsite to see what recompression chambers were all about. The ensuing visit shocked the lenders and made money matters easier after that.
The Cowan success story is all about persistence, focus and determination to win, and considering the value of the contract and the toughness of the client – the US Navy tested the chambers at the North Pole before they gave the deal the not! – the success is Olympic-like.
Money for nothing
That emotion aside, in listening to Bob’s tale and others at the conference, it is sensible to observe that many entrepreneurs, and businesses generally, need to look more carefully at how they source their funding.
It is easy to ‘bag’ banks – and definitely they don’t always do their job professionally in assessing the true merits of a project. But there is no value in bellyaching about it: you have to accept reality and do something about it!
Memtec’s Quinn alluded to this in his presentation to the conference. He stated that that as money is so important, why don’t we all put more work into our presentation to the banks?
When we go begging to the bank for money, we should make sure that the business plan is first-class. There should be audio visual aids as part of the presentation, and every trick know to mankind should be employed in order to jump one of the biggest hurdles facing the business heading for gold.
Peter Switzer’s 29 characteristics of the entrepreneur
Check out these characteristics that are typical of those people who call themselves entrepreneurs:
  1. Can’t work for anyone else – like to be the boss
  2. Egalitarian – like to be the boss, but they’re not elitist
  3. Takes action – they are not daydreamers
  4. Their business doesn’t make them a champion – from an early age, they are champions in the making
  5. Often launch with very little money
  6. Speak their mind
  7. Handle rejection
  8. Like to prove others (doubting Thomas’) wrong
  9. Know how to get around obstacles
  10. Believe in being hands on
  11. Don’t mind being alone
  12. Can cope with failure
  13. Like control
  14. Future focused – don’t get caught in today
  15. They tick faster than the clock – they never watch the clock
  16. Adrenalin charged
  17. Manage time well
  18. Goal oriented
  19. Into self improvement
  20. Often want to move faster than time
  21. Strong work ethic
  22. Having nothing is no barrier
  23. Often have a naïve confidence in their own ability to do things
  24. Respect staff
  25. Understand the importance of systems in the business growth process
  26. Not afraid of making mistakes
  27. Make decisions even if they are wrong ones
  28. Don’t like to be penned in – look for challenges
  29. Retirement is not an option.