How to start before you’re ready

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Mick Spencer is the founder and CEO of ONTHEGO, a multi-million-dollar custom sports and uniform apparel e-commerce business. Since starting the Canberra-based business with just $150 to his name, Mick has boot-strapped it on its way up, growing it to a team of more than 40 and securing deals with the likes of Hockey Australia and IRONMAN Asia Pacific. Here he shares his tips on how to tackle your doubts head-on and start your dream business today.

For Mick Spencer, there’s never going to be the right time to start a business – you just need to jump right in and learn on the go.

Growing up, Mick faced a multitude of personal struggles that many may consider significant setbacks to success. Born with a vision condition, dyslexia and ADHD, and later diagnosed with two serious heart conditions, Mick came to learn early on that struggles bring opportunity for growth. It was this mindset and resolve that Mick established ONTHEGO with in 2012 during his first year of university.

The business got its first big break shortly after establishment, securing a deal with a local council to produce an order of 400 custom jerseys for a charity cycling event. The deadline was tight. With just three weeks to complete the order and little idea of how to deliver, Mick – then working out of his parents’ garage – knew he had to hustle.

Following extensive research over the course of one night, Mick located a manufacturer in China able to deliver the order within deadline. He received a 50% deposit from the customer and immediately transferred it on to the manufacturer.

When the completed order was delivered from China by DHL Express and the customer none the wiser about the infancy of ONTHEGO’s operations, Mick knew he was on the right track.

From the start, Mick says, ONTHEGO was about setting itself apart from the market, disrupting an established industry with a blend of technology and social responsibility.

“Great businesses are founded by big problems and in today’s market you need to continue to solve problems for the customer,” he explains.

“For us, it was about being completely different. Our industry was full of companies that weren’t really online. They only had online catalogues where you had to fill out a form to order and you could only pick from limited set product range to add your logo to. Online custom apparel design just wasn’t available for the customer.”

“We identified this gap and figured out a business model to solve the problems this market segment was experiencing,” Mick concludes.

This business model involved creating an e-commerce site with a 3D integrated design tool, providing the customer with greater control over the product’s design elements and a live view of changes to product colour, fonts and logos. In addition to this, providing example product designs for customer inspiration, making available consistent sizing charts and showing materials through high quality images have kept the business ahead of traditional industry players.

“A lot of our customers online have never seen the product before, so having tools to give them a more life-like version of the product builds their confidence in the purchase,” Mick explains, “This is particularly important in our business where customers are usually designing for a really important event. The customer is a company designing for a product launch, a footy team coordinator designing for a grand final, a brother designing for a cancer charity run in honour of his sister – this is the business of serious stuff so absolute confidence is key.”

This model has proved successful for ONTHEGO, with the business since growing at a rate of 300 per cent year-on-year and expanding to employ more than 40 staff across Canberra and Melbourne. In addition to e-commerce orders, the business has scored contracts with a range of sporting, corporate and charity organisations including Hockey Australia, Westfarmers, Fitbit, LinkedIn and Unicef. So how can you start your business and put a plan for growth into action? Here Mick shares his top tips to building a strong business from the outset.

Mick’s 4 Tips for Starting Before You’re Ready

1. Have a game plan then jump right in

Mick explains that endless business preparation and paralysis by analysis, compounded over time, is likely to halt any chance of getting your business off the ground. In order to start what you want to do, you simply need to push aside the self-doubts, pull together a rough game plan and jump right in.

Once you’ve got the ball rolling, it’s about keeping the game plan in action, he says.

“As the nature of our business is made to order, at any one time there are a couple of thousand orders under management. In this case, preparation is the key to run the business day-to-day. On a long-term basis, a solid upscale plan will help to manage growth without compromising on the standards of quality set for the business.”

2. Know your customer’s ‘why’

It is important to understand the reason customers are coming to your business’ site – are they there to browse or are they there to solve a very specific problem?

Knowing your customer’s ‘why’ and designing your e-commerce site based on their expected site functions will increase the chance of them continuing through the checkout steps and completing the sale.

For ONTHEGO, reconsidering the business’ potential spectrum of customers and their ‘whys’ helped open the door to further growth, expanded the business’ product offering and captured customers who would have previously bounced from the site.

“We had a lot of challenges early on where we started getting really great traffic but our conversion rate was quite low. After analysing this, we realised that not everyone wants to design apparel themselves; there are a portion of the market that want it done for them. So with that we introduced a service where we do it for the customer, ensuring we captured these customers once they landed on our site and provided them with the solution at the level of personal involvement they were comfortable with.”

3. Make quality customer experience the focus

Providing great customer experience should be the core of every great business, Mick says, and the most important thing to ensuring high quality customer experience flows through the business to every customer touchpoint is hiring a team that is obsessed and passionate about the customer.

“Remember, great customer experience is a daily effort. It is really not something that you can do once a month or once a quarter, just check-in and hope it is all good,” Mick says.

“You need a pretty obsessed and dedicated team, all the way from your pattern makers to your customer service representatives.”

“This team needs to be working every day to look for areas of improvement. This could be through analysing site data points for areas of simplification, interpreting videos of how customers are interacting with the website’s layout, or even as simple as sending a customer satisfaction survey at the end of an interaction.”

4. Set growth as a goal

The enduring success of any venture is to never settle for the current state of business, Mick advises.

“A lot of people in the world play sport, like really cool uniforms, and have an internet connection and a credit card – each of them hold potential as a future ONTHEGO customer and it is important for us to keep this in mind when considering our longer-term growth strategy.”

“For any business, ensure that you run into the market with focus and a plan. By keeping your eyes on the goal, tackling oncoming challenges, and making sure you continue to uphold your standards of customer experience along the way, you’ll be certain to make your customers the ultimate champion of your product or service,” Mick concludes.

Mick’s book, Start Before You’re Ready, a business guidebook of tips to overcoming personal and professional challenges is out now. For more information about ONTHEGO, head to onthegosports.com.au.