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Three lessons from a first-time entrepreneur

The Guardian // 07th May 2015
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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Three lessons from a first-time entrepreneur” was written by David Benigson, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 6th May 2015 06.00 UTC

Like so many other products of the UK education system, I went into business without any entrepreneurial experience or training. Nothing I learned during my schooling prepared me in any meaningful way for the realities of running a company. Nor did I have the natural genius of a Steve Jobs or a Richard Branson; the ability to say “screw it, let’s do it” and damn the consequences.

Every first-time entrepreneur will be aware of their shortcomings and inexperience, and will have their own strategy for correcting these deficits. Part of the satisfaction of being an entrepreneur is finding solutions for yourself, yet if I were advising any first-time entrepreneur I’d recommend the three principles that have served me well: education, discipline and information.

Education can only begin once you have identified and prioritised the core areas where you’re lacking. Any new entrepreneur should outline the key skills they need to be an effective founder, and give themselves an honest score out of 10. The key is then to gain access to these skills, either through hiring or finding mentors with the right experience and expertise.

Not every founder is immediately ready to start hiring, which is why it’s so important to pick up the phone and build a network of mentors. At the time I found this daunting, but I was amazed by how many specialists will be generous with their time and expertise. Mentors might be motivated by kindness, a desire to apply their own research or because they think your idea is a good bet for the future. Don’t be shy – pick up the phone: the worst anybody can do is say no.

Discipline, my second principle, was hardest to ingrain but most critical to success. It requires you to focus with incredible precision on your strategic priorities for each day, week, month or quarter. It’s tempting to focus on the easy jobs, but if you do then you’ll find yourself working incredibly “busy” days where nothing actually gets accomplished. Instead, identify your top three priorities – the ones that affect your immediate business goals – and focus exclusively on them. It’s easier said than done, but with practice and the right support (I find Trello an invaluable organisational tool), you’ll find yourself controlling your business more than it controls you.

Every stage of business poses new challenges that must be quickly mastered – from subsidies and new business pipelines in the early days, to staff acquisition and fundraising as the business finds its feet. The best method of learning new disciplines is to consume as much relevant information as possible.

Given the work that we do – Signal is a market intelligence agency – we’re at an advantage when it comes to cutting through the noise. However access to data alone isn’t enough, it’s how this new knowledge is applied that will shape the success of an enterprise. And this is where a “jack-of-no-trades” CEO can develop their own killer USP: becoming chief learning officer. This enables the new CEO to carve out an essential role as the repository and channel for information within a company. They build their own knowledge while simultaneously helping to shape the culture of education and development within their business.

This approach has enabled us to create a culture where information and education is valued. The advantage is that training isn’t formalised and employees compelled to take part. Instead, we hire people who are hungry for knowledge and development, who are constantly reading or visiting research teams, conferences and universities to find the next big thing in their field. I’d always hire someone who is young, inexperienced but enthusiastic – as I was when I started – rather than someone who didn’t fit our culture.

When I founded my business I had an idea but I didn’t have a role. By taking on the mantle of chief learning officer, I made a virtue of my own lack of experience, enabling me to develop a culture where knowledge and personal development are valued throughout my business.

David Benigson is CEO of market intelligence and information discovery platform Signal

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