So you want to go it alone?
Eleven things a budding entrepreneur has to know before you put yourself out there
By MH Staff - Posted on 4th June 2013
So you want to go it alone?
1 Everyone you know will think you've lost your mind
It's an extremely complicated and difficult thing to explain. Most conversations, go like this. Me: I left my well paying, high-powered job to start this thing. Confused non-entrepreneur: What thing? Me: Oh, um, you know, this idea I've had for a while. Confused non-entrepreneur: Oh. Everyone I knew thought that I was bonkers to leave my job, family, house and support system in Joburg and move to Cape Town to start a little mobile Internet company. Maybe it was madness, but most entrepreneurs are a little bit crazy, and the single most difficult thing in the beginning was the loneliness of my single-mindedness. It's hard when no one can relate to your way of life. When you are awake at 4am hustling to get one client, one deal, one more line of code, one more email pushed out and everyone else that you know has been sleeping for five hours.
2 Run Forrest, run
Exercise is a fantastic way to enforce some level of sanity. It gets you out and helps you to focus on something other than the stress of your company. I found that most of my good ideas came from exercising. I don't have shower moments, I have running moments. Running distracts me just long enough to see an answer, idea or truth in my peripheral vision. Don't get me wrong, I'm no ultra-marathon runner but I do try to get out once or twice a week and smash a quick three k’s. Many will tell you to run every day and I'll tell you the same, but I personally never found the time and hated the guilt and pressure it put on me to try and run six days a week. The most difficult thing that I have had to do in my life is run my own company. It’s not for the faint hearted. It’s not for the soft or meek. It’s not something you dip your toe into and it sure as shit isn’t something that will go easy on you. Being an entrepreneur is as much a life decision as jumping out of a plane. There are parachutes strapped to your back and you have your hand on the rip-chord but sometimes they just don’t work and you will hit the ground with an almighty thud. It will hurt if you fail but the free fall will feel like nothing you’ve ever experienced and if you survive the crash you’ll want to hire another plane and jump again.
3 Have fun
It may seem simple and quite obvious but there will come a time in your entrepreneurial career when you forget about the simplicity of being self-employed. Success can often breed more concern and sleepless nights than failure. Success brings with it ambition, responsibility, clients, staff and all the issues that hang onto those things. If you forget why you left the corporate environment and have lost that spark that got you started, then do yourself a favour and visit some of your ex-colleagues at your last corporate job. Remind yourself about fun and then take it back to your office. Even if your budget doesn't allow for lavish and fun team building events, or if there are only two of you in your company, remember to have fun. Buy everyone an ice cream or chocolate bar, make your team tea or let everyone go home a couple of hours early. Rewards rock.
4 Don't marry your idea
Plan for the divorce, rather than marry that money-maker. Plan to divorce yourself from the product, the people, the plan and the success or failure of your baby. It's rough and it hurts but sometimes walking away is the best success there is. That might mean you have to let someone go, tell them they really suck at their job, shout at them or worse (I'm not sure what's worse than that but use your imagination). I've seen entrepreneurs hold so tightly to their ideas or products in the face of certain failure that by the time they realised what was happening it was too late and already finished. Jason Goldberg, the founder of fab.com (a very successful flash sale design website) likes to advise start-ups in the technology space that if they haven't truly cracked it in one year they should start to pivot their business towards a different model, business, product or idea. Obviously that's easier said than done but the truth is you don't want to go down with the ship. In fact you don't want the ship to go down at all. You want to turn the ship in a new direction and sail into the sunset on a pile of money.
5 Your first idea might not be the best idea
Fantasising about turning an idea into a business is very different to actually running a business, employing people and generating viable and sustainable revenue. More often than not you'll think that the idea you've got on the tip of your tongue is the best one you've heard in ages. It might be, but it probably isn't. Take some time, get out that old notebook that hasn't seen a pen in years and jot down your ideas. Think about them, let them stew and then revisit them. I have a notebook filled with ideas that never made it off the page. I get through hundreds of ideas before arriving at one that I think is worth giving a second thought. Push through the rubbish and do your research, there’s gold in the hills of your brain.
6 Be prepared for failure
Once you've built a rock-solid prototype on the side, at nights, over weekends or while the boss isn’t watching and maybe even have a trickle of revenue, it won’t be plain sailing. The work only starts here and the chances are you‘ll probably struggle to succeed. I’m not trying to scare the entrepreneur out of you, it’s just a simple fact – most start-ups fail. If they all succeeded we'd have a lot more businesses employing a lot more people and making a lot more money than we do. Very rarely do you meet a person at a party who has successfully built up a company employing hundreds of people and is on the verge of becoming a multimillionaire. But I’d bet my dog that you've met a failed entrepreneur who's gone back to his corporate job for the pay cheque. Failure is a very real and natural part of being an entrepreneur. Most of us miss the point of failure though. Failure is not a something to suffer through, but there will be suffering. Failure is something to learn from. I've heard business experts abroad talking about the concept of fast failures and I whole-heartedly agree with this idea. If you're going to fail at something do it quickly and in a ball of flames and make sure you record and learn from your mistakes so you never repeat them.
7 Don't glorify it but don't be a martyr
There are very often two distinct types of entrepreneurs. The first glorifies the entrepreneurial plight making it sound like the perfect place for everyone to be. It's not. Running your own business is going to be the most difficult (and rewarding) thing you'll do. Prepare for that experience. But at the same time don't set it up so that you hate it from the start. The second is the martyr. You don't need to be a martyr to be an entrepreneur. You don't have to suffer for your art, eat two-minute noodles seven days a week, three meals a day and share a room in a house with four other dudes to succeed. You can be a sane and stable entrepreneur, maybe not all the time but you can sure as hell try.
8 If it's good enough, you will build it
Whether your idea turns out to be a multimillion rand concept or not, the chances are you think it is and will probably want to build it and quit your job anyways. Most people I've met who have left their corporate jobs did it because they believed they had an idea that would either change the world or make them rich. These are both motivations worthy of flipping your boss that bird we discussed earlier. But be sure that you have something to show for your passion before you toss it all away. Ideas don't pay the bills (mostly) and you'll need a prototype and at the very least a business plan to show potential clients, partners and investors. Leaving your job without a plan, product or financial buffer is probably not the best idea. I’ve always found that if I feel like I’m onto something I can’t wait to work on it. Whether I’m at home, drinking a cup of coffee or making dinner, all I can think to do is work on my idea. If you’ve got this feeling, don’t hold back but be smart about it.
9 Don't work with people who agree with you all the time
Find yourself a “no-man”. Nobody needs to be right all the time. Nobody is ever right all the time. Even the mighty Steve Jobs made some mistakes. Make sure that you surround yourself with as many challenging and smart people as you can. I always tried to hire people who were smarter than me, that way I can learn from my team as much, if not more, than they learn from me. I consciously sought out the best people I could find to hire. Most often these were people who were happy to tell me what I didn’t know and call me out when I was wrong. It’s hard at first to create an environment where it’s okay to tell the boss he’s wrong but it made me a better entrepreneur.
10 What you build at work is owned by the company
Be very cautious when building your big idea while still employed by a company; almost every employment contract I’ve ever seen (or signed) has stated very openly that whatever you create while sitting at your desk or working on a company computer or even simply within company hours is undeniably owned by the company that employs you. A sneaky but ethical trick is to simply work on your idea or product after hours on a personal computer or at an Internet cafe. Don’t let this little complication destroy your path to becoming an entrepreneur.
11 Have a plan
Plans are great but we all know that the best laid plans of mice and men often go up in smoke, so plan for change, be agile and don’t blindly follow your plan. Nothing is constant, ever. Quitting a job without some semblance of a plan will make this daunting task even more frightening. Don’t be fooled, this is scary and any form of a plan will make you feel calm and give you a solid starting point. Whether you stick to the plan or not, at least you’ll know where you started and where you want to end up. But remember, the plan doesn’t always work, well… to plan. The thing I ended up doing two years into my company was not the thing I started out doing. The market changed, the competitors changed and our business had to adapt.
So you want to go it alone?