13 things I wish I’d known before starting a startup

I have been blessed to own several businesses in my time, working across industries and sectors, from sports to hospitality and property development.

I have a family of entrepreneurs. My mother has a financial planning business, my dad had a recruitment business, my uncle owns a large logistics company and family in Australia own retail stores and supermarkets. So the path to becoming an entrepreneur was a relatively easy decision and was met with loads of support and encouragement.

Here are 13 things I’ve learnt along the way that will hopefully save you some time and a lot of heartache:

Equip Yourself for success

Running your own start-up involves more than just developing a winning solution to a problem or bringing a viable product to market. A business owner touches every aspect of that business; financial planning and management, staff management, business operations and legal. You may need support and training in mastering some basic business skills, so it’s a good idea to make use of the many business courses, incubator programmes and start-up accelerators available to entrepreneurs in South Africa.

Test it

Even though your mom, aunty and BFF think you are the bee’s knees, the general public might not be as effusive. When it comes to starting a business that is hopefully profitable and sustainable, it’s not just about your talent and passion. Ask the hard questions, do customer surveys and market research. Test your product or service first and find out if people need what you have to offer before you invest your life savings.
Focus, Danielson!

We often launch a business with several viable and marketable options, one of which might be your favourite. When the business has been operational for a few months, and the dust has settled, identify the one thing that is working for you and that the public is supporting, and focus on that. It might not be your favourite, but if the tribe has spoken, go with the tribe.

Manage cash flow and legalities

Most start-ups think we can wait until we are a large corporation or PTY LTD before we need to get our legal and financial planning in order. Do not wait. Get a financial and legal expert involved from the get go to ensure there are no loopholes or blind spots that could bite you in the butt down the road. Partnership discussions and potential agreements are another area where you definitely should seek legal advice, especially when a friend or relative is involved. Or anyone, for that matter.

Stay at the helm

We often incorrectly believe that the sign of a successful entrepreneur is when the business happily generates a steady income and the owner (aka, you) lives the high life on a yacht or tropical island. While a much-needed holiday every now and then is encouraged, staying away from your business for too long is the quickest way to lose touch, lose your investment, and forfeit your personal motivation. Aside from the fact that human beings are built for work, a business will never be as dynamic and successful with someone else at the helm.
Face Yourself.

In the early days, it’s just you, yourself and your big dreams. Nothing is more revealing than when that big client comes in or the big debt collector calls. There is no corporate head office to back you up or bail you out; it’s just you. And you hope to goodness that is enough. I have found the best thing you can do is be honest with yourself, and watch yourself. You are your own boss and best friend and worst enemy, all wrapped up in one. Which leads me to my next point.

Find a sage

Meet regularly with a business coach or mentor. This is one of the best ways to save your business from yourself, and save you a lot of heartache. I cannot stress this enough. Learn from those who have gone before, and conquered.

Get support

Surrounding yourself with a community of like-minded entrepreneurs is really encouraging. There’s something really comforting knowing that others are facing the same challenges and struggles as you. Find a co-working space to work out of or a business meet-up group to attend. Plus, it’s also a great way to network.

Rub shoulders, shake hands

Nothing can replace the power of firm hand shake and a face to face meeting. To get your brand and product out there you need to get out of the office and start meeting real people. The best way to do this is to attend networking events, breakfasts and conferences. Find business networking events in your area and tally the cost of joining against your marketing budget.

Marketing. Marketing. Marketing.

If people don’t know how much they need what you’re offering, they won’t give you their money. Invest in a good website, pay for a marketing strategy from a real marketing company (not your best buddy who ‘knows marketing’), and strategise your engagement.

Get the right people

When it’s time to hire a team the saying goes, ‘hire the right culture; you can always train skills,’ and I subscribe to that. I fight hard to protect team morale and work ethic, as the team represents your hard-earned, sacrificed-everything, midnight-oil-toil business brand. Another thing to consider when interviewing is hiring to your weakness. You know what you are good at and what you are lacking in. Assess what you lack and hire those who are brilliant at that.

Leave the nest

It alarms me that approx. 60% of South African entrepreneurs still work from home. Working from an office grows your business twice as fast as working from home. There are so many benefits of working in a space that is conducive to productivity, activates networking, supports long hours and encourages community, that they outweigh the cost saving aspect of working out of your garage. Plus, shared workspaces are coming in at such affordable prices, saying that working from home saves costs is no longer a viable argument.

Mistakes are okay

Finally, let me say that every entrepreneur’s journey is different. You will make mistakes, no matter how well you prepare or how skilled you are. Mistakes simply mean you are working hard and trying new things. It’s good. Learn from them and move on.

Westleigh Wilkinson


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