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Start-up Advice

5 Expensive Mistakes These Experts Will Help You Avoid

Starting a business is tough. You make mistakes, and then you pick yourself up and make sure you don’t make the same mistakes again. But you can also learn from the mistakes of others – particularly the more common examples.

Nadine Todd

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Mistakes

Here are five expensive mistakes to look out for, along with expert advice on how to avoid them.

1. Expensive mistake: Hiring the wrong team

Irfan Pardesi and Hina Kassam, founders of ACM Gold, made this mistake a few years into their business, once it was already hitting a turnover of hundreds of millions of rands.

“We thought it was time to bring in an experienced management team, and we hired from top-tier investment companies,” says Pardesi.

“What we hadn’t taken into account was the fact that large corporates operate differently from entrepreneurial organisations, and that top managers in particular will implement the structures that worked for them before. The whole culture of our organisation started shifting. It was an extremely expensive mistake to make, and took us months to rectify. Today we’ve learnt: Always hire for a cultural fit, whether you’re established or a start-up. Attitude is everything.” 

Related: 6 Things I Wish Somebody Had Told Me When I Started My Small Business

Expert advice

Bill

Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and author of Disciplined Entrepreneurship, says choosing the wrong team is the single costliest error entrepreneurs make, resulting in not only lost income and time but depleted morale.

“Choosing who to hire and work with in a start-up is like playing sports at school: You can pick your friends and play for them, but if you want to be good and continue to be on the field, you have to carefully pick your team,” he explains.

It’s crucial to choose people with varying skill sets. However, Aulet says: “Much like a great sports team, they must also share some common values and the ability to trust each other in tough situations. That’s why past experience working with your co-founders and early employees in stressful times is much more important than being friends.”

Be like this guy

When Justin Stanford first launched ESET Southern Africa, he did it out of a garage. His very first hire was an intern, Carey van Vlaanderen, and together they pretended the company was much bigger than it actually was. Today, van Vlaanderen is CEO of the company, while Stanford heads up the holding company, 4Di Group. That first hire made all the difference, particularly because they both cared about the business and its growth.

2. Expensive mistake: Bad pricing

“My single biggest mistake with my first business – a handbag company – was in pricing,” says Sarah Shaw, CEO of consulting firm, Entreprenette.

“I didn’t understand that with any kind of clothing or accessories, you have to calculate the square footage of fabric, including the wasted fabric,” Shaw explains. Its a common misstep for product manufacturers.  Without an accurate understanding of her costs, she couldn’t price her products correctly.

“I thought you sort of doubled everything, but that’s not correct,” she says. “It’s a 2,5-times mark-up from cost to wholesale, which covers marketing, the showroom fee, all your expenses.”

By the end of her first two years in business, Shaw had put in more than $100 000 of her own money. Thanks to perseverance and media buzz (celebrities loved her bags), she ended up with $1 million in annual revenue and attracted investors, but she couldn’t recover from the downturn after 9/11 and closed the business in 2002.

Expert advice

Home Truth: Remember the price you charge must take into account all the labour at the market price of the labour. According to Bertie du Plessis, author of Your Business Nightmares and How to Wake Up, when you’re selling services for which you need to invoice in order to get paid, you must ensure your price includes everything that goes into delivering the service and getting the money into your bank account. This is where many new business owners and SMEs fail. The price you ask can’t take into account only the time spent executing the task.

How many different steps are required?

Let’s take something as simple as a logo design:

  1. First market your service
  2. Then you will get a brief from your client
  3. You have to travel to the client and back to your studio again
  4. You have to offer a first concept or, usually, more than one concept
  5. The client will propose changes
  6. You apply these and resubmit the concept
  7. The client will make alterations for the last time, which you will implement
  8. Now you have to invoice the client
  9. You have to follow up on the invoice
  10. You have to make sure the money is paid.

When you quote a client, have you taken each and every step into account, or is the job actually costing you money?

3. Expensive mistake: Waiting for perfect when good will do

Be like this guy 

Greg

When Greg Schneider launched his online job referral site, Hiring Bounty,  he wasn’t inventing something new – he was formalising what people were already doing.

“People were already tweeting jobs, or posting them on Facebook. Referrals have become an important part of the hiring process. We just formalised the system. Busy people aren’t checking their social media feeds 24/7, which means a lot is missed. Through our platform we’ve pulled everyone together – you can look for jobs, refer your friends and colleagues, and advertise jobs. When someone is placed, everyone receives a bounty – it’s that simple.”

To get his business off the ground, Schneider started by working on the idea, and then launching an MVP (minimal viable product), which was literally the bare bones of his idea.

“Once I had the MVP I could then add the bells and whistles based on my experiences of what the market actually wants (versus what I thought it wanted), how to market each job, how much a bounty should be, how to source candidates and so on.”

Of course, getting Hiring Bounty off the ground took much longer than expected, because the lead time for actually hiring people was longer than Schneider had originally anticipated.

“On top of that, the revenue model only pays out three months after a successful placement, which lengthens the whole process. I spent longer setting the business up than I thought I would, and it’s a big lesson to learn.”

If Schneider had waited to get his product off the ground instead of starting with an MVP, it would have taken even longer – and might not have happened at all.

Lesson to learn 

When you’ve got a killer idea, it’s natural to want to introduce it to the world in a fully formed state. But it doesn’t take a chartered accountant to figure out that the longer you take to launch, the longer you go without money coming in.

“This is a common mistake, especially for tech people,” says Drew Williams, co-author of Feed the Startup Beast. “Many want to build an app and won’t let it go until it’s perfect, but then you take too long and spend too much.” Specifically, this error will probably leave you with no ‘runway’ – the cash you’ll need to sustain you as you’re trying to get your product off the ground once it’s ready, but before you have customers.

“You need to come up with the simplest, basic version of your product that gets the idea across and try to find someone you can sell it to,” Williams says.

“Find one or two clients who are willing to do a pilot where you build, test and iterate it. Inevitably, your product will be different than what you expect, and then you build it. If you get a real, live client, you create a better product in a very cost-effective way.”

4. Expensive mistake: Skimping on lawyers

Kerryne Krause-Neufeldt launched her first business when she was 23. She was young, full of energy and passion and had a knack for making things happen.

Those same traits had their downside as well though: She did things too fast, had no staff discipline and didn’t look at the fine print. The result? Industrial sabotage. Krause-Neufeldt lost everything, and had to start painstakingly from the beginning, with no money in the bank, and having lost the agency for Karen Hertzog Oxigenated Creams, a local market she had personally grown.

Today, it’s a lesson the founder of I-Slices Manufacturing has taken to heart, and she’s now the first to admit that paying an expert to look over every contract is worth the expense.

“Dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’. My reps were able to conspire with my investors to take the agency because I hadn’t carefully evaluated the original contract. It wasn’t a good contract and I had no idea. I was desperate for cash and never questioned it until it was too late.”

Lesson to learn   

Tobin Booth, CEO of Blue Oak Energy, an engineering and construction firm for solar photovoltaic power systems regrets  skimping on legal fees in his company’s infancy.

“If I could do some of the early stuff over, it would have been to pay a few thousand to have a lawyer write up a proper contract,” he says. “I didn’t have the right attorney who really understood my business.”

A few early customers simply didn’t pay up, so Booth tried to move matters to a collections agency. “I found out that there were some clauses [in the contract] that didn’t allow me to collect on legal fees,” says Booth.

Sarah Shaw, of Entreprenette, meanwhile, unknowingly signed a contract that gave her handbag company the trademark to her name, so when investors came in, her name belonged to them. “I can’t use my own name in business again,” she says. “I wish I had hired a lawyer to watch out for me.”

5. Expensive mistake: Being cheap about marketing

After launching Traklight, Mary Juetten found that her website wasn’t indexed properly for search engines.

“No one was finding us,” she recalls. So she decided to invest in an inbound marketing programme. “That initial payment is scary for a small company, but we don’t have to pay developers to make changes to our site, and they do email marketing and CRM,” she explains. So far it’s working: In April 2013 the Traklight site recorded just 100 visits per month; by the end of the year it was getting 2 800.

How much does Juetten estimate she lost early on between the missteps in software development and inbound marketing? “As far as money thrown away – actual cheques written for useless things – that would be in the tens of thousands,” she admits.

“As far as lost time [and] products not developed on time, it’s in the hundreds of thousands. We would be much further ahead now.”

In the end, the best way to avoid costly mistakes is obvious: Save and spend wisely. “Keep spending really, really tight,” Drew Williams advises.

“Leverage everything you can and give yourself as long a runway as possible. You’re going to need it.”

Be like this guy 

Mongezi-Mtati

Mongezi Mtati launched the marketing campaign for his start-up, Wordstart, in a cheeky and unusual way. He and a friend stood on two busy intersections in Joburg and gave away suckers and pamphlets begging for two spare tickets to the upcoming Ramstein concert.

The pamphlets included a press release introducing Wordstart and what the company does (which is word-of-mouth marketing).

It was a cheeky, irreverent move, but Mtati wanted to prove that word-of-mouth marketing has legs, provided you give people something to talk about, laugh about and share.

“We got a lot of attention with our marketing stunt. People were videoing us and posting the clips, the media noticed us, and at the end Ramstein actually heard about the stunt and invited us to the concert as their guests.”

The start-up had proven two key points: Word-of-mouth marketing works, and it pays to market your own brand.

“We suddenly had two important case studies. First, we could show potential clients what we could do. We weren’t just pitching an idea; we were pitching a successful campaign. And secondly, we had proven to ourselves how important it is to market your own brand. A lot of businesses in this space forget that. They concentrate on their client’s brands, but they forget they need to also build their own brand as well.”

Related: Building A Brand On A Budget

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.

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Start-up Advice

Put On Your Wellies: It’s Time To Wade Into Risk

Entrepreneurs aren’t all leaping into the unknown like lemmings off a cliff, but they do need to consider it…

Chris Ogden

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risk-management-rain-boots

You’ve had a great idea. You’ve looked into its development. You’ve recognised that it has potential beyond just what Auntie Mabel and Mike From The Grocer think. And you’ve clearly nailed a pain point that can make money. Now it is time to take the risk of running with it.

Every big idea comes with risk. You can’t step out into the world of entrepreneurial thinking and business development without it. Your idea may fail. It will also be time consuming, demanding, hungry for money, and hard work. It is unrealistic to expect that your project will leap out into the world and be an unmitigated success.

It is also unrealistic to assume that it isn’t worth taking this risk.

There are steps that you can follow to ensure that your risk is managed so you aren’t blindly leaping off that cliff…

Step 01: Do your research

No, canvassing your neighbours, friends and family is not doing research. You need to know that your idea will appeal to a broad market and that it will have significant legs. This may sound like daft advice, but you would be surprised how many people think an idea will take off just because Susan in Accounting said so.

Step 02: Understand the costs

Projects are hungry for money and investment. Realistically work out your budgets and how much it will cost to take your project off the ground and then stick to it.

A calculated risk is a far better bet than one that shoots from the hip and hopes for the best. You can also use this as an opportunity to draw a clear line under where you will stop investing and end the project. If it keeps eating money and isn’t getting anywhere with results you need to be able to walk away.

Step 03: Know when to walk away

As mentioned before, this can be defined by a line you’ve drawn in the proverbial sand (and budget) but no matter where you draw this line, you have to stick to it. Often, when time, money and energy have been poured into a project it can be incredibly hard to walk away.

You think ‘but I have put so much into this, just one more’ and then it gets to a point where the ‘just one more’ has taken you so far down the line that walking away feels impossible. Leave. Learn the lessons. Apply them to your next project.

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Start-up Advice

Mind The Gap

The entrepreneur’s guide to finding the gaps and building the right solutions.

Chris Ogden

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entrepreneurship-gap

Innovation may very well be the key to business success but finding the gap into which your innovative thinking can fit is often a lot harder than people realise. Some may be struck by inspiration in the shower, others by that moment of blinding insight in a meeting, however, for most people finding that big idea isn’t that simple. They want to be an entrepreneur and start their own high-growth business, but they need some ideas on how to find that big idea.

Here are five…

1. Network

It sounds trite but networking is actually an excellent way of picking up on patterns and trends in conversation and business problems. The trick is to note them down and pay attention. Soon, you will find patterns emerging and ideas forming.

2. Look for pain

Just as networking can reveal trends in the market, so can spending time reading. The latter will also help you find common business pain points. These are the touchpoints that frustrate people, annoy business owners, affect productivity, or impact employee engagement.

Be the Panado that fixes these pains.

3. Luck

luck

This is probably the most annoying of the ideas, but it is unfortunately (or fortunately) very true. Luck does play a role in helping you capture that big idea. However, luck isn’t just standing around and random people offering you opportunities. Luck is found at networking events, it is found in research and it is found in conversations with other entrepreneurs.

4. Luck needs courage

You may have found the big idea through your network, a pain point or pure blind luck, but if you don’t have the courage to take it and run with it, you will lose it to someone else.

Being bold in business is highly underrated because most people assume that everyone is bold and prepared to take big leaps into the unknown. However, not all brilliant entrepreneurs were ready to throw their family funds to the wind and leap into an idea – they were courageous enough to figure out a way of harnessing their ideas realistically.

5. Pay attention

This is probably one of the most vital ways of finding a gap in the market. Often, people are so busy that they don’t really pay attention to that niggling issue that always bothers them on a commute, or in a mall, or at a meeting. This niggling issue could very well be the next big business opportunity. Pay attention to it and find out if that issue can be solved with your innovative thinking.

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Start-up Advice

5 Things To Know About Your “Toddler” Business

As you navigate this new toddler phase of your business, here are five things to bear in mind.

Catherine Black

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small-business-start-up

Ah, toddlers. Those irresistible bundles of joy bring a huge amount of energy, curiosity and fun to any family – but there’s also frustration and worry that comes with their unpredictability, as they grow and start to become more independent. If you own a business and it’s successfully past its “infancy” of the first year or so, it’s likely it will also go through a toddler stage of its lifecycle.

Pete Hammond, founder of luxury safari company SafariScapes, agrees with this. “Our business is now three and a half years old, and we’ve found that we’re not yet big enough to justify employing a large team of people to handle the day-to-day admin tasks, yet we still need to grow the business as well,” he says. “As a result, our main challenge is finding the time to step back and see the bigger picture. Kind of like when you are raising a busy toddler and you spend most of your time running after them!”

As you navigate this new toddler phase of your business, here are five things to bear in mind:

1. This too shall pass

Everything in life is temporary – and that goes for both the good and the bad. It’s as helpful to remember this when you’re facing the might of a toddler temper tantrum, as it is when you’re facing throws of uncertainty in your business. If your new(ish) venture is going through a rough patch in its first few years, it can be easy to think about giving up – but don’t. As long as you have an overall big idea that you believe can add value to your customers, keep pushing through the rough parts until you come out the other side.

2. Appreciate what this phase brings

The toddler years mean that the initial newborn joy is officially behind you. But these small humans also bring their own kinds of joy, as you watch them learn new skills, say funny things, and give affection back to you. While your two-year-old business may not hold the same exhilaration for you as it did during those first few months, there are now different things to appreciate about it: Maybe you’re expanding your product range, or employing new people who can take the workload off you.

3. Establish boundaries

Toddlers thrive on boundary and routine – and your toddler business will too. As it grows into a new phase, try and establish limits in terms of the type of clients you want to work with and the type of work you’ll do. It’s also a good idea to make a decision about the hours you’ll work and when you’ll switch off, which will help you establish a good work-life balance.

4. Take a break

Every parent with a toddler needs a break every now and then, even if that means a walk around the block (on your own!), a dinner out with friends, or even a few days away. The same is true for a demanding small business: every so often, remember to take time out to rest properly, where you switch off your laptop and completely unplug. You’ll return much more inspired and resilient to deal with the everyday uncertainty that it brings.

5. Give it space to make mistakes

While the unpredictability of a young business can be stressful and tiring, it’s also a time for trying new things without the risk of huge consequences if they don’t quite work. After all, it’s much simpler to change your USP if you’re a small business employing a few people, rather than a big company where 50 people are relying on you for their salary, or where you’ve received a huge amount of investment capital. While you may fail in some of the things you try with your business (in fact, this is almost guaranteed), see it as a toddler that’s resilient enough to pick itself up, dust its knees and keep moving forward.

During this phase of business growth it’s also essential to have the right type of medical aid cover. There are medical schemes such as Fedhealth which has a number of medical aid options and value-added benefits to ensure that your health and wellness is taken care of too. After all, the healthier you and your staff are, the more productive your business will be – during the toddler (business) stage and beyond.

While this phase can be frustrating, it’s a sign that your business is growing and adapting, rather than remaining in its infancy, and that can only be a good thing! So embrace the difficulties, learn from them, and watch as your business strides forward confidently into the next exciting phase.

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