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“I wish someone had told me that”: Anders Bence, Hydraflow Plumbing

Small business growth isn’t always straightforward. Plumber Anders Bence shares his winding path from apprentice to small business owner.

WIWIK: Hydraflow

Fresh from his apprenticeship and full of ambition, plumber Anders Bence decided to start his own business, Hydraflow Plumbing. Here he shares the lessons he had to learn over many years before making it a success.

At a glance

Here’s a snapshot of the advice from our interviewee:

  • There’s so much to learn about how a business works. Work for others before you go out on your own.
  • A mentor or business coach can be so valuable for support, learning and connections.
  • Make sure you’ve got enough funds to carry you through a rough patch.

In Prospa’s ‘I wish someone had told me that’ series, we speak with seasoned small business owners to hear their advice on growing a business and what they wish they were told along the way. Click here to read the rest of the ‘I wish someone had told me that’ series.

There was still so much to learn

I started my own business, Hydraflow, straight after finishing my apprenticeship. I’d had enough of working for the company I’d been with and thought I could do it all on my own. But I was wrong. That was about 16 years ago. I found it pretty hard. I think I had more confidence than ability at that stage!

When you’re learning a trade, you get taught how to be a tradesman, not a business owner. You learn how to run pipes but not how to quote. I’ve heard it’s changed a bit since I did my apprenticeship and I hope that’s the case. I went through a real trial by fire learning how to quote and working out how long things would take. It was a tough couple of years.

I ended up doing some subcontracting and got into building and construction. A friend’s father, Roger, became a great mentor to me. When Roger was building a school boarding house, the plumber ended up passing the whole job on to me – Roger taught me how to read plans and understand how a building project comes together. He gave me the extra guidance I needed. I thought I knew a lot, but there was so much still to learn.

I definitely think that if other tradies starting out can find someone with the ability and willingness to spend the time with you, then a mentor is invaluable.

WIWIK: Hydraflow 4How not to run a business

I ended up stopping Hydraflow for a few years – but I kept hold of the name which was a good move!

I went overseas and lived in London for a couple of years and did plumbing in the UK which was interesting because it’s quite different there. I was mostly doing maintenance for large government facilities. And I travelled through Europe and Africa – it was amazing.

When I came back to Melbourne I picked up work with a plumber I’d been subcontracted to before I went away. I worked there for about seven years, working my way up to project manager. I ran all the maintenance work plus some of the large construction jobs. I learnt estimating and a lot more about how to run a business while I was there. And I also learnt a lot about how not to run a business.

Their theory was that the more work you’ve got, the better – you quote to win every job you go for. They always said, even if you don’t need the work, go for the work. But this put a huge amount of stress on the guys running the jobs. We were hiring blind, just to get enough people to get the jobs done, whether they were capable or not. It was very damaging for the company and money was lost.

That experience taught me a lot.

Time for a change of scene

I put a lot of time and effort into work. I worked long days and my phone would always be ringing on the weekend too. A lot of my friends were meeting their partners, getting married and having kids but I was really struggling to find time to get out and meet people, let alone finding someone to settle down with.

I figured it was time to move on and try another city.

At first, when I moved, I thought I’d try something different, maybe facilities management. I was worried about going back into a management position with all the stress that comes with it – long hours, lots of headaches, constantly putting out fires.

But it was hard to break into a new industry with no connections. And at the time, companies weren’t interested in plumbers – they were just looking for electricians and air conditioning technicians. So I ended up doing a bit of subcontracting before starting up Hydraflow again and working for myself.

How much work to accept

The second time around, I had much more experience so I was much more capable. After years of estimating, I knew how to quote correctly so I didn’t lose money. And I was much better at seeing problems coming. You only get that with experience and learning all those little things along the way. You’re always learning something new that will help you out on the next job or the one after that.

The hardest thing about starting up again was creating a client base because I didn’t know anyone in the industry in Sydney. Luckily, a client I’d done some work for in Melbourne heard I’d moved and asked me to take up their Sydney work. So that was a good foot in the door and it slowly opened up more avenues and opportunities.

And yes, I found a partner! When we had our second child, we decided I’d wind down a bit. I could afford to offload some of the clients I wasn’t so keen on working with and just concentrate on the ones who gave me interesting work and who I enjoyed working with.

It’s a tricky thing though, finding that balance between how much work to accept and how much to say no to. And if you say no too many times, then they’ll go somewhere else. Sometimes there’s just luck involved in the timing of jobs and you don’t have heaps all starting in the same week.

WIWIK: HydraflowA buffer for rainy days

Occasionally I think about taking on a staff member. Generally, good subcontractors are always booked up by the same company so finding someone you can call at the drop of a hat can be really difficult.

A couple of years ago, I was so busy that I thought about taking on an apprentice, especially to help me with the construction jobs where you’re constantly having to unload tools from the van. But then business went really quiet all of a sudden. Fortunately, I had enough money in the bank so I got to just have a little break. If I’d taken on the apprentice I’d be stressed and would have had to start chasing work.

Plumbers make good money and I’ve learnt that as long as I’m working most of the time, I should be earning more than I need to live on. I think for a lot of tradies, the money tends to burn a hole in their pockets and they end up spending too much. But I like seeing money in the bank.

Fortunately, my mum’s a bookkeeper and has helped me a lot with managing money. And my partner is much better at managing money than me too! So I’ve been lucky with them. But I’ve figured out a good rule of thumb: as long as I have $15k in the bank, then I should be able to get through a quiet patch. It’s not there for me to spend on a new car or a jetski! It’s a buffer for those rainy days.

I wish someone had told me…

That I didn’t have enough experience to go into business for myself straight after an apprenticeship. That was not a smart move. You need to learn how to quote and build up skills and understand how a business works before you go out on your own.

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