10 Valuable Business Learnings from an Accidental Entrepreneur
12 years ago I didn’t know where I was going. All I knew was that I am uncertain where I was. I was a full time employee at an events and video production company. But something was missing. I wanted to have the freedom to do what I want and have more access to opportunities. Even if it meant sacrificing comfort and stability. I was prepared to become a “struggling artist” and to thrive in the unknown.
I quit my job, became a freelance creative professional and several months later, I became an accidental entrepreneur. A freelance “raket” demanded for a receipt and it’s how Vitalstrats, a then graphic design and video production company, was born.
Fast forward 12 years and VCS is now handling digital content production projects from clients that we once dreamed of having. Here’s a summary of what I learned in 12 years.
- Real learning is learning from doing.
You can never truly learn unless you apply it. In my case, my real learnings are with experiences where I overcame real problems and failures that hurt. I learned from thinking, leading and doing. Up to this day, I am still a humble student, learning something new everyday. As Richard Branson said, “Screw it, let’s do it.” In my own language — “Go lang ng go.” You can never plan enough so you should have the courage to jump and trust that you won’t have problems opening the parachute on your way down. Sometimes all it takes is treading the unknown. You can’t always plan everything. In basketball, you will never have a chance to earn points with shots that you did not make.
2. Yes, it’s possible to survive without a business plan and business systems, BUT… We could have gone further if we had them in the first place.
We survived doing business “bohemian-style” on our first few years of operation. We got really lucky we survived without any plan. I guess we were resilient enough not to quit. Our business model was crafted through trial and error as we went on. I did not even know how to read financial statements when we were starting out and all I cared about was if there was money in the bank. Processes and policies were only implemented when we started experiencing problems. We could have saved a lot of time and energy and avoided a lot of setbacks had we implemented them at the onset. But we preferred learning the hard way.
3. It's possible to grow clients without a marketing plan and just rely on referrals and word of mouth. But being REACTIVE and not PROACTIVE limits your potential growth
We got our contact to our first multinational client, Reckitt Benckiser, through my bus-mate in high school. Her older sister was the Marketing Manager of Veet, the first international brand that we worked on. Soon we were handling different Reckitt brands under different brand managers. When the brand managers transferred companies, they took us along with them. That’s how our brand folio expanded.
We were lucky that we did not have to market during our first few years. We just did our best with every project and the succeeding projects followed. We relied on what came to us and we did not really choose what projects to work on.
When we decided to have our marketing plan and strategies later on, it helped us identify and get to know who our market segments are, which projects and clients were really contributing to our margins and which ones made us lose money. We were also able to study our pricing and effectively match the unique value of our service offerings to what our clients really need.
4. Your business model should be scalable
In our industry, there will always be peak and lean months. We once made a mistake of hiring additional team members to accommodate a quarter’s workload. In the succeeding months, we had lesser projects than our team is capable of handling. Our monthly overhead has increased but our revenue and demand for productivity has declined.
Aside from not getting regular projects the whole year round, there will be surprise projects that will require us to instantly double our workforce and funding to mobilize.
Hence, the need to be scalable. If demand is low, our expenses should be low. If demand is big, we should have the cashflow to fund our projects and a sufficient manpower to match the required capacity. This is also the reason why we have a sufficient in-house team to take care of our regular demands and a pool of reliable freelance professionals who we contract on a per project basis.
5. Above all, your team should be happy and fulfilled
Creative people need to have a sense of purpose and should believe in the project to produce effective work. Before starting a project, it’s important for them to know the big picture before jumping into the details. Knowing that they are solving problems with a bigger purpose brings about a sense of greater fulfillment. Aside from this, the work environment should be conducive for creative thinking and productivity. Your team should have the right tools — comfortable work area, sufficient equipment; fair policies and systems; and a culture that encourages creativity, teamwork and pursuit for excellence.
6. It’s not just about you and your passion. It’s how your passion can solve your customers’ problems
If you started a creative business just because you want to do what you love and you are determined to have the freedom to do things your way, you’re bound to get disillutioned in no time. Your business should be customer centric. It’s about solving your customer’s problems. Sometimes, the way to solve their creative problems isn’t exactly how you want it executed. Clients will disagree with your ideas, choose your least liked design studies, and will ask for endless revisions. Your work may end up totally different from how you envisioned it. At the end of the day, it’s a collaborative work between you and your client. Bottomline is how to get the creations to meet the objectives — and it doesn’t just entail excellent execution. It has to resonate to audiences that have varying tastes and preferences.
7. Cash is king.
Never ever run out of cash. Cash is like gas. Once it dries up, you can’t get anywhere. It will disrupt your operations and your business might just risk closing down.
Always keep track of your monthly expenses, have a solid collection system (and a dedicated person regularly following up on collectibles) and make sure your bank account contains cash equivalent to six months of operational expenses (ideally).
8. Don’t hide in your worm hole. Go out and network.
When we were just starting out, I did not have any network from the industry. I had the same set of friends from college and a few young entrepreneur colleagues who I run to for advice. We were on our 6th year when I joined our first organization — the Advertising Suppliers Association of the Philippines (ASAP). It was through ASAP where I gained not just friends and experienced marketing and advertising mentors, but partners who have helped innovate and take our business to the next level. Over the years, our organizations and affiliations gave us numerous opportunities — the connections exposed us to several events where we met new clients and more reliable partner companies. On top of building consortiums and collaborating with experienced practitioners, it’s easy to keep our business systems in check and aligned with the industry standard trade practices.
9. Failure is inevitable. The real challenge is how to keep going.. and knowing when to stop.
Having a high adversity quotient is an important trait that every entrepreneur should have. It is the science of resilience. Having the grit to make your business work means holding steadfast to that goal, no matter how many times you fall down and screw up. When you stumble, get up, and start trying again. But you don’t have to be stubborn by doing the same thing over and over. There’s no progress where mistakes are repeated. If a gameplan doesn’t work, you have to go back to the drawing board to rethink your strategies. Have the flexibility to recalibrate and change course.
10. It’s a business of trust. You have to let go and give people a chance.
You are so used to doing things on your own but your business will never grow if you are still the one accountable for everything. You have to trust your team and make leaders out of them. Delegate. But let go without losing control. Be very clear about your expectations, set measurable goals, show them how it’s done, give constant feedback and support them along the way. Allow them to fail, and guide them as they master their responsibilities.
Do you have any business learnings you’d want to share? Feel free to write in the comments section below.