Most startups struggle to survive in their initial few years with the majority failing within the first five years. In fact, statistics show that five out of ten businesses don’t make it past the five-year mark. Since starting Souqalmal.com from the ground up in 2012, and then growing it to become the UAE’s biggest personal finance and insurance aggregator, my entrepreneurial journey has seen its fair share of ups and downs.
With a successful foray into the UAE insurance market, expansion of services to Saudi Arabia, and recently raising US$10 million in our second round of funding, all signs do point towards a promising future for Souqalmal.com.
And now, as we enter our sixth year, I can look back at the challenges in the rearview mirror, and talk about six key lessons I learnt over the course of running my business.
YEAR 1: YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT ALONE
Launching a business all by myself, without a mentor or co-founder was quite a challenge. Entrepreneurship is a lonely journey if you decide to go it alone. In hindsight, I feel it would have been a lot easier to have someone to split the workload with but more importantly to discuss business strategy and where we want to bring the business.
A co-founder can be a great help and an invaluable resource in more ways than one– taking things off your plate, offering a new perspective to deal with problems, bringing twice the skills and networking capabilities, and providing emotional support in tough times.
A mentor too, can offer guidance, support and encouragement, especially when everything about starting and running a business is new to you.
YEAR 2: WEARING TOO MANY HATS CAN BE COUNTERPRODUCTIVE
Most startup entrepreneurs often take on too many roles all at once– financial, legal, sales, marketing, HR and so on. You constantly obsess over every little detail, and have to see everything through from strategy to execution. This might seem necessary, but keep doing this for too long, and you’ll end up spreading yourself too thin.
You don’t have to do everything yourself. Delegating some of your responsibilities can allow you to focus on what you need to take your business to the next level. Focus on finding the right people, and building a great team around you. Hire people who understand your vision, and are passionate about growing the business.
YEAR 3: OPERATE YOUR BUSINESS AS LEAN AS POSSIBLE
Most startups that have just raised funds tend to go overboard, and burn through the cash too quickly. Lavish marketing budgets, overzealous hiring, giving big salary raises, and excessive spending are often the culprits behind startups going broke.
You spend months, even years trying to raise money, and it is undoubtedly an overwhelming task. But once you have the influx of capital, it is important to not lose direction.
This is where being cautious and foresighted can prove instrumental. As a startup entrepreneur, you have to make every dirham count. One has to manage the cash flowcarefully. Invest in a good CFO, and focus on preserving the cash to grow and sustain your business.
YEAR 4: HIRE SLOW, FIRE FAST
If you want to expand your business, you have to invest in high-caliber human capital. But first, you must invest time in finding the right people.
A hiring spree can leave you stuck with employees that don’t fit in your company culture at all. This is especially true of startups that have just gained access to cash after a successful round of funding. Too often, they hire too many too quickly without figuring out the KPIs, and how these employees will fit into the long-term growth strategy.
“Fire fast” may sound brutal, but trust me, a toxic work environment can seriously dampen the team spirit. In a startup, all team members should be involved in the overall growth of the business, and even one employee who isn’t a team player can adversely affect the productivity of the whole team.
YEAR 5: SAY YES TO NEW OPPORTUNITIES
If an opportunity presents itself, don’t ignore it. Fear of the unknown can be detrimental to your growth, and if you get too comfortable, you’ll stop growing. Taking calculated risks has helped unlock massive growth opportunities for our business. Pivoting our business to launch an insurance aggregator when the concept was fairly new in the UAE, and traveling to Saudi Arabia to work on a new partnership with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority are two good examples of how grabbing an opportunity at the right time can set your business up for success.
YEAR 6: BE PATIENT WHEN TRYING TO RAISE FUNDS
Funding your business takes time, hard work, and single-minded focus. Patience is the name of the game. Many times, entrepreneurs underestimate how long the funding process would take, and end up being underprepared for it. You must also be patient when negotiating the terms with potential investors– don’t jump the gun in eagerness to close the investment round. Each fundraising round determines subsequent rounds of funding when you may be required to accept more unfavorable terms.
Also see: Ashton Kutcher: How (and why) I invest in Startups
Since I launched my company, I’ve had good days and bad days, setbacks and celebrations. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world. Entrepreneurship is part of my DNA now, and I’m excited to see what the next six years will bring.