One of the successful times in my career as an entrepreneur was during 2005, the year I started doing business full time. Ironically, that was when I knew least about about business. Be that as it may, my reasons for starting a business were founded on strong principles that I have come to appreciate more with time.
While I was in high school our time-tables (or rosters) clashed and we often found ourselves without any class room because our teacher was double booked. Then at the end of every term our reports were issued with incorrect results, which sent panic waves across some of us whose parents were consequential.
So in 2001 I decided to take up software development at a local computer school. I was about 16 years old at the time. By 2004 I had finished developing a suite for school management which included a module for automating time-tables, generating reports, managing attendance registers and even calling emergency services when something went wrong at school. I decided to roll out the system module by module to reduce the support requirements. With the help of my best friend and a cousin, with put together a simple, but powerful marketing strategy which saw us convert 90% of the schools we approached.
We went through the department of education’s schools directory (which is public) and extracted the full names of all school principals. Thereafter we wrote a a letter to a selected list of schools. The letter was addressed to the principal by name. Firstly this helped us get through the gatekeepers but also gave the impression that we knew who our customers are. The following day we followed up with a phone call, not arranging a meeting, but inviting them to a gathering of schools. People seldom make time for people they don’t know, but when they hear that their colleagues are attending, their attitude changes.
On the day of the presentation we had the shoe (that you see above) on the screen. We opened by announcing that that is the shoe they were wearing when performing their school management tasks,” and we are hear with a new pair.” We continued with this epic one minute presentation. By end of the session, which lasted barely 30 minutes, 18 of the 20 schools signed the contract on the spot and that’s how I started my software company.
Some of the programs and even businesses I developed subsequent to that one were a complete flop. I’ve come to understand that the reason behind those failures had nothing to do with my technical know-how because, truth be told, my skills and knowledge had increased ten fold. In fact, the skills became a blind-spot, hiding the most fundamental ingredient to the success of every business. When a product does not solve a tangible problem no one buys it. I thought what I was doing was cool and people needed it, rather than go back to the basics and find out what people need and thereafter build a solution that was cool to them.
You can fool people with a great marketing strategy but at the end of the day sustainability is attained with great products that visibly make your customers’ lives easier.
When you are truly driven by the deep seated desire to serve other people (your customers) then it becomes easy to do everything else in business.
Over the years I stumbled across this quote, which I have come to hold dearly as it represents the round trip I have made in business.
“Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.” - The Way of Zen 126
Now that I see business once again as business, and not the source of a cool name tag like CEO or Managing Director, I fully understand that the role of an entrepreneur is to serve. With this in mind, everything else falls into place.