[Editorial Notes : Being an incremental entrepreneur is cool. Though investors might take you for ‘running a lifestyle business’, it still is cool. Read this great piece by Prem Sagar, founder of Tapprs]
After I quit my job in 2011 (March), I had little idea about what to do next. I thought I will experiment a bit and see whats in store for me.
I knew I was done with working for someone and wanted to see if I had any capability in building a business – any business, size or industry didn’t matter much.
Things were hazy. I had several half-baked ideas. Tapprs is one that worked out okay.
Tapprs was never really my primary idea – since it is capital intensive, I kept resisting it. But all my other ideas failed to gain traction and I kept getting deeper into Tapprs and it started doing significant revenues. Natural course took over, esp after some inspiration by Lensrentals.com CEO Roger Cicala.
At Tapprs, things weren’t based on rocket-science. We simply paid attention to:
- taking care of customer well
- being fair and honest with employees and other stake holders
- putting business interests ahead of personal interest
- not taking short-cuts
- being fanatic about processes, systems, inventory & money management
That shows on the dashboard below, at least a bit.
If one had told me in 2011 that I could own a business by 2014 that would do these:
- have a monthly customer service rating of 8.9+ (out of 10) consistently
- do business north of 8 figures since incorporation
- hire & pay salaries for up to 7 employees
- take very little outside money
- pay cumulative tax to government in 7 figures
- replace a decent part of my IT salary
I would have gladly accepted it in 2011.
It’s not hockey stick growth. It’s not a ‘change-the-world’ or ‘grow-big-fast’ story. It’s simple & incremental.
And I have no issues with that.
Would I have liked faster growth? Yes. But I will take this.
Size and growth
There is a tendency to tag small businesses as ‘non-innovative’ or ‘thinking-small’ or ‘stuck-in-a-comfort-zone’. I think you should just ignore them if you are comfortable doing what you are doing.
I strongly believe that size is a function of ambition, business opportunity and execution – if one of it is short, its hard to build a big sustained business. Also, having a strong personal philosophy and purpose really matters over the long term. That takes time to develop.
You cannot jump out of bed and decide to do something great or big or fantastic. It has to grow on you, evolve and take root inside you. Honestly, I could say, I have very little of it as of now. I am still seeking my purpose. Without that, attempting to build a large business is just playing someone else’s game.
Also, growth for the sake of growth is too boring. You are part of someone else’s plan doing that – usually the venture capitalists who would rather see you try to grow fast than not. There’s nothing wrong with them, their business model only works with that strategy. You don’t have to fall prey to their money and their ways if it doesn’t suit you.
I am a big fan of Les Schwab and Sam Walton – people who didn’t start out thinking big, but just kept improving incrementally and growing one step at a time.
Les Schwab started with just 1 store not really sure what he was doing, but grew incrementally and built the largest tire dealership in US. More importantly, he built a company with strong customer service culture and an excellent opportunity for young guys to work at.
Sam Walton was 44 when he started the first Walmart store. That too wasn’t his own idea. He copied discount retailing from K-Mart and other guys. He just kept doing it incrementally. You know the remaining story.
Doing things incrementally is a fantastic way for many of us who have to grow ourselves first before attempting bigger and bigger things. Also, I have observed that I tend to err more if I try to do things in a bang. Doing it incrementally helps me reduce that.
Changing the world
I understand there are people who want to have an impact on the world and make a dent in the universe and have largely ambitious goals. The society, investor community, media and just about everyone else loves them for their own reasons.
You don’t have to pressurise yourself if you don’t have one such goal. It’s perfectly fine to be transactional – to build a business that provides some useful service to the society, that may or may not change its behaviour in any way.
It’s great to have some purpose why you are doing what you doing. But if you don’t have one, its okay to wait it out and build something nice in the meanwhile. Maybe you will eventually figure out what your purpose is and build that. Maybe you will never do that. Sometimes, businesses are more fun without the burden of a purpose. However, irrespective of all that, the baseline for entrepreneurship to me would be
- being true to customers and providing them with good service
- being fair to employees and other stakeholders
- not doing it for purely money alone
In the initial days, I used to be rigid about my business thoughts. And we used to have plans and thoughts about many aspects of the business. Over time, I noticed that it doesn’t work well always. And then there are times when the underlying scenario has changed and if you still stick to your plan, you are really harming yourself.
Then I read Charlie Munger‘s letter where he spoke about planning (in his letter talking about Daily Journal newspaper and the bad things that happened to newspaper industry, courtesy internet).
These days, that resonates very well with me.
Do you want to build a large business? Great. But if you decide to build the largest newspaper and the underlying economics changes, you should have the flexibility to adapt to the changes and realize the dream is no longer economically viable. If you doggedly keep at it, you will have no one to blame but yourself.
Being flexible is important than having to execute a master plan impeccably – at least to me!
The best way to build a business
If you want to build a business, the best way to do it is by your way.
For a few, that means raising tons of money and risking it all for some strong held belief. For a few, its about bootstrapping, learning incrementally and building things one step at a time. For a few, its about spending 16 hours a day for years together. For a few, its about a strict 8-12 hour routine and spending the rest with family and friends.
There is no single way. The only way is your own way.
It takes time to understand what your own preferred way is. And you needn’t stick to the same way all the time. An inexperienced guy may do himself a favor by doing it slow, but once he’s learnt the rope of it, its okay for him to speeden things up and do it the other way.
Not everyone needs to bootstrap. Not everyone needs to build large businesses with tons of funding. And in any case, the business you are in and the opportunity ahead of you will by itself drive you to make decisions if you simply keep learning – a bootstrapper might see more opportunity ahead and decide to raise money.
Whatever it is, don’t let someone with a different style of way tell you that his is right and yours is not.
There is no single way. The only way is your own way.