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Confession: 10 things I wish I did in my first 10 #smallbusiness years

Confession: 10 things I wish I did in my first 10 #smallbusiness years

We tend to glorify founders – as if they are infallible beings with that special neuron in their brilliant brains. 

The truth is — most founders I meet flounder in private. We usually won’t admit our failures to our staff for fear of demoralising them. We can’t share it with family, especially if we (like me) don’t come from a business-savvy lot. I read articles, buy books, attend networking events and conferences only to hear success stories of million-dollar funding or meteoric expansion and wonder where I went wrong.

To mark the 10th anniversary of 3Degrees Media, I decided to celebrate the “failures” I’ve had along the way. Because in my dictionary (and I tell my two daughters the same) – there are no failures, only lessons. Hopefully, these honest lessons may resonate for other founders too.

Feel free to disagree! 

  1. Get the pros to handle my accounts and legal contracts. These two foundations can make or break a business. I started a business based on my expertise (content marketing). In Year 3, I had to admit the harsh reality that numbers defy me and sourced an accounting professional to do my accounts and a legal expert to run through my contracts. Cosy up to these two experts though they may work on pro-bono, freelance or contract to keep costs low. I ran behind on my accounts filing in my first three years before finally getting help. 
  2. Value my working hours in dollars. Life was uncomplicated in Years 1-3. But when I started hiring and setting up a physical office, things like IT management and vendor sourcing entered into the picture. It took me a whole year’s worth of operational backlog in Year 4 before I realised that I needed an assistant to help pick up the slack. We’d like to think that we can solve anything if we work around the clock, but that is physically impossible – at least for more than two consecutive days.
  3. Don’t outsource business development in my early years. You know your business best and how to present it to prospects. Sure, a good salesperson will help bring in the numbers, but I find it more useful to have an inside salesperson setting up appointments for me to meet prospects especially in the early years. This way, I get to listen to what the market wants and tweak our pitch.
  4. Find a Number 2 by Year 3 and groom them to lead by Year 5. Having a good second-in-command is an underrated asset. I (may) have a misplaced God complex, but I felt I could lead the company all by myself and take it to new heights. Then, my late husband passed unexpectedly in Year 7 and I operated on lizard-brain mode for a good two months – barely able to make any decision beyond getting out of bed and getting the kids ready for school every morning. I was lucky to have an amazing team, and my current Number 2 stepped up and took charge without being asked. Thank you, Andrea! 
  5. Trust my instincts. If a prospect is giving off red flags, run in the opposite direction and never look back. If a job interviewee seems off, trust your gut instinct and don’t make that hire. Too often, we dismiss our instincts – placing more importance on rationale and what looks good on paper. Though not quantifiable, instinct could have saved me from hiring someone who surfs porn during working hours while sitting at the next table (true story). 
  6. Don’t work with a client who bargains mercilessly. To borrow the sage advice of my daughter’s volleyball coach: “if they don’t see your value, they’re not worth your time.” He was talking about boy-girl relationships, but this applies to client work too. I went through with a client who took pride in making us the cheapest vendor, lost >S$200,000 on one of their projects and caused my team to suffer burnout. Nothing is worth that pain. Not even a meaty government contract. 
  7. I am not running a charity. Every staff must prove their worth. This means that any hire you make must be a Swiss Army knife and multi-task during working hours. Since I run a lean team, everyone suffers the moment a colleague doesn’t pull his/her weight. I was used to working in a large MNC where there were specialists and operated as such in the beginning. I now make it clear up front that a designer may need to help pack gift bags and a barista may need to help clean the toilet – c’est la vie! 
  8. Carve out quiet time. Having quiet time helps regroup your thoughts. In any given workday, I’m pulled in many different directions with some unexpected roller coaster rides. While I enjoy the variety in my day-to-day, I find that the best strategic thinking comes when I’m sitting on the throne or when I’m in bed trying to wind down. Previously, I was never away from Dropbox or Slack completely. I finally unplugged in Year 9 during a school summer holiday break because Club Med took care of my kids and I had eight hours all to myself. Best. Decision. Ever. I came back with a fresh perspective and clarity to see where we should go for the next ten years. 
  9. Keep an eye on the cashflow. I have an unabashed corporate crush on Jason Fried of Basecamp. He said recently, “profit means time to think, space to explore. It means being in control of your own destiny and schedule.” That is very true, especially if you’re bootstrapping your business. Keeping an eye on the cashflow helped me weather lean years while keeping everyone employed. 
  10. Communicate my vision to the team. In dragon boat racing, the drummer sits in front and beats time for the paddlers. He/she coaches the crew, sets the race tactics and calls the race. As the founder, you are the drummer that everyone listens to for cues on where next to go and what to spend their energies on. I wrongfully thought everyone knew where I was going with the business until I had some team members going by the wayside. I now try to communicate my vision regularly but I have to confess that it’s still a work in progress! 

Being a founder is lonely. While it’s great to have a support system to cheer you on, the entrepreneur’s journey is not a well-trodden path.

I have made some regrettable business decisions listening to advice (though well-intentioned) from those who have not gone down that very same path. My hypothesis is that the best founders start their business precisely because they see things differently. Think Dhirubhai Ambani, Steve Jobs, Jack Ma and Walt Disney who zig when others zagged. In the early years, especially, a firm commitment to your vision is important to see that initial business idea take seed and grow – even if it may seem foolish to those around you. 

Nowadays, I ask fellow business owners what they wish they did better so that I can learn from their mistakes. Because there are no mistakes, only lessons. 

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