Reflections On Being An Entrepreneur And Leader
Around 2009, I joined the Entrepreneurs Organization in the Netherlands. I joined their Accelerator program which helps entrepreneurs get to 1 million US$ turnover in 3 years. The main reason I joined was to get my company ‘unstuck’. I had set up Bridge in 2005 and initially thought it would take me a couple of years to grow the company big enough to let it go. But after 5 years of hard work, I was nowhere close to where I wanted to be. In one of the first sessions I had with my accountability group, the coach said ‘it sounds like you have a lot of frustration’. Hell yes! And it didn’t feel nice.
I got frustrated because I wanted to grow big fast. Because I entered a market that was already quite crowded. Because I had to learn how to grow a company, how to do the ‘technical work’ in my company. I had to learn how and when to hire people and invest. How to service clients well using strong contracts. How to fight clients if they didn’t pay. How to manage people. How to manage projects. And a lot more. If you juggle that many balls, you start losing your hair if things don’t move as you dreamt. What I was doing for more than a decade was pissing against the wind.
Joining EO gave me a lot of support to get through the glass ceiling I had created and indeed, I got through the 1 million US$ mark within 2 years. The mentoring, peer support and learning events bring the things you lack when you’re trying to do it all alone.
Yesterday I had a talk with the president of EO in Jakarta and I started thinking back at what happened the past years. In 2015 I was all done with the frustration and pissing against the wind. Although I had passed that 1 million, I didn’t feel I was moving where I wanted. I thought of 3 options: 1. fire everyone and close the company; 2. Sell the company and 3. Hand over everything to a CEO. I figured 1 would not be very nice to clients and colleagues. 2 wasn’t easy and I didn’t have the energy to follow that path. So I went with 3 and the best guy in my team became CEO. He happily took the opportunity. And then the company started growing much faster and finally became very profitable! Looking back, it took me 10 years to realize that I was the problem.
A few big insights evolved after I moved with my family to Bali in 2015 to make a ‘fresh start’.
- It’s Better To Enter a Market Without Competition
First of all, I decided not to go into a super competitive market ever again. I read a lot about being first or having a monopoly. I never realized that there is way less pissing against the wind if you’re (almost) the only one and clients seek the services you offer (instead of pushing things they don’t really need right now).
In a crowded market, you need strong resources in marketing and sales. Your sales people need to sell your services but compete with 100 other options. Your chances of winning are very close to 0 in almost all cases. In a market without competition but with clients needing your services, they find no other options. So things come your way. You’re pissing along with the wind.
- Go With The Flow, Don’t Nail Everything Down
Second, I decided to ‘go with the flow’. In my first company I had a very rigid idea on what my company should offer, what I focused on and what not, where I wanted to go. Today, I think ‘we will see’. What we offer evolves. How we work evolves. Where we go evolves.
The good thing here is that you need to plan less. You don’t need to think of all the directions you can take. You don’t need to nail down your strategy. You simply work iteratively. If an idea comes up, we can run an experiment and see if it works. If it does, we pursue and iterate more. If it doesn’t, we just stop doing it. In our team, we do create focus by defining the handful of priorities our team focuses on in the next quarter. And each person also defines those priorities for his own work. But if midway the quarter we change our minds, it’s fine, we just delete the goal and replace it with something else. It gives a sense of freedom and feels more natural.
- I Refuse To Be a Boss
In Bridge, I always felt I was the main guy. I was the one pulling everyone forward. I was the one deciding on the direction, on hiring, on salaries. I had to coach people, solve all client problems, organize finances. I felt I had to be the boss. Today, I refuse to do all of it. I’m a team member and so are all the others. I do feel like a leader and want to create clarity on direction and want to help people achieve the best they can. But I simply don’t take decisions anymore on hiring, what people should be spending on hotels or trips, what client to serve in what way, who to engage in a training. I even refuse to decide on salaries people get (read Ekipa reinvented to see how that works).
And you know what….it feels a LOT better not to be the boss. Not only for me, but also for the people I work with. They get much more responsibility. They can make and follow their own plan. They can work on where they can have the biggest contribution. And they own the things they work on.
- I Don’t Necessarily Need to Grow Big
This is a tough one. When you start reading about entrepreneurship, many experts tell you that you must ‘dream big’ and have ‘hairy goals’. If you don’t set your goals high, you won’t get far is what people preach. But the flipside of this thinking is working your ass off to reach those goals. Only a few make it (a lot more dream of ‘it’). Many get heart attacks or burn out. In Ekipa, I decided to let that think big go. It’ll grow if it grows. If not, all good. It’s more important to have happy colleagues, happy clients and bring some value to the world. I’m not against growth, but it’s not the goal anymore.
What I realized too is that things become a lot easier when you have money and experience. Although you can’t just copy paste things and start a company without any effort, things do get easier. You know how to handle finance, sales, hiring, clients, complaints, etc. You know what you want. You have money to throw at problems. That first race from 0 to 1 million USD is absolutely the most excruciating part of your entrepreneurial life.
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