I’ve met with scores of people over the years, either running their own businesses or starting up. I had that rare privilege because I owned the local Internet cafe in my little village called Strandfontein. ‘Strand’ means beach in Afrikaans and many places ended with ‘fontein’ at the end to represent ‘village/ spring.’ I also had rare insights in various types of business activities and as a small business owner myself I had to wear many hats. As a result of the years spent in business I’ve managed to figure out a thing or two. In this blog I’ll give you some tips.
Working in a small shop that does almost everything, like my internet cafe used to do, can be very challenging. One day a customer came in and said, “Mohummud, I really need this promotion my brother. I’m supposed to design an excel sheet that helps manage the staff…” In a small little coloured area things aren’t often done with money in mind. It’s usually a brotherly thing to help out and that made my shop somewhat unique. I wasn’t just a business owner, I was the kid that went to school around the corner from my shop when I was six years old. I was the local that everyone knew, and a lot of my customers grew up with me! Saying ‘no’ was always going to be a little bit personal. Hence, I spent that day designing an excel spreadsheet that got him his promotion.
On another occasion, a nursing student came in saying, “Mohummud I really can’t figure out this assignment. Can you do this for me, I’ll pay you whatever you want…” Of course, once gain I wasn’t going to charge that much. I did everything from business proposals for government departments, to working out mall security. Sometimes I wrote legal contracts, other times I submitted people’s tax returns. A few times I did people’s accounting records. When you a ‘do it all’ you really do it all. On the not so rare occasion I also had to play counsellor for married couples on the verge of divorce because I had sometimes given the Friday sermons at the mosque- at least when I was still allowed to do so. Every so often I had to double up as Imam, which was the role I liked least of all.
In the midst of all this chaos, I got my greatest education. Six years of running business and I had taught myself everything from building servers and websites, to building cupboards and being an all round general consultant on- well- everything! That’s why I decided to become Life Coach, because all things considered, that’s pretty much what I’ve always been. Today, however, I’m putting on my Business Consultant hat and going to break things down for you in a very easy to understand format.
First things first! Business is about the bottom line. Yes, you heard me right. In all the many people that came to me for business advice, the thing that people were least prepared to talk about was… money! You must be clear about one thing: despite the passion you feel for providing a service or selling a product you love, nothing is sustainable without bringing in an income. Hence, the first question you need to ask yourself is, “How is this going to bring me in an income?”
In answering the above question, you must identify who your target market is. Who are the people that will likely use your service? Don’t guess that they would use your service, actually go ask them. Do that before you invest any energy in actually bring that service to life. You might save a lot of your energy and go on to try something different?
Create a balance within yourself between the needs of the customer and your passion for what you do. You can’t sell something you’re passionate about if no one else shares that passion. You can’t do a job well that you’re not passionate about. See what I’m saying here? You need to find a happy medium between the two. Do something you’re passionate about that will sell.
Summon your resources. That’s right, call them to you. Take account of what you have as assets, even if all you have is your skill. I remember when I wanted to start my internet cafe while I was unemployed. I approached bank after bank for a small loan but I couldn’t get one. I then advertised to book more clients for videography and photography jobs, took 50% deposits down on each job and used that to start my internet cafe. I, in effect, borrowed against the future. The hardest part of this journey is often the beginning!
Play the setting. What do I mean here? Well, you know your society. When I wasn’t making enough money off of my video jobs, I hired two white girls. I knew that people look up to white business in South Africa so I used it, and it worked like a charm. In business there’s no time to be politically correct about things. Yes, we all wish people weren’t racists, but if they are- whether black or white- all money is green. Remember that! Exploit the weaknesses in your society, not because you agree with how it is, but because business isn’t philanthropy.
Be patient. Business can be tough. There are times you are at the brink of closing everything down when suddenly things go up again. My family and I lived on maize meal without milk or bread for months on end. That was all I could afford when starting out. I didn’t go into business because of a passion or dream, I needed money for bread. It was that simple. I once walked thirty kilometres thinking a client would pay, only to come home with nothing. It was real.
Be firm. You’ll always find clients who try to do things on credit knowing very well that they’ll never pay you. When you own a small business, you don’t have time to fight court battles over small amounts of money. You’ll end up writing it off. If all the people who owe me money from the years of business paid me tomorrow, I’d be rich. If you sense that you have a client that isn’t going to pay, just end your services. I have already told clients that I am not prepared to work with them. Choose your clients wisely, because bad clients are not worth the money they pay you. Obviously, this will depend on the type of business you run.
Be charitable. Frankly, business relies on people being able to spend money on your products or services. If you’re making it, give something back. Not because you have to, but because not everything regarding money can be accounted for with money. A good amount of what happens in your life is just luck of the draw. If you want to improve your odds, offer something back. You might not get richer, but you’ll be happier.
Be punctual. Reliable people are far and few between. What helped me in business was that I tried hard to stick to my promises. When people understand that you’re reliable they are often willing to spend more money using your services than the services of your competitors. I personally would rather spend more money on something guaranteed than have the headache of delays or a poorly done job.
Don’t get attached. A business feels like it’s your child, but it isn’t. When things look like they are gonna go horribly south, pull out. If you must sell up and move on, do it before you lose everything. When the South African economy went south because the government increased tariffs on electricity, petrol and all manner of other things, I knew that people didn’t have money in their pockets. People in my area of business were all working class people. After buying food and paying school fees, it was difficult to spend money on homework assignments. Some people would spend a third of their salaries on transport alone. A good number of my clients actually moved to areas where they could be closer to work. Travel costs became so high, they had to sell their houses! What did I do? I sold the shop. It was time to move on. There’s only so many times you can re-invent a business. I decided to sell every item in my shop and ask each buyer to pick it up on the last day of business. I traded until the last day, and emptied out the entire shop while customers were still making photocopies. In one day, I sold my assets and in the same month I still turned around a profit. Now I enjoy telling you stories about how you can succeed. 🙂