I recently celebrated a decade in business. Reaching this milestone got me wondering whether or not the things that they say we need in business (and the phases we experience) are actually true?
Are the first 999 days crucial? Do all businesses suffer a near-fatal fiduciary crisis in the five-to-seven year period? Does the risk embedded in the business morph and become more sophisticated as the business becomes older and larger?
I traced the journey of entrepreneurship as I have experienced it. I remembered the first eighteen months: The early days full of starvation, big dreams with limited resources and a wolf-like resolve never to let go of my prey (the client).
I remembered the first time I had substantial funds in my bank accounts and how liberating that feeling was. My disposition changed. I began to worry about the softer things: The legacy I was leaving, the culture I was building and the change I was effecting in the lives of clients.
I remembered my first office outside South Africa — the thrill of knowing that we had truly built a global business without secure tenure from contracts, but rather through proving our mettle to clients on a daily basis.
Each of these milestones represented a change in the level of thinking for me as the entrepreneur, but also for my team, and even my family. Opportunity must meet an able and equal mind.
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Many people fail not because of the lack of opportunity — although that remains a serious challenge in South Africa — but because their minds were not ready for that opportunity.
So what are the realities of building a high-growth business? How do you ensure that you protect yourself from yourself? How do you ensure that growth, whilst necessary, is controlled and manageable? Here are my two strategies:
1. Risk is real
Many theorists have argued that risk and opportunity exist in equal measure; that the larger the risk, the larger the opportunity. My experience has been that this is a fallacy.
Risk and opportunity are often omnipresent and like to travel together, but they are not proportional. Opportunities tend to be affixed to the reality of the need from the client, while risks change as our behaviours change.
Lesson: Manage risk as a standalone entity unencumbered by the elusive opportunity.
2. Process must be strong
Each time I made a poor decision that jeopardised my business, I was being driven by character, ego, personality, pity or some other emotional force. To mitigate this behaviour, I had to begin to think about building strong and robust processes that would protect me — even from myself.
Large companies have internal audit and compliance. Developing businesses need robust processes that the entrepreneur, regardless of his or her feelings, must stick to. Take something as simple as hiring at a management level. We all have a specific process, and yet, when you need the hire and you’re taking workload strain, it’s easy to want to ignore these processes. Don’t.
Lesson: You are not above the processes and systems that govern your business.
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We all desire a high-growth business. But growth — if not controlled — can be a curse. Most of us become the hurdles to our own development by using old thinking and learnt behaviours (habits) to make new decisions in a changing context. Free yourself of your own biases. Build strong processes and stick to them.
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