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5 things I wish I knew at 21

By Richard Walton

Richard Walton

I’ve been an entrepreneur for more than twenty years and loved every single minute. Founding my first business at the age twenty-one is still to this day one of the most exciting adventures I’ve ever embarked on. Back in 1995, I was a young man living in Malawi with a dream but no clue how to bring it into fruition.This dream is now a 250-strong company with a presence in over 40 countries. As impressive as that sounds, do not be fooled, it was not an easy ride, and I learnt a lot (sometimes the hard way) on that journey.

Last year, at age forty-one, I took a plunge, diving headfirst into the start-up world once again. Born out of my own personal experience of burn out, I created AVirtual, matching busy UK-based entrepreneurs with brilliant PA’s out herein South Africa, where I live. Although doing this the second time round had its own hurdles, they were nothing compared to the challenges I faced twenty years ago, fresh-faced out of university.

Here are 5 things I wish I knew back then, and crucial lessons for every start-up or business at the beginning of their journey:

  1. You are not God’s gift to business

Age 21, I thought I knew it all – I was young, clued up with the latest gadgets and business initiatives. I’d travelled and thought I knew the world and business landscape like the back of my hand. How wrong I was! Business has always existed – I am not the first to have a (potentially) brilliant idea, and I definitely will not be the last. Even if you have done the research and there is nothing that compares to your genius plan, keep your feet on the ground and be humble. Humility goes a long way when it comes to building your team, securing investment and winning clients. Don’t get ahead of yourself yet, you’re only just getting started.

  1. Now is the time to make the most of your fearlessness

That being said, never be afraid to have a go and take a risk. When you’re still young you tend to be able to take a few blows to your self-confidence and bounce back. In fact, a few more knocks would probably have served me well! When your business is at its early stages, there is less to lose. The entrepreneurial ecosystem is highly unpredictable – just because 7 times out of 10, the result has been x, y or z doesn’t mean it will be the same for you. The older we get the more we start to think about all the variables and potential consequences, building up in our minds a network of eventualities that may or may not happen. Throw as much caution as you can to the wind – you may be surprised where you’ll find yourself.

  1. Don’t just hire people you like

As much as we entrepreneurs like to think so, we are not a one-man band – we simply can’t do everything ourselves. Talent can make or break a business depending on your approach to finding it. I am a great believer of hiring people smarter than you – looking primarily for the skills needed to make the business work efficiently. Once you’ve identified the individuals with the right skill set, it’s time to look for a cultural fit. As the founder of a business, you set the atmosphere and must strongly define the culture you want to build. In my experience a diverse team is 10x stronger – with a mixture of ages, backgrounds and perspectives, your team can cover more bases and provide an offering that is attractive to a whole host of different audiences.

  1. Don’t blow off the calculations

You would not believe how many times I told myself I was ‘not sweating the small stuff’ when really, I was avoiding a crucial aspect of my business. Sitting down and crunching numbers was the last thing on my mind age twenty-one. I wanted to simply go out and set up my business, but for some reason that action didn’t automatically connect to money. I used to think that when it came to my company, growth was everything and that if I grew, everything else would be fine. Hindsight in tow, this is probably the worst way to run a business. Having a good grip on the financials is a key foundation to fostering sustainable growth. Every business goes through a black hole, and quite frankly, fast growth could well end up bankrupting you, so wrap your head around costs now. Just do it.

  1. You need a mentor

You may read this and be saying, “Need a mentor? Really Richard?” Yes – really. Almost every successful business leader will tell you they owe some of their success to having the guidance of a mentor at some point in their business journey. Although at the early stages you should avoid having too many cooks in the kitchen, a mentor can add a fresh, experienced perspective. Don’t only call for help when you’re in a bind – having a mentor can ensure you avoid said bind completely. When you’ve found the right match for you, take mentorship seriously. There’s no use having all this expertise on hand and not using it. Make seeing them regularly a priority, make the most of every minute you have with them, and open up your business to them.Regardless of the extensive skillset of you and your team, an extra advisor is invaluable and they can be a catalyst to your growth.

So there you have it, my top five tips for not just start-ups but also things any business should be mindful of to help the journey run as smooth as possible. One last tip I always give entrepreneurs is to put in place some solid structure to maintain a healthy work/life balance. So often, the entrepreneurial drive is both a blessing and a curse, but we must be careful not to fall into dangerous and unhealthy habits. John Wooden said it best, ‘don’t let making a living prevent you from making a life’.

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