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Small businesses with big ambitions: successful Australian side hustles

By Academy Xi

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Everybody seems to be running a side hustle these days. If you’re contemplating setting up one of your own, it’s inspiring to remember that even the biggest companies started small. Here are the stories of three cash cow Australian businesses which, believe it or not, started as simple side hustles.

Whether it’s to generate another source of income, indulge a personal passion, or stay productive outside of work hours, everyone has their reasons for starting a side hustle.     

And why not? In this day and age, anyone can run a company from just about anywhere. All you need is a good business plan, a wifi connection, a bit of perseverance, and who knows – maybe you can turn your glimmering idea into a goldmine? 

It may sound like a long shot, but countless side hustles have transformed into industry leaders. We all know the legendary story of the hippified Steve Jobs and his coding buddy Steve Wozniak, who used their spare time to build prototypes for the Apple I in Jobs’ parents’ garage in the early 1970s. 

But how about Australian side hustles that have achieved big things? There are plenty of large Aussie companies that were built on a hunch about a new product, a burning desire to solve a nagging problem, and an aim to make some extra cash on the side. 

Here are three fascinating stories of lucrative Australian businesses that started out as small side hustles.

Boost Juice Bars

Janine Allis is the Founder and Managing Director of Boost Juice Bars and also the best-selling author of The Accidental Entrepreneur. Holidaying in the US in 1999, Allis spotted the queues of customers outside juice bars and decided to bring the business model to Australia. 

Allis opened her first Boost Juice Bar while she was on maternity leave in 2000, offering customers happy, healthy smoothies like Mango Magic and Banana Buzz in her first Adelaide store. Interviewed by the Sydney Morning Herald, Allis fondly recalls her down-to-earth ambition to start “a little business, work my own hours, probably part-time, and be a mum”.

How Boost Juice Bars made a splash

Allis immediately started building the Boost Juice Bars brand around exceptional customer service and strategic marketing, drawing on her career in PR and her husband’s extensive marketing experience. 

Allis took a hands-on approach to establishing the company’s reputation in the early days, personally answering every customer email (always within 24 hours!). At the same time, some snappy marketing stunts ensured that Boost Juice Bars went viral. “Name Days” saw customers given free smoothies when they came to the store and mentioned a name circulated on the company website. 

Allis opened more stores off the back of the first bar’s success, eventually implementing a franchising model. An inspired marketing campaign saw a franchise given away to a lucky winner, costing the company AU$200,000 but generating advertising estimated to be worth around AU$1 million. 

Just four years after she’d opened the doors of her first bar, Allis had opened 174 more throughout Australia. Boost Juice Bars has since gone global, with 580 stores in 14 more countries including the UK, Hong Kong, South Africa, Singapore and Thailand. In Australia alone, Boost Juice is now served in over 260 bars and flies off the shelves in supermarkets as one of the nation’s most loved juice and smoothie brands.

Allis has used the success of Boost Juice to build a food and beverage empire which includes Salsa’s Fresh Mex Grill, Cibo Espresso and Betty’s Burgers. The Sydney Morning Herald included Allis on its 30 richest self-made women in Australia list, recording her personal wealth at AU$66 million – not bad for somebody who started with one small juice bar in Adelaide!

Atlassian

Founded by Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, Atlassian offers businesses tools and software for bug tracking and project management. Jira and Trello are Atlassian’s most popular products, often used by teams following the agile methodology who aim to deliver projects quickly with fewer headaches. 

Think of Atlassian as a tech firm for technologists, with its success built around functional, pragmatic software that makes everyday business activities more efficient. Atlassian software has become industry-standard, used by some of the world’s biggest companies, including NASA, Toyota, Airbnb and eBay. 

With an emphasis on synchronising online projects, it’s no surprise Atlassian enjoyed explosive growth throughout the Pandemic.

Atlassian total global revenue by year:

  • 2019: US$1.21 billion (37% annual increase)
  • 2020: US$1.61 billion (33% annual increase)
  • 2021: US$2.08 billion (29% annual increase)

*Source: Statista, 2021

Atlassian’s share market value broke the US$100 billion mark in September 2021, pushing the personal wealth of its Australian co-founders to $US23 billion each (AU$33 billion). Would you believe Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar funded one of Australia’s biggest tech enterprises with a credit card?

How Atlassian was built with $10,000

Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar met as computer science students at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Keen to set up their own business, they started by building their own third-party support service.

While completing their own projects for the service, Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar were forced to acknowledge just how messy development work could be. They also knew first-hand that using email and personal productivity tools was a less than ideal way to collaborate and see across a project’s progress.

Initially, Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar built software on the side to track their own issues and bugs, while providing their teams with a synchronised workspace, but then had the lightbulb moment of realising it could be used by paying customers. Switching from offering a service to a product, they took out a $10,000 credit card and used it to fund Atlassian’s first offering, Jira.

Jira was a breakthrough product and Atlassian’s potential was clear from the beginning. Throughout the early years the founders turned down multiple offers from would-be buyers and investors, all of which fell drastically short of the business’s true value. This included an abruptly ended meeting when a potential US buyer realised that Atlassian was worth much more than his own company!

Atlassian’s rags-to-riches tale made mainstream news as the bootstrapped startup finally accepted its first ever injection of investment capital in 2010. Accel Partners poured US$60 million into development, which at the time was the US venture capital fund’s largest ever investment in a software company. 

Twelve years on and Atlassian has become a tech industry rockstar, but hasn’t lost sight of its founding principles. In true Aussie style, Atlassian’s no-nonsense company values still read:

  • Don’t #@!% the customer 
  • Play, as a team 
  • Be the change you seek  

Atlassian’s 20 year story proves patience is a virtue when it comes to scaling a company that’s going to have a lasting impact.

Canva

Canva is an Australian graphic design platform that’s used to make social media graphics, presentations, posters and other eye-catching visual assets. Canva offers a wide range of templates, meaning users can create customised graphic designs without needing to start from scratch, from splashy Instagram posts to elegant restaurant menus.  

Canva was founded in Australia by Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht and Cameron Adams in January 2013. Canva had attracted over 750,000 users within a year of its launch, and now boasts a colossal 75 million users in over 190 countries

Though Canva is built around a “freemium” business model, the company makes money from monthly upgrade subscriptions, print products, course sales and marketplace fees. Currently, Canva has an eye-watering valuation of AU$55 million

You might be surprised to learn that Canva came from humble beginnings. Perkins and husband Obrecht were studying design together at the University of Perth and decided to supplement their income by offering high schools a simplified yearbook production process that used customisable design templates.

How Canva recreated graphic design

The success of their yearbook business inspired Perkins and Obrecht to make plans for a streamlined, user-friendly ‘one-stop-shop’ for anyone needing to carry out professional standard design work online.

A chance encounter at a university conference with renowned Silicon Valley investor Bill Tai saw Perkins invited to San Francisco to pitch the idea for Canva, where she started building a network of potential investors. 

In 2012, Canva finally received an initial investment of AU$1.5 million and its Perth office was opened that year. When Canva became oversubscribed within months of going live in 2013, the Australian Government matched the AU$1.5 million investment in a bid to keep one of the world’s most exciting tech startups on Aussie shores.

Following several rounds of further investment, including US$200 million in September 2021, the company’s value has skyrocketed. Canva is now: 

  • Worth US$40 billion (AU$54.5bn)
  • Three times more valuable than it was a year ago
  • Generating five times its revenue of two years ago

*Source: Startupdaily, 2021

Interviewed by CNBC and reminiscing over Canva’s modest beginnings, Perkins recalls “my mum’s living room became my office, and my boyfriend became my business partner. We just started by enabling schools to create their yearbooks really, really simply.”

Canva has now been adopted by designers globally and is considered one of the Australian tech industry’s unicorns, proving that finding a simple solution for a common problem really can be a recipe for success when it comes to building a thriving business.   

So there you have it – three HUGE Aussie businesses that started as small side hustles.

Inspired to start your own side hustle? 

If you’re thinking of getting your hustle on, it’s liberating to know that starting a small business is easier than you might think. For practical tips and tricks, read our full guide to setting up a successful side hustle.  

Reflecting on the determination it took to bring Apple to fruition, Steve Jobs observed “you have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.” 

It’s crucial to accept that setting up a profitable side hustle isn’t an exact science. Sometimes the success of a small business is the result of hitting the market at the right time, sometimes it’s the product of persistent hard work, and normally there’s a little luck mixed in too.

One thing’s for sure – if you don’t put your side hustle idea to the test, you’ll never find out just how much of a hit it could be.

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