In partnership with Xero
“The tell-tale sign of a good business is that you can bring your true self to the workplace.” However it’s not always a straight line from starting your own business to creating that kind of company culture, particularly when you come from the corporate world. Capsule talks to Dancing Sands co-founder Sarah Bonoma and Craig Hudson, Managing Director of Xero for New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, about how to run a small business authentically, the power of delegation and how remembering your ‘why’ is the key to finding purpose in your business.
When it comes to creating your own small business, there can be a process of unlearning a lot of what you picked up in your corporate days that needs to happen, says Craig Hudson. As the Managing Director for small business platform Xero, Craig is well-versed in dealing with the emotional roller coaster that small business owners and sole traders face when they take the plunge into running their own business.
“You can only be what you can see,” he says. “Sometimes, the structures within the large businesses can be not very nice places at times, and if that’s all you know and then you start your own business, and you start treating a small team like that, then you’re in for a world of pain.”
He sums it up simply: “Small businesses are about people. They’re about community. They’re about family, ultimately. They’ll give you everything if you give them the respect they deserve as an employee. It’s a completely different mindset to the traditional thought process of the corporate structure.”
For Sarah Bonoma, the co-founder and managing director of Dancing Sands, that change of mindset came in pretty quickly after she and her husband Ben first opened their business in 2016. The pair had started an international romance (Sarah is from the UK, Ben from the USA) after meeting at work in Cincinnati and wanted to live in the same country so moved to New Zealand in 2013 and then came across a gin distillery for sale in Golden Bay. They decided to create their own gin company and five years later, Dancing Sands is New Zealand’s most-awarded distillery.
“It took a while to realise that what we actually needed was the right kind of people, with the right attitudes for the team – and we could teach them the rest.”
With both of them coming from a corporate background, Sarah says it took a while to shake that way of working. “In the early days, we came in all guns blazing and it took a while to realise that what we actually needed was the right kind of people, with the right attitudes for the team – and we could teach them the rest. And now we have this really beautiful culture where every single member of the team is happy to be here and proud of what the business is doing.”
This is a really common emotional rollercoaster, Craig says. “When you’re starting out, there’s a lot of hustle, there’s the fear and anxiety of ‘holy shit, what have I done?’ You also have a world of firsts, and not just the good ones, but the bad ones as well: ‘how am I going to make payroll?’ ‘Where is the next deal coming from?’” he says. “What you don’t notice is the total number of hours that you’re working and that every minute of every day, not only are you working on your business but you’re also thinking about it. So the cognitive load is really high.”
“When you’re starting out, there’s a lot of hustle, there’s the fear and anxiety of ‘holy shit, what have I done?’”
As part of his work, Craig helps people who run their own business create boundaries so that that mental load doesn’t become unbearable. “You are the most important part of the business and your behaviour as a leader casts quite a long shadow,” he says. “If you’re not looking after yourself, then your team isn’t going to produce the best for you and if it’s just you, then you’re going to run yourself into the ground. You’re only going to be operating at 50%, which can lead to making stupid mistakes and not being the best version of yourself for work.”
This can also be a big lesson to unlearn if you’ve come from a corporate background, especially one that breeds toxicity and competition, where you’re made to feel that work has to always be your main priority. “How do we give the best to our life?” says Craig. “If work is stealing you, and you’re broken at the end of the day, then that’s a red flag that you need support”.
Many founders start their own business because they’re looking for increased flexibility but it can take longer than expected for our brains to catch up with the new reality – in Xero’s recent small business survey, nearly a quarter of SME owners felt they were still caught in the rat race, despite starting their own company.
Five years in, Sarah says it’s still something she has to work on every day. “When you’ve come from a corporate environment where you’re working for someone else, and there’s that attitude of ‘you need to be at your desk from 8am until whenever’ and ‘you can’t take more than 30 minutes for lunch,’ it’s hard.”
It all came to a head in 2020, Sarah says. “I realised that the hours I was putting into the business were just insane. My husband Ben sat me down and said, ‘you’re clearly not having any fun right now and you’re headed for burnout and we’re in this for the long haul. So, something needs to change.’”
“My husband Ben sat me down and said, ‘you’re clearly not having any fun right now and you’re headed for burnout…'”
Craig says that creating boundaries from work is important, for example, scheduling in exercise, and having designated ‘do not disturb’ times. But those boundaries will be different for every business, and every person, because what success looks like is different for everyone.
“It’s defining that idea of ‘what does success look like for me?’” he says. “It’s anchoring back to that idea of ‘why are you in it?’ What gave you the passion and the desire to get out of whatever you were doing – and holding onto that. Don’t ever lose sight of that, because you’ll be asked to compromise on that purpose every single day… and before you know it, you’re doing something that’s completely different to what you set out to do.”
One way of creating more mental space to hold onto that big picture is to either delegate or digitise as soon as you can. For Sarah, it made sense to start using Xero early on in the business because she and Ben had come from an IT/project management background. “The whole idea of having everything systemised and digitised was a no-brainer for us and we did that from the start, because even though we were very small, we knew that everything needed to be integrated so that as we grew, everything was automated.”
Craig says that drowning in admin can be an easy trap for new business owners to fall into and it’s part of why Xero has created Why We’re In It to highlight the ‘why’ of a business when the ‘how’ is getting overwhelming. “It’s about getting back to the essence of why you’re doing it in the first place, when the majority of your time is getting sucked up by doing quite mundane and time-consuming things that need to get done,” he says. “I hate when I see mates who are in small business who are working till crazy o’clock at night because they’re not utilising their time well, and they’d rather do that than spend $30 a month on an integration tool. But you don’t know what you don’t know.”
“The days of leaving your baggage at the door are over. We need to be able to bring all of our shit into the office and be able to say, ‘Hey, I’m not doing okay today.’”
Combining the mental wellbeing services with digital practices is indicative of the way good and resilient businesses are run, Craig says. “The days of leaving your baggage at the door are over. We need to be able to bring all of our shit into the office or into the job and be able to say, ‘Hey, I’m not doing okay today.’ But there’s not enough of that, and that’s why we put the Xero Assistance Program (XAP) in place, because there’s a leadership gap and conversations about looking after people that need to happen. Big business has EAP (Employee Assistance Programmes), so how do we democratise that? We’re stoked that we can put these tools into the hands of over a million New Zealanders that are involved in small business across the country.”
The marker of a truly successful corporate culture, Craig says, is “that you can bring your true self into the workplace” and that’s exactly what Sarah and the Dancing Sands team found.
When they first started, they were competing with bigger, glossier companies and she said they felt compelled to follow that, creating a very crisp and curated identity for their brand. But at the beginning of the pandemic, she and Ben sat down and said to each other that none of it felt authentic. “We made a conscious decision to change that and make our brand feel more real; this is us, this is our team, this is how we approach things. And it’s made a massive difference to both the success of the business but also our enjoyment of it. It makes turning up each day so much easier when you’re just being you.”
To find out more about how to digitalise and improve wellbeing, head to Xero’s ‘Why We’re In It’ hub to discover the best tools for your business.