Steven Smith describes himself as an “accidental business owner”.
A former teacher turned web adviser, his first passion has always been to inform and advise his clients rather than focusing on day-to-day business matters.
So it is perhaps no surprise that he was somewhat naïve when he launched his business.
“I don’t think you start out a business like mine with the intention of being a business owner,” says Smith, the founder of United Focus, a South Australian internet strategy and advisory firm. “For me it was a by-product of fulfilling a desire to spend my working day doing work that really interested me.”
The upshot is that the mundane, but important duties such as managing projects, writing invoices and controlling cash flow have often been left in the lap of the gods.
Smith confirms: “I don’t find the business aspects – accounting, invoicing and general management – at all interesting and I am not very good at them.”
Since launching United Focus in 1995, however, the former history and English teacher has learnt a valuable lesson – as boring as some business tasks may be, they still have to be done. After reading Michael Gerber’s seminal book on SME management, <i>The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It<i>, Smith realised he needed at least three components to his business: an entrepreneur, a technician and a manager.
“I was the entrepreneur and technician, but I needed a manager. Luckily my wife had managerial skills and, luckily, although at home with small children, she was willing and able to fill that role.”
Today, Smith sees his role as part communicator and part Web architect as he provides a link between the online world and the wider business community. His chief skill is to educate people about what the Web can do for them.
“It became apparent to me that there were plenty of ‘techos’ (out there), but few people who could explain how to develop website that are easy to use and easy to maintain,” Smith says.
From his base in South Australia, he helps clients plan, manage and improve their websites. “I help my clients understand what is possible, what will suit their needs and what they can afford. I also develop guidelines and standards for the web, deliver workshops and provide advice to governments about internet policy.”
It is a significant detour from his days working as a teacher in the 1980s, although his educational background comes in handy.
“I started teaching ancient history and English in the early 1980s and very early on a wise senior teacher warned me that the career path for ancient history teachers was somewhat stunted,” Smith recalls.
“He suggested I do a post-graduate course in the instructional uses of computers.”
While computers, email and the web are ubiquitous today, Smith’s initial fascination with IT made him somewhat of an educational pioneer in the 1980s and early 1990s. After stints working as the head of computing at a school in Adelaide and as an educational consultant for a computer company, he started his own business.
“I could see that the web was going to have a significant impact on our lives and work and the greatest hurdle was going to be people and businesses understanding how to use it … I saw a huge opportunity to help businesses understand how to profit from the web and to be the honest broker between them and the techos.”
Home and hosed
Finding the right setting for his new business was an early priority for Smith, and again he broke the trend of the day and opted for a home-based operation rather than renting a bland serviced office.
“The choice of a home office was driven by practical, financial and aesthetic considerations,” he says. “I initially considered serviced offices because I blindly accepted the common wisdom that professional business people work out of formal offices with addresses that are recognised as office precincts. But when I investigated offices I found them to be more expensive than I had anticipated and I didn’t like any of them.”
Grey industrial carpets, laminex surfaces and a lack of natural light did not appeal.
“I realised that mostly I would be going to [clients’] offices and probably would meet many over a coffee … “[I thought] that the few clients who did visit me would find [my home] inviting and for some a refreshing change from their sterile offices.”
Today, Smith continues to challenge conventional wisdom. While many managers fear a national economic slump could lead to slower business for many SMEs, Smith believes it could open new doors.
“The economic downturn will make the internet even more important as a marketing tool for businesses. Consumers will be even more money conscious and will be more inclined to use Google to find the cheapest products and services.”
This means home businesses without a credible website will be more exposed to the economic downturn than others.
Love of the job
Smith says he will continue to stay in business until he stops enjoying what he does.
“I really like what I do. I enjoy the chase of getting new work and of helping organisations improve their websites. The ex-teacher in me also loves the research work, writing papers, presenting workshops and generally educating users and businesses about the web and how it can help them in their day-to-day lives and work.”
In 2008 he planned a new business, Website Criteria, which would research and develop best practice guidelines for managing websites and intranets.
“In a sense, I sought to reinvent myself and to reposition my services which was very exciting. My plan was to move towards advising website consultants that I had accredited and trained – I wanted to be the consultant to the consultants. It all worked very well, so well that I’m about to embark on the next journey in my working, heading up eBusiness Services for KPMG nationally.”