2020 on the beach

2020 Lessons Learned

It’s already the middle of January, and I just realised that I haven’t documented my 2020 Lessons Learned. In this crazy year, I’ve definitely had just as many personal learnings as professional ones. So, here they are:

  • Good friends are very, very important! This is especially true for someone like me who doesn’t have any family in Australia.
  • If you keep trying, it will always work out – just not the way you had planned. A year ago, I only had a faint idea that I would be starting a hair and bodycare brand to try to reduce plastic amenities in hotels. Covid got in the way, but we’re getting closer. In the meantime, Harvestcare was born for consumers.
  • I never again want to work by directly trading my hours for money. Even when I do consulting work, it will forever be by the fixed price in the future.
  • Products-based businesses are a bit boring at the beginning (at least for me) with the repeated make-sell-make-sell model. I can’t wait until my business has scaled enough to make it more interesting.
  • If you’re willing to build a business slower, it may not be necessary to bring on investors. The benefit is the ability to maintain full control over the brand – something that I think many entrepreneurs undervalue.
  • Start-ups can be expensive! In 19/20 I invested over $50k of my savings into the business. While I’ve made progress, the company is still a long way off from paying me a salary.
  • Energy is the fuel for achieving everything – not time or money. Managing my energy needs must be a priority if I want to reach my big goals.
  • Creating a podcast is a great way to learn quickly and meet important people, but they’re a lot of work. It’s also tough to grow niche topics especially when channels draw geographic boundaries that make it harder for new listeners in other countries to find you.
  • I’m still not great with my hands i.e. making recycled plastic products for example. Yet, it’s amazing what I have been able to achieve despite this.
  • The marketplace will always decide if your product is a winner or loser. No amount of effort or even lack of effort will change this. If the customer wants it, they’ll tell you.
  • It’s better to be moving in some direction than not at all.
  • “What would a guy do?” This is a question I learned to ask myself whenever I’m feeling self-doubt about a decision. This is definitely something that more women should ask.
  • I actually like doing IT strategy work. When I left the industry years ago, I never thought I would go back. Yet doing consulting work, especially for not for profits, feels meaningful and is mentally stimulating. Plus it’s giving me a nice little niche to help pay the bills while building the business.
  • My sanity is dependent on the ability to exercise outdoors. The 2020 bushfires taught me this more than the lockdown.
  • It takes about 2 years of consistent effort to change a personal brand. Don’t kid yourself into thinking it will happen any faster if you already had a known brand.

I’m sure there’s a few more to add to this list, but certainly this was a pivotal year for me. My 2020 Lessons Learned were the result of my personal journey as an entrepreneur, but also the environmental impacts of the bushfires, hailstorm and pandemic.

I’m not sure that many others can say this, but I actually think overall I am personally better off because of what has happened in 2020. And I feel so grateful!

De-stress through options

Most people will agree that 2020 has been a stressful year. For us locally in Canberra, not only have we dealt with the pandemic, but with bushfires and a damaging hail storm that still has roofs under repair. Still, if there are any lessons I’ve learned, it’s the ability to de-stress through options. What do I mean?

Focus is overrated

Almost every business guru will tell you to become focussed and good at one thing if you want to be successful. For me as an entrepreneur, I found that practice to be very stressful. For about 18 months, I put all my effort into The Refoundry to not only build a business, but to also create an income for myself. While I learned a lot, my savings account took a serious toll.

Option of three things to eat
We all love options!

Then, I started doing consulting work again – this time independently. And I can honestly say that it was the best thing I ever did. No longer was I putting all my hopes into the next recycled plastics idea or hotel deal for Harvestcare. Suddenly, I could breathe again because the personal financial stress was no longer there even if I was working way more hours.

Consulting also gave me my confidence back. I remembered that I’m actually good at a lot of things. It’s just the size of my current business has me in my weak spots. This is something that I will get through as time evolves, and I can bring on more people to help.

Options reduce risks

Finally, dividing my attention reduces my risks. I don’t have to beg for investor money right now. If I can bootstrap my business, I will. When it gets to the appropriate size where I can no longer grow it without outside capital, I’ll consider investors then. For I didn’t start a business to instantly have a boss.

Keeping this financial independence will also allow me to build the company more slowly, but with less risk. A products-based business like The Refoundry was never going to be an Australian Silicon Valley media story. That’s just the way products business are because they are cash flow heavy until you can create sufficient scale. So, now with income coming from consulting work, I am very relieved that I won’t have to depend on a pay check from the business.

My lesson learned therefore is a singular focus for me on anything is too stressful. Whether it’s a singular client, a singular investor or a singular source of income – why put all my eggs in one basket? I personally de-stress through options, and I don’t see the need to focus if options reduce both my risks and stress despite a bigger workload.

The Art of Rest

It occurred to me the other day that I had not gone more than 30 minutes outside my home city of Canberra, Australia since I went to New Zealand last Christmas in 2019. As someone who usually travels overseas 2-3 times a year minimum with countless domestic trips, this is truly been a weird year. But now as we get to the end of 2020, I realise I need to learn the Art of Rest.

Why Art and not the Science of Rest? Because it were just science, it would be easier. I would get my 7-8 hours of sleep each night. I would work less than 45 hours a week. I would get in 30 minutes of exercise every day. If I left it up to science, my life should be somewhat predictable. However, as an entrepreneur, it just doesn’t work that way.

Rest as an Entrepreneur?

Instead, I have to work when the opportunity presents itself. I don’t know if or when it will land. I don’t know if I’ll have two consulting projects accepted at the same time when I get a large order for Harvestcare. I don’t know if my hotel client will give us a contract that starts a chain of massive operational activities.

Over the weekend, I reviewed more than 700 pages of enterprise architecture standards and supplemental information so that I could submit two IT consulting gig proposals on Monday. Was it the way I wanted to spend the weekend? Of course not! Who would? Still, I know that effort would put me in a better position to hit the ground running if they accept my proposals (and of course a lot of much needed cash).

stack of papers
Some of the hundreds of pages of enterprise frameworks and standards I reviewed over the weekend.

Of course, this hasn’t been my only working weekend this year. I’d say 80% have been. I also did three all-nighters this year to meet schedule deadlines – something I haven’t done since my old consulting days, but predicable since I’m once again doing consulting work as a side hustle.

Art of Rest

Since I turned in those proposals two days ago, I realise now that I probably won’t have anymore consulting work until the new year. And it feels…strange. Suddenly, my days are not filled with back to back to-dos and meetings. Instead, I can actually work on the business full-time at my own pace.

With this influx of free time, I’m finding that I’m actually less productive in all areas of my work and life. Instead of working on important business tasks, I’m wasting time sleeping and browsing the internet. It makes me feel incredibly guilty. But then, I had a thought…

Maybe, I need to give myself a break. Maybe I actually need all this sleep and mindless activities to recharge for the next surge of work. Just maybe, I need to learn the Art of Rest.

Recycled plastic workshop space

While I only had it for two months, I’ve decided to close down my recycled plastic workshop space for The Refoundry until I have more time to make these products.

The Refoundry Workshop 1,0
The Refoundry Workshop 1.0

To be honest, I suppose it’s more than time that I’m struggling with. It’s also the frustration with all the technical issues on the tiny projects. I need more time to learn skills like in woodworking or to find the right person to bring onto my team who already has them.

And I’m not in a position to do the larger products until I can find the capital for the machinery.

So, rather than taking up valuable space in my friends’ warehouse, over the weekend I moved the bigger equipment into storage. In the meantime, I can still make some things from home like I did before.

To be clear, closing this recycled plastic workshop space does not indicate that I’m done with this project line. I’m just taking a breather to reevaluate and learn more.

Should I start Business #2?

Call me crazy, but I think I’m going to have to set up Business #2 as my consulting work is getting bigger than I can do alone.

While I’ve been working well past midnight this week getting ready for our first Harvestcare market ever, its actually the consulting work that is taking the majority of my time.

Dozens of Harvestcare bottles waiting to be labelled.
Dozens of Harvestcare bottles waiting to be labelled.

Thankfully, I was able to get a little help from a friend to fill the bottles. However, I still have hundreds to still label and more shea butter products to make before I go to sleep on Friday night.

As for Business #2? I suddenly have a number of clients and potential clients that need help in moving their training programs from face to face to digital within this new Covid world. And while I wasn’t looking for this kind of work, I’m absolutely loving it because I can be strategic, technical and really creative all at once.

In fact, it’s the creative stuff that gets me the most excited. For how awesome would it be to turn a boring Zoom lecture into a fully interactive course online.

I’ve always wanted my own production team (something bigger and skilled than we had at my last job). And with enough contracts I could also help out actors that have been really hurt during Covid.

So, while it may be absolutely crazy to start Business #2 right now, it’s certainly helping from a cashflow perspective. Plus, I’m enjoying the work too. And during these strange historical times, I feel the need to say to yes to almost every opportunity that comes my way right now. For who knows what will actually work?

Funny. Though I’m crazy busy, I’m actually less stressed by having so many fires burning.

Hotel Pilot Starts Monday

It’s been a very busy week preparing for our non-plastic hotel pilot. As mentioned before, this was originally scheduled for April before Covid shut everything down. Apparently local occupancy is back up to 65% or so for this particular hotel. So, it seemed like a good time to try it again.

What this meant was that we had to pack 2500 individual aluminium tins by hand. While I had already packed about half the order previously, we are past the 6 month shelf-life of these all natural products. So, it’s no longer safe to use them.

Thousand of tin containers

I did try to see if I could reuse the tins from the previous batch, but the time it takes to do that (not to mention the difficulty of not scratching or bending them) proved to be too hard. So, at some point, I’ll empty them and put them in my growing “To Recycle” box.

Lessons Learned So Far

So, what did I learn from this experience so far?

  • Packing everything by hand way required us to handle each unit about 5 times each. We could reduce the handling to 3 times if I had the manufacturer separate the lids and bottoms, and we had them printed on both the top and bottom.
  • Putting the labels on the back took the most time. I was able to get the manufacturer to print on the front, but we didn’t have the ingredients list finalised when I put the order in back in February. So, we had to do the back label with stickers.
  • It took over a minute each to unscrew the tins, fill, screw the lids back on and put the label on the back.
  • I’m worried about the quality of the tins. By handling each one, we could notice if there were any dents or scratches, but this will be challenging if a machine was doing the filling.
  • I also now realise that I need to order about 20,000 units of each design i.e. shampoo, conditioner etc. to get even close to the per unit cost I need to make this work financially.

Post Pilot Decisions

From this information, I know that there is no way that we can profitably do the post-pilot packing by hand. We absolutely must invest in proper machines.

We also had a bottle-neck issue with some of the ingredients even though they were coming from Sydney. Why in the world did it take 3 weeks despite many phone calls?

The packaging itself is an issue too as it’s coming from China since there are no manufacturers currently in Australia that make these. Having said that, if we have enough volume, we may be able to change that and even use recycled aluminum which would be great.

If we can do that, I also want to redesign the tins so that we don’t need the plastic liner that sits in the lid. This seals the container to prevent leaks and is standard for most liquid products regardless of whether it’s in plastic or aluminium. However, I feel like there has to be a better way.

Basically this means that if the hotel pilot is successful, and we are able to turn this into a proper contract, I’m going to have to get a lot of capital (either through banks and or investors) to scale quickly. Fingers crossed that all goes well, and that we have this problem!

10k Hours

Malcolm Gladwell made the 10k Hours Rule famous in his book Outliers. The Rule essentially says that it takes about 10k Hours of deliberate practice to obtain world class expertise. Personally, I find it frustrating in business.

I’ve accepted this Rule in sports (more than 10 years as a paddler) and even learning a language (currently in my 3rd year of Spanish classes). However, for some reason I feel like I should be going faster and better with my business – especially with the recycled plastic products.

Maybe it’s because I already have so much business experience, but the reality is that I only have about a year in the recycled plastics industry. I get incredibly frustrated that I’m not progressing with my ideas and experiments the way I want to do so. And I admit that I beat myself up for so many mistakes and failed projects.

Bucket of recycled plastic mistakes and shavings
Bucket of recycled plastic mistakes and shavings!

I have plenty of mentors and YouTube videos, but the latest set-backs have convinced that me that I need a “teacher.” Given the lack of such teachers in Canberra, I’ve decided to learn how to do more things with wood. Therefore, I joined the local Woodworking Guild. Just maybe by learning from masters in this area, I can translate that to my plastic experiments.

In the meantime, I’ll just have to remind myself that it will take years to achieve 10k hours to master these new skills. For my ambitions and networks alone will not allow me to move any faster on the learning curve.

Christmas is in the air

Christmas is in the air – at least for a product maker like me. I feel behind the curve already as I try to get both the Harvestcare and The Refoundry products ready for the Christmas buying season.

We already have a Christmas market scheduled for the end of October.

And if the Old Bus Depot Markets ever reopens, we’ll be there at least once a month.

Plus, I just found out that our hotel customer is ready to do the pilot next month as occupancy has being picking up. This is the trial of our non-plastic, single-use toiletries that was originally scheduled for April. I unfortunately had to throw away about $800 worth of products that I had already packed because the shelf-life isn’t long enough on some of our natural products.

Still, it will be good to see how this pilot goes, and whether we really can both change the amount of single-use plastics used in the hotel industry and make it work financially too.

As I try to balance all of these competing business needs with the consulting work I’m doing on the side, I think that the next few months are going to be a complete blur until after the holidays. After all, Christmas is in the air and it’s only September!

Highs and lows

Another interesting week with highs and lows. I really think that’s just what happens when you are a entrepreneur.

No go on grant

No go on the Icon Grant. I had some technical problems with the presentation last week which shortened my 3 minute preso to just 2.5 minutes. That means I didn’t finish. Regardless, their questions already convinced me that I didn’t get the funds this round.

While I haven’t received the feedback yet, I felt that the panel couldn’t see how my business would ever scale from a hobby shop. In reality, they’re right (at least at this moment in time).

I’m still struggling to create saleable products in quantities. Stupid issues like the band saw is bending when I try to cut things is prohibiting me from advancing.

So, I’ve joined the Woodworking Guild in town and hope to gain some new skills that will translate to plastic. I feel like I’ve exhausted my learnings from YouTube. So, time to get some hands on experience instead. I popped down on Saturday to check out the workshop, and I’m already convinced that I made the right decision to join.

For the love of work

I’m so blessed to have as much contractor work as I want right now. I was even offered more from another client. Still, I’m struggling on projects that don’t have hard deadlines even though I’m trying to create artificial ones.

Yesterday I sat in my space for six hours at the client’s site, but only manage to do 2.5 hours of billable time. The rest of those minutes were spent on other work I had – things I actually enjoy doing.

This is the balancing of act when the things I love are not bringing in enough income compared to work that I can competently do well for money, but don’t love. I suppose this is everyone person’s struggle when you have to make that decision.

It’s going to take every ounce of discipline I can muster to hit my financial goals while wanting to spend more and more time on my other ones.

Market Opportunities

While indoor markets are not yet open, Harvestcare has been selected as a stallholder for the Old Bus Depot Markets on the 4th Sunday of every month. This is a great opportunity given the number of people that visit that market every week.

Also, we have been accepted as a stallholder for the Merry & Bright Christmas Market in Pierce. If the Old Bus Depot Markets are reopened in October, we’ll have a conflict of dates, but at least we’ll definitely be doing one of these markets that weekend.

I plan to submit Recycled by The Refoundry to the Handmade Markets once I feel like I can make enough products for something that big. I’ll be working on more cufflinks tonight. I think I finally created something that will help me center the holes consistently.


Just another week of highs and lows, but it wouldn’t be a normal week otherwise.

Shortlisted for a grant

I received some good news yesterday! We were shortlisted for the Icon grant. Now, I need to prepare for the 3 minute pitch for next Thursday. I lot to do between now and then including finishing these prototype projects!