Strata Plan founder Simon Chamaa learned an interesting lesson when he was young and novice. His father’s friend told him about the philosophy of the moso tree, a Chinese bamboo tree, which taught him about hard work, patience, resilience, perseverance and consistency.
The way the moso tree grows is that it doesn’t exhibit any growth during its first five years. But underneath the ground, it is growing its roots and laying its foundation. Still, it needs constant nurturing and watering despite the seeming lack of growth. Then after five years, it will grow from one foot to about 90 feet in only four weeks. The strong wind will come and blow on it. But the wind will not be able to topple the moso tree.
That is how Simon is building his business, with the philosophy of the moso tree as his inspiration. At present, he is seeing that figurative one foot of his business springing out from his entrepreneurial ground. “Now, we are probably managing about 800 buildings across Victoria, with around 20,000 clients. We have 45 staff and probably about 2,000 contractors that work for us. The business is growing from the little desk that was sitting at the back of my dad’s factory,” Simon reveals. That makes him look at the future full of hope. He is positive that the next five years of his business will be like the moso tree at 90 feet high.
People usually see the fruits but not the labours that business owners like him put into the business. They often notice the prestige of owning a business, the position of having staff members work for the entrepreneur, and the nice cars and houses these business owners acquire. But what they don’t comprehend is that it doesn’t happen overnight. “It just doesn’t work that way. People may get carried away with the stuff they read online. But there’s always a story behind it. They might forget the millions of businesses that just have started up and have failed within the first three years.”
Simon’s entrepreneurial journey had bumps and potholes along the way. Even before that part of growing his business from his dad’s factory, Simon went through a lot first. He came from humble beginnings as he grew up in Broadmeadows, one of the disadvantaged areas of Melbourne. “I finished school in year 10. I didn’t quite complete high school. I worked all my life, delivering newspapers when I was a kid to working in the family business. I also worked in cafes before I started working in the family business,” he narrates.
Then, he partnered with a real estate agent friend to put up a business and Strata Plan was born. It wasn’t an easy-going start though. His partner was the one more knowledgeable of the industry. For the first two years, they only had two clients, including Simon’s brother-in-law, and they weren’t making any money. Then the time came when his partner decided to leave the venture and go on his own. That left Simon all by himself to see the business through. With little knowledge about the industry and without a cent to his name, he had to face all the challenges brought upon his business and personal life.
He vividly recalls that moment at 2:00 in the morning when he emotionally broke down in their living room. The lone heater that his in-laws had purchased for them was their only source of warmth as there was no heating in their house. They were on the brink of losing their property and bills were piling up. Simon thought of his young son and his pregnant wife who was then carrying their second child.
“I felt like I failed as a father. I failed as a husband. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘what are you doing sitting here thinking that you failed? You have two options: either sit here and cry or fight it and do something about it.’ That pain I felt that night sat like a fire in my belly,” Simon avows. It has become his motivation every time he faces an obstacle. He would reflect back on those moments when they were still struggling and couldn’t afford food. That scenario would always inspire him to keep going and constantly work hard.
In the process of putting more hours in the business, he has sacrificed a lot of his family time, which he considers as one of the two biggest challenges that he faced in his life. “That would probably be paramount, not being there for all my children’s functions. I try to attend when I can, but there had been some instances when I can’t,” Simon admits. There was an occasion when he went to his son’s training session because his son was playing soccer for a particular club. He met some of the parents there, yet nobody knew him. When he told them who he was, they were surprised as they thought that Simon’s wife was joking when she said that she’s married because they had never seen him before. Simon never felt so embarrassed.
To overcome this ordeal, he worked on revamping his schedule so that he could spend more time with his wife and children. Instead of working from 7:00 in the morning until 9:00 or 10:00 at night, he started working at 4:30 or 4:45 in the morning and get everything done so that he could be home by 6:00 in the evening.
The other major challenge for Simon was hiring the right people and creating a culture that was founded on simple things that he believed in: care and empathy. It was two years into the business when Simon hired his first employee, who didn’t last very long until he got more staff members. In those days, they had their office set up at the back of his father’s printing factory. He was still working for his father while running his business because he needed money to support his family. They improvised using some makeshift desks and placed three computers on them, one for Simon and two for the junior staff he hired at that time. “We were working literally on the warehouse floor with printing machines in front and next to us. That was interesting because when you try to talk to customers, you can hear the machines going on in the background. We ended up managing to build our office in that space. So, that helped. We stayed there for about four years,” Simon recounts.
They started to outgrow the place and moved to South Melbourne in 2012 with about seven staff members. Eventually, that grew to 45 people. Within that team, Simon has instilled in them the culture he wants for his business and has become like a family. It was probably one of the biggest improvements in the business that Simon was happy to see.
“Over the last two years, we have come to this fruition. We have this culture of caring for one another, treating people like people, and being empathetic and not jumping the gun. Success comes from the efforts of our people. When I started the business and hired my first employees, I buy them lunch on Fridays. From one staff to two staff, I’ve been buying lunch on Friday.” Because the team has grown, they have become conscious of the cost involved. But for Simon, it’s a small way of thanking them. What is important for him is the camaraderie and the appreciation they get out of this simple gesture.
Simon worked at hurdling the other obstacles that have come his way, which he still constantly does because the challenges just never stop. With regards to his limited understanding of the business environment, he found a way to address that. What he did was he met with a lawyer on a monthly basis to learn more about the business landscape. “I would collate a list of questions I had about the industry, the business, and the laws. I go out and sit down with him for an hour each time and try to smash out as many questions as I could just to educate myself,” Simon shares. Although he wasn’t academic, he bought a book about the industry and read it until everything made sense to him. “I’m always still learning. I constantly want to educate myself and my staff, but that was probably the toughest thing.”
He has also mined a lot of learnings from EO Melbourne, an organization he has been a part of for nearly six years. The topic of EO was brought up when he was having a conversation with a family friend one day. Simon was telling his friend of his frustrations and that his lawyers, his camp and his friends do not seem to understand the struggles he’s been going through because they don’t have a business of their own. This friend then referred him to EO. Joining EO Melbourne has played a big part in helping him deal with the challenges he constantly encounters.
“When I think about the success I have achieved from EO, I think it’s the learnings and the experiences I had. It is the opportunity to share with other EOers my story and the privilege to listen to the stories they share with me. It has changed the way I think about how I manage things on a personal level, such as my health and my family, and also on a business level,” Simon says thoughtfully.
Some of the things he picked up from EO were the lessons from his amazing Forum and meditation, which he has learned over the last three years. “I learned to meditate, and I went into that with an open mind. I was blown away by the impact it can have on me.”
With the right people, the right culture, the proper knowledge and the additional learnings, Simon’s business has started to build momentum, especially through referrals and contacts that they have generated organically. Because the venture is growing, he has been receiving offers from a few competitors. But what stops him from entertaining them is his genuine care for his people. “I could take the money and run and retire for the rest of my life. To be quite honest, money is not what inspires me. I’ve lived with nothing. I’ve lived from coins. I think what inspires me is making a difference and creating a business that helps. It is about giving the people who contributed to it the opportunities to fulfil their dreams and aspirations. So, that’s something that we are focusing on over the next five years.”
Going back to the moso theory, Simon sees his business at a point where it is growing. He is not aiming to be the largest in the landscape but to be the best at what they do. His aim is in creating an impact on the industry, making his business self-sustainable, and providing opportunities for his people. “We can have ten times more impact on the industry over the next five years. If that turns into revenue, then it’s great. But money is not the motivator,” Simon reiterates.
Looking at the future, Simon prefers to be in a position where he can step back and take on an ambassador role in the business. “I’m not one that likes a lot of limelight and glory. I’ve been very reserved about that. I’d like to step back in the business and give others the opportunity to grow the business and spend more time focusing on working on the business than relatively in it.”
Reflecting on that time when he was breaking down and seeing where he is right now and where his business can be down the road, he feels humbled. That moment when he was on his laptop at 2:00 in the morning and looking at the letter from the bank about his mortgage was a turning point in his life. He could have taken the easy way. But he chose to work hard and lay the foundations of his business. He went about hiring the right people, getting the structure right, and putting the core systems in place. And even when he couldn’t instantly see the rewards of his labours, he kept nurturing his business and his people, like a gardener was to a moso tree.
Simon looks forward to seeing his business reach greater heights because it would mean the fulfilment of his dreams and those of his people. With a good foundation in place, he is positive that his business can withstand the wind and whatever challenge that will come its way. It will be as formidable as a moso tree.