15 years, 5 key lessons in entrepreneurship

These are the top five things I’ve learned in the past 15 years – By Felix Erken, MD Junk Mail

October 24, 2012

By Felix Erken, MD Junk Mail

“Junk Mail started life as a weekly print publication, a solidly old-school business – but in the 15 years since I joined the business in 1998 it’s also become South Africa’s largest online classified advertising site, with a huge mobile reach as well thanks to our custom-developed mobile site”, says Felix Erken, MD of Junk Mail.

These are the top five things I’ve learned in the past 15 years:

1. Never think you’re ahead of the game
We went through a phase a few years ago where everything we touched made money. I thought I was so good: And then the competitors came. I watched them, of course, but not nearly seriously enough – I made exactly the same mistake the newspapers had made with Junk Mail a decade earlier.

If I’d been a bit more smart, and a bit less complacent, I would have realised a lot earlier than I did that my business as I had known it would never be the same again. Because these things sneak up on you – your numbers keep looking good, and you keep feeling successful, for quite a long time while the ground is being cut out from under you.

We survived, of course, but it was tough going for a while. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have moved to respond a lot earlier. Which brings me to the second lesson:

2. You can’t bar the door against a tsunami
Change happens, and you can’t stop it – you can only try to ride it. With hindsight, we tried to protect the print side of our business against the Internet onslaught for far too long. I’ve learned that it’s always better to embrace than to defend – the more tightly you cling to what you know, the more you lose the essence of what you are trying to do. Ultimately we had to recognise that our business was fundamentally about helping people buy and sell things, not publishing newspapers – the medium our customers choose should make no difference to us.

There’s always going to be a new disruption around the corner – I’ve learned now to go out and pursue partnerships and collaborations, not view every new thing as a potential threat.

3. Trust your instincts and stand up for them
This goes along with the old line about it being easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. I’ve always had the best results when I’ve trusted my own experience and instincts. At one point we lost two years of growth, I believe, because I wasn’t confident enough in my own judgement to argue my position.

4. Look after your body
Running a business takes a lot of energy, and it’s a long-term commitment. Working 18-hour days fuelled by junk food and caffeine might work for a short time, but if you don’t look after your own resources they will fail you at a critical point. Looking after your body, taking holidays, looking after your relationships – these are important investments in your business as well as your own happiness and well-being.

5. Invest in your management
This is the hardest lesson of all, for most of us: At some point, we have to let go. It will always be agonising to hand a portion of the business over to someone else and then watch them make mistakes – but if you don’t do it, they will never learn and the business will never grow. And if you fall ill, or fall under a bus next week, the business will collapse without you unless you’ve shared the vision and the competence that will enable other people to run things.