How Ivan Epstein Grew A Bootstrapped Start-up Into An International Organisation

How Ivan Epstein Grew A Bootstrapped Start-up Into An International Organisation

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Ivan Epstein

Vital Stats

  • Player: Ivan Epstein
  • Company: Sage Foundation
  • Position: Entrepreneur and co-founder of Softline and Chairman of Sage Foundation.
  • Visit: sage.com

As one of the founders of Softline, which was acquired by the Sage Group in 2003, Ivan Epstein’s business trajectory has seen him go from a small, bootstrapped start-up to a large international organisation.

Looking back on this impressive (but often scary) journey, here are eight hard-earned lessons from his decades in the trenches.

1Don’t rely (too much) on data

Data has become a buzz word. These days, decision-making is all about the gathering of information. As a company grows and expands, data tends to become increasingly relevant, but is this a good thing? Ivan warns against an over-reliance on data.

“When you’re running a small company, you probably don’t have the money to gather and mine loads of data. This changes as your company grows. Suddenly you have access to more data, and you have the means to do something with all this information. So, data tends to become very important. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you never want to rely on it too much. In my experience, great entrepreneurs take risks and trust their gut. You want to look at the data, but you don’t want it to make you overly cautious.”

Related: President Of Sage International Ivan Epstein Shares His Valuable Lessons

2Business partnerships can be tricky

Great founders often come in teams. In fact, the success rate of businesses tends to be higher if more than one entrepreneur is involved. The famous Y Combinator incubator won’t even accept start-ups that consist of only one founder.

However, it’s important to realise that friction between co-founders is inevitable, especially when a company has grown to a point where fundamental decisions regarding the future of the organisation need to be made.

“If you have partnered with other people to build a business, be ready for some potential disputes. Be sure that your partners complement your strengths and weaknesses and that you can turn the challenges in the relationship into a net positive. Conflict, if well managed, can create great opportunities, but it’s important to stay calm and not get too defensive. A clash of egos can destroy a business,” says Ivan.

3Hire carefully

As a company grows, the hiring of staff becomes increasingly important. And, if a company grows very quickly, the need for extra help can be so big that you end up making some rushed hires. Ivan warns against this.

“The wrong people can damage your company’s culture significantly,” he says. “Don’t wait too long to start worrying about culture. Once you gain momentum, your company will grow quickly, and the culture of the organisation will suddenly become very important. Don’t neglect culture. It’s crucial, and starts with the founders.”

4Never think that you’ve ‘made it’

When you’re desperate for PR and your marketing budget is non-existent, it can be very hard to get people interested in your business. Then, when things are finally going well, people start lining up at your door.

It’s at this point that the self-satisfaction can set in and you can start believing all those wonderful things about yourself. Attention is great, but don’t be seduced by it.

“As your business takes off, you might get opportunities to attend events with established business people. That’s all great, but don’t let it go to your head. Make sure you are focusing on your business fundamentals and not just your image.  And remember, the press can be unpredictable.” 

Related: Work Smarter: Softline’s Ivan Epstein Offers His Advice

5Accept that you’ll lose (some) control

Building a company to the point where it becomes an international operation is obviously the aim of some entrepreneurs, but it’s important to keep in mind that this success will result in a lessening of your power.

Growing your company very often means diminishing your own role within it. This is not only true if you take on venture capital or go public, it’s also true if the business officially stays under your control. The fact of the matter is, your business will reach a stage where you can no longer have total control of every aspect of it. You need to be able to let go and let others take ownership of projects and departments.

6Cut your losses

Stay in business long enough, and challenges will arise. Even the most successful organisations have suffered great failures. It’s important, though, to be honest with yourself when things aren’t working out.

Accept that you have failed and cut your losses. “Not every idea or acquisition works out,” says Ivan.

“Accept when things don’t work out. If a product line or a division in your business is failing, act quickly. If it’s beyond redemption, dispose of it as cleanly and rapidly as you can.” 

7Share your success

“As your business grows, make sure that your people’s prosperity grows too. Making people feel that they’re recognised and valued is vital to employee engagement and retention of wonderful talent,” says Ivan.

“This means sharing the wealth, but it isn’t just about money. People don’t work just for money — it’s about passion and meaning as well. Treat people fairly and make them feel engaged.”

Related: 10 Things Successful SA Entrepreneurs Do Differently

8Change the world

At some stage — when a company has grown to a sufficient size — entrepreneurs start shifting their focus from expanding and making money to bringing about real change in the world. According to Ivan this is important — it’s important to dream big and believe that you can change the world.

“You need to always strive for that level of success. If you want to grow, you need to dream and believe,” says Ivan.

“Use your talent and organisation to make a difference in the world. Give something back. It instils in your people a wonderful feeling of being part of something amazing. It also attracts investors, customers, and other stakeholders who want to be associated with a company that has a heart.”

Take note

As you grow your business, your priorities will inevitably shift. But don’t let the short-term derail you from your long-term objectives.

GG van Rooyen
GG van Rooyen is the deputy editor for Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa. Follow him on Twitter.