March 4

15 experts’ #1 piece of advice for small business

In last month’s Grow with Purpose Summit, I asked each speaker for their top tip or number one piece of advice for small businesses looking to be more sustainable in 2021.

A few themes came up again and again across the 15 speakers, starting with the need to recognise that change is happening, focusing on material impacts, making a start now, even a small one, then improving over time, and finally making space in our busy days to take a long term, strategic view.

Recognise that the world is changing

The first theme that came up many times was that we are operating in a changing environment. Expectations of businesses have grown, our customers’ personal preferences have shifted, the business world has matured.

Sustainability is no longer a trend, but a ticket to ride. The business environment is not static, and we need to be on board with the direction it is moving.

As Corinne Schoch from GCNA said, “It’s about how resilient you want your business to be in a world that is changing. What do you want your community to look like in the next few decades? And how do you want your business to fit into that so that you are a part of that change, as opposed to being a barrier to the changes that are coming?”

Similarly, Greg Griffith from FBANZ said, “Most businesses, regardless of what they do, should be having a look at the environment they're in today, what potentially they might see as the changes coming, and how do they adapt and start preparing for that. It’s really scenario planning - you can't predict the future, but you can prepare for ways it might play out.”

Or, as Mat Card from Rethink Recycling Co-op put it, “Honestly, just embrace it. You know, sustainability, in all its forms, is the buzz thing at the moment. You want to be seen to be current, you know, to be involved contributing to broader change. That's what the government wants to see. It's what the councils want to see, and it's what consumers want to see.”

Focusing on what matters

The next key thing that came up many times throughout the summit was the concept of materiality, or focusing on the areas of sustainability that are most relevant to your business. This means both where you have the greatest impacts and opportunities and what matters most to your stakeholders, i.e. customers, employees, community, investors, etc.

We all know as a business owner, especially of a small business, time is a precious resource. So it is critical to make sure that any changes or initiatives you invest your time and effort in are the most important, and those that will have the biggest return for your business.

As Gordon Renouf from Good On You said, “It's about identifying your biggest impact. Not just the things you personally care about, but you also need to be addressing the most material things to your business. What are the impacts that your business has? Understand your supply chain, understand how the materials are made, where they're made, who they're made by, how they are turned into clothes, what happens when consumers use them, and what happens to them when consumers are finished with them. Think about the whole supply chain, and where the most material things are within that.”

Mark Daniels from Social Traders similarly said, “Be clear about what you do, and where the opportunities are. So, for example, if most of what we do is sourcing and procurement, if we change the way that we buy stuff, that's going to be really impactful. If we're a big employer, then maybe that's where we can deliver the greatest impact, in employment and training of disadvantaged cohorts. If we make a lot of money, but don't employ anyone, what are we doing with our money to have the greatest impact that we could have? If we're an investor, what should I be investing in that can have the greatest impact? So I think it's about being clear about who you are and what you do, and where you can have the greatest leverage as a result of that.”

Start somewhere, and start now

While it is important to focus on what matters, it’s even more important to just get started! Many speakers pushed the urgency of getting on board with sustainability to avoid missing out on the current opportunity.

The speakers also noted that doing something, even if it isn’t your most material impact, is better than doing nothing. Starting somewhere can build momentum in your business, getting your employees and management engaged, getting some quick wins and demonstrating the benefits.

As Robyn Leeson from GRI said, “Don't be too concerned about how to start, where to start. Do something - it may not be the right thing, or the most important thing to start with. But you'll learn a lot from it. And you can build your confidence, your staff, your team's confidence from doing that. Even the great Ray Anderson, who was an inspiration to many people in the corporate sustainability field as the Founder of Interface. When people asked him, 'Gosh, how did you become this darling of the sustainability area?' His response was that he just thought, 'Well, we'll just do something. And then we'll do something else.'”

Where to start? Nick Balgue from Sustainability Victoria suggested starting on resource efficiency for the quick wins. “Rather than looking at the product you sell, there might be some great opportunities there just in your operational costs, particularly if you're a manufacturer or someone with some larger energy overheads and material costs. There's really great savings that can be found in just reducing your operational footprint.”

Jimmy Bayssari from Project Everest Ventures also focused on the benefit of starting early on embedding sustainability into business governance and documentation. “Start early. A lot of start-ups think, ‘we don't need a policy or document yet, we just do it anyway.’ But the reality is, when you get bigger, it becomes harder and harder to implement, especially as you bring in independence governance and layers of management. So do it now, so you grow up with it.”

Continuous improvement

The process of continually reviewing your performance and identifying where to improve is critical to any business. But it’s also important to keep in mind in starting something new to reduce overwhelm. You’re not going to be perfect from the start – so start somewhere and add to that over time.

Think about it – was your business fully formed when it started? Or have you learned tons of lessons over the years, had a few stumbles, grown and improved? The same goes for your sustainability initiatives.

As Pete Yao from Thankyou said, “Continuous improvement is always better than delayed perfection. It has to start somewhere – like, we started with the energy in our HQ, then looked at our products, and now we’re a Carbon Neutral Certified organisation. So it's taken a lot of small steps to get to this one big outcome.”

Or, as Nick Balgue said, “Sustainability is a big journey; there's multiple projects you can do. So just keep on with the continuous improvement. Starting with, how am I going to do the same business or sell the same products and services, but just use less and reduce my footprint? And then once that's on the right path, look external, look how to grow by increasing and communicating your contribution.”

Making space for a long-term view

Finally, a number of the speakers reminded us that we need to take a break from the day-to-day operation of our businesses to consider where the business is going.

Getting too wrapped up in the long list of urgent tasks can be disastrous for a business. It’s like going for a walk and being so focused on watching your feet with each step that you forget to look up and eventually realise you’re in totally the wrong place.

As John Purcell of CPA Australia said, “Appreciation of the external environment allows one to look beyond the short term, narrow perspective of financial viability and anticipate both threat and opportunity. What your competitors are doing, what your customers are doing and where your competitive threats and opportunities are going to come from. And increasingly, these are going to be driven by environmental and social factors. The agility of an SME is a plus to be able to respond to these shifts, which are taking place quite profoundly in the Australian economy. So take time out from the short term imperatives of survival, and look at the bigger picture, the bigger picture of the environment, and what that offers in terms of both opportunity and threat.”

Fiona Killackey from My Daily Business Coach even suggested taking a broader personal view. “Do some soul searching and look at your values. Look at the values that you want to live your life by, the type of brand you want to be. Because all the money in the world is not going to do anything at the end of your life if you feel like you haven't lived true to your values.”

And lastly, as Pete Yao said, “We all have the opportunity to make decisions which really contribute to the betterment of a world that we will all want to see and live in. And the challenge for small business owners is, how do we make some time within our busy diaries to look at something that may not be operationally urgent but is really crucial? And to think, what is the goal that our organization can actually play a bigger role in? And how do we actually take steps to enshrine some of these goals into our overall business strategy?”

Document cover of #1 piece of advice ebook

What else did the experts say? Get the full summary of all the speakers’ top tips and #1 pieces of advice for small business.

And of course if you want to dig into all the deep insights and expert advice, replays of all 14 interviews are available in video, audio and transcript form for only $47. Access them here.

About the author 


I believe in the power of small business to have mighty impact. After 15 years driving sustainability in corporates and government, I am bringing my expertise to support small businesses - those with the passion, innovation and agility to tackle the world's greatest challenges.


continuous improvement, grow with purpose, materiality, summit

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