Change Course or Pivot? That’s the Question
The first venture I started was a property investment and brokerage company called Quadrant 3 Properties, an outfit that provided sale/purchase and rental services to the working class mostly in Accra. I struggled with it for about a year without much traction so I made an exit from that market and went ahead to start a nonprofit that provides promotional services to churches and religious folks who had proprietary title to Christian literature, mostly books. The main activity was a radio book review. I had done due diligence that showed that a budding Charismatic and Pentecostal movement was sweeping across Ghana and therefore literature development from Christian intelligentsia was a logical fallout. Unfortunately my pricing model was founded on a flawed assumption that the pastoral “market” may want to pay a token for promoting their books. I was wrong. Most wanted it for free, after all, I was doing God’s work. Fair enough! So I did a couple of Radio book reviews and that was it; lack of liquidity compelled me to cancel the Radio program. I failed again. And so the story went, as I proceeded to secure a regular job in banking eventually resigning years later to pursue opportunities in consulting. Romantic right? Maybe. Here is the thing though: I had read the entrepreneurial experience of many greats from across the world. I have read about the bold exploits of Aristotle Onassis; how he made oil deals in the gulf, I read about the raw bravado of Donald Trump when he was starting out – The Art of the Deal, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, name them. In my own country Ghana, I have admired from afar the media dominance of remarkable entrepreneurs like Kofi Amoabeng, Sam Jonah, Akenten Appiah-Menka and a whole constellation of stars that are presented to us regular dreamers, in brands so colorful and romantic without any inkling of the mountains they had to climb, the dilemmas they faced, the marital divorce they went through and the persecution they suffered for daring to be different. This is the problem I have with the prevailing narrative of entrepreneurship. For me this romanticized notion of entrepreneurship is an important topic because it influences the way the subject is taught; as a strict academic discipline without properly situating it within a socio-cultural context. The truth of the matter is that, in an environment such as Ghana where all who pass through the bequeathed colonial educational system are classically conditioned to function as employees, any outlier that dares to walk the entrepreneurial path, is subconsciously branded a rebel and therefore faces opposition, even from within their own families.
The Unpleasant Truth
On February 13, 2016 I led a team to engage the entrepreneurship Club of a senior high School in the Central Region of Ghana. After completing a seminar on business model generation, a young lady by name Angela, stepped up to me to ask a question. “Sir…” she said, I really want to work for myself but my parents wouldn’t allow it. They say it is better to work for another company because there is no guarantee that a business would work”. For me this conversation was far more important that the 1-hour scholarly seminar I had delivered because it revealed to me, the deep-seated psychosocial constraints that those involved in entrepreneurship education fail to address or at worse, are ignorant of. Now it’s important to understand that the mindset of Angela’s parents is a microcosm of a broader socio-cultural condition, which may be partly driven by fear but also by a profound misunderstanding of what entrepreneurship really entails.
What They Don’t Know
Every organisation goes through a life cycle, from startup to maturity and barring re-invention, decline or liquidation. Depending on the business environment and other internal factors such as robustness of business model (product-market-fit, management quality, resources, etc.) the time between pivoting and actual liquidity, may last between 1-3 years, sometimes more. To put it simply, it may take about 1 to 3 years to see positive cashflows, to take decent salary or pay electricity bills without overdraft. Here is what it means: you spot a market need, design solutions for it, invest capital and convince your target demographics that you, and not your competitors, is the real deal. Until you have enough customers with purchasing power to buy from you at the price you have set and in volumes that cover your production and operating cost, then guess what? You need to find an alternative source of income to feed yourself, your family, if you are married or even pay for bills which may be fixed cost. It is matters like these that exert emotional pressure on the entrepreneur, and quite frankly, such subtleties usually fall through the cracks and fail to get mentioned by those who have crossed that threshold themselves or those who only teach the subject. Truth is, sometimes it may be unintended, because crossing that economic threshold, in a way signifies victory over all those minutiae and unpleasant details that the human mind may naturally wish to forget. For such a mind, it is better to focus on the glorified aspects of an entrepreneur’s experience in ways that encapsulate the art in more simplistic yet impressive concepts such as ; risk-taking, decision-making, capital raising or business model generation. It’s more impressive to narrate how one structured a complex business deal than to share one’s experience of begging friends for change just so you could buy roasted plantain or Fanti Kenkey for lunch. I know of none that has dared to broach these soft but touchy areas which comes with entrepreneurship, issues such as; risking your marriage, becoming a social reject, going hungry for days or even handling prejudice. Certainly, very scant literature has been dedicated to addressing the issue of depression that most entrepreneurs go through in their lifetime. I must confess, I have heard (not read) few who speak of political persecution because of perceptions of political alignment with the “wrong” party.
A Case for Change
We must change the narrative in order to paint an accurate picture of total cost to those who wish to start their business; economic cost, financial cost, personal cost and social cost. Holding other entrepreneurs up as exemplars of business leadership does not in any way prepare would-be entrepreneurs to handle the difficult aspects such as personal conflicts, depression, marital troubles or threat to sustenance. It certainly would not prepare them for how to handle prejudice from the sourcing manager who has power to approve or disapprove a contract. The importance of being transparent about such matters cannot be overemphasized.
Entrepreneurship is not a romantic endeavor for some Romeos and Juliets who seek fame or social recognition. It is a difficult but necessary problem-solving tool through which public policy achieves the goals of social organisation, employment creation and accelerated growth. Stop romanticizing it.
Author: Nkunimdini Asante-Antwi