Seven lessons I’ve learned as an entrepreneur

 James Street, co-founder of Whalar, a marketing platform for social media influencers, shares his experiences in growing start-up businesses

Keep your eye on the bottom line
This is always my first bit of advice and something that I have learnt the hard way through the 10 start-ups with which I’ve been involved. My first start-up was a travel company that I started with my Whalar co-founder Neil Waller.

We met during the first year of our business course at the University of Bath, and learnt quite early on that the corporate route wasn’t going to work for us. Being told that we looked ‘uncomfortable in a suit’ during a recruitment day was a pretty big indicator anyway. But we had the entrepreneurial spirit and, during our university placement, we set up a website about Marbella, sold advertising space on it and, over time, turned it into a franchise with approximately 40 people. After seven years, there were indicators that the business was slowing.

As an entrepreneur, you have to become adept at reading these signals and know when it’s time to move on. If you are not good at reading the signals you need to find someone who is. No one is good at everything. 

Find the next big thing
Our second start-up was led by our desire to sell a tangible product. We created a watch with an interchangeable strap inspired by the British coastline and one of the ways in which we grew this business was through influencer marketing.

We grew so fast that we won the Shopify Build a Business competition thanks to the number of sales we made during our first year of business.

We grew this business on Instagram, and when we took our prize – a week on Necker Island being mentored by entrepreneurs including CEO of hip-hop apparel company FUBU Daymond John and Founder of Virgin Group Richard Branson – we saw that influencer marketing was going to be the next big thing.

Our fellow competition winners had also used social media to grow their businesses. It was a common theme and it dawned on us that influencer marketing was poised to fundamentally change the marketing industry. We started Whalar in 2016.

The role of  influencers
If you’re trying to use influencer marketing within your own business, then it’s useful to know that the landscape has changed over the past few years.

Influencers want a lot of compensation for the work they put into their Instagram posts and the exposure it gives. However a cheaper alternative for businesses is to compensate influencers to post to Instagram stories, and it still gives businesses a lot of exposure.

Soon all businesses will be asking for Instagram story exposure. If you’re looking for influencers with whom to collaborate on a campaign, look beyond followers to engagement and ultimately values. What does the creator of the social media post stand for? What are his or her values and beliefs? The key to the power of influencer marketing is authenticity, and a mismatch between influencer and company will do more harm than good.

Hire fast and fire fast
Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Drinks, said in a podcast: ‘You either keep the bad people, which forces the good people to get frustrated and leave; or you let go of the bad people and keep the good ones.’

This is pretty simple in theory but no one likes to let people go. You’ve also got to know the right time to recruit to enable your business to grow.

We’ve been lucky in the people we’ve attracted to Whalar. Niko Croskery had been working with us on a freelance basis in the past, developing our Instagram account, and we knew he was the perfect person to develop the Whalar platform. Croskery is now our Chief Product Officer. We’ve also got people with whom we’ve worked before. So, conversely, if you get good people make sure you keep them. Our motto at Whalar is: ‘Work hard and be nice to people’ and it seems to resonate well.

Be a doer
At university I was very unproductive. I was happy with myself if I posted one letter each day. I now plough through to-do lists.
It’s satisfying getting things done and knowing you are moving in the right direction. Some people have a knack of looking busy but doing very little. I hate that. One of our core principles at Whalar is to be responsive, even if that’s just replying to a customer’s email. It’s simple service quality but so many people and companies fail to do it.
 
Continuously improve
Expecting things to be perfect is unrealistic, whether that’s within your company or personally. What is realistic, however, is an openness and commitment to improvement.

At Whalar, we subscribe to the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen which is about small, gradual improvements rather than radical change. With continuous improvement you are encouraging the mindset of problem recognition, adaptation and change.

Pick yourself up and try again
My favourite quote is something that Joe Gebbia, the founder of Airbnb, said: ‘If you are an entrepreneur then every business you create, whether it is successful or not, is like going down to the entrepreneur gym.’

You are learning something new every day, which you can take with you into the future. I firmly believe that with each failure you are significantly improving your chance of success next time around.

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James Street, co-founder of Whalar, an online marketing platform. He works with global brands such as Apple, Dior, Unicef, Nike, Unilever, Disney, Dyson and Adidas.