Mob Pod: Melinda Brown – Spirit Dreaming Australia.
Melinda Brown is a Ngunnawal woman and is the Director of Spirit Dreaming Education and Training Solutions and Australian Family Group Conferencing. She speaks with Lisa Gissing about what she loves most about being a business owner and the importance of cash flow.
Lisa Gissing (LG): Hello everyone I’m Lisa Gissing from Westpac’s Davidson Institute, and today we’re speaking with Mel Brown who owns and operates Spirit Dreaming Australia on the North Coast of NSW. Welcome Mel.
Melinda Brown (MB): Thank you Lisa. Thanks for having me today.
LG: Before we begin I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the various lands in which we’re all meeting, and pay my respects to elders both past and present. I also acknowledge and pay respect to those here today who identify as being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, and recognise the diversity of Indigenous peoples, countries, and culture in Australia.
As Australia’s first bank we acknowledge our role in supporting an inclusive and diverse nation where all of our cultural backgrounds are recognised and respected. So, Mel, let’s start today with you telling us a little bit more about yourself and Spirit Dreaming Australia.
MB: Beautiful. Thank you Lisa. Look I am a Ngunnawal, I’m an Aboriginal Ngunnawal woman from Canberra living in Bundjalung country now though which is Northern NSW. I have a Masters in Aboriginal Healing and Trauma. Like every individual, every person out there we all play lots and lots of roles. In my work life I’ve won lots of awards. Done all this stuff. But that’s not who makes me who I am. Who I am is the person that I am when I’m at home with my family, my friends and that’s the person.
MB: So, I’m a mum, a mum of five children. Grandmother of three about to be four. And that’s about it. They’re my biggest achievements in my life, Lisa, those things there.
LG: So why did you start the business Sprit Dreaming Australia?
MB: I started Sprit Dreaming quite a while ago now. Gosh I think I’m pushing to the 10-15 years ago. What was happening was my background is in child protection and in the areas of Welfare, Community Services, that sort of thing. And what I was realising was that I had a whole heap of, I guess knowledge, that I felt that could be shared. And it wasn’t going to be able to be shared if I stayed within, I guess Government jobs doing that work.
MB: So, some years ago now I decided to move into Training and Consultancy. The Training is Aboriginal Cultural Training. I’ve got a really good reputation for the Training and certainly for Consultancy as well. I specialise in Cultural competency and certainly lateral violence which is that bullying backstabbing, bitching, gossiping and anything else in between.
MB: You know, generational trauma, all those sorts of things. So, what I actually realised was that there was a market for that and at that point way back then I was relying on the organisations I worked with to use my knowledge to help the people within the workplace and realised that I was able to help or share my knowledge with a whole lot more people. But staying within a paid position in a workplace was limiting my capacity to do that.
MB: So that’s what started me to I guess start to look outside of being an employee to more so being a sole trader moving into a company later on as we developed and got larger.
LG: So, what surprised you the most in opening a business?
MB: Oh my goodness! What I didn’t know. I thought I knew lots of things. During my time like many of us I sort of got a bit burnt out with community work and went into real estate for three years. I know it’s hard to get your head around one to the other. I had people kicking me out of their homes and then I had people letting me in which was really odd.
MB: It took me a while to adjust. But what real estate did for me was gave me this view of marketing that I didn’t really have before. So, what I found, you can imagine real estate’s quite a cut throat type business. But what I found and learnt was that you had to have something unique. If you are going to sell the same as everybody else. Then you had to have something that was different to everybody else or else you are just everybody else.
MB: So what surprised me was the fact that I thought I knew taking my Marketing background with me into my business. I thought I knew quite a lot. And I thought I knew how to run a business. And I realised that I actually didn’t.
MB: What surprised me was that also that I wasn’t a good manager. So I’d been a manager in other jobs and felt that I had been a good manager but when I moved into my own business I actually realised that I am not a good manager. I’m a great people person but I’m not a good person in telling people what to do all the time.
MB: I am not a micro-manager. So, I’m the sort of person that if you work for me, I say you know what to do just go do it, come back and tell me when you’ve finished. And not all people can work that way. So, I think that was what surprised was you know I thought I had a whole lot of skills which I realised I absolutely didn’t. And that I needed to build those skills or get someone else to do those jobs which is what I have done since then.
MB: So, it was recognising where my weaknesses were. Finding ways to fill, turn those weaknesses into strengths and it did not have to be me that was those strengths. It was quite possible somebody else that could do those jobs for me.
LG: So is there anything that you would do differently looking back on it?
MB: So, what would I do differently? At one point I went into retail. Oh, my goodness that was not a good move. Again, thinking I knew what I knew and realised I didn’t know much at all. Retail is a really difficult job to be in. It’s, you’ve got to compete against the big people. Even though my business was quite unique in retail for what I was selling I was still very much in a very small shop in a very small town which was never going to earn very much money.
MB: So, It’s all good and fine if you are happy just to plod along and pay your bills. But I’ve never been that person. I’ve always been that person that I. So, it’s not that I want more money-wise although that’s always very helpful because I’ll be honest with you, money buys lots and lots of choices and opportunity, But it was more that I needed to be fulfilled in what I did and retail didn’t do that. So, my big thing what would I do differently, I would not go into retail ever again.
LG: So, sounds like a good lesson learnt. Thinking about the business. How important is cash flow day to day in running the business?
MB: My retail time really taught me about cash flow. In real, in child protection I had, when I worked for Government there was a weekly wage. No problems. When worked in real estate I started to earn really big dollars because I was a good salesperson. Thinking that those skills would just slide over into retail was all good and great but I didn’t have the cash flow.
MB: Ah cash flow is so important. What I have learnt, and it’s taken me a little while, but I’m in that, I’m definitely in that position now is that for me nothing less than at least 3 to 4 even 5 months must be in the bank at all times in advance. So that for times when things go slow.
MB: Covid has taught that lesson to me very very well and thank God I was ready. Even though we didn’t see Covid coming the business was in a financial position that it could weather Covid. That was the most important thing about cash flow. Even when we’re owed quite a lot of money, which we often are, Governments are sometimes a little slower to pay their bills.
MB: I always love knowing that there’s quite a, you know, quite a bit of money outstanding knowing that money is yet to come in. So that buys me I guess that confidence for the next few months as well. But cash flow is just so important. You just can’t do it without cash flow.
MB: I mean look some people can but that’s just not me. I need to know that there is plenty of money to do what the business needs to do. And also, to look professional for all the organisations we contract and work for. There would be nothing worse sorry can’t do the job because I can’t afford to drive there or something like that.
MB: Very very important to look reputable out there. And I guess you know being an Aboriginal business we’re always fighting against the stereotypes around they’re just a little Aboriginal business they might not have the dollars to be able to do things. Well, no that’s not us. We do. And we do have the dollars and we can do things. And we can be in the marketplace all the time.
LG: Absolutely. Now, changing tune a little bit. What do you love most about being a business owner?
MB: I love being able to work my own hours. And although you are going to think this is quite crazy. Any business, small business owner like myself works way more than your 8 hours a day. If I do less than 12-14 hours a day that’s a, that’s a good day for me. Most people think that you know that’s pretty horrific hours. But when it’s your own there’s that, it’s different. It’s so different. I also love my ability to be able to be creative. If it’s not working, guess what, I can fix it.
MB: So, I get to decide what I, what’s working, what’s not, what needs to be changed, what, what doesn’t need to be changed. And I particularly love looking for gaps in the market. And I think that’s the key to our success, our success in business is there’s been a couple of key things that I’ve seen gaps in the market.
MB: Again, I’m going to fall back to my real estate and marketing experience and bringing that into this business here. Going alright they’re gaps. I can fill those gaps. I can do it this way and that has actually I would say to you 50% of the success of my business has been just filling some gaps that were available to be filled. And I jumped on them and I was the first to jump on them and they’ve been really successful. So that’s what I love.
MB: I don’t have anyone telling me what can and can’t do. I have obviously I share my business with my husband, my partner and you know there’s conversations around what can and can’t be done. But generally we both are always agreeable that if it’s about expanding the business then so be it, expand the business.
LG: What would be your advice to other community members that are perhaps looking to start their own business but haven’t made the leap?
MB: Starting your own business takes a lot of courage. A lot of courage and lots of research. Guys don’t just think oh I can, I think, I might just do this and go off and do it. You’ve got to continually. If you’re doing something that someone else is already doing you’ve got to do it better than them.
MB: You’ve got to have something unique. That’s different. Otherwise, you’re just another person in the marketplace. My advice is you don’t have to know everything either and that’s what I discovered. Is that I don’t have to know everything. I just have to know people that do.
MB: When I first started my business, I knew nothing about BAS or tax or anything like that. But I found an accountant who taught me. Doesn’t mean I still do it. I still don’t understand it. But I pay somebody who does it.
MB: Looking after a business is like looking after your home. If the plumbing breaks and you don’t know how to fix it you get somebody who is a professional in and you get them to fix it. It might cost you money but in the long run it saves you money and everything works so much better.
MB: So, my advice is don’t risk things to save dollars if you’re not guaranteed of an outcome. So, what I’m saying is if you want to start a business don’t risk everything. Make sure that you are looking after yourself and your family and your own financial not only future but financial here and now. Like right now.
MB: So many people contact me and say could you please help me I have, you know I’ve heard you’ve got a small, a business. Can you just give me some business advice? My first question to people is how much money have you got on the side? Because if this doesn’t work how are you paying the bills?
MB: Because you know what I remembered when I was in retail those nights laying awake at night looking at the ceiling going how do I put food on the table tomorrow. How do I pay the rent for the house let alone the rent for the shop? I don’t wish that upon anybody. But I also would say you know a little bit of risk is okay.
MB: But at the end of the day what type of person are you? Can you do, take the risk? Are you okay in putting yourself into positions where your financial future could be risky? Or are you a safe person? If you’re a safe person then have all your, you know that saying your ducks lined up, have them lined up. Have money in the bank for the next few months to make sure that if things don’t go well that you can land on the money.
MB: Don’t go putting yourself into a position where it impacts on your own mental health. That would be my biggest advice. Don’t let anything impact on you and your family. Because at the end of the day it’s not your business that people are going to remember you for it’s the person that you are. That person that looked after yourself and your family. That’s the person you need to be able to go to, go to sleep with and close your eyes with at night is yourself.
LG: Some wonderful advice there and I love the analogy of looking after your home and the different trades that you might call upon that was great. Now if our listeners would like to more about the business or get in touch with you where can they find you?
MB: We’re easy to be found. Just spiritdreaming.com.au and just click on those buttons there and it’s a contact us and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.
LG: We’ve been speaking with Mel Brown, owner and operator of Spirit Dreaming Australia. Thank you, Mel.
MB: Thank you Lisa.