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How I built this: Lessons from the best entrepreneurs

Businesswoman giving a presentation in the boardroom [Courtesy]

Entrepreneurship isn’t very natural, writes award-winning journalist Guy Raz in the opening of his book, How I Built This: The Unexpected Paths to Success from the World’s Most Inspiring Entrepreneurs.

This is because it defies most of our human instincts - the desire for security, our fear of crazy risks and our tendency to go with the flow.

And yet, there is that one person - the entrepreneur - who goes the other way, who embraces a different set of skills, despite the risks.

In this book, Guy Raz explores, in three parts – The Call, The Test(s) and The Destination – the entrepreneurial journey, all the while citing relevant real-life entrepreneurial examples, most of whom he has interviewed in his podcast by the same name.

Enterprise explored some of the lessons from the first part of the book.

On finding a business idea

We have been made to believe that ideas are easy to come by. That what matters is execution. While this notion may hold some truth, it is not the whole truth, because coming up with a good idea is hard and even harder to get right.

So where does one find a good idea? “Ideas happen when you are actively searching,” says chef and restaurateur Jose Andres. Lisa says it’s being open to ideas.

Paul Graham, co-founder of the startup accelerator Y Combinator wrote an essay for his blog titled, How To Get Startup Ideas saying, “the way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself. By far the most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has.

On taking the dive

Two kinds of entrepreneurs exist: one who throws themselves off a cliff hoping to assemble an aeroplane on their way down and the other who leaves the comfort of their previous lives as safely and smartly as possible.

Long before he was a shark on Shark Tank, FUBU founder Daymond John worked as a waiter at Red Lobster, a US restaurant chain and eased himself into the entrepreneurial life.

“It was forty hours at Red Lobster, six at FUBU. Then 30 at Red Lobster, 20 at FUBU, because money started to come in,” he says of the business that took him over four years to get his full attention.

Phil Knight was no different. When he started Blue Ribbons Sports, which would become Nike, he spent five years as a certified public accountant, putting in six days a week at Price Waterhouse and all his free time at Blue Ribbon.

“I invested a healthy portion of my paycheck in Blue Ribbon’s account at the bank, padding my precious equity, boosting the company’s cash balance,” he recounts in his memoir, Shoe Dog.

The same goes for the late Herb Kelleher, co-founder of Southwest airlines. A practising attorney, Herb kept his private law practice open for the first four and a half years, as he helped get the airline lift off with funding and FAA approvals and aircraft leases and defended the company against a litany of lawsuits.

On doing your homework and knowing your stuff

To know what you’re going to do before you’ve done it is to do your research. Lots and lots of research. This especially rings true for those starting a business within an industry they have absolutely no experience in.

Research – about your product, your market, your industry, your competitors and industry as a whole – imbues in the entrepreneur a deep confidence in the viability of their ideas. Research fills in gap’s in the entrepreneur’s understanding so that the things they set out to build do not topple for lack of a sturdy foundation.

Jen Rubio, founder of the luggage company Away, was looking for a really nice travel bag, after an embarrassing episode in the airport following the breakoff of her bag.

The problem was, every single person she asked for a recommendation either didn’t or advised against getting the bag she had. Mind you, her network comprises taste-making, style-setting friends seeing that she worked in the fashion industry.

What followed was a call to a friend, Steph to take her temperature on an idea and intense research later, birthing Away with one carry-on bag. In their first full year of operation, they sold 55,000 suitcases. A million pieces within three years, having added three more alternatives.

When Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s decided to open a shop that would serve ice cream because bagel-making equipment was too expensive, they spent most of their time doing a lot of research on a business plan and taking a correspondence course on how to make ice cream.

On finding your co-founder or partner

Paul Graham listed “single founder,” as number one in his famous 2006 essay on mistakes that kill startups. It makes sense when you consider that we are social animals.

“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up,” wrote polymath Oliver Wendell Sr in 1872.

Eric had been spending a lot of his time in the cleaning aisle of grocery stores while working on a project for Colgate. “It was a sea of sameness. Everything looked and smelled the same. The brands were pretty dated. That was kind of a clue to dig in.”

And dig in he did. But not without the help of a friend since even his mother understood him saying, “I’ve never seen you make a bed. Are you sure you’re the right person to start a cleaning product business?” By himself”? Maybe not. But with a partner, who knows.

That is when he enlisted the help of Adam, his friend who had a degree in chemical engineering. While Eric worked on the ideal bottle shape and type, Adam worked to perform the cleaning formulas.

The result was a four-product line of non-toxic surface cleaner in a beautiful teardrop bottle design called Method. The method became profitable within five years, reaching $100 million (Sh12.4billion) in sales within the decade.

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