Nine Lessons from Nine Years in Business
Nine years ago, I had a microwave, a pink mixing bowl, and a goal to save one million plastic bottles by 2020.
Today marks nine years since Ethique officially opened its doors.
Some of you may remember those early years (when the company was actually called Sorbet); the water-soluble packaging, the rather, er, rustic looking bars, the haphazard hand wrapping and the general air of ‘what on earth am I doing?’
It's been a bumpy ride, with as many highs as lows (as any entrepreneur will tell you) but overall, I am beginning to feel like Ethique is no longer a start-up, but a global company having a real impact on our planet and hopefully, changing the way many people think about business.
Nine years ago, I had a microwave, a pink mixing bowl, and a goal to save one million plastic bottles by 2020. And that seemed a little ambitious.
Now, we have offices in New Zealand, the UK and the USA, team members based around the globe, products on shelves in 22 countries and, most importantly, we have saved over 13 million plastic bottles from being made and disposed of.
Well, what have I learned in nine years? Lots. So here are the ones I think you will find most valuable.
Build a team and work on culture.
A business is nothing without people. Hard to believe employers find this one a tricky concept to grasp, but here we are. You can’t do anything alone and having a solid team around you is the number one most important thing in any business. It’s not the idea, it’s not the marketing – it’s the people beside you every single day. Hire people you aren’t necessarily comfortable with straight away, because often those you immediately bond with are very like you and those skills are already in the business. Hire smarter people and give them some slack in the reins.
Don’t be an a**hole.
Building on the above – treat people with kindness. Something that is talked about in business a lot, but often ignored. Much press is given to CEOs or founders who take huge pay cuts so their team don’t have to be on minimum wage anymore. A better option (though less marketable), would be simply paying them a living wage from the get-go. And it’s not just money, it’s flexibility with what each team member needs. Everyone wants something different - more money isn't what appeals the most to everyone, so make the time to understand what motivates your team. This goes for partnerships with the likes of distributors too. When it comes to contracts and negotiations, don't go for the jugular. Be realistic, without demanding the earth. Word gets around about people who do act like that, and there is plenty of people in NZ and further ashore I won’t even entertain working with as I know what to expect with working with them.
Be picky with your partners.
As you grow and get more successful, loads of people and organisations will come out of the woodwork and want to work with you in some shape or form. Be careful, go slowly with contractual relationships (don’t skimp on lawyers!) and ensure you are well covered just in case something doesn’t work. In the early years of Ethique and even prior to that in my other businesses, I had a habit of getting very excited and jumping in headfirst to new opportunities with partners. I’ve been burnt multiple times, but I have finally learnt this one.
Every day our customers email in new ideas, or the team has a great idea, or I think of something new I want to do in the shower. And most of them are not in the plan. In the first few years of Ethique’s life, we pursued almost everything that was dangled in front of us and it’ was massively distracting. It’s hard to say no to what looks like an amazing opportunity at the time, but if it’s taking you off track of what it is you want to achieve, you need to think really carefully first.
‘Nicheing down’ is a term that is very over used, but it’s really important to focus on a small area, and a small target market. “Women aged 18-65” is not a target market. Go deeper.
Work quickly, but think long-term.
Too often, people in business think short-term. This drastically impacts decisions and is often at the expense of the brand. For example, having steep discounts regularly because the brand wants to hit a revenue goal for the associated bragging rights. The reality is that they are training their customers to expect this and not building a brand. Goals are important, but short-term goals should not compete with your long-term ones. The other important point of course when thinking long-term is to stick to your values.
“How did you stick to your values when you started exporting?” I get asked this in almost every interview and to be honest, I find it an odd question. Ethique is built on values, they are fundamental to what we do AND what we all believe to be right. We don’t compromise them to grow quicker, and it boggles my mind that it’s the norm for businesses to do the opposite.
Just keep swimming.
Number one skill you need as an entrepreneur or businessperson? Tenacity, perseverance, dogged determination - whatever you want to call it - it's grit. In the early days, the slightest thing could send me into a panicky tailspin of doom and gloom and I would think of canning the company and doing something new. Now don’t get me wrong, challenges do crop up but I have learned to deal with them and work on these challenges with the team around me. The panic I used to feel all the time is now few and far between and that’s because over time you build resilience. Emotions and panic fade, dig in and carry on. Very few problems cannot be resolved.
Competition is good.
Nine years ago, there was no one doing this. Now, there are loads of companies – we’ve inspired an industry and a wealth of businesses. That is fantastic and exactly what we wanted to do. We cannot do this alone. So, keep an eye on your competitors and use it as motivation to do better. We are working to inspire even more businesses to choose ethical and regenerative business policies, services and products.
It is maddening when people take weeks to make a seemingly easy decision. Think something through, talk with who you need to and make the decision. Dragging something out whether it be staffing issues, product discontinuations or whatever, will only be to your emotional detriment and to the business’. Think quick and always look to change what isn’t working (once you’ve ascertained it’s definitely not working.)
Work on your business, as much as in it.
As a business leader or founder, it’s important to be the vision – where the business is going. It’s hard to be creative and inspired when bogged down in the operational stuff everyday. So, take time out to have a day or two where you dream big, mindmap – whatever works for you. But think about where you want the business to go, not the logistics of what you are doing now.
And bonus number ten?
Just do it. Give it a try, don’t put everything into it if it will put you into a dangerous position, but just give it a go. You have no idea where it will take you.