“My philosophy is I want to find a way for everybody to win. There are some cultures where you only win if other people lose. I want to do business with people and want them to have a great experience. I want to be able to meet every client that I’ve worked within 20 years’ time and make them feel that they got good value. It’s one of the core values I have that I add value to people’s lives and not take away,” declares Alliance Software CEO and Owner, Ben Stickland.
Solving problems, family and his Christian faith are some of Ben’s great passions. He admits that he does not have any entrepreneurial background in his family, but he has always been into ventures since he was a kid. “I was born in a small country town and then moved to a regional city before I became a teenager. I had a very good family life to middle-income parents and a couple of older sisters. My dad was a teacher, and my mum was a nurse. They have no entrepreneurial background,” he began.
He even remembers his childhood wherein he was embarrassed that his father was a champion knitter who made jumpers and placed them in exhibitions. Ben grew up in a tough little town where everyone played football and fathers displayed masculine and macho prowess. Now that he perceives things differently, Ben believes that people should do what they want to do, as his father did in knitting and him in taking the entrepreneurial route.
“Even from a young age, I was always trying various entrepreneurial ventures. When I was little, I bought myself a saxophone and a windsurfer by selling pot plants on the side of the road, doing things like that. I was always trying to do weird things to make money as a kid, and lots of them failed spectacularly. But, it was a hobby of mine as a child,” Ben continued.
It goes to show that he has exhibited the entrepreneurial spirit at an early age. In fact, he started Alliance Software when he was still in university. Except for his service in the church, Ben never had a full-time job in any company. He immediately took the business journey when he had the opportunity. He narrated, “I worked with the church for two or three years and did that at the same time I’ve had some other part-time roles. I was passionate about the youth work that I was doing with the church where I was involved. I effectively started my business out of university. I’ve never had a real job.”
Alliance Software was the banner under which he did contract programming for other businesses while he was still studying. “The reason I started it was because it was convenient, and I could make better money than I could in doing student jobs. I think it’s easier to start a business while still young because in my case, I didn’t need much money since I was living with my parents. Then I got married quite young. My wife was on a good income, and I was running Alliance Software,” explained Ben.
At the end of his Master’s course in university, he got a job offer from a company called Accenture, a large multi-national consulting firm. The offer was great and tempting. At that time, Ben took a Master’s degree, as he thought he would get a real career, and it seemed Accenture was the answer. But he seriously pondered the kind of life he and his family would have if he accepts the offer. He recalled that fateful night, “My wife and I went out for dinner, and I remember we were looking over the sea and talking about it. We knew people who worked at Accenture and the lifestyle they had. That was the night when we decided to reject the offer and try to be a real business owner.”
While Alliance Software is his primary business, Ben has also dabbled in other enterprises as well. Another business he put up was Noble Samurai, which is a tech startup. He also built Web2TV, a business in the age care space, which he sold to a publicly listed company. He’s also looking at establishing another venture, although he’s still fiddling with the new business concept.
Since there are low barriers to entry in the industry where he is operating, it was not a difficult space for him to found an enterprise. It is true that Ben found it easy to start some businesses, but there were tougher times along his entrepreneurial path. Making a business flourish is a huge challenge in itself. His Noble Samurai business started very successfully and was popular in its category as an SEO tool. But the industry collapsed, tools in that trade became less popular, and competitors were fleeing. It was an exciting venture that made lots of money that fell into a crashing failure. Ben and his team had to endeavour to rebuild it from the ground up to keep it running.
Then he was embroiled in a legal battle with a customer, one of the lows he experienced as an entrepreneur. Still, he regards himself a person who tries to find amicable solutions to a whole range of problems. There are also misconceptions about businesses and business owners that others see differently. “People look at businesses and think they’re all well-run, orderly, organised, and efficient. As I’ve gotten to know more businesses, I’ve realised that a lot of businesses are not well-run. The other thing is that most business owners are dysfunctional in some way or another. They generally have significant weaknesses in certain areas of their life. They only succeed because they set up processes that don’t need them to be strong in those areas. A lot of business owners are just holding on by the seat of their pants. I can only think of two or three people, who I would consider genuinely well-rounded and can excel across five or six different business functions where they are involved. I’m not one of them. Business people are not as clever or capable as I thought they would be when I started my business,” Ben declared.
On the flipside, one of the highs of his entrepreneurial adventure was when he launched one of his businesses fruitfully. He also felt euphoric when it brought in a huge income. The last few years, he has been happy that his ventures are doing well, especially when it continues to grow, earning solid revenues and good profits.
For Ben, the two key factors that provided him with continuous growth are the books he reads and the people who surround him. In fact, he regards the two books he read in EO, Scaling Up and Traction, as good tools that he was able to use for his businesses. “Both are business process books and are excellent, in my opinion. We’ve implemented a lot of the principles, such as deciding our target market, deciding how we’re going to run the business with people, and deciding how we’re going to execute the processes. At a pragmatic level, they’ve been very good, and I highly recommend them,” he stated.
With regards to EO, Ben shared an anecdote about his entry into the organisation. Two of his clients were both EO members and recommended him to be part of this group. “I joined, paid my dues and turned up without knowing what it was I was joining, which was in hindsight, a little bit silly. There are other obvious ways to assess it and get some input. But that was my experience. I got a couple of suggestions from people I trusted, and I paid up and came along,” he laughingly recounted.
Nevertheless, he has received great value from becoming a member of EO. For him, “It has been an opportunity to see how high-calibre business owners approach problems and work through situations. It is like having a sounding board to talk those through with them. Seeing how other people wrestle with challenges, and the kinds of actions they take, it gives you a whole different perspective on how you act. It allows you to upgrade your mental operating system to the way that different people would operate, rather than just seeing things the way they always seem.”
From books, people and experiences, Ben has established rhythms in their business that have become some of their best practices. They have daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annual rhythms of setting goals, strategy, and check-ins to identify where they are off and what are the problems present. Because Ben believes that people are not lazy and will want to work when given the proper motivation and environment, he leads his team towards their goals through right incentives and rewards, recognition, clear directions, celebrations during victories, and good corporate values.
Managing a business and the people in it may vary from one business owner to another. Ben has structured his business where he doesn’t have to work crazy hours so he can spend more time with his wife and two children. He’s normally home by 5:30 at night and takes dinner together with his family. His son, who is 12 years old, shows that he can be an adept computer programming by learning free stuff on the internet. He stressed how individuals, especially business owners, can learn from the internet without shelling out a lot of money. “I heard this crazy story about the guy who was the world record javelin thrower. He got to the position of being the best in the world, but he never had a coach, he never had a lesson. He had learned everything about javelin throwing from YouTube,” Ben shared.
Ben pointed out that training can be low-cost nowadays because of the various resources available online. In fact, they are training their staff on a particular technology at the moment, and they found a great training resource at a very low price. He hopes to grow his businesses to become a bigger version of what they’re doing now. He wants to increase the number of staff and do more startups, probably some joint ventures with his existing staff that he has good relations to be his business partner.
It was not so long ago when Ben found himself at the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey. Now, he has built a company that is almost two decades in operation and several other ventures along the way. To those who want to become entrepreneurs, his suggestion is this, “Keep your costs low. Take a job where you have to sell to make money. Don’t beaver away building something in your garage for two years before you go and sell it. Take the idea and go and pitch it to people first. Then get your first customers to help pay for the product to be created or pay for the service to come into existence.”
Different strategies and management styles can be applied depending on the kind of business model one has. But the simple things new entrepreneurs should know, according to Ben, is to buy a thing or create a product or do some work and then sell that product or service for profit. It only gets complicated once the business grows due to higher demands of work. There’s no need to perfect everything. For him, even it’s half-baked, one should take the risk and test its viability in the market with the least possible cost. Then take the metrics to evaluate where one can improve and develop.
Most of all, he cited the need for a business owner to be curious and humble enough to accept that there are more things to be learned as one continues in the entrepreneurial journey. Ben expressed something about himself, “I like to surround myself with smart people. I want to be curious. I want to be learning new things. For me, that’s a big passion. That is what drives me. I enjoy the learning process. I enjoy the discovery. I enjoy figuring stuff out. I like working with people who are thinking in different ways. There’s no grand message in the realities of the journey. The journey is still pretty young in many ways. I feel very fortunate, and I think I’m very lucky to be able to have this business, which has given me something that I enjoy doing where I get to work with good people.”