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.