“Building a business isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

The work of an entrepreneur is never done. Since I started selling awesome paper wallets as BERLIN slim, I’ve realized that what I really signed up for is a never-ending list of tasks. Everything needs to get done yesterday.

After a brief honeymoon period, it dawned on me that if I didn’t start making money soon, I wasn’t going to make it. The pressure Beautiful slim paper wallets from BERLIN slimslowly began to mount. I found myself working longer and longer hours, in a vain effort to finish one more thing.

It sounds a lot worse than it is though. Honestly, I love it!

I want to share some of my observations on starting a business. I went in with a few misconceptions and my own personal blind spots. I hope to spare you from some of the problems I’ve had.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. I’m also going to explain some of the reasons why I think it’s a great adventure and why you might also want to inflict yourself with the same pain. Continue reading ““Building a business isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.””

The fellowship experience

Last week I returned from my ESMT Responsbile Leaders Fellowship (RLF) in Cape Town. Time flew. Driving to the airport, it felt like yesterday when I drove on the same road exactly five months ago, in the opposite direction. As I was wrapping up in Cape Town, someone asked me why I chose ESMT for my MBA. This made me go over my ESMT application and I found this.

ESMT Application

RLF was one of the major reasons why I chose ESMT. I am passionate about empowerment and was certain of seeking RLF even before I joined ESMT. After the program was introduced to us, TSiBA popped up as an interesting option. TSiBA is a non-profit private B-school in Cape Town that offers business degree to the underprivileged, and business training and mentoring to disadvantaged entrepreneurs. After talking to the MBAs from the past year who had done their fellowship at TSiBA, I was convinced that it fits my bill perfectly.

Why TSiBA?
Early in my life, I learnt that when one chooses to focus on problems, one sees only more problems, but the moment focus shifts to possibilities, we see opportunities. This is a paradigm shift in thinking which is very difficult to attain given the nature of circumstances you grow up in such areas. There is a lot of conditioning you go through that you have to undo in order to make that shift. And I believe examples are the best way to demonstrate this possibility. I chose TSiBA because I saw the opportunity to be that example. When I learnt of the circumstances the entrepreneurs and students at TSiBA go through in life, I thought I could share my experiences with them to instill the belief that it is possible. I however don’t think this can happen over a guest lecture or talk. I was convinced that being a part of their learning journey is the best way to make that impact, and I saw RLF providing me that opportunity.

The RLF Experience @ TSiBA
TSiBA is a great organisation and I loved the experience there. There are a lot of things to do, and there is a shortage of skilled people who are willing to support. So when I started there, I got to chose what I wanted to do. TSiBA gave me complete freedom in executing the projects that I had taken up. Staff members are very friendly, supportive and collaborative. They are more like a family than coworkers. There is a lot of friendly banter in the staff room. Interactions with students were energising and humbling. The RLF experience made several indelible impressions on me that I am sure will stay with me for a long time. Here are the most important lessons I learnt.

Planning is good, having an open mind better!
The MBA experience gave me fresh perspective on how things don’t always go as planned, and helped me appreciate how important it is to be temperamentally ready to handle any kind of situation, not only in business but also in life. The RLF @ TSiBA helped me put this to practice. Last October, when I interviewed with TSiBA, we agreed on the areas that I would support TSiBA with. By the time I arrived in Cape Town, more than 3 months had passed, and things had changed a lot. The work that I wanted to do was not possible due to unforeseen circumstances. Instead I had a completely different set of projects to choose from. And I chose to manage a brand new program, Juta-TSiBA-EME program, which involved building a small business, ground up, in a tripartite set up.

Juta-TSiBA-EME Program
This program is a concerted effort by two organisations committed to black empowerment in South Africa. The program was conceived of in late 2015 and the execution began in February 2016. The program was sponsored by Juta, a leading publishing house in South Africa. The vision of the program was empowerment of the disadvantaged. The goal was to identify a disadvantaged black entrepreneur and to use donated stock to set up an Exempt Micro Enterprise (EME) business. Juta chose TSiBA to do that and I anchored the program execution for TSiBA. My activities involved research of the target market, coming up with a value proposition for the business, building partnerships with potential partners, drafting contracts for the tripartite collaboration, and selection of a previously disadvantaged black entrepreneur as the business partner (to take up the business once I leave South Africa). To provide experiential learning to entrepreneurship students, I anchored the end-to-end execution of the student project of the program as well. Towards this, I created simple processes for stock reporting, pricing, order placement, invoicing, payments, order collection, stock returns, and reporting. I also provided business coaching and mentoring to students. This was a complete start up experience for me. I learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Student project launch

I went to Cape Town with an open mind about my work. And in retrospect, I think this mindset helped me see the opportunities available rather than getting disappointed by the changed circumstances.

Preparing for failure is an important business skill
The most important lesson I learnt from the Juta program is, how important it is in business to be prepared for failure. My lack of exposure to business landscape in South Africa made the selection of an entrepreneur the more challenging of the work-streams I had to manage. When we announced the program and invited applications, there were quite a few interested in coming onboard as the EME. One of the applicant teams showed the drive and motivation required for our program. We interviewed and found them suitable for the EME. The prospects sounded promising. We were about to confirm their selection, and they pulled out citing workload and alignment issues. In the meantime, the interest of other parties also dwindled and I missed the deadline to select the EME. Within a few weeks, things that seemed very promising faded away one after the other, and I was not prepared for that. This was a major jolt to the program. What I learnt from this experience is that in business even the most promising lead may not materialise and being prepared for that eventuality is very important. This learning came in handy in another project. A few Northeastern University (USA) and TSiBA students collaborated to start a social enterprise and agreed to have me in an advisory role. Drawing from the failure of the Juta program, I was able to make recommendations for strategy that ensured that we were prepared for failures and thereby we could better manage the risks.

You learn a lot more when you teach/coach
At TSiBA, I had a variety of interactions with students. As part of the student project of Juta program, I coached students on setting up businesses and mentored a few of them. I also had an opportunity to be a tutor for entrepreneurship and leadership. There were many brilliant ideas discussed, personal stories and issues shared and discussed, ideas challenged, solutions proposed and debated, agreements and disagreements, viewpoints countered and so on. Those discussions helped me learn a lot about the South African culture, and I also felt I got a good understanding of how the youth think (Not saying that I have grown old!). The element of vicarious learning associated with such interactions is fascinating and it taught me a lot. There were many eureka moments when sharing my experiences and beliefs with students gave me a fresh perspective on my life.

Wrap up
The feedback on my programs has been very positive and the results promising. In a span of three months, the student arm of Juta program sold 1,571 books, resulting in a revenue of ZAR 18,105.30.

Revenue

At the time of my leaving Cape Town, the EME had sold about 140 books and generated about ZAR 12,600 in revenue. The revenue from the student project and a part of the EME revenue will go to TSiBA scholarship fund for future students. Reading through the reflection papers submitted by students at the closure of the student project, I felt the project met its goal of providing experiential learning to the students. Personally for me, what stood out was students giving feedback that my guidance helped them sell to customers, made them think differently about doing business, and that they made real changes to their business approach.

Farewell

Thanks to ESMT and TSiBA for the wonderful opportunity!
santom

Senegal: A cultural paradox

After staying in Senegal for four months I have grown accustomed to the question – What do you think of Senegal? I always ask the other person to be a little more specific because I have a mixed bag of YES and NO’s in my repository of experiences. If you ask me whether I like people, culture and life in general? Then, it’s a yes to all three questions. Do you think that the economy is in good shape and poised to grow? Then the answer is NO.

People in Senegal are extremely warm and welcoming. This is reflected in their day-to-day lives, community functions, work place and even clothes. Unlike India, which is also undergoing economic transformation, people in Senegal are patient, content and easy going. A dinner in a restaurant can easily extend beyond an hour because most people delve into conversations while the staff takes 20-minutes to bring the menu. It takes another 20-minutes to order and then another 30 minutes finishing the food. Sometimes my urgency in placing the order and eating food surprises the staff at the restaurants and cafés. Senegal is so easy-going and laid back that if you don’t ask for the check it never arrives. Similarly, confrontations in the society are resolved by arguing politely about the issues and sometime involves several volunteers that listen to the parties and help them reach a settlement. For e.g. if one cars slightly rubs off another car on the road then there is small exchange of words by pulling cars aside or some honking. If the damage is serious then settlement is immediately reached by involving the curios bystanders to assess the damage. That’s it! I have never seen people getting into heated arguments, heckling or brawls. I’m sure it happens but is not so visible in regular life.

This sense of calm and satisfaction is also observed at work. People show up early but morning discussions are important and small talk takes priority. If something goes wrong with the equipment at a convention or an event then you don’t see people running helter-skelter to fix it. Usually a person is sent out to find the person who can fix the problem. While the technician takes 5 minutes to arrive and fix the issue, the crowd breaks down in chatter as if it was expected. The speaker/ organizers stay calm as if this were a part of the show. This is how most things work here. In the beginning I had reached a pre-mature conclusion that people were lazy and productivity at work was extremely low. This is the point where I was completely wrong. For I had assumed that people didn’t do enough. In the process I missed the point the people don’t want to do more.

Understanding culture and people takes time, observation, and interaction. People in Senegal are deeply rooted in their culture. The culture of Senegal is defined by four words namely – Kersa (respect for others), Tegin (good manners), Terranga (hospitality) and Thiossane that stands for history, tradition and culture. These four tenets of Senegalese life pretty much define how they conduct and live their lives. It took me four months to understand this aspect of life and accept it. In the process I learned that people were more happy, content and in harmony with each other. This is contrary to the life of modern societies, in which materialistic wealth is seen as an important factor for achieving happiness but we are always short or looking for it. From the western perspective output at work may seem inadequate but from the Senegalese perspective it’s adequate as long as someone is working on it. Relationships and people are given priority over work and its often more important to preserve those rather than getting the work done. I have now come accept this way of life and it raises a profound question in my mind – We live to work or work to live? I’m glad that I experienced this and I hope that I would take these values back with me.

Although these ideals are a good way to lead a life, they cannot exist without a stable/economically developed society. Ignoring the fact that economic development and good quality life are not mutually exclusive is like ignoring the very peaceful existence Senegal has enjoyed till now and the factors responsible for it. Thus it becomes all the more important for Senegalese people to be economically stable, which will ensure survival of this culture and values. An economically unstable society cannot thrive on good conduct and culture. This is where most people in Senegal disagree with me and firmly believe that they are better off given the prevailing economic environment, simply blaming the government for all shortcomings. Most Senegalese are oblivious to the fact that the country is heavily dependent on foreign aid and it is this constant influx of capital that it has managed to avoid wars, coups, and economic collapse that most of it neighbors have experienced in recent history.

Majority Senegalese believe that low agricultural productivity and underdeveloped infrastructure is an outcome of bad government policies. They also think that its entirely government’s responsibility to take care of agriculture and infrastructure industries. Although it is true to some extent, it would be wrong to just blame the government. Most millennial, start-up founders and businessmen have jumped onto the bandwagon of digitization/ ICT and ignored the opportunities in these foundational industries. They see digital businesses and service industry as the key to change the economic landscape. Universities, business schools and research centers also echo similar outlook with hardly any investment in R&D of agriculture, infrastructure and primary industries. It is only the foreign countries that see the opportunity and are thus investing heavily by leasing large swaths of land, building highways and investing in medical services amongst other industries. Senegalese people have nil or very little investment in these businesses. In my opinion agriculture forms the basis of a strong economy. All modern economies were built on agrarian societies, whose first goal was to become self sufficient in terms of food. Only when there is enough food for everyone, the governments and society can think of progressing into industrialized economy. It is very hard to find a country that was entirely able to skip this crucial step in transitioning from a developing country to a developed country. China and India are prime example of this transformation. Many young people are oblivious to this fact and strongly believe that recent growth in the ICT sector is the answer to end this dependency on foreign aids.

Even if we are to assume that ICT holds the key for economic transformation in Senegal there are other factors that pose as a major challenge. Some of these challenges are:

  1. Language – Today’s businesses are global and the primary medium of communication is English. People hardly speak English in this part of the world and this limits their reach and access to information.
  2. Limited natural resources –Senegal is not so rich in natural resources. For e.g. the entire energy requirement of Senegal is fulfilled by producing energy from imported oil. There is no hydro electricity or other forms of energy production. Surprisingly no one here in investing in renewable energy production given the high incidence of wind and sun all year long.
  3. Poor banking infrastructure and weak policies – BCEAO is the sole central bank for eight West African countries and the French treasury is the only guarantor. The French treasury sets the exchange rate between countries and the CFA is pegged to the Euro at a fixed rate. The French treasury also plays a big role in defining the policies that govern the BCEAO. Need I say more?
  4. Interference of international politics – Every government decision is heavily influenced by their French or American counterparts. I guess that’s the price you pay for This interference is noted not only in politics but also in the economic sphere. Most telecommunication companies, tourism businesses, and other important industries have international organizations holding majority stake.
  5. Dysfunctional relationship with neighbors – Senegal’s relationship with its immediate and extended neighbors is dysfunctional. One day they are friends and the next day you have a trade embargo that jeopardizes all the past efforts.
  6. Lack of R&D in agricultural, indigenous industries and life sciences – I met a lot of students, professionals and government officials but none seem to focus on mentioned areas. Other indigenous industries such as fishing, which is one of the biggest employers, are rapidly deteriorating and no investment is being done to improve its performance.

So going back to the original question – what do I think of Senegal – I have to say that I have mixed feelings. Most debates that start with that question somehow end with the preceding context. Although I am able to convince some people and my counter arguments raise a doubt in their minds it does not deter their belief in the Senegalese way of life. At one business event a similar conversation had captivated about 5 people and there seemed to be no end to it when one gentleman, who after patiently listening to all the arguments, turned to me and said – “You may be right but life goes on. The dinner is served and its time to eat. Everything else can wait but food should not!” For a moment I was stumped but I knew that he meant to say that with all the respect and warmth in his heart. Although the western values and way of life slowly creep into the Senegalese culture, I am hopeful that Senegal will continue to carry on the traditions and build upon that a progressive and sustainable country that will serve as an example for other West African nations.

Till then JerraJef !

ESMT’s first time at the MBAT. What a Marathon!

When I arrived at Charles du Gaulle airport, I realized that the MBAT would be a greater challenge than what I expected. So far, pre-organization went smoothly, thanks largely to the support of Hongmin Kim, my co-captain and the help of the ESMT Marketing Team, represented by Rick Doyle.

But now, things seemed to be harder than I thought. It was 9am. I should arrive at HEC at around 12am, but the campus was three hours away with public transport. I needed to be on time to register our participants and play our first beach volleyball match in a couple of hours later. Plus, I was the captain. What kind of message would I be sending as a leader if I were not to arrive on time? Anyway, sport is about challenges, so I just tried to get into that spirit. Plus, the weather was awesome.

After a three-hours odyssey, I finally reached HEC campus together with 300 students from Cambridge and Oxford. During registration, I found out that many other schools were late too, which made me relieved. Some of my colleagues were already at HEC, while others were soon to come. HEC understood the struggle of schools to arrive on time and was flexible in the first matches, letting us play with mixed teams. Some colleagues would arrive only in the end of the afternoon, enough soon to attend the first evening party.

In the opening ceremony, crowds from LBS and IE shouted when their mascot and captain came up on stage to bring the school flag. We were the third to present. Even coming with only 19 participants (15 MBAs and 4 Masters in Management students), ESMT was one of the loudest crowds. Carolina Rincón was our mascot: the “beer bear”. Our presentation video showing Berlin sports heroes (from the 1936 Olympics to the 2016 MBAT) entertained the crowd. Carolina gave me the mascot uniform and I dressed it up for a pie-eating contest among mascots. Picture a bunch of dudes dressing as animals trying to eat a whole pie as fast as possible. We argued that the man underneath the lion from Cass was not really eating the cake, but simply throwing the pie inside of the mouth in the uniform and he was declassified. Finally, the giraffe of ESADE won the competition with merits. Party continued strong until drinks stop being sold and we had to go back to out hotels at around 2am. It was a good idea. Next day would be a long one.

The second day was the busiest day in the competition, with tournaments happening in almost all the sports. Since we were a smaller team, we only participated in basketball, beach volleyball, chess, kicker (table football) and cross-country. The day was very sunny and we were chilling at the gym area – stage of most of the sports – waiting for our time to play.

That was our winning day. One of our two beach volleyball teams won all the group matches and a tough quarterfinal match to qualify into the semifinals. The ESMT crowd was so united that our excitement infected our opponents, who jumped in and celebrated with us, even after their defeat. The basketball team won its last group match to get its ticket into the playoffs. The highlight was Patrick El Murr, who used to play at Lebanon’s national team and ended up being selected for the All-Star Team of the Tournament. Last, but not least, one of our kicker teams won the first-ever ESMT medal: silver. Roberto Zincone and Enrique Thayer beat teams from Rotterdam, HEC, Frankfurt and Oxford to face LBS in the final. Roberto and Enrique were practicing a lot at ESMT’s Kicker table and that proved to be helpful against all the teams. In the final, though, the opponent was way too strong, with a young German prodigy from LBS Masters in Management showing powerful skills to overpower our favorites.

After such a long day, we needed to go back home and take a shower and dress up for the party. But where was the shower? Not working! We called the reception and they blamed on us: everybody wanted to take the shower at the same time. We could not wait until the shower would be repaired, so we needed to improvise. Some people asked for water bottles from receptions. Others realized that the shower worked with very hot water, which meant lots of painful shouts coming from the bathroom. The party in the evening proved to be the best with bands from all the schools showing their skills. After the official celebration was over, some of us moved to the after-party at HEC’s MBA Building, with extra drinks and music until 5am.

On the final day, survivors of the tough group matches (and last night’s wild parties) would face the playoffs. We were playing in basketball and beach volleyball, but our opponents were way to strong for us. In basketball, we lost in the quarterfinals against IE and in beach volleyball we stopped in the semifinals against Oxford, who would soon become champions. In the bronze medal match, we had a tough match against HEC, loosing for only two points-difference. Nevertheless, the whole team was united and celebrating and we hugged each other, as well as the opponents. Finally, we went to the lake to see our girls running a confusing cross-country competition. Competitors could not find the right path and got lost on their way. One of our runners, Carolina Rincon, found her way after some time and finished the little marathon with merits.

Later in the evening, our small group gathered to celebrate the final evening with our first-ever medals being given to Roberto and Enrique. We were hugging each other and exchanging love messages even without drinking that much alcohol. It was a tough challenge to be the captain of ESMT at the MBAT. But that team made it easy and, moreover, worth the effort.

Before coming, I thought that the MBAT would be the perfect occasion to connect with students from other schools. But what actually happened was different: I created even stronger bonds with my colleagues and – contrary to the captains of those monster-crowds from the bigger schools – I knew all my team members by name: Alex, Amir, Aniket, Carolina, Cristina, Christoph, Dylan, Enrique, Florian, Hongmin, Matthias, Nai-Wen, Patrick, Phyllis, René, Roberto, Viara and Vladimir. Our partnership evolved to friendship and we will never forget this wonderful time spent together.

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About the MBAT

What is the MBAT?

The MBA Tournament (MBAT) is a student-run 3-day sporting event that takes place on the HEC Paris Campus every year in May, with around 1500 MBA participants from 17 leading European business schools.

ESMT participated in the tournament for the first time, representing Germany along with Frankfurt. From the UK, came LBS, Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Cranfield, Lancaster and Cass. ESADE, IE and IESE represented Spain. Rotterdam and TIAS were the Dutch schools. St. Gallen and IMD came from Switzerland. The host, HEC, was the only school from France.

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Sports:

Competitions included Badminton, Basketball, Beach Volleyball, Billiard, Chess, Cross Country, Dodgeball, Football, Table Football, Golf, Petanque, Poker, Rock Climbing, Rowing, Rugby, Salsa, Swimming, Table Tennis, Tennis and Ultimate Frisbee.

Participation in one sport with one team gives the school one point. A bronze medal gives the participant an extra point; a silver medal, two extra points and a gold medal, three extra points. Under that system, the number of participants is the main decider. Therefore, not surprisingly, the host HEC was the overall winner followed by LBS (sending around 200 students) and Oxford (sending 140).

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Networking and Fun:

Besides the sports competition, there is a lot of opportunity to network and have fun. When not in competition, the majority of students gathered around the lake, a beautiful green area in the campus, to drink, chill and chat. Dinner was served in the cantina, offering another chance to get to know people from other schools.

In each of the three evenings, everybody joins a huge thematic party fueled by alcohol and dance music. The first evening was the opening ceremony. In this gala party, young men and women dressed up with suit and business shoes would dance with giraffes, zebras and bears (school mascots), as well as athletes, who did not have time to dress up. The second evening was the battle of the bands. This extra music competition among the participant schools proved to be the best party. In the third evening, there was the closing ceremony, where winners could dance showing off their medals and trophies.

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Organisation:

Located far from Paris, without easy access using public transport, HEC’s main challenge was to host and bring back all the 1500 participants into the school and back to their accommodation every day.

Each participant student paid a fee of around 350 euros, which would include accommodation in a hotel close to HEC, transportation to the campus and three daily meals. A shuttle bus provided by HEC would pass at the hotels each 30 minutes (sometimes less than that, often more than that) to pick up students, reaching HEC in around 30 minutes. Once at HEC, you could pick up your breakfast and/or lunch (usually a banana, a sweet and a sandwich). In the evening, dinner was served in the cantina.

The highlight of the organisation was the payment system: a wristband in which you could charge some money. To buy alcoholic drinks or more food, you could simply show your band to the seller, who would swipe it over his or her phone. That decreased the queues dramatically and allowed us to pick up our drinks in a convenient way, without dealing with cash.

The downside was the transportation between hotels and campus, which took sometimes more than one hour to arrive. Many athletes could not reach campus on time of competition due to the lack of shuttle buses. Hotels were not an unanimity either. ESMT’s hotel shower was not working on the second and third days, forcing us to take showers somewhere else. Finally, the arrival was chaotic. It was on a Friday, during public holiday, when public transportation was not running frequently. We needed more than three hours to reach HEC from downtown Paris or from the airports.