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3 mistakes I've made in my start-up

by: Sabrina Clarke

· Entrepreneurship

Three years ago, this month, I started running my own business full time. Just writing that down on paper almost seems unbelievable. My company, Build Global, wasn't created on a whim. I wasn’t one of those entrepreneurs who woke up one morning, quit their job and decided to live that “boss” life. Instead, I sat down and executed a meticulous plan that took ten years to accomplish. My entrepreneurial journey didn’t start the day I incorporated my company in 2013 while working for a financial services organisation, having just been promoted and entering a new team in said company. It began years prior when I identified that one day I wanted to work for my self, what I saw to be the critical skills and industries I would need to be "credible" in my field and the best ways to execute my plan. The clarity of thought and intention of one day working for myself put me on one of the most focused paths in my life. I relocated back to London, turned down promotions, changed industries and was adept at the corporate political landscape to achieve my goal. So when April 2017 came, I was ready, or so I thought.

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The best preparation for being an entrepreneur is being an entrepreneur. There are books, courses, degrees and thought leaders dedicated to our work because it is difficult and not for everyone. As much as I immersed myself in content and the experiences of others; I have learned that while some things are constant, cash flow, client relationships, barriers to entry, the journey of entrepreneurs is unique and nuanced. It is one of the most isolating experiences I have encountered even though there are so many resources set up to be supportive; while being one of the most refreshing. It is energising and draining. As the Founder, it is your vision, that must carry you while inspiring others to achieve the goal. It is as Dickens described a tale of two cities being the best of times and the worst of times.

So three years later, Build Global is still here facing the same uncertainty it did three years ago but this time, due to a global pandemic. It has been a whirlwind over the past three years. I have had several business milestones achieved, but I will always remember my firsts. I remember the first client, my keynote introduced as Founder/CEO and first TEDx talk. The first impact investment made through the Build Global Impact Fund and the first time I had to do the admin for the company (probably will go down as one of the most unforgettable experiences). It has been compelling, but it has not all been great. I am sharing three mistakes I’ve made that were practical and costly over the past three years trading. I mentioned before I consumed a lot of content about being an entrepreneur. While some were helpful, I found very few real-life examples of the practical things that "got people" and why? So I decided I would be one of the few that shares warts and all experiences. I am celebrating my three-year trading milestone by keeping it real. I am not going to give you the equivalent of "I work too hard" when asked one of your weaknesses in an interview or accolades disguised as vulnerability. Here is my experience straight with no chaser.

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Mistake # 1: I cultivated the wrong networks

If you were to google entrepreneur network, SME Associations and the like, there are thousands of organisations dedicated to supporting businesses. Trying to navigate them is a task on its own, but I went through the process of shortlisting a few when I started. As a former Management Consultant, I was ethical about my non-compete; therefore, specific clients were no go areas. I began to cultivate some SME networks and people who I knew that had moved on to other organisations. Developing these networks was a mistake because it had the wrong results.

First, the SME networks I cultivated while well-meaning didn't provide what I needed at the time, which was a sale. Some SME networks are beneficial, while others are great at marketing. As a newly minted entrepreneur, I needed to be in a network that could deliver in terms of resources, contacts and the lead to revenue timeline was not 6-12 mths. The networks I initially selected were great at marketing but didn’t have the track record for facilitating opportunities for start-ups. Secondly, when I connected with people I once knew, their focus was what I did before, not the business I was running now. Therefore, despite good intentions or no intentions, it was not helpful to my company to be introduced off-brand. The confusion created a non-starter for potential clients. I refocused my efforts and segmented my market by using a formula I created that has been more effective in my outreach while saving money on membership fees and maintaining relationships.

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Mistake #2: When they went low I went high

I love the phrase, "when they go low, you go high". I made the mistake of applying that concept to my business. Specifically, when it came to the credit of my work, naming my IP and being gracious to condescension. To this day, I am not comfortable with “selling” my work. I have developed the balance of referencing my work in a way that is comfortable for me. For example, when speaking to potential clients, I will provide case study examples to demonstrate the skillset I have or the members of my team. What has been interesting is because I am in the transformation and change space on engagements and depending on the programme there will be contractors, freelancers, consultants and permanent members of staff.

I stand in the light that always attracts heat

- Sabrina Clarke

One of my operating principles is that I do not engage in contactor/consultant politics. It is terrible for business and is beneath me frankly. Contractor/consultant politics presumes that we all have the same objectives and given I have my own context, I am always 100% confident we do not. Therefore it is pointless for me to engage in activities that won’t get my company to my objective. There have been several occasions where other consultants/ contractors have taken my work and tried to pass it off as their own. Individuals have taken my content/framework and adapted their approach without credit, tried to undermine my leadership, wanted to position themselves as mentors or were triggered because they think I’m occupying a space they feel were reserved for them. All of the instances listed are familiar territory because I stand in the light that always attracts heat. However, as a business owner, your IP and reputation needs to be protected in a very different way. While some cases were laughable, some were insidious. For the situations worth my time which I quantified as a reputational risk to my company or IP, when they went low, I spoke in a language they understood.

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Mistake #3: I chose the wrong accountant

Every member of a team is absolutely critical at all stages of growth. I made the mistake of choosing an accountant for where my company was not where we were going. As SMEs, we contribute significantly to the economy through the jobs that we provide, supporting GDP, and through the taxes we pay. As such being very clear about tax liabilities and how they can substantially vary year on year based on turnover was a learning process for me. When we first started trading our accounting needs were very straightforward. However, during growth and diversification, business needs are more complex and guidance specialised. I did not get specialist support in growth, and it ended up being costly.

I was very annoyed with myself about this mistake because on my list of things to monitor, cash flow is at the top. I had multiple ways to ensure there was continuity of business, this mistake thankfully didn't cost me continuity, but it had an adverse impact. If I did not have mitigating plans in place, it could have been serious. The other part of this annoyance was I am not running a multi-million-pound organisation yet, but I am building a portfolio that will have a substantial impact on changing the world. I learned in the process of having the wrong accountant the importance of every member of the team knowing the vision is not an intellectual exercise or reserved for some members. All team members need to be reminded and be on board with the vision because their counsel is affected by what they can see.

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It has been a ride over the last three years. I am sure the next 3 years will be equally interesting. Happy 3 year anniversary Build Global. Forward.