Small business owners, says Michael Goldthorpe, often feel like “c***s” to themselves – and even to their teams.
Accepting the Auckland business award for excellence in strategy and planning, the Hunch founder’s profanity-strewn speech caught the attention, and the imagination, of the black-tie gala dinner.
Speaking afterwards to Newsroom, he tells of his own battle with mental health – and the support and tools he’s found to help through it. “I’m a registered nutter. If I don’t look after myself, I become manic. Which is tremendous for creativity – and really, really unhelpful for business.”
The 45-year-old says business owners, like politicians, feel they have to put on a bullish demeanour even when they’re struggling, to avoid scaring off investors, staff and customers. They need to find better support.
“I think the biggest challenge is in recognising and supporting business owners through the very real challenges of balancing work and life. There’s plenty of support for business growth, but very little for mental health and things like work-life balance.
“It’s hard for small business owners to be vulnerable. We feel like we need to give the impression we’re 10-foot tall and bulletproof right up until we hit liquidation.”
He commented on the liquidation of Supie, whose founder Sarah Balle was talking publicly about her expansion plans just two days before she put her online grocery company into administration.
“I think there’s a really interesting insight in there. Because in any normal job, if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed or things are a bit too much, it’s okay to ask for help. But when you’re a business or a brand, or you’re trying to give an impression to the public, you don’t feel like you’re allowed to do that.
“Michael took the business awards by storm. While his language was probably a bit more colourful than we’ve heard at such an event in a while, he was heartfelt and authentic, particularly on how tough it’s been in small and medium business in recent times.”Simon Bridges, Auckland Business Chamber
“If I was to say that we’re worried about X, Y and Z, it scares the horses in terms of our clients. And it scares the horses in terms of the team. And you can see those ripple effects. So you have to fake it, even when you know that the fake is quite problematic.”
He says business owners’ mental health is a big problem for them personally, but big for New Zealand too. Small businesses create jobs for nearly one in three New Zealanders, and make up a quarter of the country’s GDP. “But most of us are making it up as we go along!”
He has his own self-management resources. He sets boundaries (“I know what I can do and what I can’t do, and I know that when I break my boundaries, I get into trouble”); he makes himself vulnerable (“I really value people coming back to me to say, hey, are you feeling alright?”); and he says he has the best wife in the world.
Goldthorpe first made his name in 2000, as the short-lived and controversial editor of Massey University student association’s Satellite magazine. Among dubious highlights, he was threatened with defamation after splashing the headline “Traitor” across the face of a controversial university figure. He defended the legal threat on grounds of truth.
He’s since worked in advertising for TBWA and Affinity ID, in marketing for the Fred Hollows Foundation, and in communications for ASB.
“I think bullying is a term that’s overused, and really highly charged in today’s work environment…. Is it okay to raise your voice and shout at people? No, it’s not. Does it happen? Yes, it does. Does that make you a bad person? No, it doesn’t.”Michael Goldthorpe, Hunch
With his wife Ange, Goldthorpe founded communications agency Hunch 10 years ago. It aims to help organisations convey their more difficult messages, like service cuts and price rises, in simple accessible terms. A signed-up Labour Party member, Goldthorpe’s firm helped design the “Let’s keep moving” advertising strategy for the party’s successful 2020 re-election campaign, and also worked on this year’s far less successful campaign.
He says he’s worked for “benevolent bullies” in the past and is more forgiving than some of what now passes for bullying. “I think bullying is a term that’s overused, and really highly charged in today’s work environment,” he says.
Just this week, Labour MP Ginny Andersen has apologised for bullying a volunteer – the eighth MP to be accused of bullying in the past year. “She’s quite right to shout at them – they had one job! How hard was it, to deliver a thing to a house? I think everybody has a right to feel safe, and also a responsibility to be accountable for the thing they’re supposed to do. And in there, there’s a balance.
“The more calmly you put your points, the better the point lands. But in the rough and tumble of work, sometimes leaders and followers alike react. It’s those reactions that are problematic. Is it okay to raise your voice and shout at people? No, it’s not. Does it happen? Yes, it does. Does that make you a bad person? No, it doesn’t.”
“Being your own boss means working for the worst boss you’ve ever had. Discerning. Pedantic. Controlling. Demanding … and unrelenting. And you never really own a business, the business owns you. So why bother?”Michael Goldthorpe
Hunch has eight staff, and he admits times are tough. “It’s hard because small businesses smoke and mirrors. I’ll give you an example: right now, we’re losing $10,000 a month. I could fix that tomorrow by killing two people’s jobs.
“But it’s a shit time to kill two people’s jobs. And I’m still hopeful that we might be able to pick up more work. So, Ange and I have made a business decision, we’re just going to wear that cost through to the new year and then try and fix it there.”
He told the 2Degrees Auckland Business Awards, hosted by the Auckland Business Chamber, that owning a small business was one of the most stressful things anyone could do.
“Being your own boss means working for the worst boss you’ve ever had,” he said. “Discerning. Pedantic. Controlling. Demanding … and unrelenting. And you never really own a business, the business owns you. So why bother?
“We do it because – freedom. We don’t answer to anyone but us. We’re the pirates of the business world.”
‘How do we keep going?’
Chamber chief executive Simon Bridges says there’s “a real risk” for business owners’ mental health at present.
“Michael took the business awards by storm,” Bridges says. “While his language was probably a bit more colourful than we’ve heard at such an event in a while, he was heartfelt and authentic, particularly on how tough it’s been in small and medium business in recent times.”
The chamber runs First Steps, alongside business.govt.nz, to encourage business owners, managers and employees to prioritise wellbeing and awareness. It hosts regular seminars so businesspeople have the tricks and tips they need – and even more importantly, Bridges says, to know they’re not alone.
“While it’s said as a cliche, it’s also true that SMEs are the backbone of our economy. They’ve been hit with Covid restrictions, increased costs and complexity, yet for the most part they’ve taken it and kept going like troopers.
“That’s not to neglect the mental effect, though, for all manner of reasons from owning and running a business.
“I think there is a real risk right now as businesses realise they’ve survived Covid, survived a recession of sorts, and a government that they fell out of favour with. Yet the problems are still there, and for some there is a sense of ‘how do we keep going’ after all of that.”