Useful lessons are often common sense. So obvious and straightforward for our taste that we overlook and disregard. Instead, we often mistake complexity for depth and usefulness.
Take, for example, I have learned in 2021 that slowing down is the most effective antidote for our anxiety and listlessness. Whenever you are feeling scattered, take a break and rest. Likely it will save you from burning out and getting further down into the bottomless pit of anxiety. Rarely do we take that route.
There are other common-sense lessons.
Have a list of 3-4 things to do daily. Don’t turn your to-do list into a never-ending laundry list. Truly commit to your to-do list. Finish them.
Stop trying to do too many things at once.
Have limited expectations. Focus.
Observe yourself and your body. Your body always knows when you are anxious or about to do something stupid.
Ask for help.
Do difficult things. Often exposure is the antidote to our fear. Expose yourself to the things you fear the most.
Know that things will go wrong. But also know that everything will fall into place eventually.
Often doing the basics right is what all it takes.
The reality is the best teacher. We learn the best when we fail, make mistakes, stumble, and suffer. The second-best approach to learning is learning from the life experiences and mistakes of others. Moreover, learning from others allows us to save ourselves from making all the mistakes ourselves.
To that end, per our annual tradition, I put together some of the most important lessons I have learned in 2021 from some of the best founders we interviewed in 2021. The lessons cover everything from building companies, personal growth to having a good life. Enjoy!
Being human, it is good advice that we should always be skeptical of good times. Because good times never last. Never get demoralized by your trials and tribulations, bad times never last forever either. Life is a beautiful ebb and flow of laughter and melancholy. When we truly internalize this reality of life, things get easier to manage. It humbles us. Wins and losses don’t matter much in a world where time erases everything eventually. Wins don’t make us anymore happier than our losses make us sad.
Founders get to see the best manifestation of this side of life. At one moment, things might appear supper rosy and you are flying. The next moment it feels like everything is about to come crashing down. Never dwell in either of that reality. Find a balance instead.
Sheikh Sourav, Founder, and President of Apploye, puts it beautifully:
“You know entrepreneurship is stressful. You need to ensure payroll every month, things can go wrong at any moment, you make difficult decisions all the time. All these things add to your stress level. What happened over the years is that I have become fascinated by the ideas of Stoic philosophy. That everything is about expectation. If you could manage your expectation, you could manage anything. [....]
I am a measured pessimist. I don't take things at their face value. I try to see both sides of everything. I don't get excited about the positives or see only the negatives. I try to see both and prepare for bad situations.”
“The sacrifices you need to make in the process of building an enterprise are pretty huge. You have to sacrifice sleep and relationship and so much more. Whatever success I have achieved and the sacrifice I had to make, if you ask me if I've agreed to make this sacrifice, I would say no if it were only for the success. I agree because I have a mission and I want to contribute. If it were for only money, I would not have been motivated to do this. Of course, now that I'm playing this game, I must make money because there are incentives for different stakeholders involved. Moreover, I need money to do what I want to do. So I have an incentive to earn money.
But if anyone starts a company for earning money alone, it will likely fail. Because earning money by doing something else is much easier. Entrepreneurship demands a lot more which you would not be able to give if you do it for money alone.” — Sheikh Sourav
Founder of Audacity IT Solutions Abu Bakkar Siddiq agrees. In an interview with FS, Mr. Siddiq shares:
“Knowing why you have started your business is important. I have a certain goal in life and Audacity is a part of that. Many people start without knowing what they want. Do not do that. Entrepreneurship is tough. Unless you are doing it for the right reason, you would not survive the journey. Mental toughness is necessary and it comes from having the right reason.”
As Nassim Taleb beautifully explains in his excellent Fooled by randomness, the importance and significance of randomness in life — most things in life are random and hard to solve using an equation. Entrepreneurship is no different. Luck plays a huge role in every successful entrepreneurial success. The good thing is that we can almost always influence luck by our actions. The more we try, the luckier we get. In a random world, the best strategy essentially is playing all the cards you have and some more if possible.
Kowser Ahmed, Founder, and CEO of Kow Company, explains this best:
“The initial customers were my buyers from my failed garment buying house business and other people I knew in the sector. They all eventually became my customers.
Once we exhausted our initial network, we then did some research on e-commerce companies across markets to find potential leads. The process was something like this: we would find the contact person of a company, do a bit of research about him and the company, then send him an email, a reminder, and finally make a phone call.
In the beginning, most companies would not reply. In the early months, we would email 500 companies and ten companies would reply, and out of those ten, we would eventually convert 1 or so companies. So around 2-3 companies in every 2000 companies would show interest. It was a tedious job but we were persistent and patient. It eventually paid off.”
“Challenges and difficulties are a part of life. Our trials help us to become stronger. When you start working out, you’ll feel muscle pain in the first few days. If you can overcome that stage your muscles will grow stronger. Expect more struggles and uncertainty, so that you can be better. If you are not facing any problems it means you are not growing.” — Abu Bakkar Siddiq
“The most important thing is determination. Building a company is tough. Make sure you understand that when you are starting. What will keep you going through the ups and downs during this journey is your determination. Suppose you want to solve a problem and things didn't work out as you expected. You should not say “Bye”. Find a problem you can relate to and are passionate about and find a solution for that.” — Alfa Bumhira
“My co-founders and I always had a bootstrapping mentality. We didn’t go for VC funding until we had a positive brand image. This relieved us of investor pressure and allowed us to proceed at our own pace. My father is a businessman and he has always encouraged me to do things by myself. If you rely on people and start delegating work in the very beginning, you’ll miss out on valuable experiences. When you’re working in a startup, you have to be able to juggle a lot.
Building our brand organically was extremely beneficial to us. You are taking a major risk if you spend a lot of money on promotion and media activity in the early stages of your firm. Now that we have entered a growth mode and reached a certain point in terms of brand awareness, we work collaboratively with marketing firms. After being in the fashion scene for a while, we have come to realize that ‘Trial at delivery’ is the USP that works really well. Repacking outfits like shirts can be very difficult but we don’t want to compromise on it. We have always tried to think in an SME kind of way: balancing our growth and liquidity. When you focus entirely on growth, you will neglect many factors that may be beneficial to your long-term sustainability.” — Alavi Khondoker
“While working in Microsoft, one of the lessons I have learned was to surround myself with people who are better than me. I always keep my recruiting hat on and whenever I find anyone good, I try to hire them. I lookout for people who are smarter than me.
I try to give people a platform where they can flourish. Our people can do things their way and are always encouraged to bring their full selves to the work. It allows me to focus on other areas. I do not have to work full-time in Spreeha for this reason.
Another lesson I have learned while working at Microsoft was to always think about getting hit by a bus scenario. My first manager of Microsoft told me that your organization should not stop operating if you are not there anymore. I carry this lesson with me to this day. In every organization I have worked in, I have tried to make it self-reliant and not dependent on one person. If anyone is not there then other people can take over the responsibilities.” — Tazin Shadid
“Patience is key. You may endure a lot of criticism, but it is critical that you respond positively to it. Patience is multidimensional. Patience when your people are not doing their best. Patience when customers are making unreasonable demands or complaining for no good reasons. Patience when things are not exactly going according to your expectation.
I struggled with this in the early days of my entrepreneurial journey. I would get upset on small matters and react. That did not serve me well. Instead, it would complicate apparently small matters and cause unnecessary tension. I have eventually learned to be patient with challenges and difficulties. It has been transformative for me.” — Tofael Hossain
“Always do the right thing no matter what. Because the cost is always higher when you don’t. Maybe the financial cost will be less. But the real cost will be higher.
Always value people. Because people are not to be used. Life is divine and when we mistreat people, we mistreat the creator. When we love people, we are loving the creator.
Work hard. Do not let your dreams turn into nightmares. Do the right things in the right way.” — Ellis Miller
“One of my biggest learnings has been the correct execution of task delegation. It is important to know what needs to be perfect and which aspects could do without painstaking perfectionism, so that team members have some space to make errors and learn from them.
For the founder to hold on to everything and do it all by themselves not only paves way for them to become overloaded and overly stressed but also takes away skill-building opportunities from team members.
Another misstep was not crediting marketing with the level of attention it required in the early days. Taking an analogical example here – if the business is a vehicle, then marketing is the headlights that light up the path ahead for the vehicle to keep moving. It was a mistake to not invest appropriately in marketing early enough, as it is one of the most important functions of the business. We did however make appropriate amends, later on.” — Sarjeena Maodud
“Firstly, as a leader, I am always trying to work harder. A leader must set an example of what he/she expects from his/her teammates. If slacking off, your team will lose respect for you. Instead, work hard.
Taking responsibility is the highest mark of great leaders. I never shy away from accepting criticisms for my mistakes. For instance — I had made some strategic mistakes when we launched one of our latest tea products and now we’re re-thinking about it and trying to rectify the mistakes. That is, we must remember that mistakes happen and we should work to fix them, not simply blame people for them. Leadership and learning are endless processes. You can never say that you are the best because there are always scopes for improvement.
As a leader, it is very important to be self-aware. We should be able to judge ourselves more than we judge others. I have been on a journey to refine myself as a leader. I think that is your biggest job as a leader — becoming an ever more refined version of yourself. That comes from a sense of honest self-awareness.” — Shamim Khan
“Keep the commitments that you make. As a business, if we commit and don't deliver, it means doom for us. So you mustn't over-commit. You have to be transparent and honest. Don't get overconfident because if you can build something somebody else can build it as well.
Don't stretch yourself to build everything. The partnership could be a good way to expand instead of building everything yourself. It is a much faster way to grow.
Be focused on what you want to achieve. We have always been focused.
Have role models. You should follow people who are better in the industry. We follow companies like Accenture, TCL, etc.
And finally, be aware of what's happening in the market.” — Munimul Islam
“The first lesson is that you can't afford to have an ego when you are building anything. In the early days, it was usually difficult to handle my ego. I have gradually learned not to take my feelings seriously. It is useful.
We often take longer than necessary to make decisions. We should make decisions faster. These two lessons stand out for me.” — Shadman Majid