26/12/2015 5:53 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Why Upskilling Is Crucial To Survival In Small Business

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Young group of people discussing business plans, with lap-tops, plans in a small office.

Anyone who leaves a job to start a small business knows that instead of wearing one hat at work you need to start wearing 50.

You cease to become a single-task employee and become the manager, the bookkeeer, the marketer, the HR manager, the development manager and the chief dishwasher.

Joe Powell from Seek Learning said being involved in all facets of the business usually required upskilling, whether it was informal learning from peers and mentors or more formal courses such as those offered by Seek.

“There are many different triggers that may prompt someone to feel it’s time to upskill,” he said.

“It could be the realisation that they are missing a skill critical to the current success of their business -- so it’s really about gaining that knowledge as soon as possible.

“It’s certainly not a one-off process either – as business continues to evolve, so too do the ways operators need to work and the reality of this can mean constant upskilling -- formal and informal -- to ensure your business is successful in the long term.”

Resources are often scarce for small business owners too, and Powell said this was why many undertook courses.

“As they’re running their own business, the more they can do themselves, the less they’re paying for someone else to do for them, which often helps manage the cash-flow and expenses of a small business start up,” he said.

“For small business owners there is so much they need to be across, and it’s unrealistic for them to think they can know it all so it’s important to consider; what can I outsource? What would I be happy to keep doing if I can gain more skills in that area?”

Powell said courses didn’t have to be a three-year degree -- short courses, diplomas, certificates and even volunteering could lead to a better-run business. And studying online can help time-poor startups too -- freeing up valuable time to actually plan and run the business rather than sit in a classroom.

“One of the main advantages of studying online is actually its flexibility, as it means you can study anywhere, at any time,” Powell said.

“The majority of online courses Seek Learning connects students to are also self-paced, which means that if you want to fast track your study by committing more hours, you can. Or if something comes up and you need to switch focus for a time, you can do that also and then pick up where you left off when you’re ready.”

Here, three business owners reveal how they retrained themselves in order to run their business.

James Wakefield Co-founder of InStitchu

James Wakefield went from being an Associate Adviser in Macquarie Private Wealth at Macquarie Bank to co-founding a men’s tailor business after having trouble filling his own corporate wardrobe.

“We were tired of searching for high quality affordable business attire and it turned out we weren’t the only ones,” he said. “One day a mate of mine and (co-founder) Robin’s came home with a tailor made suit from Thailand, and we both realised that we could do something about it and leverage the internet to bridge the gap between high-end tailors in Asia and consumers all over the world.”

James Wakefield, right, started Insitchu with Robin McGowan and went from banking to tailoring.

Wakefield had no experience in tailoring and, because there were few courses to undertake, he decided to get some one-on-one training.

“Tailoring is an extremely detailed process,” he said. “Initially we learnt a lot from our Shanghai tailors but then we realised that to truly upskill ourselves we need to also learn from traditional bespoke tailors.

“We employed an Italian pattern maker to help us learn about the pattern making process and to help improve our patterns. We also decided to engage bespoke tailors to completely deconstruct our suits and work out what improvements could be made.

“As a result, we now have an extremely in-depth knowledge of every minor detail of custom tailored menswear.”

Wakefield did a business degree and plans to do an MBA, but he also said learning on the job was essential.

“Tailoring aside, like all business owners, I underwent a crash course in scaling a business as well as finance, sales, market, operations and HR,” he said. “I firmly believe that there is absolutely no substitute for running your own business.”

Sebastian Pedavoli, co-founder and creative director of Proxima

Launching a digital creative company was a logical move for Sebastian Pedavoli, who was previously a graphic designer and project manager for a small creative agency. But soon after he learnt there were skills he lacked.

“About six months into starting my first digital creative company I realised I needed to upskill,” he said.

“The idealistic vision I had of running my own business was quickly coming apart once I realised what was involved in actually keeping all the balls I was juggling in the air.

“I knew my craft well and where I brought value to the business. But it’s the areas that you know exist but don’t have a great deal of knowledge in like sales, bookkeeping and staff management, that start to stack up and consume your time.”

Sebastian Pedavoli, left, with Proxima co-founder Dan Nolan.

Like many time-poor startup owners, Pedavoli chose to learn from others as opposed to enrolling in a course.

“I certainly re-trained but not formally,” he said. “Between running a startup and in a short space of time looking after staff, the idea of losing hours, even with a long term vision, was not achievable.

“What I did was take a look around me, the people who had encouraged me to go out on my own and look at how they had become successful in their own right. I essentially became a sponge for knowledge, soaking up what I could from those mentoring me and asking a million questions. I also invested the time in hiring people with the skills I lacked.”

Now managing his third company, he said learning on the run worked for him.

“The practical experience may be one of the most challenging environments to learn in, mistakes are learnt the hard way but coming out six years later I have amassed a huge volume of knowledge,” he said.

David Fastuca, Chief Designer Officer & Co-founder of Locomote

So many business owners fall into an industry they never expected. Just ask David Fastuca.

Before he launched corporate travel company Locomote, he and his cousin Ross Fastuca were in the multimedia and web design business.

“We knew we wanted our business to be related to technology and design; with Ross being majored in multimedia design and myself in communication design, we’ve always been interested in simplifying and enhancing the way people interact with technology.

“Locomote was our opportunity to create a great user experience and seamless interface, unlike any other platforms already out there.”

They created the platform after a chance meeting with now CEO and Executive Chairman Philip Weinman who wanted to make business travel easier for his company, Deasil Management Group. The pair recognised the potential to expand Locomote as a corporate travel entity for other firms and the concept took off.

Fastuca said they upskilled by employing others and leveraging off their expertise, but then had to learn how to manage people in turn.

“One of our biggest learnings was in regards to people management -- there’s a huge difference between being just the two of us in the company and having a team that subdivides into smaller teams, including sales, IT, communications and more,” he said.

The pair undertook a few small business courses although Fastica admitted most of their learning was on the job.

“We have a number of mentors within Locomote, who have guided us,” he said.

“The knowledge and skills can come from different sources, a course, a new client, a mentor, but the experience is the same. In the end, you learn not only about a particular skill but about yourself.”