Interviews

Seven lessons learned from a serial entrepreneur

11 min read

15 December 2016

Traf-O-Data by Bill Gates? Ever heard of it? No? Well, me neither. But the business tycoon-cum-billionaire philanthropist is quite the serial entrepreneur, thanks to his initial venture.

Bill Gates tried his hand at entrepreneurship once he had dropped out of Harvard University, that’s when he started Traf-O-Data. When it resulted in failure, Gates went back to the drawing board to become a serial entrepreneur and used the lessons he learned to start Microsoft – now one of the most well-known businesses in the world.

Being a good entrepreneur is more than a craft. It is an art. An art I’ve been practicing since I was 12, when I had my first business idea: buying and selling foosball tables through classifieds. Since that very first spark of inspiration, I’ve done it many times to become a serial entrepreneur – and learned a few things along the way:

Innovate and disrupt

Like artists, entrepreneurs are in the business of ideas. Without ideas, there is no innovation, and without innovation, there is no long-term success.

The most innovative ideas often combine existing worlds to create something radically different, something magic. On their own, GPS technology and a social media platform aren’t exactly “new” concepts but combine them, and you get Waze.com, the community-based traffic and navigation app with over 50m active users a month.

Think of buying flowers as another example. It may not sound like an obvious candidate for a subscription business model, yet buying flowers on subscription has turned out to be a godsend for law offices, medical practices and many other businesses – and, of course, every Casanova out there.

I love that through innovation, a few driven people in a small office can shake up a whole industry. Big companies sitting on gold mines are often at a disadvantage because they struggle to innovate: they’re not nimble enough and they fear that they have too much to lose. Disrupting the status quo is why entrepreneurs exist. So flex your neurons and look for new ideas. They’re everywhere.

Don’t be afraid to be bold

As long as we’re still breathing, nothing is catastrophic. After launching a business that generated €10,000 a day and living it large in New York City, I found myself back in Paris, living on €300 a week and moving in with a friend’s grandmother.

Was I unhappy? Nope.

On the contrary: it gave me a laser-sharp focus. As a serial entrepreneur, I went back to what I loved and focused on my business – and myself. Within six months, I was back on track, and so was the business. So I know that if I lost everything tomorrow, I could start again the next day.

Creating anything worthwhile requires taking risks. You can’t be scared to fail or lose money, or you will think small. And if you think small, you’ll act small – or worse, you won’t act at all.

Staying within our comfort zone makes us lazy and complacent. It makes us dumb. So be smart, and stretch yourself. Dream big, and act boldly. Maybe you’ll fall short. So what? You’ll learn something.

My first real business as a serial entrepreneur was an online pet shop I started when I was 21. The good news is we sold a lot of pets. Then the bad news: I had no idea how to manage cash flow back then, and had to close down the business. But it taught me how to handle a profit and loss.

So do you fear risk? Break into cold sweats thinking that you might fail? If the answer is yes, then do yourself –and the rest of the world – a favour; do not be an entrepreneur.

Act fast – and test early

Nine out of ten startups fail. And the number one reason – by a very long shot – is they offered something the market didn’t want.

The market is always right. Not you, not your idea, not your vision. Do people actually want what you offer? How much are they willing to pay? How big is your market? How do people buy? What do they respond to? The only way to find out is to test.

The beauty of the internet is anything can be tested, all the time. So test early, and test often. Act imperfectly, but act fast. Don’t launch a perfect product. Launch something the market can react to, so you get a quick answer.

If testing doesn’t bring the results you hoped for, rework your idea. Or toss it, and move on to the next one.

For more powerful serial entrepreneur insights, including knowing when to part ways with a partner, continue onto the next page.

Pick your model

Over a quarter of failed startups don’t make it because they run out of cash. To be successful, every business idea needs to be paired with the right business model.

Every time I launched a business, there was the idea and the idea of a business model to go with it. The upside? I’ve never had to raise more than €300,000 for any given business, because my ventures as a serial entrepreneur generated cash quickly.

Online subscription, for example, is a great model. Half the things most people buy could be sold through subscription. Customers get a more personalised, more convenient service, and businesses get predictable cash flows. Everybody wins.

Find – and keep – the right people

Over a fifth of startup failures are blamed on having the wrong team. There is no possible success without happy, dedicated and creative talent. Finding the right people is one thing. Keeping them is another.

Vision attracts people, and good management retains them. I love generating ideas and launching companies, and I much prefer managing small teams than larger ones. So know what you’re good at, and where someone else can do better than you.

The right team also means the right business partners. Business is like marriage: you need the right partner to make it work. This means someone who complements you, and pulls in the same direction. It also means someone who challenges you, and to whom you’re willing to listen to.

I once teamed up with the wrong person. I was so driven by the business idea that I didn’t want to see that we were not well matched. We had to part ways.

So hire the talents you don’t have, find your match, and know when to listen.

Industrialise

With the right ideas, the right attitude, the right model and the right people, start-ups grow fast. Entrepreneurs who make it are those who can do what they do quicker, better, and for more people. This means shortening and automating systems and processes, not once, but over and over. This also means losing some customers, and that’s OK. There is little room for bespoke when you scale up, and there’s beauty in streamlining.

You share, you grow

As a serial entrepreneur, the way I see it, sharing is a winning attitude. Sharing knowledge, sharing data, sharing success. Not doing so means that you’re afraid that someone else could become better than you. Yet sharing is the way you improve and grow. You win because you offer the best product, the best service, or the best price – not because you don’t share.

Iron is built on this principle. Through the company’s various affiliates, we’re supporting entrepreneurs in the subscription business every step of the way, from seed capital and testing to systems, advertising and hands-on training. Because sharing never goes one way: it fosters partnerships, and partnerships provide solutions.

The ultimate measure of success is the impact we have on others. So what are you willing to share?

When starting out in business it can be difficult to hit the ground running, there’s no doubt about it. How do you turn an idea into a success? It may seem like everywhere you turn there’s another obstacle standing in your way. But don’t be defeated; most business leaders out there that have experienced failure on their way to success.

Julien Foussard is the founder of Iron Group

Image: Shutterstock