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A Case Study: First Nations Business Accelerator Program

1. Why bother?

There are people in Central Australia who question the importance of enterprise development, arguing that public resources should be focussed towards health and education outcomes first. Given the housing crisis, the renal epidemic and the general poverty in this region, I understand where this criticism comes from. There are others who argue that enterprise development is just the next phase of the colonial project. Afterall, it’s true that entrepreneurship is a Western construct born from the same colonial systems that continue to extract, oppress and cause immense suffering to First Nations people and their land today.

However, enterprise development also has the potential to equip people with the necessary skills and resources to take control of their futures and create their own pathways to meaningful work. Given our region has the highest unemployment rate for First Nations residents anywhere in Australia it’s fair to question whether our existing education, training and employment pathways are working.

We know the social, cultural and economic barriers that make going to school, or university, or holding a 9-5 job difficult. My hunch is that these barriers are much easier to navigate and overcome when people have the opportunity to run their own business, their way. The same goes for working in a family or community-owned business because it’s flexible, culturally safe and provides meaningful work. If you’re only able to work two days because you are on dialysis the other three days of the week, or you have other commitments, then that’s how you can structure your working life. If someone dies and you’re required to take sudden leave for an extended period of time, you can do what you need to do.

I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture of what running a sustainable business looks like, because it absolutely requires a big commitment and lots of hard work. But as the owner of the business, the work is likely to be meaningful, and you ultimately decide what your opening hours are and how many days you're open. The picture I do want to paint is that enterprise development is really important because it creates opportunities for people that the mainstream systems cannot.

2. The very unusual opportunity

Desert Knowl­edge Aus­tralia (DKA) received fund­ing from the North­ern Ter­ri­to­ry Government to research, design, pilot and evaluate a First Nations enterprise development pro­gram in Cen­tral Australia. The funding was enough to cover one full-time wage for the length of the two-year project. DKA's CEO at the time, Dan Tyson, knew that I was looking to do something in this space and encouraged me to apply for the job.

The unique and attractive aspect of this funding was that it came with very few strings attached, which meant there would be lots of flexibility in designing the program. That is to say, the design could actually be guided by the research and we could probably afford to be a bit experimental. Usually government funding comes with a long list of requirements and caveats that have you ticking so many arbitrary checkboxes, that it’s hard to actually address the problem you're trying to solve. For instance, one of the checkboxes might require you to support a minimum of 100 businesses in a 2-year period, which completely dictates the type of support you can provide to any business, regardless of what the research may indicate people need. Unbound by these limitations, we were able to respond to what people were telling us.

I spent the first six months sitting down with First Nations businesses and many of the busi­ness sup­port agencies across the region to learn about the major problems these budding enterprises were up against, as well as identifying any gaps in the services provided by the business support network. The research uncovered both the distinct and the nuanced characteristics of First Nations entrepreneurship in Central Australia, such as the underpinning motivations for starting a business, their own metrics of success, and of course the unique socio-cultural and socio-economic chal­lenges that impact all aspects of life here in the desert.

The design challenge was to plug any gaps in the current business support network and create solutions for any problems that weren’t adequately being addressed. It quickly became obvious that we would either need to apply for more funding, or completely re-purpose the funds we already had. To save time and avoid potential disappointment, we decided to go with the latter. Thanks to our extraordinary freedom, we decided to re-allocate a majority chunk of the funding that was to cover my salary over two years into a condensed six-month period, where the program cohort would have access to seed funding and intensive support from multiple experienced professionals other than myself. But more on the design later, first, let’s talk more about the problems identified in the research.

3. It’s overwhelming, disorientating and exhausting…

It’s hard to start a business, let alone keep it going, or further develop it, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, disorientated and exhausted. These three words capture some of the ways people I spoke with were feeling about entrepreneurship here in the desert. The more I learned about their experience, themes and patterns began to emerge.

Macro factors play their part. It is important to acknowledge the social-cultural and socio-economic factors, such as systemic racism, poverty, education, health, remote living and cultural practices that significantly impact people’s ability to start and sustain an enterprise. Although we knew the program had little chance of solving these complex issues, we recognised the importance of researching and understanding these barriers in order to design a program that can work to minimise their impact.

The business support network is like a jungle. This mostly invisible network is not only riddled with obscure western bureaucracy, but very few of the support services are integrated with one another. In fact, there can sometimes be a sense of competition between agencies. This means people often have to work with a number of different agencies to get movement on a single project. I interviewed a local artist who wanted to run arts workshops for kids and needed support to get started. She felt frustrated because she had to provide the same information to three separate organisations, because even with her permission, they weren’t able to share the information amongst each other. While the network itself is difficult to navigate, it is important to acknowledge that a number of business support agencies did seem to provide some really great support.

Grant culture stifles innovation. At first, I was amazed at how many incredible funding opportunities the state and federal government offer First Nations businesses. But as I started speaking with people, who either owned a business or had plans to start one, it seemed like almost everyone was completely dependent on them. When asked how they could overcome a challenge in their business, the most commonly proposed solution was to apply for a grant. The response was often the same when asked what was stopping them from getting started on their new business. The research indicated that non-Indigenous businesses also fell into this dependency trap, meaning this is a regional issue and not exclusive to First Nations entrepreneurs. Another problem grants create is the illusion of free money. People don’t account for the time and energy it takes to apply for a grant, or the administrative burden of acquitting it. Grant funding can also be a distraction from what the business actually needs to focus its time and energy on. For instance, when a “$5,000 capital equipment” grant is on offer, people will go - “we could get a flash camera to make better social media content” - but is that really the #1 priority of the business at this time? Probably not. The grant dependency trap ends up manifesting in the business like a bucket with a leaky hole that is in need of constant replenishing.

Too much talk, not enough action. There is no shortage of ‘advice’ for businesses in this region, so much so, it can be overwhelming. Yet most of the support that’s on offer is very light-touch. A family who’ve started a small culture tourism enterprise on their homeland and are keen to develop it further. They got paired up with a business advisor, who created a business plan brimming with expert advice and ambitious targets that would see their business skyrocket in years to come. Unfortunately, the overload of information was discombobulating and several skill gaps made the plan difficult to implement. So they attended workshops on “starting a business” and “digital marketing” for further assistance. But these workshops just felt like more advice on what to do - they wanted “less talk and more action”. When I asked them what they really needed to get the ball rolling, they said they needed someone to “sit down with them and really work things out”. Not just one or two meetings, or a couple of workshops, but someone they could consistently work with over time.

Western metrics are off the mark. It’s no secret that western business culture and its values around individual status and wealth creation don’t align with the values of many First Nations people. Yet a lot of the support available fails to engage people in a meaningful way. What the research shows is that people are motivated by solving problems in their immediate environment. Like “creating jobs for family” because family-owned businesses provide a culturally safe pathway for family members to gain meaningful employment. Or “making our community better” because rather than selling products and services to meet market demand far and wide, they are more focussed on supporting family, friends and their community as a whole. Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) reported that almost half of 374 enterprises surveyed did not turn a profit, yet all of them reported they thought their business was a success. This is because their benchmarks for success revolved around meeting immediate needs, creating meaningful work opportunities and improving community outcomes.

4. Designing a program that supports people to navigate these challenges

The challenge was to design a program that addressed the themes outlined above and plugged the gaps left by existing support services. There are eight elements that made up the design.

Small cohort. Unlike most government funded programs that require you to service 50 or more businesses in the region, our program had the freedom to work with a small cohort. This enabled participants to develop meaningful relationships with each other and the facilitators, creating a culturally safe environment, where they felt comfortable to ask questions and talk about the challenges they were up against. A small cohort also meant the program could provide intensive support and a lot of flexibility.

Intensive support. Rather than light-touch, hands-off support, we wanted to provide high-touch, hands-on support. Each business would have two experienced entrepreneurs join their team and work alongside them for one day every week for the entire six-month duration of the intensive program. It was important that both entrepreneurs had complimentary skills to one another and lots of experience starting and running their own business. For this pilot program, I would assume one of the entrepreneur-facilitator roles, specialising in strategy, operations and business coaching. Out of 57 applicants across Australia, one stood out above the rest - Jane Arandelovic. On top of starting and running her own digital marketing agency, Jane has also worked in the digital space for tech companies like Microsoft and Yahoo. She not only complimented my skill set perfectly with loads of experience in IT systems, branding, digital marketing and sales, but she would also be a great cultural fit for this cohort. Other experienced professionals with specialised skills in areas where Jane and I weren’t as experienced, would be accessible on an ‘as needed basis’ throughout the program as well. Instead of having to implement the advice on their own, each business now had two additional teammates that they could sit down with, bounce ideas off, and work alongside, to move closer toward their goals.

Flexible structure. Another key design element was to ensure the program was able to adapt and respond to the immediate needs of each participant in the program. The problem with most traditional business programs is their rigid structure, where a different business competency is covered each week (e.g. week 1 strategic planning, week 2 finance & accounting, week 3 design & branding, week 4 intellectual property, etc). The problem with this approach is that the learning isn't married to immediate problems participants are facing in their business on that given day. Whereas with a flexible-structured program, participants are much more likely, for example, to learn a digital marketing skill when they’re preparing to launch a promotional campaign for their business. It also means that if participants need to miss a week or two, they won’t have missed anything because we can simply pause things, or move things around and pick up from where we left off. And when things change, as they inevitably do in any business, the program can adapt and respond to whatever the new set of circumstances are. Instead of forcing a round peg through a square hole, the aim of this program is to go with the flow and meet the participants where they are.

Four fluid phases. We mapped out the four phases that the participants were likely to progress through over the course of the six-month program.

  • Phase 1: Discovery & Planning. Identify challenges and opportunities, set simple and achievable targets, estimate how the growth fund will be spent.

  • Phase 2: Foundation & Scalability. Build a solid, sustainable foundation of systems and processes that can scale alongside the business as it grows.

  • Phase 3: Growth & Acceleration. Acquire customers through digital marketing and reinvest sales into further growth.

  • Phase 4: Automation & Future Planning. Ensure the business is in a position to continue the momentum they have built beyond the program.

These phases act as loose guidelines to help the team determine what sorts of things each business should and shouldn’t be working on at any given time during the program. For instance, if a team is working towards launching their new website, they would be working through Phase 2: Foundation & Scalability. If a team member wants to launch a marketing campaign at this time, the team would be able to identify that they need to hold off, launch their website first, and have the right systems in place to provide a good customer experience before they are ready to run a marketing campaign in Phase 3: Growth & Acceleration.

The phases are designed to be flexible and for businesses to progress through them at their own pace. A younger business will need to spend a lot more time on the first two phases than a more established business, which will be in a position to spend more time on the third phase. In fact, it’s entirely possible that a younger business won’t spend any time on phase 3 and will skip straight from phase 2 to phase 4. The most important thing with these four fluid phases is that the team always focuses on the most important thing, no matter what phase they’re in or how long it takes. Afterall, there’s no point growing a business if the foundation is built on a house of cards.

Digital technology. If there’s one thing that has the potential to even the playing field between metropolitan and remote businesses - it’s digital technology. Depending on what you trade, it can be hard (often impossible) to generate enough business in a tiny economy like Central Australia to stay afloat. Having a digital presence allows businesses to access new markets around the country - and around the world. Traditionally, running a business required a high degree of literacy and numeracy, however there are now online tools that make complex, high-falutin tasks like marketing, design, accounting and project management, intuitive and - dare I say it - fun! There are many other benefits from implementing and upskilling in digital technology, like improving operating efficiencies and profitability, to staying connected with the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic. A critical design element of this program was to ensure that the Digital Growth Partner (Jane Arandelovic) was tech savvy and had lots of experience with IT systems and digital marketing, so they could train the participants and help them to identify areas where their businesses could leverage digital technology.

Coaching - Each participant would also have access to 1-1 coaching on a weekly basis for the 6 months during the program and on a monthly basis for 6 months beyond the program. Some stuck with the 1-1 coaching while some preferred to pair up with their co-founder for these sessions. The role of a coach is very different to the role of a consultant / advisor. A consultant provides advice in their area of expertise, whereas a coach guides and supports you to find your own answers. Coaching is a two-way learning relationship, where reflective, challenging and thought-provoking questions are asked to develop greater insight and self-awareness, challenge assumptions, reshape limiting beliefs and take actions that move you closer toward achieving your goals. These coaching sessions carve out a window of time amongst the chaos, where participants can connect with themselves, untangle the thoughts in their mind and gain clarity on what their priorities are for the week to come.

Growth fund. Each business in the cohort could access up to $10,000 to invest in the development of their business. The aim was to remove any financial barriers for the businesses without creating a funding-dependency, by teaching participants how to stretch a dollar as far as possible, and then turn a dollar into two. The design of the growth fund had two distinct differences to most grant funding available. First, the money could only be accessed once every other option had been exhausted. There are often many free (or very cheap) solutions to most problems that can be found if you know where to look (which the facilitators did). For instance, a business might think they need to buy video equipment and hire an editor/producer to create a video, but all they really need is to download a free app on their phone and get started. Second, the digital growth partner would teach participants how to micro-invest in their business. For instance, spending $200 on a digital marketing campaign that generates $500 worth of sales, allows the business to pocket $300 for other operating costs and invest the rest of the money back into another campaign that will generate more income again. Although we knew how ambitious this design objective was within such a short timeframe, we wanted to instil a 'bootstrap-startup-mentality' in this cohort, so at the very least they fundamentally understood how to develop a sustainable business.

Workspace + On Country. The program needed a culturally safe and productive space to get work done. Fortunately DKA is the custodian of the Business Innovation Centre located in the Desert Knowledge Precinct, which is a 73 hectare property on Arrernte bushland on the outskirts of Mparntwe (Alice Springs). It is not only home to organisations like Batchelor College, Centre for Appropriate Technology, and Indigenous Business Australia, but a regular meeting space for many Aboriginal organisations in the region. Each program participant would have access to their own dedicated workspace, as well as the meeting rooms, event spaces and all the high-tech facilities the Business Innovation Centre has to offer. Although this space was likely to tick all the boxes for participants living in close proximity to town, we knew that it wouldn’t be accessible for participants living far away in remote communities. So we needed to be able to also deliver this program On Country (onsite). Fortunately, DKA had access to a 4WD vehicle that we could use once or twice a week.

5. Calling all First Nations entrepreneurs

So how do you promote a program like this? Simple, via the bush telegraph (word-of-mouth). I had already spent the past six months meeting with local businesses and business support agencies in the region, so I printed out a 2-page summary about the program and gave copies to everyone I knew. I asked them to spread the word far and wide. It also helped that I grew up in this tight-knit community and had lots of support from people like Donna Digby, who created several opportunities for me to pitch the pilot program at conferences and events.

The key messaging included the application process, the selection criteria and what to expect from the program. The application process had almost no red tape, all you had to do was submit an expression of interest, which required no more than saying “I’m interested”, to get a preliminary interview. The selection criteria was intentionally broad; you could be any business operating in any sector at any stage of development, so long as you had a fully developed business concept and that business was 51% Aboriginal-owned and controlled. The reason for the loose selection criteria was partly because we didn’t know how many applications we’d get and partly because we wanted a diverse cross-section of businesses of all shapes and sizes at different stages of development.

After 4 to 5 weeks of promoting the program we received 19 expressions of interest. Unfortunately, we could only select up to five businesses because of how the program was designed (full day’s support each week per business, limited growth fund, etc.). The applicants provided information about themselves and their business, followed by several rounds of interviews. Ultimately the decision came down to selecting businesses that could commit to the intensive nature of the program and that would get the most benefit from this type of support. Five were selected, although one withdrew in the first week, which left us with four businesses that were able to fully commit to the DKAccelerator program. The successful applicants for the pilot program were as follows:

A skate brand that uses profits to fund youth skate pro­grams in remote communities. Nicky Hayes is an Arrernte man, a Traditional Owner from Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) and the founder of Spinifex Skateboards. He is a talented youth worker and skateboarder and is using these skills to make a significant impact in his local community and many other communities in the region. “The idea came to me many years ago and as there was nowhere really to skate in Ltyentye Apurte, I campaigned to get an indoor skate park built within the sport and recreation shed and became the Northern Territory’s first Indigenous qualified skateboard instructor." Since inception, Nicky has been working alongside his teammate Georga Ryan, who is an enterprise development officer at Atyenhenge Atherre Aboriginal Corporation (AAAC). I only have good things to say about the way AAAC supports their community local enterprises and even better things to say about the extraordinary work Georga has accomplished in her six years of being there. In 2020 Nicky and Georga raised enough money to fund a First Nations skate tour, where a dozen community kids travelled to Brisbane to learn and practice their skateboarding. As people got wind of this incredible story the Spinifex brand started gaining traction and getting significant media attention around the country. At the time they applied for the DKAccelerator program they had been operating for over a year and their main challenge was generating enough sales to sustain the business and fund the skate tour and workshops in communities.

A dis­rup­tive food security solution delivering affordable meat to remote communities. Kere to Country is comprised of three co-founders Jessica Wishart, her brother Jordan Wishart and their close friend Tommy Hicks. Jess and Jordan are from the Bidjara Nation (Central Queensland) and grew up on Arrernte Country in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). Tommy is a Yamiji man, living in Kaurna country (Adelaide), who met Jess and Jordan when they were living there. The idea for Kere to Country came about at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Jordan and Jess returned home to Mparntwe. Food security was a serious risk at this time, especially for people living in remote communities far from town. They were shocked and appalled at the astronomical price of food (especially meat) in these communities. They began to question how these households in remote communities living on less than minimum wage would be able to afford food when it costs 2,3, sometimes even 4 times more than what it costs in town. "We couldn't get over how (you) can get good quality affordable meat to China yet, we haven't worked out a way to get good quality affordable meat to our families living in Central Australia”. At the time they applied for the DKAccelerator program, they were crystal clear on their mission and in the process of working out how to design a solution.

A graph­ic nov­el group cre­at­ing sto­ries inspired by lived experiences. Stick Mob is a social enterprise that creates career pathways for young creatives through storytelling, teaching, custom graphics and illustration. The Stick Mob team consists of five talented artists. Declan Miller is an Arrernte and Anmatyerre man who grew up in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). Declan is a graphic artist / storyteller who finished high school in 2020. Wendy Cowan is an educator and artist-activist who has lived in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) for two decades. Seraphina Newberry is an Arrernte woman and a graphic artist / storyteller who finished high school in 2021. Seraphina has been painting since she was five and loves comics and thriller movies with a good plot twist. Alyssa Mason is a Pitjantjatjara woman who also grew up in Mparntwe and is a graphic artist who finished high school in 2021. Lauren Boyle is a script writer and her family are from Arrernte and Jingili country. Stick Mob started when Declan Miller, who had recently been diagnosed with Dyslexia, shared a graphic novel he'd been working on with his grade 9 teacher (Wendy) and classmates (including Seraphina and Lauren). Everyone was impressed by his drawings and story plot and a number of classmates got involved by colouring in backgrounds and offering their advice and perspective. Fast forward a few years and Stick Mob had three graphic novels ready to publish and an exciting new business idea. At the time of starting the DKAccelerator program, Stick Mob were forming their business model and gearing up to launch their books.

An Arrernte cul­ture tourism enterprise with 90% Aboriginal staff. Standley Chasm is a family-owned business that has been running for 50 years and has experienced many peaks and troughs along the way. Nova Pomare is a Western Arrernte woman, who used to help her grandma in the cafe at the Chasm when she was a young girl. Twenty or so years later, Nova returned to Standley Chasm to take over as the manager in December 2018. At that time Chasm was being run by an Irish manager who had a team full of irish backpackers and only one First Nations staff member. In two short years, Nova turned the business around, with stronger financial performance and 90% Aborigianl employment. At the time of starting the DKAccelerator program, the COVID-19 Pandemic had wreaked its havoc putting a lot of financial pressure on the business. Nova was also working all day, every day, seven days and the business wasn’t in a position to hire more staff to alleviate some of the pressure. Nova knew that digital technology innovation could solve some of their problems, so the DKAccelerator program was exactly the type of support she was looking for.

In some ways these businesses are radically different from one another, however their missions are all closely tied to significant social impact outcomes in their local community. Although this wasn’t explicitly part of the selection criteria, almost every applicants’ mission was driven by these social values.

6. Phase 1: Discovery & Planning

In the first week of the program, Jane and I facilitated all-day workshops with each business. We spent Monday at the DKAccelerator workspace (Business Innovation Centre) with Stick Mob, Tuesday out at Standley Chasm, Wednesday with Spinifex Skateboards in Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) and Thursday with Kere to Country back at the workspace.

In preparation for the workshops, the participants compiled as much information about their business as they could. For younger businesses like Stick Mob and Kere to Country, this included business plans and an assortment of advice they had received from various people. For operational businesses like Spinifex Skateboards and Standley Chasm, this also included financial statements and access to web analytics, etc.

Although we had developed a relationship with the participants and learned about their business journeys in the weeks and months leading up to the program, it was important to recap on everything before we started making decisions on where we would be focussing our efforts over the next six months.

The purpose of the strategic planning workshops was to take the essence of each business mission statement and break it down into small incremental bite-sized tasks. To do this we used an 'Agile' project management framework called 'OKRs' which stands for Objectives and Key Results. This framework was popularised by tech companies in the 70s through 90s and is now one of the most commonly used frameworks amongst leading companies around the world. But that's not why we used it. We used it because of how intuitive it is. It breaks big lofty goals into simple, measurable tasks.

For example, Stick Mob’s mission is to spread the joy of visual storytelling and create meaningful pathways for young people. One of their goals was to establish a business model that is equal parts sustainable as it is flexible. Co-founder Declan Miller had ambitions of developing his skills further at the University of Queensland the following year and knew he would not be able to deliver as many workshops in his local community while he was away. So he set a goal (objective) to develop digital content that could be distributed while he was away at uni. This included a series of virtual workshops that could be sold as an online course. The OKR looked like this:

​Objective #2: Create Digital Content for 2022

  • Key Result 1: Develop and launch online course

  • Task A - find a few online courses you like

  • Task B - create the course layout

  • etc.

By the end of the workshop, each team converted their plan from notepads, butchers paper and whiteboards into a software program called Trello, which is a visually intuitive interface that makes an easy job of managing projects and tracking them to completion. Trello looks like this:

The dashboard is made up of columns and cards. The ‘Objectives’ column to the very left, is where the cards with the lofty goals live. The ‘Done!’ column to the very right, is where the completed task-cards live. The aim of the game is to (i) break the lofty objectives into quick and easy micro-tasks, (ii) decide when the task needs to be complete, and (iii) get the job done. In other words, move the cards from left to right.

Teammates used the cards to assign themselves and each other tasks, set due dates and provide progress updates. Unlike the classic 30-page business plan that gives even the most enthusiastic of business nerds a headache, these plans on Trello were easy to understand and easy to interact with. This meant that teams were able to engage with strategic planning on a regular basis and make the connection between a seemingly menial administrative task and the bigger picture that they were striving towards. This no doubt helped with building rhythm and momentum within each business.

At the beginning of every week, each business would have a 45-minute ‘group check-in’ with the program facilitators to comb through the Trello board to update each other on the progress of their assigned tasks. If there were any ‘blockers’ getting in the way of progressing a task, we talked about it and tried to come up with solutions. If there was no immediate solution, the card would be ‘paused’ and bumped back to the left. The priority in these sessions was to connect with each other and make sure everyone was on the same page, as well as catch any emerging problems early, address them and continue to build momentum.

On the first Friday of the program (Day 5), the four business teams gathered at the DKAccelerator workspace for a half-day group session. This was the first of four group sessions that were held over the course of the six-month program. We got to know each other as a group over lunch, and through several activities and discussions around specific topics. There were times when non-Indigenous participants and facilitators left the rooms to allow First Nations participants to talk openly about their experiences. They later shared some of the impacts of systemic racism, the unique challenges of starting a business and being a leader in this community.

The weekly 1-1 coaching sessions began in the second week of the program and helped participants to clarify their business goals and attach these goals to broader goals in other areas of their life. Throughout the program these sessions also provided space where people could talk about their life outside the business, which of course impacted things within the business. Together we learned that life and business are interconnected. If you put all your focus and energy on the business, other areas of your life become unbalanced, which in turn starts to make the business wobbly too. The things that would emerge from these sessions varied greatly. Sometimes it was a decision on whether to continue working with a certain supplier or when to launch a marketing campaign and other times it was a commitment to improving sleep hygiene or gaining clarity on how to softly approach a delicate situation with a teammate, friend or family member.

It took business teams roughly one month (some quicker, some longer) to settle into the rhythm of the program. They had to make space in their busy lives to fit in an immense amount of work:

  • A full day dedicated to working with the facilitators each week,

  • the weekly Trello board check-ins,

  • the 1-1 coaching sessions, etc.

It was a lot of work and perhaps more than we had all anticipated. The goals and objectives of each business continued to be reviewed and tweaked throughout the remainder of the program. However, once there appeared to be consensus within a team on what they were working towards, it was time to focus on the second phase of the program.

7. Phase 2: Foundation & Scalability

The idea behind the second phase of the program was to set a solid, sustainable and dynamic foundation with systems and processes that can scale alongside the business as it grows and develops.

For Stick Mob, their immediate focus was on launching their new website and their first series of graphic novels. It also meant clearly defining roles and responsibilities amongst the team and establishing an equitable profit share model between owners and non-owners.

By virtue of operating for so many years, Standley Chasm had a solid foundation in terms of systems and processes. However Nova consistently worked 12 hours a day, 7-days week, more than double the average work-week. So Nova focussed on making new hires and creating leadership roles within her work team. We also implemented various digital technology solutions that streamlined and optimised the way the business operated. An example of this was the introduction of an online booking system that allowed customers to book tours and camp sites directly through the website without calling Nova, who was busy managing the cafe. According to Nova, changes like this ultimately saved her a lot of time.

Kere to Country had a myriad of major logistical challenges to solve in order to create enough operational efficiencies along the entire supply chain to deliver high quality meat on the doorsteps of remote communities for significantly less than the current market price. The foundation required to make this dream a reality was to develop a digital platform that could do it all. We (co-founders and program facilitators) teamed up with an Aboriginal-owned software development company to create something quite impressive. This fully-integrated platform allows customers to make orders through the website and pay via Centrepay, which automatically deducts money from their centrelink account. The platform’s back-end has a custom-built inventory management system that makes it easy to track orders from beginning to end, plus much, much more.

It took about 3 months to launch this new platform. First, the team workshopped the design and created a service blueprint which is a visual diagram that maps the workflows and interactions between the customer and Kere to Country. Then we researched and compared product procurement and inventory management systems to determine which one would be the best fit for Kere to Country. We then interviewed a number of potential software developers before selecting the best fit. These are just some examples of the tasks we completed during this phase of the program.

Spinifex Skateboards needed to resolve a philosophical tension before they could establish a sustainable foundation. A tension existed between (i) being a grassroots community organisation that engages young people through skateboarding, and (ii) being a profitable retail business that generates enough revenue to fund skate tours and youth skate programs.

Their product fulfilment process illustrated this tension perfectly. Skateboards were freighted from North America to Brisbane, then on to Mparntwe (Alice Springs). The boxes were then tossed on the back of a Toyota Hilux and driven 80km across a bumpy dirt road to the remote community of Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa). Every Friday afternoon Georga (Spinifex teammate) would make the hour-long journey into town to post the orders. This meant that customers who ordered over the weekend had to wait a week before they could track their order and often another week for their product to arrive. This delivery timeline blew out even further during the COVID-19 lockdown periods. Freight costs were also eating up a considerable chunk of the profits, and we all agreed that there was little point in selling skateboards if there was no crust to pay workers or fund the skate workshops.

So here’s the tension. The business brain goes - “outsourcing product fulfilment to a third party supplier in the big city will improve customer satisfaction and profit margins”. The community development brain goes - “we need to create jobs here in the community, not in the big city”. For context, and good reason, people are sick of local jobs being put in the ‘too hard bucket’ and being awarded to people who live elsewhere. After many talks, it was decided that if we conceptually separate the retail business from the grassroots community development, Spinifex can use its business brains on the retail side and its community brains on the youth program side.

In practice, this meant that we found an incredible supplier in Adelaide, who happened to be a friend of Nicky’s, and was able to store the products and ship them directly to customers from his warehouse. It was an immediate weight off the team’s shoulders, customers were happy and profit margins were where they needed to be. It also meant that the Spinifex team had more time to focus on delivering workshops and creating local work opportunities through other areas of the business like art, design, media and facilitating workshops.

8. Phase 3: Growth & Acceleration

As anticipated, some businesses spent more time on growth than others. This is because Standley Chasm and Spinifex Skateboards were fully operational before the program started and Stick Mob and Kere to Country were in an earlier stage of development. Stick Mob endured several COVID-19 setbacks and officially launched their business in the third month of the program. While Kere to Country had many complex factors that needed to fall into place before they could launch, so it made sense to focus on the things they could control, which was building a solid foundation and preparing for launch day.

Having said that, every business in the program grew their ‘digital footprint’. Digital footprint is a measurement of a business’ web presence on the internet, that takes into account their social media following and search engine rankings. Towards the end of the program Stick Mob launched their online course and experimented with some digital marketing, which proved to be a great learning experience for the team. Several schools have since expressed interest in licensing this course for their students.

From a financial perspective Spinifex Skateboards’ sales trend also improved. Monthly sales grew by 168.2% when comparing the first and sixth month of the program. First the team developed a digital marketing plan with brand and product campaigns. We created an ‘abandoned cart funnel’ where an automatic email was sent to customers that had items sitting in their shopping cart and hadn’t completed their purchase. This campaign successfully recouped $589 of otherwise lost earnings in the first month it ran. The team also set up a Facebook Shop so customers could purchase products directly on Facebook rather than being diverted to the website. This initiative led to a $4,801 boost in sales in the first month. A series of advertising campaigns drummed up significant revenue and reached 251,424 people on Facebook and 163,898 people on Instagram.

Like every other tourism business, Standley Chasm struggled to stay afloat through the pandemic. 2020 was a shocking year, so in 2021 (the year of the DKAccelerator program) the pressure was on. Standley Chasm were able to improve their sales trend by 188% when comparing the six-month period during the program with the same six-month period the previous year in 2020. This was partly due to brief periods of time where people from Darwin, QLD and WA were able to visit Central Australia and partly due to the relentless, persevering nature of Nova Pomare and her team.

With interstate and international borders closed, the sensible option was to focus on local tourism. Engaging the local community also presented an opportunity to even out the steep peaks and troughs of a seasonal tourism business. This is because at the end of every tourism season, Standley Chasm has to downsize their work team because it's impossible to sustain wages over the summer months when business drops off to a fraction of what the peak season produces. Nova somehow found time amidst her 80-hour work week to devise a plan, which entailed using the cafe at the base of the stunning chasm as an event space with catering included. Towards the end of the program Standley Chasm hosted a sell-out Halloween event, where the braver kids could do the “Spooky Night Walk to the Chasm” and the survivors could celebrate with burgers and milkshakes.

9. Phase 4: Automation & Future Planning

While the intensive nature of this program was a very necessary element, it always posed a risk of creating a dependency relationship between the participants and the facilitators. Jane and I had woven ourselves into the fabric of these four businesses, working alongside them week in week out for 25 straight weeks. From the very beginning of the program, every participant was as aware of this risk as we were. It was a regular talking point, especially when the team implemented a new technology, system or process that felt like it was stretching the limits of their capacity.

The four principles we tried to follow as best we could throughout the program were (i) automate as much as possible, (ii) lots of training and lots of practice, (iii) document everything, and (iv) make sure the facilitators roles can be taken over by another teammate or by someone else.

The training part was easy because teammates would often work alongside Jane whenever a new system was being introduced. We also ensured that any third party specialists we engaged (e.g. for the development of websites and online courses) provided high quality training.

Towards the midway point of the program, we started developing a “SOP” document, which stands for Standard Operating Procedure. This document acts as an instruction manual for the business, documenting every single system, process and procedure. Everything from the business email account login details to step-by-step instructions on how to update a page on the website, everything. This meant that if a teammate was suddenly discontinued working with the business and was unable to do any handover, other teammates could read through this document and figure out how to do their role. In practice this would also be the process for any tasks the facilitators had undertaken during the program. There were certain tasks, mainly relating to technical aspects of the digital marketing process, that certain teams were doubtful they would be able to continue on their own beyond the program. For the most part there was enough budget to plug the skills gap by hiring a part-time marketer or outsourcing to a marketing agency. We also connected two of the businesses with an organisation called Community First Development, who link Aboriginal businesses with skilled volunteers. The participants were also impressively proactive with obtaining mentors, who would continue to support them beyond the program. Additionally, we decided to extend everyone’s access to the Business Innovation Centre, as well as continue the 1-1 coaching sessions with me for another six months.

In the second last week of the program, we attended the 10th Aboriginal Economic Development Forum, where the cohort participated in a panel discussion to a room full of listeners. The discussion was similar to the talks we had in the group sessions throughout the program. There was an enormous sense of pride amongst the group as each speaker was able to confidently and articulately talk about their experiences and visions for the future.

In the 25th and final week of the program, each business sat down with the facilitators and looked through their respective Trello Boards. We looked at the ways in which goals and objectives morphed and changed over the course of the program. We combed over the dozens of project cards that were now sitting in the “Done!” column. We then set new goals and objectives for the months and years ahead.

10. What did we learn from this pilot program?

In the six months beyond the program, I have remained in touch with the participants, who have had continued access to the DKAccelerator workspace and have their 1-1 coaching sessions with me. During this time, final interviews, surveys, data collection and analysis were conducted with participants, facilitators and external stakeholders to complete the evaluation of the pilot program. The evaluation reaffirmed some early assumptions, which were that (i) enterprise development is really important because it provides alternative pathways to obtaining meaningful work, and (ii) there are better ways to support First Nations entrepreneurs to develop their enterprise.

Building confidence and momentum. When comparing surveys and interviews at the beginning of the program to the end of the program, all participants indicated they felt more confident in their ability to run a successful business. Overall, the cohort accomplished 92% of the goals they set at the beginning of the program, with the businesses having built significant momentum in their business. On an individual level, everyone appears to be gaining momentum in their respective careers too. Jessica Wishart has since started a new construction enterprise called ‘Ankere’ and recently joined the Northern Territory Indigenous Business Network Board of Directors. Her teammate Tommy Hicks has also started his own cultural awareness consulting business called ‘Yuntulun’. Declan is now studying at the University of Queensland and is also doing his cadetship with the Central Land Council. Nicky continues to develop his media skills, learning programs like Adobe photoshop. He also flew to Melbourne to speak at an event called 'Kick, Push, Coast To A Better Future' as part of Melbourne Design Week. Nova recently joined Tourism NT’s Aboriginal Tourism Committee and Standley Chasm won a tourism award at the prestigious 34th Annual Brolga Awards.

Acquiring and developing skills. Program participants were tracked and evaluated on thirteen core business skills throughout the program by themselves, the facilitators, and a member of the participants’ external support network. Results from the survey show that participants improved in all thirteen areas, particularly in Strategic Planning, Decision Making, Problem Solving, Leadership, Project Management, IT & Digital Literacy. Participants largely attributed their steep learning curve to the intensity of the program, being able to apply these skills to a project they cared about and being able to get quality feedback and support in real-time.

The growth fund concept was ambitious. The aim of the growth fund was to teach participants how to micro-invest in their business. While the two more established businesses Standley Chasm and Spinifex Skateboards, were able to turn a dollar into two; participants and facilitators both felt that we needed more time to fully embed these knowledge and skills. This was especially true for the two younger businesses, Kere to Country and Stick Mob, where we needed to spend the majority of the six months focussing on foundational aspects of the business in Phase 2. Despite this, the growth fund still proved highly effective in eliminating any financial barriers and allowing teams to move quickly on implementing new technology systems or marketing campaigns.

Overall, the program demonstrated that while grants, business plans and training workshops may sometimes be useful, nothing beats the combination of project-based learning and responsive hands-on support. I believe that programs like DKAccelerator plug necessary gaps in the current business support network and the Government should refocus some of its resources towards this type of support.

If you asked me how a program like this could be improved further, there are three things I would change. First and foremost, I would like to appoint the Director role to a First Nations leader. Although I grew up on this country and connect deeply with the Arrernte people, and although Jane and I both identify as People of Colour and strong allies of First Nations people, this is not our identity or lived experience. Any program or initiative for First Nations people, that isn’t run by First Nations people, will inevitably have blind spots and is ultimately at risk of perpetuating the same systemic issues we’ve seen for far too long.

The second thing would be to extend the length of the program to 9 or 12 months, allowing businesses to dive a lot deeper into the growth and acceleration (third) phase of the program. Even the two more established businesses could have benefited from another 3-6 months of focussed support on developing a sustainable and scalable business model.

The third thing I would consider doing differently is running this program with a sector-specific cohort (e.g. tourism businesses) to provide more opportunities for shared learning and collaboration amongst the business teams. That being said, there was something special about having such a diverse group of businesses at different stages of development.

Overall, the evaluation of DKAccelerator indicated that the pilot program was effective in supporting the development of the four businesses and the cohort could easily be increased to 10 with the addition of a second Digital Growth Partner (Jane’s role). The program had a meaningful impact on all that were involved and it is my hope that this pilot project has inspired our Government to refocus more resources towards intensive mentorship programs like this one.


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