‘In every one of us there are two ruling and directing principles, whose guidance we follow, wherever they may lead; the one being an innate desire of pleasure; the other, an acquired judgment which aspires after excellence.’
~ Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus
First question of course is to ask if I am qualified to write about this issue. Let me tell you how I started and let you decide if you want to read beyond that account.
I have been an entrepreneur, formally (in the sense of owning my own business) since 1994. I started business however while I was still in a regular full time job (in 1983), with the full knowledge and blessing of my employer and paid for it by working on my business during my vacation and unpaid leave.
I worked at learning and building a management consulting business for 12 years. I invested every available paisa (cent) on books and train fares (3rd class – a bare wooden plank for a seat) and every available day of vacation leave, interning with one trainer or another. I did not take a single day off in 12 years. Then in 1994 I started my own company (Yawar Baig & Associates www.yawarbaig.com ) in Bangalore with all of Rs. 3000 ($ 60) in my pocket and a dream in my heart, of becoming an internationally recognized leadership trainer with a global business. That in my view is typical of being an entrepreneur – to dream of things that never were and ask, “Why not?” This is 2013, 13 years after my first international assignment. Today I have a business with clients on three continents.
It is this innate aspiration for excellence that I believe is at the root of all successful entrepreneurial activity. It is the desire to differentiate. To be different in a positive way. To stand out from the crowd; not to blend in with it. To express your identity in a unique way such that it is recognized and honored. That is the meaning of ‘Branding’. Without that you are a grain of rice in a sack. Excellence is to take responsibility not only for your own well-being but that of others. To lead others on the road which will not only help you to make your dream come true but to weave the dreams of others into the fabric so intrinsically that when they look out on the achievement of your vision, they will also see their own visions becoming reality. To leave behind a legacy by which you are remembered with affection and your passing regretted. Entrepreneurship is to always act with this consciousness about the long term effects of our actions. To be willing to give an account, because we know that we will be held accountable.
Entrepreneurship is all about spirit. It is recognizing that you did not come into this world either randomly by accident or by your own choice. Your parents did not choose for you to be born. I believe that we were sent and we were sent with a purpose. When we discover that purpose we enter a state of grace. A fish out of water is the most clumsy, awkward creature in the world. It can’t move, it flops desperately, it gasps for breath. But the same fish when you put it back into the lake disappears like a flash – the epitome of grace, speed and beauty. When we are in our appointed task we are like a fish in the water. The world conspires to help us to succeed. But first we must recognize our purpose and then we need to consciously accept it. That is the scary part. But that is the threshold that must be crossed to demonstrate that we are in and not out. Without crossing the threshold of owning responsibility for our own lives, we can’t expect anything to happen.
We are never compelled to make one choice or another. But the doors that open, the vista that unfolds before our eyes and the road that beckons ahead all depend on the choice that we make. Behind each door is a different destiny. We get to choose which one we want to open and walk through into the world that it opens for us.
Choices are not always easy. As a matter of fact all the important ones are difficult. The most difficult thing is to choose between two apparently good alternatives. But the choice must be made. Everything else depends on that. We complain about difficulty. We forget that difficulties come to test us so that the prize can be given once we surmount the difficulty. Success goes to those who can overcome difficulties. Each difficulty resets the bar and creates a new definition of excellence without which we would have been lulled into a false sense of security which hides fatal flaws. Only winners get medals, remember? Those who fail are relegated to the garbage pile of the detritus of history.
Without the challenge of Goliath, David would have remained a shepherd boy. But when he stood up against the might of Goliath and his army, Allah guided his arm which swirled the sling about his head and the stone met its mark. That was the destiny of David which opened up before him when he took the step forward. The same destiny was not written for those who did not take the step forward, when the King of the Bani Israeel, Talut (Saul) called for volunteers to fight Goliath in single combat. Taking the first step forward was the key to the door that led to David’s victory. Similarly our destiny waits for us to stand up and say, “I am ready.” Then the challenge stands forth. Faith is to remember all this and to take the first step.
Every time we stand and say, “I am ready!” a challenge will come forward. If we see the challenge and run away then we are back to square one. It is only when we take a step forward towards the challenge that we actively make the choice which will lead to victory. Notice that I use the word ‘will’ instead of ‘may, can or probably’. That is because I speak as an entrepreneur who knows that every time you take a firm step in the direction of the challenge, victory has already been written. The first step is a sign of that. When we take a step towards a challenge and we don’t succeed, the answer lies in the way we took the step. It was not a firm step with conviction. It was a step with one eye looking backwards over the shoulder looking for escape routes. We did not burn the ships upon landing on the distant shore, with the resolve that in this new land, we shall make our home. The burning of the ships is symbolic because it signifies commitment. Commitment that we will live here in our new homes or we will be buried in our new graves. But there is no going back. Commitment is the line we cross between wishing and doing. And that is what I mean by the first step. Entrepreneurs take it with conviction. They don’t look back.
I believe very passionately and firmly in the fact that in the end, it is quality that scores over everything else. I know that every entrepreneur worth the name shares this belief with me. I have met many along the way who cut corners, pretended to be what they were not and compromised quality for short term gain. Most of them no longer exist. Those who do, live with a reputation that constantly sabotages their effort. I believe that everything that we do or choose not to do defines our brand and reflects our character. Therefore all initiatives and effort must be measured against this standard to see if it stands up to the mark. Compromising standards and values for gains is a very expensive bargain and adds no value at all. Indeed the most profitable way to run a business is to work to the highest standards and become the benchmark in the industry against which others measure themselves. Then you can claim a premium where your competitors are busy competing on price.
‘Buy from me because I am cheap’, is a slogan I never liked.
So what are the questions that arise when you are thinking about becoming and entrepreneur and what are their answers?
1. But am I ready?
That depends on what you mean by ready. There are two aspects to this question: an emotional aspect and a material aspect.
a. Emotional Aspect: Please answer these questions:
a. What does it take to make you content?
b. How much faith do you have in yourself and in Allah?
c. How much support do you have from your environment?
b. Material Aspect: Please answer these questions:
a. What is the market need? What does your research tell you?
b. What is your value proposition? What is your differentiator?
c. Does your target customer agree? What’s in it for him?
2. When is it the right time?
Now is the right time simply because ‘now’ is the only time in your hands. The past is gone. The future may never come. The present is all that we have. So when should you take the first step? Right now.
3. How do I sell, especially when I may not be a technology expert?
a. Have basic overall knowledge of the product/service so you don’t seem ignorant.
b. Gain in depth knowledge of the customer and his business …the more you know, the better.
c. Know and speak the language of the customer. Speak to as many people in the industry as you can and get as much anecdotal data as possible.
d. In your meeting speak the language of the customer. Use their internal words and phrases but do it unobtrusively and seamlessly.
e. Draw attention to how your product/service can help him (benefits)…not on what the product/service does (features).
f. Don’t leave him to make the linkage. Make it for him which demonstrates to him how well you know his business and gives him peace of mind and adds to your credibility.
g. Then keep silent and let him decide.
a. Never fall into the trap of organization building for a non-existing business. Sell first. Then depending on the need build infrastructure and hire people. People start with an office. Big mistake. Your home is your office, warehouse, bedroom and kitchen all rolled into one.
b. Remember that all that you spend on infrastructure and overheads is expense. And all that you save by working without these two is income. So be very careful before you build or add anything. Keep your money.
c. Hire only salespeople and put them on a revenue sharing scheme. Don’t hire anyone who doesn’t like the idea of sharing revenue and wants a salary (I want my money whether I make any money or not! You don’t want someone like that, believe me.)
d. Outsource all other functions. That’s why experts exist. If you are honest you don’t need two account books and any good accountant can do all your accounts and file your tax returns for less than 10% of what a full time accountant will cost you. Same applies to everyone else.
e. You go out there and sell. Do it yourself simply because nobody can do it better than you can and that is experience you need like a fish needs air. It is invaluable and without it you can’t even survive, much less grow.
f. Every evening sit down with a notebook and pen and ask, ‘What happened today and what did I learn?’ And make notes. There’s nothing more valuable than this documentation. So do it religiously and every day.
g. If you take partners be sure of what billable value the partner is adding. Holding your hand is not billable value. That is a psychological placebo. Make sure the partner brings something that you can’t do. If he replicates (or wants to replicate) what you do, he is a competitor, not a partner.
h. Have the partnership strictly on a profit sharing basis. That is better for the self-respect of both partners.
i. Document the partnership clearly in terms of duties and deliverables. That is better for your friendship. Taking friends for granted is the single biggest reason for partnerships going sour. You lose the friend and the business.
j. Take someone you trust as an advisor/mentor and listen to his/her advice. Listen, not necessarily follow. Listen, don’t argue or try to convince them. Listen and take your own decisions. It is your life, after all.
For more read my book, ‘An Entrepreneur’s Diary,