When a couple of knockabout tradie mates become business partners, literally anything can happen.
Add to that the drive to create something enormously positive and impactful from the most tragic of situations, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the incredible story behind Brisbane social enterprise, TradeMutt. The Brisbane Business Hub’s audience was treated to an extraordinary tale during the latest instalment of its On The Couch series, featuring the founders themselves.
Dan Allen and Ed Ross have become something of a juggernaut not just in Brisbane, but across Australia.
Rocked by the suicide of one of his best mates in 2015, Dan turned to his then workmate Ed for support. The tragedy spurred the pair on to create workwear business TradeMutt – vibrant, high-visibility work shirts for tradies that encourage men to start conversations about their mental health.
Their venture gained early momentum when an observant journalist spotted the pair wearing their ultra-bright workwear in a pub. Recognising the need to foster more discussions around mental health, Dan and Ed were motivated to go much deeper.
And so in 2020 the pair started TIACS (This Is A Conversation Starter), a free text and call service connecting tradies, truckies, and rural and blue collar workers with mental health counsellors. This service is completely funded by the profits of TradeMutt and collaborative partnerships with businesses. To date, TIACS has provided support to over 17,000 individuals, engaging in about 17,000 hours of conversations dedicated to help with their mental well-being.
Genial, humble, hilarious, heart-breaking, Dan and Ed’s business and personal stories took the Brisbane Business Hub audience through an emotional rollercoaster, hurtling wildly between tears of joy to tears of sadness, and back again.
Here are the top lessons we learnt from the remarkable founders of TradeMutt and TIACS.
In life and work, communication is everything
Dan explained that across TradeMutt and TIACS the team had grown to 36 employees. From the early days of “designing shirts with coloured pens from OfficeWorks”, the business now had experienced professionals in procurement, e-commerce, people and culture, and more.
With that growth came the need to establish and effectively convey their core values, and know when something was working or failing. But this wasn’t always easy.
Having two co-founders in the business had divided the workload but added the need for meaningful communication.
“Early on, Ed and I realised we had to be able to communicate and have good conflict resolution,” Dan said.
“We’re both smart arses, we know how to push each other’s buttons, but we’ve never gone to bed angry at each other. As co-founders, it is so important to be able to talk and resolve issues fast.”
Ed recalled the time they were in their first office and were having “a stonker” of a disagreement, and things had to change.
“I drew up our whole business on a whiteboard,” Ed said. “I carved it up into the things I knew I was good at, and the things I knew Dan was good at and said, ‘You happy to tackle that while I tackle all of this?’
“Dan said yep, and we were off and racing. We then built each part of the business and took on staff that way. It was such a simple plan but it just needed to be communicated.
“Nothing goes unsaid, and nothing goes untold.”
That goes for your team as well
This philosophy now extends to their team members. Dan had the audience in stitches, questioning why anyone would choose to work for a couple of brutally honest mates who had used their savings to procure 1,500 work shirts from China with the kind of blind enthusiasm that would send shivers down the spine of any accountant.
“But it was our drive and belief that had got the business to that point, and we now have a talented buying team that shakes their heads in disbelief at how we got this off the ground,” Dan said.
“But like any business we’ve had team members who weren’t the right fit, and being a social enterprise focusing on mental health, we are held to higher standards on how we handle that.”
Ed added: “You need to see the signs of communication breakdown and act fast. When conflict would arise it could be as simple as someone typing in capital letters in a Slack [team communication] chat. You can’t let that fester in the team – you address it and get people comfortable in moving on from it.”
Establish your philosophy on business and live your values
Ed said he had fully embraced the philosophy that, on a business leader’s best day, they might be able to give 100 percent, but realistically, your employees’ best day might hover around 80 percent.
“It’s true. And it’s about being comfortable with that and knowing it day-to-day,” he said.
“We need to have our game faces on and bring our best to the office every day if we expect our staff to bring their best as well. We need to set our employees up to succeed.”
He said the best way to do that was to set really clear expectations and live TradeMutt’s business values of:
- We give a f@#$
- The weirder the better
- Create strong connections through vulnerability
- Build trust through transparency
- If we can, we must
- Enjoy the journey of making a difference
“Those things guide you and your employees, and set them up for success,” Ed said.
Make happiness a daily aim, not a destination
Dan pointed out that many business leaders tend to treat success and happiness as a distant goal that may never be attained.
Instead, he suggested that business owners should aim to bake into their businesses the things that make them happy every day.
“Whether that’s a four-day work week or being picky with the clients you take on, happiness needs to be an everyday thing for you. Otherwise, what’s the point?” Dan said.
“If you view happiness as a destination, it may never come. I love running TradeMutt because I feel like it’s authentically me. I feel like I’m living a very authentic life, and this brand and this business is a reflection of the true us.”
Consider a social enterprise model for your business
In the room, there was a keen interest from many people in learning more about TradeMutt’s business model, and how profits helped fuel purpose and impact.
“Being a social enterprise, 50 percent of our profits are donated to the social cause that we advocate for. Not that we didn’t have enough on our plate already building a work wear fashion business, Ed and I went about creating TIACS,” he said.
“We donate 50 percent of our profits to TIACS and we’ve also got about 45 other businesses who help fund TIACS to provide that free mental health support to our community and beyond.
Dan highlighted the value of adopting a social enterprise model for business owners keen to infuse a deeper sense of purpose into their business.
“Social enterprise businesses are fantastic,” he said. “Before Ed and I got into this space, it wasn’t a model of business that we knew anything about. To be able to combine profit with purpose and positively impact people’s lives is just something so unique and we’re so grateful to have found this.
“It’s amazing to see so many social enterprise businesses coming out of Brisbane. I think it’s the way of the future for business and we’re right behind it.”
Top three tips for business owners from the TradeMutt Founders
Ed said being persistent, being kind to yourself and always asking for help were his top three tips for business owners.
“One is don’t give up, because as soon as you give up, it’s over,” Ed said. “It may not feel like there’s a way, but there always is a way. You’ve just got to grit your teeth and hang on and keep pushing through.
“The second one is making sure you’re setting really good boundaries for yourself and not burning the candle at both ends. I think the return on your time away pays massive dividends to the business in the long term if you are looking after yourself and have longevity.
“I think the third thing is just asking for help when you need it. We know near nothing and we ask everyone all the time on how we do certain things. That’s probably the third most important thing, for sure.”
Dan added that doing business in Brisbane had helped TradeMutt and TIACS enormously, thanks to the city having such a strong and supportive business community.
“Brisbane is a fantastic community to do business in. It’s a tight-knit community, and there’s strong relationships formed,” Dan said.
“It holds you to account when you live in a community where it’s easy to form strong connections with everyone around you. So, it’s really important to make sure that you’re treating people the right way.”