A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to speak at a local university about what it is like running a small business (I thoroughly dislike the words ‘CEO’, ‘owner’, and ‘proprietor’ since my mind associates these with fleecing, Enron and whatnot). Before we break into song and dance, the email invite stated clearly that the particular speaker, who had been scheduled to give the talk in the slot I was being offered, had cancelled at the last minute and thus they needed a quick replacement. If I was interested, the time and location were indicated and also there was mention of snacks being served.
Never one to shy away from free food, I stated unequivocally that I would love to attend said forum. I will now proceed to showcase the highlights of an otherwise very long-winded and boring story: There was a panel of speakers, most of whom are reasonably well-known and successful business icons in the country; I seem not to have gotten the memo on dress code as my jeans and converse sneakers seemed a stark contrast to the suits and ties on exhibition; said snacks were nowhere to be seen (now we know why the first guy cancelled); there was only a handful of students in attendance and they too seemed disappointed by the absence of the snacks and finally; I doubt that I will ever be invited back … EVER!
Reason as to why my return to the university seems unlikely? Let’s just say that speaking about how the current educational system stifles creativity and how life on the outside is nothing like they say it is in school is not the best way to win the hearts & minds of the faculty (in my defense, neither is promising snacks and not delivering), but as usual I digress. Surreptitiously, a few days after the talk, a friend of mine sent me an article about startups, which unfortunately was filled with the standard ‘hard work & struggle, blah blah blah’ everyone seems to talk about. When I stated this, the friend challenged me to write what I felt are the things no one ever tells you about running or starting (pun intended and delivered in 3, 2, 1…) a startup.
1. THE LEAP
Very few entrepreneurs talk about the fear that comes with making a decision to break out on your own. There are so many uncertainties that accompany the thought of conjuring a tangible entity from an idea. I tend to think the days before making the choice to branch off into business are filled with more terror than the roughest days of business. This is especially true if you are, perhaps, leaving employment to start out and you do not have the safety net of savings, starting capital, or wealthy parent or relatives to cushion your fall. One of my favorite statements is: ‘If you are jumping out of a plane with no parachute, you have no choice but to fly…’
If you do not experience this fear when you think of starting your startup, you are not ready. The fear of being destitute, penniless and utterly dejected is one of the biggest motivators to succeed for me.
2. LOVE, DEVOTION, SURRENDER
A neighbor asked me a few months ago what the most important things were when building a startup and my answer to him was “Love, Devotion & Surrender” (ehh not the 1968 Santana & John McLaughlin album, although that does come in handy).
The thing that will keep you going when the ship starts taking in water is your belief in what you do; the love and devotion are what will keep you afloat. One of the most unfortunate circumstances that the Kenyan economy faces currently is that everyone is ‘a cashier at XYB bank but also CEO of Chris this or the other Fashion’ Most of these ‘entrepreneurs’ are in it for the money. They are looking to supplement their income. There is no dedication, loyalty, devotion or belief in what they do. For this reason very few take time to understand, cultivate and learn their craft. It all starts out so well… until things don’t go well or do go well.
A start up is like a baby, once the double lines show on the stick you peed on, you need to understand that your life stops and that of the business starts. It will cry at midnight, it will soil the new diapers you just put on it, it will ruin your figure, it will rebel at some point and if you are not careful, it will change its name to Cinnamon and dance for 50’s on a pole.
3. TAG TEAM
‘If you wish to go fast, go alone. If you wish to go far, go together’
I have been exceedingly lucky to be surrounded by an awesome team of people who offer advice, support and ideas (though surprisingly offer no money) throughout the growing process of our start up. My luckiest break, however, is in my business partner. I am always awed that someone so young can be so talented and gifted in so very many aspects. Most people do not know this but, in his silent way, my business partner is the engine that runs the entire organization. Finding someone who translates the crazy ideas in your head into concrete solutions is a gift I wish every person venturing into business could posses.
4. YOU ARE YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY
One word: PROCRASTINATION. Any businessperson who doesn’t struggle with this is either a liar or an alien in disguise. Finding the strength to overcome this demon is still something that even the best of startups battle. Finding a work rhythm is very difficult, especially if you exit a formal working environment. For instance, I find it very difficult to work mornings. My sleep pattern is set to sleep-in in the morning and be super productive at night. I still feel quite ashamed when I rise at 11 am, even if I went to bed at 4am.
My advice is find your rhythm, and don’t let society dictate what is right or wrong for you. After all, you are now your own boss now (and when that rent is due, trust me, you will know how to cha-cha and waltz at the same time).
5. DAVID & GOLIATH
The story of David & Goliath makes for very good reading, and that is what every person who is just starting out needs to remember… it is just a story. Once your business has kicked off, you will at one point or the other find yourself pitted against a major industry player. Now this is a good sign but also it is a precarious position that could mean your doom.
At the beginning of the year, we found ourselves bidding for a job that the biggest player in our industry was also bidding. Our approach was to play our part; a small startup, with limited capacity but great ideas. Engaging in a pissing contest with industry leaders will always lead in your bladder failing you. They have seen more urinals, pissed in windier conditions, and are not afraid to piss in the wild where there is no hand sanitizer or tissue paper.
What I mean is, these entities have more experience in the market, they can undercut you in most aspects, and finally, if you dance on their toes, they can end you. Everyone loves an underdog. This is not your fight; let the crowd fight for you. If your ideas are fresh and amazing and you play your position, you will not need to fight. The crowd and your work will fight for you. For every David legend you hear out there, there are 100 Goliath small talks.
6. DEATH AND ALL HIS FRIENDS
No matter how hard you try, sometimes, thing will go wrong. It is not that you didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t plan well enough; it’s just that sometimes things don’t go the way you hope they would. You will disappoint & lose clients you bent over backwards to please, an investment decision will turn out to be a nightmare, and you will lose friends and partners. This is where the devotion & surrender comes in. Learn to let go, dust yourself and rise. Your support system is crucial at such times. You cannot always get up by yourself. You need to be reminded about the beauty and promise of why you started.
The three most important people in your life in order of hierarchy are your clients, your supplier and then your employees. You come last, always. I do not need to speak on the importance of the client, everyone and their grandmother has a book on this. A good relationship with your suppliers means you not only get concessions with regards to credit periods etc., it also means you get the very best of your raw materials and they will go the extra mile to make sure you have them when you need them. Your employees are the epitome of what your business dream is– treat them with respect and care and they own the business with you. They are the hand under the Muppet.
In closing, take time to appreciate yourself and the small victories you gain through out your journey. Do not let the environment change who you are and why you started the business. Conformists don’t change the world. So be who you are, wear your converse shoes and expect snacks.