Why My Calendar Appears Empty

Lately, I’ve set up a number of automations to help me schedule meetings since I no longer use an EA in my current work. There’s nothing worse than going back and forth with a client or a podcast guest when one email with a calendar link can do the job. But now that they can see my availability, I’m conscious that at times my calendar appears empty.

Though, it’s not actually empty. It’s just NOT full of meetings. And in this world where people still think that a schedule full of back to back meetings translates to “important,” this might give them the wrong impression as to my real value.

Yes, I know that I could hide the “emptiness” by reserving work blocks instead. And sometimes I do when I really need uninterrupted work time. In reality though, I really don’t care what others think about my use of time as I know the deep work speaks for itself.

When I was in executive roles, it was not uncommon for my entire calendar to be dictated by other people. And that was usually okay because I could delegate the resulting actions of these meetings to others who had more time.

Today I spend a lot more time actually “doing,” rather than just meeting. It’s wonderful! At least for me because I find the work interesting, and I have more time to think and solve problems.

Still, not everyone is built like me. In fact, I spoke to a friend today, a former CEO as well. She missed the ability to delegate and felt like she was doing a lot of things she didn’t enjoy doing now in her entrepreneurial work.

Yet, despite all this, I bet that even she appreciates that her calendar appears empty, or at least emptier too!

Executive with a Cause

Episode 01: Carrie Leeson of Lifeline Canberra

In this episode of Executive with a Cause, host Tammy Ven Dange chats with Carrie Leeson, CEO of Lifeline Canberra and The Beacon Group.

How does an established charity experiment with new opportunities, whilst bound by the necessary bureaucracy of the Not for Profit (NFP) sector? And how can an organisation develop resilience at a time when their service demands are at record levels, but with reducing government support?

Carrie Leeson talks us through her creative approach of using one organisation to support another, with her work in ‘the sandpit’ as CEO of The Beacon Group. Here, she identifies and creates new growth and revenue opportunities for Lifeline, without the associated risk.

Carrie also discusses the power of ‘compatibility’ and a shared cause when managing a NFP team, and provides insights into balancing purpose with good governance as the NFP sector continues its rapid growth.

Thank you for listening to the Executive with a Cause podcast. Don’t forget to follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

IT in Plain English

In this week’s segment of ‘IT in Plain English’, what does a suitcase have to do with servers and the cloud? Find out in this episode of ‘Executive with a Cause’!

Sign-up here to subscribe to the “IT in Plain English” newsletter. You can submit your question to Tammy Ven Dange by messaging her on LinkedIn, and maybe she’ll answer it on the show.

Topics from this episode:

  • 0.00 | Intro
  • 0.55 | What is Lifeline Canberra?
  • 2.50 | The Lifeline Book Fair
  • 5.00 | Diversifying the organisation’s income
  • 6.00 | The Beacon Group
  • 9.00 | Deciding to create another organisation
  • 11.30 | The Pandemic
  • 15.30 | Mitigating physical and emotional risks for teams
  • 19.50 | Utilising technology
  • 22.00 | Tools to becoming a better leader
  • 23.55 | Managing teams with volunteers and staff
  • 27.50 | Commitment
  • 29.40 | Identifying cultural fit
  • 33.40 | Emerging themes for Lifeline
  • 36.00 | The difficulty of collaboration for Not for Profits
  • 37.50 | Advice for whether to start an Not for Profits
  • 41.00 | Breaking down the role of a CEO
  • 42.00 | Dealing with change
  • 44.40 | Advice for running a better Not for Profit
  • 47.00 | Where to find out more about Lifeline?

Quotes from Carrie Leeson in this episode:

“Beacon Group allows us to be really agile, to try new things, to take risks and find ways to change the conversation around mental health, and be where we’re needed really quickly.”

“The book fairs are an institution, almost an iconic event in Canberra that we’re slowly growing in other states.”

“Lifeline is a very well-known brand and very trusted in Australia. It is very clear in its mission and what it seeks to achieve for the Australian community, so of course when you try to diversify to respond to community needs, they may well fall out of the scope of that organisation”

“Beacon Group was created for that purpose, to go out and around that (Lifeline Canberra) brand, but always in support of the brand”

“It (The Beacon Group) isn’t bound by licensing and agreements, which allows us to go out and around and respond to the immediate need, without the bureaucracy of a larger organisation”

“Understanding what the organisational priorities are when you come into a well-known, trusted brand, understanding what it is you can do within the confines, and still achieve the outcomes, because things are changing all the time.”

“Understanding compliance and governance as part of the tapestry is so important.”

“What we had to do with Lifeline Canberra was focus on sustainability. The organisation itself was in a precarious position financially, having lost significant funding streams from the government. And so our priority then wasn’t to create, it was to consolidate and try and stop the bleeding. What we had to do was quickly generate revenue streams.”

“There were often multiple attempts to work within the brand without understanding what the consequences, unintended or otherwise would be of going down certain paths. There was a lot of engagement with Lifeline Australia and our networks before we established it (Beacon Group) would be good for everyone if we moved some projects outside of the Lifeline brand.”

“I sought to understand, from the beginning, what the mission was, what the objective was, what was special about it. As someone coming in who was relatively new, on both sides of the organisation, it was really important to understand what I was asking of people.”

“When you create a safe environment, both emotionally and physically for individuals, that’s where they’re able to shine and thrive, and actually contribute back to the culture.”

“We have a really good read on the community that we’re serving. Individual’s preferences and engagement and habits. And that’s been awarded to us through analytics.”

“We now have a series of platforms online that assist us in ensuring that we’re accurate on the compliance side, but also that we’re engaging regularly and getting our message out consistently on the front-end, relationship side.”

“How we essentially manage and engage (volunteers and staff) is very, very similar.”

“With a volunteer…it’s all heart, and they’re coming to you because they’re either passionate about leaving the community or organisation better than they found it, or because they’ve suffered a loss themselves, or they’re coming to you because they’ve experienced something, and they want to prevent someone else going through it.”

“Understanding the very unique drivers, helps you determine what commitment means, and what you’re asking for, and how you facilitate it and grow it.”

“What we’re anticipating is an increase in the number of mental health challenges people will face, for at least the next three years.”

“I came in very green into the charity sector, from the private sector, and thought collaboration was just the way to go. But it’s not, only because of the funding issues that preclude that collaboration, because it can put a risk to funding.”

“My role at this point is to understand, to scout and see what’s left, what’s remaining, what do people need? What’s the sentiment? Where’s the revenue going to come from and how will we sustain ourselves?”

“Whatever we do strategically, whatever strategy the board sets for me, it’s really important that I digest that and set in place operational processes that match the strategy but meet the need that’s out there at the moment.”

“There’s a lot of pressure to make sure what you’re doing is having the most impact on those who need it the most.”

“We’re seeing new challenges. Never in my wildest dreams would I have anticipated, ten, fifteen years ago that a Lifeline Book Fair would need to be shut-down by protests!”

“It’s a very, very different operating environment, and people’s expectations of the organisation have changed, and it’s really important that I understand that”

“There’s new consequences to doing things the same way. The situations have changed. The complexities on the phoneline have changed”

“Unfortunately we’re in a situation where we’re having to triage services and triage individuals. And hopefully we’ll find ourselves in a world where we don’t have to do that. That’s the mission”

 Links & Resources

Coming Soon “Executive with a Cause” podcast

It’s been about 18 months since I released my final episode of the “Plastics Revolution” podcast. While I really loved that format of communications and networking, I did find it incredibly time-consuming. Furthermore, with such a niche topic based in Australia, I was finding it harder to identify good guests to interview.

Since then I have been thinking about a new show with a broader audience, and especially one that I could at least partially connect to my other business, Roundbox Consulting. So, I’m very excited to unveil my new podcast, “Executive with a Cause.” The first episode will be coming out at the end of April.

Tammy Ven Dange

About the Show: Executive with a Cause

We often know the “WHY” of a purpose-driven organisation. However, on this show, I chat with Not for Profit and Social Enterprise leaders as we uncover the “HOW” – the nuts and bolts of what it really takes to run them well.

How do they balance financial sustainability with their mission? What tools do they use to run their operations? What lessons have they learned as people leaders?

In Australia alone, there are an estimated 600,000 Not for Profits. When you add social enterprises and the global scale of purpose-driven organisations in general, there are a lot of people trying to do great things.

My desire is to share stories to help others better run their operations so that their missions can also thrive.

Launch Date:

We’re currently recording shows with CXO-level leaders in Not for Profits or Social Enterprises with the plan to start releasing them at the end of April. Thankfully, I have a full production and editing team helping me out this time. So, we plan to release the shows on a weekly basis without burning me out this time!

Do you know a great “Executive with a Cause?”

I love it when people provide me with guest recommendations. While they may not always be right for this show or at this time, I do maintain a list. In fact, I’m already lining up guests that were identified for my last show and never made it to the interview stage. So, if you know a great “Executive with a Cause,” feel free to drop me a recommendation.

Turning the Page

It’s been a few months since I last wrote a post here. During this time I have been very busy with my consulting practice. I have also been thinking hard about turning the page in my book of businesses and starting a new chapter.

Those of you following this blog will know I have been considering this for a while. However, I have finally decided to sell the Harvestcare product line and shut down The Refoundry by the end of the FY.

My reasonings for selling this business are many:

1) Failed to achieve the mission objectives

I’ve written about this before, but I don’t feel that I am meeting the original mission of the business to reduce plastic waste. While we could have done that with the hotel line of Harvestcare, the consumer line is doing well for different reasons: the products use locally produced, all-natural ingredients – effectively delivering a different mission.

Unfortunately, the hotel demand is unlikely to recover soon when the pandemic still causes so much uncertainty. Furthermore, all the other products lines we have tried have failed to find market fit.

2) Misalignment with my strengths and passions

My goal was never to be a hair and body care product maker. It’s not my natural passion though I enjoyed the formulation of new recipes to some extent. The day to day of making and selling is actually very tedious to me.

As such, I’ve often found the fulfilment of orders to be a burden rather than a win. There are other people who could enjoy and run this type of business much better I ever could.

3) My consulting practice is growing fast

My consulting work is keeping me crazy busy and it’s growing fast. I provide IT investment strategy advice to Not for Profit organisations. It’s a niche set of skills that the industry really needs, and I know that I am making a positive impact on these organisations in way that no one else can because of my unusual background.

If I can just focus on Roundbox Consulting rather than trying to fulfill Harvestcare orders too, I feel like I could really grow that business and help even more organisations. Plus, I love this kind of problem solving work so much that I weirdly enjoy the “hard” parts – even when I have to work nights and/or weekends from time to time.

4) Administration nightmare

The Refoundry is an administration nightmare because of two unique reasons: 1) It’s accounting is complex because it’s a small manufacturer; and 2) I am both an US and Australian citizen that must report detailed company statements to each country which happen to have different financial years.

Apparently, the IRS will want me to change my Australian company to their calendar tax year the moment we show a decent profit (another expensive exercise). So, now I am disincentivised to grow that business until this can be sorted.

Note to Self: If I ever set-up another company in Australia, just declare a calendar FY instead.

Turning the Page

Having made that hard decision, the next steps are to try to find a buyer for Harvestcare. I have someone in mind that would be a good fit if they’re interested.

I’ll share more as things progress over the next few months, and I start turning the page to begin the next chapter in my book of businesses.

Still waiting for Lockdown to end

Canberra has been in Lockdown for about two months, and I’m still waiting (like many others) to physically sell products again for Harvestcare. Thankfully, my consulting work has been keeping me very busy and fed in the meantime.

This waiting period is not just about the ability to trade after Lockdown ends though. It’s also a decision I need to make about the future of that brand and The Refoundry in general.

closed sign

While I definitely didn’t start this business at the greatest of times, it still hasn’t generated a profit. And to be frankly honest, my interest in it has faded as I realised that I am not best positioned to solve the plastic waste problem in this way.

If anything, this time of testing ideas has proven to me that there are people and businesses far more qualified, better skilled and funded to make products that reduce plastic waste than I am. Furthermore, regular readers of this blog will know how torn I’ve been about the amount of waste Harvestcare actually creates in our manufacturer process.

If we were able to see the hotel product line past the pilot stage, I would likely feel differently. At the same time, had I made that significant investment just before this longer Lockdown began, I would have been in real financial difficulties. Thank goodness I paid attention to my intuition back then to wait a little longer.

Lockdown ending

As the government talks about ending Lockdown in the next month, I’ll have more opportunities for selling Harvestcare via my stockists and markets again. Still, should I continue with this business endeavor?

Stay tuned.

Challenges of business during a pandemic

The Handmade Markets were cancelled again. This time Canberra went into full lockdown late on 12 August. The market was scheduled for the 14th and 15th.

Fortunately, this time I was ready for this sudden change of plans as these are the challenges of business during a pandemic.

Others were not so fortunate. There were businesses that had perishable products like food that would be thrown away if they could not be sold in other ways. As for me, I still had plenty of products made for the July market that was cancelled. And so, I didn’t have a big workload leading up to this event. In fact, I didn’t plan to pack up my car until the last minute knowing the risk of cancellation.

This Canberra lockdown is tighter than the previous one though. Most my stockists were unable to trade at all until a few days ago. At least the government is allowing no-contact pick-up or deliveries now and access to their physical stores to service the orders.


Regardless, I couldn’t provide them or consumers any products anyway as I was confined even further to 14-days of quarantine after I learned I was in the athletic centre at the same time as a confirmed Covid case. It turned out to be completely unnecessary as they recategorised the contact later (Day 12 of 14) to only the gym part of the facilities while I was at the pool.

Had I received any product orders then, they would have been stuck until I was released. And if I were dependent on the income generated from selling my Harvestcare line, I would be in major financial trouble (again). I can only hope that other local retail and service businesses are able to financially ride-out this Lockdown #2.

Maybe a Christmas market?

At this time, the only hope is for things to be reopened by Christmas when the majority of Australians are vaccinated. Then, we just have to learn how to live with the virus threat like other countries.

I was really hoping to use this financial year to make some major decisions about the future of Harvestcare and The Refoundry in general. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance I’ll have too much inventory and not enough information to make that call so soon.

These are just some of the challenges of business during a pandemic, and so I guess I’ll keep going for now.

aluminium packaging

Recycling aluminium packaging again

Today I took a massive Ikea bag of Harvestcare aluminium packaging to the recyclers again. The guy at the weighting machine told me that the price was up because of the challenges with supply. So, today, converted 5 kilos of aluminium for $5.75 in change. Ugh…

ikea bag of aluminium packaging

I keep wondering to myself if it’s really worth the effort for me to do this. Like the tins I took to them in January, this waste was largely created because some of our products expired. It took hours and plenty of water to empty the bottles.

I spoke to the metal recycler owner briefly. He was proud of the tonnage he recycled and the money he was making. Most of the other metal there was from construction sites, household goods and cars. Still, he admitted it took a lot of energy to convert this metal back into something useful. Some of it is done in Australia. So, I guess that’s one good thing.

Yet, am I really saving the planet (even a little) by using aluminium packaging instead of plastic for our products?

A better way than aluminium packaging?

I feel like there is a better way, but it will likely require an even bigger investment. There’s some technology overseas that I’m interested in licensing here, especially for the hotel sector.

Hopefully, I’ll be ready to make that investment once the industry is back to normal and willing to try new things again. For now, I’ll continue to save for that day because this issue weighs heavily on my mind.

Calculating Cost of Goods Sold

With the end of our second financial year, I just spent my entire Sunday calculating Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) for Harvestcare. What a chore! Despite having a financial system in place, it’s still a huge burden. Luckily, I have a solid cost accounting background. Other businesses tell me they use spreadsheets too.

Last year I did a full review of all the available financial systems and none of them could properly calculate COGS for a small manufacturer. I even verified this with my tax accountant. It doesn’t exist.

I could have added a complicated manufacturing plug-in for Xero, but it was completely overkill for what I needed, especially at its monthly price.

I can’t handle this amount of manual work each year. So, I plan to build a database for calculating Cost of Goods Sold and keeping track of inventory since there is nothing available.

Who knows… maybe by doing so I can solve a problem for other small manufacturers too. After all, how do they even know how much their products cost to make if they don’t know cost accounting?

Handmade Markets postponed

I’ll have to wait a few more weeks to gauge consumer interest for our Harvestcare brand as the Handmade Markets in Canberra were just postponed. This is due to the recent Covid outbreak in Sydney.

Handmade Markets Postponed

While I’m a bit disappointed (and exhausted), I really have nothing to complain about. From the stallholders’ Facebook page, it’s clear that some of the interstate vendors had just arrived in Canberra or were on their way. Some have thousands of dollars in very perishable items too. My heart goes out to all of them who have lost money.

I have none of those concerns. Yes, I need to move a planned trip to Melbourne that I had scheduled that weekend. However, in the middle of a pandemic, I’m really one of the lucky ones because my primary income job (consulting) allows me to work from home. For that, I am grateful.

Counting down to the Handmade Markets

The Handmade Markets in Canberra is this weekend. I’ve spent every possible hour of free time the last few weeks to make products and prepare for it.

In volume, that’s about 30k of shea butter, 15 liters of olive oil, 4k of beeswax and endless other ingredients. From a labour perspective, I’ve personally spent 100+ extra hours on this, and I’ve also had about 10 hours of help from friends.

shea butter block and oil oil drum
This is what 25 kilos of shea butter looks like with a 25 liter drum of olive oil next to it.

What will this translate to in terms of revenue? I have no idea. People in the private Facebook group side kept saying to make as much product as possible. However, a friend just told me that a good market for them would be less than $5k in revenue. If this only translate to $5k, then I’ve truly wasted my time.

So, stay tune for the results of our first Handmade Markets. I’m planning to have a massage and some time afterwards to really think about the future of our Harvestcare brand.