Why wait for adversity?

 Photograph by Shayne Mostyn Photography, Cohuna

Photograph by Shayne Mostyn Photography, Cohuna

Adversity is a great breeding ground for entrepreneurs. We see it all the time. Someone suddenly loses their job and starts their own business. A major employer closes down and even more people launch a small business or buy into one. There is no doubt that, when pushed, we can step out of our comfort zone and do something that we’ve previously only dreamed of. A regular income holds us back but once it is taken away we suddenly have nothing to lose and are willing to have a crack.

Two questions come to mind. Why are we waiting for adversity before we take positive action? And why aren’t we doing this as a community rather than just as individuals?

I want to pay homage to the communities with vision who understand that we should be nurturing our entrepreneurs and preparing the groundwork long before any hardship hits. Experience has demonstrated to me that those who have already laid the foundations of a collaborative entrepreneurial ecosystem are much better equipped to weather a storm.

Many Victorians will recall the shock waves of the Morwell community audibly vibrating through the media all the way to the Victorian State Government’s treasury when the closure of Hazelwood Power Station was announced in late 2016. Even though the storm clouds had been gathering on the horizon for some years, the community still appeared to be visibly shocked when it finally descended.

Despite the digital age and vast information at our finger tips, storms can still arrive unannounced and create much damage. And they come in many forms, not just of the weather variety that rural communities are familiar with.

In April 2016, some months before the Hazelwood announcement, the ‘dairy crisis’ hit a number of rural communities when Murray Goulburn and Fonterra delivered the gut wrenching news to farmers that they were dropping their milk price payments. No, this was not just reducing the farmers’ profits, it created a situation where the cost of caring for and milking their cows was greater than the return farmers would receive.

No doubt many dairy farmers were despairing at the time because their pain was just as great as the Hazelwood workers. And it wasn’t only power station employees and dairy farmers feeling the pain. With lost incomes comes a general downturn in business and a spiral effect across the whole town. Their communities were hurting along with them.

No rural community can avoid these upturns and downturns but some are better equipped than others.

Cohuna in north-central Victoria actively started developing their entrepreneurial ecosystem well in advance. Despite being surrounded by dairy farms and hit hard by the ‘dairy crisis’, Cohuna appears to have rallied more quickly and with less outside assistance than Morwell, primarily because of an embedded collaborative culture.

Enhancing an existing supportive community, Operation Next Gen Cohuna was formed in 2013 to empower emerging community leaders to explore new business opportunities and strengthen their community into the future. The group established a ‘Cohuna Farmers & Makers’ Market that has helped create and promote many micro businesses within the community. An annual event, The Big Cohuna (held over the Melbourne Cup weekend) has provided a creative platform for locals and attracted visitors to their rural town. Multiple events have been held to engage their youth and form strong ties with their home town. Encouraged by a #GetYourBacksideCreekside campaign, new seasonal businesses now operate during the summer period. Another quirky campaign attracted national media and multiple business proposal for a vacant building.

‘Cohuna has experienced some of its best tourism in five years,’ Jennah Martin, a local accommodation provider told the media early this year. It was hardly coincidental that five years is exactly the time frame that Operation Next Gen has been active in Cohuna.

By the time the dairy crisis hit in 2016 it was a natural reaction for the Cohuna community to ask: What can we do to help ourselves? Because of Operation Next Gen and the community’s collaborative culture, much was already in place and individuals were empowered to take positive action.

Dairy farmer, Di Bowles, co-founded a social media platform #DairyLove to support farmers with positivity and the non-farming community was equally active. Local photographer, Shayne Mostyn, convinced his Melbourne based partner to bring their new night photography workshops to Cohuna. ‘It’s only eight people each month but it is eight people that weren’t coming before,’ Shayne says. ‘They come and use the local accommodation and spend their money in town.’

Another huge asset has been the establishment of a RV camping site in a prime location in town. ‘Caravaners stop, walk over to the shopping centre and SPEND money,’ community member Denise Morrison advises joyfully. ‘We have also had at least three new families buy a house in Cohuna to live after they have stayed at the RV because they liked the feel of the town!’

More recently Operation Next Gen Cohuna has launched Cohuna Unlocked, a new autumn event to showcase and stimulate local businesses. And, defying the closure of other milk processing plants in the region, two local business people have also launched a bid to build a new $130 million milk processing plant aptly named NO BULL. ‘Rather than have their milk sent 120 kilometres away, they can have it processed here and that will generate local jobs and help ensure that farmers in this area remain profitable,’ said John Mawson, owner of the local quarry, supported by Cohuna’s veterinarian, Jason Wright.

The list goes on …

Let’s be clear. Nothing happens overnight as it takes time to gather momentum and show positive results. Communities that understand the value of local leadership and building collaborative entrepreneurial ecosystems are much stronger and able to take advantage of new opportunities as well as weather any storm that presents.

Which brings me back to that all-important question. Why are we waiting for things to go wrong when we could be actively looking for opportunities now?

For those communities not waiting for adversity, here is some more information on Operation Next Gen


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE