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How to be a Successful Entrepreneur

This blog, as you will see, is not a boast or some sort of recipe to make money. It is simply a list of my personal observations of how I (in other words using a research sample of one) eventually managed to beat the odds to make a few bob:
  1. Unemployable. I think I'm reasonably quick witted. In fact I once peeked at some interview notes about me after I had been accepted onto an undergraduate management training scheme. "Bright to brilliant" it said. BUT, what this really says is "smart arse". In other words, I always thought I knew best. As a fast learner, I had the annoying habit of thinking I understood my bosses jobs better than them - indeed in a few instances I may have done. But this didn't make me a) popular, b) particularly useful. There is an old saying "When two managers agree the whole time, one of them is useless. When two managers disagree the whole time, they're both useless.". One way or another, I didn't get the promotions I felt I might have deserved, and I rubbed senior management up the wrong way. I was eventually sacked - which was the worst and best day of my career. It taught me, ruthlessly, that my 'brilliance' wasn't always appreciated, especially when 'team-players' are needed. It also taught me that if I was so 'brilliant', how come I couldn't get promoted, let alone hold onto my job. In other words, I was far from being a brilliant employee. In fact I was something of a liability. This I was forced to realise at the tender age of 29, and at the start of the computer age - at which point I decided that I was basically unemployable after half-heartedly going for a couple of interviews set up by head-hunters. I didn't want to become a hamster in someone else's wheel and end up frustrated, or worse. Tricky to manage, never promotional material, not a company man, too anarchic. Not a 'completer-finisher' in the Belbin categories of employee types. I was destined to become either permanently unemployed... or to create my own employment. I therefore didn't decide to become an entrepreneur. I simply had no credible alternative.
  2. Arrogant. Having spent a few years working for a number of companies, I had eventually learned a reasonable amount about how those businesses operated and many valuable lessons had seeped in. The great thing about being arrogant, is that you make decisions based on your sum total of experience and information under the delusion that you know enough. And every time you make fresh decisions, it's always on the basis of having acquired more experience, you now know everything you need to know. Your cup always seems full because you're in it and can't see that it's probably actually fairly empty. So arrogance is good news and bad. It's good because you are never hesitant about making decisions. Consequently you're always learning. It's bad, because you make more mistakes than most, and experts can see you're really rather naive. But 'I can' is your creed.
  3. Do What You Don't Know. Huh? Shouldn't that be Do What You Know? Of course it should, but arrogant people don't do that - at least not at first. They always think they know everyone else's business better than they actually do (it's especially an American thing... "Hey buddy, if I were you I'd do this..."). But you don't know what you don't know until you learn about it through experience. Only then can you look back and realise you shouldn't have plunged into the abyss in the first place (except you couldn't see it was an abyss at the time). So having spent time blundering around in other people's worlds, you learn pretty fast, or sink without trace. Eventually you become relatively expert in what you didn't know enough about when you started, assuming you're sufficiently tenacious (see later). You survived long enough to reach this point, typically by bluff, luck and charm. But by now you're doing what you know, and will always advise others to only do the same - except how else do they learn? 'Good judgement comes from experience. but experience comes from bad judgement'.
  4. Naive. It's a little like the previous point, except you not only don't know what you need to know about someone else's marketplace (customers, competitors, laws, technologies, suppliers etc etc), you also have no idea how incredibly hard and painful the next few years are going to be. If you were anything other than naive, you'd know it was all going to be uphill and massively risky, and you would never start anything new. Naivety gives you rose tinted specs, especially when it comes to working out what you ought to be selling. Don't Guess, the Market Always Knows Better. No matter how much you think you know what people want, invariably it ends up that friends, work colleagues, blokes you meet in a pub, or (if you already have them) customers will tell you what they want you to sell them. "Can you solve this problem for us?". So you charge back to your desk, brain on fire, and pretend you came up with the idea yourself. You were born with two ears and one mouth. Use them in that proportion.
  5. Tenacious. As the song goes: 'I get knocked down, but I get up again'. It also means being unbelievably thick skinned. Never give up, no matter what knocks you take. One of my favourite expressions, when everything looks like it's going wrong or you make an almighty cockup, is 'Always bet on the gladiator with the most scars'.
  6. Patient. If you think it's going to take 1 year to reach profitability, it will take 5. If you believe you've won a contract this month, it won't be signed for at least another 3. If you think you're going to be paid in 30 days, you'll get the money in 90 (hopefully). It will ALWAYS take far far longer than your most ultra conservative guess for anything good to happen, and far less time than you estimate for something bad - like running out of money. Time always works against you.
  7. Passionate. Hand in hand with arrogance and tenacity, but goes deeper into believing with all your soul that what you are doing is right and is going to work. You become an evangelist. Your elevator pitch takes 20 minutes! You are truly excited about the possibilities. It's like that great phone call you've just had. The first thing you do is hang up and whoop! You have to stand up and go for a little wander round the room. You're so excited you simply can't stay seated. Your heart rate soars and you feel totally alive. Passion is by far the most important attribute for anyone, whether in business, in love or in life. There is no such thing as a half-hearted successful entrepreneur.
  8. Irresponsible. You're fixated on your passion. It's never about making money. It's about producing something that someone, somewhere will want to buy - it's better than all their other purchase options. You win! However, this fixation on building a business around your passion inevitably means you need to take risks. The more risks you take, the more mistakes and scars you gather, the more likely you are to eventually succeed if you have the stamina, and no alternatives other than entrepreneurial success (remember, you're 'unemployable'). But many of the risks you take are irresponsible. Betting the house on the business: Where are you and your family going to live if it fails? Not taking out expensive insurance for your employees, premises and customers: Fingers-crossed school of management. Employing fewer people than you need: Let's hope they all stay healthy. Avoiding lawyers fees to check a contract. Exceeding the speed limit to make an appointment on time. Cancelling your wife's birthday dinner in order to get that proposal finished, or forgetting it completely.
  9. Grasshopper. If the boring things light your bonfire, you'll never become an entrepreneur. Distraction is key. Always dreaming up new and (hopefully) better ways of doing things. If you ever stop innovating, you're doomed. Employ the best people you can find to mop up the messes you create. There's a joke about an IBM salesman and an IBM systems engineer going on safari in India. After travelling all day they arrive in a jungle clearing. "Right I'm off to find a tiger" announced the salesman. "Hold on" said the engineer, "We need to make camp and plan everything carefully first". "Sod that", says the salesman, "I'm off". After a couple of hours putting up the tent, making a fire and unpacking their provisions, the engineer hears an almighty commotion coming from outside the tent. Suddenly the flap flies open and in leaps the salesman followed by a huge tiger. Round and round the tent they run, destroying everything in sight until finally the salesman dives outside, yelling "You sort this one out, I'll get another".  Entrepreneurs are the salesman. They need cool, calm, safe pairs of hands to deal with all the problems their madness generates. But without both types in an organisation, it will fail to experiment, or drown under the chaos that ensues.
  10. Poor(ish). The first thing people who want to build a business typically think about is raising funds to start them off. The business plans they show potential funders include offices, staff, websites, marketing campaigns, promotions, sensible company cars and expenses. Give them what they ask for, and they'll spend the first few months perfecting the logo and deciding which office chairs to buy. With money in the bank, they'll be relaxed. Organised. Methodical. Exactly the opposite of what it takes to find that elusive path to success. What they really ought to have been doing is half starving to death, on their own, working from a back bedroom in the cold, desperately trying to work out what customers might want to pay them for, while using a borrowed PC and £50 off their grandmother for stamps. Necessity is the mother of invention and the need to focus on SALES. Nothing else. Just 'what will people buy from me?'. So instead of lending money to new businesses by asking them 'what do you need?', we should be asking them 'What don't you need?'. 'What can you strip out of your cashflow forecast based on pathetically minimal sales (ie far less than you hoped you'd sell, and months or maybe even years after you first expected to be achieving revenue). What's your starvation budget? Fat people can't run fast or change direction quickly. Bullets are more likely to miss skinny people who can squeeze through smaller cracks.
  11. Pedantic. All my companies had Attention To Detail engraved on the walls. It was at the heart of everything everyone did. If it wasn't, then expect an explosion from my direction. Spelling mistakes on the website or in an ad or company letter - no way! Proposals not lining up, software products with bugs, packaging that doesn't quite fit, ties crooked, cracked cups... whatever it was, it had to be as perfect as we could make it. Good enough is not good enough. If ATD isn't massively important to an entrepreneur - give up now. Small reductions in standards can build up to become seismic catastrophes if not nipped in the bud. Let everybody know that you strive for perfection. In a previous company I got all my senior managers to watch Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares every week, and make notes. We'd then meet the evening afterwards in the pub to discuss the lessons we'd learned. Ramsay is an arrogant, foul-mouthed tyrant, but he was also an expert in restaurant management and came up with some superb one-liners. My favourite was "Is that you on a plate?". Is it your best shot, or were you hoping to get away with it? After a while my managers got sick of me throwing something back at them saying "that's not Joe (or whoever) on a plate", until it got to the point when I didn't have to. They became proud of what they showed me instead of nervous.

    But there is one aspect of being a pedant that can hurt a business. That's when it comes to defining a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Software developers the world over recognise the eternal dilemma of spending too much time and money on developing product features that won't make a significant difference to sales success, but worrying about throwing the baby out with the bathwater when features are pushed into future releases. The pedant will insist on too many features. But it takes gruelling research and agonising over what to drop before MVPs can be sensibly defined. The discipline to exclude functionality is where pedantry pays off, not in persisting to deliver the perfect product.
  12. Grumpy. If you think you've achieved success, you're not going to get there. Never be satisfied with anything. Everything's complicated and everyone's out to get you (and certainly your money). If things are going well, it's the lull before the storm. But things can only get better. Take customer complaints personally. Always look for things to improve. Never relax, and always feel guilty when you do. Between 1986 and 1996, I never had a day off for sickness or took a day's vacation. Grumpy,  moaning, workaholic bastard. I loved every minute of it.

Comments

  1. thanks for this interesting post on how to be a successful entrepreneur! Great entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or Yuri Mintskovsky also had passion and determination and so these qualities helped them have success in their business. I would like to meet these intelligent men in person! They are great role models!

    ReplyDelete

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