Author and entrepreneur Serina Bird on why now is the time to launch your start up

Serina Bird is one of those impressive Canberra multi-hyphenates—author, business owner, former public servant, entrepreneur and Frugalista (more on that later).

And now, her latest book, The Joyful Startup Guide is encouraging others to think of themselves as multi-hyphenates too, by launching their own startups. As she puts it, there’s never a better time than now to do just that.

We caught up with Serina to pick her business brain on all things startups, entrepreneurship and collaboration.

Tell us a bit about your business background and what motivated you to write this guide?

I’m a former public servant and left my full-time job in 2019 to pursue my writing/podcasting/entrepreneurial dreams. It was a scary decision and became even scarier because bushfires and COVID blew my backup plans out of the water—I had more cancellations than bookings with my AirBnB, and my paid freelance writing gigs blew up.

It could have been a disaster, but I pivoted many times, reinventing myself and growing stronger. As a result, I now have three businesses, which I like to joke covers’ everything joyful. My core market is Generation X women, and all three businesses are different manifestations of wishing to empower women financially and support sustainability.

  • The Joyful Frugalista is the title of my book and the name of my podcast. Having obtained financial independence at age 47, I’m passionate about financial literacy. I am a personal-finance related freelance writer, run group coaching and one-on-one money coaching.
  • The Joyful Business Club is about supporting entrepreneurial women to shine. In addition to writing The Joyful Startup Guide, I run group mastermind coaching sessions and am co-founder of the Founders Alliance networking/accountability group. I also have a YouTube channel that features business-related interviews. I’m privileged and honoured, as a past recipient, to be paying it forward by sponsoring a Great Ydeas grant through YWCA Canberra.
  • The Joyful Fashionista is a marketplace for second-hand clothing, kind of like a giant online op-shop. I was privileged to receive grant funding in 2021 from YWCA Canberra and Innovation Connect.

Last year, as I was working on Fashionista and other projects, I was invited to return to my previous department on contract. It was good timing as the funding provided a useful injection into my businesses. But having returned—and found I enjoyed both the regular paycheques and the work—I also realised that it wasn’t viable to continue a visible entrepreneurial/public service identity. So I had to make a choice, and I chose my entrepreneurial path.

As I was pondering whether to stay or go, The Joyful Startup Guide idea was born. I realised how much I had learnt about doing business in the 18 months since I left the public service. I also realised, from kitchenette chats, that many people harboured secret ideas to have more autonomy over their lives but didn’t know how to start.

I wrote The Joyful Startup Guide to help anyone who has a dream for a business and wants to start—whether as a side-hustle or full-time. It’s aimed at people who are thinking of going into business, who have an idea, or who have already started.

The Joyful Startup Guide encourages future entrepreneurs that ‘now is the time to make your startup dreams come true’—why is now the time?

We are living in an age of great disruption. People have had their lives disrupted by natural disasters and COVID. I’m writing this from home while my family and I recovered from COVID. My in-person book launch on 12 April was postponed and we were going to see Crowded House, something we had been looking forward to for months. (And as it turns out, Neil Finn also has COVID now.)

Many people have had their careers and lives uprooted, but disproportionately women have been affected because of the nature of the industries they were working in (e.g. hospitality, retail, childcare). Having lived through uncertainty and the shift to working from home, people are now asking themselves, ‘Is this what I really want?’ And increasingly, people are realising that their work is not aligned with their values and (often secret) dreams.

Each of us is born with dreams of what we want to do when ‘we grow up’. Somewhere along the way, we often dismissed these things as being ‘too silly’ and decided to grow up. But having faced so many incidents over the last nearly two and a half years that have forced us to confront uncertainty and possible mortality, many people are now deciding to embrace the You Only Live Once (YOLO) sentiment. If you might die of COVID or lose your job anyway, why not spend your life doing what is aligned with your values and your greater good?

I believe this is one of the key reasons driving the Great Resignation trend. Added to this is the digital revolution’s impact, which has made it easier than ever for people to start a business anytime, anywhere. We live in an unprecedented age where an innovative idea can see a startup become a ‘unicorn’ billion-dollar company within years (still work in progress for me!). And while in the past, setting up shop required extensive up-front capital, now there are ways for businesses to get up and running—and starting to spread your message—fairly cheaply (in some cases, even free).

Added to this is the sense that we need more innovators and business owners to come up with solutions to solve the pressing problems our community and world is undergoing, such as climate change and our response to global health issues.

What advice would you give to someone who feels they can’t create a startup because there are established competitors in the market already?

Most business plan templates will advise you to identify your competitors and examine them. This is important as it will tell you what the market is doing. Is there a demand for your product or service? If so, it is encouraging that there are competitors as it (probably) indicates there is demand. Of course, too much demand might make it hard for you to gain a foothold. But if there is no competition, this could be a sign that the world isn’t quite ready for your idea (yet)—or at least that you would need to invest in a lot of customer education.

The trick is that you can sometimes get so worried about the existence of your competition that you never start. Instead, it’s important to focus on your own journey and know that you will bring your own identity, insights and experience to your business. In other words, know the competition is there, but do it anyway. Trust your instincts and do what you feel soul-called to do.

I first started to blog eight years ago when I lived in Taiwan. I wanted to start a food blog, but I almost didn’t because I did a Google search and found a blog written by a US expat. She continues to have a large following, and at the time, I felt I couldn’t possibly compete. For several months, the thought of this blog stopped me from typing my first words. Why would anyone want to read my blog when there was such a great blog out there?

Here’s the thing. There is more than one blog on the internet. And there is more than one restaurant in Taiwan. You could eat at a new restaurant every night just in one suburb in Taipei, and still you would discover new places. (It’s also the same in Canberra). There was plenty of room in the market for newcomers. And I brought to my blog a different voice. The other blogger liked to gravitate towards Western food she was homesick for, whereas I had a fascination with Taiwanese culture and history. Sometimes we reviewed the same establishment, but what we ordered, our views, writing and approach were never the same.

What a boring world it would be if there was only one restaurant! Or one website that reviewed it! Could you imagine only having one bakery, one supermarket or one pharmacy? Thank goodness the Canberra culinary scene is more diverse than that! Competition is a fact of life, and just because someone is already doing something similar, doesn’t mean you can’t do it better.

Just think of Uber. There was a time when it was the only player in the rideshare space. But now there is Ola, Lyft, Didi Chuxing, Shebah and many others. (Not to mention the imminent disruption to this ‘new’ innovation that will likely happen when driverless cars go mainstream.)

And sometimes, the first mover doesn’t end up being the market leader. Think of how the iPhone overtook BlackBerry (plus competition from Android systems), Skype is being eclipsed by Zoom, and accounting programs are being shaken up by cloud-based programs such as Xero.

What advice do you give for avoiding becoming obsessed by competitors when launching a business?

It’s easy to become obsessed with competitors to the point where you get so busy watching them that you ignore your own business. This is a form of scarcity mindset, where you think you are not good enough, so need to steal from others. Just like driving a car, you need to stay in your own lane and concentrate on what you are doing (this assumes you are not a passenger in a driverless vehicle!).

Imagine if you spent all your time trying to beat other cars on the road instead of concentrating on your driving. You are likely to be a bad driver, unlikely to get to your destination safely (or without a traffic infringement). This is not to say you shouldn’t be aware of what other drivers are doing on the road, just that you need to focus on driving your own car first.

Many successful businesspeople regularly watch their competition. Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, would famously visit other retailers regularly to compare what they were doing. Not only would he ensure his prices were competitive, but he would also learn valuable merchandising strategies. He would even check out other stores on family holidays.

His wife, Helen, recounted they would often travel through towns where Sam knew about a store. ‘I would sit in the car with the kids, who of course, would say, “Oh no, Daddy, not another store,”’ she said. ‘We just got used to it.’ And this approach paid off. The Waltons are now the wealthiest family in the world, with an estimated net worth of $238 billion.[1]

If you feel obsessed with competition to the point where you become anxious, know that you are enough. Trust your intuition and concentrate on building the best business you can. Your customers are the most important metric for your business—not your competition.

Know, too, that customers have free choice. They will probably shop at more than one supermarket, wear clothes designed by more than one designer, and listen to more than one recording artist. As an author, I know that many of my readers become so interested in finance, investing and business—topics I write about—that they want to read everything in the genre.

Ultimately that’s good for me as people who want to read business and personal finance books are likely to read my books—and recommend them to others. The biggest risk is that people might not want to read at all.

How can collaboration form a core part of the success of any business?

Collaboration, particularly co-creation, allows you to work with other people who share a similar passion for a business or project.

Unlike a partnership, you retain your brand identity but come together for a particular project or event. It allows you to work with people who have different skillsets and means you can cross-promote other people’s businesses. And you get to socialise; being a solopreneur can sometimes be lonely.

I’m a big fan of collaboration. As a podcaster, I regularly interview other people who do similar work to what I do—including personal finance authors. I could have chosen to do a series of rambling monologues about me, myself and I and how brilliant I am about savings and investing. But to be honest, I think that would be boring.

Instead, by interviewing thought leaders, I am learning from the best in the field. Yes, I am promoting ‘competitor’ books (including at a time when my second book has just been launched), but by collaborating I am also gaining. I am building relationships and contacts, and I am learning from their wisdom. And I produce much better content as a result.

My latest book, The Joyful Startup Guide, came about through a similar collaborative process. For over a year, I had invited business coaches, entrepreneurs and thought leaders to participate in YouTube interviews about how to do business. Often this meant I promoted other people’s events, courses, books and special offers. But many of these insights have now been shared in The Joyful Startup Guide, making it a good example of how collaboration.

Another example of collaboration is Founders Alliancea part-networking, part-accountability group that I have formed with Claire Harris, founder of Innovate Communicate. Claire and I met through the Canberra Innovation Network, and after many discussions about the need for founders to connect and find an accountability mechanism, Founders Alliance was born.

Article published by HerCanberra.