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.

Dabs (verb) – “To Touch Lightly and Quickly”

This is how the dictionary defines the terms “Dabs”. In many ways, my three months here will have this effect on the company, however the effect this experience has had on me will be far more pronounced.

My third placement began with all the usual excitement and possibilities to impose a positive change in the 11 weeks we have to do so. The only difference this time was that Dabs was the one placement I was really excited to be going to – an e-commerce company for someone (me) who is passionate about Internet marketing – what a match!

The first few weeks flew by and despite the fact that my commute took up to two hours of my day, I was enjoying my job.

Towards the end of February, something happened at Dabs which changed everything. I refer to this event as the fortunately-unfortunate incident. It was unfortunate because together with the other lovely people at Dabs, during the next few months we all had to enter a “crisis management” mode; but fortunate because I experienced, first-hand, the issues and difficulties which come about when a company has to upgrade to a new system. To cut a long story short – the company decided it was time to implement a new system, but once they migrated everything on to the new one, there were more problems than they had at first anticipated and unfortunately many of these affected their customers.

The lessons I learned over the next few weeks showed me that e-commerce is not only an amazing disruptive innovation, but also an economic system where agents operate in a manner far quicker than the traditional business world. Problems (and opportunities) are noticed instantly and people expect these problems to be corrected within days, hours, and sometimes even minutes. Things are almost back to normal now, and I feel like in the long term Dabs will be better off with the new system.

Of course I also got to ask literally thousands of questions, cornering various people in their offices or at their desks and extracting vital information from them. When starting up your own e-commerce business (as I hope to soon be doing) you never really know what you don’t know, but once you start digging deeper you find certain questions taking form; questions about shipping, protecting the company from fraud, the various systems being used and dozens of others. The more questions I asked the more questions I seemed to have and at Dabs I also managed to get many answers (Thanks to Neil, Helen, Michelle, Mat and Jag).

All-in-all, it was a very interesting placement. To cheer everyone up (and because its my birthday), I’ve made pancakes on my last day and leave the cool gang at Dabs with a few lessons I have learned:

  1. Good customer service is a far more difficult job than I had at first thought. When we hire people to do this, make sure they can handle angry or difficult customers. Take them out once a month to paintball (or some other activity where they can de-stress and let go of all the anger customers impose upon them).
  2. Always, and I mean ALWAYS have a contingency plan – not just for the good times but also for the bad. Plan for unlikely events using the “if…then…else” type of logic.
  3. Don’t pay for expensive software unless you have a dedicated person who will be trained and have the time to use it. Even then, regularly re-evaluate its usefulness to the company.
  4. Customers are morons. They will cry and bitch and moan and threaten. Do everything you can to please them.
  5. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. If it is breaking and you choose to get a new one, make sure you’re not getting one that is even more broken than the original because anything that can go wrong will go wrong, so make sure you plan for the worst case scenario.
  6. Be very careful when deciding that the job two employees are doing can be done by one. Overworking people suppresses creativity and innovation – especially if you doubled their workload but not their salary.
  7. Finally, after the system migration there were some serious problems on days when it looked like the world would end. While some people could have just gone mental from all the stress, everyone stayed cool. So the last lesson I take away from Dabs is – DON’T PANIC, everything works out in the end if you’ve got a cool head.

Thanks to Dabs for a very important 3 months, now to put it all into practice in my own business.

Placement four is at Rare Pink. A new chapter begins.