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.

Initiative – Clearly A “Dirty” Word

I have always been a “doer”.

Its not that I don’t plan, I do, but too much planning makes me anxious and after a while I just want to be in motion, breaking, making, failing or succeeding. Of course I know all those age-old cliches: “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” and a Bulgarian one which is roughly translated to “sharpen the axe twice, chop once”; however, I am a restless being and usually start ‘doing’ long before I have any complete plan. Facebook portray this kind of attitude on the walls of their offices (poster, right):

“DONE is better than PERFECT” – In Facebook HQ

What is perfect anyway? Robert Kiyosaki, in Rich Dad Poor Dad, talks about the 80:20 principle. This can be applied to loads of situations, but the one I really like is that:

“You can get 80% done with 20% effort, while the remaining 20% (to get to perfection), requires another 80% effort.”

The point I believe he was making is to avoid perfection and rather go with completion (to get more done) because an obsession with perfection leads to nothing being done in the end. Why? Because if you are in a group of 10 trying to do a project with limited time available, perfection looks like this:

– PERFECTION but not completion – as a group you plan to achieve some specific goal, but after 6 months of little… NO… zero progress, you continue to hope that a day will come when all 10 of you magically appear in the same room together, where everyone will miraculously agree to the same project and in the remaining 6 months it will magically materialise. Also, no one will co-ordinate, somehow we will all do exactly the same amount and leadership responsibilities will be divided equally.

– COMPLETION – You take the initiative because time is running out and hope that you can get enough people on board with a charity project which may not be perfect, but it will make a difference.

– PERFECTION but not completion – You find out about an idea which may be perfect given our network and abilities, and you immediately notify the 9 other people it may (or may not) affect with an e-mail that covers every aspect of that idea, even though the idea is likely to still be half-baked and incomplete.

You spend several hours thinking about how to structure an e-mail which covers everything, anticipates any questions and clarifies issues you have analysed and decided may cause some confusion. You then prepare yourself for a ton of e-mails asking for further clarification which then take several hours to read and reply to.

In the process you might get annoyed at people who wrongly accuse you of this-and-that, but regardless, you put a smile on and reply.

– COMPLETION – You have a quick meeting with the people involved where and when it is convenient for them so that you can quickly share the basics and then see where the discussion goes, answering any reservations or questions along the way and you accept that not everyone will want to do this, but that this is fine because there are enough people who are happy to jump on board the ACTION train.

Which approach is more realistic?

I have always used the “80%, NOT 100%” philosophy and believe it is the main reason why I get so much done. It makes it really easy to take the initiative as well because once I like an idea, I just start working on it, worrying about the details as I get to them. Perhaps it is against conventional wisdom but somehow it usually works for me. Of course, sometimes it will fail and you learn from these failures.

Unfortunately, very little will be learned from the projects we don’t do. We will continue to plan for the perfect project and perhaps a day will come when we all meet, plan and agree, and then we will be ready but our time together will by then have run out. 

Initiative, it is clearly a “dirty” word in some people’s vocabulary.