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10 things I’ve learned from nearly two decades of entrepreneurship

Some milestones have a habit of sneaking up on you. One day, for example, you’re feeling the rush of finishing your last Matric exam and when you next look up, it’s time for your 30-year school reunion. That sense of timing passing is even more prevalent in business, where you’re so caught up in the day-to-day that it’s hard to take a step back and appreciate how far you’ve come.

Of course, the challenges businesses have faced over the past three years — from the COVID-19 pandemic to the ongoing energy crisis and rampant inflation — haven’t made it any easier for entrepreneurs to get their noses away from the proverbial grindstone. Aside from the business challenges that have arisen because of those events, they’ve also contributed to an even more warped sense of time.

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Amidst those challenges, however, it’s still important for entrepreneurs to occasionally step back and take stock of the lessons over the years. The other day I realised that I have been an entrepreneur for over two decades and figured it was a good time to distil the business lessons I’ve learned. While I registered many of these lessons within my first decade as an entrepreneur (spread over a couple of companies), they’ve only become more relevant as I’ve sought to help steer Euphoria Telecom to the next level of its evolution.

1. Trust your gut

You may not always understand the reasoning behind that tiny little voice screaming at you to, “Run away!” from a deal or opportunity. Such feelings are, however, right more than they’re wrong. While I’m not suggesting you take to the hills every time you feel like you’re slightly uncomfortable, I do believe that if things don’t feel right you take the time to find out why; you’ll be glad you did.

2. “That’s the way it is”

Many a sin has been glossed over by assuring the uninitiated and often fearful that they shouldn’t question what is being delivered to them. We are often afraid to ask, “Why?” or speak up when things don’t add up, merely to be bulldozed into a position or place we would never have accepted otherwise.

3. Do right by your customer

I will go on again and again about “doing right by your customer”. While this isn’t always possible (there are always people out for the “bigger, better deal”), loyalty is the reward most of the time.

4. Customer histories and data are essential

When dealing with customers, the more information you have, the better prepared you are. Being able to see into a customer’s service or financial history is critical in being able to provide seamless service across your organisation. If the previous interactions with a customer only sit in someone’s head, then you’re in trouble.

5. Never go to a party empty-handed

Closely linked to doing right by your customer, is the concept of value-add. What are you bringing to the party? What does your customer get from dealing with you rather than your competitor? If you’re unsure of the answer, or the answer isn’t quantifiable then you may need to look at your business model again.

6. “What do we do?”

Ensure your business model is known and understood throughout the company. That may sound obvious, but entrepreneurs frequently get caught chasing the business and doing things that are not in the plan. Maybe it’s different terms or a slightly different product or execution that is a little different from the norm; it doesn’t matter, you have to decide if that works and change the plan to incorporate it, or step away. If you chase everything you’ll lose your focus, not understand your own business, and ultimately struggle to deliver well.

7. Systems and processes are essential

Knowing how to do something is vital, all the way through the company. Knowing how to do it right, in a manner that is in alignment with the plan and in a way that is reproducible is even better. I’m a big fan of automation and business process improvement; automation allows you to change the process in the background without having to re-train people, which gives you flexibility to improve minor steps in the process without mutiny and/or confusion in the ranks.

I love technology, for what it can do for us when well designed and executed. If you find yourself or your teams doing routine, repetitive tasks – automation can save you substantial man-hours and human errors.

8. “But how do we maintain it?”

Many good ideas come with immediate returns in mind, but if you’re going to spend time and resources gaining some information, make sure you have a way to maintain it. If you take the time to update all your clients’ company details with their financial contacts, what happens a year from now when 10% of that information is out of date and getting more inaccurate every month?

This is a difficult obstacle to overcome, and my lessons in it are thus: either find a way to gain and update the information easily with very low resource involvement or decide if this information is so valuable that you are willing to repeat an expensive exercise periodically.

I firmly believe that old, inaccurate information is worse than no information because it creates a false understanding of the environment in which we operate and base our decisions on.

9. Duplication of information

Many startups adopt systems as they go. Entrepreneurs will tell themselves that, “We need an application that does…” and go off and buy it. Soon you find yourself having to change a client’s telephone number in three different applications to try to maintain some sort of consistency. It never works, and only increases the likelihood of teams working with conflicting pieces of information.

Integration and centralisation of information will save you and your team hours of time and costly mistakes.

10 . Check everything!

“To err is human, but to truly mess up requires a machine.”

The saying may be a little colourful, but there is certainly truth in it. Perhaps, however, it should be rephrased to something along the lines of, “Don’t assume anything. Just because it has worked 1,000 times before, this may be the exception.”

By Nic Laschinger, CTO, Euphoria Telecom

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