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Through our ethnographic interviews, we identified a number of key findings about Indigenous businesses and their experiences with accessing mainstream and Indigenous-specific business support. Insights from interviews fit into 11 overarching themes, and have been grouped into: issues for businesses in general, issues that are amplified for Indigenous businesses, and issues that are specific to Indigenous businesses.

Issues for business in general

Business skills from the beginning

Indigenous businesses learn business fundamentals such as tax and human resources the “hard way” by learning from their mistakes. Having a business mentor early on is a critical source of support and advice to help them navigate this.

Relevance: During startup phase

“I’m learning as I go along. You don’t know [what to do or not do] until it happens to you.” - Katherine

Cash flow

If you want to startup your own business you need financial security. This barrier is magnified for many Indigenous people who do not have the generational wealth of many non-Indigenous Australians.

Relevance: During startup phase

“The first place you go to for startup is your family and friends, and if your family and friends don’t have $10,000 to get you going… there’s your first issue” - Sydney

Networks are critical, but take time to establish

Indigenous businesses feel like they need to know the “right people” in government to win work or find out about opportunities. Networks with other business owners are also helpful for winning work and learning from mistakes. These take time to establish.

Relevance: During startup and growth phase

“You don’t need to be the smart people, you just need to know the smart people” - Darwin

Issues amplified for Indigenous business

Role models

Sharing their story with other Indigenous people (especially youth) was important for Indigenous business owners to make sure that Indigenous people see that business ownership is a possibility. Businesses commented that there is a lack of role models particularly in remote communities and you “can only be what you can see”.

Relevance: During pre-business phase

“I never thought it was possible that we would own our own business… because it wasn’t in front of us” – Sydney

Navigating mainstream support

Businesses found looking for general business support from government that would suit them overwhelming. While they were open to mainstream support, they did not often think to look for it because it wasn’t obviously for them.

Relevance: During startup, growth and maturity phase

“You type in funding and a millions things come up. I don’t have time to sift through what is available” – Thursday Island

Working with government

Businesses see working with government (and accessing Indigenous business grants) as a big opportunity, but they are often surprised and frustrated by the time-consuming nature of the process, paperwork involved, government language and lack of feedback about why they were unsuccessful.

Some businesses felt like they were asked to quote or participate in a government tender just for show, without the government employee really understanding the intent of the policy or genuinely considering them. Many businesses saw the Indigenous Procurement Policy and Supply Nation as an opportunity to start their business and win work with government. However, small businesses with limited capacity find it hard to win work through these avenues.

Relevance: During startup and growth phase

[When applying for a tender] we spent a lot of money going down there, because they said you’ve got to come down for the interviews and show us what your model is going to look like…[but] we were unsuccessful. We thought, as an Aboriginal business that it was all just part of the process to say that an Aboriginal business applied, because they  gave it to a guy who had no experience.” – Darwin

Issues specific to Indigenous business

Perception and bias

Businesses face racial stigma and a perception that they are less capable. They perceive bias in government tender and grant decisions, and described a “golden circle” of suppliers that is hard to break into.

Relevance: During startup and growth phase

“There is a stigma where people don’t believe we can do it, so we are required to have a white helper.” – Thursday Island

Giving back to community

Indigenous businesses are highly motivated to give back to their community, but may face “humbug”[1] pressures from their community that impacts their cash flow.

Relevance: During startup and growth phase

“A lot of successful businesses fall over because culture, it’s a sharing culture.” – Katherine

Indigenous employment and capability development

Indigenous business owners are highly motivated to hire other Indigenous people, but find it hard to find staff with the skills and work fitness they need.

Relevance: During growth phase

“When a person comes out of CDP program say, or school, they really don’t have the skill set that is required....  So, we have to spend a heap of time on language, and literacy, and numeracy skills.” –Darwin

Indigenous support first

Indigenous businesses knew about and felt most comfortable accessing Indigenous specific business support. They were confident this support was “for them” in comparison to mainstream support. Businesses highly valued proactive support from government to help them understand what was available.

Relevance: During startup, growth and maturity phase

“The discoverability and accessibility of all those programs is not for the Average Joe… We only look for Indigenous specific support, and I think a lot of community would as well” – Sydney

Connected to government

Mainstream government support providers did not see Indigenous businesses as a key customer group. The best support was from someone who had strong local connections in community and government and built an ongoing relationship with the business.

Relevance: During startup, growth and maturity phase

“Like for us, the best model was when we had a full-time person who understood Cape York, who could get out there talking to people” – Cairns


[1] Sharing culture within Indigenous communities, whereby family or community members seek money or other forms of support from other individuals seen to be in possession of greater wealth.