On Monday 6th February I sat on a panel at The Guardian HQ in London with other small business owners to discuss the difficulties and adversities we have faced, and how we have overcome them. The panel and audience was varied to say the least, with industries represented ranging from soup manufacture to bomb detection. As diverse as our fields were, what we shared were the same obstacles separating us from our goals. Indeed, both myself and a fellow panellist, Arpana Ghandi, founder of landmine disposal company Disarmco, had experienced human tragedy in our respective journeys, both having lost key people in the sensitive, formative years of our businesses.
The important thing about these kind of events, is not just that they act as a reminder that other small business owners go through the same kinds of difficulties, but they provide opportunity for people to share how they’ve responded to these difficulties, and the lessons they have learned. For example, one audience member shared with us their experience of having built up a company, selling 50% of their product to one customer. When that customer decided to go elsewhere, it nearly finished them. Displaying great courage and resolve, they steadfastly rebuilt the business, vowing never again to be so dependent on just one client. Likewise, another audience member shared with us the stratospheric rise of their solar energy company that, within three years of setting up, was turning over £8m a month. A change in government policy though, decimated the business forcing the founder to set up another one that was more reliant on outsourcing. Both stories serve as ominous reminders as to how quickly things can change for the worse, but also how a refusal to accept defeat, and clever diversification can still see treacherous waters successfully navigated.
With government funding for start-ups growing in scarcity, a real positive from the session was hearing how businesses had benefitted from crowd-sourcing. Despite investing £150,000 of her own money into Disarmco, Ghandi struggled to win over investors, sceptical as to the efficacy of her product and wary of the concept of the technology following the recent imprisonment of Gary Bolton, who had been caught selling fake bomb detectors. She turned to crowd-sourcing firm CrowdCube and soon raised a further £150,000.
As compelling an alternative crowdsourcing is as means of generating capital – risks still lurk. Fellow panellist Joanna Montgomery had turned to Kickstarter to raise funds for her company Little Riot, which makes the product ‘Pillow Talk’, which remotely transmits a user’s heartbeat to their partner in real-time. A glitch in Kickstarter’s systems meant Montgomery could access only 60% of the money raised. Montgomery’s story though, is one of stoicism. During her darkest moments, she would open her inbox to a new wholesale order, or a message from a soldier’s partner telling her the value such a product would add to their lives. Pillow Talk officially goes on sale this year.
Perhaps one of the most important take-home messages though, was in relation to something all business owners are guilty of from time to time; taking the advice of others. It’s natural for a business owner to want to assume total control of operations, but sometimes you must accept that there are certain aspects to the business that others simply know more about. Ghandi put it brilliantly when she said; “The bomb disposal experts and I have a rule of thumb. I don’t pick up a screwdriver and they don’t pick up a spreadsheet. It works very well.” It was something that chimed, and I made a similar point myself describing the pointlessness of surrounding yourself with great people, but not listening to them.
As with most endeavours in life, it’s the simplest of advice that often resonates the most. Getting the press talking about you before you meet investors, spending more time on PR than spreadsheets are all advance tactics to boost your chances. But as keynote speaker and founder of New Covent Garden soup company reminded us; “You need to love what you’re doing. If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’re more than likely going to fail.”
In the turbulent world of start-ups, they are words to live by.