Angela Harbinson, together with husband Ben, founded Thirst Creative in 2008. What started as a small graphic design studio is now a full-service marketing, design and digital agency based in Melbourne's inner North suburb of Carlton. What might be even more impressive is that despite working together each day for ten years their marriage is stronger than ever and they have also raised two kids along the road.
Question: What originally inspired you to start Thirst Creative?
Angela Harbinson: I started Thirst Creative because I wanted to build a different lifestyle and do something I love every day. At the time, my husband Ben and I were newlyweds and thinking about starting a family. We thought if we were ever going to go back to self-employment, this was the time. We had some exciting client opportunities and the risk felt relatively low, so we couldn't resist taking the leap. It's a decision I've never regretted.
Question: What do you wish you'd known as a 20-year-old, starting your first business?
Angela Harbinson: I started my first business straight out of University at the age of 20. It was a small design studio in Hobart with two staff and I was a co-founding partner in an event business which ran Tasmania's first three-day fashion festival. I'd worked for a few other businesses before then, but I certainly didn't know much about finances, HR, IT - all those things that are critical in running a successful business.
I realised pretty quickly that if I wanted to succeed, I needed to surround myself with a group of trusted advisors. You know the saying, "sometimes you don't know what you don't know" and it's so true. My advice is to start building your network of advisors, because self-employment can be quite isolating without it, and never, ever stop learning.
Question: How do you manage (and balance) your work and mum life?
Angela Harbinson: Finding that balance is much easier said than done. I'm a workaholic and my business is like another child that needs my love and attention. For me, finding the right balance between motherhood and work has been about setting boundaries and rules:
I work part time and Wednesdays is my day away from the office. This day is about re-stocking the fridge, planning out the week and giving myself some time to do something for my own wellness.
I won't accept invitations for any more than three after hours events and meetings per week.
To be a great mum, I now recognise the importance of allowing some time for myself. For me that is playing tennis, going to a boxing class and socialising with friends.
Getting involved in the kids' school and their activities and be a part of the community, is something I really enjoy.
One-on-one time with my girls. I like to go for a walk with them and have a real chat. These moments are so special, and easy to forget when under pressure from a deadline.
Same goes with my work team. I make sure to connect with all employees and get to know them as people, no matter how big the business gets.
Question: Can you share your advice for couples who work and live together?
Angela Harbinson: Set clear areas of responsibility and own it! For us, we have fairly clear roles, both at home and work, and we respect each other's contribution. When you work and live together, it's easy to talk about work all the time. I know we're certainly guilty, but I'm a big believer in feeding your individual passions and spending time away from each other to get contact with the world outside your bubble.
Prioritise date night with your partner. Make some time to focus on your relationship as a couple and remind yourselves of the reasons you went into this in the first place.
We also have this habit of gratitude checking, especially useful if you're feeling a bit flat. Thankfully Ben and I have this ability to know when the other is a bit down and the other swings into the positive, optimist role.
Question: What was the biggest challenge Thirst Creative has had to overcome?
Angela Harbinson: There have been many. One of the most significant was when our team doubled within a month to support a big project with a client, which was supposed to be an ongoing two-year deal. We had an awesome team in place, were delivering great work and trying to manage hyper growth while balancing of life and family.
Just after launching, the company supporting the project went into administration, which left us exposed to significant financial loss and the prospect of making many team members redundant. Overnight, we had to pivot and thought about how we turn this negative into an opportunity for Thirst. So, within 24 hours we had our entire team working on a strategy session for our business and developing our own marketing plan to reposition ourselves with this new capability. In the weeks following we built out a content strategy, rebranded, built a new website and started actively re-engaging with our past clients and re-educating them about our expanded capability in web and marketing.
Question: Can you share how you stay current in an ever-changing industry?
Angela Harbinson: I read a lot of blogs, webinars, podcasts, industry news, as well as attending industry events and business conferences. At Thirst we have a culture of continuous improvement in our team so there is a lot of sharing within the team, through articles, or our monthly lunch and learning sessions. Late last year, I created a Business Mastermind group with a group of like-minded business owners who hold a similar growth mindset. We are all in completely different industries but we all learn from each other and share. It is a really valuable resource and they are now part of my personal 'trusted advisor' group.
Question: What's a typical day like, for you, currently?
Angela Harbinson: What I would like it to be or what it actually is (laughs)? I usually wake up around 5.30am - 6am, read through some emails and Podio notifications before the kids wake up. Some mornings I will exercise early, meditate and then feel ready to tackle the day. Ben and I always drop the girls at school in the morning and have a chance to say hi to the families in the school community before getting to work for the 9.20am team stand up. From there, I try and tackle the most important thing on my list for the day, before looking at my inbox again at around 11am. I am trying to use the Go Zone philosophy of getting into the zone without interruption. A lot of my day is then spent in meetings with the team, clients and keeping all the moving parts moving in the right direction.
As I work part-time, my week is split into long days at the beginning of the week, and short days at the end of the week where I leave early to do the school pick up. I am however very guilty of being that mum on the side of the pool at the swimming lessons, tapping away on my laptop!
As a family, we try and eat at least 5 meals a week together at the dining table. After dinner, it's the bedtime routine of books and bed, followed by a bit of Netflix or sometimes work/volunteer projects or reading. I like to be busy, so life is never dull in our household!
Question: What advice would you give someone starting their first business, this year?
Angela Harbinson: Start by being really clear about your purpose and what you are trying to achieve.
Know that you need to invest to grow, be that with marketing, people or your systems and technology.
Surround yourself with good people. Know your strengths and the areas where you need help, so you can seek out the right people to help you, be that mentors, consultants, or employees. Recognise that you don't need to know everything or be the best at everything in your business.
Set up good processes and systems for the way you want your business to run - how you will interact with clients, what data you want to capture to measure deliverables.
Spend time training your team and investing in your people to help them grow.
Learn to delegate and realise they may not always do it the way you do, or to the standard you do, but they may surprise you with something you never thought of.
Set up your financials and legal to protect yourself and your personal assets.
Lastly, have a plan and write it down. It is far more likely to come to fruition if you commit it to paper.
Interview by Brooke Hunter