8 Fascinating Lessons on Success I Learned from the Global Entrepreneurship Summit
Entrepreneurship, I’ve learned, is not for everybody. It takes a special kind of person to take the leap and pursue a vision that no one else usually gets. Most of us are taught to go to school, do well and get a good job. My parents wanted me to become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or an accountant—typical African parents. And although I’ve done well as an entrepreneur, I’m not quite sure I’ve convinced them it’s the way to go—especially with all the inevitable ups and downs that are part of taking this route.
The opportunity to connect with like-minded people is why I was so excited to attend the 7th annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES 2016) last week, June 22-24, in Silicon Valley. GES was started in 2010 as an initiative by President Barack Obama as a way to celebrate entrepreneurship globally and bring dream chasers, changemakers and investors together to discuss, collaborate and foster partnerships to help continue creating jobs and unleashing innovation. This year’s GES, hosted by Stanford University, featured the global “Who’s Who” of tech companies.
Between all of the GES partner events and the main event itself, my brain is abuzz with ideas and lessons to implement immediately in my business. Here are some of the most critical ones I learned:
1. Knowing your customer intimately allows you to market effectively and grow quickly.
Kelechi Anyadiegwu founded Zuvaa in 2014 as a way to create an e-commerce platform for the many fashion designers she knew who had great African-print clothing and accessories, but poor web sites and inconsistent marketing. She developed a comprehensive social media strategy using Instagram marketing and Facebook ads to pinpoint her customer. In fact she came to know her customer so well—from the magazines she reads to her annual income—that she was able to grow revenues of Zuvaa from $0 to $1.5 million in only two years. And she’s just getting started.
2. You may have to hit the “reset” button multiple times on your idea to figure out what works.
As with most founders, AirBNB co-founder, Brian Chesky, created the idea for his company out of a need he and his friends had. Most people thought he was crazy to think that anyone would rent the extra space in their home out to strangers, but after testing it out with two of his friends, he knew there was a market for it. The first time they launched the site, they had three users. They decided to make some updates and relaunch. This time, they got two users—and one of them was Brian. The third time they relaunched, they managed to get about 80 users during the Democratic National Convention, and then the site lay dormant again for a while. This didn’t deter the AirBNB team, although things looked bleak for awhile; they stayed persistent and eight years later, the service is worth $25 billion and is used in 191 countries. Interestingly enough, the GES 2016 was my first time using AirBNB (at the recommendation of a friend) and it was actually a great experience.
3. “Entrepreneurship is really about creating change, not just creating companies.”
Many people jump into entrepreneurship because they only see the glitz and glamour of success and not so much the struggle behind the scenes. But the most successful entrepreneurs understand what Mark Zuckerburg stated in an interview with President Obama and three other up-and-coming entrepreneurs from around the world. You have to be so committed to your idea and the fact that it has the potential to create change in an industry, that you’re able to stick it out regardless of the many challenges you encounter. As you’re building your business, determine if you’re creating a company or creating change. The latter is where success will come from.
4. “Failure is the price you pay for success.”
Ouch. And yes! I heard this quote on a GES panel where the CMO of Dell and the founders of Stripe, Docusign, Circular Board, and Pivotal were discussing how to prepare your startup for growth. Although it’s now become cool to talk about failure, I remember when I felt like I had failed at my first company a few years ago: no one talked about failure. All you ever heard about was success. Now I’m beginning to learn that every successful entrepreneur and investor has failed many times before hitting the jackpot. It’s part of the journey. In fact, I’ve heard of investors who won’t even consider investing in a company whose founder hasn’t experienced failure in a past endeavor. That’s because failure—if you decide to learn from it—teaches you lessons that you wouldn’t learn any other way. It also tests you to see just how badly you want your idea to become a reality. If you can learn and recover from failure, you’re well on your way to becoming a successful entrepreneur.
5. “Always remember your reputation. Your reputation will follow you wherever you go.”
When Jacques Panis, the founder of Shinola—a company which is helping to restart the manufacturing industry in Detroit—spoke these words, they were in response to a story another panelist had told. A well-known individual in Silicon Valley had just been in the news for losing $10 billion (yes, BILLION with a “B”) in a business deal. No one expected him to show up at this event where everyone in the tech community knew about him and his very public, very expensive failure. But instead of staying home and licking his wounds, he showed up to the event and actually spoke on what he had learned from that major loss. And then he announced his next venture and invited people to invest. He got investors. The lesson: If your reputation is strong enough, failure can actually be used to your advantage. Show up and make it work for you.
6. “Whatever you do, stay persistent.”
These were words said to me at the closing of my first conversation with Eric M.K. Osiakwan, a speaker on one of the panels highlighting entrepreneurship in Africa. Eric is a tech entrepreneur and angel investor who has worked in 32 countries with various governments setting up IT infrastructure. He’s also mentored many African startups and was speaking on his own experiences in tech and business. Those five words he spoke to me said more than anything else would have. They said that he had probably been there before and knows what it is to be on your last dime before you push through to the other side of success. They said that he’s probably worked with many an entrepreneur who had given up a moment too soon. They said that no matter how many “no’s” you may get from partners or investors, if you believe in your idea, just keep going. You’ll get there.
7. Build a mission-driven company.
A consistent theme throughout GES was the idea of building purpose into your profit. This was played out perfectly in a conversation I had with Michelle Manglal-Lan, Senior Manager for Engagement for Samsung North America. I’ve had a Samsung as my phone of choice for quite a few years. But my last two Galaxys have been so buggy and unreliable that I was ready to switch to an iPhone. Then I ran into Michelle during a break between GES activities and we started up a great conversation. During that 30 minutes or so, I found out that Samsung has phenomenal initiatives aimed at getting more women and girls into tech. In addition, I was glad to hear about the other purpose-driven initiatives the company is engaging in. So glad, that I’ve decided to make my next phone a Samsung instead of an iPhone. In this day and age, more and more consumers—and especially millenials—are championing a company’s purpose with their dollars. What’s your mission?
8. “I closed my company three times because I ran out of capital. But I kept coming back to it because I loved it so much.”
This powerful story from Daymond John of Shark Tank and FUBU fame was a game changer for me. Most of the time when we hear about entrepreneurs failing, we only hear about them closing down one business only to start another, usually unrelated, business. I had no idea that Daymond closed and re-started the same business three times! It shifted how I thought about my own business and what is possible if you believe wholeheartedly in something and you’re passionate enough to keep coming back to it. There was something that kept Daymond John coming back to FUBU. It goes back to Mark Zuckerberg’s quote about creating change. When you’re pursuing something that goes beyond just making money, those flames of persistence will keep you going when it seems nothing else can. In fact, I was so inspired by Daymond’s story that I’m going to write a review on his latest book “The Power of Broke.” Stay tuned…
I hope these words inspire you as much as they inspired me during the Global Entrepreneurship Summit last week. Kudos to President Obama and the many dedicated staff at the U.S. State Department for making this event so impactful and having the foresight to create a space for entrepreneurs around the world to get together and inspire, inform and invest in one another. I look forward to attending GES next year in India! (Catch some of the talks from GES 2016 here. And see photos from my trip to GES here.)
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
Photo courtesy GES 2016