Entrepreneurs: Are they born, made or raised in a lab?

Entrepreneurs: Are they born, made or raised in a lab?
July 2012

Raffael Gretener is the founder and director of Sunshine Coast-based ecommerce venture FindACrew.net.

It’s about finding the fundamentals among the fads, but still being able to talk about the fads.

Published Wednesday, 4 July 2012

FindACrew.net is a global business and receives payments from over 130 countries every month.  It is, Raffael says, the perfect business: no borders, no specific demographics, no debtors, no buildings, no cash registers, and its sales force is the entire customer base.

Do great ideas just land in your lap, or are entrepreneurs born? Is there something government can do to help nurture startup success?

Gretener takes a direct approach and believes it’s learn-as-you-go – what the academics might call adiscovery-driven approach. Take his first venture: brought up on the ski slopes of Switzerland, he gave ski lessons. Aged six, he stood at the top of a chair lift and offered to teach skiers as they arrived.

Remarkably, Gretener got a taker. “I took this kindly gentleman straight to the ski jumps, but I immediately broke my leg and ended up in hospital.” Business failure? Far from it. “It was a success. The old man visited me in hospital with an enormous chocolate Easter bunny.” Gretener was hooked.

By the time he had reached his mid-20s Gretener had trained as an engineer, and had traded ski slopes for sailing and a life in Brisbane. He and a business partner embarked on a large-scale entrepreneurial venture: Ferra Engineering.

“We were young Swiss engineers with poor English, little of our own money and few local connections in the throes of ‘the recession we had to have’. So we opened an engineering workshop for advanced manufacturing components, to compete across the world.”

Dr Lance Newey, a specialist in entrepreneurship at UQ Business School, calls this an ‘obstacles-into-opportunities’ mindset that can reap rewards long-term. “Starting in tough times can imprint financial discipline into companies early on, and remain part of the culture.”

Within 18 months, Ferra Engineering had moved into a new factory. Twelve months later they had outgrown that, with NASA, Boeing and British Aerospace on the books.

Gretener believes that what they had thought were their biggest weaknesses were actually assets: youth, world-class standards and a willingness to try different approaches.

Of course, entrepreneurs rarely sit still.

Within six years, Gretener was ready to move on. Married, with a young family, working 5am till 10pm no longer worked. The business partnership was also evolving. As start-ups mature into established businesses, it can be a challenge to retain a shared vision of what’s next. “There is also transition from entrepreneurial to professional management that all businesses go through as they grow. Not all entrepreneurs are interested in sticking around for that part of the business, and we see a lot of entrepreneurs moving on to new opportunities at this point,” says Lance Newey.

Gretener sold his 50% stake in the company. He was young, successful and free, but not ready for the golf course.

The explosion of e-commerce sparked Gretener’s next big idea and gave him the opportunity to consider a new kind of business model, this time emphasising return on investment over profits.

Find a Crew is a web-enabled database that allows yachts and yachties to find their perfect crew-match, worldwide. If you are an 18-year-old gap year student or an experienced yacht master looking for a chef for your Atlantic crossing, findacrew.net may be the spot to start your search.

With an initial investment of $15,000 in 2004 Find a Crew found its market immediately.

“We have now invested over $1 million. The business is totally cash flow positive. There are no debtors. No credit lines. No invoicing. No buildings to rent. No interest to pay. We don’t even have a cash register. We employ a handful of people and have a remarkable ROI. The secret is getting the business model to lead the systems, not the other way around, and having your whole customer base as your sales force,” he explains.

Dr Newey believes there is such a thing as a ‘natural entrepreneur’. “What they have in common is the spark and energy to recognise an opportunity and attract a team around them. Where they begin to differ is in whether these ‘naturals’ can also lead a team and whether they have the drive to deliver results in the face of constant unexpected curve balls. Entrepreneurs are individuals,” he says, “but entrepreneurship is a team sport”.