As job markets become increasingly unstable, more people than ever before are choosing the start-up route to wealth creation. They see themselves walking in the footsteps of the Ancient Mariner, charting unknown waters and watching dreams become reality.
However the reality of an entrepreneur’s day-to-day life is more sweatshop than swashbuckling tycoon. It’s intense. It’s grinding. And the only reward at the end of the day is the hard-to-value sense of achievement in having built a business all on your own.
Yet given a choice, the successful start-up guys we spoke to swore there’s nothing they would do instead. Even if they never made any money at all.
Here are the top ten things to know before taking that leap of faith.
1. Timing is nothing
Dubizzle founders, J.C. Butler and Sim Whatley, wish they had had the wisdom to launch more and test less. “Regardless of whether it’s features or categories or expansion, it’s better to get something out the door and test the response to it, rather than to spend all your time trying to perfect something and change it later anyway. Especially when it came to our recent regional expansion, we would have loved to have been in all these 14 countries years ago.”
Bijay Shah, trainer, business coach and director of networking group BNI Middle East, says, “There is never a right time to start a business. The only right time is when you are ready. It doesn’t matter where the economy is and what others think.”
Communications consultant Hussein Hallak, founder of the Content People, says taking action is key. “Simply put, it will not get done without taking action, even the smallest and the simplest one. One must move each day towards their goal.”
2. It’s not about the first genius idea
Rest assured the lightbulb moment that made you turn entrepreneur will not make you your first million dirhams. It’s far more likely to turn into something else entirely. Dubizzle’s original business plan was to charge employers for job listings. “To this day we have yet to make a single penny on job listings,” says Whatley.
3. No more ‘You twitface!’ wisecracks
Social media marketing gets you noticed. And if it can be done for next to nothing, what’s not to like? Almost every successful start-up today has harnessed the power of social media – be it Groupon, Dubizzle or Wild Peeta. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and blogs are a cost-effective way to engage with your customers, attract new business, and build your brand. Customer feedback is instant (and can be brutal). The ROI is quick and measurable. “The question now isn’t whether you should use social media for your business, but why not?” asks Farrukh Naeem, an independent copywriter and digital consultant who gave up a high-paying agency job to turn entrepreneur.
“The classic forms of advertising, marketing and cold calling work but are expensive or time consuming and put a huge strain on cash flow. If new business owners understand systems for generating business through word of mouth, then they will have a very cost-effective way of generating business,” says Phil Bedford, who founded referral marketing company, The Rebel Networker, and runs an extreme sports business.
4. Hire smart
The road ahead is a lonely one, but travelling with people who share your passion makes it much more enriching. “If I had to choose one piece of advice for anyone, I would say – make sure you have a good network. Keep an open mind and hire the best people to cover you in the skills you may be weak in,” says Shah.
“Having the right people on board will make a world of difference in growing your business. For small businesses especially, these people are your partners. Choose partners who are as enthusiastic about your business as you are,” says Whatley.
Hotmail inventor Sabeer Bhatia kept rejecting several buy-out offers from Bill Gates, before finally selling Hotmail to Microsoft for $400 million, an unheard-of sum in 1997. Steve Jobs’ idea of the personal computer was rejected by HP and Atari before he started Apple under his own steam.
“Without passion, you will not be able to make it through the tough times,” says Naeem. “If you have identified a very clear problem or need, and you are dedicated to solving it, don’t let the unforeseen challenges of the market get in your way,” adds Butler. “In the long run, it boils down to a simple fact,” Bhatia once said, “How much faith do you have in yourself?”
6. Meet the CEO (and janitor, head cook and bottle washer)
You are your own boss, yes, but you are also your own secretary, accountant,
IT troubleshooter and credit controller. Entrepreneurship is a 24-hour calling and commitment. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get down and dirty. Forget the idealistic (and foolish) notion of flexible hours. The reality is that there is no overtime pay, expense vouchers, sick leave or paid vacations on this gig.
As Naeem says, “I wish more people realise that being an entrepreneur requires even more hard work, sweat and blood than a regular job. An entrepreneur never really sleeps because his ideas keep him awake.” Shah cautions: “You can’t have work/life balance as an entrepreneur. The trick is to create harmony instead.”
7. Know your customer
Success brings complacency, but truly great businesses always have the customer, and not profits, at the heart of what they do. “Listening to the market, your stakeholders and the competition is the only way to keep yourself relevant,” says Butler.
8. Living on the edge
It’s a rollercoaster ride, more so in today’s economy. Part of being a business owner is the dubious thrill of not knowing where your next month’s salary will come from.
One start-up guy recalls how he survived on shawarmas for a month, because once vendors and employees were paid, there just wasn’t enough money left for groceries. Your employees may have more in their bank accounts than you do. Yes, that’s another part of the deal no one tells you about…
9. Stick to it
The one quality that defines entrepreneurs is dogged persistence.
Shah advises that you only venture into something you are 100 percent passionate about. “Building a business requires hard work. There are no shortcuts. To be fully immersed in the work required, you’ll not feel it if you’re passionate about it.”
“You must have the patience to try one thing after another and learn your lessons, says Naeem. “The more things you have tried, the higher your chances of success. You must not be afraid of failure. Most great pioneering ideas go through hurdles and setbacks.”
Butler and Whatley say: “Few entrepreneurs succeed right from the start, and most will fail more times than they succeed. It takes courage to be able to move forward on your own, but we can tell you that the rewards of doing so will far outweigh the risks!”
10. It’s not about the money
No, really. The happiest people are not the ones who constantly chase happiness and the most profitable companies are not profit-centred. Economist John Kay calls it obliquity.
Naeem believes a business must be built on a vision to help people and improve their lives in some way. “Always aim to over-deliver and give more than you receive. It comes back to you manifold. Honour your commitments, accept and make up for your mistakes, respect everyone including competition and go to bed with a clean conscience.”