10 learnings from 10yrs of Entrepreneurship

It has been a roller coaster ride over the decade, after leaving my corporate job. There have been several highs and lows during this time and I wanted to share some of my most precious realizations and learnings from this journey.

I started Barefoot Consultancy nearly 10 years ago because I saw a gap in the market for a brand consultancy firm that could cater to start-ups, mid-sized companies and traditional businesses. Consulting was a very elite concept in India and only the Mckinsey’s of the world provided the service, which only large brands could afford. My aim was to cater to start-ups and businesses that didn’t have an in-house marketing team but still wished to build their brand. Barefoot began just when the start-up boom was picking up in Bangalore and India. So our timing was bang on!

A lot has changed since, both on the brand consulting front and advertising + design side, and I believe Barefoot has been instrumental in bringing about some of that change in the industry. With passion, perseverance and performance, we have survived the decade.

So, how did we do it? Here are my top 10 learnings…

1. Stand for something or you’ll fall for anything:

The first thing you must do is sharply define why you exist. What is the gap you are filling? What is the value you are adding? And who is your audience? Many entrepreneurs are hesitant to make this very precise because they want to be fluid. They see this exercise as a growth deterrent. But I believe in the long run, everyone chooses you for who you are, not who all you can be. You must choose! You must be okay to let go of the alternates. Entrepreneurships will offer you a lot of circumstances to imitate competitors, to opt for rushed diversification, but only when you have clarity on who you are, can you avoid giving in to those temptations. When you know who you are and aren’t, you become more prudent. This the first learning in entrepreneurship.

2. Being trusted is a bigger compliment than being loved:

In India, we want to be loved by clients and therefore we will go to any extent to make that happen. This leads to our culture of never saying “no” to clients. We Indians believe if we are honest and direct we will be disliked and hence the relationship will break (which is partly true). So, we develop a habit of over promising and under delivering. This leads to a love without any respect. And we all know that doesn’t last. I have learned that being trusted is far more important for sustaining your business than being loved. That trust is built over time by calling a spade a spade, even though you will lose some business along the way. That trust is built by always delivering more than what you promised and being the most reliable, rather than being the most likeable. This approach leads to true mutual respect and admiration, which is priceless in business.

3. Growth is not just about volumes:

Most of us associate growth with scale don’t we? With volumes of sale, size of the team, location of the office etc. Well, in my entrepreneurship journey, I reached a crossroads where I had to choose between value growth and volume growth. I chose the former. That choice was based on several factors. Firstly, I wanted work-life balance so value based business allows that more. Secondly, I wanted us to be highly involved and deep dive into businesses that we took up. That is rarely possible in the volume based approach. Thirdly, I wanted to educate my industry and also teach students about marketing and branding, in order to keep learning myself. Interestingly, over the decade, I am proud to say that Barefoot grew by a CAGR of 70% in value terms. Our client list kept getting shorter each year but the size of projects kept going up. This was a clear sign of value addition, specialization, growth and learning. Therefore, growth is how you define it.

4. Embrace the grey areas:

As a corporate employee there are many concrete answers and solutions that you rely on the company for.

As an entrepreneur, you have to decide everything and the buck stops with you for everything. Annie Duke in her book ‘Thinking in bets’, says- in life, every decision we make is a bet. Nobody knows this better than entrepreneurs.

I am personally someone who doesn’t do very well with ambiguity, but I had to learn to be okay with it in order to make it as a businesswoman. Till date, I struggle with this aspect of business risk. But there is simply no running away from embracing the grey areas of life and also realizing the role of luck and intangibles in your success. I learnt that I need to stay impatient about the process, the effort, but not about the result. It is a recipe for success not just in business but also life.

5. Why should flings be a bad thing?:

We have intentionally kept Barefoot boutique and lean. The reason we could do that is because we were okay with short term projects with clients. Gone are the days when we have to look at each client as a long term associate. Why can’t we be like 2 people who met on a trip, had a great time and then went our separate ways? And if we ever meet again, we will still have a ball of a time and once again go back to our respective lives. Why do we have to be obsessed with the idea of wanting to marry the clients we have? I know this might sound very arrogant and even shocking to some, but frankly this mutually respectful yet fluid approach is a mark of a very healthy business relationship. Truth is we all want that freedom, but are too scared to ask for it. Mind you, 90% of our business today is through referrals, which proves that this model works.

6. Age is not the only measure of wisdom:

This was one of the most valuable learnings for me as an entrepreneur. We are nothing if we don’t keep learning. And wisdom is not just a factor of age. There are students and interns who have taught me much more than some of the CEOs and MDs I have interacted with. One just has to be open to the idea of learning from all age groups. Today’s 20yr old is much wiser about so many things than I will ever be. Many times I see people my age or older dismiss the younger lot only because of age. That strategy is dangerous especially because of the pace at which the world is changing. If you don’t respect what each age group brings to the world, you will soon find yourself redundant. Age is just a number…

7. Being a woman entrepreneur will have its challenges:

I love Bangalore for how cosmopolitan it is. People here are very open minded and respect women. There is no other city I’d rather be in as a woman entrepreneur. However, when you run your own business as a woman, you will have surprising experiences that are purely because of your gender. In one introductory meeting with a CEO, the first question I was asked is “How old are you and why don’t you have children?”. In another meeting I was addressed as “the arm candy” of my business partner. So, you need to be prepared for such googlies and find your way to maneuver. I will be living in a fool’s paradise if I didn’t include this point in my TOP 10 learnings.

8. You don’t have to wear a suit to be serious:

We have broken a lot of stereotypes in our 10 years. And one of them being how consultants must dress. I think quality work will shine through no matter the tangible cues! If a restaurant makes delicious food consistently, they will always have demand, no matter how small the set up or how shady the locality. Today the best of developers might be dressed as hippies and we won’t care. So, let go of all these biases and judgments or you will miss out on good talent, good partners and even good friendships.

9. Consistency is king:

Many believe customer is king. I believe consistency is king. If you do something consistently well , then no force on the planet can stop your success. The trick is to not get complacent. And to always stay relevant. Don’t let competition catch you napping. Keep evolving and improving in order to stay consistent over the years. That is the key! How do you do that? By being self-critical. By having one ear on the ground. By encouraging feedback and also welcoming innovative ideas. By learning about the new generation and their lifestyle. By monitoring competition and world trends. By hiring diverse teams.

10. Highs and lows are a given:

Last but not the least, the swings of business are inherent to running your own show. This is why not everyone can be an entrepreneur. It requires a heart of steel on some days and a mind of a teenager on another. It demands the last ounce of your optimism and requires you to believe even when nobody else will. It makes you lonely and yet expects you to regularly network with people. Before you can celebrate your success, there is a new challenge ready to be dealt with. The ability to handle the highs and lows with grace is what will separate you from the rest.

I hope you enjoyed this piece and saw value in the learnings. Do share your views with me!

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