Entrepreneurship 101: A Disorganised List of Lessons Learned in Entrepreneurship Part 1

I’m starting a new series here called “My Disorganised List of Lessons Learned in Entrepreneurship”. Because I have actual work to do and a baby to deliver soon, I don’t have a lot of time to write coherent articles. What I do have though are lots and lots of little lessons that I wrote down for myself for the past few years. These are the lessons I wish I knew before learning them the hard way. But oh well, the lessons learned with pain tend to stick. I’m sharing these with the hope that some of you may not need to go through them to learn from them and if you still go through them, you won’t feel alone.

So here they are in bullet points! Not all of them are applicable to all businesses though so you would have to decide which ones are applicable to you.

1.) Start somewhere! Don’t overthink the whole “starting” thing

I know it is easier said than done, but small steps could go a long way. The first step in starting a business is creating a product/service and validating it in the market. It does not matter if the product is imperfect, it is a good idea to test it out anyway but be very honest that it is a sample/prototype. I have heard people say “make your product good enough first because if you fail, you’ll never get another chance”, but I found that that is not necessarily true for everyone. We started R2R with a less than perfect website (oh, don’t get me started here) and products that needed a lot of development (like a lot), but we started anyway, learned from feedback, stuck to the vision, and improved one step at a time.

You can try something out, and if it makes you less nervous, try it out with family and trusted friends. You’ll learn a lot more from trying than thinking on your own.

2.) Money is not always a blessing.

Really. Having too much money or resources can make you do stupid things. When you have a problem in the company, don’t just throw money at it or solve the problem with money. For example, if you have a problem with getting your brand name more known, don’t just spend a lot of resources on ads or big events. Think about your target market, where they are, who they are, and what they could possibly want/need from you. For all you know, you’ll be able to already reach them through cost-effective ways like targeted Facebook ads or newsletter marketing.

Don’t get me wrong, money is important and it can definitely make things easier. But if you are a start-up with limited resources (even if they don’t seem limited in the beginning – trust me, money drains up fast), be diligent enough to think of ways outside of money to solve problems. At the very least, you’ll be able to stretch the resources that you have and spend on the things that matter for your business.

3.) Hustle for as long as you can – don’t act or spend like a big company when you are a start-up

When we were starting in R2R, there was a time when we got a lot of resources and one of the first things we did was “hire professionals”. This meant that overhead increased faster than our growth. In retrospect, we should have stayed lean and agile for a longer time. We should have used the resources to build our market and test products rather than hiring a lot of people right away. There are lots of businesses today that are thriving with only a few people (awesome, hardworking, and really smart people) behind them, and I think there is great value in maintaining a lean team. Hustling is not just about working with a leaner team though, it is also about a lot of other aspects of the business!

Hustling and keeping your business lean and agile means that you don’t immediately hire away your problems or build departments, layers, levels or red tape/bureaucracy that would (probably) fit a bigger company.

When your business is starting up and you are figuring out a lot of things (like your product, market, and business model), having some set-in-stone systems and a huge team to support may do more harm than good. Choose the systems and people you really need. Don’t overcomplicate your already complicated life. 🙂

4.) Listen to mentors and advisors BUT, don’t immediately implement every single suggestion

Mentors come from different experiences and chances are, they will give you inputs that come from their own experiences. Their experiences may or may not be applicable to you. And also, some of these inputs will be consistent, others will be in conflict with each other. So when everything is said and done, you’ll still decide on which way to go. Communicate with your mentors on why you are taking or not taking their advice. While it is important to listen to advice, it is also as important to stand up for what you believe in and own up to it.

5.) Prioritise! When you have really limited resources, don’t spend your last few thousands on mid-term needs or nice-to-haves

Leverage the little that you have to generate more cash/revenue so that you can reach the mid-term in the first place.

For example, if you only have, let’s say, 30,000 pesos left (and no immediate cash coming in), what would you prioritise among these 3 things that are important to you and your company? a.) Go out on a team outing because the team has been working so hard lately, b.) Purchase a new AC because summer is coming soon and the office needs to be a conducive place to work in, or c.) Join an upcoming well-reviewed bazaar.

While each of the options is quite important, remember that you only have 30K left. If you spend it on either a.) or b.), you won’t have enough cash to live long enough to enjoy them. If you choose c.), you might be able to double your 30K and generate more revenue. Eventually, you will be able to afford both a.) and b.), but you have to decide on leveraging what you have left. It is important to explain these decisions to your team and those who will be affected by the decisions. Being transparent is not easy, but if done right, the team will understand and together, you’ll survive! And yes, these times will happen when you are running a growing business.

6.) Don’t compare your entrepreneurship journey to others

Yeah, so I used to do this a LOT. I would look around and feel bad/sad about how our progress as a business was considerably harder and slower than others. I know it may not look that way from the outside, but the inside is a lot more complicated and unglamorous.

I would compare the number of years it took us to launch great products to the number of years it took someone else to. I would compare revenues, profitability, marketing strategy, leadership capabilities, and almost everything and anything I could think of. It was not healthy or helpful.

During these moments, I forgot that our journey is very different. We chose to be a social enterprise and start with building communities with our community artisans. We knew the short cuts but we chose the longer path with the conviction that it is the more sustainable one. Unlike others, we did not have celebrity power, huge capital, deep pockets, and connections. I mean, sure, we had a lot of celebrity support, but that is different from being celebrities ourselves. We had investors, but that is different from having our own money that we could draw from anytime and every time we need it. We were dealt a completely different set of cards from others and we chose a different path, so of course, our journey would look very different!

It is great to look at successful entrepreneurship stories, but if you get into the trap of comparing apples to oranges, you’ll just be disappointed. Spending energy on comparing your journey with others is not only disappointing, it is unproductive. Instead of comparing, draw inspiration from others. Look for the lessons you can learn from them and apply them to your situation.

For example, if you have been working on building your personal care brand for years and find yourself comparing your journey with Jessica Alba’s relatively quick rise to success (although she did work for years to get to her current celebrity status too), think instead about what connects her customers to her. Think about what connects you to your customers. Your currency may not be “celebrity power”, but you have your own unique currency that you can work on. Your personal care brand may not scale as fast as Jessica Alba’s, but your journey is unique and it is yours.

The Wrong Motivations for Starting A Social Enterprise

For the past 8 years, I have seen aspiring social entrepreneurs rise up, burn out, rise up again (for a few), and for some, eventually just burn up (resource-wise, motivation-wise). There are so many reasons for this of course, and one of them is starting with and keeping the wrong motivations.

My title is “the wrong motivations for starting a social enterprise”, but to be honest, there are motivations here that are perfectly fine (I struggled with most of them myself). BUT, each of them alone as the MAIN motivation for starting a social enterprise is weak and may make a social enterprise and a social entrepreneur crumble from within.

Note 1: even if I already have about 8 years of experience of running and building a social enterprise, I am still not an expert. Far from it. This article (among others) that I wrote about social entrepreneurship, meaning, and purpose, are all personal attempts to make sense of my experiences and share a few of the lessons I have learned along the way. BUT. I am still not done learning. I may be a few pages ahead, but honestly, I don’t know how many more pages are in this book! So if you have personal experiences too and lessons you would like to share, please do share them and let’s learn together! 

Note 2: For the purposes of this particular article, the definition of “social enterprise” will simply be an initiative, project, or business committed to creating positive impact or solving a social problem. There are so many schools of thought for the definition itself and it would need a separate entry! 

1) I want to be my own boss

How it looks like/sounds like: I want to be my own boss, handle my own time, have a team (with people I like) I could manage, and call the shots! All these while doing good! What an awesome deal!

What the work is really like: Wanting to be your own boss is not necessarily a bad thing. It is not a bad thing actually. But making it the main motivation could be dangerous to your health, emotions, and team culture.

The truth is, having your own social enterprise (or any enterprise at that) means that while you may hold your own time, you are rarely off-duty. And being an entrepreneur means that yes, on paper, you are kind of the “boss”, but in reality, you have to make sure that your team, customers, communities, stakeholders, board members, are engaged, happy, and productive.

Oh, and chances are, you won’t be able to always choose who you work with and who you serve. On the down side, you’ll get to deal with people from different backgrounds who will appreciate, challenge, frustrate, and make you hopeful, all at the same time. On the bright side, well, just repeat the reasons for the down side, they are the same!

Being the “boss” truly actually means that you are the servant leader of all. You eat last, you sacrifice your own benefits for the sake of your team and community, you recognise the contribution of every single person in your company, and when things fail or go wrong, you take responsibility. Our society sometimes forgets that.

Maintaining an “I’m the boss” state of mind is not only dangerous to your health and emotions (because you won’t really feel that way often), it is also detrimental to your team and culture. People want to work for and with leaders with strong visions and missions, (not big egos) especially if they are with you because they believe in creating positive impact or solving a social problem too.

Reframing the motivation: Instead of “I want to be my own boss”, shift to “I want to be of service – what is the best way for me to serve?”

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2) I want to help people

How it looks like/sounds like: I want to be a social entrepreneur so that I can help people

What the work is really like: It is true though, you can help people.:) And as one of the motivations, this is good! But as the main motivation, it is incomplete. Being a social entrepreneur does not mean that you are the “helper” and you have beneficiaries you are “saving” from poverty. When you go to a community, you are not there as a saviour. You are there as a learner, collaborator, and potential partner.

Reframing the motivation: I want to be part of the change and collaborate with others to create positive impact!

3) I want to win awards, travel the world, and be part of cool groups and fellowships – to further the advocacy

How it looks like/sounds like: I want to win awards, travel the world, be part of cool groups and fellowships so that I can advocate for what I do and spread this to more people! I could network with a lot of people so that I can expand our impact!

What the work is really like: Sure, you’ll get awards, travel the world, be part of cool groups and fellowships. And these are all exciting. But the truth is, majority of the meaningful work happens outside the spotlight. The work could get dull, boring, repetitive, discouraging, and painful at times, but these are all part of the work. Having all the “external rewards” as the main motivations is not just deceiving (you might think you have made it when you are actually far from where you need to be), it is exhausting and time-consuming. If you find yourself attending every single social, every single dinner get-together, every single learning opportunity that takes you out of your work for weeks or months at a time, and applying for every single award and grant while lacking the time and energy in doing the things that matter, it’s time to pause and reflect on what’s really important.

Reframing the motivation: How can I make my work valuable for those who I serve? How can I make real and concrete steps towards fulfilling my Mission?

4) I want to find meaning in life

How it looks like/sounds like: I want to be a social entrepreneur to make my life meaningful

What the work is really like: It might make your life meaningful, but if chasing after this meaning becomes your main motivation, a few demotivating & disappointing events may make you give up.

Creating a social enterprise is not about making one person feel meaningful. It is meant to be for social good. And there will be times when you’ll question your capabilities, endurance, self-worth, and yes, even your purpose. The whole social enterprise ride is a fun one but filled with lots of unexpected roadblocks and apparent detours.

Reframing the motivation: I want to be a social entrepreneur to find meaning and purpose for and with others.

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5) I want to see the immediate results of my actions! It is so hard to wait on the government

How it looks like/sounds like: We have so many things to fix in the country! And the government is too slow/bureaucratic/inefficient. I want to see change and I want it to start with me and my social enterprise!

What the work is really like: Surprise! It also takes a long time to create lasting and sustainable positive impact, wherever you are. And you may not be able to see the real and big results right away. Creating positive impact is a long-term build and commitment. We are not in the business of quick fixes.

Sure, you may think that the “results” are the number of smiles the people gave you because their lives are better, the number of people you have “touched”, and maybe even the number of goods and services you have provided. But all of these are not actually THE results (sorry). Some of them are indicators, some are activities, and the others are great memories you share with your partners. But the real results are the long-term ones that take a while to happen, and they stay even after our time.

Reframing the motivation: What are the real and lasting results of my social enterprise? How can we work towards these? How can I engage with the government and other partners to create systems that support these (yes, you need to engage! You can only do so much in your own little bubble)?

6) I want to feel good inside and feel that I’m doing something awesome for the world

How it looks like/sounds like: I want to be a social entrepreneur so that every day, I go home feeling good about what I have contributed to the world. This is the best way to live!

What the work is really like: It is perfectly fine to want to feel loved and appreciated!:) But if this is the main motivation for building a social enterprise, you’ll probably leave in a few months (or weeks/days). Working towards something long-term and creating something of value for others and for the world, takes a lot of time, patience, and understanding. You will not always be thanked, praised, and even loved. There will be days when you’ll feel alone, under appreciated, and tired. Working with communities and partners is a long-term process of building trust and meaningful relationships. Just like the best marriages and friendships, it will go through a lot of challenges and doubts that will make the relationships even stronger.

Reframing the motivation: What will keep me going? What is my WHY? What is my North Star when the going gets tough and I feel like giving up? What would make me stay when the good feeling goes away?

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One of the Forgotten Things About Starting a Start-Up

When R2R was starting, it was kind of a side hustle for me and for our other co-founders. Jumping into entrepreneurship is exciting and nowadays, romantic. People will tell you to just go for it, just do it, jump and make the parachute on the way down. And to some extent, those are true. 

But there is another truth that is not as emphasised (or known) by our well-meaning cheering squad. 

One of the most common questions I get asked when I give talks in provinces or schools is “how can I be an entrepreneur and support my family?”. Most of the young people who ask this are breadwinners of their families. They would love to jump into building an enterprise they are passionate about, but don’t have the bandwidth, capital, or even free time, to do so. Most of them have to get jobs with regular income straight out of college to help support their families and younger siblings. Our responsibilities may be different, but the concerns are somewhere along those lines too. How can I start an enterprise while making a living/supporting my family/paying for rent/paying for the bills/saving for the future/etc.?

Yes, jumping all-in into entrepreneurship is not as easy when you are “adulting” in life.

So here is one of the things that don’t get talked about or emphasised as often when people talk about entrepreneurship: If you want to eventually start your own, one of the best jump off points will be organizations (that you believe in of course!) with bosses that support side hustles and entrepreneurship. You can work part time or full time, learn on the job, and contribute, while still having some time and flexibility to start something you are passionate about. 

I was super fortunate because my bosses during my first job (Program Assistant for the Youth Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship Program of Ateneo School of Government) were so supportive when we were starting R2R at the same time. 

I still showed up for work every single day and even during the weekends when needed. I commuted like crazy rain or shine, and showed up in the office (mostly) on time (those were the days when traffic was not yet as bad as it is now, but it was still stressful). But even if I kept full-time hours, I did not feel censored or stuck. 

My bosses talked to me about career options, social entrepreneurship, R2R, and they even indulged my once-a-quarter (or maybe even more frequent than that) soul-searching consultations. I worked on R2R stuff right after work, during the night, and some weekends. I got my full Millennial on with my bosses, but they remained patient, kind, and encouraging. When I decided to leave after about a year to go full time in R2R, they were not just happy for me, they became our advocates too.:) 

I got my full Millennial on with my bosses, but they remained patient, kind, and encouraging

Without their support and guidance, it would have been extra challenging for me to work full-time on R2R with our co-founders. I would have also starved in the process – or lived exclusively on cup noodles (well, not the entire time because some of my friends adopted me – that’s another story for another day!). 

But of course, while my bosses were super kind and supportive, I also had to do my share. Here are some of the lessons I have learned when keeping a full-time job + starting a side hustle that you eventually want to transition to a full-time thing: 

1) Don’t shortchange the company/organization that supports you and provides you with the flexibility to do your side hustle/passion project. While there may be times when your mind will be filled with possibilities for your side hustle, always be present (physically and mentally), responsive, and give your 100%. A good work ethic does not just apply to your side hustle/passion project.

2) Maintain good relationships with the people you have worked with. 

3) Inform your bosses and the people you work with, about your side hustle especially if you expect it to take more time to do. Supportive bosses will help you figure out a good schedule that works for both of you. Stick to this schedule! 

4) When it’s time to leave your job, be decisive so that the company you are working for could immediately move forward, and do a proper turn-over

5) If there are things that your previous job would need from you weeks, even months after your resignation, be generous with your time and talent. Generosity goes a long way and will definitely be remembered and appreciated! 

6) Before you start your own company, figure out how you can build a great culture and a supportive environment that enables others to pursue their passions too! It will not be the easiest thing, especially when you have critical priorities and your company needs focus. But it could be done in baby steps, starting with flexible hours, creativity days, one-on-one sessions with your team members, and other small initiatives that could enrich your company and encourage your team. 

Starting something is not just dependent on the entrepreneur’s grit or hustle.

I have read hundreds of pages of books and blogs about being an entrepreneur. There are tips about hustling, being gritty, not giving up, focusing on the mission, and other really sound advice. But starting something is not just dependent on the entrepreneur’s grit or hustle. New things, including start ups, are nourished by an enabling environment with nurturing mentors and leaders. It is important to identify them, seek them out, and engage with them.

I would not be here without them. 

So here is a shoutout, a long-overdue thank you, to the mentors and leaders who made it possible for us to get this far.:) Thank you Fr Ben Nebres, Dean Tony La Vina, Arnel Casanova, and Harvey Keh! 

Why Finding Your Passion is Not Enough

Warning: Venn Diagrams ahead 

When I was younger, I thought that I really wanted to 1.) graduate with honours, 2.) get a high paying job in a multinational corporation, 3.) climb up the corporate ladder, 4.) go for an MBA or further studies, and 5.) build my own company to be my own boss. In that order. And that is a perfectly good path. I know lots of people who are on this path and they love it! But I came up with this roadmap not because I felt passionate about it, but because I thought that it made the most sense.

See, I did not have the connections, inheritance, free flowing allowance, or the luxury to figure myself out and eat, pray, love. Nope. Earning a stable income was not a personal goal, it was a requirement for survival. Literally. So early on, I conditioned myself to choose the most stable and less risky path.

But life happened during college and utterly disturbed me. Ateneo’s “Men and Women for and with Others” happened. Philosophy, Theology, Socially Oriented Organizations, and Gawad Kalinga happened. I started reflecting and discerning a lot and realised that this is what I really want (that dark pink area in the middle):

The Venn Diagram of finding the passion you can pursue in life 

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I got incredibly fortunate to find this in R2R (Rags2Riches, Inc.) almost right after college, while working as Program Assistant for the Ateneo School of Government’s Youth Leadership & Social Entrepreneurship Program. I stuck to one thing for 8 years. And I love it! BUT. That is not what this article is about (I’ll write about that in the future). This article is about identity and about how doing what you love (or having your own pink area in your Venn diagram) is not equal to finding or defining yourself. I wish I knew this earlier. I mean, I knew this conceptually, but concepts are easy, living them is harder (guess the Hamilton song reference). 

Note to self: Your passion and the company/business/activity that manifests it, are parts of you. Do not get lost in it.

For the first few years (and until now), the company was growing, surviving, and learning. It needed my focus and dedication. I thought I could not afford to do anything else. I mean, sure, I went on vacations, watched a lot of TV, watched TED talks, joined some workshops and events. But mindshare-wise, I did not allow anything else in. No side hustles and no unrelated intellectual curiosities. And to a certain extent, that was okay. I deeply believe in the company’s mission after all and we were trying to solve a social problem that we were passionate about. It truly deserved focus and dedication.

But this is what happened to me: I focused on my work in R2R and unintentionally made it define me. I never allowed myself to feel that I deserved credit for anything in R2R but at the same time, I did not know what I was good at (or good for) without it.

After a few years of this kind of mindset, my Venn diagram looked like this:

The Venn Diagram of Getting Lost

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It was incredibly lonely to be that little dot lost in that big wonderful thing. And yes, it looks like a pimple too (haha). For good reason. My situation was not helping the big wonderful thing that I love.

I stopped learning, listening, and growing outside of the work I’m passionate about. And that did not help the work I’m passionate about.

How did I realize all these? Well, for one, I was no longer curious and could not remember the last time when I was. I was no longer fascinated or impressed with anything. I would travel for work but won’t have that wide-eyed wonder anymore. I would meet really interesting people but I won’t be interested.

Because I got too caught up with what I love doing, I forgot how to appreciate it or anything outside of it. I became almost like a snob who thought that I knew it all, and I have been there and done that. Yet strangely enough, at the same time, I felt inadequate and undeserving. What a weirdo.

It all caught up with me about a few months ago (or maybe creeping up since a few years ago) when we had to go through the biggest challenge that we have ever faced in R2R (another story for another time). At the same time, I got pregnant. These two huge milestones shook me. This combination was new to me. Because I lived inside my own mental solitary confinement for so long, I suddenly did not know how to move forward. I was not able to practice the mental and emotional agility that comes with opening up to the world. So the feelings of inadequacy came back. I repeated the vicious cycle.

But instead of drowning in it this time, I decided to get out of it. I am going to be a mom (thank you mommy hormones too, I think you helped)! And R2R’s challenge is about to become its biggest breakthrough! I could feel overwhelmed, but I should not drown, and I must not stop.

So recently, I started opening my world again to the different areas in my life that needed to grow. Instead of being a little dot (or pimple) within my passion, I am my own person with a bigger purpose and my passion has a life of its own too. I am part of it and it is a part of me. And this kind of relationship enriches us both (come to think of it, same principle applies for other kinds of relationships). It kind of looks like this now:

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I think doing what you love is still important. It is one of the best ways to live. Yes, still look for that pink area in your own Venn diagram. It will be challenging, and it will be worth it.

But your personal WHY is bigger than that area and even bigger than your passion – so find a WHY that transcends the roles and encourages you to express and manifest your purpose in every aspect of your life.

Yup, I’m ending this with a cheesy video that relates to this whole article.. 😉 If you have not watched the movie yet, you should! OR, just watch this clip. No spoilers here (I think).