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Two years in business: Lessons learnt

It struck me this morning that Häss&DAS Brand Factory turns two this month. A whole two years! I dove straight into my ‘very important things’ file and discovered that, in fact, our official birthday was about a week ago, and it went by as uneventfully as any other day.

While I thought this was a good excuse to mark October our birthday month instead, it made me realise, not for the first time, that being an entrepreneur can be isolating, not only from the people and things surrounding us, but from regular opportunities to take a step back and get some perspective.

Although the year is far from over, 2016 has been a learning year like no other and my most pivotal lessons have come from a fantastic entrepreneurship programme I was lucky enough to get into and from a number of my clients, who are amazing leaders, business people and thought leaders in their industries.

My experiences are unique to me, yes, but I think every entrepreneur has similar epiphanies, disappointments, snappy growth spurts and slow, achy, extended periods of learning things the hard way.

A few things I’ve learned over the past two years:

  1. Gratitude and humility always win in business

And I don’t mean the faux kind, I mean the real deal. Gratitude, the deep, rumbling internal kind, is the bedrock of entrepreneurial staying power. We’re not all built the same and some of us need to plonk ourselves down every now and then and tune in to it (pointing at myself here). Gratitude gives us pause to celebrate the little victories that turn our pathways into stairs; our small achievements need acknowledgment to take root and grow into bigger ones.

Humility is a word that has come up quite a bit for me these past few months and to me, it’s no accident that the word itself sounds like ‘humanity’. People with humility – again, the authentic kind – are usually relatable, trustworthy, genuine and human. This also means that they make mistakes, but they own them, too. These people are better in business, because they don’t rah rah their way through closing deals (Wolf of Wall Street much?), but rather they nurture and grow a loyal customer base by finding solutions to their clients’ needs. Nice guys do win; they might take longer, but the rewards are that much sweeter and they keep on coming.

  1. People don’t like to be sold to

Perhaps this is less true for Baby Boomers and older, but for many people, being explicitly sold to makes them feel very uncomfortable. In an age where technology connects us like never before, the isolation that can come with it is profound. That’s why more than ever, people want to feel connected in a human sense. They don’t want flashing lights telling them to buy the latest Apple product because it’ll make them look cool; they want to buy stuff from a brand whose values reflect theirs and vice versa (see point 8). There’s no better time than now to build a brand on real human values and no more interesting time to explore how to communicate those with thoughtful, well-considered content marketing.

  1. Hard is not the same as strong

I’ve known this for years already, but I keep on learning this. Hardness is unyielding, unforgiving and can crack, where strength is yielding to a point, flexible and yet retains its original condition. A successful business person will never sustain that success without the flexibility that comes with real strength.

  1. There’s no room – or time – for imposter syndrome

This should be classified a disease. I find that people with imposter syndrome are often the best at what they do and they’re exactly where they should be. I think this has so much to do with confidence, which is something an entrepreneur needs in abundance to GSD every day. Watch Amy Cuddy’s TEDTalk on the subject of body language here.

  1. But there is room to call it a day

Many people think the life of an entrepreneur is an easy-breezy hipster dream of grazing on endless wheat-free, gluten-free, sugar-free lunches, lithely tapping away at your MacBook Air, while cashing in on your latest app. For some people it might be true (yay for them), but for most of us, not so much. At the best of times, being an entrepreneur can be hard and even a little bit ugly, and sometimes chiselling away at something that’s not quite right can be more harmful to you and your business than downing tools, walking away and sleeping on it. Have I mentioned how important perspective is?

  1. Have courage

Some days as an entrepreneur are so shoddy, they shouldn’t have happened in the first place. But if I compare running a business with running (or in my case, shuffling), it’s the really bad runs, where you suffer the most and ask yourself at least 800 times, ‘Why am I doing this?!’ that develop you the most. They’re the runs that make you stronger and the good runs all the more sweet. Speaking back to point 5, when things are hard, be brave and keep trying, and when you keep hitting a wall, it’s really okay to bow out and try again tomorrow. But if this becomes commonplace, then you might be doing something wrong or your business may need a tweak or a rethink. You need to know when to stop doing something that’s just not going to work and try a fresh approach.

  1. Learn new things

I had the privilege of attending the VeloCiTi Entrepreneur Development Programme at the Bandwidth Barn earlier this year and I could easily say it’s had the single biggest impact on my business this year – maybe even the last two years. The facilitators who ran each weekly session are successful business people in their own right and were truly inspiring to listen to and learn from. New insights were a wonderful take away, but more so were different perspectives on things entrepreneurs encounter every day, which caused a colossal shift in the way I thought about my business. Each week, I felt almost yanked from the comfortable day-to-day things and forced to look at my business from a bird’s eye view with a differently critical eye. As an entrepreneur, you need to come up for air sometimes, get out of your routine and interact with people on the same mission as you. If you can find someone you look up to in business, try to have regular catch ups with them. Another set of eyes can do wonders for how you see your business and how you tackle the tough stuff.

  1. Find – and take care of – your why

Simon Sinek, who is an author and speaker on leadership, is my entrepreneur crush, not just because he is a mesmerizingly talented orator, but his ideas, which have a way of hitting you in the face with their simplicity, are relatable on every level. Sinek did a TEDTalk some time ago, called, ‘Start with Why’ and it’s become my go-to place to remind myself why I am doing this (we all need that sometimes). Sinek demonstrates how we get others to buy into our brands and ideas with three concentric circles. At the centre is the ‘Why’, outside of this is the ‘How’ and outside that is the ‘What’. He even goes so far as to compare the same concentric circles with how our brains are wired with the primal, emotional centre in the middle, moving outwards to reasoning and motor faculties. Using a number of examples, commercial and even political, to demonstrate how people invest in ideas, he shows that humans are configured to relate to an idea on a deep emotional level when the ‘Why’, the intangible values of that idea, relates to their own. How a product is made or an idea is formed or executed are really the details; important, yes, but not the primary hook. We buy things and ideas because of how they make us feel and how they relate to how we see or wish to see the world.

If you’re an entrepreneur, you probably already have a ‘Why’, but it might be buried under the mundane. If you’re anything like me, it probably is, because you’re treading water daily. So do yourself a favour and come back to it every so often, dust it off and see if it has morphed a little since you last looked. Try to keep your ‘Why’ polished, above ground and as close to you as possible. As the driver of your company, you also need to be on board with your company’s purpose and values, even if, especially if, you are the one who created them.

While I say I have learned these lessons over the past two years, I must admit that I keep relearning them every day and I think that’s a good thing. Through everything, perspective and gratitude really stand out for me, not just because they’ve proven invaluable so far, but because I know I have a way to go before I really master them.

On the subject of gratitude, I wish to thank my amazing clients for their enthusiastic, unwavering support, for being so gracious in imparting their wisdom, for their admirable humility and for being shining examples of my favourite brand of leadership – the listening type.

Thanks for taking the time to read about the nuggets I’ve managed to extract from the past two years in business. Feel free to share yours with me at Jennifer@hassndas.co.za.