It is said that it takes 8 years to become an overnight success. If one is prepared to mull over that, one finds its implications profound. I suppose before dealing with the questions that arise from that saying, let us first establish the truth of it or at least its relevance by way of a few examples.
It took Herman Mashaba South African co-founder of the “Black Like Me” hair product range about 7 years to get from gambling and selling “dope” as a teenager to launching the hair range in December of 1985. For Verone Mankou, 28 year old Congolese maker of the Way-C tablet PC and Elikia smart phone, the journey took about 6 years from trying to produce a laptop for USD 200 to the launch of the Way-C tablet in 2011. Jim Ovia, Nigerian billionaire started working as a clerk in a bank as a teen in 1977. It took him 13 years from then to co-found Zenith bank in Nigeria; in that 13 years he also completed an MBA in 1979.
Though not anywhere near comprehensive, I hope the examples at least demonstrate the veracity of the saying; that though success may seem over night to distant, unsuspecting eyes there is always a long story behind the headline. This applies not just to business people but to people in sports, the arts, and any other endeavour we care to engage in.
The question then is what happens in that 8 year period between starting and “overnight” success? The simple and straight forward answer is: failure happens. During that period the entrepreneur stumbles from failure to failure. We have plenty of statistics to prove that. The more insightful answer is that during that period happens learning and experience. Those failures bring with them invaluable lessons. Success therefore is to survive and surpass failure. However to survive such protracted hardships, one needs a mindset well equipped to endure distress.
To survive you have to condition your mind to think a certain way and to exhibit certain behavioural traits. The number 1 of those traits is obsession. In order to significantly enhance the probability of surviving to success in your business, you need to obsess about it. To obsess means to preoccupy oneself with something, to a troubling extent. What does that mean, practically? It means devoting a disproportionate amount of your time engaged in your business activities and the times you are not actively doing something, you are thinking about it. To the extent that sometimes you even dream about it.
Obsession therefore will take casualties along the way; your relationships will take a knock; sometimes you will lose relationships and people, if they are not strong enough. Your health will take a knock; when the stress, lack of adequate sleep, and too little or too much eating, all take their toll. Not to mention the energy drinks and supplements if you can still afford them. Some people will advise you that you balance your time so as not to put a strain on your relationships.
Though they are well-meaning, their advice is misleading; there is no such thing as balance in this endeavour. Attempting that balance will only condemn you to mediocrity. While you balance, your competitors will be obsessing, while you are avoiding strain in your relationship, your competitors will be building their revenues and market share, at your expense. There is no balance here, obsession demands that you sacrifice, and time is its most valued nourishment.
That is the necessary and inescapable cost we pay for a chance at success yet, sadly, it is still not sufficient. So to embark on this journey, you best believe your relationships should be strong enough, particularly your romantic relationship because even the most loving and supportive partner, might eventually run out of patience as your obsession leaves behind a trail of broken promises and lost hopes. In that process you might even witness yourself transformed from an ambitious person to a liar full of unfulfilled promises and unreachable dreams. If your mindset is ill-prepared for that journey, your psychological wellbeing will sooner or later cave in.
To succeed, there is no avoiding obsession and the costs it carries with it. Next you have to develop an appetite to do, the mindset to start now. Knowing full well that your success is preceded by a long series of failures, you have to nurture a desire to execute immediately. After all if it takes 8 years to reach success, then it stands to reason that the sooner you start, the sooner the 8 years will come to pass. In addition, the ability to make decisions fast and to execute timeously is likely to give you a competitive edge or at least allow you to fail quickly and learn quickly from those failures as a consequence, which in itself can give you that edge over your rivals.
The 3rd behavioural quality that you have to develop is the ability to interact with people and build good relationships. Businesses survive on sales which bring in the money to sustain them and profits to reward owner. Sales however, depend on relationships. That in turn means businesses survive on relationships. Every business person (particularly the start-up owner) is a sales person, above and beyond anything else; be it a strategist, a field expert, financial manager, or anything else. So in a nutshell, if you are shy, you either have to get over it or you’ll be getting out of business and believe you me your product, no matter how good you believe it to be, is very likely not good enough to save you.
That there, pretty much covers the mindset; those thought and behavioural traits you need to survive the 8 years preceding your success; obsession, the inclination to start now, and the ability to build good relationships (obsess, execute, & relate). Unfortunately once you’re there, you will have only succeeded in becoming an entrepreneur. What do I mean by that? Well with entrepreneurship being the new fad, a fashionable word bandied about as the new in thing, people have come to confuse its meaning.
Entrepreneurship has little to do with success; it carries with itself the desire and hope to succeed but does not necessarily entail succeeding. The Comprehensive Oxford Dictionary defines an entrepreneur as someone who, “... sets up a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risk in order to do so.” That’s it. That simply means if you setup and run a business, having taken a risk and fail, you will still have been successful at being an entrepreneur.
To succeed means surviving and surpassing failure. More than just being an entrepreneur with a suitable mindset to go with it, reaching success requires other tools too. For the most part, these are skills you need to equip yourself with. Before getting into more details about those, there is that one thing that is not necessarily a tool but I list it here because it is so useful it might as well be one. This is purpose.
Purpose is critical not just in business but life in general. It serves as a firm foundation on which rests all your thoughts and actions. It serves as the compass with which to align your activities. It is also a reminder of why you do things in the first place and a motivation to rise from the inevitable failures that await you and keep going. Without purpose, you are not going to survive those 8 years. So before embarking on the journey to find success, first you have to find your purpose.
Back to those essential tools; those skills needed to take you to the other side. Skills are built on knowledge. To acquire knowledge, one requires learning; through one’s own experience or that of others. This is where doing and reading comes in. To position yourself for success, you have to make it a habit to read; that is one of the most important ways you are going to acquire knowledge and therefore skills.
One of the biggest contributors to the high failure of business start-ups is an inability to evaluate the viability of ideas. The valuation of ideas is crucial since all businesses are first conceived as idea. Many fall, as have I, for the trap of looking at a product or service idea in isolation and then hastily label it a great idea, sometimes even going as far as calling it lucrative. This based solely on the quality of the product or service idea; and in many instances basing the idea on false and uninformed assumption.
For example, a person would start by saying something like, “Many people like to have muffins with their coffee so if I can produce a coffee machine that also bakes and dispenses muffins, that will surely sell like hot cakes and if I plate it with gold even better. This is a great idea because coffee shops will buy it as it will make their staff more productive, office canteens too, and even some people will buy it for their homes.” Then this often great product is elevated to great business idea, just like that.
Another such example would be someone saying, “I want to start a business polishing people’s shoes in planes. There are businesses were people do that at the airport, but if we do it inside the plane, then the client doesn’t have to wait.” And if you ask why this is a great idea, he/she tells you because there are many people flying, and no one is doing it.” These are just examples to demonstrate a principle.
The problem with this approach is that many times, people don’t stop to ask whose burning problem this great idea is solving or why no one is doing it. To answer such questions requires a great deal of research. When it comes to the valuation of ideas, I now make it a basic rule to never judge a product or service idea as viable (or not) until you know who is going to buy it, why they need to buy it and how many of them need to buy it. The principle here is a simple one, market research determines viability. This in my view is the most valuable tool you need to acquire. It will help you assess not only ideas but businesses too.
The ideal approach therefore is to foremost identify a burning need and then design a solution to address it but this is not always the case. Sometimes the idea comes from us following a passion, but no matter the route once you’ve crafted that idea, evaluate. This together with the next tool, which also happens to be the last in this bag of “tricks”, will place you as entrepreneur in good stead to reach that success you so desire.
To put it simply the next one is, “numbers have got to be your friends.” You have to intimately understand your numbers; the cost structure, the pricing structure, and how those relate to each other. You have to understand and keep track of your ratios (such as your margins, asset and liability ratios, and many others). How else are you going to assess the profitability of your business? The numbers help you manage your business; they empower you with information that will help you make informed decisions.
That suitable mindset, coupled with the appropriate tools will help you on that journey to success; they will significantly enhance your chances of reaching that summit. However, as much as it feels nice to attribute every last bit of one’s success to one’s intelligence, hard work, dedication, decision making and many other attributes, ultimately with all else planned and done, the last ingredient to getting there, is quite simply luck!