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What an MBA won’t teach you…

by Gordon Hooper

Published in Your Business Magazine: October/November 2021.

You don’t need an MBA to be a successful small business owner. What you do need, though, is plenty of grit, a pragmatic attitude, and the determination to win – no matter what. “My own lessons in growing a business were acquired not in a classroom, but in the bedroom where I started my business back in 1988”.

This is where he says he uncovered some of the business owner’s hardest realisations: like the fact that owning a business certainly does not bring you instant wealth or renown, that setting up a company is not a simple journey, and that challenges are part and parcel of the process. Hooper shares some of the most important insights he gathered along his way:

Get your staff issues right

This means hiring the right people within the parameters of realistic expectations. Yes, we all want to work with people who share our vision, but really, how likely is that to happen? Entrepreneurs are traditionally ‘A’ type personalities who thrive on challenges, a trait that you may find rare among others. Someone working on a salary simply won’t share that passion. Understanding this will help you avoid many disappointments.

It’s equally important to understand that while you might not be able to find staff that share your passion, you still need to be very careful about who you invite to join the company. Mistakes in this regard can be costly, from both a financial and emotional point of view. And remember that, if employee issues make it to the CCMA, legislation usually favours the employee.

Marketing is costly – but it’s also necessary

Simply put, there is no other way to generate a regular client franchise. Even then, prepare for the long-haul; this process may take much longer than you would ideally like. You’ll inevitably spend a lot of capital during this process, but there is no substitute. Don’t wait until you are making money to advertise, because you can’t expect to build awareness until you start promoting.

Plan to fail

I could put a more optimistic spin on this by saying, ‘Don’t give up.’ If Walt Disney failed three times before creating the world’s most famous mouse, you could be sure that failure is an unavoidable part of the ride for almost every entrepreneur. The key is to accept and embrace this by ensuring that you have enough capital at hand to give you the leeway to keep trying until you do finally get it right.

Keep your eye on the prize

Focusing on implementation can be tricky for entrepreneurs, especially at the outset, when you are involved in making the product or service and marketing it. This situation is far from ideal, because you might be able to do both adequately (although that’s doubtful).

Still, you will never achieve the results you really want unless you can focus exclusively on one. Sales and manufacture are two different disciplines and must be treated as such – so do what it takes to get your start-up to the point where the division can be made clear.

Be pedantic about partnerships

Here’s an unexpected (and perhaps unwelcome) truth about partnerships: they don’t always work. They may even be the undoing of your business – but only if you don’t choose your partner with care. If you do, you are almost assured of having someone to share risk, act as your sounding board, increase the diversity of skills in the company, and bear your burden alongside you (think of how useful that will be when you want to take leave).

On that note, I don’t hold with the idea that you shouldn’t go into business with friends. Think about it: you already have a basis of shared value and a foundation of trust – and those are some of the most important ingredients in a partnership. Just be sure neither of you abuses those assets.

Nothing rivals a solid work ethic

Work smart. For example, find a new way of doing things when it becomes clear that your current methods aren’t working, and make sure that the business you’re chasing is real rather than wasting time, energy and resources on ‘shadows’. But work hard, too, because you can be sure that your competitors are. If you say you’re going to do something, do it – you can be sure that your customers are going to remember if you don’t (and they might tell other potential clients, too).

Ambition is never a bad thing. After all, a can-do attitude is part of most entrepreneurs’ DNA, so you might as well put it to use chasing those Big Fish. If you manage to get one, focus on remaining agile and flexible so that you can do whatever it takes to deliver and keep on working hard.

Plan to grow

Don’t be so focused on implementation that you forget to plot a course for the company.