I have a confession.
I am an avid composer of lists. Prior to (finally) reverting to 21st century technology, my day calendar was my savior – detailing where I had to be, what I had to do, and when I had to do it. You can only imagine the panic that ensued every time I lost said calendar, which – if you know me – was very often. Although my calendars have since gone online, my to-do list synced with my phone and laptop (I use the application Wunderlist, for those who are interested), I still continue to write in my black moleskin notebook, keeping lists and notes about the things I learn and that inspire me.
As the new year fast approaches, I thought it important to develop a list reflecting on the past year. 2011 has been pretty eventful – I launched i2i this past Fall after working on the concept for a year. It’s been grueling, humbling, overwhelming – but, most importantly, exhilarating. I would never trade this experience for anything. And even though I never anticipated just how hard it would be, I also know I’m one of the few people doing exactly what I want to do. I am pretty damn lucky.
So below are some of the early start-up lessons I’ve gleaned from my own experience as well as from learning from people far more inspirational and amazing:
- Build a business around what you love. Last winter, I was struggling to piece together what i2i (then unnamed) was going to be – I knew I wanted to build a company that helped social enterprises get access to early-stage capital, but I wasn’t sure what it would look like. I started getting feedback from anyone and everyone. One of the best pieces of advice I received was from a director at a social impact organization who bluntly asked what I loved to do and what drove me. My answer: help great ideas grow into strong businesses and build new markets for social entrepreneurship. Her advice: don’t start a business around what you don’t know (in my case, starting a fund for entrepreneurs with very little financial expertise or background working in a fund), start one around what you love to do. That advice – which was not sugar coated by the way – spurred me to go back to the drawing board and ask critical questions about what I loved to do, and how to match that with a company that addressed a need in a feasible way. That way, when your start-up has its less-than-glamorous moments (and there are a lot of those), you still have the necessary momentum because you’re doing what you love.
- Know what you don’t know. It is fairly easy to know what you are good at. Personally, I’m strong at communications/marketing, building strategic plans, and understanding the nuances of various communities. But often times it’s more difficult to admit to what you don’t know. I am not a numbers person, horrible with anything finance-related or quantitative. Obviously, those skills are pretty key in developing a strong business model. So rather than barrel forward with limited knowledge, bring in the key people who can fill those gaps and enrich your team. You will be stronger for it.
- Listen to the voices in your head. No, not the crazy voices (though I am sure that can be tempting). I’m referring to the one that may be telling you something you don’t want to hear, but is voicing what you really feel. Did you just spend a lot of time & resources on a product or aspect of your company and then secretly feel it’s not working? Start again. Listen to your gut. You’ll respect yourself a lot more in the long-run if you are able to admit to mistakes and pivot fast to rectify those decisions.
- Block out the noise. When you launch a start-up, there’s a lot of noise around you. Everyone has an opinion about what you are doing, and a lot of people have exciting ideas for directions to take your enterprise. Some of this advice is sound, constructive, validating and incredibly helpful. But it’s also important during those moments to remind yourself about your core model and whether these cool-sounding synergies help advance that further or are a distraction from what you need to achieve in the next six months – one year. Having those moments of reflection allow you to stay grounded and focused on your business.
- Simplify, simplify, simplify. I am still new to the start-up world, but one of the key lessons I’ve learned is to boot-strap as much as humanly possible. This means whittling your financials down to a number that allows your business to get off the ground but not be weighed down by unnecessary costs. That big office? Hiring new staff? If you can work out of a coffee shop, get pro-bono services and use airline mileage for cheaper tickets instead, do it. Focus the costs of your company on what is most needed to prove that your model works.
- Stay curious. Keep listening. The more you listen, the more your business can be shifted, altered, and adjusted to match the ground realities. When we were launching, i2i was just an idea, something that made complete sense in my head. After we officially went live and I was working with our clients, talking to funders, building partnerships, I realized how much our model needed to be adjusted to make sense in the real world. Because i2i is so new, that continued dialogue is critical to how we grow and potentially succeed.
As we approach 2012, I have a few thoughts. One, I really hope it’s not the end of the world, (curse you, bad John Cusack movies!). Also, I hope i2i continues to learn, grow, and progress further in order to build a model that makes an impact – or at least a dent – in Pakistan, where I am from, as well as the new markets I hope we scale to. And I hope you come along for that ride, whether that means you’re a friend, supporter, client, or even just a critic. The more the merrier.
Kalsoom Lakhani is the Founder/CEO of Invest2Innovate, based in Washington, D.C. She loves traveling, pretending to be a foodie, Jeopardy, and inane discussions about morality in mainstream television shows. If you watch mainstream television shows, you know this amounts to very little discussion.