Taking the First Step
My background training is in finance and accounting, and that usually results in a job which has a very specific rotation where certain actions have to be repeated and some innovated (process innovation) within time increments. I ended up focusing on process innovation because I thought I needed the dynamic change this field could bring.
As I expanded my knowledge in process improvement, I noticed that a great deal of work involved applying a well-thought-out template to a problem, correcting the errors, automating the areas that worked, and moving on. But it lacked creativity. And I was craving an open and unrestricted creative space.
In my free time, I used to call my close friends every few days to discuss different ideas with them. As I was doing extensive research in the innovation sector, ideas would come to me because I liked to solve problems and come up with solutions I hadn’t seen. Many times, my friends would show me articles about companies that had produced or distributed an idea I had discussed with them.
I am not sure if there’s a start to entrepreneurship. I feel as though entrepreneurs are always forming ideas. I know I have no shortage of them. I thought it was time to stop talking about my ideas; it was time to create them. So, I decided to bet on myself. Why not?
I looked at three to four different scenarios: San Francisco (for technology), Berlin (for another idea) and Colombo, Sri Lanka (for real estate). And I knew that whatever idea I would work on, it would need to involve technology.
It was hard to deny the advantages I would have in Sri Lanka: political and business connections; a booming economy; a strong support structure; a lower cost base; better labor expenditures; and several other advantages.
I selected Sri Lanka after a couple of repeated visits and chats with my parents. I knew it had to be real estate, because I was interested in a sector that would grow with the economy. But real estate was new for me. So, I had to first come here and spend a bit of time understanding the major pain points in the industry and the various players. And there were many.
As of this writing, I am just weeks away from launching the website (www.idama.lk.) and I have incorporated under Idama Innovations (Pvt) Ltd. My office is at home and I have outsourced my web development. I will be hiring 4 staff in the coming month and am in the process of developing several strategies and plans. I will be conducting interviews with potential clients (a vital process of any startup) and I still have a LOT of learning to do.
Doing Business in a Developing Country
The process of incorporation in a developing country is onerous and downright time-consuming. Seven weeks after starting the process and countless hours at the Secretaries office, we are finally there.
During the setup, and two-and-a-half months months of time, I have finally established a home; come down with a 10-day viral flu; spent countless hours in government offices; and still am reeling from the poor habits of the corporate environments.
An important lesson that you learn quite quickly is that if you extend your coffee/lunch break or call in sick while working in a corporate job, the machine is large enough to move on without you. But if your productivity declines at any point as an entrepreneur, all the gears move at a slower pace, and as a result, limit your lifeline. The pressure is very real.
Though I have not begun recruitment yet, I believe that I will also encounter issues in hiring staff. Most fall for the trap of low labor costs, but I was immediately warned of the corresponding productivity. The result is high turnover for high-performing organizations, at least in the beginning. Breeding the right culture from the beginning is fundamental.
Stay Out of Your Own Way
I believe that most entrepreneurs will admit to calling themselves their biggest difficulty. There is a lot of time with yourself as an entrepreneur; a lot of time to think about concepts, plans, but also, to begin questioning yourself. Repeatedly. I think it’s an important part of the process, but the key is to come out believing you have a wonderful product that will win over customers because it’s an absolute value-add. And most importantly, to come out believing that you are the right entrepreneur to bring them this product.
Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. And I think it is an important discussion you must have honestly if you are interested in starting a business. Many times, we forget to think of the countless hours of boredom in pouring over spreadsheets, documents, plans etc. It is always a good idea to keep sight of why you chose to go into business for yourself. There is an ocean of entrepreneurs that lie below the billion-dollar unicorns made up of stories of failure--it’s the lot of the entrepreneurial world made to support the winners. It’s a retiree’s nightmare and a gambler’s dream.
Lessons from St. Stephen’s
I am weary of templates, or frameworks, mostly because I realized that I never fit in one. I think luck guided me a great deal during those times that templates were imposed on us as children or even as adults. I think that template thinking and learning is a great tool for the masses, but unfortunately targets no one. I appreciate that schools must employ a method, but learning happens in different ways for different people.
I believe what is more important than STEAM, or a system that a school employs, is the learning environment itself. Is the student allowed to freely vocalize that a particular learning method does not apply to him/her? What are the alternatives? Are school administrators equipped to understand how to mold these templates according to the individual members of the classes? Who has to be proactive with regards to learning? All equally important questions paralleling the importance of the learning system.
During my fond days at St. Stephens, the strength of the school’s teachers lay in their constant vigilance towards each individual student and their performance according to the material and teaching method. If that is retained, the teaching methodology becomes a tool to strengthen learning rather than a yardstick to alienate the many from the few.
Advice for Other Startups: Ask Yourself the Right Questions
Technical skills you will learn or outsource as you go. Though technical skills have their value, a great deal of soft skills are needed and should not be underestimated. When I was undertaking my Executive MBA at INSEAD, a core element of the degree was a program named the Leadership Development Program – LDP. In this module, which lasted the full 14 months of the course, you are given a coach who is also a psychologist.
The overall aim of this course is to crack open the nut that is you, by spending 14 months probing into your dark side. You do so through exercises in the company of a group of trusted peers and a professional that help you discover and unveil your insecurities, fears, and unhelpful behaviours.
The most powerful exercise, which changed my idea of entrepreneurship, happened over a session of the EMBA in the gardens of Fontainebleau. Five peers and a coach spent 9 months unearthing my desire for entrepreneurship.