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A rural marketer making a difference to small businesses, one by one

My name is Mell, and I am the Founder and Director of Starfish Marketing, which is a small marketing agency based in regional NSW.

We work predominantly with small businesses in rural and regional areas. Our Starfish story is about making a difference to small businesses one by one, and the positive flow-on effects this can have. Marketing makes a big difference to businesses, but especially small businesses.

Q: How many employees do you have?

A: Two employees including myself. I am full-time and my employee is part-time.

Q: What is your business and where is it located?

A: Our office is in Albury, NSW, my home office is in Rutherglen, Victoria, and my sole employee is based in Canberra.

We have clients in Albury-Wodonga and surrounding villages including Rutherglen and Yackandandah. We also have one long term client in Lithgow, and we have a broader online reach too, especially since we have online materials on our website that businesses can access.

Q: How long has your business been running?

A: Just under 4 and half years.

I’ve worked in marketing/sales for over 30 years, and in both metro and regional areas including Canberra, Sydney, Bathurst, Wagga and now Albury-Wodonga and Rutherglen.

Previously, I worked in marketing for a local accounting firm and saw that their small business clients never got their marketing done. They knew that it was important, but they just never got it done. I realised that there was no one servicing these small businesses from a marketing business perspective. Starfish Marketing grew from this.

Q: How is COVID-19 affecting your business, you and your employees?

A: Since we’re in marketing, we’ve been hit really hard. The government’s JobKeeper payment has helped with cashflow and means I can keep my employee on. My partner has also been very supportive and since he is in secure employment, together we can financially cope with the current situation.

But we’ve lost 30% of our revenue. Many of our clients are small businesses that are in industries that were just decimated. No income at all. Our clients have us on monthly retainers, rather than project-based, so our clients know exactly what they are getting from us each week or each month. But now suddenly due to COVID-19, we are down by 30%.

Our clients very early on told us their situation and I reassured them that I absolutely understand. When you have zero income and your business is closed down, there is not much need for marketing. But they said that they will come back to us if and when they get through this.

Q: What changes have you made to the business to keep viable in this time?

A: I come from a farming background with six generations on the family farm. I learned that you don’t take handouts. But this is not the time to be proud. Whatever you are eligible for, you need to claim it and get through any way you can.

So, we applied for JobKeeper and I got my accountant to handle all that because it can be complicated and there are fines if you get it wrong. We also put our car leases on hold for six months and rent reduction for a few months.

I felt overwhelmed by all the info and learning so much, but I am lucky that I can keep my staff member on and still have an income for myself.

I then I had a realisation that I’m not the only one going through this – everyone is. Every small business person is. So, I created a Facebook group - Small Business Check In. It’s a space set up for small business owners and employees to check in and know they are not alone. We’re in this together and we can get through this together. The group acts as a support group and has turned out to be focused more on mental and emotional support than business support. We’ve been sharing our stories about how we’ve reacted and what we’ve done. There is a live aspect to the group, where every Wednesday, we have ‘Ask Me Anything’, and members post up questions and they get a live response through the Facebook Live function. Friday is ‘Friday Yay’ and members share what good thing happened this week, anything at all, it doesn’t have to be business related. There are about 100 people in the group and we’ve seen some genuine interactions and connections. The feedback is that the group has value, and it will most likely continue beyond COVID-19.

Q: How are you feeling at this time?

A: Initially, I felt quite panicked and I freeze a bit in stressful situations – put my head in the sand a bit. But then I could see the support from the government with their stimulus packages, and banks and financial intuitions allowing a freeze on repayments and the like, so this went a long way to helping.

Also, the responsibility you feel towards your employees can be overwhelming at times because as a business owner you feel responsible for them, their livelihoods and their professional development.

Both my employee and I have felt overwhelm during this time. One week I was really feeling it and the next week my employee was feeling the same. You have to think about so many things now and make so many more decisions. You have to stop and think about going to the shops for milk and how do to this safely, when before all this happened, the thought wouldn’t have even entered your mind, you’d just go and do it. So, all these decisions and thinking can be taxing.

The key for us is to communicate and be supportive. Since my employee lives in Canberra and I’m either in Albury or Rutherglen, our daily work routines and weekly Zoom meetings didn’t change, but certainly the thinking, decision and learning overwhelm was a big change. So, we began checking in on each other more and created a space where we felt like either of us could put up our hand and at any time and say – I am feeling overwhelmed, please help. We’ve definitely learnt a lot about each other in this time and I’d say our working relationship is stronger for it. It’s not ‘staff’ and ‘employer’, we’re a real team.

Q: How do you take care of your mental health and wellbeing outside of work?

A: Honestly, I’m probably not too good at that, I admit. I am reasonably self-aware and sometimes I just need time out. I call it my cocoon time and so I make sure I make that happen.

And I make sure that I have at least one complete day off each week. I’d happily work seven days a week! I love what we do and working with other small businesses, but it can wholly absorb me, so I know that I need to have a day off and spend it with my partner.

We’ve also probably been drinking a bit too much during COVID-19. So, I am going to do Dry July. I am aware that drinking too much is not taking care of yourself, so I’m going to take action.

Q: What are the benefits of being located in a rural/regional place?

A: Without doubt, the close relationships and shared experiences in rural or regional places foster supportive community ties. And small business really makes a difference here. It’s the backbone of rural communities – if they are successful, our communities are successful. It’s a ripple effect – helping one business is more than just helping one business, it is making a difference in the community as well. This is our Starfish ethos.

Q: What message of hope and resilience do you have for other small business employers and employees?

A: We are not in this alone. Even though you might feel like you are, know that we are all going through similar experiences, maybe not from a business or situational perspective but certainly from an emotional experience. Also, it really does help to share. It’s ok to not be ok. If you put your hand up someone will be there. It could be a friend or a colleague or a complete stranger.

Likewise, being there to support a friend or a colleague, is really important right now. Just let them know you are there for them and ask them how you can help.

I’ve learned through our Facebook group that people really want to reach out and support each other. It might look different for different people, but that support is there.

About Mell Millgate

Mell Millgate founded Starfish Marketing in 2015 and has been helping business owners make their marketing happen ever since, either by doing their marketing or teaching them how to do it. Mell is on a mission to: help you make your marketing happen - make marketing simple and fun - and make a difference, one small action at a time. With over 30 years' experience, Mell has held key sales, marketing, and management roles across various industries. Mell lives, breathes and loves all things marketing.

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