Launching and sustaining a successful business is hard – period. As Forbes has noted, nine out of 10 startups fail.
Nine years ago I started a consulting firm designed to provide expertise to business start-ups in developing countries, primarily in Asia and North Africa. I’ve personally seen these statistics in action, watching a number of startups fail and businesses close their doors.
Business—and entrepreneurship—may be hard, but it isn’t impossible. Here are a few key truths I have learned about business and entrepreneurship during this time.
The 7 Entrepreneurial Truths You Need to Know
No entrepreneur ever did it all alone.
TED speaker and entrepreneur, Ernesto Sirolli, speaking from experience, affirms that God has never created any one person who can “make it”, “sell it” and “keep track of the money”. Modern day entrepreneurs such as Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg all know the importance and value of complementary help. These are often called managers, business developers or financial experts. Successful entrepreneurs don’t try to do it alone – they strategically seek to place the right people around them.
Example: A successful resort in East Asia attributes their success to a team of six who brought differing skills to the table in a well-balanced team approach.
Takeaway: Don’t think you can be a successful one-man or woman show. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and form a healthy team of people who complement those things.
Successful entrepreneurs have a solid network of training, resources, and support.
Starting a business should be preceded by robust training that involves incubation or “start-up village” help. It certainly should also involve the relevant use of coaches and consultant. Mentoring and solid entrepreneurial training are often the difference between success and failure.
Example: An architect realized he had many skills in language, culture and in boat building, but he lacked some of the legal and financial expertise, so he came to our company asking for consulting help. Without our help, his business would have failed because of his lack of business acumen.
Takeaway: Know when and where to go for help. Don’t wait until catastrophe strikes; get all the help you can before you go and keep getting help as you grow.
A business without a customer is not a business.
Early on one of our lead consultants stressed the obvious that “you do not have a business if you have no customer”. Vision is not enough and a great product is not enough. Ask the question, “what is the business opportunity?” Then use the lean start up model and get started
Example: A client came to us with a vision for manufacturing a certain garment product. The consultant tested the idea and before long everyone realized there was no customer and the modeling pivoted toward a tourism business.
Takeaway: Know who your customer is. It doesn’t matter how great your product or service sounds if there isn’t a market of people who want, need, and can afford to buy it.
A business without a plan is like a ship at night with no lights.
I’m amazed at how many entrepreneurs and business owners don’t operate off an establish business plan. You can fudge your way around business without a plan…for a while. But sooner or later you’ll hit rocky waters, and whether or not you have a solid business plan determines whether the business survives or not. A good business plan will be used to attract capital, establish clear ownership, provide financial clarity and accountability, establish appropriate legal guideline, and define your priorities.
Example: We have provided coaching to an Asian manufacturing firm. They have a measure of success, but they have a tendency to jump at the latest thing. They will achieve much greater success if they exhibit focused commitment to their plan.
Takeaway: Have a business plan in place before you find yourself running into an iceberg. Keep focused and work the plan. Refuse to be diversified until you have initial success. Following the latest whim might be fun, but it may also kill your business.
Successful entrepreneurship requires proactive adaptability.
Markets change and competition emerges. Nothing ever stays static in the world of business and business leaders must study their customers, study the economic and social milieu of their target community and understand the customer thoroughly. Consider how rapidly technology is changing, and how that affects marketing strategy. As the world continues to develop, you can’t afford to be caught a step behind.
Example: I just read a financial report from a company we helped in Nepal. Despite an earthquake in the country and fuel blockages, the coffee company experienced a 78% increase in income last month compared to a year ago. Why? They adapted to change around them – the owner is a learner.
Takeaway: Be a continual learner. The more you actively learn, the more you will be able to anticipate changes and adapt quickly.
Values shape the culture of the organization.
Having no established values is at potentially destructive as having no established business plan. Successful businesses are built around a set of guiding principles and values. They make those values known and regularly remind employees of those things in company meetings and place them on the wall of the company office and elsewhere.
Example: A coffee company in India was invited to provide a service in the US consulate because of values that they stated clearly and lived out consistently. Their values spoke as loudly as the quality of their service.
Takeaway: Understand your foundational values and commit to living them out. Write them down, put them before your employees, and evaluate how you are doing regularly.
Doing business overseas is very different and difficult.
Starting a business already has a 90% fail rate and is just plain hard. Add in a cross-cultural element, and it just gets 1000 times harder.
People starting cross-cultural business ventures generally make one of two mistakes. One, after living abroad successfully, they assume they can easily start a cross-cultural business endeavor. Or two, successful business persons think that because they have achieved business success in a given location, they will be equally successful in a different country.
Both are dead wrong. There are too many cultural differences, ethical issues, language nuances, economic challenges, and governmental issues which must be understood, confronted, and overcome. It is possible to do, but should not be taken lightly
Example: A very competent and successful business man from the Midwest United States formed a team to start a business in Africa.He neglected to consider culture and what it took to do business and live in an African country. Within a year, his entire business venture collapsed.
Takeaway: before starting a cross cultural business, or expanding your existing business cross culturally, consider carefully the additional challenges you will face.
Whether you are starting a business in your home country or abroad, take these 7 entrepreneurial truths to heart, and increase your chances of starting a profitable business that falls in the 10% of startups that succeed…not the 90% that fail.