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Entrepreneurship is addictive and it’s as difficult an addiction to get over as any other. That was the message from Nic Haralambous during his keynote at the Cape Town edition of Tech4Africa.
Despite the best intentions of his parents, who wanted him to have a steady career, Haralambous told the audience that he could never imagine doing anything else other than running his own business. This despite the fact that his experiences have left him as bruised and battered as any harmful drug.
The son of Cypriot immigrants, the former Motribe founder turned online men’s outfitter has been running businesses in one form or another for the past 12 years and at no point, he says, has it been easy.
If he’d been a little bit luckier with a camera, though, it could have been very different.
The early days
As a youngster, freshly graduated from Rhodes University’s renowned school of journalism, Haralambous went to the UK to try and make it as a freelance photo-journalist.
No one bought his photos and Haralambous found himself propelled into entrepreneurship, using years of accumulated geek knowledge to build web-based products.
Being young, his businesses were largely aimed almost exclusively at other young people. Some of them lasted longer than others, but all ultimately closed down.
At various points, he also tried gainful employment. It never turned out well.
“I also tried being a corporate slave like most people of my generation,” Haralambous says. “I never lasted in a job more than two years.”
It was during one of those corporate stints that he realised that he couldn’t carry on working for someone else.
The Motribe years
And so, together with Vincent Maher, he formed Motribe — a mobile social network builder for feature phones.
In between founding the company and exiting the company to Mxit, he really got to grips with what he considers the most important lesson in business:
“Everything is fucking difficult,” he told the Tech4Africa audience. “I learned that in spades with Motribe”.
Apart from that, he also learned a number of other important business lessons.
“We did some interesting things at Motribe,” Haralambous says, “but we also built things that weren’t sustainable”.
“What we did at Motribe was shovel shit”, something he says is fairly typical of tech startups.
Importantly, though, Haralambous says he learned about how important is to work on your relationships with everyone involved in your business. Let one of those relationships fall apart and the business will too.
None of those lessons though could prevent the pain he felt when it came time to exit the business to Mxit.
“Selling a company is like losing a child when you don’t want to sell it,” he said.
By Haralambous’ own admission, the Mxit deal — widely seen as an acqui-hire aimed at bringing Maher to the social network happened against his will.
Looking back, though, he says that the exit probably worked out the best for everyone.
Getting into socks
With Maher ensconced at Mxit, Haralambous was left trying to figure out what to do next. In the end, he was inspired by his love of socks — something which he used to stick out in investors’ minds during pitches — to start Nicsocks, an online sock store.
Worn out from “shoveling shit”, the veteran entrepreneur says one of the other appealing things about Nicsocks was the fact that the product was something that you could touch and feel.
In two years it went from selling hundreds of pairs of socks to tens of thousands.
None of that, he warns, changes the fact ecommerce is still immensely difficult. You have to do fulfill so many more roles and think about so many more things than you do in the brick and mortar space.
That’s why Haralambous, in the wake of a major rebrand for the business, is taking it physical.
“If you pick the right product at the right time in the right place omnichannel can work,” he says.
Now two-and-a-half years old and with revenues up 400% year-on-year, Haralmbous says he’s still at the very beginning of where he wants to be with NicHarry.
“Businesses that are two and a half years old are like little puppies,” he said, “they have attitude, they’ll nip you but they have no idea what they’re going to be”.
Haralambous points to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ mindset of building a 10 000 year business as the one startup founders should adopt.
Anything worth building takes time
“Jeff Bezos’ margins and profits are paper-thin, but his shares keep going up and that’s because his shareholders believe in him”, Haralambous says. “What you do today needs to last for 10 000 years.”
As the entrepreneur points out, though, you need serious grit and determination to even have a chance of making it that far.
The thing is, hard work doesn’t make great headlines. “We don’t see the entrepreneurs with the grit who are just grinding away,” he says.
As he points out, the “overnight” success of NicHarry is built on everything that came before it: “I’m 31 and I’ve been building businesses since I was 19 and I’ve successfully exited one.”
He also reckons entrepreneurs need a sense of perspective.
“Not everything you build needs to be amazing,” he says, “sometimes just building is enough.”
As Haralambous points out, “Mark Zuckerberg is the outlier is that proves that it takes hard work to make it.”
He adds that you’re not going to make it by constantly hustling for funding. “Capital is for learning, not for burning,” he says.
And even if you want a big exit down the line, Haralambous says, “building something of value with grit and patience will eventually lead to the exit”.
A reason to wake up
Despite being battered and bruised, Haralambous maintains there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing.
That does not, however, stop him from occasionally asking “why on earth do we keep doing this?”.
The answer is difficult to really pin down.
Despite the occasional lows of startup life, Haralambous says he still wakes up at six every morning to work because that’s what he wants to do.
“I want to do something that I want to do every day,” he says.
That’s his answer, but it doesn’t apply to everyone else.
“You need to figure out why you are doing this,” Haralambous cautions. “If it’s for a cushy salary, you need to get a career, not start a business”.