Insights from the sometimes rocky road of entrepreneurship (and 5 ways to keep heart on the business owning path)

“I could tell you a bunch of really carefully selected positive facts… but to share a story of success you have to feel like a success, and the last 5 years have been really tough… there is a saying that you have to fake it until you make it, and we have been faking it for a long time…” - Simon Pound

It will probably come as no surprise to anyone that running your own business is really hard. Freelancing - hard, picking up random contracts? Yep, that’s hard too. Startups? You crazy fool, that’s hard as well. But amongst all the difficulty, juggling time (and money), working too many hours or none at all there is a simple joy in venturing out and doing something for yourself, and heaven forbid - doing it really f*cking well.

In a world where 9 out of 10 startups fail, those of us who choose to take the entrepreneurial route could be called crazy. And you would be correct. But if crazy allows you to have freedom over what you choose to do and how you do it, the ability to pivot, to own and create something with your own hands and those of your chosen team then crazy can be pretty damned good.

This is probably why, when sitting in the audience at the CMAKL talk on failure, as daughter of serial entrepreneurs and with a venture or two under my belt, I myself had a rush of warm fuzzies. The reason? Simon Pound got up and told it how it is, with all harsh truths and absolute ridiculousness. The magic bit was his ability to do this yet still convey exactly why he got up every morning and did it all again.

For the uninitiated, Simon is one half of artisanal local fashion and beauty brand Ingrid Starnes. Together with his wife Ingrid, they have crafted an internationally recognised and respected label whilst staying true to their vision. A pretty hard thing to achieve in a fickle industry.  Simon & Ingrid juggle the demands of fashion label life with raising their family, whilst Simon also wrangles a ‘day job’ working for Vend. The Ingrid Starnes team themselves were inspired by the guys from another local label Kate Sylvester. When Kate & Wayne were given the same chance as Karen Walker to show at New York fashion week they turned it down, instead focusing on keeping their current business strong whilst having time and space to devote to their family.

Hearing about the truth of his business and the struggle to balance work and work and work and life was pretty heartening at the time, but it wasn’t until very recently that what Simon said really started to resonate. The downturn of the dairy price triggering mass redundancies for Fonterra, restructuring at a few of my favourite businesses in the tech ecosystem and witnessing more than one or two pivots from pretty close proximity has made me dig out the link to Simon’s talk more than a couple of times in recent weeks. The reaction from the people that i send it to is fairly typical: ‘Wow, why don’t more people talk like this?’.

Good question!

There is plenty to celebrate about working in startup, or being a business owner. And it has to be said one of my favourite things about startup culture is the celebration of failure. However, it could be said that sharing the learning that you take from these failures is something that is slightly less forthcoming. In an age of open source, are you open to sharing your learning with those around you?  In Brad Frost’sWebstock talk (below), he proposes a model in which information shared allows us all to raise our game by a degree. It makes society better. It makes business better and maybe in those less shiny times of entrepreneurship - when you are mid pivot or mid layoff they are also tidbits of information that soothes the soul too.

For me, Brad Frost’s ‘share everything’ mentality and startup culture’s ‘celebrate failure’ approach collide in a pretty juicy space. What happens if we take risks, learn fast, get up and whilst we are getting up help someone else up too?

Honesty and openness around the decision making that led Kate & Wayne Sylvester to skip an international fashion show directly impacted on the trajectory of the Ingrid Starnes model. That model? Now impacting further folks through Creative Mornings Auckland. This all within an incredibly small and competitive market.

For those with clever IP and saucy ideas, I’m not saying dish up your learning to all your competitors on a silver platter. People sharing openly and honestly between non competitive industries allows for lessons to be taken, falls avoided and no loss of competitive advantage or ‘secret sauce’.

Because while entrepreneurship is hard, perhaps it does not need to be this hard.

5 tips to keep positive, focused and on the right path (even in dark times) with your business/startup or venture

1) Decide what success looks like for you

“Really early on in our business we decided what success looked like, success for us was being able to have choices for our children, and have jobs where we could be really involved in their lives.”

Establishing early what your end game may be not only helps you hone your vision, but also allows you to have clarity on where to find the joy in your process.

2) Celebrate (the good and the bad)

I once worked for a property focused business that every time their sales team converted a new sale, they would hit a gong to celebrate. A fashion label I worked for would add a new fun item or set of items to their pinata every time they shipped new items, and at the end of season would have a pinata hitting time. Acknowledging that it can be hard, and finding reasons to bring the joy is great for motivation.

Conversely celebrating and examining the reasons why you fail also gives you starting points to iterate and create better solutions or outcomes.

3) Keep profit at the heart of what you are doing

“So often as creative people, you just set out and we can do this and do this and do this - we will break even. But breaking even is actually falling behind because if you make one wrong decision - and you will because that’s the nature of being brave and trying things - you make mistakes - you go backwards and if you haven’t factored in profits you haven’t got any reserves, so it seems kind of gross but from day one you have think how do I build profit into what I’m doing”

Unsurprisingly, this can be quite freeing. And whilst the startups amongst you may be scoffing right now at the rampant simplicity of it, this can be real new thing for some.

4) Keep it positive

Simon said something during his talk that I think rings pretty true - “there are three things that will kill your creativity - debt, overheads and negativity”. Keeping your business as lean as possible gives you room to be more agile with your thinking, keeps space for you to engage in the projects you want to and keeps the awful debt/overheads monster at bay.

The thing is that you can say that, but sometimes even the best planned, leanest operations can get into trouble. And here having a team that is engaged in your vision, or friends that support you through these times and keep you focused on upsides, lateral thinking and looking ahead.

5: Build strong networks

At GridAKL I have seen the strength that strong networks can bring, whether that be witnessing the guys from Flounders Club sharing truth and insights or the kitchen table convos that happen on a daily basis. Strong networks should extend to friendly folks in businesses at a similar stage as you, as well as those a little bit ahead of you tackling issues or scaling in a way that you would like to as well. Not only will these networks provide vital perspectives that can help grow your business. They will also help support you when/if things are tough. If you are struggling to find someone to talk to, get in touch with us and we can help point you in the right direction.

Anya works in brand & communications for BizDojo, spending most of her time working on GridAKL. She wrote on the mentioned Simon Pound talk from a more creative angle for The Print Room, you can read that piece here.