Etrepreneurship is often likened to a journey: the route from concept to success being long, sometimes circuitous and frequently arduous.
A good deal has been written in the media, press and business literature about the stages of entrepreneurship, the dynamics of innovation and the processes involved; as well as the values of resilience, tenacity, passion and belief.
But what about real-life stories? What can we learn from the experiences of real people who have hung their ambition on a dream and given it all in the pursuit of success?
Meet Alexander Lyakhotskiy.
In 2015 Alexander co-founded Pass the Keys, a new type of property management company, specialising in the short-let market.
Pass the Keys is a simple yet unique concept. It offers a comprehensive rental management package for homeowners who want to let their properties on platforms like Airbnb. Alexander’s team takes care of the entire process: from listing the properties to proactively searching for guests, managing their stay and even cleaning up after they leave.
The idea, says Alexander, is straightforward.
“Airbnb and other platforms have a strong appeal for tourists and business travellers who want an alternative to a hotel during their stay in cities. For property owners there is a chance to make between 50% and 100% more revenue than with traditional long-term lets. Pass the Keys occupies the space between the large-scale efficiency offered by these platforms and the small-scale, detail-oriented needs of the owner to source guests, manage the process and minimise risk. In practical terms that translates into more money and less work for the homeowner.”
It is also translating into success for Alexander and co-founder Zoe Vu, both graduates of the London Business School MBA. With an HQ in London and satellite offices in 10 other UK cities, Pass the Keys now lists across more than 25 platforms and is growing at a rate of 300% year over year.
Spotting the potential was simple, says Alexander. Airbnb and others didn’t offer – and had no intention of offering – management services for the properties they listed. Seeing the niche and testing the concept was also simple as Alexander had access to experts, mentors and partner networks via the London Business School Incubator.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
From tackling the naysayers to negotiating funding, Alexander and Zoe spent the first several months struggling to figure out what their growth plan would look like. And then, they had to confront the reality of the technology itself.
As Zoe says: “This industry is so new that the technology we use today could be obsolete by tomorrow. So we have to take risks. Then there’s the fact that there are no really established incumbents yet – no one we can look at to see examples of how to overcome problems.”
Starting on this journey has been a steep learning curve, says Zoe. And of course, with learning comes important lessons.
First there are the people you work with. You can’t compromise on the quality of the people you hire, says Alexander. Nor can you second-guess investors.
“I thought investors were rational but they’re emotional. They don’t care about your numbers or your content. Focus on your delivery and your design and how you present yourself to a potential investor.”
Another learning is ensuring you know your customer very well.
“Understanding their needs has been key,” says Zoe. “Had we known more about them initially we might have been open to taking more risks that might have given us better financial trade-offs. If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t be so inclined to wait for things to be perfect – if you wait to be safe, you might be too late.”
Tahreem Arshad knows her customer very well. Her startup, Sozie, was born from addressing the needs of a very particular client: herself.
“I was standing in the fitting room in a shop taking selfies to send to my sister for her feedback. That’s when it struck me. I want the opinion of others when I’m trying on clothes. And how could they garner value in the process. That’s where Sozie really came from.”
Sozie is an app that connects shoppers with the same body size, shape and style so they can share opinions on clothes and earn discounts on purchases. When user A enters a Sozie-enabled store, he or she can share selfies seamlessly with users B, C, D and so on, each user earning points that translate into money off if they make the purchase. The genius of the app is that it addresses indecisiveness on the part of the shopper, while making it possible for their lookalikes (or “sozies”) to try clothes on virtually – and make the same purchase if they like the garment. It’s a win-win for users and for retailers, says Tahreem, as it has been proven to boost sales in its trials.
A first round of funding from Techstars will see Sozie set up shop with headquarters in the US this year, where – in the words of LBS’s Jeff Skinner – the “Sozie-led revolution will begin.”
But the journey to success has not been without its problems.
“Being a female entrepreneur comes with its own challenges. The entrepreneurial journey isn’t just arduous, there’s also the female factor where women today still have to make a choice between things like motherhood and business. It’s still very real.”
Tahreem found support in the shape of a fellow female entrepreneur at the LBS incubator, with whom she could bounce ideas, test her concept or talk through issues with her team – a “buffer” for the “vulnerabilities” anyone starting up might feel.
“It can be a lonely place. Becoming an entrepreneur exposes you to failure and tests you to the core. I think of it as a kind of sport, and with sport you need to train. As an entrepreneur you need to know your weaknesses as well as your strengths. When you’re out there, playing the game, you need to know how to use those strengths and shield those weaknesses when the field changes.”
Like Alexander and Zoe, Tahreem stresses the importance of being surrounded by the “right people.”
“Every team member is a partner in building the business, so they have to believe in your vision. Key to that is sincerity. There’s so much ambiguity and vagueness when you are starting up that you can’t put on a façade. You have to be genuine with each other. And if you don’t genuinely believe in your business, or if you’re not being your genuine self as an entrepreneur, it will create friction, affect your relationships and hamstring your venture.”
No one knows more about believing in a venture than Zipporah Gatiti. Founder of agri-tech startup, Taste of Kenya, Zipporah has taken what she learnt during her MBA at LBS and put it straight to work against steeply stacked odds in her homeland.
Taste of Kenya is a direct trade social enterprise. The company links coffee farmers in Kenya to buyers all over the world, boosting local livelihood, supporting domestic consumption of coffee and promoting sustainable farming practices.
The idea came to Zipporah during a visit to her grandmother’s farm in 2015 when she noticed that farmers were cutting down their coffee plants to make room for more prolific but less profitable crops.
“The solution was to make it more profitable for them to sell their coffee and plant more trees. I was working for a bank at the time but I was driven by the need to test my ideas about improving the supply chain for these farmers. I was also doing my EMBA at LBS so I had the option of applying to the incubator programme.”
At LBS Zipporah found resources and support in the startup process, as well as exposure to other startups going through their own challenges and learning journeys. A key learning that she shared with colleagues there was the need for belief – a “ very firm conviction about what you’re doing.”
“You make a lot of sacrifices as an entrepreneur and success is not immediate. You have to persevere through those early months of validating and testing your idea, grappling with cash flow. If I hadn’t held on to the fact I was doing this to help my grandmother and other farmers, it would have been very easy to go back to banking.”
Starting up comes with its cycles of highs and lows and the lows, says Zipporah, can last longer than you expect. To make it through, you have to believe in your idea.
“You need to own it, do your research, make sure that you understand it in-depth and be clear that you are willing to make sacrifices – and that includes your previous job and security. You need to champion your idea because the other people involved in your idea are watching you and they’ll be guided by the way you reflect your belief.”
Taste of Kenya is testimony to Zipporah’s conviction.
In the last two years the company has picked up no fewer than nine prestigious awards for impact, sustainability and innovation. And in 2018 Nestlé invited Zipporah into its Vevey incubator, fuelling plans to grow the Swiss market
“Success comes from knowing what you’re doing but also knowing why you’re doing it. For me it was my grandmother. I wanted to make life easier for her and for other Kenyan farmers like her. During the low times, when it was really hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s important to hold onto the idea that you’re doing something you believe and that you are fighting a good fight. Knowing your ‘why’ is the one thing that I think any company, or any person, wants to set up a company needs to have.”
10 lessons from along the way
- Believe in your idea. Test it, validate it, develop it. But truly believe in it and be sure to own it.
- Know your “why.” Understand what motivates you and hold onto that when the going gets tough.
- Know your customer. Internalise their needs and build your idea around them.
- Don’t wait for the perfect moment. It will never come. And you might miss the opportunity while you’re waiting.
- Make it about people and don’t compromise on quality of people when it comes to hiring. Ensure you have the best team, the best mentors and the best support network. Remember they are your partners in building your business.
- Be real. With investors, with colleagues, with team members. This is a difficult journey so lose any façades.
- Allow your belief in your concept to shine. How you feel and communicate about your idea will influence everyone else. And that includes investors.
- Don’t be risk-averse. Take chances, be prepared to learn if things don’t work out.
- Don’t be naïve. There will be highs, but there will also be lows. And the lows can last a long time.
- Don’t give up. Success may not be immediate, but will taste all the sweeter when it comes.