“I wish someone had told me that”: Sean McElvogue, Art Van Go
At a glance
Here’s a snapshot of the advice from our interviewees:
- When you first start out, you have to put the hours in yourself. You can’t depend on someone else to establish your business.
- Word of mouth can be a powerful tool for building business and relationships.
- Know exactly what you need from your staff and recruit accordingly. The wrong choice can damage your business.
In Propsa’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.
The dinner that kicked off an idea
I loved playing music and had a great time doing it. But I always needed other sources of income. I did some hospitality work and some telemarketing, and for a while I drove a truck for a mate who had a soft drink company.
When you’re an artist, you tend to bump up against a lot of other people in the arts. At dinner one night, a painter friend was saying how hard it was to find someone to deliver his paintings to the gallery – it always cost a fortune. So I said I’d do it for him with the soft drink truck after work. Then when I delivered all his paintings to the gallery, the gallery manager asked me if I’d deliver a painting to Bondi for them. Earning $50 for a 10-minute drive? Sure!
And that’s how Art Van Go started, nearly 13 years ago.
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I bought an old second-hand van knowing the business might not work out, but it grew – largely from word of mouth. In the second year I bought a new truck and took on a staff member to drive the old van. Now I have seven staff, two vans and two trucks, and I’m looking at investing in another vehicle.
A reluctant entrepreneur
In the first few years I dipped my toe in the water doing deliveries to Melbourne and Brisbane. But I didn’t want to do that much driving and I didn’t want to be responsible for someone else being on the road for that long week in, week out.
I had to make a call about whether I wanted that kind of growth for the business. Now 90% of our work is in Sydney and then occasionally we’ll do a trip to Bathurst or Coffs Harbour or other regional towns.
I might drag my feet a bit with growth, but I know it has to be done! I don’t particularly want the business to get much bigger, but I know that if you don’t grow, it’s not sustainable. So it’s finding the balance. If I stop at four vehicles, I’d have to say ‘no’ to a potential customer and then ‘no’ to another, then eventually I’d lose a lot of business to my competitors. And while another vehicle is a big investment, I know from experience that once they’re on the road, they tend to fill up quickly.
No lockdown lull
During the pandemic galleries, artists and auction houses were very busy. There were a couple of quiet weeks at the start of the pandemic, but then everyone figured out how to keep working and it took off with a roar.
Galleries would have us deliver a painter’s work to display in a window so potential buyers could view it or we would drop work at a buyer’s house and leave it there for a day so they could see whether they wanted to live with it. Usually they’d keep it.
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And with a lot of people at home who would otherwise be spending a fair bit on international holidays, art sales went up as people got more confident buying online – that kept us busy. In fact, I’m hoping to have a week off soon and it will be my first break in a long time.
We also run an annual art prize, ‘The Vincent’, for works that don’t make it into the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman. We deliver around 300 paintings to the Art Gallery of NSW every year for the competition and the vast majority of them come back, so we wanted to make something of those works and give them an opportunity to be seen.
Preparing for the Christmas rush
The lead up to Christmas is always frantic. We always have a couple of guys still available for deliveries in January but everyone wants things done by Christmas – it’s a deadline people are attached to.
To make sure we’re ready for the rush, I’m always on the lookout for extra staff before we need them. Getting the wrong person for the job can waste a lot of time and harm your business so I’ve got good at knowing when it’s going to be the right fit. When I was managing call centres I did a lot of hiring and picked up some strategies for knowing who would work out and who to steer clear of.
We find staff via word of mouth. I’m looking for people who aren’t just truck drivers but can think quickly on their feet, understand the value of the work they’re handling and can talk to people from all walks of life. When you’ve got a Nolan and a Whitely in the van worth $1 million, you need to appreciate the security involved and know how to deal with people who spend that kind of money on art.
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I wish someone had told me…
I don’t think there’s anything anyone could have told me that would have changed my mind about starting the business, but I didn’t appreciate how all-consuming it is to work for yourself.
Before I had my own business, I didn’t really believe that stuff about working all hours. But now I know! I drive all day then I come home and spend more time doing the admin. You really have to be prepared to put the hours in yourself, especially when you’re first getting your business established.
Need flexible funding for your fleet? See how a Prospa Small Business Loan could get you moving. Apply now.
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