Here’s what the experts say about how to face your fears of leaving the corporate world, and when you’re really ready to launch your own business.
Step 1: Refine your idea
Here’s how to take the idea of owning your own business and turn it into a reality.
The question that halts most budding entrepreneurs in their tracks is, ‘when do I begin?’. The fact that you’re even thinking about starting a business means you’ve already begun. You’ve taken the first step by asking for help and searching for answers. There will always be challenges, no matter when you decide to start your business. To succeed, your goal is simple: Define your business concept to the best of your ability, test it out and adjust it as you discover what will work.
The greatest aspect of being an entrepreneur is that there are no rules to follow. You don’t need more experience or money to start; you can go for your dream right now. To help you get going, here are four tips.
- Define your passion in writing
If you keep an idea in your mind, that’s as far as it can develop. Writing down your concept helps you focus on how to make it a business. By clearly defining your idea, your imagination, heart and intellect can begin to work together to make it a reality.
- Keep an open mind and trust your instincts
This is not the time to judge your abilities or your experience. Tell yourself that you can and will discover how to make your dream business a reality. Find people who can help. SME owners usually enjoy sharing their experiences. Listen to them and get real-life direction, knowledge and tools that will move you forward faster.
- Buy yourself time
Pick a specific time each week when the only thing you do is work on developing your business. Don’t let anything distract you; this is your special time to go for your dream.
- Test out your idea and be willing to adjust it
You will be successful if you take action and make adjustments to your idea by analysing the information you receive. Allow your business concept to be shaped and moulded by your research, friendly suggestions and other information you gather along the way.
By simply having a dream, you have already taken the first step to achieving your goals; now, get ready for the ride of your life.
Drop all of the excuses, jump in with both feet and trust your instincts. You will uncover the resources, people and strategies you need to succeed.
Related: Steps for Testing Your Business Idea
Step 2: Get going
If you want to start a business but don’t know where to begin, don’t worry – you are not alone. Here are eight ways to take control.
- Take a stand for yourself
If you are dissatisfied with your current circumstances, admit that no one but you can fix them. It doesn’t do any good to blame the economy, your boss, your spouse or your family. Change can only occur when you make a conscious decision to make it happen.
- Identify the right business for you
Give yourself permission to explore. Be willing to look at different facets of yourself (your personality, social styles, age) and listen to your intuition. We tend to ignore intuition even though deep down we often know the truth. Ask yourself, ‘What gives me energy even when I’m tired?’ How do you know what business is ‘right’ for you? There are three common approaches to entrepreneurship:
- Do what you know. Look at work you have done for others in the past and think about how you could package those skills and offer them as your own services or products.
- Do what others do. Learn about other businesses that interest you. Once you have identified a business you like, emulate it.
- Solve a common problem. Is there a gap in the market? Is there a service or product you would like to bring to market? If you choose to do this, make sure that you become a student and gain knowledge first before you spend any money.
- Business planning improves your chances of success
Most people don’t plan, but it will help you get to market faster. A business plan will help you gain clarity, focus and confidence. A plan does not need to be more than one page. As you write down your goals, strategies and action steps, your business becomes real.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I building?
- Who will I serve?
- What is the promise I am making to my customers/clients and to myself?
- What are my objectives, strategies and action plans (steps) to achieve my goals?
- Know your target audience
Before you spend money, find out if people will actually buy your products or services. This may be the most important thing you do. You can do this by validating your market. In other words, who, exactly, will buy your products or services other than your family or friends? What is the size of your target market? Who are your customers? Is your product or service relevant to their everyday life? Why do they need it?
There is industry research available that you can uncover for free. Read industry articles with data (Google the relevant industry associations) and read Census data to learn more. However, the most important way to get this information is to ask your target market/customers directly and then listen.
- Understand your personal finances and choose the right money you need for your business
As an entrepreneur, your personal life and business life are interconnected. You are likely to be your first – and possibly only – investor. Therefore, having a detailed understanding of your personal finances, and the ability to track them, is an essential first step before seeking outside funding for your business. As you are creating your business plan, you will need to consider what type of business you are building – a lifestyle business (smaller amount of start-up funds), a franchise (moderate investment depending on the franchise), or a high-tech business (will require significant capital investment). Depending on where you fall in the continuum, you will need a different amount of money to launch and grow your business, and it does matter what kind of money you accept.
- Build a support network
You’ve made the internal commitment to your business. Now you need to cultivate a network of supporters, advisors, partners, allies and vendors. If you believe in your business, others will, too. Network locally, nationally and via social networks. Here are some networking basics:
- When attending networking events, ask others what they do and think about how you can help them. The key is to listen more than tout yourself.
- No matter what group you join, be generous, help others and make introductions without charging them.
- By becoming a generous leader, you will be the first person who comes to mind when someone you’ve helped needs your service or hears of someone else who needs your service.
- Sell by creating value
Even though we purchase products and services every day, people don’t want to be ‘sold.’ Focus on serving others. The more people you serve, the more money you will make. When considering your customers or clients, ask yourself:
- What can I give them?
- How can I make them successful in their own pursuits?
- This approach can help lead you to new ways to hone your product or service and deliver more value, which your customers will appreciate.
- Get the word out
Be willing to say who you are and what you do with conviction and without apology. Embrace and use the most effective online tools (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn) available to broadcast your news. Even though social networks are essential today, don’t underestimate the power of other methods to get the word out: eg, word-of-mouth marketing, website and Internet marketing tools, public relations, blog posts, columns and articles, speeches, email, newsletters, and the old-fashioned but still essential telephone.
Step 3: Overcoming your fears
Call it what you like. Procrastination. Fear. Necessary preparation. The fact is that many new business owners fall into the trap of staying ‘busy’ without actually doing business.
Designing business cards and setting up spreadsheets are just some of the tasks that, though necessary, make it tempting to put off doing business. After all, it’s more fun to choose fonts than to make cold calls.
It’s true that starting a business requires a certain amount of preparation, or as Robert Spiegel, author of The Shoestring Entrepreneur’s Guide to the Best Home-Based Businesses, calls it, ‘pencil sharpening’. Here are ten ways to move past pencil sharpening and put those pencils to work.
- Make a list
Making lists is a common denominator in businesses that have moved forward during the start-up phase. “People take time-management classes and use various electronic tools, daily planners and software, but all these tools essentially help make lists,” says Spiegel. “Having a list is the most important way to keep procrastination away.” Keep the list in front of you so it’s always visible.
- Take baby steps
It can be overwhelming when your to-do list is changing and priorities seem to be wrestling each other, but starting with small, manageable jobs can help thwart fears and minimise anxiety. Focusing on what really matters often comes down to having discipline and a clear vision.
- Find a customer
If you don’t have customers or clients, you don’t have a business. Yet finding and committing to that first customer can be a difficult hurdle for many entrepreneurs.
- Forget perfection
It might seem ideal to have everything in place exactly as you envisioned, but perfection doesn’t pay the bills. The ideal situation would be to have high-tech office equipment, but rather than waiting, start working from a small office with little more than basic equipment – a desk and a telephone.
- Talk business
Believing in yourself and your business might sound like hokey advice, but if you don’t believe you’re truly in business, as opposed to ‘starting a business,’ how can you expect anyone else to believe it?
Change your choice of words when you’re out in the world. Talk about your company like it is a business, not like it’s about to be a business – “I’m trying to start a business” sounds noncommittal. Even if all you’ve done is print your own business cards, saying things like, “I own my own business,” or, “I have to get back to work,” will get the word out that you are serious.
- Reward yourself
On a weekly basis, ask yourself if you’ve really done anything worthy of a reward – something that will have a tangible impact on your business. Then choose your reward carefully and make it only as grand as the task completed.
- Be accountable
Find a partner, organisation or another business owner to hold you accountable. Whether you choose to buddy up with another business owner or be regularly accountable to a friend or family member, pick someone who won’t let you off the hook too easily.
- Predict the future
A sure way to determine if you are furthering your business is to look ahead. If you stay in the pencil-sharpening stage, where will your business be next week or next month? Chances are, you’ll be in debt. Guy Kawasaki, author of eight books, including The Art of the Start, Rules for Revolutionaries and How to Drive Your Competition Crazy, suggests that entrepreneurs use the following test to determine if what they are doing can be considered progress: “Would you call your spouse to tell him or her it’s done? For example, you wouldn’t call your spouse to [say] that you ordered stationery.” Do something today that makes you want to call home, and your odds of future business success increase dramatically. Or if negative motivation is more your style, picture your future if you don’t take some steps forward now.
- Remember your dream
When the going gets tough and it’s time to tackle those things outside your comfort zone, keeping your initial dream in mind might be the motivation you need. Changing goals and creating new dreams can keep your excitement as fresh as it was in the beginning.
- Do the hard stuff first
Emotion can kill a business before it even gets off the ground. Human nature dictates that we are first drawn to the things that bring us pleasure, and business tasks are no different. By getting distasteful responsibilities out of the way rather than avoiding them, we can more fully enjoy the other parts of business ownership.
Farah Fortune Of African Star Communications On Choosing The Right Clients
Publicist extraordinaire Farah Fortune of African Star Communications built her business not by courting big clients, but by backing young up-and-comers, and growing her brand right alongside theirs.
- Player: Farah Fortune
- Company: African Star Communications
- Established: 2008
- Contact: +27 (0)79 826 1955, email@example.com
The 36-year-old publicist launched her celebrity PR business in 2008, with R1 000 in her pocket — she spent R589 of that on registering a CC and the rest on business cards.
From working on her bedroom floor and sharing two-minute noodles with her daughter as she struggled to survive, today African Star Communications represents high-profile rappers such as K.O and Solo, and stand-up comedians Loyiso Gola and Jason Goliath.
She has an office in Nigeria and plans to open two new offices in Botswana and Ghana.
You pulled yourself up by your bootstraps. How did you overcome the hurdles?
I lost my first business to a crooked partner in 2006. I was determined to try again and I went in search of funding, but no-one would give me money.
When the last thing I had to feed my child was a mouldy piece of cheese, I went back to work for a PR company, earning R12 000 a month, managing accounts worth millions. I hated every minute of it. In June 2008, when my CC registration came through, I walked out the door.
My first pitch was for a small charity day that AIG hosted for Manchester United in Johannesburg. I was the only woman in the reception area, but my offer to do the job for R10 000 was irresistible and I signed my first client. That was just the beginning of a long struggle. I was broke for the next three years.
Friends bought my groceries, and I would feed my daughter and have her leftovers for dinner.
I couldn’t afford petrol so I walked from my house in Randburg to do pitches in Sandton in my takkies, and then changed my shoes at the client’s office. The only thing that kept me going was the belief that I could somehow make it work.
What was your big break?
In year three rapper AKA was about to release his first album. He pursued me for four months. Initially, I didn’t want to work with him, but his ambition won me over.
I’ve never regretted the decision. We signed a contract, and shortly after that more clients came my way, mostly for small events.
Working with AKA made me realise that my passion was for music and I decided to channel my energies into promoting South Africa hip-hop stars. That’s how I ended up specialising and finding my own niche in the crowded PR sector.
Our team convinced 8ta/Telkom to look at AKA for their ads and it worked. I branched into corporate PR after the celebrity side took off.
What made your business stand out from other PR companies?
First was affordability. Publicists do not come cheap. I signed up many young artists who had not yet hit the big time, and charged them as little as R4 000 a month to manage their publicity and help make them famous.
Taking on lots of small clients meant that I could spread the risk. We still structure our packages according to what clients can afford and I’ve kept the overheads low. To this day, I’ve never advertised.
Second was my focus on hip-hop. Before 2011, corporates were not interested in rappers and the scene was very much underground. I convinced Vodacom to sponsor a big hip-hop party with AKA as the star attraction.
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After that, many other corporates woke up and took advantage of the popularity of the local rap scene. I like to think I played a part in mainstreaming South African hip-hop.
How have you stayed relevant in a fickle industry?
Once the business was pumping, I built my own brand. I never planned to be in the spotlight, but the more I appeared in the media, the more I was able to build my clients’ profiles, and get bigger accounts.
I focused only on doing business-related interviews and people started to take me more seriously. I could not believe how many corporate contracts I did not win because I refused to sleep with the client.
It’s a disappointing reality of this business when you are young and female. Developing my own brand helped me to build a career based on respect and professionalism.
Ezlyn Barends Of DreamGirls On Igniting Passion
According to Ezlyn Barends of DreamGirls, great leadership is about finding and fostering passion in others. That’s how sustainable organisations are built — and grow.
- Player: Ezlyn Barends
- Company: The DreamGirls International Outreach and Mentoring Programme
- EST: 2012
- Visit: dadfund.org
‘Lead from the back.’ That’s one of the leadership lessons from Nelson Mandela, and it’s an approach that has worked for Ezlyn Barends, a social entrepreneur and all-round high achiever who is passionate about empowerment.
Through The Dad Fund, launched by her father Lyndon Barends in honour of community leader Daniel Arthur Douman (DAD), she started the South African chapter of a US-based girl education and empowerment initiative, the DreamGirls International Outreach and Mentoring Programme.
DreamGirls aims to increase the number of girls who complete high school and enter tertiary education. A total of 450 girls have participated so far, and all beneficiaries do community service, which extends the benefits of the programme even further.
Barends describes DreamGirls as a sisterhood of young female professionals, entrepreneurs and leaders who mentor and guide teen girls from poor communities to gain an education that will enable them to achieve success, so that in turn, they too can contribute positively and meaningfully to society.
What happens when you let go?
“One of most important things I have learnt is to let other people in your organisation take the lead,” says Barends. “That has been an important realisation for me as I am involved in many initiatives, which makes time a very precious resource.
“Teaming up with people who have the same values and vision as you do, letting go of the need to control — which is common among entrepreneurs — and empowering others in your organisation is key to success. That is how DreamGirls has grown and developed into a successful social business.”
It also means Barends isn’t alone in her passion to change lives, but has been instrumental in creating and fostering a group of individuals with the same goal.
Every entrepreneur has a finite number of hours in each day. Being able to spread the load amongst trusted individuals is key to growth — and growth is Barends’ ultimate goal, as it means more lives are touched and changed.
The power of passion
Barends has proved just how powerful a passion for helping others can be. When DreamGirls was launched, there was no budget, but her desire to do good and her commitment to the cause were so all-consuming that everything somehow fell into place.
It helped that a range of corporate donors came on board to help fund the programme. Since then the programme has received significant support from corporate South Africa in the form of funding and in-kind donations, facilitating workshops and events.
The ability to encourage and inspire others to take ownership has enabled three branches to flourish in Gauteng, the Western Cape and Polokwane, with further possibilities for growth in Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Durban and Kimberley.
In the first two years, Barends ran DreamGirls full time, together with a team of women. Because of the passionate assistance of her team, she was able to complete an MBA in the UK in 2014, bringing valuable skills and insights back to the organisation.
“We have developed our own culture, which we call the DreamGirls way of doing things,” she says. “Because the organisation has been built on a specific set of values, it is about so much more than merely helping girls to get a tertiary qualification. The essence is about being helpful and supportive of everyone involved.”
With her team firmly in place, Barends has taken on a full-time job in business development at Microsoft. Being able to rely on others to run DreamGirls’ daily operations means she has more time to focus on strategic growth and creating greater financial sustainability for the programme.
“It has brought fresh perspective, and that’s one of the reasons why we have now decided to go the franchising route — simply because I had the time to step back and look at what we were trying to achieve a little differently.”
Applying the franchising model to a social enterprise
Equipped with an MBA, Barends has used the knowledge she acquired through her studies to continue improving the DreamGirls business model.
“Part of the process of letting go was to create a social franchising model that we are now in the process of rolling out,” she says.
Franchising the DreamGirls concept required her to systematise the business model first, to ensure that it can be replicated successfully.
That process in itself can be a real game changer for a social enterprise as it elevates operations to the next level, with the operating manual becoming a day-to-day ‘how-to’ guide for the organisation.
“We have documented and put together all of the training materials and tools required to run a branch of DreamGirls. Now we are seeking franchisees who are committed to becoming social entrepreneurs. The franchise system will enable us to cover our operational costs, which is necessary because corporate sponsors are understandably keener to fund the programme than its running costs.”
Franchising is certainly a quicker and more cost-effective way of scaling up when it is difficult to access capital, and the legwork has already been done.
Dr Anna Mokgokong Believes In Leading From The Front
Soweto-born Dr Anna Mokgokong from Community Investment Holdings has received international acclaim for an entrepreneurial ability that has seen her grow a R1 billion company. Here’s why she believes in leading from the trenches.
- Player: Dr Anna Mokgokong
- Company: Community Investment Holdings
- Turnover: R1 billion
- Contact: ciholdings.co.za
International travel not only broadens the mind, but being well-travelled provides leaders with a competitive edge in the workplace.
Getting a view of the bigger global picture and learning adaptability are important milestones in the life of a leader. Dr Anna Mokgokong, or simply Dr Anna as she is warmly referred to, knows all about that.
Born in Soweto and raised in Swaziland, the head of multi-billion rand investment company Community Investment Holdings (CIH), with holdings across the healthcare, technology, finance, logistics, and mining sectors, started off selling sandwiches and bags to fellow students while studying to be a doctor.
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A focus on business knowledge
She used her medical training as a launch pad into business, and has since developed interests in many different industries. She sits on numerous company boards locally and internationally and chairs AfroCentric Group and AfroCentric Health Group.
“I often meet CEOs who are capable and accomplished, but not quite ‘leaders’,” she says.
“My own experiences have taught me that exposure to global strategies and infrastructure is the quickest way to learn and grow. To lead is not about how well you do in your job, but how you integrate the knowledge you have acquired for the benefit of the people you work with, and the environment around you.”
Acknowledge your roots
Fundamental for a leader is the ability to reflect how you got there, because it is impossible to get anywhere on your own. You need people to support your endeavours, initiatives and vision. Dr Anna says it’s important not to forget where you come from.
“The people I first looked up to were my parents. I learnt from them how to be aware and conscious of my environment, which has served me well in life. We had a busy home, often full of people, and it used to annoy me that we had to share everything, but that is how I learnt to care for other people.”
She recalls growing her private practice from scratch as a community doctor, to a patient base of more than 40 000 people, serving eight villages.
“In the first three days, I did not have a single patient. On day four, a group of elderly women from the village came to see me. There was nothing wrong with them, but because they wanted to make it worth my while to stay and work in the village, they came for a consultation. That showed me how important it is to make yourself an integral part of the communities your work in.”
Be tough enough to bounce back
Dr Anna recently attended the Women Vendors Exhibition and Forum in São Paulo, Brazil, where she heard powerful testimonials by global entrepreneurs. She is firm about one thing – resilience.
In 1999, when she was Businesswoman of the Year, and CE of Malesela Hospitals, she was named as a central figure in the collapse of Macmed healthcare group, which lost R1 billion.
“I was viewed with suspicion by the media, and my reputation was tarnished,” she says.
“What I took from that experience was the importance of doing research and understanding your environment. I was wrongly accused of mismanagement, but my biggest failing was ignorance — I failed to identify the problems within Macmed. I had to take the battering and move on.”
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Don’t let gossip undermine the business
A problem-solver by nature, it’s most likely due to her medical training that she likes to take a lateral view of challenges. She has little patience with people who talk to her about problems with others in the workplace. “I always ask, ‘are you here to gossip, or to raise something of substance?’”
She believes that gossip at work undermines leaders and affects productivity, but it also indicates that employees are unhappy and unempowered.
“It’s imperative to improve that situation before it impacts your business. The best way to stop it, is to reveal both the gossiper and the subject of the gossip — people are shocked when I do that, but if there is a problem, let’s get it out into the open, fix it, and turn our focus back to the business.”
Talk less, listen more
Dr Anna prides herself on being a good listener. “Great leaders are great listeners,” she says. “It shows a level of intuition and empathy, but it can also be an important strategic tool. The more you learn to listen the more you hear what is not being said.”
Like most great leaders, she believes it is important to be a good communicator – someone who does not talk ‘at’ people, but actively engages with them.
“Hearing is more important than being heard,” she maintains. “As a leader, you need to be sure that you understand, before you can insist on being understood.”
Be willing to learn
Ask her what her message is to young South African entrepreneurs, and her answer is ‘get an education’.
By that she means learning about the business world. One of the first mistakes she made as a young entrepreneur in pharmaceutical supplies, was to trade with a customer on handshakes.
She trusted him, and when he asked to triple his regular order, she took a leap of faith and was burned.
“He could not pay, and there was no contract in place to help me recoup what he owed. I cannot stress enough how important it is to know the law, as it applies to business, and to familiarise yourself with critical elements like the Companies Act, King III, and what it truly means to be a director.”
It’s advice that’s as relevant for established business owners who want to grow their organisations.
“To survive in business today, you need to be a sharp thinker. The environment changes all the time and to stay on top, you need to be smarter than the rest. Most importantly, take yourself seriously because if you don’t, no-one else will.”
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