Where do you start?

Photo: Lori Greig cc

Photo: Lori Greig cc

You have decided to start your own business, that’s great! What now? Where do you begin? The good news is that you have already begun — taken the first step, so to speak, with your decision. Now, it’s merely a matter of finding customers, figuring out what they want, providing it to them, preferably better, faster and more economically than other folks and start counting the cash! Before you run out to do all that, it’s good to have a plan and it’s even better to see what others have done; those who have been successful and even those who have failed once or more. By building on the lessons they have already learnt on how to start, run and grow a business, you begin on the shoulders of those who have gone before — both giants and mortals!

Read and listen to others’ stories

Unless you have a grandmother who likes to tell stories or, as in my case, a father ready to regale you with tales of business, reading is the best place to start. Even if you are a vociferous reader, you will soon discover that reading is a luxury once your business gets rolling.

If you are amongst those who never found reading a pleasurable activity or just did not do a whole lot of it, this might be the right time to get a good shot at it. Reading about or, in these days of audio books and podcasts, listening to stories of other entrepreneurs will serve not only to inspire you, but help you avoid mistakes, small and big. Every person has their favourite list of must-read books, as do I (see box). Like most good advice in life, these books are timeless and can be read in whole or part at any time. Each time you go back to them, you’ll find another nugget of insight and they will grow with you as you grow as an entrepreneur.

Get yourself a mentor or two

When the good bard said, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” he knew a thing or two. Once you start a business, there will be many a night and day when you will not merely be uneasy, but feel alone. Having a mentor and sometimes more than one mentor can help you get through not only those dark days, but many a time help you avoid them by appropriate forethought and preventive action. Most start-ups, even those that are well-funded, have a formal board of advisors who can help the entrepreneur discuss ideas or options, gain introductions and get advice on topics relating to the business.

Regardless of the nature of the business you intend to start, having a mentor or an advisor is a smart thing. Besides the experience and contacts they may bring, just the fact that they are not as intimately involved with the daily trials and tribulations of the business makes them that much more objective and, therefore, valuable. In different times in your business, you will find that you need different kinds of mentors – the only real criteria for selecting the right mentor are your trust, comfort and judgment.

Write down a plan

While there are entire books devoted to creating business plans, I am not a big believer in three ring binders and 20 pages of spreadsheets showing discounted cash flows. In fact, I am not sure I know what discounted cash flows are. However, writing down a plan in simple English is always a good idea. Just set down your aspirations for the business and capture the five Ws and the H — what, why, when, where, who and how.

Your business, if it is anything like 90 per cent of other new businesses, is certain to go through significant changes, many in its first year of existence. This, however, is not a reason to not have a plan. Six months or a year into your business, when you revisit the plan, you can update it, edit it and, if required, throw it away and begin a new one. “Start your business at the beginning — not the business plan or paperwork or an office, but your idea, reduced to its core essence,” says Paul Hawken, successful serial entrepreneur and author, in his book Growing a Business. Reducing your business to its core essence is non-trivial and the best way I have found to do it is to write it down. Writing things down, you will discover, is one way to make them come true!

All the reading, listening and writing is only preparation for the real thing. So, after having read a little, listened some and drafting a plan, go out and get started!

A helpful reading list

Growing a Business by Paul Hawken: The first person conversational tone of the book speaks from the heart and is as applicable today as when it was written more than a decade ago. What the CEO Wants You to Know by Ram Charan: The author’s Indian origins and his experiences with the family shoe store make this book easy to relate to.

The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker: Forty years after its first publication, this book, like good wine, has aged well. If you are going to read only one book, this should be it.

Selling the Wheel by Jeff Cox and Howard Stevens: Most entrepreneurs are surprised when they build something and the world does not beat a path to their door on its own. This novel is the gentlest way to get acquainted with selling.

The HP Way How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company by David Packard: The archetypal ‘two guys in a garage’ story is not only a ripping good read, but filled with useful nuggets about values, people, business and technology.

This article originally appeared in the Start-up Logic column in The Hindu BusinessLine.

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