Sunday, March 6, 2016

To strive, to seek, to find: the entrepreneurial quest for opportunity

I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life.

Do I think I deserve an award for that? Hell yeah! But I know I’m not getting one (or am I?). Well, almost all my life. I feel that I have the battle scars that allow me to speak authoritatively on behalf of entrepreneurs. There is a brief period when I took up the comfort of employment. It was rewarding in its own way and truth be told, I was allowed to express myself entrepreneurially even in that setup. I learned something important during that time. I understood that the biggest difference between an employee and an entrepreneur is that entrepreneurs are hardly ever comfortable. Not that they never make money or attain wealth, that’s not what I mean. What I mean is that entrepreneurs rarely ever sit back, feel content and think they are done regardless of their successes or failures. They are often asking, “What’s next?”

Opportunity is next. You see, the answer to that question lies in the next opportunity. That’s what’s next.

Though it’s probably impossible to prove, I believe that less than 50% of the opportunities available to human beings are ever taken up. That’s a disappointing percentage, isn’t it? There are a myriad of reasons why opportunities are never utilised. There may be capital constraints, poor timing, bad location etc. However, in my view, the biggest reason is that we don’t even know that the opportunity is there. So many opportunities come by and pass without us ever seeing that they were there. The good thing about these is that they leave us with less regret but wouldn’t we stand a better chance if we knew they were there? How much better would we be if we were able to pick these opportunities up? So much better, I say.

We owe it to ourselves to develop our skills to be able to identify opportunities wherever they may present themselves. But how do we do that? How do we turn ourselves into efficient receptors for opportunities that we often miss? The first answer lies in the very essence of being an entrepreneur. Instinct. Before you ask, instinct is naturally contained in some people but it must be developed and can be learned. Like most things, if you don’t build on it, it dies and if you build on it, it grows. If you are asking what happens if you don’t have good instincts, let me break it down for you. If you are an entrepreneur and have set up a new business and it has survived more than 1000 days, then you’ve got it. Just build on it by putting it more to the test. See what your instincts tell you about a situation and act on it. The only way to hone in your instinct is through experience. I realised this in my own experience. Now, when a client approaches us, I can tell with 90% accuracy, which client will cost us time and money. That has saved us quite a bit of money. So now, we are quite selective about the clients we take up. Better not to earn money than to lose it, right?

The second answer came to me when I took a trip to Zimbabwe a few months back. Whilst there, I was driving a Japanese imported vehicle. I’m generally a creature of habit and when I’m there, I listen to the same radio station. For some odd reason, the radio in the car I had could only pick up 2 radio channels. None of which were my regular channel. The fact that I couldn’t listen to the channel didn’t mean that it wasn’t there. It simply meant that the frequency at which it was broadcasting isn’t the frequency at which I was listening. That’s often the same problem with us and opportunities. They are often broadcasting at frequencies that we aren’t listening at. For some of us, these are frequencies we aren’t able to listen at. There are various reasons for this. Sometimes we consume our minds with noise borne from disappointments, frustrations or a lack of focus or any of a million reasons. The opportunities simply come and go. We need to keep our minds open and aware so we are able to pick up the frequencies when we need to.

I know, I seem to be creating a maze but it gets clearer. Wait for it.

The best way to make your mind “opportunity ready” is to constantly and continuously feed your mind. Yep, you heard right, feed your mind. The process of feeding your mind is easier than many people would think. You do this by reading, listening and watching things that challenge your mind and developing a healthy curiosity about the things in the world around you. Make that brain work. That’s how you expand it. If you constantly feed your mind, you become a receptor for much more stimuli around you than before and you are more likely to see opportunity when it comes. What may seem like useless information becomes your next breakthrough because you have opened up your mind to it. You become more aware of it. Sometimes, it may simply be because you are more aware of coming trends because your mind is now in that space. And as your mind continues to expand, you become more pre-emptive of trends. Here’s where it gets more exciting. When you get here, not only do you start picking up more opportunities, you begin to create opportunities. This is a realisation that has profoundly changed my life and has made me more relevant.

If you think about it, this message isn’t just for entrepreneurs. It can be for anyone because the concepts are universally applicable. Like anything in this world, it’s not easy. You must invest in the time and resources that allow you to be better. Read a book (I know some of you haven’t since college), play a game of chess or even scrabble. The basic principles hold true. You must strive and you must seek. That is the only way that you will find.

Learning to win

What is the object of life?

I’ve asked many people that question and I have received as many answers as there are grains of sand on a beach. When you ask people what the object of life is, you will get a panoply of interesting and creative answers. The religious will speak of the tenets of their religious dogma and how that defines their purpose on this earth. The goal oriented will speak about the need to attain set targets and the romantics will bring tears to your eyes and joy to your heart speaking about love and the beauty of the rising sun (or some such). I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these or a myriad of others who I have not mentioned; however, I believe that they are overthinking things. Let me explain why. I agree wholeheartedly that our lives have a purpose. If you don’t think so, it may save you time to close this page. I believe that we can’t just be here to float around, breathe air and excrete waste until we die. Our purposes as different people on this earth may not be the same but we are all drawing from the same motivational reserve to be able to attain targets that lead us towards our goal. Therefore, the honest reality is that the object of life is to win.

Yes, to win.

Before you condemn my thinking as capitalist propaganda, hear me out. If you believe that your purpose is to help others by alleviating poverty, as an example, then if you are able to do that and help people around you, you have won. If your purpose is to make a billion dollars, once you attain that, you have won. If you believe you are here to find love and enjoy it then by attaining that, you have won. Therefore, the reality is that everything we aim for, dream or desire, whether it is for us or for others constitutes a win once attained. If we commit to it and search for it then, it follows that the reality is that we seek to win every single day of our lives. The basic reality is that human beings are goal oriented creatures and by understanding that, we are able to motivate ourselves so much more and so much better because it’s always easier to run a race with a goal in sight. That is why people spend countless hours trying to learn how to set goals and drive towards them.

It is important to understand that human beings are not one dimensional. Very few things in life ever are. So, you don’t live in this life with one goal or one target for your entire existence. It would really be sad if people did because it would mean that if you fail (and failure does happen) then you may as well hang yourself on the nearest tree. The reality is that we have so many different things that we wish to attain, some big and some small. You could be a husband /.wife, a parent, an amateur sportsperson, a writer and a business executive all at the same time. Therefore, you want to grow your marriage, improve in your sport of choice, publish articles, provide for your children and make money all at the same time. The is no known limit to the things we can strive for. That’s because if there’s one thing that God gave us in abundance, it’s potential. What we do with it is another matter.

The two ideas that we have introduced bring us to the win principle. We have understood that human beings desire to win, that is the object of life and at the same time, we desire to win on numerous fronts simultaneously. It goes without saying that with this multi-dimensional approach to life, not everything can go smoothly at the same time. At times one thing will go wrong or at times everything goes wrong and we stop seeing our targets in sight. That’s just the way it is. Expect it and anticipate it. In order to get the right drive to surge forward in our goals and secure those wins, we must be motivated. Motivation is really the desire to go on. It says to you, regardless of what’s on the ground, “Let’s go!” To be able to meet our targets and do the great things we would like to do, we must really keep our motivation levels up. The win principle is all about motivation.

I have realised in my numerous personal and entrepreneurial battles that things can go very bad. And often, when you are juggling several things at the same time, one of them going wrong can throw a spanner in the works. That’s why you often hear that when people are having challenges in their relationships, their work also suffers. That is because the negativity of the area of your life that’s going wrong often carries itself into other areas of your life. It’s really a play on your motivation. A cocktail of losses demotivates and leads one to believe that there are losses in other areas of their lives. That assertion is often just an impression and often not the prevailing reality but by lacking motivation, your actions then drive the rest of the areas of your life into a nose dive. Therefore, a single real loss can create a domino effect by inspiring perceived losses which inform our actions and then create more real losses.

All is not lost though, (tuck away your hangman’s noose), the same is applicable to the reverse and positive side of life. In exactly the same way that losses demotivate, wins can motivate. A win in one part of your life can lead to a scenario where you believe that you can do anything. You begin to believe in yourself and you take on more and hence achieve more. Thus, a real win, creates a number of perceived wins which often lead to winning actions which inspire more wins in your life. Therefore, the pursuit of wins motivates.

It gets even better. One of the most interesting things that I have realised is that is that you can turn around a series of losses by attaining a single win. The power of a win often trumps the power that losses have over you. That’s because of how human beings are wired. We are naturally positive and aspirational creatures and therefore we embrace wins in a big way. It’s that same aspiration and positivity that allowed our ancestors to create fire when they were cold when it was so much easier to curl and die. It’s that same aspiration and positivity which has seen us continuously and consistently turn problems into solutions and that has become the bedrock of human innovation.

More interestingly, you don’t need to secure a win in the area in which you need it most or in the area where you are facing loss to be motivated. Allow me to explain. There was a point in my life when I was dabbling in a number of businesses and at the same time working on my fitness and health. Things in business were going badly and needless to say, my motivation levels were low. However, when I ran my first 5km run, I felt like I was on top of the world and I could do anything. I took that positivity and enthusiasm into business and that was our turning point.

Therefore, the win principle simply says that motivation is derived from wins and the wins needed to motivate a person or people do not necessarily need to be related to the area of loss. They simply need to be present and realised.

The last part is absolutely critical. You need to see a win as a win for it to motivate you. If you don’t, then it’s like it’s not there. Awareness of where you are, what you need and what you have is absolutely critical. Therefore, to bring it to a more practical level, when you see things taking a wrong turn in any part of your life and sometimes you can’t find a solution to a nagging problem, take the time to craft a win. We often know where it’s easiest to find that win. Go there and get that win, you will often find that you will create a reservoir of motivation and enthusiasm which often drives your turnaround.

The object of life is to win.

A dollar out of 15 cents: A story of supermodels, helicopters and the creative economy

I was 16 years old when my physics teacher bolted into class and asked,

"Do you know how to make a million dollars?"

My mind raced to a million places and my heart beat excitedly in anticipation. I expected that he perhaps had created a laser that could heal a disease we had never heard of or perhaps he devised a Nobel Prize worthy formula for the earth's rotation. Before you condemn me as an overly excitable fellow, let me give you the context. This guy was an African Einstein. I can't vouch for what went on in his head but he kept plenty of unkempt hair and a sporting mustache with a dusty lab coat completing the look. When you saw him he always looked like he was working out something. I always imagined that his head was like a projector beaming complicated calculus that only he could see. Clearly I can be forgiven for thinking that the look went together with some higher cognitive ability.

You can imagine my utter disappointment when he offered his answer,

"You plant a million cabbages and sell them at a dollar each."

I was shattered. How could my Einstein be advocating for agriculture in this modern age. Short of prostitution, agriculture is as old as economic activity gets. Moreover, it's as creative as shelf packing. A man who was meant to fill our minds with a desire to conquer the unknown wanted me to plant cabbages. Needless to say, now in my 30s, I am yet to forgive this man.

If you look at it closely it's a very African way of thinking about economics and perhaps it's the reason why our great continent is only advocating for beneficiation of natural resources 100 years after the West got to it. The example of my physics teacher illustrates just how conflicting our own thinking is. It's the strangest oxymoron. The analogy basically gives us the understanding that we are in a position of knowledge. Being a part of the global economy, we know what we want. We know what we buy. We know that we would want more but we never venture out to search for that "more" ourselves. we even boast great education systems yet we seem afraid to encourage our young entrepreneurs to venture towards the unknown. instead, we tell them to plant cabbages. What we really should be doing is encouraging them to dream and make new things. We should be encouraging them to be a part of the creative economy.

It may be appropriate now to explain what I mean by the creative economy. The best definition I can think of is the set of socio-economic trade dealing in creativity, knowledge and information and the transformation of those into tangible problem solving economic entities and products. To even simplify it further, I see it as the ability to create something out of nothing or very little and the foresight to monetize it. Basically, to borrow the children's game, to make a dollar out of 15 cents.

I'm sure the more perceptive of you have already realised that cabbages in my assessment go well beyond just cabbages or just agriculture but it illustrates the usual economy. Things that people have been known to do all along. It's either you are a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer and so on. Oddly, it seems that if you can't give it a name, it doesn't exist. That's the quandary that I have faced my whole life and it has taken me 3 decades to find an answer. Maybe I needed therapy, who knows. You see, I became part of the creative economy against all odds. For a long time I felt like a misfit. I'm the sort of guy who doesn't fit into any conventional mould and I never have. For instance, I played soccer as a wingback, even though I was slow (running wise, that is), I played rugby even though I wasn't very big, I'm a whizz at commercial business and organizational development even though I write poetry and humanities have always come easy for me. That's just a tip of the iceberg. Now you can imagine my misery when I was asked what I wanted to be. Everyone else wanted to be doctors, lawyers, accountants and I knew that wasn't for me. I was expected to give a name of a profession which had no name. I then became smart about it. I made stuff up. Sometimes I wanted to be a painting poet, a supermodel (in my defense, I won a modeling competition when I was 13), then a race car driver and once, to the dismay of those around me, I wanted to plant cabbages. Not be a farmer. Just cabbages.

The psychologist in me will tell you that it was more a cry for help and the pursuit for definition more than anything else. Whatever funny example I used was to illustrate that I desired to create and even more than that, the cabbages quip was a desire to make that million dollars. I guess I spent so much time trying to define myself in a world that boxed you according to a name and where a name didn't exist, I was lost. That for me is the saddest thing. How many young creative minds have we killed because we have convinced them that they belong to pocket and they should stay in their lane? I can literally see the brain cells committing suicide. So, because you are an accountant or engineer, you can't like Hamlet or you can't dream. Have you ever thought that the much revered Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. These things don't fit together nowadays and it led me to realize that Africa could embrace a creative economy and build creative entrepreneurs just by understanding that the world need not stand on convention. People need not be pigeon-holed. We must encourage our entrepreneurs and children to open their minds and explore possibilities. Only then do we build more fulfilling enterprises and create new things for the world to admire and hopefully buy from us. In case you are wondering, I have now found my definition. If someone asks me what I do, I simply tell them that I create value.

The problem from a macro economic level goes much deeper than just our thinking. We can't ignore the role that policies and institutions play. I believe that our governments should have an unwritten contract with their citizens. Governments should say that if you create something viable and new, and it works, we will help you protect it and we will ensure that you will earn handsomely from it. This understanding is often created by enabling policies and institutions that support people who are bold enough to venture outside conventional comfort zones. Unfortunately in Africa, God giveth and the government taketh away. As an example, about 20 years ago, in a Southern African country far far away, a 15 year old student made a working rifle for a science fair. He was told that what he had done was dangerous and illegal and he must never do it again. He now works for a top arms company in the United States. In another incident, an engineer made a helicopter at home. He was told that if that contraption rose 10cm from the ground, he would be arrested. Now he consults for an aircraft company in Germany. Yet in another African country, a 17 year old boy made a radio using card board, wood, wires and Coca Cola bottle tops. He is now a lab technician in an underfunded hospital. Allow me a moment to wipe the tears from my eyes. It's hard to understand why we stifle progress and creativity. The oddest thing is that we actively and vigorously stifle this creativity. Why we threaten those who create yet we have policies and institutions to support traders, cabbage planters and people who dig up stuff. Can we not understand that by embracing creativity we can be so much more? Creativity is an equalizer in that a single idea can leapfrog a business or an economy 20 or 30 years ahead.

We are happy to tinker on Facebook or Google but we don't stop to think that not so long ago these were ideas that may not even have seemed plausible. They were created by the crazy imagination of people not so different from you and I. Knowing some of our governments as we do, had the concepts of Facebook and Google been mooted on this continent, they would never have seen the light of day. I can imagine how many privacy laws they would have broken and heck, if the government felt adequately threatened, jail time may have been the end result. But it shouldn't be the case, let's learn from the examples we have and encourage ourselves to become so much more.

I wrote this piece to encourage and in support of the misfit which I firmly believe I am too. Against the odds of alienating nomenclature where we belong nowhere because where our minds take us has no name and against economic circumstances that work against you, we have stories of victory. Yet we need more of those. We need to harness the potential of creative economies because there we can begin to compete with the advanced world instantly. We can create creative economies because that is the way of the 21st century and we ought to be modern people. We must open our minds to new things and new possibilities. To boldly go, where no man has gone before (I had to). So forget cabbages and forget labels. Let's open our minds to creating something out of nothing or out of very little. Or at the very least, if we can't live it ourselves, lets have the mental fortitude to encourage those coming after us to make a dollar out of 15 cents.

Friday, July 10, 2015

I feel alive

Tragedy holds no sway on me,
For as long as there’s breath in me,
Hordes may congregate at the gates,
But decimation for them awaits,
For greatness is my destiny,
Built with godly ability,
I fear nothing that comes to cause pain,
For already I have conquered and slain.

When they come I breathe deep,
And battle steep,
I take the blows,
And return them as the wind billows,
I cheat death again and again,
I fight through sorrow and pain,
And when done I breath out loud,
Look to the heavens and feel alive!

Monday, July 6, 2015

Beautiful day

The sun is out and the birds are singing,
Timbered voices and church bells ringing,
My heart beats with gladness,
The rhythm and tune together seamless,
The hearts around me beat the same,
We sing the song both strong and tame,
I look up to the sky and all I can say,
Is that it’s a beautiful day.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The poem of pain

To tell a truth and not a lie,
Is to say each day I pray to die,
The man in me can take no more,
For I am plagued greater than before,
My cries to heaven return unheard,
My burdens remain unshared,
For all the love he has as Lord,
To me none can he afford.

The rising sun is like a stake to me,
A reminder of my enemies' hold over me,
The setting sun is but a moment of peace,
Just a moment as we return to this,
Every thought I hold brings me pain,
A reminder that I am but a bloodied stain,
I dare not try any more,
For as I do the hurt is greater than before.

I dare not try to take my life,
For in that I may fail as I have in life,
I pray that God does it for me,
Or is that mercy too good for me,
Am I so evil that he may hate me so,
For he loved me once, a while ago,
Today living each day is my pain,
I fear I cannot rise another day again.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Today

Today is the day,
That shall be better than yesterday,
Today is the day,
My sorrow washes away,
It is the day I step out of my shell,
And become the person I know so well,
It’s the day I embrace life as I should,
The day I become all I could.

Today is that day,
That shall be better than yesterday,
Today is the day,
That shall be better than any other day,
Any other day past, that is,
For tomorrow shall still be better than this,
Today is the day that I begin,
Today is that day that I win.

Alive

It’s an amazing feeling to hold,
To feel beyond the cold.
To feel the sun rising every day,
No matter what life throws your way,
To know that beyond the storm lies a rainbow
That beyond the clouds the sun will always glow,
For the first time I know I will thrive,
For the first time, I feel alive.

I feel like nothing can knock me down,
Like my dreams thrive and my worries drown,
Like God is fighting on my side,
And I have no reason to whimper or hide.
I feel like I can take on the world
Like a Champion worthy of gold,
I feel a glow in every night,
I feel a thirst for the fight.

I can do things I never thought I could,
I now take the place I always knew I should,
I now rise from the ashes of my strife,
Blessed with a new lease of life,
I see a future and not a past,
I see glory at long last,
Alive, alive, oh so alive,
I have never felt so alive.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The human purpose

The sun rises each day,
To set again each night,
Its begins a journey,
Which always takes it back to the beginning,
Yet we chase it every single day,
From where it begins,
To where it ends
Such is the bain of our existence.

We live and we die,
Yet the rivers still must flow,
Whether we are here or not,
Life goes on,
The trees will still sway in the wind,
And the birds will still take to the air,
I wonder then why we are here,
if our existence holds purpose.

When you leave you become a memory,
replenished only when you return,
If you return,
And if you don't, the memory becomes distant,
You become a forgotten blemish,
Insignificant, almost.
Then why go through it all,
Is there a purpose to this existence?

Is it to hold gold and silver?
Yet we don't bear it in the afterlife.
Is it to feel life's pleasures?
Perhaps not.
Maybe the whole purpose is to make a difference,
Hoping that the good deed lives beyond us,
For the reality is that there is no greater success,
Than creating life even after death.

Africa

I hear the roar echo in the night,
The twinkling stars a fitting sight,
The roar speaks to my soul deep within me,
It speaks to me of what will be,
The drums beat in a rhythmic hum,
Each thus tells a story beyond the drum,
It tells me of who we are,
It screams to me, Africa.