The Employee Cum Entrepreneur

Autonomy is only a piece of the pie. Many of us crave the entire banquet. Some dream of running a firm of their own, others dream of having retail outlets, and some others want to explore their craving for art and craft.

Sometimes we want to ditch the employee tag and sometimes we only want a side hustle. Either way, or whatever the field, there are some basic things that must never take for granted.  These little bits of knowledge make the difference between success and failure in your entrepreneurial adventure no matter how fantastic you are as an employee.

The first question usually is: ‘Should I dare to do this in the first place?’ If you did not have a job many people would encourage you to give it a try, but the song changes when you are employed. A business venture could easily be seen as a waste of money; when there are school fees to pay. So what is the wise thing to do especially in this economic climate?

Koku Konu is an architect who builds high rise buildings across West Africa: banks, and skyscrapers. Then his father passed on leaving his accounting firm behind. Konu opted to take that up as well. This meant restructuring and building Island Nominees Ltd and for an architect that meant quite a bit of learning; from the scratch.

This made him the perfect person to ask: Should you really bother?

Konu’s response is: “If anybody has a desire to pursue self-employment; invariably that desire doesn’t go away until you test it. So if anybody feels like going into self –employment, irrespective of what is going on with the economy, go ahead. But of course that is just the beginning; you will also access your risks, calculate your exposure and your chance of success, but it’s your entrepreneurial spirit; the spirit that is in these people that makes the difference and they are the ones that would battle against the odds. They are the ones people look up to; the ones who come up with something.”

Looking at the number of failed businesses around us can be very discouraging for someone thinking of taking the plunge. Konu says: “Statistics are a bizarre thing, I don’t know where these ones come from but if you tell me that some people fail, I’d say yes. And yes failure does discourage people. But again the lure of success is always there. Failure cannot be discounted, it does put people off. But the true entrepreneurs do have a knack to overcome seemingly impossible huddles. That is the hallmark of an entrepreneur.” Then he adds: “We all know entrepreneurs fail but it’s the ones that succeed that we tend to look towards. So if you have the entrepreneurial drive and want to go into self employment, irrespective of the economy you find yourself in, you should go ahead and take your risks.”

Now we all know that being an employee requires you to apply yourself to your own duties, but being an entrepreneur is a different kettle of fish. The issues of leadership and management come to the fore. Leadership basically means climbing up the tallest Iroko tree with your binoculars and guiding the troop: having the bird’s eye view and ensuring you are all in the right jungle facing the right horizon. Leadership is more about the vision and the overall goals. Management on the other hand brings it down to the day to day planning and activities. Konu, speaking from his own experience says: “In my role as the first son of my father, I ‘administer’ the company. It’s a small title but a wide role because it starts from the minute eye of the processes and systems you put in place (management) to the bigger picture and how you develop the company (leadership) and how you get to the target audience, and so forth.

So you start from small things like: ‘Do we have enough pens?’ to the bigger picture like: ‘Where are we in the scheme of things?’ that’s what I do essentially. I don’t have any part in the technical dispensation or any engagements, nothing like that, but I do programme, I do plan, I do implement, I strategise, and I am in touch with the top level of our clients on administrative basis.”

If you have listened to a few management experts then you must have heard at least one of them talk about the mindset of a businessman vis a vis the mindset of a ‘professional’/employee.
Konu says this “It is down to stereotypes. When you are an employee, your focus is executing your duties and the economic performance of the company is at best a secondary concern. But when you start your business; and you are a business the economic performance of the company is your primary concern.”

Now, Konu was making it all sound too easy; sitting at the conference table of open office with an easy smile. We had to ask about his personal hurdles.

“Well, I wasn’t particularly equipped to deal with the challenges of leadership and management. I didn’t have any formal training for it. I didn’t do an MBA, I hadn’t studied business formally, I had never taken any business courses, but I had always had an acute interest on how things work. I suppose that has to do with my architectural background. As an architect you are taught to design things. The way you design something determines how it is going to work. The principles of design apply not only to products, buildings, hairstyles, and fashion, they apply to processes; how to achieve a process. You have to design a process to make sure that you get the end result. My challenge was not being formally prepared because of my background, but I was helped along.”

Going by that is it safe to deduce that the way a banker would run a boutique would be different from the way an auto mechanic would run it? We would let you draw your own conclusions on that but in facing the challenge of restructuring and building Island Nominees Ltd,  Konu did say: “Because of my background in design, I saw it as a ‘design’ issue and not really a ‘management or leadership’ issue.

Out of every five entrepreneurs you meet three would announce to you that their biggest challenge is the country’s infrastructure or lack of it. Clara Okoro, CEO of Brandworld and Publisher of Ice magazine did not bat an eyelid when she announced that her biggest challenge was “NEPA”. Bringing this up with Konu, he obviously took it all in his stride. But it was the way these infrastructural ‘failings’ affected staff welfare and productivity that was more prominent on his mind. “The main infrastructure problem that affects businesses is sparse electricity and then the roads and traffic. It affects the social wellbeing of your employees; if they get harassed every day coming in. If they can’t get to work easily because there are challenges every day it could be difficult for them.”

Speaking of employees, how do you build the perfect team? Donald Trump says he usually hires people he already knows; like people on the other side of a deal who had impressed him. In a recent interview Femi Aderibigbe (aka Kwame) CEO of Nigezie and a judge in the ‘Project Fame’ reality and talent hunt TV show, pointed out the “mindset” of the people you have to work with is the biggest challenge for him as an entrepreneur.

Konu for his own part had this to say: “Getting the right staff is an ongoing thing. I cope with the challenge all the time. You may have the right people in 2010 but your needs, developments, and programme may change by 2012 so you will need to adjust your team. The way I cope with it; the way I would advice anybody to cope with it is to craft the job description first and then find the people that fit into the job description and not the other way round. Some people create a position because they know this person has some skill: ‘Oh! Let’s use him for that.’

That is not the way to structure your company. You need to have your structure in place first. Do you need a finance director, or do you need a bookkeeper? These are two different skills. So have your structure in place. Know exactly what it is you need?
Have an idea of your job description, and then seek people to fill that position. Try not to do it the other way round like everybody does because; usually the person has skill ‘A’, which you are picking up on but doesn’t have the commensurate skills. That is what I would say for staff selection.”

Believe it or not ‘number’ is a weighty factor. It can make the difference between success and failure. Konu agrees with this: “Also I would say no matter how you start, start small. You don’t want to build a company with over a million employees overnight. If you check all the thriving companies out, you would find that they all started small. Every company starts with an idea, and people getting together. When it grows to over 10million employees overnight, it didn’t start that way. These are the most important things. Define your job descriptions and start small.”
In every populated metropolis the people get to spend hours in traffic. We work long hours and we get home late. Time management is already a major issue with us, so how can we oversee a budding business ‘on the side’?

Well here are Konu’s suggestions: “Time management challenges? Of course I face it. I face it all the time. Now for people who have a job and are starting up a business on the side and are facing time management issues, I would tell you how I deal with my time management issues.

I use Outlook (MS Word Outlook).I come in and I schedule all the jobs I have to do when I am desk bound in the office. Then I get on with it. Outlook helps me order my day. It is the modern day filer-fax. I also have a very sophisticated method of recording my time usage. I log in the number of hours I spend on every task and I ascribe costs to them. At the end of the month I see how much time I have spent and how much it has cost me. And if the client is not worth it and I have spent too much time, then I have a red alert: I am spending too much time on this, and it is not paying.

That applies to everybody in the firm. We collate that annually and produce a report which shows the wasted time and the monetary effect of that wasted time. Also there is idle time. Coming to the office and doing nothing is idle time. The fact that you are here does not mean that you are productive. I have a sophisticated system which I developed over time. But I don’t expect beginner to start off like that but I do expect you to order your day. I always instruct my employees that the first thing you do in the morning after you have communicated with your maker, if that is your wish, is to draw up your to-do list. You can’t beat it. You can do it manually; scribble it down or you can do it electronically.

If you are an employee and looking to start something on the side, you do have the benefit of social media, and internet and mobile phones. Twelve years ago you had to go everywhere and rely on land lines.”

And for the world’s ‘oldest problem’: The issue of money management. Biodun Caston Dada is the CEO of Maverick and publisher of Acada magazine; a publication credited as being one of the longest running soft-sells as well as the widest distributed one – also reaching the most targeted age group: 14yrs-30yrs. He has had quite a bit of money management experience and he has announced that his watch word is “Cut your coat according to your cloth, not your size.”

Konu says: “What we advise people who are starting their own business is: Don’t spend a penny until you know how much you are going to spend at the end of the day. It wouldn’t cost you a kobo if you took a day to think about it. It is very important. Entrepreneurs naturally do not follow that instruction because the spirit of entrepreneurship itself takes you to the point where you will not listen to advice. Refusing to listen to advice has led people to achieve feats that they were once told were impossible. They defied the odds. Now you have to have that doggedness in you as an entrepreneur. But the key is to know which advice not to listen to. Deciding which advice to take and which advice to discard could be very complex but it could lead to your success.

But there are some basic things everybody would tell you. One of which is that financial management is key: You must simply record what you spend and what you earn. That is the simplest way. You don’t have to have any fancy accounting system. You set up on your laptop everyday what you spend and what you earn; log in your income and expenses. It would give you an idea of how practical your venture is.

If you spent N400, 000 and only received N50, 000, which means you have a shortfall of N350, 000 and you know it. Your mind is already keyed into that fact. You don’t have to do anything fancy like cash flows or budget forecast or profit & loss. It is a simple record of what I spend and what I get in. At the end of the month, I look at my books and say: I don’t have enough money. That instils financial discipline from the start.”

Truth be told; that is easier said than done. This is Lagos: we are always buying fuel. Our ‘miscellaneous expenses’ are higher than the fixed expenses. In fact the ‘fixed’ expenses stopped being fixed a long time ago. Besides, starting a business is like setting sail in the open sea. Konu agrees having been there himself and admits this: “Entrepreneurs by their very nature are adventurous and so it is a good idea to get someone more pedantic to handle your accounts. In large organisations they are called the account department; accountants but for a small business you would have to find somebody to do it for you. You should have someone to ginger you up, and demand for all your receipts; perhaps a friend, an associate or an assistant. You would have to instil financial management from the very beginning. Record what you spend and what you earn.”

Continuous learning is giving great emphasis when we are on the job. Should that same emphasis come to play when we are on the PP (private practice) beat? Konu says yes: “When you are starting up, the first thing is the initial testing and research of the idea. Know your subject before you get into it. But you must continue. You cannot say you know it all and even if you did know it all in 2010, by 2012 things have changed. It is the same reason doctors get re-certified. It is without doubt very important.”

So the fact that you did a three-month course in catering while you awaited your JAMB result 25 years ago does not mean you are ready to start a PP on small chops. Another three week brush-up course this month would not hurt and it would not absolve you of the need to do a three-day course before the Christmas rush.

Another question arises when we take a look at the competition; mostly people who are already doing the things we are thinking of doing. Is it being overly shrewd to snoop out the competition? We say ‘no’. You cannot know too much about the other players. You learn from their accolades as well as their mistakes. You learn about their strengths and challenges and their plans for the near and distant future. The more you know, the better equipped you are to make informed decisions. However, we do not recommend that you send a spy to steal their private documents; if you try that, you are on your own.

Konu for his own part has this to say: “Why would you buy a car without testing it? The more information you have about the market and its players, the better your decision making would be. You must take cognisance of the competition. I always tell people one thing; ‘respect but not fear’. Respect the people that were there before you, but do not fear them.”

In conclusion let’s get a little ‘dreamy’. We asked Konu that if wishes were horses what is the one thing (other than ‘NEPA’) that if the government made available would help budding entrepreneurs and he said: “Statistics.”

You would probably have your own answer to that question, but Konu explains further saying: “If statistics were available, it would help in the decision making. Every time, a person has a business proposal he or she would have to conduct his or her own survey. I think the generation of statistics would help entrepreneurs a lot. The search for statistics is often defeatist. People often do not have the resources to conduct their own statistics. It is the government that would conduct surveys on how much power or fuel the country consumes in a day. That informs my decision on whether I want to open a petrol station or a supermarket. Statistics is what I have found to be a major challenge from my personal experience.”

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