You don’t want to fail. You hold on tight to the dream that you once called reality. The baby you have raised turns out to be an empty doll with a sound module: Lots of technology, no soul.
I had no intentions of failing, though - on that same note I didn’t even know what it meant to fail. What was my definition of failure and what was society’s definition of failure? How would I fit it?
Even though I had grown up in a family that valued a 9-5 job and the security and predictability that it comes with, somehow, I have always been an entrepreneur. I have always wanted to change the world, change the people around me and make an impact with what I was doing.
Very early on, I tried to solve the problems around me. I analyzed my environment and tried to make it better. Mind you, I didn’t know what I was doing and had a solution before I had defined the actual problem. Unintentional problem-solution fit. I started my first product somewhere in my late teens: A search engine that could find people’s personal homepages. This was in a time where everyone had a MySpace page and multiple other personal, public profiles. However, these profiles could not be easily found via altavista(!) and google. So I thought I would try myself. After a few months learning, coding, pivoting, I realized that I seemed to be the only person around me to have that problem…
Lesson #1: Make sure there is a problem attached to your solution.
Too many businesses start with a solution without solving a problem. A new technical solution is a really neat thing, but when it doesn’t serve a purpose and solve a problem or a need within people then it becomes useless.
Needless to say, the site went down after about a year and only a few hundred subscribers. It was at that point that I started freelance development work and got the chance to work on some really great and visionary projects which sparked my entrepreneurial itch even more. I wanted it so bad, no matter what it was. I spent the next few years freelancing and developing my coding skills, I knew that coding was the one basic component to myself that needed to be the foundation of my future endeavors.
Lesson #2: Learn to code!
No matter whether it is assembly, C, Java or any other higher scripting languages, the building blocks of society and humanity are based on logical interactions with electronic circuits. If you want to build something impacting and understand users in a digital age, you need to understand why the world works the way it does. It doesn’t matter if you’re actually coding anything or you’re creating a service based business around animals. People will find you on the internet, and they will interact with software to get to your business. You need to know the basics of these technologies.
My next unsuccessful venture was a site that would let you take a look into a club or bar before you go (can you see how I was in my early twenties…). Streaming services, cameras, bars most of it was conceptualized or even written out, but did anyone actually want to use that? Was there a soul out that wanted to pay to take a peek into a club to look around before they go? I guess I never really understood the “club” scene…
Lesson #3: Identity your audience and your customers
Interact, talk, love your audience. Think like them, live like them, feel the problem they have and make it a problem you have. Ask the people you want to help: What sucks about XYZ?
I was still freelancing but now I moved to the US and I realized that I had built a fairly steady income stream and my clients were willing to work with me remotely. I took a step back and realized that I had created a small (tiny) business already and I could expand on that. So I did what every coder does in his early twenties and built a: Web Design Shop!
Lesson #4: You are not the first on the market and you won’t be the last!
I think I never really enjoyed looking for competitors in the market. It gave me an uneasy feeling of not being the first. I didn’t realize that being the first can often times hurt you more than it benefits you. Being the first means that you cannot learn from other peoples mistakes. Being first means you have to make all the mistakes so that someone else can create a profitable company. Look around you. Is there competition? and if so, learn everything about them. They will crush you.
The web shop grew rather quickly and within a year I was the owner of a small company. With an office, 5 employees, payroll and a business card. I had no idea what the heck I was doing. I had to learn too much about accounting, people, finances and sales, while all I really wanted to do was to build awesome stuff. I invested every penny the company made back into the company for various quite unplanned purposes. Like a kid in the candy store. I wanted to pivot the direction the company was going in but the company was going faster than the data I could collect on it. Should we pivot to a product based company? Should we focus on small, medium or large sized companies? Should we focus on start-ups and create prototypes?
Lesson #5: For crying out loud, create a business plan and stick to it!
It doesn’t matter if the business plan is on legal paper, a white board or a napkin. Make sure you have a plan that you can execute on. Create SMART goals, gather data, analyze the data and pivot. Be agile with your business plan but have a plan.
My company had a quick rise and all of the sudden a quick downfall. We had some happy clients, some unhappy clients, but all in all we created something, (over-)delivered and looked the other way.
Rather than identifying future needs and continue to foster relationships, we were happy with a good testimony we could slap on our website.
Lesson #6: Learn to sell and build lasting relationships!
No matter how smart, simple or strong your product/service is, it doesn’t matter if you can’t sell it. Learn to sell yourself as well as your product. In fact “be” your product and if you can’t sell and don’t want to do it, then hire someone who can.
I took out some bad loans to cover expenses during bad months and I still had no idea what I wanted to do with the business. I plunged into full end panic-pivot mode and changed my mind daily. Again, I wasn’t listening to what was going on around me and I wasn’t willing to accept that it was over already. My “dream” had just begun - how could it be over already? I had no idea about the dramatic and horrible situation I put myself, my business partners and my girlfriend into. I had no money, was in debt and had collectors call me daily. But I thought that everything would turn around with the “next-big-client.” The client that never came.
Lesson #7: Your accounts receivable is stupid and useless!
Learn to treat cash flow as the holy number of your business. If the money is not in the bank, it is useless. There are many basic business rules to follow when it comes to owning a business, aside from legalities, accounting and marketing but if I had to take away one of the most important lessons it would be that I’d much rather had 1 dollar in the bank than 10 in accounts receivable. When you work very closely with clients, like I did, collecting invoices becomes an awkward situation. You give extensions Net 30, 60 90, because you know that one of these days they will pay you. Meanwhile, your landlord asks you to pay rent…
Three and a half years later I found myself in a perplexed state. I had broken multiple relationships with friends and business partners and didn’t know it. As long as I was wearing a suit and had a business card, I was a business owner. Well, I was the owner of a piece of paper called Articles of Organization that turned out to be eating more money than it was earning. No matter how I twisted the numbers.
I had to close the doors.
I felt horrible. I was a failure, I was a statistic: 9 out of 10. I didn’t care about many things anymore. I could never go back to working for someone else. My identity was: Entrepreneur. I didn’t want to continue being another number in a statistics.
Lesson #8: If it doesn’t work, relax. Sit back. Think. Act.
Businesses fail, that’s what they do and there are too many unknowns to be certain that your business will or will not fail. However, if it fails and you find yourself in a situation that seems dire, sit back and drink a coffee or tea. Think about the mistakes you’ve made. Write them down, write a journal about what you have experienced. Get a job!
I began soul searching. What was it that I really wanted? What was happening inside of me that made me think the way I thought? What was this inner determination and search for greatness?
I realized that I wasn’t building solutions to help people, I was building solutions to help myself. I was an entrepreneur for the wrong reasons. The recognition, responsibility and being regarded as a leader were some of my driving factors in every idea, project and business. I didn’t understand that being an entrepreneur meant to put others first and by doing so they will put you first. You create solutions for people, you offer products to people and in return they will offer you something.
When I started to look for a job, to get myself out of the mess I put myself into, I realized that I needed a company that could satisfy my entrepreneurial spirit, my need for recognition and my willingness to take ownership. It took me a while but I finally found a job that could satisfy these needs and help me grow.
Lesson #9: Learn something new every day
I learned that it was important to step back to move three steps forward. Taking a step back made me realize that I needed to grow before I could become what I wanted to be. I realized that I was missing some crucial skills that would help me be a better business man, a better person and a better problem solver.
Come what may, I am ready. I am growing and I know that my entrepreneurial path is not over. I plan to get up and fail faster!