May 2, 2014

Confessions of a business newbie

I was on the phone with an old friend a couple of days ago, discussing the ups and downs of starting and running our own businesses. So many of her points struck a cord with me as a newbie entrepreneur and I felt a sense of relief knowing that she felt the same way about certain challenges we had faced.

6 months ago, I launched Island Sitters with one of my best friends. 
It's been one hell of a ride, and I've learnt enough in a short time to make this experience feel like another stressful Master's Degree.
As a sporadic blogger, I often write things down when I'm 'in the writing mood', but I don't post them because I think they're boring, irrelevant or too personal. Since I had this conversation with my friend though, I was inspired to revisit this post I drafted a couple of days ago because I realised that I wasn't the only one who felt this way.
This isn't a humble brag post, I promise. I'm not trying to sound like an annoying 'Ms.Know-it-all' since becoming an entrepreneur (even though it may come across as such to some). I've learned a hell of a lot in the past few months since putting my 'business' cap on for the first time and I'd like to share some of my thoughts:

1. Working with a best friend is a privilege

Sheena and I had worked together at a previous company for about 6 months, so we knew that we could be up in one another's grill and not get sick of each other. There are as many horror stories as there are success stories of friends going into business together but we didn't think of that at the time. Truth be told, neither of us had a clue as to what we were in for and I think that naivety saved us in the beginning. Luckily, we both had a clear vision of what we wanted to do with the company and the competition. Our friendship is what helped us through the late nights and the never ending financial forecasts. Our personality differences help balance things out. The nature of our friendship is also what has kept things going; Sheena and I are both straight shooters and I'm so grateful for that. She keeps me in line when I get distracted, and I like to think that I can calm her down when things get stressful. I think being honest and frank is valuable in any relationship, and I feel very lucky to work with a friend who is both of those things.

2. Work doesn't start at 9 and end at 5

Work begins the moment you wake up and decide to get serious and put in the hours. Work never really 'finishes' for us because there's always an email to respond to, a social media post to prep, a meeting to set up, an overseas client to deal with. Nobody else cares if you get everything done, because it's all at you. If you fall behind on emails, you're the one feeling the pressure. There's no excuse for you not to finish something off, even if it's 9.30pm and you're exhausted. The freedom of being your own boss is also a serious pain in the ass sometimes.

I take my hat off to Sheena, who's been juggling Island Sitters with a full time job. I have the privilege of time on my hands, and she does not, but this doesn't stop her from getting shit done. Her regular 9-5 is topped off with additional 5.30-8pm meetings, weekend meetings & copious amounts of homework. I have a new found respect for anyone working two jobs, whether one of them is a start-up or not, because it takes a lot out of you.

2. Don't be afraid to ask for help 

We recognized the value of mentors early in the game. If you’re not seeking advice and learning from others’ experiences, you’re not optimizing your time and missing serendipitous opportunities. This is especially true in a small island like Barbados, where it's really important to recognize the power of your network. 
Starting something on a budget forces you to become to learn every aspect of the business, rather than hiring someone to do it for you.
Sheena and I didn't have a clue when it came to a lot of things (such as accounting, or how to start building our legal framework) but we were so incredibly lucky to have a great support group. We sat there blank faced as our lawyer read through our paperwork, and laughed at the fact that some of it sounded like complete gibberish to us.
I also made it clear to the Business Officer at our bank that I didn't have a clue as to what he was talking about when we opened our account, so I asked him to go through it step-by-step. It was crash course in 'Business Accounts for Dummies' but I didn't care, I needed to understand it thoroughly. Once you pinpoint who can help you, don’t be afraid to ask for that help – no man is an island and every successful business person started out with help in some way.

4. It's not rocket science, but it certainly ain't easy

I tripped over a quote that my friend mentioned during our phone conversation that got me thinking about the landscape of entrepreneurship: 'Success has many fathers, and failure is an orphan.' These days, people don't really like to discuss failure, especially in business. As she sadly pointed out, not many people stick with you through the tough times; they'd rather associate themselves with you through the good. Though this doesn't specifically apply to Island Sitters, I could understand where she was coming from. 

Social media has pushed us to highlight the successes in our life and 'ignore' the hardships, because nobody likes to hear about that on Facebook and people like to believe that we all have a chance at success. Most of our generation has unrealistic and distorted expectations because we hear stories of people making $5k in revenue in the first month, or companies that have 100,000 users from the get go. I was guilty of being disillusioned by all of the books, posts and articles I've read about 'quitting your job & doing what you love'. The reality is that many successful businesses are built step by step, and that even the ones who do achieve crazy results have often had a long buildup (through their audience, founders, etc.). We're learning to focus on the long term and not get disappointed by the lack of crazy growth numbers often cited in start-up success stories. It can take a lot of time for people to notice real value and to trust a new brand, but we're focusing on our client experience and offering a convenient service that people love.

I also believe that being honest and open about what it takes to start a business will benefit a lot of people and set a new standard for the entrepreneurship community. I read a lot of international entrepreneurship blogs and posts, and I would love to see more information on business in the Caribbean and Barbados specifically. Money, for example, is not something that people talk about openly (especially in Barbados) but I personally would have benefited from knowing how much it costs to actually start a business, for example. Legal fees, website development, more legal fees and even sponsored social media posts suck up money faster than you can imagine. Salaries are another issue, as well as the debate over leaving your secure 9-5 job to dedicate yourself to a start up. Finding the right (& up to date!) information is also difficult. I'd like to expand on these points in future blog posts, because I think they're really important.

5.  I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.

I love knowing that Island Sitters is 'our' baby - it's the same sense of pride you feel when you've finished a really difficult school assignment, or a piece of art that you've been working on for a long time. No matter what anyone else thinks of it, you feel a sense of accomplishment knowing that that piece of paper is YOURS and nobody can take that away from you. In hindsight, I would have done a few things differently, but the underlying principle would remain the same: bring an idea to life and make it happen.


Throughout this post I mention 'luck' a lot, because I know that a lot of Island Sitter's is a culmination of luck, timing and really hard work. We recognize that we were incredibly lucky with the timing of the Automotive Art competition, and winning meant that we could surpass quite a few obstacles that other entrepreneurs have to face. I'd jump at the opportunity to enter another competition, or entrepreneur scheme of some sort, because the structure and support we received was invaluable. It's really exciting to see more competitions, programs and social ventures aimed at entrepreneurs in the Caribbean, I hope that business organisations and institutions in this island also continue to tune in to the ever expanding entrepreneurship scene in Barbados. They're starting to recognize the movement, but there are still so many obstacles in the way, such as opening bank accounts and gaining access to start-up funding.  I have high hopes for Barbados and the Caribbean though, because entrepreneurs will continue to thrive no matter the challenges, and they'll figure out new ways to get things done.