White River Design in Penrith celebrates 20 years in business in 2022
A journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step and so does a business of 20 years.

How does a 20 year old business start?

Imagine being a foreigner in a country where you have no contacts or knowledge of the business laws and how things are done?

Imagine being half way through your first pregnancy and being told by your boss that they would not honour the law of providing maternity leave?

Imagine starting up a business without any contacts or connections?

This was my situation when I set up my branding studio, White River Design. It was my way of keeping up to date with the design industry while on maternity leave. The plan was to go back to full time work after a year.

With heaps of creative skills and a passion for branding, I soon realised that there was more to running a business than just doing the work that the client needed. I had to structure my pricing, do my bookkeeping, know my market, find clients, keep clients, understand how to fix computer problems, learn new software, get the office set up and so the list went on. I needed help.

I went to the Western Sydney Business Centre (then BEC), where I met with Ian Willis, one of their amazing advisors. He gave me a list of service provider contacts and gave me the best piece of business advice (especially for someone who didn’t know anyone) – “network, network, network”.

I also found out that as a start up business I could do a highly subsidised Certificate IV in Small Business Enterprise Management during the evenings through the WSBC. When I was six months pregnant I enrolled in the course. I tried to learn as much as I could during those lectures as I knew that I wouldn’t have much free time on my hands once my baby was born.

I started off designing wine labels for birthdays, weddings and companies.

I designed a few logos, business cards and wine labels for birthdays, weddings and corporates (when wine was still an acceptable gift). But I didn’t have much work which was fine as I had a major change about to head my way.

What do you do when you have no friends, contacts or clients?

When my son was four months old I decided that it was time to look at getting a bit of work in. Originally from South Africa, I didn’t know anyone in business in Australia and had no one to bounce ideas off or turn to for advice. I was soon introduced to the networking circuit. I joined the Penrith Home Based Business Network. I was petrified going for the very first time but everyone was lovely and Jane Holdsworth, who ran the network, became an integral part of my business journey. There are people from that original network that I am still friends with today.

At first it was difficult to get clients and I found that being a services based business, that the regular avenues of advertising were not effective.  I knew that I had to look outside the square. Along with networking I saw an opportunity in my local suburb of Glenmore Park that would enable me to hopefully gain some clients and bring in some business. The concept was to create the Glenmore Park Business Directory.

Glenmore Park Business Directory

I converted 25% of advertisers to design clients

The main aim of the directory was to offer smaller businesses cost effective professional advertising to a very specific market.  This not only helped locals gain clients, but it also exposed White River Design to many businesses that would otherwise not know who we were.  I was able to convert 25% of those advertisers into regular design clients. In 2006 we expanded the directory into the Kellyville and Rouse Hill area, and in 2008 we won an Innovation Award for the development and production of these publications.

In 2009 I took the directory from simply being a product of White River Design to a business brand of its own and launched DirectoryCentral. Two years later I was able to sell this business and focus on what I did best – branding.

Since starting White River Design, I would see an opportunity and would seize it. Sometimes I got what I was after and other times I didn’t, but this attitude led me to gaining one high profile client, which in turn began the growth of the business. I worked very hard at nurturing relationships – even if they weren’t my clients. By the time my ‘maternity’ leave was up, I was making a better living (and having the flexible lifestyle) than if I was employed. In the early days of the business I found that juggling a new baby and a new business to be quite a challenge. I also found that having something of my own to focus on rather than the housework, baby and husband, made me a better mother and partner. I learnt little tricks such as simply putting my business name on the office door, getting professionally dressed in the morning and not eating at my desk, made me less of a procrastinator and got me focused on the job at hand.

Running a business isn’t always what you think it will be

I owe a lot of the success of the business to my very supportive family. My husband has encouraged me every step of the way and has never made me feel guilty that the house isn’t always pristine or that dinner isn’t waiting on the table when he gets home. I often joke with him and say “I’d rather be a busy woman and complain a little, than a bored woman and complain a lot!” Not having my own family in the country I relied quite heavily on my father in-law who is retired and would baby sit my little one at short notice when I had to pop out to meet a client.

I also found that working from home had very unique challenges. For one, when you are a sole operator, you have to wear so many different hats in one day.  I realised that I was not only the graphic designer, but the marketer, accountant, admin officer, IT guru etc!  I am a firm believer that you can’t educate yourself enough, and so I enrolled in a number of different courses that helped me develop my business skills.

From the initial 1-2 days work at week when I started the business in 2002, I found that by 2005 I was working five very full days a week and that I would soon have to plan the next stage of the business – employment.  My son was now going to pre-school a few days a week, which allowed me to focus on the business during the day and my family by night and on the weekends.

Our very first business award just weeks before my second child arrived

By mid 2005 White River Design won an award for Outstanding Professional Services and we have been winning awards ever since.  I had my second child in November 2005, so took on my first employee so that I could maintain the work-load that I had built the business up to.  This brought about different challenges in the business, as all the knowledge that I had always held in my head I now had to communicate to my new employee. Policies and procedures had to be developed, and time and people management skills have had to be honed.  As a home business I had to forego quite a bit of my privacy as I had employees in my home 5 days a week.

It’s time to move White River Design out of home

My kids were growing up and wanting to relax after school but I had to make sure that they were quiet as my team were working or on the phone. The time was getting close to move out of home, but we had just been through the Global Financial Crisis and I was nervous about making long term financial commitments. All the real estate agents that I spoke to wanted me to sign a 2-3 year lease which made me concerned. So I went to my trusty Western Sydney Business Centre and spoke to the CEO, John Todd. John had an office next door to his come available, and was kind enough to put me on a month to month lease. I landed up staying 3 years until we outgrew the space and moved into my next business venture and our forever home – The Creative Fringe.

Over the years I wrote and published a children’s book called Andrew Potato Face. I developed the Brand Personalities system that changed the face of my business. I launched the Brand Magic Masterclass and I was the industry specialist on the Build My Brand 12 part program that can be accessed on Bizversity. I have mentored many business owners and developed brands for hundreds of businesses around the world.

I am very privileged to be doing what I love, and even though I have tough days, the good ones certainly make up for it. I am pleased to say that I am no longer running a business alone in a strange country as I often turn to the friends that I have made through networking groups for brainstorming ideas or gaining advice. Now as I am about to celebrate 20 years in business with White River Design, I look back with a slight sense of amazement that a business set up due to not being given maternity leave has gone the distance. For this I am very grateful and extremely proud.

Written by our Creative Director & Branding Specialist Debbie O'Connor - Consultant, Strategist, Keynote Speaker

Published: Jan 5th, 2022