Lessons from Pakistan
I begin with a disclaimer that I am not, by any means, a successful entrepreneur – I’m still dabbling and learning four years down the lane. There are many things that people learn about entrepreneurship from books, articles, TV shows and gossip, this note isn’t about them. It is about things that you learn as you ‘dabble’ (thanks Ammar). I am sharing these for my friends who have jobs and get excited about entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship is about passion – dare I say, its not the passion for money. You have many ways to earn money and entrepreneurship isn’t the most certain way of getting there. I am not talking about the paid CEOs (executives) or the business tycoons that you drool upon. A large share of business owners pay themselves much less than their fair market salary and in many cases they pay their employees first, settle other liabilities and then consider their payout. So why is passion important? It sets the bar higher, gets you in ‘hustle mode’, makes your heart pumping faster and brings the meaning to this otherwise crazy choice. Different entrepreneurs derive meaning from different passions: some want to create a cliché ‘dent’, some want to leave back legacy, others want to solve problems, some set measureable and well defined goals about creating difference in lives of others or improving things. There has to be something really strong that keeps you going for decades while you go through the roller coaster.
2 – Entrepreneurs’ Mindset
Once you are clear that entrepreneurship isn’t about ‘earning money’ and more about your mission, a fundamental shift has to occur in your life. You must have heard people say ‘job is like opium’ – you get addicted to the salary and can’t live without it. I won’t comment on it but I can share the transformation that happened in my life. Once it was clear that there is no guarantee that I will have income coming anytime soon, the calculation went from ‘minimum comfort budget’ to ‘minimum survival budget’. Not buying any clothes or personal items for a year is a pretty normal stuff in this journey. This does not mean that you start living like a homeless person, rather you can call it ‘living like poor’ – no negative connotations here. You will start thinking of everything you buy as an investment. Can I survive in this pair of sneakers for another few months? How much money will I save if I buy a second hand phone or two models below the topline model? Luxuries become very calculated and precious – sparingly consumed with the loved ones. ‘Where can I save money to be able to take less salary and invest the earnings towards achieving my mission?’ becomes the mantra of life. Needless to say that you need a really understanding and supportive life partner who shares your values and mission. I am alhumdulillah, lucky to have one who is an active part of this entrepreneurial journey (thanks Aneeqa). Your family and parents will always be your strength in this journey – be kind and respectful to them as they grapple with this ‘insane’ twist in your life.
3 – Increasing the Pie
Business is about ‘shared value’ not about transactions. When I was starting off, I failed to digest why businessmen around me were miser and won’t pay me decent compensation for solving their challenges? A lot of people in my network are waiting for the golden moment to ‘jump the ship’ when they get enough compensation/earning that replaces their salary. News flash: that’s not coming – you’ve to create these opportunities. Businesses owners measure your capabilities in terms of ‘shared value’. How much do you believe in their mission? How committed are you to leave your perks to get down in the trenches? Are you willing to work on bare minimum expenses to create ‘value’ in terms of revenue, profit, growth or any other tangible metric of value and be patient to get your upside in future? Go to any business(wo)man and pitch them to pay you top dollar for your services to increase value or ask them to cover your costs and share the upside with you when you deliver…. Which one do you think has better chances of success?
4 – The Elon Musk effect
Our popular culture has idolized the few icons of technology businesses like Steve Jobs, Jack Ma, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Mark Cuban and others. The sooner you realize that these blokes are all statistical anomalies, better it is for you! The stories you hear about their lives and success are just a few ‘trendlines’ that connect the interesting data points in their life to the storytellers’ narrative. More than 95% of technology startups fail – this is just the cold reality which our adrenaline makes us forget. But, I am much better than average! I used to manage multi million dollar projects in my job, i can certainly manage a $200K business effectively! Wait till you become the CEO aka Chief Janitor and Fixer and realities will dawn on you.
5 – Is this business worth it?
Unfortunately, no idea will be good enough for you! Many young people are high on this weed that they want to crack some nut which is worth giving up everything for. Certainly, you need a very strong mission to startup and survive (see point #1) but don’t dismiss viable business opportunities that may not be ‘groundbreaking enough’. Shooting for stars is awesome but it almost never works – except for one in a 100 million. No idea is good or horrible – a lot depends on execution, hustle, market dynamics and your luck. You are not super(wo)man and can’t become the king (/queen) of the hill overnight – all overnight success stories take decades of work. Recognize these facts, keep your expectations real, dream big yet stay humble.
Pakistan’s culture is ‘toxic for failure‘ – we are still an underdeveloped economy and our culture doesn’t support the silicon Valley mantra ‘fail early, fail often’. You need, in Pakistan, what I term ‘Shortest path to success’. Success remains relative to your context. For some, success can be earning enough to stay near break-even, so as not to ask parents for money; it could be having an office space and some employees (this usually satisfies parent’s F&F); it could be securing first paying customer and delivering the product/service end to end. Whatever is the minimum viable success for your stakeholders (parents, wife, family, social network) get to that as fast as possible – this is your escape velocity from the ‘culture which is toxic for failure’. This is your first turn of the entrepreneurship wheel – it surely will have thousand more miles to travel. Now that you have oxygen mask on, caliberate your spaceship for strategic short and long terms space stations (you still need these stations on the way to stars).
6 – If you go to war, don’t go alone
By now it must be clear that entrepreneurship isn’t as it appears in Forbes magazine. While you go to war, you might as well pick some ‘partners in crime’ who believe in joint vision and are willing to do whatever it takes to get to the other end. Your team mate, life partner, classfellow or best friend is not the default criteria for business partnership. It is important to consider skill sets and competencies, so that your team has complimentary skills essential for your business, but it is not mandatory. You need warriors who hold the fort, take fire for you, are dead on time and commitments, honest and transparent in all matters valuable to you, can offer you their paycheck for the month and choose to ‘grind it out’ themselves and share your passion over. Partnerships are built on trust, humility shared values.
I’ll pause here and would love to learn more about your thoughts on these themes. Let’s learn together!