Stand out from the crowd

A brilliant business idea is not always one that is revolutionary, sometimes it’s a case of taking an existing concept and moving it in a new direction, making it stand out from the competitors. I was reminded of this fact when I saw a great photograph in a magazine article of a row of plain white lace-up tennis sneakers, and then the eye-popping sight of a pair of striking red lace-up hi-top sneakers in the middle of them all. It was a great example of how a traditional product concept was taken to a whole new level by someone seeing the opportunity to create something exciting and new from an existing idea. As entrepreneurs, we can all take the same approach in our own businesses. We can look for opportunities to push existing concepts into new terrain, to rethink and reimagine how things work, and find new ways of doing things. So, how do you plan to stand out from the crowd?

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Build your personal brand as well as your business brand

It’s not only media celebrities, sports personalities and film/tv stars that understand the importance and power of building a personal brand. Increasingly these days, entrepreneurs are realizing that they are their own best assets when it comes to building a successful business. We live in an age where consumers, especially millennials, are becoming increasingly more concerned with who they do business with, which brands they support, and knowing what those businesses and brands stand for from a social impact perspective. Therefore it stands to reason that entrepreneur founders need to start using their voices and their public personas to get their values and vision across to their audiences. This is where personal brand building is key to making the connection with those who are listening and watching, ready to make purchasing decisions or to build brand relationships for the long term. As marketing guru Tom Peters says: “All of us need to understand the importance of personal branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.” 

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Never go for average, go for great

We all know that choosing the path of entrepreneurship is a risk in the first place, requiring courage, determination and self-belief in huge quantities each day, not to mention the passion that made us take this path in the first place. Yet how often do we see ourselves slipping into a comfort zone or into a well trodden groove as soon as our businesses get traction and start achieving success? There is a temptation to get comfortable with what we have built, to sit back and quietly watch it tick along, as a result building a ceiling to our success. So what happens? We simply accept small, we accept average, and we forget that we were aiming for great. The inspirational Nelson Mandela once said: “There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” It’s the same when growing a business - why settle for average when you can go for great!

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Innovation and entrepreneurship go hand in hand

People often talk about how entrepreneurs are naturally more innovative in their approach to business, often because they have to be. So it’s always interesting to see entrepreneurs around the world who see a challenge as an opportunity to do something differently and put their own spin on an existing idea of how business can be done. Whilst in New York recently, I learned about a group of entrepreneurs with a passion for winemaking, who set up the world’s first commercially viable urban rooftop vineyard in New York City - on the 14,800 square-foot rooftop at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. When you think vineyards, a rooftop in the middle of one of the world’s most sprawling urban environments doesn’t automatically come to mind, but the team behind Rooftop Reds didn’t let preconceptions or established ideas about what is possible hold them back. Instead they looked to innovate, to collaborate with other industry leaders and academics to find solutions, and their rooftop state-of-the-art planter system is now about to reap rewards with the first wines to be produced ready for tasting. It’s a great example of how entrepreneurs innovate to make creative business happen. 

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Every startup needs a brand ambassador

For decades, the world of traditional marketing and advertising has understood the power of the brand ambassador to connect with key audiences and persuade them that one product or service is better than another. In today’s fast paced digital world of entrepreneurship, you would perhaps be tempted to think that these brand ambassadors are only still relevant in the consumer goods space (just switch on your tv or open your magazine to see that brand ambassadors are still heavily used today to sell product). So what does that mean for startups that are predominantly using the power of digital to connect with their target markets? Actually, brand ambassadors have a role to play here too. It’s always good to have an independent voice talking about your brand, connecting with your audiences, and helping your brand to stand out in the crowd, using the power of their own social media and other digital platforms.

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Keep your startup spirit alive

Growing a business from startup to substantial is one of the most exciting journeys you can undertake, and there is nothing quite as rewarding as looking back at when you first launched to where you are now. It’s worth remembering that so much of a business culture is formed in those early days when chances are it was just you as the founder, together with a small band of loyal employees, family members and suppliers, working flat out to build your business. That indomitable ‘can do’ adventurous and innovative spirit that probably kept you all going in the early days is something you want to hold onto as you grow. Maintaining that sense of family is also important, even though your business might have expanded from 2 employees to 20 or 200, making everyone feel connected and contributing to the bigger picture. It’s all about keeping that startup spirit alive. 

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Success doesn’t just happen by accident

Flick through the fascinating memoirs of any globally successful woman entrepreneur and it’s likely you will see the same formula coming up time and again when asked about what led to their success in life and business. A big vision + sheer hard work = success. There are no short cuts when it comes to building a sustainable business. Having a vision for what you are working towards, knowing what your ultimate goal is in the end, helps to keep you on track. But getting there will take a strong and committed work ethic that will keep you going when things get tough. One trait doesn’t work well without the other when it comes to entrepreneurship. Ultimately, success doesn’t just happen by accident. 

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Expand your network, expand your horizons

Having a great network to tap into for business advice and information is essential. Yet many entrepreneurs stay too close to home when it comes to building that network of key contacts, feeling more comfortable reaching out to family, friends, contacts in the same city or country. Although this approach has its positives, it can ultimately be limiting for the business and its growth potential. It’s important to keep expanding your network with new sources of specialist insight, guidance and inspiration by reaching out across borders, across the world, across business sectors, in order to keep moving forward. And it’s never been easier than today with the vast array of social tools and platforms available, waiting to be tapped into. So expand your horizons and your contact book, do your research and learn more about those people who provide unique insights and advice for your business, and reach out through your comfort zone. As Robert Kiyosaki says: “The richest people in the world look for and build networks, everyone else looks for work.”

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Don’t let the inevitable setbacks hold you back

Chances are, there is not a single entrepreneur out there who hasn’t at some point or another experienced a major setback (or two, or more) on their business building journeys. And, it can be difficult at times not to be affected both emotionally and practically by these roadblocks in our lives. The bottom line is it’s okay to feel frustrated, sad, disappointed, angry, or all of these things at the same time when setbacks happen, that’s normal. The trick is to pick ourselves up quickly, learn how to set these emotions aside, and move on. As the famous sporting quote goes: “A minor setback paves way for a major comeback.”

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Go for the quick wins to gain momentum

I was reading a couple of interesting articles this morning about the importance of momentum in any business, especially in the early startup phase. There is nothing quite as effective at keeping our drive and motivation in full steam ahead mode than seeing results, watching our products and services being used and enjoyed by our customers out there in the market. But we need those quick wins to gain that momentum, and the problem is that for many startups, we are held back by going for perfect instead of going for done. That can halt our momentum in its tracks. So if you are one of those entrepreneurs out there who is delaying getting their products or services out there to test in the market because their website isn’t ready to launch, or the online shop is still being developed, or the product brochure is still in design mode, just launch. Go for the quick wins, get people excited to test your new products and services as soon as they are ready, and get them out there. Those quick wins will give you momentum. 

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Mistakes will happen, move on

I was chatting to a number of women entrepreneurs yesterday at one of our Lioness Lean In events and a topic of conversation came up that was really interesting - how to recover from making mistakes on your entrepreneurial journey. It was a topic that resonated with everyone who was part of the conversation because let's be honest, when starting out in business, mistakes are inevitable. The challenge is how to deal with those mistakes, limit the damage, and ultimately move on quickly having learned valuable lessons. So if you are currently in the position where you are dealing with a mistake that could cost you dearly if not managed properly, then take the following learnings from those who have been where you are now. Firstly, communicate quickly with those who are potentially impacted (customers, employees, partners, suppliers), be honest about what has happened, and then proactively tell them how you are fixing the mistake. Secondly, take ownership of the mistake as the business owner and implement your plan to fix it quickly and effectively. Thirdly, take a deep breath, put the guilt and disappointment away, and move on. Mistakes will happen, it’s part of the business building journey, success comes from how you learn from them.

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Are you ready to scale?

There is a huge amount of discussion right now, and also speculation, around why so few women entrepreneurs around the world manage to scale their businesses - and this challenge is also pronounced here on the African continent. It seems that under-investment in women owned businesses is a common complaint when talking to women entrepreneurs anywhere in the world. So, why is that? Well, it’s a number of factors. It’s a long standing record of VCs opting not to invest in women owned businesses in larger numbers, for whatever the combination of reasons. It’s the fact that there are not enough VCs who are women and who might take a more proactive gender lens to their investment decisions. It could be that women entrepreneurs are not more aggressively going out there to encourage external investment in their businesses. And, it could be that women entrepreneurs are simply not preparing their businesses to scale from the outset. Whatever the reasons, the bottom line is that there is a growing interest in seeing women entrepreneurs scaling and providing high impact business solutions to key socio economic challenges in their countries and communities. And, there are a growing number of gender lens funds and VCs who are on the look out for the next great investment. The trick is to go out there and pitch those businesses, having made very sure that your business is indeed ready to scale.

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Make your suppliers your best friends

During our recent Lioness Lean In events in Maputo, Mozambique, we were hearing the inspirational stories of women entrepreneurs who had built successful businesses and a lot of the talk was on sharing the importance of building great supplier relationships. Each of the women we spoke to had encountered their fair share of challenges along their entrepreneurial journeys, but they all spoke about how vital it was to have an engaged supplier network on board. Working with great suppliers who understand the pressure points related to being a startup business is key to getting things done, especially when cash flow can be a challenge. Being able to pick up a phone, have a proactive conversation with a supplier when necessary on such issues as renegotiated payment terms, or quick turnaround on raw material deliveries, is key to success. As entrepreneurs, we always assume that our suppliers are simply interested in the dollars and cents, but often their focus is also on growing their businesses with clients who are with them for the long term too. It’s all about building mutually beneficial supplier partnerships and alliances, and in the world of entrepreneurship, you need all the friends you can get! 

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The rise of the Intrapreneur

There’s a new way of thinking emerging in some of Africa’s big corporates, taking lessons directly from entrepreneurs. Intrapreneurship is all about encouraging and nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit in large corporate environments, and helping innovative (and often maverick) employees who are entrepreneurially minded to take their ideas to the next level, both within and outside the business. As the global economic environment becomes increasingly more pressurized with greater competition and a need for more innovation, it stands to reason that more and more big companies are looking to create a more entrepreneurially thinking workforce. As Virgin founder, Sir Richard Branson, says: “Many millions of people proudly claim the title ‘entrepreneur.’ On the other hand, a title that hasn’t gotten nearly the amount of attention it deserves is entrepreneur’s little brother, ‘intrapreneur:’ an employee who is given freedom and financial support to create new products, services and systems, who does not have to follow the company’s usual routines or protocols.’ While it’s true that every company needs an entrepreneur to get it under way, healthy growth requires a smattering of intrapreneurs who drive new projects and explore new and unexpected directions for business development.”

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Don’t let challenges hold you back

We have probably all at some point on our entrepreneurial journeys heard potential customers, investors, and suppliers tell us ‘we’ve always done it this way, so we don’t really want to change’. It can be a challenge, particularly if we are trying to introduce something new and innovative into the marketplace. I was reading a great article this week about one woman entrepreneur in the tough global pharmaceutical industry, a sector where only 4% of businesses are led by women, who had to overcome major challenges to launch her groundbreaking products. Cindy Whitehead, founder and ceo of Sprout Pharmaceuticals in the US, the company which launched the breakthrough FDA approved drug known as the ‘female viagra’, had to break down perceptions and numerous barriers along the way to achieving success. Not only did she get her revolutionary product successfully to market, but her company was eventually sold for over US$ 1 billion. She didn’t let challenges or established ways of doing things hold her back. She says: “If the only reason for a rule is that it's the way things have always been, then by all means, break it.”

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Create your own definition of success

Each day at Lionesses of Africa, we share the stories of women entrepreneurs on the continent who have achieved great success in their businesses and are an inspiration to so many others. Every story is unique to the women being featured, but many of their experiences resonate with each of us because we identify with them on our own entrepreneurial journeys. However, our definitions of success have to be framed within the context of our own business lives, personal lives, and of course, aspirations. For some, that success will measured in dollar revenue terms. For others it will be measured by the way a financially viable and sustainable business grows year on year. For many, success will be measured by the positive and lasting impact that business has made on the lives of others. It’s important that as women entrepreneurs we define what success means to us as individuals. As Michelle Obama said: "Success is only meaningful and enjoyable if it feels like your own.” 

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Keep spreading the word about your business

As we all know, launching a new startup business is just the first step on the journey - creating a buzz about it and getting potential customers to sit up and take notice, and of course buy from you, is quite another. So many small startups get off on the wrong foot when they wrongly assume that their network of family and friends will be all they need in the early days to kickstart their marketing activities and create awareness around the new brand. Unfortunately, this is not enough. Unless you are operating in such a niche area of business with few competitors, you will need to keep finding new and effective ways to spread the word about your business constantly. Friends and family are great in terms of supporting your efforts, but remember it’s not their core business, it’s yours, and no one can market your business quite like you as the founder. In the first few weeks and months of your launch, focus on promoting your business from as many different angles as possible. Use the power of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, to connect with your audience, and consider using Facebook ads as a specific way of getting your brand out there. If you have a website, you need to drive traffic, so why not consider starting a blog to improve your site’s traffic and SEO.  Have you thought about submitting guest articles to other high traffic online platforms, or creating a podcast, or even speaking at an event? There are so many ways to spread the word about your business, products and brand - make sure you are incorporating them into your startup marketing plan.

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Recognizing When to Pivot

A really interesting observation I’ve made from our Lioness Accelerator programme is this: just how many early-stage women entrepreneurs who come into our programme almost immediately recognize the need to rebrand, or pivot their businesses. This is a good thing! It’s one of the great benefits of being on the Accelerator, you get to deeply assess and question your business model, and more importantly, have your business analyzed by your fellow cohort members. However, it does raise one of the biggest challenges for any entrepreneur - what to do when your plans aren’t working out as you expected? It’s surely one of the most common reasons for startup failures - failing to recognize when your business isn’t working, and not pivoting to something that does. This is why ‘Pivoting’ has become such a hot buzzword in the startup world. The idea the experts say is to fail fast and pivot even faster. For many women entrepreneurs this can be daunting experience and often feels like failure to them. But, when your first business model is simply not working (and this happens more often than not), your chances of survival rests on pivoting to a plan B as quickly as possible. Smart startups that change direction quickly, but stay grounded in what they've learned, are inevitably the ones that have a better chance of going the distance. If you can embrace the need to pivot, keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new future you are ultimately improving your chances for success. Anyway, you can take comfort from this: some of the best known companies in the world had less then auspicious beginnings before they made their pivot to success. Twitter was a less than successful podcasting network named Odeo. Instagram was a confusing mobile app called Burbn that nobody used before it pivoted. Flickr was an online role-playing game, and Nintendo was a manufacturer of playing cards! So, if you’re pondering your pivot today, don’t worry you’re in good company.

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The mobile economy means opportunities for Africa’s entrepreneurs

The GSMA has just published its report on the Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa 2017, and it makes for interesting reading for entrepreneurs looking for new market opportunities on the continent. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for nearly a tenth of the global mobile subscriber base and is expected to grow faster than every other region over the next five years. The contribution of the mobile industry to GDP in Sub-Saharan African in 2016 was $110bn (7.7%); it is anticipated that by 2020 it will be $142bn (8.6%). The mobile industry is playing an increasingly important role in the social and economic development of the African continent. Mobile connectivity has become the main platform for innovation and the driving force for greater inclusion, while the mobile ecosystem, including mobile network operators and device vendors, contributes significantly to economic growth and jobs. Across the region, mobile is enabling life-enhancing services that directly impact the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), complementing the efforts of governments and their development partners. The mobile economy means digital inclusion, financial inclusion and innovation can thrive in Sub-Saharan African, and that means more entrepreneurs have access to opportunity and can drive their own businesses to be economic success stories. 

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Keep talking to your customers

So you have a brilliant new idea for a product or service that could be a real winner for your existing business or perhaps a brand new business, but you need to test it out before progressing full steam ahead towards launch. You can do all the preliminary desk research you like but there is no substitute for actually getting out into the market and talking directly to your potential customers. You will learn more from sitting down and talking face to face with your potential consumer base than you will from the piles of market research and competitor monitoring reports you are probably wading through. If you get up close and personal with your potential customers, they are much more likely to be honest and direct about your idea because you are asking for feedback and insight, rather than trying to sell to them. Surveys, email questionnaires, or analytics can all be useful in the bigger scheme of things when it comes to feedback gathering but they miss out on all sorts of contextual information. Your customers might say they have a particular pain point that needs a solution, but you won’t know which one are they really passionate about or which one truly keeps them up at night until you hear them speaking directly. It’s all about digging deeper and getting to know your customers, getting that all essential feedback. As Microsoft Founder Bill Gates says: “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” Bottom line - keep talking to your customers!

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