[44/250] This one tiny change could shift the entire state's economy

The change is "employ just 1 person".

As a place to do business, South Australia is a pretty shitty place. But it isn’t because of the location; it isn’t even because it’s at the arse-end of the world. In this instalment of The Next Five Years I argue that it’s because its goals are wrong.

First, the context

South Australia flaps its gums a lot, but in terms of taking action it’s just a climate change rally. Lots of shouting, loads of wasted time, nobody actually doing anything.

It’s a great place to live, don’t get me wrong. And I love the lifestyle.

But the bullshit messages it sends to itself is enough to make you stick your fingers down your throat and vomit up your breakfast.

Many years ago, as I drove through Adelaide in one of the very first times I’d been here as a grown up, I saw all these flags up and down the major roads yelling SA GREAT!

‘Why,’ I wondered aloud to my partner at the time, ‘does it have to say that to the people who live here, if it is actually great? Why wouldn’t it say that to people interstate, like Victoria does?’

This all burst forward into my mind today after reading some wankery on LinkedIn talking about how South Australia has to look up and out of its own state if it’s going to be profitable.

Like, is that actually a question? I thought that was a given.

It’s a numbers game, and an attitude game

South Australia has 1 million people in it. Of that 1 million people, 75% of them live in the city. Of those people who are employed in this centralised population, the majority are employed by small businesses and the government. A small business, according to Fair Work Australia, has fewer than 15 employees. So, basically, unless you have a government job, there’s a really good chance you’re employed by a small business.

In my experience, in business associations, and in professional associations here, what I’ve seen is a total unwillingness to take action to grow, or to stand up and do something more amazing.

I’ve stood in amazement at networking events, watching conversations like this:

‘You’ve got a great business. You should grow locally, and then think about maybe trying to get some clients in Melbourne or Sydney. Once you’ve done that, you could expand to Brisbane. And maybe then think about overseas.’

Sounds fair, right?

Except that the person on the receiving end of that comment (it’s a true story) is in an industry that has about 40 well-known people globally. If she was going to “grow” in South Australia the way the man was advocating to her, she would be wasting her time trying to educate the people who don’t even see that they have a problem—instead of selling to the people that want what she’s offering, who are in the US and in Europe. (She knew that that’s where they were, too, by the way.)

I stepped in, having myself built a global business from an Adelaide flat, thanks to the internet.

When I said, in front of this boring Adelaide man, ‘Or you could sell your product globally by working out how to do it online instead’, he gave me a shitty look and walked away.

The woman beamed. She said to me: ‘Nobody’s ever suggested that to me before. They all say grow here first.’

I shrugged. ‘Don’t listen to them.’

But of course, they would suggest that to her, because that’s how they see the world. They think that having a global footprint from day one is actually impossible. They were born in a town that exists between the hills and the sea, and that faces the setting sun. They think this is all there is; they don’t even drive to the rest of the country. They fly it instead.

You may be feeling that I’m sounding agitated and annoyed. Well, I am. If it makes you uncomfortable, then (respecfully) deal with it.

Most South Australian leaders (not necessarily political leaders, but business leaders) bang on about things, but do they ever actually DO anything? No. They spend weeks every year in conferences patting each other on the back, but does it ever result in change? No! Do they ever actually support a business that isn’t supporting destruction (either individual, via alcohol; or on a nation basis, via war)? No.

Do they ever actually sit down and work out a plan for increasing the numbers of employees in every one of South Australia’s small businesses? No.

Growing this economy means changing the goal

If someone—a politician, a chamber of commerce, a business association—set a goal to see every small business in South Australia grow enough to employ 1 more person, then we would finally have an actually meaningful metric.

More to the point, it would massively shift the local economic needle.

Let’s run some numbers.

In 2018, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that Greater Adelaide had 112,737 businesses inside it.

Of those, 33,767 employed between 1 and 19 people.

If every single one of those businesses was able to employ 1 more person, at a full-time salary of $50,000, then that’s an actual shitload of money (more than $1,000,000,000 available just for salaries). More than this, if there are 33,000 more people employed at an average income, then it has a ripple effect on the local economy: More spending, more construction, more babies. Everything!

Just looking to create ‘jobs’ isn’t enough. You have to create jobs as a result of growing existing businesses. And create an environment that supports that growth.

This is a basic law of the universe. Without the right conditions, nothing will grow. That’s the same for flowers as for online communities, and it’s exactly the same in business.

How would you inject more than a billion dollars into the local economy? I don’t know. You don’t know. The question is far too big. But if you went out and you found out what every single business needed in order to gain another $75,000 revenue, you’d probably find that the shift isn’t that big a deal.

For some, it’s coaching. For others, it’s a restructure. For yet others, it’s access to some kind of funding that will help them develop product. Everyone will be different, but at least you’d know what to work on.

It’s tempting, I know, to drill down to sexy industries like wine, or space, but it doesn’t have this effect. What it does do is make one industry artificially robust while ignoring the rest of the state.

Instead, having a meaningful and specific goal, like ensuring that every small business grows enough to employ 1 more full-time person, within four years, is the best thing anybody could do! It’s specific, it’s measurable, it has a time limit. It forces thinking about what is stopping them from employing, and it spurs thinking about what it might achieve.

More importantly, it takes the Jargon Wheel of “massive action” and “collaboration” and gives it spikes. In pursuit of the goal of growing every business so much that it employs at least 1 more person full-time, it would create conditions in which action comes from collaboration.

It would be inevitable.

It would even stop the domination of those same wankers who run the business associations and give advice - because suddenly they’d have to think very differently.

The nature of this place is reflected in its associations

I say that having been this week to an expo of the largest small business association in the state; largest beyond the local chamber of commerce anyway.

Here’s my experience:

  • park car

  • walk to where I imagined it was

  • no signage in the trafficked areas of the facility

  • walk around for 20 minutes trying to find it, because there are no signs

  • find it eventually in the south-westernmost corner, hidden, without signs

  • talk to people in there who said that they thought it was a waste of time, and who wondered aloud why the association didn’t advertise it.

Brilliant experience all round, I’d say. Almost everyone there was someone from a stand.

I ran into a friend there, who said that she only turned up to show a bit of support. That was entirely the reason why I turned up, too. And then she wondered out loud why it was that they never advertise events to anyone other than their members.

My friend cocked her head. ‘Kind of defeats the purpose of an expo, doesn’t it?’

What else could I do but agree?

When I queried the chairman about why it wasn’t held in the highly trafficked areas, around the other businesses, he replied huffily:

‘Well Renewal SA is impossible to deal with and anyway these people give me the space for free.’

Fair enough, then, I thought. You’ve got Poor Man thinking, and clearly this is all about you. It gave me an immediate insight into why the association doesn’t grow, and why South Australia is peddling backwards at a rate of knots.

Creating change doesn’t happen because you talk about it. It happens because you take small steps, consistently. That’s at the heart of every massive shift.

“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” - Robert Collier