What happens when your business runs out of its runway?

Several months ago we faced some serious challenges. We set out to launch an online jewellery business that would be a game-changer and sell our products around the world. We continue to be optimistic that we are on the right path to achieve this. What we hadn’t planned for was what would happen if we didn’t manage to get the business off the ground before we ran out of money.

When the online sales didn’t come as quickly and frequently as we had hoped, we had to (and in particular “I” had to) ask ourselves some very serious questions. These were:

  1. Are we sure we want to continue pursuing our vision and the idea we had for our business in the first place?
  2. If so, how are we going to afford to keep the business on its feet until it becomes profitable?
  3. What changes do we need to make to ensure we achieve our goals more efficiently?

Most importantly, I learnt something SUPER important when trying to answer these questions: To get REAL answers that can help us as a business and team, we need to face REALITY.

Reality however was something I had not been able to face until then. I believed so much in our passion, drive and ideas, that I did not realise that we were just a few months away from loosing our business. Unlike some of our competitors, we had not raised millions in funding and, it seemed, to get a converting jewellery e-commerce site in front of many thousands of potential clients, we would need more time, money and people. Reality eluded me, and I refused to acknowledge that changes were necessary, NOW!
Thanks to my friends and business partners and their support and brutal honesty, we did manage to finally sit down and speak openly about what was going on and what we were now going to do. So what did we do? We decided we did want to continue towards our initial goal, so we now needed to answer question 2 – HOW to make enough money to do so. Our answer at the time was: Vertical Integration. Over-night we put the online businesses on hold and invested all our time and remaining funds into growing our wholesale business-to-business operations. Six months later, this part of our business pays all our salaries, is profitable, covers all our overheads and what remains is invested into our online projects which we are finally committing time and money to again.
This left us with answering question 3 – WHAT changes needed to be made. We changed so much over the last 6 months, but if there is one thing that stands out it is our efforts to regularly “keep it real”. Keeping it real is thinking about the challenges of our business, without using some magical fairy tale goggles and seeing things for what they really are. This includes, at times, detaching ourselves from our emotions or our egos and making hard choices when they need to be made. 
The ups and downs are never-ending. The important thing is to know when you are on a down, and to find a way to quickly make the changes necessary. Nothing is worse than pretending that you have an amazing business just to feel and look better, when what you are really building is a massive money-sucking black hole.
So what happened when our business ran out of its runway? We faced the music, made some difficult decisions and in the end, literally started a whole new business which has ended up being the cash cow to our original vision, which we are now once again pursuing with excitement and conviction.  

Tangible lessons learned as an entrepreneur – 2 years later

The truth is, this is not a post about what I now know. It is about what I now do, that I did not do 2 years ago when I first took off on this adventure.

I read a lot of articles about entrepreneurship and how to be successful. They all have a common theme and the advice is usually such that it would apply to everyone. They are super inspiring and I have internalised many simple truths from what role models like Branson have to say. What they never did manage to share however is anything so tangible that I could use to change my actions immediately.

So here are a few things I think are super important and have become a part of my daily existence.

1. We succeed as a TEAM – Even if you can not yet hire people, find a way to get more people on your team. Get help from everywhere you can as people on your side are the best ambassadors of your brand and can help with getting more things done. I mean, get interns, family members, mentors, outsource all over the world and then go out and get some more interns to be a part of your adventure. Yes, our permanent team is only 5 people, but our extended team is more than 20 people around the world. The point is, we have never ever let our status as a start-up limit us in terms of how much we can do and who can join our team.

2. Learn to work in a virtual world and forget the old office stereotype – We have 3 offices on 3 continents. We decided to be global from day 1. Despite advice from many to choose one market first and then grow incrementally, we decided we wanted to do things differently. We use tools like Elance, Skype, Wunderlist and Google Apps to find and work with the best people for the job and these guys are all over the world. In a typical week we have skype calls with people in South Africa, India, Hong Kong, New York, Belgium, Lebanon, Slovakia and Israel.

3. University did not prepare me for this. To survive in the modern world you need to learn on the job and never stop learning – How good our products, websites and marketing are all depend on our ability to be the best and never remain comfortable in this position. We are still trying to figure out what we are all good at in our company, but every time we figure out we are good in a certain role… we take ownership and start the journey of 10,000 hours to perfection in that role. For us, learning is not a 20% of our time rule, it is 100% of our time. No matter what we do, we always try to look for the angle on what the work is teaching us and how we can improve.

4. Focus, prioritising, systems, processes, and delegation – in my view, the 5 secrets to transforming a start-up into a business. We’re still a start-up but here’s how each one of these concepts is getting us one step closer to growth and increased profitability.

  • FOCUS: Chose a business model, chose an idea, choose a brand name and stay focussed on one things at a time. One of the biggest weaknesses in our business in its early days was our lack of focus. We were all over the place, jumping from one idea to another. I feel like we have finally found a way to focus on what is really important. We test and review the results. If we were wrong, we refocus.
  • PRIORITISING: Even when we found our focus, there was still always more to do. Perhaps this is one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn, and believe me, I am still learning. The ability to choose what strategy to pursue, what tasks to do and what resources to commit when we have far more options than resources, is in my opinion one of the most important things we can learn as entrepreneurs. 
  • SYSTEMS: Every time we spend time on developing a better and more efficient system for a part of our business, we immediately see a drastic increase in our productivity. As we are a small team, systems allow us to do less repetitive and boring work and spend more time on developing the business.
  • PROCESSES: By standardising how we do many of our tasks, it becomes easier to become really good and fast at completing certain tasks. Even more importantly, systems and processes make the next point much easier to do well.
  • DELEGATION: At first I was a total control freak and wanted to do everything. By delegating to others what they are good at, I found that most people can do most things much better than I can and if you can give them ownership as well and accountability for what they do, then you also have a happy team member.

The Ant

I thought about the ant the other day. It is so very small. So small and yet it does a lot of what people do. It goes places, eats, builds and lives in a community where it plays its part to the survival of the entire group.

But the ant has such a small brain. I wonder if you can even see it with the naked eye.

So that just made me wonder: Our brains are SO BIG in comparison and yet how much more do we do than live just like the ants do?

I think we could be spending more time learning more, using our imagination and creativity to create, to innovate, to change the world. We only need 1 millionth of our brain to live like ants do… lets push ourselves to do more, be more, create more with the other 99.999%.