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When opening and evolving their landscaping supply business in Albany, owners Jane and Ian sought guidance from advisers at the Albany Business Centre, the SBDC’s Business Local provider in the Great Southern.

Designer Dirt in Albany is more than your average landscaping supply centre. Opened in 2012, the business could be seen as an extension of the ‘grounding’ that owners Ian and Jane Michael gained from their early lives growing up on farms in rural WA.

Jane and Ian’s initial careers led them to being the managers of a bulk agricultural fertilizer depot in Albany for 12 years, supplying the grain growers and pastoralists in the Great Southern. Figuring that they could never afford the overheads of their own bulk agricultural fertiliser depot led to the idea of a landscaping supply business - and Designer Dirt was born.

Jane shared some of the lessons they have learned on their business journey.

Lease or buy a business to get started

The opportunity of leasing an established landscaping yard, presented an excellent cost-saving way to get their business started.

“The cement partitions needed to separate all the different soils and materials are very expensive to build, so we grabbed the chance as this current venue had been vacant for a while,” Jane said.

Communication with loyal customers is key

The housing and population boom in Albany provided solid demand for the business until, like most, COVID initially slowed it to the point where it pretty much closed. Jane said that communicating directly with their customers led to a turnaround as they offered free delivery for a while, so people didn’t need to worry about close contact.

“I think that helped initially to re-establish trade,” she said.

“We were definitely in the right industry to benefit from COVID, with people focussed more on home projects when travel was restricted.”

Diversify to add value

Designer Dirt stocked garden art from the outset, as a point of difference, and then started making unique products themselves. This part of the business has turned from a sideline to a major part of their success, now accounting for around a third of the business’s turnover. Jane praises her partner Ian’s creativity for the healthy result of the garden art sales.

“Ian is having a lot of fun with his creativity,” Jane said.

“His life-size scrap steel sculptures are quite incredible.”

“Diversifying has worked well for us to build our point of difference and made our work so much more enjoyable too.”

Photo of SBDC Board Members Eliza Carbines and Gillian Nathan, Small Business Commissioner David Eaton PSM and Jane and Ian Michael, owners of Designer Dirt, out the front of their business.
SBDC Board members Eliza Carbines and Gillian Nathan and Small Business Commissioner David Eaton PSM visited Jane and Ian on the SBDC Board's recent visit to Albany.

Spread the creative love

The business’s most recent diversification is adding creative workshops, including welding, to their offering. The on-premises classes help others to create their own works of art for their homes.

Ian and Jane have both instructed at TAFE, so they believed it was a logical progression.

“Many customers enquired about us holding workshops including farmers wives who said that their husbands didn’t have the time to teach them,” Jane said.

“So, this area of the business grew from customer demand and has attracted new clientele.”

Be ready for staffing challenges

Sourcing staff has been a constant challenge for Great Southern businesses, as it has for many operators throughout rural and regional WA.

“Especially if you’re looking for casuals or part-time staff as the business is open seven days a week,” Jane said.

“We’re lucky that we’ve had one person with us for over five years now, but finding someone to help Ian, that’s not full time, has been an ongoing challenge.”

Never stop learning

Jane said that they sought help from the outset from the Albany Business Centre, the SBDC’s Business Local provider for the Great Southern, with all the staff being friendly and an invaluable resource.

“I started going to their workshops in the beginning and I’ve never stopped,” she said.

“I love learning new things and we are lucky that we’re virtually next door to them too.”

Be patient

Jane and Ian’s advice to all other fledgling small businesses is to be patient when starting out.

“They say it takes two years to get a new business off the ground - it took us three,” Jane said.

“Give it time and try not to get discouraged and build a support network for when you do.”

“Just keep trying and never stop and think ‘you’ve got there’ as we find we need to keep looking and creating to stay in the market.”

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Small business stories
29 August 2023