Design of Business

Business, Culture & Entrepreneurship

Category: Start-up Logic (page 3 of 3)

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.

3 Questions To Ask Before You Startup

A New Chapter

Photo Credit: koalazymonkey cc

Should I start my own business?” If you have ever found yourself asking this question, you are not alone. And rarely does this question arise by itself — on its heels, many more rush in. “How do I know it’s the right thing? What’s the first thing I should do?” A simple search on Amazon or Google with the words “Starting your own business” provides 738 books and over a million hits respectively — in a sense, this choice of plenty only seems to add more questions beginning with, ‘Where do I start?’ The best answer to this question is the simple one — start with yourself!

Before you try to figure out, “How do I raise money, or should I get a patent first or do I need partners?” the first step to answer the question should you even start your own business, is to better understand yourself. While some reflection is needed, this is not so much a philosophical or metaphysical exercise as much as answering three simple questions about yourself. You may have never taken the time to think about it and even if you have asked yourself one or more of these questions, never had the opportunity to step back and answer them. Certainly, once you start your own business, you will not have the luxury of time to answer these in any detail.

N.S. Raghavan, former joint managing director and one of the founders of Infosys, narrates a story about a young man who approached him seeking advice. “I have a job offer from Infosys and an option to start my own business — what do you think I should do?” When Raghavan responded, “Take the job with Infosys,” the youngster was taken aback. In Raghavan’s words, “If you are an entrepreneur, starting a business is not an option that you consider alongside taking a job — you’d just do it!” To dive in, or to ‘Just do it!’, as the ad exhorts us, is easy — staying the course, not drowning and not ruing it along the way — is the hard part. Let’s ask ourselves those three simple questions.

Passion Ask yourself, “Do I feel passionate about this? Will I feel as passionate about this a week from now? A year or five years from now?” If the answer is anything other than yes, you might want to keep that resume polished. When you ask yourself, “Do I feel passionate about this?” — ‘this’ could be a product — a low maintenance, low-cost, yet effective water purifier that four-fifths of the world needs; it could be a service — ball room dancing instruction for high-schoolers; it could be a concept — helping farmers in your hometown reach customers worldwide directly — or nearly evangelical — fresh water to every village in your state/country — it could be anything, as long as the fire of passion within you burns undiminished for long periods with little or no kindling. This is a good question to ask first and have answered in the affirmative before starting your own business. Do not confuse passion with being right or knowing something — passion is primarily believing and wanting. Once you start your business, you will learn more ways of being wrong than you’d thought possible.

Risk-taking Being an entrepreneur, which is what you’d be if you start a business, is a risky proposition — probably not as risky as skydiving or crossing a busy road in Bangalore during the evening commute. Most businesses last longer than a skydive and are fraught with challenges. So the next question to ask yourself is how risk averse you are.

Risk means many things to many people. Most people think primarily of financial risk — this, while certainly measurable, may be the least important. Often there will be others to bear the financial risk with you.

However, the time you personally invest, the emotional energy that would be required of you individually and most importantly, your self-worth, will be the bigger risks you will be taking.

These will be largely immeasurable but have far greater import on the rest of your life. So if you have never taken off for the weekend on a whim, usually get to the airport three hours ahead of schedule and have never run a yellow light, it is worth figuring out what your risk appetite is.

Perseverance Call it whatever you want — doggedness, perseverance or relentlessness — to be an entrepreneur means continuing in the face of constant discouragement by the world around you.

Often it would seem as though everyone but you feels it makes no sense to continue and yet you persist. Investment bankers who have yet to begin shaving will offer you advice. Your spouse, your engineering manager (and her spouse), that cheeky long-haired fellow in customer support not to mention your suppliers and even customers will question, critique and challenge you.

So if you haven’t been called pig-headed more than once in your life or find you cannot last through one session of working through the “simple” income-tax form or are discouraged by having to make the same presentation for the 17th time, some work may be needed in this area.

If you answered in the affirmative to the passion and perseverance questions, you are ready to start a business.

Should you actually start one, your chances of being successful at it or even enjoying the journey, will be determined by your answer to the risk-taking question. Luckily, for us, unlike the Prince of Denmark, it’s a little easier to answer the question, “To begin or not to begin?”

This article first appeared in the Hindu Business Line dated December 17, 2007
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