Becoming a Serial Entrepreneur
If you have an almost organic desire to create your own business, if you have a vision of the business you want to launch – a vision that does not leave you alone whether you are in the shower or in a restaurant; if you have the adventurous spirit necessary to jump into cold water without knowing what next year will bring while at the same time knowing that you can find solutions to the problems that will appear along the way, then you have some of the necessary traits to be an entrepreneur.
Any experienced investor will look at two fundamental things:
a) The Business Plan: it must make sense and be solidly profitable. Gone are the days when start-ups used to receive tens of millions of dollars based on losses over an undefined number of years (the famous “burn rate”).
b) The Management Team: must be made up of solid people with a proven track record or visionaries with a high level of energy and passion that make up for the lack of proven experience.
How do You Become a Serial Entrepreneur?
You need a great deal of luck; whoever says they can completely control the launch of a new business is either oblivious or arrogant. An entrepreneur becomes a serial entrepreneur because of passion for the initial part of a business – the one where you roll up your sleeves and dive in head-first, doing everything at the same time without too many rules or internal processes, where everything is extremely risky but exciting at the same time – or because of an inability to lead the business once it has reached a certain level of complexity.
As I said before iQuest was not just an idea. It was an almost organic desire. I’ve had it ever since I was in College. I even started two small companies before iQuest. They made me aware of what I was lacking at the time: general experience as a manager and everything it encompasses – finances, human resources, marketing etc. After I improved on some of these things with an MBA and a few years of consultancy, the idea of a software company in Cluj which would deliver quality solutions to Western Europe was born naturally; I do not remember an apple falling…
In the Beginning
The obstacles which appeared in the first two years were almost insurmountable. Trying to sell Romanian software development in Germany requires at least three verifiable ingredients: solid references (ideally in Germany), high quality and stability expressed by the size and longevity of the company. When you do not have any of these components it is almost impossible to sell. It took two years to make our first sale in Germany, after which we also had to deliver on what we promised.
Three things helped me a lot over the course of my career. The first one was the idea that nothing is impossible even if it appears to be at first glance. The second thing was the search for opportunities even during a crisis; I am convinced that so-called crises or great problems can reveal great opportunities. You just have to see them and distance yourself from the “crisis” enough so that you can approach the opportunity. For example in 2005, our largest client, an Austrian company, went bankrupt, leaving us with unpaid bills and half the company without projects. Most companies would have made personnel cuts in order to reduce losses. We used those months to train in new technologies. Fast forward six months and we had firm contracts, were growing and were hiring again, the “crisis” made us grow closer together.
The third thing would be the fact that I delegated early on. Many founders have the tendency to control everything over a long period of time (usually until the EKG shows that they can’t anymore). I was lucky enough to have a great team from the start. They took over responsibilities such as projects or finances. As soon as I found competent managers in other areas (Marketing, HR, etc) I withdrew from those areas as well, to a validation, strategy and major event level. My EKG still looks pretty good as a result…
The First Two Years, the Hardest Ones for a Start-Up
Many entrepreneurs “fail” from the first stage of development because they do not plan their cash flow and resources accordingly for the first two years. We did not have that problem because our business model (software development in Romania for clients in Germany, Switzerland and the UK) includes enough value to sustain growth from our own resources. That is the reason why we were able to avoid bank loans and bring venture capital into the company.
The Ideas Behind iQuest
Some of the ideas behind iQuest are:
a) Large companies lose a large amount of energy through internal politics. From a certain level up, managers cannot focus on the client (the market) anymore because their “colleague” or “subordinate” is preparing to take their place. These schemes and plots lead to incredible energy losses and weaken the company considerably. My dream (which I still have today) is to create a large company that loses a lot less energy through friction and which remains competitive and agile over a long period of time.
b) The fact that there was an enormous amount of collective talent in Romania in the late 90s which was not being used to its full potential and needed to be made known on a European level.
c) The certainty that I can bring value to an environment that suits me on a personal level, in a company that has values I can identify with. I remember situations – 20 years ago, when I was an employee – in which the company’s context reduced my creativity and effectiveness to a fraction of its true potential.
How do you know that you have to change something? There are certain classical moments when it becomes clear:
– (the easiest way): when there are certain symptoms within the organisation (profits decrease, internal problems, the internal atmosphere becomes considerably worse, etc.)
– (a little harder to spot): factors which lead to the phenomena mentioned above, but symptoms are not strong yet. If you can change things then, it would mean a lot to the organisation because it would prevent further suffering
– (very difficult, but with a great deal of potential): even though the company is running well, you can foresee certain inflection points in the near future which will influence the current business model: new dangers or new opportunities. These inflection points generally come from the market (new technologies, new competitors, new laws, processes, etc.). You change things in order to prepare for that particular inflection point.
Advice for Young Entrepreneurs
First of all check if you are a real entrepreneur (see above). The desire to make a lot of money is often mistaken for the desire to start a successful company.
Second, find a good mentor. The mentor should be a role model in terms of values as well as a good entrepreneur. A good mentor can become the differentiator between success and failure, he can help you avoid certain mistakes before you make them.
Thirdly, if you have launched a successful company, you should check (an experienced mentor would be very helpful in this case) if you have what it takes to help the company grow beyond the first stage (see above). If you do, the launch phase will be followed by another one in which management and leadership qualities will be essential. However, this is another topic we will talk about soon.