Seven Lessons Learned While Transitioning Into Entrepreneurship In The Middle Of The COVID-19 Crisis
If you're an early-stage entrepreneur, it's very hard to separate your business from your personal life. But this is exactly what you have to be thinking about early on.
This article has been built in collaboration with Young Arab Leaders, a not-for-profit organization founded by H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, to develop the next generation of leaders in the Arab world through entrepreneurship, education, and employment.
A few months ago, I decided to quit my cushy job in a multinational corporation and take destiny into my own hands, leaving petty office politics behind. I went from having someone to answer to, to being someone to answer to. I chose to live a life of financial uncertainties and become an entrepreneur. But on top of all the stressful collateral in which this life-changing decision entails, the COVID-19 virus decided to make its entry to the world stage at almost the same time.
The crisis the coronavirus pandemic created naturally flattened all the assumptions and inputs I had in my model. While we are still at an early stage in the fight against this disease (and in my new journey), I was still able to unearth a few principles that are keeping me and my sanity going. I didn’t plan them, and some of them came with luck, but who knows, they might benefit some of you in these challenging times:
1. Make sure your personal life is in order
If you’re an early-stage entrepreneur, it’s very hard to separate your business from your personal life. But this is exactly what you have to be thinking about early on, otherwise your mind will always be distracted by the well-being of your family. Create a comfortable cushion to fall back on. Try not to put your own money into all your ventures. Think: if everything fails right now, will my family be ok? And for how long?
2. Diversify early on
While planning my move to entrepreneurship, I decided to invest in my education. I wanted to learn as many things about as many industries as possible. I’m also a big proponent of the old adage, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” This is why I got involved, either as an investor or in a more operational role, in several unrelated projects and companies from the very beginning. This diversification turned out to be a strong asset to tackle the crisis we are in now.
3. Have a flexible business model, and pivot without regret
While it largely depends on the level of maturity of your business, having several verticals in non-correlated markets is a great risk-reducing strategy. I joined as Managing Partner in one of my ventures which happened to have a B2B arm (myhealthyoffice.ae) and a B2C arm (biobox.ae) in the process of launch. While the B2B was the cash cow of the business, it came to a sudden halt in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis. Corporate clients started to advise their teams to work remotely. We immediately shifted all of our human and financial resources towards accelerating the launch of our B2C brand to serve individuals staying at home. In situations like these, a strong leader knows how to pivot the whole organization, and take strategic decisions quickly and decisively. The faster you fail, the faster you’ll start to succeed.
4. Don’t be a perfectionist- except in one thing
We all know the different stages of bringing a new product to market. You go from a prototype to a minimum viable product, and so on, and you test like crazy. This requires flexibility, and a fierce lack of perfectionism. In a time of a crisis, it has never been more literal, as you have to navigate stormy seas infested with sharks with only one objective: survival. There’s one topic though where perfectionism is essential: customer service. It’s your holy grail, the only thing over which you should lose sleep. It’s imperative to listen to your customers. They will always remember what you did for them in bad times, and they will thank you for it. Bonus point: you don’t need to be the absolute best- you just have to be better than your competition.
5. Take care of your cash
While common sense dictates to preserve the little cash you have to weather the storm, a period of crisis is, for me, a good time to invest in long-term opportunities. Be it increasing your marketing budget intelligently (as we did), hiring your next superstar, or optimizing your operations. Now the question is, where do you get the cash flow in times of decreasing sales? There are ways to give a lifeline to your working capital. Just last week, I was able to obtain a grace period for my mortgages and car loans, and I came to an agreement with some of my suppliers to delay a few payments. What most people fail to understand is that you mostly get what you want by just asking. I’m a big fan of asking stupid questions with near-zero probability of a positive answer. You’d be surprised of the outcome!
6. Take care of your team
Your team is your most important asset, right? But are you walking the talk? Just as customer service is essential, excellent employee service is just as important. There is no better way to improve loyalty and motivation than to show your worth as a leader during times of crisis. It’s the most intelligent investment of your time and energy. Listen to your team, be present, even remotely. Be aware of their personal problems, whether financial or otherwise. Empower them to suggest solutions to crisis-induced problems.
7. Fall in love with what you do
I’m not talking about your business idea, because I sure hope you’re already in love with that, but I’m talking about the process. The really annoying minutia and random uninteresting steps you have to go through to reach execution excellence. Fall in love with that. It will save your life. How to do it? Become a student of life, give yourself challenges to learn all the tools that you need. Be proud of the excel model you built, even if you didn’t use it as much as you thought you would.Be interested in the details of your supply chain to find that “eureka” moment to optimize it. Or take on an accountant hat and find a better way to manage your invoices- even if, and especially because, it’s not your strength. Love the process.
Mahmoud El Khoja, an active member of Young Arab Leaders, co-founded and is currently leading several new companies such as BioBox, an online healthy-only groceries platform; MyHealthyOffice, a pantry management and office wellness outfit both in the UAE; Frost, a quality frozen food retail chain in Egypt, and ELK Phoenicia Group, a family partnership with diverse interests. He is also the volunteer CFO and Strategy Lead of Cura, an international medical NGO based in Oklahoma. His previous 15 years were spent in eight countries and various regional roles with multinationals like Schneider Electric, L’Oréal and Bain & Company. His functional experience spans marketing, strategy and digital transformation. Mahmoud holds an MBA from INSEAD and a B.A. in Economics from the American University of Beirut. He currently resides in Dubai with his family.