Today we are introducing you to Ken, a Many Rivers supported business owner who has used his original business idea to grow three businesses!
Ken is a food scientist, and he reached out to his Many Rivers business coach, Ross, to help him start a small business with his racehorse supplement that is based on Indigenous Australian knowledge of bush-medicines. After the success of this business, Ken started ‘The Keeper of the Fire,’ an Indigenous empowerment education program for K-12 students. The business includes; mentoring, cultural professional development workshops and trauma informed Equine Assisted Therapy training. Most recently, Ken has collaborated with his mate, Paul, who has a talent for tech, to start an e-commerce website for Indigenous business owners to freely advertise their products and services. This idea originated when Ken realised that many Indigenous businesses were misrepresented by non-Indigenous groups. Being a small business owner is a way for Ken to connect his talents to his commercial ventures while making sure to always prioritise his Indigenous culture.
“When I make a business decision now, I always sit back and think about my cultural upbringings. I always put that first, and then I try and commercialise it and make it a business that functions culturally and economically. That has probably been the hardest thing – balancing the two worlds.”
Read more about Ken’s journey as a business owner so far.
I have been working on building my business with Many Rivers business coach Ross Smith, for about 6 years. At the beginning, Ross and I got together to develop a solid business plan. The initial product, a racehorse supplement feed that Many Rivers helped me launch, now has a much wider scope. I have extended it into three separate business ventures. I’m bringing my style of Indigenous Australian knowledge into the world of commerce.
I don’t have any employees but I work with my really close friend, Paul who is non-Indigenous, but he has always been really interested in my culture. We have a co-operative partnership in WillyWilly.
The initial product, a scientifically validated equine supplement based on Indigenous Australian knowledge and bush-medicines, is inspired by my dad’s yarns about our family’s Aboriginal ancestry. As a kid I spent most of my days on horseback mustering with my old man, our deep connection with horses and the land runs deep in our veins, he’s gone now, but our family’s love of horses lives on. Our Mob worked in the Victorian High Country as Snowy River stockmen; it was a way to stay connected to the land after colonisation. I’m told they joined up with horses to muster, and the old fellas would care for their animals health by feeding ‘good tucker’. All their horsemanship was translated bush knowledge of wildlife and traditional ecological knowledges, it gave them insight into the needs of the horse after a hard day mustering. Now that knowledge is put to good use, it makes horses healthy, and it’s starting to provide a decent living for the family.
When it all began I had a few ideas, Ross helped me to make decisions that would eventually generate the funds to do other ventures. He explained that planning and budgeting was key, I took that advice and 6 years later I’m glad I listened. Along the way, I have picked up some great commercial knowledge, that’s been with Ross’s support too. He’s a clever bloke!
Keeper of the Fire
The research and development of the equine supplement, with its Indigenous narrative, has become a great means for me to develop other culturally driven business opportunities. The business is called Keeper of the fire; it’s my way to promote the art of ‘living well, in a world worth living in’ through Indigenous empowerment education. The business focuses on; education from prep to year 12, mentoring, cultural professional development workshops and trauma-informed Equine Assisted Therapy training. My Elders, Uncle Porky and Larry educated me to be ‘a keeper of fire’ and it was those two old characters who connected me to Indigenous Australian Knowledge, Dreamtime and our relatedness to the land.
Then there’s WillyWilly; an internet-based E-commerce enterprise. It functions as a multi-vendor website a little bit like Amazon or eBay for certified Indigenous Australian products. It connects us with a global market. A mate and I were looking for a way to market our own Indigenous products, and we identified a demand for Indigenous businesses and products that were ready to jump on board. We have a platform now where we don’t charge any fees to the sellers or the buyers; it is purely a way to connect buyers and sellers. Down the track, we aim to get advertisers on board.
WillyWillymarkets.com was created with a great mate of mine, his name is Paul, and he is fantastic at all things technology. At first, I asked for his assistance to look at marketing my equine supplement and then the educational products. In the process, we recognised that there was an issue selling Indigenous products, as many were being misrepresented by non-Indigenous groups. We were looking for ways to market our products as true Indigenous products because we recognised that some consumers don’t trust that the products are legitimately Indigenous. WillyWilly makes sure products and the funds go back to the Traditional knowledge holders. So, we have created an e-commerce enterprise!
The name ‘Willy Willy’ is a dust storm that starts small and grows bigger and bigger and goes off on its own journey and that is kind of like what our business is like.
Before Going into Business
I am a food scientist by trade, and I was working with institutions that were working on things that were a bit different to what I wanted to focus on. What I realised was that you could create a product for a couple of bucks, but once it went through the whole development process, the prices would blow out and be unaffordable for the average bloke. So, I moved away and did my own thing. I looked at product packaging, long-life products and military packages. That’s what really got me interested in long-life products that have an agricultural base.
Why did you want to go into business?
I have a degree in Indigenous Philosophy and a Master of Social Work. What I found over time when I worked for other companies was that the cultural side of things got a bit lost. So, I thought from the ground up I would build an Indigenous business but always keep that Indigenous methodology.
When I make a business decision now, I always sit back and think about my cultural upbringing. I always put that first, and then I try and commercialise it and make it a business that functions culturally and economically. That has probably been the hardest thing – balancing the two worlds.
Working with Many Rivers
Ross always helped me streamline my thinking. Ross and I talk quite frequently, and we just talk through things. We bounce ideas off each other. Ross just has the ability to sit back and look at it from a distance and give me pointers. He will make me think by turning the ideas back around to me and asking – what idea do you think will generate more income, how will you do it, and what is your timeframe. It is a good critical analysis. Ross and I have become great mates, I see him as a friend.
What I am looking for next is assistance to take Willy Willy to the next stage and to market it. We are looking at partnering up with some big corporations that want to connect with culture. Through those efforts, we aim to expose people to Indigenous culture.
The most useful part was good accounting advice. When I thought I needed $20k, Ross showed me how I could do it with $5k and how to keep my finances very tight so that I could keep on top of the costs. He always reminds me of that cultural angle that we should never be in a rush, and he holds me to it.
Initially, I thought I needed a $20k loan, but after working with Ross, we cut it down to $5k. This showed me how we could generate more from that small amount. It kept it affordable. After that, I went and got a bigger loan to validate more of my science.
The biggest challenge for me is time management. In the scientific world, there is a process you must go through, and you can’t be in a rush.
As you’re researching and growing a product, you might have in your mind and heart an idea of what a product is, but you still really have to listen to the customers. My customers aren’t just the horse owners, but the horse itself. I might have to work with an animal for 4-6 months to see how it reacts to its products and assess whether my animal is happy.
Personal growth has been the biggest success. The ability to be a black duck in a white world and not lose sight of that while being in business. I can go home at night and know that I’ve stayed true to my culture in a commercial world.
Biggest Change Since Starting Your Own Small Business
It has given me a good understanding of the Australian landscape. For all my research, I have had to go into the bush and look at bush foods, bush grasses and how the ecology works. To do that, I had to go back and look at how the wildlife and seasons work so that I could piece it all together and adapt natural Australian products to what I am trying to do commercially. I found myself out in the bush watching the wildlife and watching them eat and then going to the paddock and watching my horse do the same thing. I would try and see what natural products they target and work out why. Then I would look at how that affects their digestion and inflammation in their system. Then you can relate those Australian bush foods and grasses back to something that is commercial and find that happy medium.
Last weekend I was out chasing echidnas because I needed to use some knowledge that was given to me by elders about certain landscapes. This all came through Dreamtime Stories. I am sitting here as a scientist trying to figure something out about a tree and trying to find some bark to see if it relates to medicine from a Dreamtime story. I have to go out into the bush and piece them together. It is a very different world, but it is very rewarding.
No idea! I am hoping that the educational side of what I do might inspire more Indigenous youth to go out there and try and create cultural businesses. There is such a wealth of knowledge in our stories and our narratives if we can inspire the youth to listen to the stories and turn that into a product. It keeps culture alive. We can live in a commercial world and keep culture alive.
Thanks Ken for sharing your business journey. Your story will inspire people who are looking to take their next step toward creating their own business.
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